the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Calvin's Commentary on the Bible Calvin's Commentary
by John Calvin
Since the infinite wisdom of God is displayed in the admirable structure of heaven and earth, it is absolutely impossible to unfold The History of the Creation of the World in terms equal to its dignity. For while the measure of our capacity is too contracted to comprehend things of such magnitude, our tongue is equally incapable of giving a full and substantial account of them. As he, however, deserves praise, who, with modesty and reverence, applies himself to the consideration of the works of God, although he attain less than might be wished, so, if in this kind of employment, I endeavor to assist others according to the ability given to me, I trust that my service will be not less approved by pious men than accepted by God. I have chosen to premise this, for the sake not only of excusing myself, but of admonishing my readers, that if they sincerely wish to profit with me in meditating on the works of God, they must bring with them a sober, docile, mild, and humble spirit. We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread the earth with our feet, we touch innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits; but in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses. Therefore, let men be satisfied if they obtain only a moderate taste of them, suited to their capacity. And it becomes us so to press towards this mark during our whole life, that (even in extreme old age) we shall not repent of the progress we have made, if only we have advanced ever so little in our course.
The intention of Moses in beginning his Book with the creation of the world, is, to render God, as it were, visible to us in his works. But here presumptuous men rise up, and scoffingly inquire, whence was this revealed to Moses? They therefore suppose him to be speaking fabulously of things unknown, because he was neither a spectator of the events he records, nor had learned the truth of them by reading. Such is their reasoning; but their dishonesty is easily exposed. For if they can destroy the credit of this history, because it is traced back through a long series of past ages, let them also prove those prophecies to be false in which the same history predicts occurrences which did not take place till many centuries afterwards. Those things, I affirm, are clear and obvious, which Moses testifies concerning the vocation of the Gentiles, the accomplishment of which occurred nearly two thousand years after his death. Was not he, who by the Spirit foresaw an event remotely future, and hidden at the time from the perception of mankind, capable of understanding whether the world was created by God, especially seeing that he was taught by a Divine Master? For he does not here put forward divinations of his own, but is the instrument of the Holy Spirit for the publication of those things which it was of importance for all men to know. They greatly err in deeming it absurd that the order of the creation, which had been previously unknown, should at length have been described and explained by him. For he does not transmit to memory things before unheard of, but for the first time consigns to writing facts which the fathers had delivered as from hand to hand, through a long succession of years, to their children. Can we conceive that man was so placed in the earth as to be ignorant of his own origin, and of the origin of those things which he enjoyed? No sane person doubts that Adam was well-instructed respecting them all. Was he indeed afterwards dumb? Were the holy Patriarchs so ungrateful as to suppress in silence such necessary instruction? Did Noah, warned by a divine judgment so memorable, neglect to transmit it to posterity? Abraham is expressly honored with this eulogy that he was the teacher and the master of his family, (Genesis 18:19.) And we know that, long before the time of Moses, an acquaintance with the covenant into which God had entered with their fathers was common to the whole people. When he says that the Israelites were sprung from a holy race, which God had chosen for himself, he does not propound it as something new, but only commemorates what all held, what the old men themselves had received from their ancestors, and what, in short, was entirely uncontroverted among them. Therefore, we ought not to doubt that The Creation of the World, as here described was already known through the ancient and perpetual tradition of the Fathers. Yet, since nothing is more easy than that the truth of God should be so corrupted by men, that, in a long succession of time, it should, as it were, degenerate from itself, it pleased the Lord to commit the history to writing, for the purpose of preserving its purity. Moses, therefore, has established the credibility of that doctrine which is contained in his writings, and which, by the carelessness of men, might otherwise have been lost.
I now return to the design of Moses, or rather of the Holy Spirit, who has spoken by his mouth. We know God, who is himself invisible, only through his works. Therefore, the Apostle elegantly styles the worlds,
Here also the impiety of those is refuted who cavil against Moses, for relating that so short a space of time had elapsed since the Creation of the World. For they inquire why it had come so suddenly into the mind of God to create the world; why he had so long remained inactive in heaven: and thus by sporting with sacred things they exercise their ingenuity to their own destruction. In the Tripartite History an answer given by a pious man is recorded, with which I have always been pleased. For when a certain impure dog was in this manner pouring ridicule upon God, he retorted, that God had been at that time by no means inactive because he had been preparing hell for the captious. But by what seasonings can you restrain the arrogance of those men to whom sobriety is professedly contemptible and odious? And certainly they who now so freely exult in finding fault with the inactivity of God will find, to their own great costs that his power has been infinite in preparing hell for them. As for ourselves, it ought not to seem so very absurd that God, satisfied in himself, did not create a world which he needed not, sooner than he thought good. Moreover, since his will is the rule of all wisdom, we ought to be contented with that alone. For Augustine rightly affirms that injustice is done to God by the Manichaeans, because they demand a cause superior to his will; and he prudently warns his readers not to push their inquiries respecting the infinity of duration, any more than respecting the infinity of space. (31) We indeed are not ignorant, that the circuit of the heavens is finite, and that the earth, like a little globe, is placed in the center. (32) They who take it amiss that the world was not sooner created, may as well expostulate with God for not having made innumerable worlds. Yea, since they deem it absurd that many ages should have passed away without any world at all, they may as well acknowledge it to be a proof of the great corruption of their own nature, that, in comparison with the boundless waste which remains empty the heaven and earth occupy but a small space. But since both the eternity of God’s existence and the infinity of his glory would prove a twofold labyrinth, let us content ourselves with modestly desiring to proceed no further in our inquiries than the Lord, by the guidance and instruction of his own works, invites us.
Now, in describing the world as a mirror in which we ought to behold God, I would not be understood to assert, either that our eyes are sufficiently clear-sighted to discern what the fabric of heaven and earth represents, or that the knowledge to be hence attained is sufficient for salvation. And whereas the Lord invites us to himself by the means of created things, with no other effect than that of thereby rendering us inexcusable, he has added (as was necessary) a new remedy, or at least by a new aid, he has assisted the ignorance of our mind. For by the Scripture as our guide and teacher, he not only makes those things plain which would otherwise escape our notice, but almost compels us to behold them; as if he had assisted our dull sight with spectacles. (33) On this point, (as we have already observed,) Moses insists. For if the mute instruction of the heaven and the earth were sufficient, the teaching of Moses would have been superfluous. This herald therefore approaches, who excites our attention, in order that we may perceive ourselves to be placed in this scene, for the purpose of beholding the glory of God; not indeed to observe them as mere witnesses but to enjoy all the riches which are here exhibited as the Lord has ordained and subjected them to our use. And he not only declares generally that God is the architect of the world, but through the whole chain of the history he shows how admirable is His power, His wisdom, His goodness, and especially His tender solicitude for the human race. Besides, since the eternal Word of God is the lively and express image of Himself, he recalls us to this point. And thus, the assertion of the Apostle is verified, that through no other means than faith can it be understood that the worlds were made by the word of God, (Hebrews 11:3.) For faith properly proceeds from this, that we being taught by the ministry of Moses, do not now wander in foolish and trifling speculations, but contemplate the true and only God in his genuine image.
It may, however, be objected, that this seems at variance with what Paul declares:
“After that, in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom knew not God, it seemed right to God, through the foolishness of preaching, to save them who believe,” (1 Corinthians 1:21.)
For he thus intimates, that God is sought in vain under the guidance of visible things; and that nothing remains for us but to retake ourselves immediately to Christ; and that we must not therefore commence with the elements of this world, but with the Gospel, which sets Christ alone before us with his cross, and holds us to this one point. I answer, It is in vain for any to reason as philosophers on the workmanship of the world, except those who, having been first humbled by the preaching of the Gospel, have learned to submit the whole of their intellectual wisdom (as Paul expresses it) to the foolishness of the cross, (1 Corinthians 1:21.) Nothing shall we find, I say, above or below, which can raise us up to God, until Christ shall have instructed us in his own school. Yet this cannot be done, unless we, having emerged out of the lowest depths, are borne up above all heavens, in the chariot of his cross, that there by faith we may apprehend those things which the eye has never seen, the ear never heard, and which far surpass our hearts and minds. (34) For the earth, with its supply of fruits for our daily nourishment, is not there set before us; but Christ offers himself to us unto life eternal. Nor does heaven, by the shining of the sun and stars, enlighten our bodily eyes, but the same Christ, the Light of the World and the Sun of Righteousness, shines into our souls; neither does the air stretch out its empty space for us to breathe in, but the Spirit of God himself quickens us and causes us to live. There, in short, the invisible kingdom of Christ fills all things, and his spiritual grace is diffused through all. Yet this does not prevent us from applying our senses to the consideration of heaven and earth, that we may thence seek confirmation in the true knowledge of God. For Christ is that image in which God presents to our view, not only his heart, but also his handsand his feet. I give the name of his heart to that secret love with which he embraces us in Christ: by his hands and feet I understand those works of his which are displayed before our eyes. As soon as ever we depart from Christ, there is nothing, be it ever so gross or insignificant in itself, respecting which we are not necessarily deceived.
And, in fact, though Moses begins, in this Book, with the Creation of the World, he nevertheless does not confine us to this subject. For these things ought to be connected together, that the world was founded by God, and that man, after he had been endued with the light of intelligence, and adorned with so many privileges, fell by his own fault, and was thus deprived of all the benefits he had obtained; afterwards, by the compassion of God, he was restored to the life he had forfeited, and this through the loving-kindness of Christ; so that there should always be some assembly on earth, which being adopted into the hope of the celestial life, might in this confidence worship God. The end to which the whole scope of the history tends is to this point, that the human race has been preserved by God in such a manner as to manifest his special care for his Church. For this is the argument of the look: After the world had been created, man was placed in it as in a theater, that he, beholding above him and beneath the wonderful works of God, might reverently adore their Author. Secondly, that all things were ordained for the use of man, that he, being under deeper obligation, might devote and dedicate himself entirely to obedience towards God. Thirdly, that he was endued with understanding and reason, that being distinguished from brute animals he might meditate on a better life, and might even tend directly towards God, whose image he bore engraved on his own person. Afterwards followed the fall of Adam, whereby he alienated himself from God; whence it came to pass that he was deprived of all rectitude. Thus Moses represents man as devoid of all good, blinded in understanding, perverse in heart, vitiated in every part, and under sentence of eternal death; but he soon adds the history of his restorations where Christ shines forth with the benefit of redemption. From this point he not only relates continuously the singular Providence of God in governing and preserving the Church, but also commends to us the true worship of God; teaches wherein the salvation of man is placed, and exhorts us, from the example of the Fathers, to constancy in enduring the cross. Whosoever, therefore, desires to make suitable proficiency in this book, let him employ his mind on these main topics. But especially, let him observe, that ever Adam had by his own desperate fall ruined himself and all his posterity, this is the basis of our salvation, this the origin of the Church, that we, being rescued out of profound darkness, have obtained a new life by the mere grace of God; that the Fathers (according to the offer made them through the word of God) are by faith made partakers of this life; that this word itself was founded upon Christ; and that all the pious who have since lived were sustained by the very same promise of salvation by which Adam was first raised from the fall.
Therefore, the perpetual succession of the Church has flowed from this fountain, that the holy Fathers, one after another, having by faith embraced the offered promise, were collected together into the family of God, in order that they might have a common life in Christ. This we ought carefully to notice, that we may know what is the society of the true Church, and what the communion of faith among the children of God. Whereas Moses was ordained the Teacher of the Israelites, there is no doubt that he had an especial reference to them, in order that they might acknowledge themselves to be a people elected and chosen by God; and that they might seek the certainty of this adoption from the Covenant which the Lord had ratified with their fathers, and might know that there was no other God, and no other right faith. But it was also his will to testify to all ages, that whosoever desired to worship God aright, and to be deemed members of the Church, must pursue no other course than that which is here prescribed. But as this is the commencement of faith, to know that there is one only true God whom we worship, so it is no common confirmation of this faith that we are companions of the Patriarchs; for since they possessed Christ as the pledge of their salvation when he had not yet appeared, so we retain the God who formerly manifested himself to them. Hence we may infer the difference between the pure and lawful worship of God, and all those adulterated services which have since been fabricated by the fraud of Satan and the perverse audacity of men. Further, the Government of the Church is to be considered, that the reader may come to the conclusion that God has been its perpetual Guard and Ruler, yet in such a way as to exercise it in the warfare of the cross. Here, truly, the peculiar conflicts of the Church present themselves to view, or rather, the course is set as in a mirror before our eyes, in which it behaves us, with the holy Fathers to press towards the mark of a happy immortality.
Let us now hearken to Moses.