Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Calvin and the Beasts: Animals in John Calvin's Theological Discourse

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Calvin and the Beasts: Animals in John Calvin's Theological Discourse

Article excerpt

In the twentieth century, John Calvin's theology of creation has been the subject of much debate, especially as it has figured in controversies regarding the legitimacy of natural theology in Christian thought and of what is now called "animal theology" in Christian ethics. Read through systematic Barthian categories, Calvin's thought on nature has been construed as conceptually negative, simply a thematic foil for an exclusive "theanthropocentric" gospel of salvific revelation in Jesus Christ.1 At the hands of animal rights theologians, his thought has been reduced to a "humanocentric" misreading of the Christian message, a severe departure from the biblical vision of the peacable kingdom and a significant contributor to the Western desacralization of nature.2 Consequently, studies in historical theology, shaped by such ideological concerns, have routinely obscured what Calvin actually said about the excellence and integrity of creation.

The publication of Susan Schreiner's study of Calvin's theology of creation has signaled the beginning of an attempt to reassess the longstanding negative verdict on Calvin's view of nature. In The Theater of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (1991), Schreiner makes the case that Calvin's theological vision was profoundly shaped by a deep appreciation of nature. "In all of [his] writings," she states, "Calvin taught that God's glory extended beyond the fate of the individual soul and encompassed the whole of creation."3 Arguably, Calvin's thought reveals an intimate acquaintance and engagement with nature absent in most modern forms of theology, even those advertising themselves as creation-centered. While it certainly does not anticipate twentieth-century experiments in ecological theology, neither does it represent the kind of exclusive "humanocentricism" that some theologians have found characteristic of the dominant Christian theological tradition. Rather, Calvin's theological imagination, instinctively shaped by assumptions regarding the interface of the natural and supernatural, conceives of nature as a created order whose theological significance far exceeds its importance as the setting for a divine-human drama of redemption.

It is difficult to turn a page in Calvin's sermons, commentaries, or treatises without finding a reference to some aspect or creature of the natural world. Raging winds and churning seas shape the landscape of his thought, while growling beasts and twittering birds render his work a veritable bestiary of Christian doctrine. The power and variety of creation, including the beautiful, the violent, the charming, and the grotesque, are regularly set before the reader of his theology. In Calvin's mind, the world of nature is never separated from the realm of divine revelation. For him, to borrow a phrase from Horace Bushnell, "the outer world is the vast dictionary and grammar of thought."4

One reoccurring element of Calvin's theological language of nature-even overlooked by contemporary theologians reevaluating his theology of creation-is his fascination with the animal kingdom. In his reflections on the order of creation, Calvin gave considerable attention to the place of nonhuman animals in the total scheme of things. Likewise, in his rhetoric, he drew suggestive imagery from the material sphere, frequently exploiting animals or animal characteristics as metaphors in his theological discourse. This essay will show how animals played a significant part in Calvin's construction of Christian theology, determining both the subject matter for theological reflection and the language for the expression of that reflection. The first section of the essay will investigate Calvin's views of the animal world as an integral part of God's creation. The second part, which stands in some tension with the first, will focus upon his distinctive (and often pejorative) use of animal imagery in the service of theological literature. …

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