Wednesday, June 18, 2008

John Calvin on Genesis



On Man’s Blindness to the Creator

And, certainly, if Paul justly condemns the perverse stupidity of men, because with closed eyes they pass by the splendid mirror of God's glory which is constantly presented to them in the fabric of the world, and thus unrighteously suppress the light of truth; not less base and disgraceful has been that ignorance of the origin and creation of the human race which has prevailed almost in every age. It is indeed probable, that shortly after the building of Babel, the memory of those things, which ought to have been discussed and celebrated by being made the subjects of continual discourse, was obliterated. For seeing that to profane men their dispersion would be a kind of emancipation from the pure worship of God, they took no care to carry along with them, to whatever regions of the earth they might visit, what they had heard from their fathers concerning the Creation of the World, or its subsequent restoration. Hence it has happened, that no nation, the posterity of Abraham alone excepted, knew for more than two thousand successive years, either from what fountain itself had sprung, or when the universal race of man began to exist. For Ptolemy, in providing at length that the Books of Moses should be translated into Greek, did a work which was rather laudable than useful, (at least for that period,) since the light which he had attempted to bring out of darkness was nevertheless stifled and hidden through the negligence of men. Whence it may easily be gathered, that they who ought to have stretched every nerve of their mind to attain a knowledge of The Creator of the world, have rather, by a malignant impiety, involved themselves in voluntary blindness. In the meantime the liberal sciences flourished, men of exalted genius arose, treatises of all kinds were published; but concerning the History of the Creation of the World there was a profound silence.

Now, whether all nations which formerly existed, purposely drew a veil over themselves, or whether their own indolence was the sole obstacle to their knowledge, the [First] Book of Moses deserves to be regarded as an incomparable treasure, since it at least gives an indisputable assurance respecting The Creation of the World, without which we should be unworthy of a place on earth… This one consideration stamps an inestimable value on the Book, that it alone reveals those things which are of primary necessity to be known; namely, in what manner God, after the destructive fall of man, adopted to himself a Church; what constituted the true worship of himself, and in what offices of piety the holy fathers exercised themselves; in which way pure religion, having for a time declined through the indolence of men, was restored as it were, to its integrity; we also learn, when God deposited with a special people his gratuitous covenant of eternal salvation; in what manner a small progeny gradually proceeding from one man, who was both barren and withering, almost half-dead, and (as Isaiah calls him) solitary, yet suddenly grew to an immense multitude; by what unexpected means God both exalted and defended a family chosen by himself, at though poor, destitute of protection, exposed to every storm, and surrounded on all sides by innumerable hosts of enemies. Let every one, from his own use and experience, form his judgment respecting the necessity of the knowledge of these things. We see how vehemently the Papists alarm the simple by their false claim of the title of The Church. Moses so delineates the genuine features of the Church as to take away this absurd fear, by dissipating these illusions. It is by an ostentatious display of splendour and of pomp that they (the Papists) carry away the less informed to a foolish admiration of themselves, and even render them stupid and infatuated. But if we turn our eyes to those marks by which Moses designates the Church, these vain phantoms will have no more power to deceive…while we see in this history of Moses, the building of the Church out of ruins, and the gathering of it out of broken fragments, and out of desolation itself, such an instance of the grace of God ought to raise us to firm confidence. But since the propensity, not to say the wanton disposition, of the human mind to frame false systems of worship is so great, nothing can be more useful to us than to seek our rule for the pure and sincere worshipping of God, from those holy Patriarchs, whose piety Moses points out to us chiefly by this mark, that they depended on the Word of God alone. (This and all subsequent excerpts are taken from Calvin's Commentary on Genesis.)


On the Location of Eden

Moreover it is to be observed, that when he describes paradise as in the east, he speaks in reference to the Jews, for he directs his discourse to his own people. Hence we infer, in the first place, that there was a certain region assigned by God to the first man, in which he might have his home… that this garden was situated on the earth, not as some dream in the air; for unless it had been a region of our world, it would not have been placed opposite to Judea, towards the east… It may be, indeed, that some, impelled by a supposed necessity, have resorted to an allegorical sense, because they never found in the world such a place as is described by Moses: but we see that the greater part, through a foolish affectation of subtleties, have been too much addicted to allegories. As it concerns the present passage, they speculate in vain, and to no purpose, by departing from the literal sense… But although we have said, that the situation of Paradise lay between the rising of the sun and Judea, yet something more definite may be required respecting that region. They who contend that it was in the vicinity of Mesopotamia, rely on reasons not to be despised; because it is probable that the sons of Eden were contiguous to the river Tigris. But as the description of it by Moses will immediately follow, it is better to defer the consideration of it to that place.


On the Serpent


And the Lord God said unto the serpent." He does not interrogate the serpent as he had done the man and the woman; because, in the animal itself there was no sense of sin, and because, to the devil he would hold out no hope of pardon…to eat dust is the sign of a vile and sordid nature. This (in my opinion) is the simple meaning of the passage, which the testimony of Isaiah also confirms, (chap. 65: 25;) for while he promises under the reign of Christ, the complete restoration of a sound and well-constituted nature, he records, among other things, that dust shall be to the serpent for bread… Moses, indeed, says that the serpent was a skilful and cunning animal; yet it is certain, that, when Satan was devising the destruction of man, the serpent was guiltless of his fraud and wickedness. Wherefore, many explain this whole passage allegorically, and plausible are the subtleties which they adduce for this purpose. But when all things are more accurately weighed, readers endued with sound judgment will easily perceive that the language is of a mixed character; for God so addresses the serpent that the last clause belongs to the devil. If it seem to any one absurd, that the punishment of another's fraud should be exacted from a brute animal, the solution is at hand; that, since it had been created for the benefit of man, there was nothing improper in its being accursed from the moment that it was employed for his destruction…But if God so severely avenged the destruction of man upon a brute animal, much less did he spare Satan, the author of the whole evil…Meanwhile, we see that the Lord acts mercifully in chastising man, whom he does not suffer Satan to touch except in the heel; while he subjects the head of the serpent to be wounded by him. For in the terms head and heel there is a distinction between the superior and the inferior.


On the Line of Cain (Gen. 4)

This, however, is without controversy, that many persons, as well males as females, are omitted in this narrative; it being the design of Moses only to follow one line of his progeny, until he should come to Lamech. The house of Cain, therefore, was more populous than Moses states; but because of the memorable history of Lamech, which he is about to subjoin, he only adverts to one line of descendents, and passes over the rest in silence.


On the Mark of Cain

God had intended that Cain should be a horrible example to warn others against the commission of murder; and for this end had marked him with a shameful stigma.


On Lamech as the First Polygamist Identified in the Bible


And Lamech took unto him two wives." We have here the origin of polygamy in a perverse and degenerate race; and the first author of it, a cruel man, destitute of all humanity. Whether he had been impelled by an immoderate desire of augmenting his own family, as proud and ambitious men are wont to be, or by mere lust, it is of little consequence to determine; because, in either way he violated the sacred law of marriage, which had been delivered by God. For God had determined, that "they two should be one flesh," and that is the perpetual order of nature. Lamech, with brutal contempt of God, corrupts nature's laws. The Lord, therefore, willed that the corruption of lawful marriage should proceed from the house of Cain, and from the person of Lamech, in order that polygamists might be ashamed of the example.


On the Historicity and Choseness of Seth's Line (though the lines of Cain and Seth intermarried)

In this chapter [Gen. 5] Moses briefly recites the length of time which had intervened between the creation of the world and the deluge; and also slightly touches on some portion of the history of that period. And although we do not comprehend the design of the Spirit, in leaving unrecorded great and memorable events, it is, nevertheless, our business to reflect on many things which are passed over in silence. I entirely disapprove of those speculations which every one frames for himself from light conjectures; nor will I furnish readers with the occasion of indulging themselves in this respect; yet it may, in some degree, be gathered from a naked and apparently dry narration, what was the state of those times, as we shall see in the proper places. "The book," according to the Hebrew phrase, is taken for a catalogue. "The generations" signify a continuous succession of a race, or a continuous progeny.


On the Extent of the Flood


"The same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up." Moses recalls the period of the first creation to our memory; for the earth was originally covered with water; and by the singular kindness ofGod, they were made to recede, that some space should be left clear for living creatures. And this, philosophers are compelled to acknowledge, that it is contrary to the course of nature for the waters to subside, so that some portion of the earth might rise above them. And Scripture records this among the miracles of God, that he restrains the force of the sea, as with barriers, lest it should overwhelm that part of the earth which is granted for a habitation to men. Moses also says, in the first chapter, that some waters were suspended above in the heaven; and David, in like manner, declares, that they are held enclosed as in a bottle. Lastly, God raised for men a theatre in the habitable region of the earth; and caused, by his secret power, that the subterraneous waters should not break forth to overwhelm us, and the celestial waters should not conspire with them for that purpose. Now, however, Moses states, thatwhen God resolved to destroy the earth by a deluge, those barriers were torn up. And here we must consider the wonderful counsel of God; for he might have deposited, in certain channels or veins of the earth, as much water as would have sufficed for all the purposes of human life; but he has designedly placed us between two graves, lest, in fancied security,we should despise that kindness on which our life depends. For the element of water, it is restrained by the hand of God. In saying that the fountains were broken up, and the cataracts opened, his language is metaphorical, and means, that neither did the waters flow in their accustomed manner, nor did the rain distil from heaven; but that the distinctions which we see had been established by God, being now removed, there were no longer any bars to restrain the violent irruption... And the flood was forty days..." Moses copiously insists upon this fact, in order to show that the whole world was immersed in the waters. Moreover, it is to be regarded as the special design of this narration that we should not ascribe to fortune, the flood by which the world perished; how ever customary it may be for men to cast some veil over the works of God, which may obscure either his goodness or his judgments manifested in them. But seeing it is plainly declared, that whatever was flourishing on the earth was destroyed, we hence infer, that it was an indisputable and signal judgment of God.


On the Holy Patriarchs and the Church


Now, whether all nations which formerly existed, purposely drew a veil over themselves, or whether their own indolence was the sole obstacle to their knowledge, the [First] Book of Moses deserves to be regarded as an incomparable treasure, since it at least gives an indisputable assurance respecting The Creation of the World, without which we should be unworthy of a place on earth... We see how vehemently the Papists alarm the simple by their false claim of the title of The Church. Moses so delineates the genuine features of the Church as to take away this absurd fear, by dissipating these illusions. It is by an ostentatious display of splendour and of pomp that they (the Papists) carry away the less informed to a foolish admiration of themselves, and even render them stupid and infatuated. But if we turn our eyes to those marks by which Moses designates the Church... On the contrary, while we see in this history of Moses, the building of the Church out of ruins, and the gathering of it out of broken fragments, and out of desolation itself, such an instance of the grace of God ought to raise us to firm confidence. But since the propensity, not to say the wanton disposition, of the human mind to frame false systems of worship is so great, nothing can be more useful to us than to seek our rule for the pure and sincere worshipping of God, from those holy Patriarchs, whose piety Moses points out to us chiefly by this mark, that they depended on the Word of God alone.


On the Necessity of Holy Scripture


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. 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.

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I have refrained from critique of Calvin's interpretation of Genesis in order to allow his words to stand alone. For those who wish to explore the significant problems with Calvinism, I recommend reading this and this.

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