ArtWay

To paint the things of Christ, one has to live with Christ. Fra Angelico

David Taylor: The Aesthetics of John Calvin

The Aesthetics of John Calvin,

Summary of Theater of God’s Glory

by W. David O. Taylor

John Calvin is hardly the first person we might go to for theological help on the visual arts. His antipathy towards images is well known. It is perhaps, in fact, what makes him most popular for some within the Reformed tradition and most infamous for folks outside of it. In his 1544 treatise, An Admonition, Showing the Advantages which Christendom Might derive from an Inventory of Relics, Calvin repudiates with ironic flair a Catholic defense of icons. “Were I to take a lump of lead, and pointing to it, to say, ‘This gold was given me by such a prince’, I would deservedly be thought mad. At all events, my assertion would make no change upon the colour or the nature of the lead, so as to convert it into gold.”

Calvin’s summary of the whole thing pulls no punches: “No man is dull enough not to see that the whole affair is sheer madness.”

To underscore his argument, Calvin appeals to specific theological ideas. “If the Papists say that there were images of cherubs on the Ark,” Calvin argues, “this really refers to … the necessity of closing our eyes when the need comes to have recourse to God and of not approaching him except through the mediation of his voice.” The voice of God is, of course, metaphysically prior to the face of God, in Calvin’s thinking. “The use of the tongue and ears is to lead us into the truth by means of God’s word.” The sixteenth-century scholar Giuseppe Scavizzi summarizes this way: “In Calvin the ear seems to acquire an almost divine connotation, the eye only a human and earthly one…. In fact for Calvin the ear stands for the soul, the eye for the senses.”

It is not surprising, then, that lay Christians and scholars would imagine that Calvin had nothing good to offer the project of art in general or the work of visual artists in particular. But to imagine this outcome, as I argue in my book The Theater of God’s Glory: Calvin, Creation and the Liturgical Arts (Eerdmans: 2017), is to imagine only partially, through a glass, darkly.

The project of the book

In my book I examine Calvin’s trinitarian theology as it intersects his theology of physical creation in order to argue for a positive theological account of the liturgical arts. I do so believing that Calvin’s theology of materiality opens up a trinitarian grammar by which we might understand the theological purposes of the arts in public worship. Using Calvin’s commentary on musical instruments as a case study, I identify four emphases in his thinking: that the church’s worship should be (i) devoid of the “figures and shadows” which marked Israel’s praise and that it emphasize instead a (ii) “spiritual,” (iii) “simple,” and (iv) “articulate” worship suitable to a new covenantal era. A common feature of these emphases is an anxiety of the capacity of materiality to distort the public worship of God and to mislead the worship of the faithful in idolatrous or superstitious ways.

I contend, however, that it is in his thinking on the physical creation, the resurrected body of Christ, the material symbols of worship, and the physical elements of the Lord’s Supper, that a distinctly trinitarian pattern of thought becomes conspicuous. Here physicality discovers its telos in the economy of God by way of its participation in the dynamic activities of Christ and the Spirit. In his seminal book War Against the Idols, Carlos Eire writes that “Calvin forcefully asserted God’s transcendence through the principle finitum non est capax infiniti [the finite is incapable of containing the Infinite].” I argue the reverse of this dictum. Finitum est capax infiniti, I propose, but only because God enables creation to become a vehicle of his glory.

What good news might John Calvin offer, then, to artists and appreciators of the arts? Allow me to submit two pieces of evidence from Calvin’s doctrine of creation, that might become the seedbed of a robust theology of the arts and the grounds from which artists might engage the work of visual art with confidence.

An epiphanic role: making the invisible God visible by his work

In a preface to his Genesis commentary, Calvin writes, “We know God, who is himself invisible, only through his works…. This is the reason why the Lord, that he may invite us to the knowledge of himself, places the fabric of heaven and earth before our eyes, rendering himself, in a certain manner, manifest in them.” God “clothes himself” with the image of the world. On Hebrews 11:3, Calvin writes:

Correctly then is this world called the mirror of divinity; not that there is sufficient clearness for man to gain a full knowledge of God, by looking at the world, but … the faithful, to whom he has given eyes, see sparks of his glory, as it were, glittering in every created thing. The world was no doubt made, that it might be the theater of divine glory.

Not only is the universe a mirror of God’s powers, then, it is also a “theater” or “spectacle” of God’s glory. This theater serves as a “bare and simple testimony” to God, so that wherever the faithful cast their eyes, “all things they meet are works of God.” On Psalm 104:31, Calvin observes, “It is no small honor that God for our sake has so magnificently adorned the world, in order that we may not only be spectators of this beauteous theater, but also enjoy the multiplied abundance and variety of good things which are presented to us in it.” Added to the imagery of mirror and theater language is the language of painting. He writes in the Institutes:

We must therefore admit in God’s individual works—but especially in them as a whole—that God’s powers are actually represented as in a painting.

Although God is invisible, for Calvin, God’s glory is “conspicuous enough” to the human creature. The invisibility of God, we might say, is not strictly a problem for Calvin. The God who exists above the highest heavens, Calvin consistently seems to argue, can still be known through sensory means. The so-called transcendent otherness of God does not imply unknowability full stop. Though the essence of God remains impenetrable to contingent creatures, Calvin maintains that “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.”

The proper aim of humans, then, is not to seek God “above the clouds” but “in the clouds,” not beyond creation but through creation. To seek God in this way yields a knowledge of God which is mediated by creation, not despite creation, and it is to be regarded not simply as a knowledge about God but also as a communication of God himself to human creatures. This is good news for the artist who regularly makes something of the stuff of creation.

An aesthetic role: awakening delight through beauty

Calvin argues that human beings are not only to see the glory of God in creation but also to enjoy the creation. In a comment on Genesis 1:4, Calvin writes, “Here God is introduced by Moses as surveying his work, that he might take pleasure in it.” Because our pleasure in creation is grounded in God’s own pleasure, it is not a passive but an active engagement of the sensory riches of creation. Calvin writes: “we have never been forbidden to laugh, or to be filled, or to join new possessions to old or ancestral ones, or to delight in musical harmony, or to drink wine.”

It is clear, then, that this experience of creation is an intensively sensory one. The faithful ought never to run over the good things in creation “with a fleeting glance; but we should ponder them at length, turn them over in our minds seriously and faithfully, and recollect them repeatedly.” What results from such reflection? A sense that creation is offered to humanity for both socio-biological and aesthetic needs. As Calvin summarizes a rightly ordered life in III.9.2 of the Institutes:

Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor? What? Did he not so distinguish colors as to make some more lovely than others? What? Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?

While Calvin acknowledges the possibility for human perversion of creation, this does not diminish his consistent enthusiasm for the material-aesthetic delights with which God has endowed humanity.

What seems to hold all these ideas together in Calvin is a certain notion of beauty. In his comment on Genesis 2:8, he writes, “God, then, had planted Paradise in a place which he had especially embellished with every variety of delights. For this reason it is called a garden, on account of the elegance of its situation, and the beauty of its form.” Not only was there an abundant supply of food, there was also “beauty to feast the eyes.”

In God’s creation, everything fits, everything has its place, and all things are rightly related to each other. This, too, is good news for the artist. While ideas about beauty are not un-contested and while beauty may not be able to account for all the interests of artists, there is nonetheless a sense in Calvin that beauty generates a feast for the eyes. Calvin will go so far as to say that adoring “God with the eyes functions as an accessory of spiritual service.”

If that is indeed the case, then the visual artist has important work to perform in this world that God so loves.

Resources from the Reformed tradition for the visual arts

I conclude here with two observations. The first is that, whatever else we find in Calvin’s thinking, we do not find a meager regard for creation. Here we have nothing less than a grand theater where humanity is invited to delight in the workmanship of God’s creation. As the “hands and feet” of God in Christ, upheld by the Spirit of God, creation is a place for something: for goodness, for pleasure, for beauty, for vitality and fruitfulness, for action, for the worship of God, for art making and for the mediation of God’s presence to humanity. Though sin vitiates humanity’s capacity to enjoy God in and through creation, sin does not rob creation of its capacity to stage a spectacle of God’s powers.

Second, if the arts can be viewed through the work of the triune God, as I argue more thoroughly in my book, then the church is looking not at an escape from the physical creation but rather at the preservation, healing and liberation of the physical world so that the arts can be what the Father has eternally purposed for them. Instead of being regarded as concessions to corporeal life this side of the eschaton, the arts can be regarded as media which remain commensurate with the creaturely condition and which function as foretastes of the age to come. On such a view, the arts become normative, rather than incidental, to the church’s vision of the good world that the Father has remade by way of the Son and the Spirit.

For such a vision we can surely thank God.

*******

W. David O. Taylor is Assistant Professor of Theology and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary as well as the director of Brehm Texas, an initiative that seeks the renewal of the church through the arts. In addition to his book, The Theater of God's Glory (Eerdmans: 2017), he edited For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts (Baker Books: 2010) and served as co-editor of the multi-author volume, Contemporary Art and the Church: A Conversation Between Two Worlds (IVP Academic: 2017). His book, Worship and the Arts: Singular Powers and the Formation of a Human Life, is due out with Eerdmans fall 2018. A pastor for ten years in Austin, Texas, he leads an annual retreat for ministers to artists at Laity Lodge, and has lectured widely on the arts, from Thailand to South Africa.


More:

23 August 2017 / ​Reconstructed by Anikó Ouweneel

A much talked-about exposition in the NoordBrabants Museum in The Netherlands showed works by modern and contemporary Dutch artists inspired by traditional Catholic statues of Christ and the saints. 

Read more...


04 July 2017 / Pilgrimage to Venice – The Venice Biennale 2017

When I start to look at the art works, I notice a strange rift between this pleasant environment and the angst and political engagement present in the works of the artists. 

Read more...


24 June 2017 / Collecting as a Calling

After many years of compiling a collection of religious art, I have come to realize that collecting is a calling. I feel strongly that our collection has real value and that it is a valuable ministry. 

Read more...


02 June 2017 / I Believe in Contemporary Art

By Alastair Gordon

In recent years there has been a growing interest in questions of religion in contemporary art. Is it just a passing fad or signs of renewed faith in art? 

Read more...


04 April 2017 / Stations of the Cross - Washington, DC 2017

by Aaron Rosen

We realized that the Stations needed to speak to the acute anxiety facing so many minorities in today’s America and beyond. 

Read more...


07 March 2017 / Socially Engaged Art

A discussion starter by Adrienne Dengerink Chaplin

Growing dissatisfaction with an out-of-touch, elite and market driven art world has led artists to turn to socially engaged art. 

Read more...


01 February 2017 / Theodore Prescott: Inside Sagrada Familia

The columns resemble the trunks of trees. Gaudi conceived of the whole interior as a forest, where the nave ceiling would invoke the image of an arboreal canopy.

Read more...


03 January 2017 / Steve Scott tells about his trips to Bali

In the Balinese shadow play the puppet master pulls from a repertoire of traditional tales and retells them with an emphasis on contemporary moral and spiritual lessons. 

Read more...


09 December 2016 / Newsletter ArtWay December 2016

Like an imitation of a good thing past, these days of darkness surely will not last. Jesus was here and he is coming again, to lead us to the festival of friends.

Read more...


01 November 2016 / LAbri for Beginners

What is the role of the Christian artist? Is it not to ‘re-transcendentalise’ the transcendent, to discern what is good in culture, and to subvert what is not with a prophetic voice?

Read more...


30 September 2016 / Book Review by Jonathan Evens

Jonathan Koestlé-Cate, Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace - Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art, Routledge, 2016.

Read more...


01 September 2016 / Review: Modern art and the life of a culture

The authors say they want to help the Christian community recognize the issues raised in modern art and to do so in ways that are charitable and irenic. But I did not find them so. Their representation of Rookmaaker seems uncharitable and at times even misleading. 

Read more...


29 July 2016 / Victoria Emily Jones on Disciplining our Eyes

There’s nothing inherently wrong with images—creating or consuming. In fact, we need them. But we also need to beware of the propensity they have to plant themselves firmly in our minds. 

Read more...


30 June 2016 / Aniko Ouweneel on What is Christian Art?

Pekka Hannula challenges the spectator to search for the source of the breath we breathe, the source of what makes life worth living, the source of our longing for the victory of redemptive harmony.

Read more...


09 June 2016 / Theodore Prescott: The Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia is a visual encyclopedia of Christian narrative and Catholic doctrine as Gaudi sought to embody the faith through images, symbols, and expressive forms.

Read more...


19 May 2016 / Edward Knippers: Do Clothes make the Man?

Since the body is the one common denominator for all of humankind, why do we fear to uncover it? Why is public nudity a shock or even a personal affront?

Read more...


27 April 2016 / Alexandra Harper: Culture Care

Culture Care is an invitation to create space within the local church to invest our talents, time and tithes in works that lean into the Kingdom of God as creative agents of shalom. 

Read more...


06 April 2016 / Jonathan Evens on Contemporary Commissions

The issue of commissioning secular artists versus artists of faith represents false division and unnecessary debate. The reality is that both have resulted in successes and failures.

Read more...


12 March 2016 / Betty Spackman: Creativity and Depression

When our whole being is wired to fly outside the box, life can become a very big challenge. To carve oneself into a square peg for the square holes of society, when you are a round peg, is painful to say the least.

Read more...


24 February 2016 / Jim Watkins: Augustine and the Senses

Augustine is not saying that sensual pleasure is bad, but that it is a mixed good. As his Confessions so clearly show, Augustine is painfully aware of how easily he can take something good and turn it into something bad. 

Read more...


11 February 2016 / H.R. Rookmaaker: Does Art Need Justification?

Art is not a religion, nor an activity relegated to a chosen few, nor a mere worldly, superfluous affair. None of these views of art does justice to the creativity with which God has endowed man.

Read more...


26 January 2016 / Ned Bustard: The Bible is Not Safe

Revealed is intended to provoke surprise, even shock. It shows that the Bible is a book about ordinary people, who are not only spiritual beings, but also greedy, needy, hateful, hopeful, selfish, and sexual.

Read more...


14 January 2016 / Painting by Nanias Maira from Papua New Guinea

In 2011 Wycliffe missionary Peter Brook commissioned artist Nanias Maira, who belongs to the Kwoma people group of northwestern Papua New Guinea, to paint Bible stories in the traditional style for which he is locally known. 

Read more...