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.