Eric Parker passes along this observation from John Calvin:
Certain of your poets. He citeth half a verse out of Aratus, not so much for authority’s sake, as that he may make the men of Athens ashamed; for such sayings of the poets came from no other fountain save only from nature and common reason. Neither is it any marvel if Paul, who spake unto men who were infidels and ignorant of true godliness, do use the testimony of a poet, wherein was extant a confession of that knowledge which is naturally engraven in men’s minds…
…it is not to be doubted but that Aratus spake of Jupiter; neither doth Paul, in applying that unto the true God, which he spake unskillfully of his Jupiter, wrest it unto a contrary sense. For because men have naturally some perseverance of God, they draw true principles from that fountain. And though so soon as they begin to think upon God, they vanish away in wicked inventions, and so pure seed doth degenerate into corruptions; yet the first general knowledge of God doth nevertheless remain still in them. After this sort, no man of a sound mind can doubt to apply that unto the true God which we read in Virgil touching the feigned and false joy, that All things are full of joy. Yea, when Virgil meant to express the power of God, through error he put in a wrong name.
Mr. Parker also notes that a better translation of the last line would be, “In this way that which is said of the fictitious Jupiter by Virgil, ‘All things are full of Jupiter,’ no one doubts to apply to the true God.”
It’s worth pointing out that Calvin claims that the Apostle did not give Aratus’ or Virgil’s words “a contrary sense,” but instead directed their meaning to the true object, God. We do not simply accept the ancient philosophy and literature on its own terms, but neither do we feel the need to radically redefine and reinterpret its principles and points. Instead, the Christian Humanist takes what is true from the classics and directs them towards their true author, the Triune God.
2 replies on “Calvin on the Areopagus”
Interestingly, the Vergil passage that is cited here (Eclogues 3.60: Ab Iove principium Musae, Iovis omnia plena) (and “joy” has got to be a typo for “Jove,” as Eric points out), goes back to the passage of Aratus in question. Cicero translated Aratus, and in his Latin version began with the words “Ab Iove Musarum primordia” (“from Jove the commencement of song”). The opening of Aratus’ Phaenomena, the text used by Paul on the Areopagus, is used in Cicero’s Republic 1.56: he gives the example of “beginning from Jove,” which Scipio says the discussants ought to follow.
I should add that I later discovered that the erroneous insertion of “Joy” instead of “Jupiter” must be attributed to the transcriber of the modern English version (Baker, 2003) and not to Christopher Fetherstone’s excellent 1585 English translation.