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Man as Microcosm in John Calvin’s Theology

Philip Cary explains Augustine’s relationship to Plotinus in terms of an “inward turn” in moral philosophy. The idea of turning inward was prevalent among Platonists of antiquity and stems from the basic distinction between material and immaterial principles. Since man is guided by an immaterial soul his happiness is not to be found in the multiplicity of material things but rather by turning inward to his simple immaterial principle and ultimately to the absolute Principle, which is God. Cary notes that Augustine’s view differs from that of Plotinus in that he did not conceive of the soul as divine but rather as created. Yet, Augustine retained the concept of the inward turn. “Amid all his confusion and changes of mind about the nature of the soul and how to turn to it, he never doubted the negative side of the inward turn: that he must turn away from bodies.”1

Though John Calvin was certainly no Platonist, strictly speaking, and often derided Augustine for his preoccupation with Platonic philosophy, insofar as Calvin was quite influenced by Augustine’s (and Bernard’s) theology one should not be surprised to discover that he displays certain Platonic metaphors in his writings.2 In his commentary on Acts 17:27 Calvin betrays his indebtedness to the Augustinian inward turn, similar to what one sees in book 1 of Institutes. Having discussed man’s natural knowledge of God and his depraved attempt to claim the excuse of ignorance, Calvin writes:

Quo magis constringat hominum pravitatem, Deum longis ambagibus vel laborioso itinere quaerendum esse negat: quia illum quisque in seipso inveniet, si modo attendere velit. qua experientia convincimur culpa non carere nostram hebetudinem, quam tamen ex Adae labe contraximus. Quamvis enim nullus mundi angulus aliquo gloriae Dei testimonio vacuus sit: nihil tamen opus est extra nos egredi, ut eum apprehendamus. sua enim virtute intus unumquemque nostrum sic afficit, ut prodigio similis sit nostra stupiditas, quod eum sentiendo non sentimus. Hac ratione quidam ex Philosophis hominem vocarunt μικρόκοσμον: quod prae aliis omnibus creaturis specimen sit gloriae Dei, innumeris miraculis refertum.3


In order to better restrain human perversion, Paul denies that God should be sought in distant wanderings or laborious journeys because each man may find God in himself, if he wills to direct his attention inward. By this experience we are convinced that our sluggishness is not without fault, which we contract because of the fall of Adam. For though no corner of the world is devoid of some witness of the glory of God, nevertheless, there is no need for us to go outside of ourselves in order to lay hold of him. For by his power he so inwardly affects each one of us that our stupidity is such an unnatural thing, that in perceiving him we do not perceive him. For this reason certain philosophers call man a “little universe” [microcosm], because he is above all creatures a token of God’s glory and full of innumerable miracles.4

The concept of man as a “microcosm,” though also used by Aristotle,5 was put to extensive use by Neoplatonists such as Plotinus and (later) Proclus in order to describe the dual character of human nature as uniting the lower (material) and higher (immaterial) registers in the chain of being.6 The term was adapted for Christian use by Greek fathers such as Gregory of Nyssa.7 Calvin’s use of the term “microcosm” to describe man is perhaps surprising considering its implied meaning that man is the center of the universe, and this may seem to conflict with Calvin’s firm affirmation of human depravity.8 To be sure, in the context of this passage, Calvin also has some quite negative things to say about man’s natural knowledge of God. Yet, despite his argument that unbelievers are blind in their knowledge he concludes “the goodness of God penetrates their [minds] so that even the blind are able to touch him [palpari a caecis quoque possit]” and “he offers himself to be handled by them, though they remain in a stupor [se attrectandum praebeat, manent tamen attoniti].” The conclusion to this for Calvin must be (as one can confirm by Institutes I.) that, though man is fallen and has become blind, he is still able to take hold of God in his blindness by turning inward to view himself as the imago Dei, “a token of God’s glory.” And, of course, man can only fully know himself in this way by faith “which comes forth from the illumination of the Spirit [ex Spiritus illuminatione procedat].”

  1. Cary, Augustine’s Invention of the Inner Self: The Legacy of a Christian Platonist, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 64.
  2. On Calvin’s apparent “Platonism” contra the interpretation of John Boisset, see Charles Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy, 1977, (Reprint, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 110-115.
  3. Jean Calvin, Commentarii In Acta Apostolorum, 1552, (Reprint, 1671), 164-165, accessed January 31, 2014 from, “The Digital Library of Classic Protestant Texts.”
  4. This translation is loosely based on the English translation of Christopher Fetherstone in Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, vol. 2, Calvin’s Commentaries, (Baker, 2013).
  5. See Physics, VIII.2 for Aristotle’s use of the phrase “ἐν μικρῷ κόσμῷ.”
  6. For Plotinus see Enneads III.4.3-4; See also Proclus, On the Timaeus of Plato, book 1.
  7. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, see an online version here, where Nyssa says through the mouth of the Virgin, “It has been said by wise men that man is a little world [microcosm] in himself and contains all the elements which go to complete the universe.”
  8. Calvin also uses this term in Institutes, I.V.3.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.