Several weeks ago I incurred a debt to put up a post on John Calvin on the relationship between creation and redemption vis-a-vis the exegesis of passages that have to do with the new heaven and the new earth, and for once I’m going to try actually to follow through. Previously, I looked briefly at the theme in Augustine and Chrysostom.
The question before us has to do, at least in part, with the “newness” of the new creation. In what respect(s) is it new? Does anything besides our resurrected bodies cross over into the new creation, or is that about the extent of it?
The passage that is probably most often used for a “catastrophist” position, one that places the accent on discontinuity, is 2 Peter 3:1-13 (I commented briefly on this passage here):
This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder, 2 that you should remember the predictions of the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior through your apostles, 3 knowing this first of all, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing,following their own sinful desires. 4 They will say, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.” 5 For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, 6 and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. 7 But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly.
8 But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9 The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13 But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
Is what is referred to here more or less simply the Stoic conflagration that dissolves the world in flames, except that, in 2 Peter, it is not cyclical in nature? A passage from the Bellum Civile (“Civil War”) of the Neronian epic poet Lucan could be cited as an example of the Stoic approach:
So, when the final hour
brings to an end the long ages of the universe, its structure dissolved,
reverting to primeval chaos, then fiery stars will plunge
into the sea, the earth will be unwilling to stretch flat her shores
and will shake the water off, Phoebe will confront
her brother and for herself demand the day, resentful
of driving her chariot along its slanting orbit, and the whole
discordant mechanism of universe torn apart will disrupt its own laws. (Bellum Civile 1.72-80, trans. S. Braund)
Or does Peter have a different purpose here?
In commenting on this passage, Calvin notes first of all its hortatory thrust. Peter intends that his hearers should strive after “newness of life.” Peter’s primary concern is purging, not destruction. Specifically, on verse 10 Calvin writes:
What afterwards follows, respecting the burning of heaven and earth, requires no long explanation, if indeed we duly consider what is intended. For it was not his purpose to speak refinedly of fire and storm, and other things, but only that he might introduce an exhortation, which he immediately adds, even that we ought to strive after newness of life. For he thus reasons, that as heaven and earth are to be purged by fire, that they may correspond with the kingdom of Christ, hence the renovation of men is much more necessary. Mischievous, then, are those interpreters who consume much labor on refined speculations, since the Apostle applies his doctrine to godly exhortations.
The “passing away” is intimately connected with the life and destiny of believers, who are themselves not to be destroyed, but cleansed, living no longer as the old man but as the new man. In corresponding fashion, the old heaven and earth are to be cleansed of corruption rather than annihilated. They were created good and shall be restored to a state of goodness. As Calvin goes on:
Heaven and earth, he says, shall pass away for our sakes; is it meet, then, for us to be engrossed with the things of earth, and not, on the contrary, to attend to a holy and godly life? The corruptions of heaven and earth will be purged by fire, while yet as the creatures of God they are pure; what then ought to be done by us who are full of so many pollutions?
The end result, then, of what Peter speaks of here is renovation. In the new creation, the substance of the elements will be the same as it was in creation, but the elements will be renewed, even as believers themselves are:
Of the elements of the world I shall only say this one thing, that they are to be consumed, only that they may be renovated, their substance still remaining the same, as it may be easily gathered from Romans 8:21, and from other passages.
I note in passing that, for confirmation of his point, Calvin directs his readers to Romans 8:21 (“that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God”). We shall come to his remarks on this passage in due course.
But first let us examine some two other passages in which the new heaven and the new earth are mentioned, viz. Isaiah 65:17 (“For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind”) and Isaiah 66: 22 (“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain”); we turn to the latter first.
In commenting on Isaiah 66:22, Calvin connects the prophecy of a new heavens and a new earth especially to the Church as an everlasting body. It will be restored, and then will abide forever. The phrase is closely connected, therefore, with the reign of Christ, and has in a sense already become a present reality under the New Covenant:
For as the new heavens. Here he promises that the restoration of the Church shall be of such a nature that it shall last for ever. Many might be afraid that it would be ruined a second time; and therefore he declares that henceforth, after having been restored by God, its condition shall be permanent. Accordingly, he mentions here two benefits of surpassing excellence, restoration and eternity. When he speaks of “new heavens” and a “new earth,” he looks to the reign of Christ, by whom all things have been renewed, as the Apostle teaches in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Now the design of this newness is, that the condition of the Church may always continue to be prosperous and happy. What is old tends to decay; what is restored and renewed must be of longer continuance. (Hebrews 8:13.)
Calvin goes on to paraphrase the prophecy as meaning, ““Your sons shall succeed to you, and your grandsons shall succeed to your sons”” and further explains that “as God will establish the world, that it may never perish, so the succession of the Church shall be perpetual, that it may be prolonged through all ages.” Calvin seems to be thinking here primarily of the invisible church, for he connects this prophecy and its fulfillment with the work of Christ in the inward man, where the work of restoration is begun:
In a word, he explains what he had formerly said about renewing the world, that none may think that this relates to trees, or beasts, or the order of the stars; for it must be referred to the inward renewal of man. The ancients were mistaken when they thought that these things related absolutely to the last judgment; and they had not sufficiently weighed the context of the Prophet or the authority of the Apostle. Yet I do not deny that they extend as far as to that judgment, because we must not hope for a perfect restoration before Christ, who is the life of the world, shall appear; but we must begin higher, even with that deliverance by which Christ regenerates his people, that they may be new creatures. (2 Corinthians 7:1.)
Earlier in this commentary, Calvin had expounded the same phrase in another chapter (Is. 65:17). He takes the phrase in chapter 65 as metaphorical of the coming of Christ, from the first until the second Advent, because such a dramatic figure of speech was the only way to describe the magnitude of what was going to happen.
For, lo, I will create new heavens and a new earth. By these metaphors he promises a remarkable change of affairs; as if God had said that he has both the inclination and the power not only to restore his Church, but to restore it in such a manner that it shall appear to gain new life and to dwell in a new world. These are exaggerated modes of expression; but the greatness of such a blessing, which was to be manifested at the coming of Christ, could not be described in any other way. Nor does he mean only the first coming, but the whole reign, which must be extended as far as to the last coming, as we have already said in expounding other passages.
Christ’s coming, then, is in a sense a renewal of the world. But at the present time it is in progress, not yet completed; it will not, in fact, be completed until the Resurrection:
Thus the world is (so to speak) renewed by Christ; and hence also the Apostle (Hebrews 2:5) calls it “a new age,” and undoubtedly alludes to this statement of the Prophet. Yet the Prophet speaks of the restoration of the Church after the return from Babylon. This is undoubtedly true; but that restoration is imperfect, if it be not extended as far as to Christ; and even now we are in the progress and accomplishment of it, and those things will not be fulfilled till the last resurrection, which has been prescribed to be our limit.
But this “new heaven and new earth” is not only a present reality that has reference to the present regeneration of Christ’s people. It is a future reality as well. It is true that the “new heaven and new earth” is present now, as Calvin says, in believers, but imperfectly so. As believers struggle to put off the old man and remaining sin, renovation progresses. This internal reality of renewal, even if only completed now “in part,” is proleptic, is anticipatory, of the final consummation. Still, in this in-between time “we do not yet see a new heaven and a new earth,” but instead the creation groans (Romans 8:20). At the Last Day, however, as we are fully renewed, so shall the heaven and the earth be:
Let us remember that these things take place in us so far as we are renewed. But we are only in part renewed, and therefore we do not yet see a new heaven and a new earth. We need not wonder, therefore, that we continue to mourn and weep, since we have not entirely laid aside the old man, but many remains are still left. It is with us also that the renovation ought to begin; because we hold the first rank, and it is through our sin that “the creatures groan, and are subject to vanity,” as Paul shews. (Romans 8:20.) But when we shall be perfectly renewed, heaven and earth shall also be fully renewed, and shall regain their former state. And hence it ought to be inferred, as we have frequently remarked, that the Prophet has in his eye the whole reign of Christ, down to its final close, which is also called “the day of renovation and restoration.” (Acts 3:21.)
Note here that Calvin says clearly that the “newness” of the heaven and the earth consists, at least in certain respects, in restoration: they “shall regain their former state.” This position is harmonious with his comments on 2 Peter 3 cited above regarding the “substance” of the elements remaining the same. There too Calvin refers to Romans 8, and so it is to that passage that we turn in considering the relation between this world and the next.
Calvin is more explicit, though not expansive, on the way(s) in which the new heaven and new earth are “new” in his comments on Romans 8:20-1.
He remarks on the connection in Paul’s thought between the restoration of men and the restoration of the rest of creation. It is due to the fault of man that creation is corrupted, and when man’s corruption is done away with, so shall the rest of corruption be: “for as creatures, being now subject to corruption, cannot be restored until the sons of God shall be wholly restore [sic]; hence they, longing for their renewal, look forward to the manifestation of the celestial kingdom.”
Paul establishes this close link between man and the rest of the created order through the device of personification, attributing a will to irrational creatures in order to express their “natural inclination, according to which the whole nature of things tends to its own preservation and perfection.” Creation cannot achieve the realization of its goal at present because of man’s sin, but at the Last Day it will:
But on account of him, etc. He sets before us an example of obedience in all created things, and adds, that it springs from hope; for hence comes the alacrity of the sun and moon, and of all the stars in their constant courses, hence is the sedulity of the earth’s obedience in bringing forth fruits, hence is the unwearied motion of the air, hence is the prompt tendency to flow in water. God has given to everything its charge; and he has not only by a distinct order commanded what he would to be done, but also implanted inwardly the hope of renovation. For in the sad disorder which followed the fall of Adam, the whole machinery of the world would have instantly become deranged, and all its parts would have failed had not some hidden strength supported them. It would have been then wholly inconsistent that the earnest of the Spirit should be less efficacious in the children of God than hidden instinct in the lifeless parts of creation. How much soever then created things do naturally incline another way; yet as it has pleased God to bring them under vanity, they obey his order; and as he has given them a hope of a better condition, with this they sustain themselves, deferring their desire, until the incorruption promised to them shall be revealed. He now, by a kind of personification, ascribes hope to them, as he did will before.
It is clear from this passage that Calvin believed that God’s current preservation and sustaining of the world was ordered to its ultimate renewal and renovation, when corruption and decay will be no more.
It was pointed out above that in two of the passages previously cited on the new heaven and the new earth Calvin referred to Romans 8. Now, in his commentary on Romans 8, he refers to both Peter and Isaiah (“[the creation] shall some time be made free, according to what Isaiah testifies, and what Peter confirms still more clearly”), such that it is obvious that he sees the new heaven and new earth discussed in those two books in the light of what is said about this creation in the present passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
If the creation is corrupted in proportion to, as a result of, and as a reflection of the corruption of man, its renovation likewise will be proportional in order to ennoble man’s glory even as man’s shame has ignobled it:
It is then indeed meet for us to consider what a dreadful curse we have deserved, since all created things in themselves blameless, both on earth and in the visible heaven, undergo punishment for our sins; for it has not happened through their own fault, that they are liable to corruption. Thus the condemnation of mankind is imprinted on the heavens, and on the earth, and on all creatures. It hence also appears to what excelling glory the sons of God shall be exalted; for all creatures shall be renewed in order to amplify it, and to render it illustrious.
The sum of all this is as follows: the world, this fallen world, will be restored and perfected such that all share in a “better condition.” From what has been revealed, we can say primarily that decay will be no more, but beyond that we cannot go. What does the animal and vegetable perfection look like? Calvin will not speculate, nor will he guess at whether consummation means that all animals will be immortal. We must be content with what has been revealed, and that is that all things will be put right, restored, renewed, perfected, no longer subject to corruption, man as well as the natural world.
But he means not that all creatures shall be partakers of the same glory with the sons of God; but that they, according to their nature, shall be participators of a better condition; for God will restore to a perfect state the world, now fallen, together with mankind. But what that perfection will be, as to beasts as well as plants and metals, it is not meet nor right in us to inquire more curiously; for the chief effect of corruption is decay. Some subtle men, but hardly sober-minded, inquire whether all kinds of animals will be immortal; but if reins be given to speculations where will they at length lead us? Let us then be content with this simple doctrine, — that such will be the constitution and the complete order of things, that nothing will be deformed or fading.
What is the take-away from the above? First, Calvin, despite his admiration for the Roman Stoic Seneca, does not appear in these passages as a Stoic himself in relation to the cataclysm at the end of time. That is to say, he is not an annihilationist with regard to the present creation, nor does he seem to have believed, on the evidence of these passages, that only believers’ bodies carried over into the new world. This would make sense, because the natural world did not do anything wrong; it did not sin in Adam. It will not, therefore, ultimately be punished with destruction. Rather, it was subjected to corruption because of man’s sin, and will one day be freed from it. Let us recall that it was created good: and Calvin says that in the future it will be restored to full perfection.
Second, although he urges the general principle of continuity, he will not go beyond what is written. He therefore does not speculate about the details of the new creation. It is enough for him to remark that God’s original creation will be restored and renewed, even as believers themselves are.
Third, his remarks on these passages have both an “already” and a “not yet” aspect, an inauguration and a fulfillment. At the present time, the new creation is connected with the Church. It is important to observe that, as argued above, this must primarily mean the invisible church–that is, true Christians. The reason is that the terms he uses to describe a member of it (“inward”; the “deliverance whereby Christ regenerates his people”; “new creatures”) can only be predicated of believers. The new heaven and new earth are correspondingly invisible at present (“we do not yet see a new heaven and a new earth”). But Scripture looks forward to full and visible renewal at the eschaton when Christ returns for the second time.
In these ways, Calvin soberly and expectantly rejoices in the release from the bondage to decay, both ours and the creation’s.
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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