Archive Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Reformed Irenicism

Calvin on Consummation as Restoration, Again

Not long ago, I posted about Calvin’s comments on several passages relating to the new creation or the new heaven and the new earth, such as 2 Peter 3, Isaiah 65 and 66, and Romans 8. Further support for the conclusions drawn there about his view on the matter comes from his comments on Isaiah 11:6-9:

6 The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
9 They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

Calvin attempts to do at least two different things in his remarks: first, to put forward an interpretation of the spiritual, figurative sense of this prophetic passage, in which the animals of verse 6, for instance, represent men; and, second, to maintain at the same time what the purport of the words seems to be according to a non-figurative reading of the text, which seems to be, perhaps counterintuitively on an initial reading, based on the first, spiritual sense.

It seems, as I said, counterintuitive; but, as we have seen already in several other writers,1 the current fallen state of the world is synonymous with corruption; corruption is due to man’s sin; therefore, when man’s sin is removed and man is restored, the world likewise will be. This is precisely the argument that Calvin makes, going so far as to predict the return of a “golden age” that existed before man’s Fall and “the shock and ruin of the world which followed it.” On verse 6:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb. He again returns to describe the character and habits of those who have submitted to Christ. As there is a mutual relation between the king and the people, he sometimes ascends from the body to the head, and sometimes descends from the head to the body; and we have already seen that Christ reigns, not for himself, but for those who believe in him. Hence it follows that he forms their minds by his heavenly Spirit. But the Prophet’s discourse looks beyond this; for it amounts to a promise that there will be a blessed restoration of the world. He describes the order which was at the beginning, before man’s apostasy produced the unhappy and melancholy change under which we groan. Whence comes the cruelty of brutes, which prompts the stronger to seize and rend and devour with dreadful violence the weaker animals? There would certainly have been no discord among the creatures of God, if they had remained in their first and original condition. When they exercise cruelty towards each other, and the weak need to be protected against the strong, it is an evidence of the disorder (ἀταξίας) which has sprung from the sinfulness of man. Christ having come, in order to reconcile the world to God by the removal of the curse, it is not without reason that the restoration of a perfect state is ascribed to him; as if the Prophets had said that that golden age will return in which perfect happiness existed, before the fall of man and the shock and ruin of the world which followed it. Thus, God speaks by Hosea:

I will make a covenant with the beast of the field, with the fowl of the heaven, and with the creeping things.
(Hoseah 2:18.)

As if he had said, “When God shall have been reconciled to the world in Christ, he will also give tokens of fatherly kindness, so that all the corruptions which have arisen from the sinfulness of man will cease.”

In other words, as man goes, so goes the world. When the disorder of man is restored to order, the world too will be restored to order.

Calvin goes on to connect this passage in Isaiah with two others I have recently discussed, Ephesians 1 and Colossians 1, in which Paul speaks of “all things,” both in heaven and on earth, being united and reconciled in Christ. Even violence between animals is, for Calvin, a result of the Fall and will be undone by the removal of the stain of sin.

In a word, under these figures the Prophets teach the same truth which Paul plainly affirms, that Christ came to gather together out of a state of disorder those things which are in heaven and which are on earth. (Ephesians 1:10Colossians 1:20.) It may be thus summed up: “Christ will come to drive away everything hurtful out of the world, and to restore to its former beauty the world which lay under the curse.” For this reason, he says, that straw will be the food of the lion as well as of the ox; for if the stain of sin had not polluted the world, no animal would have been addicted to prey on blood, but the fruits of the earth would have sufficed for all, according to the method which God had appointed. (Genesis 1:30.)

Calvin then returns to his original point–the figurative one–and reiterates that that is, in his view, Isaiah’s main point.

Though Isaiah says that the wild and the tame beasts will live in harmony, that the blessing of God may be clearly and fully manifested, yet he chiefly means what I have said, that the people of Christ will have no disposition to do injury, no fierceness or cruelty. They were formerly like lions or leopards, but will now be like sheep or lambs; for they will have laid aside every cruel and brutish disposition. By these modes of expression he means nothing else than that those who formerly were like savage beasts will be mild and gentle; for he compares violent and ravenous men to wolves and bears which live on prey and plunder, and declares that they will be tame and gentle, so that they will be satisfied with ordinary food, and will abstain from doing any injury or harm.

He sees the manner of speech in the passage as one of arguing from the lesser (animals) to the greater (men), even though, as pointed out above, the state of nature is dependent on the state of men.

On this subject it is proper to argue from the less to the greater. “If Christ shall bring brute animals into a state of peace, much more will brotherly harmony exist among men, who will be governed by the same spirit of meekness.” And yet Isaiah does not mean that any are mild and peaceful by nature before they are renewed, but yet he promises, that whatever may have been their natural disposition, they will lay aside or conquer their fierceness, and will be like lambs and sheep.

Again, he reiterates both senses, in his connection of the “little child” with ministers:

And a little child shall lead them. This means that beasts which formerly were cruel and untameable, will be ready to yield cheerful obedience, so that there will be no need of violence to restrain their fierceness. Yet we must attend to the spiritual meaning which I noticed, that all who become Christ’s followers will obey Christ, though they may formerly have been savage wild beasts, and will obey him in such a manner, that as soon as he lifts his finger, they will follow his footsteps, as it is said that his people shall be willing. (Psalm 110:3.) Those who are not endued with this meekness do not deserve to be ranked among the sheep. Let us, therefore, permit ourselves to be ruled and governed by him, and let us willingly submit to those whom he has appointed over us, though they appear to be like little children. Besides, I think that the ministers of the word are compared to children, because they have no external power, and exercise no civil government over them.

Once more, he makes the same point in his comments on verse 8. The “hurtful dispositions” of men toward one another after the Fall are somehow reflected in the animal world as well: men do not deserve to exercise a fully effective dominion over the rest of the created order, as Adam did at first, because of the pollution of sin, and it is for that reason that man fears the bite of the serpent:

And the child shall play on the hole of the asp. He continues to illustrate the same sentiment, that when men have been brought into a state of favor with God, and have been cleansed from their depravity by the Spirit of regeneration, they will likewise be free from every hurtful disposition. There is no reason why men dread the danger or poison arising from the bite of serpents, but because they do not deserve that God should place every part of the world under their control. And, indeed, since animals are permitted to do injury even to children, this shows that the whole race of Adam has been stained with pollution from the very womb.

We must again observe the comparison which we stated, that those men whom a concealed poison led to deeds of violence will have their disposition changed, and will do no harm even to little children. Some men are openly fierce and cruel, (Psalm 140:3,) and others inwardly carry and cherish their malice like poison, (Psalm 55:21,) as David also describes them; for some men are more quick, and others are more slow, to manifest the desire of doing injury. Whatever they may have formerly been, he means that all of them must be cleansed from wickedness, both open and concealed, after having submitted to Christ. He means, also, that henceforth safety, which will reign everywhere, will be enjoyed even by those who have no kind of protection; so that they will freely venture to expose themselves to imminent dangers.

God made a world into which he could place man as its keeper and ruler. Man sinned, and, in sinning, alienated himself from God and from the world as created. When sin is removed and man’s restoration to God is consummated, man will be restored to the world and the world to man. As Vergil writes in the fourth Ecloguemagnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo: A great order of the ages is born anew (4.5). We can transfer this sentiment to Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 11, but with added point: for it is precisely ordo, order, that was lost by sin, and it is ordo that will be regained in the restoration of creation.

  1. Links to all of those posts can be found in this post.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

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