Many of John Calvin’s references to Aristotelian cosmology occur during his later years, representing his mature theology. Christopher Kaiser has shown that Calvin viewed the universe through the lens of Aristotelian natural philosophy.1 He accepted such ideas as the concept of natural place (the earth is the center of the spheres due to its weight), the system of homocentric spheres (the ten spheres interconnected and moved by the primum mobile), and the subordination of terrestrial cycles to the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.
Kaiser notes that Calvin, as Aquinas and Bonaventure before him, sought to remedy the problem of the distant primum mobile with the providential guidance of the Christian God. Calvin did this by extending the sovereign guidance of the divine hand beyond the sphere of the Moon, where Aristotle placed a limit. Rather than solving the problem of how the earth remains stable while the enormous celestial spheres drag and press upon it by using a solution from Aristotle himself, Calvin boldly stated that God himself holds the earth upon the outer waters and keeps it stable as the celestial spheres move. According to Kaiser, “For Calvin, of course, there was a clear correlation between the concept of stability and order in the natural sphere and the sense of God’s protection in the personal and social spheres.”2 Therefore, the idea of God holding the earth in place brings much hope to believers that while the social sphere may be torn apart by tyrants God remains holding everything in place.
Kaiser asks where Calvin got his ideas and how he was influenced to read and write in such Aristotelian terms. The answer is that he was partly following the concepts of the times, since Aristotle’s cosmology had been accepted as an authentic representation of the universe for hundreds of years. However, Calvin was also influenced by those near him, those who sparked his interest in natural phenomena and causing him to delve more deeply into the texts of Aristotle. Kaiser lists all of Calvin’s influences in this matter. Particularly interesting is the fact that many of Calvin’s writings on Arisotelian natural philosophy came during and after the arrival of the Italians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, both scholastically trained Aristotelians. Kaiser’s list follows:
Based on the evidence cited here, a plausible account of the origins of Calvin’s understanding of Aristotelian natural philosophy would be as follows. Calvin probably became interested in and informed about the subject during his college days in Paris; his approach to Aristotle’s natural philosophy appears to be that of a humanist like Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples or Francois Vatable, who may have been his Hebrew instructor at the College royal in 1531-32. Calvin’s interest and understanding were heightened by his study of Seneca (early 1530s), his reading of Basil’s Hexaemeron (early 1540s), and by the publication of Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1544). This led to his first treatment of the distribution of the terrestrial elements and the mechanics of the celestial spheres … Finally, in the mid-1550s, Calvin thought more deeply about the problem of the stability of the earth in the midst of a whirling cosmos. This further development may reflect the influence of Vermigli and Zanchius.3
It is interesting to think that Calvin’s theology may have become more Aristotelian during the final years of his life due to the influence of his Italian acquaintances, who were known both for their humanism and scholasticism. His acceptance of Aristotelian natural philosophy is not surprising, but the fact that he seems quite concerned to find a solution to this Aristotelian problem perhaps is. And, though it seems to posit deus ex machina in place of a real solution, Calvin’s solution was in fact quite liberal compared to the Medieval proclivity to limit solutions to those that are possible within an Aristotelian frame of reference. Calvin, the humanist, was not limited by such restraints.4
- Kaiser, “Calvin and Natural Philosophy,” in Calviniana, vol. X
- ibid., p. 89
- ibid., pp. 91, 92.
- An earlier version of this post appeared on my blog in October of 2009.