Calvin Against Calvin for the sake of Calvin and of the Arts

My book on Calvin's theology of creation is out. It's a book about the arts. It's also, more particularly, a book about the arts in worship. And thank God for all those things. Thank God also for all the good people that enabled it to see the light of day. What's the book about? Why should anybody care what it's about? 

The following is an excerpt from the introduction, which offers a context for the book and a reason why you might wish to purchase it (here), to read it (not only use it as a fine coffee table adornment), to digest it (rather than only to flip through it in non-providential fashion), to write a review of it (again, here), and perhaps even to recommend it to others (because you actually think it might do good in the world, as I do).

You might also wish to buy ten copies of it as stocking stuffers on account of the wonderfully subdued Christmas colors that adorn the front cover.

For those who wish to skip to a picture-book version of the project, please see photographs below.


In a paper delivered at Wheaton College in 2011, titled “The Future of Theology Amid the Arts: Some Reformed Reflections,” Jeremy Begbie observes that

as the theology and arts conversation continues to unfold apace, resources from the Reformed world – so often buried beneath an understandable but exaggerated shame – have considerably more to offer than is often supposed, especially if we are seeking to delve more deeply into the plotlines and harmonies of a scripturally rooted and vibrant trinitarian faith.

The question is: Which Reformed resources are those? And might those same resources be helpful to theological reflection on the liturgical arts? The wager of this book is that John Calvin, standing at the headwaters of the Reformed tradition, represents such a resource, even if not in the ways one might initially suppose. For both supporters and critics of the Frenchman, such a conclusion will likely be regarded with a measure of skepticism.

Voltaire, not surprisingly, held Calvin responsible for the dour artistic life of Geneva, while Orentin Douen believed that Calvin was the “enemy of all pleasure and distraction, as well as of the arts and music.” Philip Benedict blames Calvin’s heirs for a kind of “visual anorexia,” even as Peter Auksi argues that “Calvin’s systematic removal of the regenerate Christian away from … over-sensuous involvement in the earthly arts receives its seminal inspiration from a reading and interpretation of several key scriptural models.”

To these observations must be added the fact that Calvin’s ambivalence towards the liturgical arts is undergirded by a persistently negative view of materiality, and that the fate of the former hinges, as it were, on the fate of the latter. Dorothy Sayers, in fact, regards “hatred of the flesh” as one of the “four certain marks” of Calvin’s legacy. In Calvin Against Himself, Suzanne Selinger insists thatAbstraction in Calvin the introverted intellectual was above all a dephysicalizing.”

Such a conclusion is comparable to the one which Carlos Eire draws in his seminal work, War Against the Idols. In the oft-quoted comment by Eire: “Calvin forcefully asserted God’s transcendence through the principle finitum non est capax infiniti [the finite is incapable of containing the Infinite] and His omnipotence through soli Deo gloria.” Calvin, it needs to be conceded, supplies plenty of evidence in his own writings to corroborate the above judgments.


In his commentary on the psalms, Calvin maintains that musical instruments not only prompt the faithful to cling to “earthly” things, they also contravene God’s requirement for a simple, spiritual and articulate worship. Now that Christ has appeared, he writes, for the church to persist in the use of musical instruments is “to bury the light of the Gospel” and to “introduce the shadows of a departed dispensation.”

With respect to the visual shape of worship, Calvin believes that It would be a too ridiculous and inept imitation of papistry to decorate the churches and to believe oneself to be offering God a more noble service in using organs and the many other amusements of that kind.” Calvin insists that to include images in public worship, as Rome does, arises out of avarice, which is a far cry from the pleasure which God allows in the enjoyment of paintings of things imagined.

More bluntly, he dismisses the whole affair with icons as “sheer madness.” He states his theological conviction this way:

God’s majesty is sullied by an unfitting and absurd fiction, when the incorporeal is made to resemble corporeal matter, the invisible a visible likeness, the spirit an inanimate object, the immeasurable a puny bit of wood, stone, or gold.

In comments such as this we begin to perceive the close link between Calvin’s worry over the liturgical arts and his worry over the material realm.

While Calvin concedes that certain embodied “exercises of godliness” are needed in public worship, they are offered, to his mind, as accommodations to human weakness. As he remarks in book four of the 1559 Institutes, since “in our ignorance and sloth (to which I add fickleness of disposition) we need outward helps to beget and increase faith within us, and advance it to its goal, God has also added these aids that he may provide for our weakness.”

Calvin consistently considers it a regrettable thing that Scripture and preaching are not enough for the faithful. If Christians were “wholly spiritual,” like angels, they would not have need of material symbols of worship. And when he exclaims, “How great is the distance between the spiritual glory of the Word of God and the stinking filth of our flesh!”, it is not difficult to imagine why both friend and foe have deemed Calvin to be an enemy of the physical body, a pessimist towards creation, and a negative influence on the liturgical arts.

To imagine this, however, is to imagine only half the story, through a glass darkly. For even if Calvin is hardly the first place we go to discover a vision for the flourishing of the liturgical arts, the above comments do not tell the whole story. As I propose in this book, that story is both far more complicated and far more interesting than commentators have often allowed.


In this book I examine Calvin’s trinitarian theology as it intersects his theology of materiality in order to argue for a positive theological account of the liturgical arts. I do so believing that Calvin’s theology of the physical creation offers itself—perhaps surprisingly—as a rich resource for the practice of Christian worship, and opens up a trinitarian grammar by which we might understand the theological purposes of the arts in public worship.

Using Calvin’s commentary on musical instruments as a case study, generally representative of his thinking on all the liturgical arts, I identify four emphases that mark his thinking: that the church’s worship should be (i) devoid of the “figures and shadows” which marked Israel’s praise, and should emphasize instead a (ii) “spiritual,” (iii) “simple,” and (iv) “articulate” worship, suitable to a new covenantal era.

A common feature of these emphases, I suggest, is an anxiety over the capacity of physical things to mislead the worship of the faithful in idolatrous or superstitious ways. As it concerns public worship, Calvin’s account of materiality is quite frankly a largely pessimistic one. Here the material creation is seen as an especial temptation to distort the true worship of God and as a lesser vehicle by which the faithful offer their praises to God.

Calvin’s account of the physical creation outside of the liturgical context, however, is distinctly optimistic. A close reading of his views on creation, the resurrected body of Christ, the material symbols of worship, and the material elements of the Lord’s Supper points to a more integral role for materiality in the economy of God.

And while a nearly exclusive appeal to God’s “essential” nature may dominate Calvin’s thinking on the physical shape of public worship, I suggest that his arguments in these particular doctrinal loci are marked by a distinctly trinitarian frame of mind. Here the physical creation is seen not as especially problematic, nor “merely there,” but rather for something, headed somewhere, caught up in the activities of the Two Hands of God, to use Irenaeus’ language.

While setting aside his concern for “articulate” worship as an issue more directly related to the question of metaphor rather than of materiality, I focus this study on the first three emphases: “shadows,” “spiritual,” and “simple.” In a careful investigation of each of these domains of thought in Calvin, I discover a trinitarian reading of the physical creation which, in turn, opens up the possibility of a trinitarian reading of the physical creation in public worship.

Though I follow the logic of Calvin’s theology to conclusions which he himself did not imagine, I believe they remain sympathetic to his best instincts and that a robust theological account of the liturgical arts is hereby brought to light.


Even, then, as Calvin perceives that God appropriates physical things, such as the Eucharistic bread or the “affluence, sweetness, variety and beauty” of creation, to form and feed the church, so this book argues, sometimes with and beyond Calvin, sometimes against Calvin, that God takes the liturgical arts as intensively kinaesthetic artifacts to form and also feed the Church.

PS: On a recent visit to Guatemala, I got to visit the theater of God's Guatemalanesque glory.

This is actually a picture of the 67% solar eclipse in Houston, TX, on August 21, 2017. Not Guatemala, but glorious.

This is Blythe and a decidedly small tree.

This is a moment flying back in our prop-plane to Guatemala City from our venture to Tikal.

This is a really good dessert, also glorious.

This is artwork that Phaedra and I came upon at Hotel Santo Domingo. Gorgeous stuff.

This is a volcano. It smoked on the first morning of our visit to Antigua. Then an earthquake happened. The usual.

This isn't anything from Guatemala. It's from my visit to St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, MN, but I liked it.


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