God the Divine Artificer

A Creative Creator

Pictures of God in Calvin’s Institutes

Renowned theologian, esteemed pastor, accomplished professor, courageous reformer—these are but a few of the titles that belonged to John Calvin over the course of his life during the 16th Century. He preached countless sermons, composed over 1,300 letters, and wrote multiple treatises, extensive commentaries, and, of course, his two-volume masterpiece about which this blog series is written—the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Yet, as impressive as all of these accomplishments are, Calvin's greatest achievement is, in my opinion, the way in which he humbly makes much of God and puts his glory on display. His vision of the Triune God is an all-encompassing one that recognizes that God sits atop the throne of the universe and that all things—time and space, mice and men, blades of grass and burrowing beetles—live and move and have their being under his sovereign hand, and that is as it should be.

It is for this reason that I wish to turn your attention to particular ways in which Calvin weds the vitally important words of sound theology about God with the breathtakingly beautiful language of poetry over the course of this series. It is my hope that, by the time you read the last word of the last article, you, the reader, will have experienced God, his Word, and the world through the lenses that Calvin holds out to you.

Part I: God the Divine Artificer: A Creative Creator

Throughout Book 1 of his Institutes, John Calvin unpacks the divine office of God-as-Creator, and his unveiling of the sacred Artisan is brimming with soul-enriching reflections on age-old truths from which all believers can benefit. Rather than simply asserting that God is the Creator of the universe and providing supporting texts, Calvin poetically and with great variety paints a robust picture of God as a master craftsman, the Divine Artificer, by highlighting the ways in which the ineffably ordered complexity and exquisite beauty of his handiwork reflects him.

God's Handiwork

Calvin begins tracing the Lord’s self-revelation in his handiwork with the majesty of the “whole workmanship of the universe” on which he has “engraved unmistakable marks of his glory.” [1] He calls the universe “this most vast and beautiful system,” “this most glorious theater,” [2] and “the swiftly revolving heavenly system.” [3] He holds up instance after instance of sublimely-fashioned “cogs” in the majestic machine of the universe and exults in both their inexhaustible elegance and their divinely-enacted constancy. In Calvin’s mind, every component of the universe, from the smallest insect to the largest constellation, testifies to the glory and skill of its Artificer to the extent that “men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him.” [4] For Calvin, not only does the very existence of the universe testify to a Creator but the beauty and precise regularity of the created order testifies to a preeminently creative Creator, a Creator whose every work is both a work of art and a work of inordinate complexity.

Yet for all the universe’s glory, Calvin names man as the ultimate expression of God’s divine craftsmanship. In its physical composition, the human body “shows itself to be a composition so ingenious that its Artificer is rightly judged a wonder-worker.” [5] He also calls the human body a “microcosm” of the universe [6] and states that it contains “within [it] a workshop graced with God’s unnumbered works and…a storehouse overflowing with inestimable riches.” [7] In its inner workings, the human soul demonstrates “such agile motions…such excellent faculties, such rare gifts, [that] especially bear upon the face of them a divinity that does not allow itself readily to be hidden.” In every aspect of his being, man images God (as articulated in Genesis 1:27), and God created man as a “spectator” in the theater of Creation that he might contemplate the glories of the universe and, in turn, praise his magnificent Maker. [8]

Conclusion

With his emphasis on the dual nature of God’s creative work as both artistic and ordered, as an ornate machine, John Calvin provides his reader with a unique perspective on the Lord’s office as Creator and declares along with the angels that "the whole earth is full of his glory" (Isaiah 6:3 ESV). In fact, the diversely beautiful ways in which Calvin paints these theological truths with alluring language is, in itself, a reflection of and an attempt to imitate God's awe-inspiring handiwork. It can be easy to focus on Creation-as-Art or Creation-as-Machine to the exclusion of the other and lose sight of the glorious harmony between the two, lose sight of the fact that not only is Creation both ornate and a machine but it is also ornate precisely because of its orderly function, and it functions in an orderly manner precisely because it is beautiful.

Calvin’s poetically crafted image of God as Divine Artificer, as fully Artist and fully Craftsman, images the very creativity of which he has been speaking and brings both sides of the coin into sharp relief, thereby empowering the Christian reader to sit in the theater, gaze at the cosmic machine and its parts, and marvel at both the exquisite product and its Maker.




[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, 2 vols., The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1.V.1.

[2] Ibid., 1.VI.2.

[3] Ibid., 1.XIV.21.

[4] Ibid., 1.V.1.

[5] Ibid., 1.V.2.

[6] Ibid., 1.V.3.

[7] Ibid., 1.V.4.

[8] Ibid., 1.VI.2.