Thursday, July 15, 2010

Calvinism and Culture

Leon Wencelius, "The Word of God and Culture," in The Word of God and the Reformed Faith: Addresses Delivered at the Second American Calvinistic Conference held at Calvin College and Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, June 3, 4 and 5, 1942 (1943), pp. 160-161:

Culture is therefore the accomplishment of the creative will of God. It is the way in which man has been called to achieve his dominion on the earth and to replenish it. As man had to plough the ground in order to receive its fruits, man has to plough his mind in order to give birth to Art, Science, and Philosophy, which are the fruits of his culture.

The Word of God gives us further teaching on the nature of culture. It is said in the Psalms that the heavens, the whole creation, declare the glory of God. This is the first step toward real culture: to acknowledge the beauty of creation and to recognize in God the divine artist who has drawn it from nothing. Let us remember the way in which psalmists, prophets, and Christ praise the starry sky, the endless sea, the birds of the heavens, and the lilies of the fields. Knowledge of nature, as the work of art created by God, is the beginning of civilization. We discover here a fundamental truth: it is that culture was intended to be the natural revelation of God to mankind. When we read the Bible, when we try to understand the comments of Calvin, we are always struck by the same fact that creation as such was called upon to acquaint us with the Creator, that creation reveals to us His attributes and makes us better able to understand His nature. Divine glory always expresses itself in the form of beauty, and when we know how to see the universe as it has been made by God, we are the presence of the beautiful.

Therefore we are not surprised when we see that for Calvin the angels, the soul, the human body, the sky, the stars, the precious stones, and the most humble animals are the ornaments of the world, the works of art in the palace which is earth, "in order," he says, "that we may therein contemplate the majesty of God."

If we would be civilized, we must first try to see in the universe the divine light which radiates in it, the arrangement of its parts, the excellency of its order. Full of admiration and of joy, we shall be inspired to render supreme homage to the Creator.

We must secondly see in God what Calvin calls the miraculous workman, that is, in modern terms, the great artist whose masterpiece is the universe. God is according to the Reformer auctor et dator omnium artium; the author and bestower of the liberal as well as the technical arts. Thus culture appears to be not only a gift of God, as anything else in the world, but culture, because it is the art which permits civilization to go on, has also its origin in the creative activity of God Himself.

The word of God teaches us therefore to see in the trend of human thought and activity toward higher forms of civilization, the continuation of the creative impulse. As God has created earth and man from nothing, he has also wanted the highest in rank of his creatures to go on in the fulfilment of his divine will. As the artist uses a piece of marble to transform it into a symmetrical work of art, the statue, so God uses his creation through it to realize his higher purposes; and because man has been given intelligence, and with it a certain consciousness of the physical and the human world, God has, by his common grace, charged the most intelligent of men to realize certain forms of civilization.

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