'Man was rich before he was born': Calvin on Genesis 1.1-2.3

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Calvin's commentary on the creation narrative of Genesis 1.1-2.3 is dominated by one particular metaphor--that of God as the builder and decorator of a luxurious house.  The creation days, in Calvin's perspective, mark successive stages in God's construction project. In the first triad of creation days, God performs the role of a proper builder, directing his energies to the foundation and fabric of his cosmic domicile. In the second triad of creation days, he performs the role of interior designer, supplying his house with both "furniture" and "garniture" (ornamenta).

God, in Calvin's estimation, is no minimalist when it comes to interior design. "The heaven without the sun, and moon, and stars," and the "earth... destitute of animals, trees, and plants" would, indeed, make for a "poor and deserted house," a "dismantled palace." The presence of heavenly bodies and earthly flora and fauna make for a "house well supplied and filled."

This "wealthy house, well supplied with every kind of provision in abundance and variety," was built with a specific tenant in mind, even if that tenant didn't yet exist during the designing, building, and decorating process. "In the very order of the creation the paternal solicitude of God for man is conspicuous, because he furnished the world with all things needful, and even with an immense profusion of wealth, before he formed man. Thus man was rich before he was born."

Calvin's attention to the "paternal solicitude" apparent in God's act of creation evokes images of wealthy parents-to-be preparing their home for their anticipated first child, eager to provide for that child's well-being and enjoyment. Socket covers and safety latches for cabinets and drawers are installed, potentially dangerous items are locked away or placed out of reach, the pantry is stocked with formula milk and baby food. Particular attention is given to the nursery: a baby cot fitted with musical mobile is secured, the walls are painted pleasant colors and covered with vibrant images, stuffed animals are placed in the cot and on shelves in anticipation of the baby's arrival. In sum, these soon-to-be parents, brimming with expectation, secure everything they can think of to provide both nourishment and delight to their future child.

Similarly, the "house" which God prepared as man's "happy and pleasant habitation" was tailored both to man's well-being and his enjoyment; it was, indeed, a "variety of delights." Calvin's description of the newly-created world drips with references to "abundance," "affluence," "profusion," and "sweetness," particularly so with regard to Eden--the nursery, as it were, in this house prepared for man. 

Of course, anyone with a reasonable grasp of child psychology knows that the most important thing in any home for a child's flourishing is no thing at all, but the parents themselves. No amount of stuffed animals or toys can fill the void created in a child's heart from absent or indifferent parents. 

Similarly, the principal necessity and delight in God's cosmic house is God himself. God no more built his house with any intention to hand over the keys to his human creatures and take his leave, wishing them all happiness in their new residence, than parents purpose to suddenly vacate their home after bringing a child into it. God built his house with every intention of living there with his children--of fostering relationship and intimacy with them in that place. (Calvin anticipates, on this score, recent studies which identify Eden as the prototypical sanctuary, a place for man to enjoy fellowship with and worship God.) As Calvin reflects, then, upon the gifts which God has prepared for and bestowed upon his image-bearers in this "house well supplied and filled," he notes the proper, relational response these should trigger in their recipients; namely, reliance upon God, gratitude for his plentiful provision, and "wonder" (literally stupor) at the sheer immensity of his generosity.

Our first parents failed, of course, to sustain such attitudes towards God. Their rebellion against their benefactor impacted the entire world--God's "house"--in addition to themselves. "The earth," which as a whole "would have remained the fairest scene both of fruitfulness and of delight," has become "that scene of deformity which we now behold." Yet much good remains; indeed, "thorns and thistles" are, in the final analysis, parasitic upon the fundamental goodness and beauty irrevocably invested in humankind's primal residence.

There is a temptation among those living on this side of the fall to turn blind eyes to the "abundance," "sweetness," and "variety" which persists in this world, and either focus only on the thorns and thistles, or look entirely to the world to come, with (proper) expectation of its surpassing goodness. Calvin has significant advice for us on this score: "Since the eternal inheritance of man is in heaven, it is truly right that we should tend thither; nevertheless, we ought to fix our foot on earth long enough to consider this house (hospitium), which God wishes man to use for a time."  The meditation on this world which Calvin encourages should evoke, in addition to sorrow for the obvious fruits of humankind's rebellion, those very same responses which God's house in its original splendor was calculated to excite: reliance, gratitude, wonder.

Calvin invites us, in sum, to pause from our busy lives and take time to "consider this abode," still bearing evident traces of its original "abundance" and "sweetness." Study a tree. Smell a flower. Savor the taste of some choice fruit. Pet a dog. Look at the stars. But be careful as you do so. Any appreciation for the goodness and beauty of this created world without acknowledgement of the Creator is a serious crime. "Those who perceive by the moon the splendor of night are convicted, by their enjoyment of it, of perverse ingratitude if they do not acknowledge the beneficence of God." So as we contemplate the goodness of this world, let us turn our thoughts very intentionally to the "wonderful Artificer, who has so beautifully arranged all things," and may the peculiar utility and beauty of all that we encounter "constrain us to wonder."

Posted August 11, 2014 @ 8:41 AM by Aaron Denlinger
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