Calvin contra Caterpillars

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"Many things which are now seen in the world are rather corruptions of it than any part of its proper furniture. For ever since man declined from his high original, it became necessary that the world should gradually degenerate from its nature." So wrote Calvin in his commentary on Genesis 2, with reference to the contrast between the world as it was originally created and the world as it became in consequence of man's rebellion against his Creator.

Rather curiously, Calvin seems to suggest, immediately on the heels of this comment, that certain features of post-fall reality are not so much corruptions of some original good, but post-Fall creatures per se. Calvin suggests, in other words, that certain entities originated after the fall to serve the solitary end of aggravating man for his sinful rebellion. "Truly these things were made by God, but by God as an avenger." Included in this category are "fleas, caterpillars, and other noxious insects." Calvin doesn't really develop the point, but perhaps his inclination to view certain creatures as purely post-fall divine productions stemmed from uncertainty on his part about what positive role such pests might have performed in the pre-fallen, perfect world of Eden.

I'm always reluctant to disagree with Calvin, but I do question how theologically responsible it is to give evil the power, as it were, to introduce new animal species into the world. More pressing, however, is the question of why Calvin would have included "caterpillars" in the dubious category of "noxious" creatures of a post-fall origin serving the solitary purpose of inflicting misery on man for his defection. Caterpillars? Really? Granted that caterpillars can inflict some agricultural damage (or so Wikipedia tells me), surely they have enough redeeming features to merit their inclusion in that original creation which received God's stamp of approval as "very good" (Gen. 1.31). Caterpillars -- or at least certain kinds of caterpillars -- give us silk, right? Silk is good. And, regardless of their productivity, they're so clearly fantastic in the truest sense of the word. Five pair of legs. Three pair of eyes. A variety of rather marvelous color schemes and appearances. And, best of all, they tuck themselves away into mid-life cocoons and become moths or butterflies. I have trouble imagining an Eden without creatures as cool as that.

So why Calvin's distaste for caterpillars -- to the point of relegating them to post-creation creaturely status? Several possibilities present themselves. One is that Calvin really was the hater of beauty he's so often depicted as. Perhaps his cold, calculating heart -- a heart two sizes too small, by all spurious accounts -- simply had no room in it for creatures as magical as caterpillars/butterflies. The problem with this theory is that Calvin, in his writings, expressed considerable appreciation for beauty -- both as discovered in the natural world and as produced by human art -- and the pleasure which beauty properly affords human beings.

Maybe Calvin's sentiment towards caterpillars is a reflection of some disturbing childhood or adolescent event that he endured. An image of Calvin as an awkward fifteen year old student at the Collège de Montaigu springs to mind, the future Reformer lying with arms pinned to the ground while senior students take turns placing caterpillars on his pimple-covered face, in his ears, up his nose, etc. Surely there's fertile ground for the psycho-historians here.

Or maybe Calvin's point was a more subtle, theological one. Maybe he protested the presence of caterpillars pre-Fall because he recognized the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly as a naturally occurring type of human death and resurrection/glorification. Maybe Calvin's real objection, then, was to the existence of prophetic pictures of death and resurrection prior to the Fall, that event which introduced death as such into human experience. Why speak prophetically, even in typological form, about death's ultimate defeat in resurrection before death itself, the fruit of sin, exists?

Or maybe Calvin never actually said a negative word about caterpillars at all.

Rather anticlimactically, this last option turns out to be the most likely. The Latin term translated as 'caterpillar' in Calvin's commentary is actually bruchus, which in early modern times indicated a kind of wingless locust -- something which today might be classified as a weevil or beetle. The Reformer, it turns out, never spoke critically or spitefully -- at least to our knowledge -- about actual campae (caterpillars).

I'm still not convinced that any species of creature -- wingless locust, weevil, beetle, or otherwise -- came into existence subsequent to creation per se, but I am considerably relieved to know that Calvin didn't despise caterpillars. Calvin has always struck me as the kind of man that, upon seeing a caterpillar or its butter-flying counterpart, would have paused to appreciate the same, and to have praised God for his profound wisdom and creativity in conceiving such a creature. I'm happy for that image of Calvin to prevail, at least in my own mind.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is professor of church history and historical theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, Florida.

Posted April 17, 2015 @ 3:26 PM by Aaron Denlinger

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