Results tagged “the Fall” from Reformation21 Blog

Calvin contra Caterpillars


"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.

The curious decision of Adam and Eve, having been the recipients of such goodness from God, to defect from their Maker, thus spoiling the "native excellence" of both themselves and "the whole world which had been created for them," raises "many difficult questions." Chief among them, Calvin acknowledges, is "why God permitted Adam [and Eve] to be tempted, seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Two further questions lurk behind Calvin's discussion of the Fall: First, was God in some way responsible for Adam and Eve's defection (that is, did he instigate or cause their sin)? And second, does the Fall constitute a lapse in God's providential rule of his created world and its history?

Calvin's starting point in approaching these questions is the assumption that we, as creatures of God, stand "to be judged by God," not to "pass judgment on him." His goal, then, is never to vindicate God before the bar of human moral judgment. He does, however, feel it proper to represent God's character faithfully and truly in all our talk about God and his ways, and he seeks to do just that as he narrates the origin of human sin. He thus provides to us a model for God-honoring thinking and speaking about the Fall.

Faithful representation of God's character means, first and foremost, observing that God created all sentient beings -- angels, men and women, and even animals -- upright in nature. God is not the author of evil; he created all things "very good." Calvin goes to great lengths to emphasize the integrity of the created natures of all four participants in the event of the Fall: the serpent, the Devil, Adam, and Eve.

The need Calvin feels to defend the created nature of the serpent stems not only from its role in tempting Eve, but also from Scripture's description of it as "more subtle" or "crafty" than the other animals. Calvin worries, first of all, that some might conclude from this description that the serpent determined "to deceive man" by virtue of "its own malignity," and so fail to recognize that behind the serpent lay Satan, who used the serpent as his "instrument" for "effecting the destruction of man."

He worries, secondly, that some might consider "craftiness" a created flaw or vice in the snake as such, and thereby conclude that God purposefully made an evil-prone being. Thus Calvin labors to render "craftiness" not only innocuous but even virtuous: Scripture "does not so much point out a fault as attribute praise to [the serpent's] nature, because God had endued this beast with such singular skill, as rendered it acute and quick-sighted beyond all others." Proof that craftiness per se is no vice is drawn from Christ's instruction to his disciples to be as "subtle as serpents" (Matt. 10:16). The Savior, it seems, encouraged his followers to exercise the very quality which rendered the serpent an apt "instrument" of the devil; the quality as such, then, cannot be considered sinful.

But what about Satan, who through the serpent deceived God's image bearers? Satan, of course, is not explicitly named in the Fall narrative. That, and the consequent truth that Genesis provides no account of "how the tempter himself had revolted from God," has led certain "fanatical men," Calvin notes, to believe "that Satan was created evil and wicked, as he is here described." Calvin firmly insists that Satan's own wickedness cannot be traced back to God's creative activity, and is therefore unnatural, in the truest sense of the term, to the wickedest of all beings. "The principle of evil with which Satan was endued was not from nature, but from defection; because he had departed from God, the fountain of justice and of all rectitude."

What about Adam and Eve? Does the apparent ease with which they were led astray suggest that God himself, in creation or at any point prior to their actual sin, endowed human nature with some proclivity towards sin? Calvin shudders at the very thought: "It is an impious madness to ascribe to God the creation of any evil and corrupt nature; for when he had completed the world, he himself gave this testimony to all his works, that they were 'very good.'" How, then, do we explain the fact that Adam and Eve sinned? According to Calvin, Adam and Eve simply exercised their "free choice," a capacity he unreservedly attributes to them as pre-fallen divine image-bearers.

The "free choice" Adam and Eve made was, of course, an act of "contumacy against the Divine Law-Giver," and as such "it was against the will of God." But nothing happens in human history unbe(fore)knownst to God. Indeed, God is sovereign even over free human choices. There is a real sense, then, in which Adam and Eve sinned in accordance not only with God's permission, but with his express ordination. Calvin expresses this truth in no uncertain terms: "evil did not take place except by his permission." But he hastens to add, lest this truth cause confusion, that God's active permission of the Fall does not imply that Adam and Eve's sin was "pleasing to him," or that "he simply wished that the precept which he had given should be violated." Sin remains sin (that is, abhorrent to God and "against [his] will") even when it occurs in accordance with God's purpose and decree, and so even by a certain kind of necessity.

So why, again, did God permit the temptation and defection of his creatures, "seeing that the sad result was by no means hidden from him?" Why has God apparently willed that which is, well, contrary to his will? In the end, Calvin offers no answer, but rather asserts that God's reasons for this, like many things, remain "to us unknown."

There is, in fact, a notable and rather obvious lack of anxiety pervading Calvin's acknowledgment that we, as creatures of God, do not know -- and should not guess at -- why God permitted humankind's defection. Scripture, after all, tells us not everything we wish to know, but everything we need to know. For Calvin, it is enough to know that proper responsibility for sin and all its attendant miseries must be laid at the doorstep of our first parents (and so, in truth, at our doorstep). It is enough to know, moreover, that God, who providentially rules all things but never creates or causes sin, does something about sin in the person and work of His Son, thereby restoring us to friendship and fellowship with him. Any attempt to rise above the God-fixed limits of our understanding of these things and view them from God's own perspective is, in the final analysis, a reenactment of Adam and Eve's initial failure to let God be God, to acknowledge our creaturely limitations, and to confidently rest in the wisdom, sovereignty, and fatherly care of our Creator.