Calvin and Winthrop Between the Ages: Theological Aesthetics and the Affirmation of Ordinary Life (Part 3 of 4)

(c) Glasgow Museums; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
The Sick Bed by Edward Prentis (1836)

This is part 3 of a four-part series (see Part 1 and Part 2). In this post I discuss Calvinist theological aesthetics. It relates to my posts on natural beauty and the Art of Being Calvinist.

Calvin’s Ephemeral Aesthetics

To a certain extent, the theological shift in the Reformation was an aesthetic one. Unfortunately, the aesthetic dimension of Calvin’s thought and its impact on both the development of Reformed theology (including Winthrop’s sermon, as we will see in Part 4) and the Western world is given little attention. Contrary to popular belief, it was a shift, not the removal of the aesthetic from worship and life.

Calvin’s “aesthetic reconstruction,” as William Dryness calls it, is marked by a shift from the importance of permanent visual displays of glory—such as church buildings—to the less obvious display of the divine glory in everyday life: “In any discussion of the visual imagery and aesthetics, one must not lose sight of the fact that Calvin believed God’s glory should be manifest in the whole of life.”[1] There is nothing wrong with beautiful church buildings, according to Calvin. The charge that he despised beauty and the sublime in the world is clearly false, which even a cursory glance at first few chapters of his Institutes will show. For him, the beauty of the church building is more dangerous than wrong in itself. The danger is in thinking that the glory of the Church is in its visual structures or images. This is why Calvin famously locked the doors of the churches of Geneva during non-service hours. It was not due to anything necessarily wrong with praying in a church building, but only due to his suspicion that people were acting out of superstition and neglect for the holiness of everyday life.[2] For Calvin, according to Dyrness, “one does not need a special space in which to pray. All of life have become an arena of faith and spirituality. No particular space is sacred; but all spaces are potentially sacred.”[3] This was not to diminish the importance of the preaching of the Word and Sacraments, but to emphasize “people’s life in the world.” The beauty, Calvin feared, would drive the superstition that God is found in the building, not in serving one’s neighbor.

If the glory of God is not the church building, vestments, relics, and other church artifacts, then where is it? For Calvin, the glory of God is in one’s brother in Christ—the one who is united to Christ and co-heirs to eternal glory. Serving him or her in one way to make images of God in the world. Dryness rightly states,

But at the same time the experience of [corporate] worship is not the complete reference of that [cultural-aesthetic] identity. For that, one has to look to the world and one’s life in the world. This insistence is consistent with Calvin’s conviction that we are not to create images of God’s splendor, because God has already done this in our neighbor. In serving our neighbor, wife, child, friend, we are serving God and creating a world—making images—which in some way can reflect the splendor that belongs to God. The world then is given a new, and radically different importance. Our work can point to God; but it is not enchanted with God’s presence.[4]

The Calvinist aesthetic then is ephemeral, less noticeable, and usually private. It is “image-making” through actions in the world for another. I call this the art of the being Calvinist. These images have no permanence, and they require a different form of sight to see them. Seeing these actions as glorious requires the application of faith. As Puritan poet Richard Steere wrote, the “temp’ral things…signify to us Heav’ns unseen glory…Faith Soars aloft and…descends with Sample of those Joys to come.” One catches both an image of God in creation and the eschatological end of creation. We see God and the future of creation.

The ephemeral works of the saints are similar in this way to the preaching of the Word: neither the spoken word, nor the visual sight of good works, provides an opportunity for idol worship. This is consistent with Calvin’s fear that man is a “factory of idols.” God communicates his acts of redemption primarily through the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments, whose effect is made possible by the Word. This is the “reformed theological equivalent to the icon or the raising of the host.”[5] The reformed alternative—spoken Words, which vanish from the senses, leaving only knowledge and thought—cannot, according to Calvin and the later Calvinists, be an object of idolization. The preached Word leaves nothing in the world to marvel at. All that is left, again, is the content of the salvific promises of God, something that one ought to contemplate; for its promiser is the promise itself. According to Calvin, in the preaching of the Word, we see, with the eyes of faith, “Christ…depicted before our eyes as crucified…From this one fact they could have learned more than from a thousand crosses of wood and stone.”[6]

Image-making through acts of service and love in the community of faith is like preaching. Image-making communicates God’s love and future things and then vanishes from sight. What is left is the memory of the event.  What shows forth God’s glory is not grand structures of glory as one might find at the Vatican or in cities such as Rome. God’s glory is present in everyday life. As philosopher Charles Taylor wrote, the result is that “the fullness of Christian existence was to be found within the activities of this life, in one’s calling and in marriage and the family.”[7] Thus private and domestic concerns display glory to the One who truly matters.[8]

Medieval Enchantment and Eschatological Perception

Medieval Christians viewed the world as enchanted, as I discussed in Part 2. The order of creation for the medievals contained an ontological chain of being wherein one, through the mediation of the Church, transcended the lower orders in ascent to God. It was this participation in the extraordinary sacramental life of the Church—not the mundane things of life—that brought one closer to the divine. The church buildings, as sites of the Eucharist, serve as the exclusive place of God’s proximate presence. As the place of divine presence, it is the place of the Sacred in the world.  Church buildings are built not only to serve the liturgy but to visually represent the Kingdom of God. Just as castles serve as both the home and the representation of civil authority and power, so also do church buildings visually represent God’s presence, rule and reign in world. The church building, argues Father Timothy Vaverek, “is therefore ‘sacramental’ in that it visibly represents the Church, the Kingdom of God present now in mystery. According to Vatican II, the Trinity accomplishes the saving work of Christ’s [Paschal mystery] in and through the Church.”[9] Philip Bess, in agreement with Vaverek, states, “The first duty of the church building is not to represent the liturgical action; rather, it is to be an image of the Church as a whole, the communion of God and human beings across time wrought through Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension.”[10]

The objects of devotion in medieval Christianity—images, statues, relics, etc.—were considered extraordinary because of medieval ontology. In these visible objects is an invisible power, and by contemplating or experiencing these objects, one receives some element of the divine (e.g, grace). It is the idea that there can be spiritual power in things in addition its physical properties. John Milbank, on the subject of divine beauty, writes, “to see the beautiful is to see the invisible in the visible…the hidden divine source irradiating the finite surface.”[11] This is Charles Taylor’s “enchanted” cosmos. Related to the nature/grace dualism of Thomas, these objects have a superadded element that makes them sacramental, a special divine presence. They are set apart by this element, just as church buildings are set apart as sites of the proximate divine presence.[12] Participating in this divine presence is higher spiritual activity than obedience in everyday life. Put differently, participating in God’s saving activity in the world is not primarily through one bringing redemption to bear on all aspects of life and the world, and, by doing so, becoming an instrument by which God brings order to a disordered creation. It is by treating our earthly life as a means of providing the necessary conditions of participating in the sacramental activity in certain times and places of God’s presence. Though not unimportant, everyday life is not in the realm of God’s saving activity.

The Reformers rejected all notions of the mediation of grace by any institution or persons other than the person of Christ himself. They insisted on the immediacy of grace, and considered the institutional church, though crucial for receiving grace, as instrumental for the reception of grace. Participating in the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments is the primary time and place of God’s immediate work of salvation to individuals, but the church is not the mediator or dispenser of grace. The Reformer also rejected the Thomist nature/grace dualism. There is no supernatural addition to nature and objects. Grace renews nature. It is a divine action, not an additional substance necessary for the perfection of creation. Spiritual things do not have a hidden substance ‘behind’ or ‘with’ them. Due to this rejection, Reformed theological aesthetics took on a different nature.

The vast difference between the Creator and creature in Calvin’s thought required a divine condescension for the creature to know God. Commenting on Calvin’s view of “accommodation,” Cornelius van der Kooi writes:

Human knowledge of God exists thanks to accommodation. Accommodation describes what happens structurally in the descent. In his coming down, in all his acts and words, God accommodates himself to our human measure and human capacity for understanding.[13]

Because of the creator/creature distinction, this divine accommodation is the limit of what can be known of God by humans. This is why Calvin is so critical of those who speculate about God’s essence and other matters outside of human capacity. Still, humankind can know God, because he has graciously revealed himself in his works: “According to Calvin, in many manners, through a colorful palette of means, God entices, draws, invites, and encourages man to acknowledge his Maker.”[14] Calvin wrote,

[God] has been pleased…to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious that non, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse….Wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory.[15]

This leads to the type of theological aesthetics expressed by Jeremy Begbie: “Creation’s beauty is not…something that lives in a land beyond the sensual or behind the material particular or beneath the surface, or wherever—to which we must travel. Creation’s beauty is just that, the beauty of creation.”[16] Protestants, including, Calvin rejected the idea that for something to communicate the divine it must “participate in God in [some] ontological sense.”[17] Thus Protestants can create and recognize beauty in the world, even structures that represents God’s redemptive activity on earth (i.e., church buildings). There is nothing anti-aesthetical in Calvin’s theology.

What is unique about Calvinist theological aesthetics is the importance of the ephemeral images of God’s people loving one another in everyday, ordinary activities. The act of love in ordinary life is an act of image-making; and this action, through it does not endure as an image in the world, gives the viewer or receiver a glimpse of divine love. In addition, it provides a moment to experience, by faith and through eschatological perception, the love to be realized in the future glory. Acts of love in ordinary life show God as He is and provide a foretaste of the future glory. There is an experience of both immanence (God is revealed in the world) and transcendence (foretaste of future glory) without medieval dualist ontology. (I discuss this in more detail here).

The Calvinist “sees” the world and others differently. By faith one see the world as it will become and others as who they are. What shines forth, then, in the ideal Calvinist community is the imitation of God by God’s people in all aspects of life. Ordinary life is more than “affirmed,” as Taylor says. It is uplifted as holy, as an imitation of God in the world and a foretaste of the world to come.

In Part 4, I discuss Winthrop’s sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” and show his consistency with Calvin.


[1] Reformed Theology and Visual Culture, 82.

[2] Dyrness argues that Calvin’s worries are much less relevant today and, therefore, he sees no reason to continue this tradition in Protestantism.

[3] Ibid, 82.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid, 84

[6] Institutes, I.xi.7.

[7] Sources of the Self, 218.

[8] In contrast, medieval Christianity held the view that the glory of God on earth is tied to visual structures experienced through normal and ordinary sensual perception. The encounter with the glory of God was direct and less associated with the application of theological truth. One could apply doctrine to fully understand the liturgical significance to the construction of church buildings, the pastoral vestments, and other visual displays, but this was unnecessary for a sacramental life and one’s state in grace. The church building, being the place where Christ is sacrificed anew (or “re-presented”) for his people, is necessarily “set apart” or holy; and, as such, is to be treated as the place of holiness, everything else being comparatively profane. The church buildings, the vestments, the statues, images, relics and all other sacred objects are the “books” for the unlearned. The application of truth to imagination is less necessary than the encounter with the divine through the visual display of divine glory.

[9] “The Church and The Paschal Mystery,” in Sacred Architecture (Spring 2001). Quoted in Philip Bess, Till We have Built Jerusalem (Wilmington: ISI Books, 2006), 139.

[10] Bess, 139.

[11] Quoted in Poetic Theology: God and the Poetics of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2011), 15. Milbank laments the loss of this invisible divine source.

[12] The “presence” of God in these objects are approximate rather than proximate. Only in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Mass is God proximately present.

[13] Quoted in Dryness

[14] Ibid, 49.

[15] Institutes I.v.1.

[16] Quoted in Dryness, 21.

[17] Dryness, 23. Full quote: “Culture is a sphere in which God is at work; God’s call is reflected in culture products. But it is misleading to argue that culture either should or could participate in God in any ontological sense. Indeed, cultural practices as often reflect God’s absence as his presence.”

[18] See Roger Scruton Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) for the view of art as a vehicle of transcendence.

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