John Calvin: Radical Environmentalist?

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” Genesis 2:15
The year was 1554. In England, Queen Mary I was busily earning the epithet “Bloody Mary” by burning some 300 Britons at the stake.  Much less dramatically, in Geneva, Reformation patriarch John Calvin published his Commentary on Genesis.
Calvin’s day was not like ours.  Only eleven years earlier, the Polish cleric Nicolaus Copernicus had upended the universally-accepted worldview that the earth stood at the center of the universe; but his work was published posthumously to assure that his death would come naturally.
Another 55 years would pass before Galileo Galilei built his famous telescope, and set out to prove Copernicus right.  Still later would come Johannes Kepler, and with him the basic principles of scientific inquiry.  And nearly a century would pass before the arrival of Isaac Newton and the essentials of calculus, gravitation and light spectography.
Two centuries would come and go before the arrival of James Watt’s steam engine, James Hutton and the new science of geology, and Benjamin Franklin’s experiments with electricity.  And the germ theory of disease wouldn’t gain any traction for almost three centuries to come; leeches and herbs would have to do for many more generations.
Calvin: Creation steward

Needless to say, people in Calvin’s day didn’t know much of what we take for granted regarding the earth and its ecosystems. No one had reason to suspect that human activities could wreak significant harm on terrestrial and aquatic habitats, poison streams and rivers, drive created species to extinction, and threaten the earth’s atmosphere with pollutants.

And yet, without any of these advances, Calvin looked into the Bible, and found the divine command that resonates to this day: the mandate to care for the creation as God’s stewards.  Calvin saw in Genesis the story of God’s placing the man he created in his garden “to work and keep it.”  Here is what this great Christian had to say:
The earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation… . The custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition that – being content with a frugal and moderate use of them – we should take care of what shall remain.
Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits to be marred or ruined by neglect.
Moreover, that this economy, and this diligence, with respect to those good things which God has given us to enjoy, may flourish among us, let everyone regard himself as the steward of God in all things which he possesses. Then he will neither conduct himself dissolutely, nor corrupt by abuse those things which God requires to be preserved.
A few of Calvin’s ideas are worth considering in our day:
  • Men and women possess the earth, but our ownership is not absolute; it is ours on the condition that we must take care of it as God’s stewards; what is given can be taken away.
  • We are to be frugal with the gifts of the earth, leaving as much as possible in nature and for others.
  • We are under obligation to leave a better and more fertile earth to those who follow us on this planet.  It is not sufficient to note that we have another fifty years’ worth of a given commodity, and then work with all our might to extract and consume it, leaving our children with a depleted and corrupted world.
  • It is the honor of our office as stewards of God that motivates us in preserving our Father’s world.  True faith in God drives active care for the created world and its creatures.
The words “Calvinist” and “Puritan” bring vivid images to mind for many of us who are casual students of history.  But the real Calvin might surprise us, no?  Who would have thought this pillar of the Reformation would be such an advocate for preserving the environment? In our day, might Protestant Christians once again heed the teaching of their spiritual forbears?
Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.
J. Elwood

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