John Calvin and the Visual Arts: Dueling Cavaliers? - page 4

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From the Spring 2014 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

John Calvin and the Visual Arts: Dueling Cavaliers?

Part One of a Two Part Series on the Arts and Theology

by Connally Gilliam
C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow

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The little singing birds are singing to God; the beasts cry unto Him; the elements are in awe of Him; the mountains echo His name; the waves and the fountains cast their glances at Him; grass and flowers laugh out to Him. Nor indeed need we labor to see Him, afar, since each of us may find Him within himself, inasmuch as we are upheld and preserved by His power dwelling within us.13

  Clearly Calvin understands both the nearness of God and the joys of His very sensuous creation. And in his word choice and use, we see an understanding of what it means to celebrate beauty: his images are vivid, alive, and full of wonder and delight. Historian John McNeill puts it this way: “While his thoughts flow, the words in which he clothes them are chosen with a trained sense of artistic fitness.”14 Calvin really does believe in the value of visual beauty, not simply the beauty of well-crafted words, a meek spirit, or a changed heart. Thus, in one of his most famous passages about the gifts of God in His creation, he writes:

Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor? . . . Did he not so distinguish colors as to make some more lovely than others? . . . Did he not endow gold and silver, ivory and marble, with a loveliness that renders them more precious than other metals or stones? Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?15

A Reformed Vision of the Visual Arts?

  The Artist in me begins to exhale.
   Calvin, it seems, neither denigrates the senses nor disparages images (with the exception of those he sees as having become idolatrous). Rather, he values the place of beauty, including its nonutilitarian expressions. True, he does not develop his concept of the “pure and legitimate” use of art. But in fairness, he wrote his Institutes in defense of the faith for which many of his close friends had been killed, to “vindicate from undeserved insult my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord.”16 He did not write as a contemporary philosopher of art or as the chief curator of the National Gallery of Art.
  And so the Artist and Calvin stare quietly at each other, each exhaling. Perhaps, as the Artist recognizes, Calvin has his own story and even makes some good points. So with much less hostility, and a fair dose of humility, the Artist asks, “Um, any suggestions about how I might think of the visual arts?” And with equal humility Calvin replies: “No, not beyond that which I have already offered. But as our sovereign God would have it, many thinkers in my footsteps have articulated a vision of the visual arts that just might help us put down our pistols for keeps.”
  Both of their eyes slowly light up; they begin to talk, and this is where the story starts to get really interesting.
  Part Two: A Reformed Vision of the Visual Arts: A conversation with Abraham Kuyper, Nicholas Wolterstorff, C.S. Lewis, and, most important, the Word of God.

1. John T. McNeill, ed., Calvin: The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960) I.11.1.
2.  Charles Garside, Jr., Zwingli and the Arts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1966), 89.
3. John Dillenberger, A Theology of Artistic Sensibilities (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 68.
4. Carl C. Christensen, Art and the Reformation in Germany (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1986), 68.
5. Margaret R. Miles, Image as Insight: Visual Understanding in Western Christianity and Secular Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1985), 98.
6.  McNeill, Calvin: The Institutes I.11.4.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., I.11.2.
9. Ibid., I.11.8.
10. Ibid., I.11.12.
11.  Ibid., I.11.3.
12. Ibid.
13. John McNeill, Calvinism, 230.
14. Ibid., 231.
15. McNeill, Calvin: The Institutes, xxxii.
16. Ibid.


Connally Gilliam is an author, speaker, and ministry practitioner serving with the US Navigators.  She serves on the board of Regent College in Vancouver, BC, where she is completing a MA in Theological Studies.  She holds a BA and MT, both in English, from the University of Virginia. Connally is the author of Revelations of a Single Woman: loving the life I didn’t expect.  She lives in Arlington, VA and mentors and speaks for the C.S. Lewis Institute.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE:  Knowing & Doing is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.
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