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Calvinism and art. These two words rarely appear in the same sentence together, and some may be inclined to view them as antonyms. And let’s face it: There’s certainly some truth to that inclination. Most Calvinists don’t strike one as the “artistic type.” But I would argue along with Abraham Kuyper in lecture five of his “Lectures on Calvinism” that Calvinists have the best framework for understanding art and the highest reasons to produce it. Not only do I believe this to be consistent with Calvin’s own view, but I think it is evident from Scripture as well.
What Is Art?
Before we can discuss Calvinism’s relationship to art, however, we need to develop a notion of what art is. Art is first and foremost the wisdom and skill of God in creating; that is, not only has God created, but he has done so beautifully and skillfully (Proverbs 8:30). This prompted Calvin’s famous saying, “All the arts emanate from God, and therefore ought to be accounted divine inventions.” So human art, then, is that in which man imitates his Maker in the skillful creation of the good, the true, and especially the beautiful. Man’s desire to create and enjoy art is a direct result of the imago Dei. It is important to note that imitating does not mean just copying what we presently see. As Kuyper says,
[I]f you confess that the world once was beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beautiful of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster. Now this last-mentioned instance is the Calvinistic confession.
Art is more than copying what is currently before our eyes; it’s an attempt to remember what was lost and get a glimpse of the perfection of the regeneration.
We can also define different types of art. Most art can be subsumed under one of seven categories: painting/drawing, sculpture, architecture, music, writing/literature, dancing, and drama/theater. Of course, these categories are not rigid; frequently they cross over (e.g., opera is a combination of theater, music, and writing). This categorization will come in handy in a minute.
The Art of Calvinism:
In explaining why Calvinism has a deficiency in art relative to other parts of Christianity (think Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism or even Anglicanism and Lutheranism), Kuyper notes a number of moral scruples which have impeded the artistic endeavors of Calvinists. First would be their understanding of the 2nd commandment as prohibiting images of God and the use of images in worship. And since, in that time, most painting and sculpting was related to the church, it’s not surprising that Calvinists did not pursue these arts.1 Second, Kuyper also notes that Calvinists tended to disapprove of theater and dancing due to the indecent elements which were so often a component. This disapproval extended to much of painting and sculpture which depicted nudity as well.
These are entirely legitimate limitations to put on art, but all the same, there are licit uses of these art forms outside the sinful contexts Calvinists opposed them in, and that Calvinists did not pursue these can perhaps be a criticism. However, I believe Calvinism’s contributions to art have been underestimated. For starters, Calvinists built beautiful yet not extravagant architecture. Next, Calvinists produced numerous Psalters with truly beautiful music (for example, the Scottish Psalter). But most significantly, Calvinism – and the cultures Calvinism has influenced – have excelled the most in writing and literature. Take, for instance, Calvin’s Institutes, which cover a vast amount of subject matter with engaging style. Or consider “Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan, one of the most popular books of all time. But the literary influence of Calvinism has effects which extend beyond strictly religious literature. A fine example is the famous author Robert Louis Stevenson who became an atheist in his adult life, but was raised in a devout Scottish Presbyterian household and grew up on Bunyan and stories of the Covenanters.
If you read enough literature by Calvinists, two major characteristics stand out: a tasteful but not showy eloquence coupled with an unparalleled lucidity and clarity of thought, expression, and organization. And while I’m nowhere near that level as a writer, there’s a happy providence in that I can learn both good theology and good writing from my favorite authors.
Upping Our Game:
Reformed theology holds two primary motivations for the imitation of the beauty of creation. First is our recognition of providence – that God did not just create and then allow the world to grind mechanistically, mindlessly on, but rather upholds and preserves it (Acts 17:28 & Colossians 1:17) – gives us an appreciation for the order of the world beyond what nonbelievers (or even those Christians who deny providence) can possess. Second, traditionally, Calvinists have held (in contradistinction from Lutherans) that God will not destroy this world in creating the new heavens and new earth, but will rather renew it, in much the same way as we are not destroyed but renewed when God makes us new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). We see this world not as fundamentally evil but as fundamentally good – sin is a bug, not a feature. And just as God does not toss us out and replace us but rather redeems us from sin, so he will not replace but rather redeem this world. This produces a higher degree of appreciation and imitation of creation.
Given the circumstances of the world right now, there’s no denying that art can seem a bit irrelevant. But the beautiful, together with the good and the true, are weapons in our hands. They remind us of the summum bonum and are God-given aids in our pursuit of it. Now if – like us – you aren’t exactly the artistic type, no worries. But if you are someone who produces serious art, you have a standing offer from us here at Protestant Post: We would be happy to promote your work or give you a shoutout of some kind. Just drop us a line: email@example.com.
Post Script: The image in the thumbnail is a painting called, “Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists” by Antoine Carot. (Incidentally, his last name and mine probably share a common origin.) It’s a depiction of the Huguenots taking over the city of Lyon in 1562 during the French Wars of Religion and destroying all Roman relics, images, and idols in the churches.