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  To R. L.

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  This book emerged from an M.Phil. and then D.Phil. undertaken at Linacre College, Oxford, between 1997 and 2003. I want to thank the AHRC (then AHRB) for funding my doctoral research, and the Principal and Fellows of Linacre College for awarding me a Mary Blaschko graduate scholarship.

  Many people have assisted me before, during, and after my doctoral research in Oxford. I want to start by thanking Professor John Haffenden and George Botterill at the University of Sheffield for early advice and encouragement. I also want to thank Dr Timothy Chesters, Professor Paul Hamilton, Professor Alister McGrath, Professor Jon Mee, Professor Lucy Newlyn, and Dr Seamus Perry for their invaluable help and guidance at various stages of this project. I want to thank my examiners, the late Professor A. D. Nuttall and Professor J. B. Beer for giving the thesis the benefit of their great learning and insight, and for their constructive observations on how it might be developed into a book. My greatest intellectual debt, however, is to my supervisor Dr Fiona Stafford who has helped me immeasurably throughout my time in Oxford. I cannot imagine a better or more generous teacher.

  At OUP I would like to thank Andrew McNeillie for commis- sioning and generously supporting the publication of the book, and Jacqueline Baker for providing professional and efficient guidance at various stages of the publication process. I would especially like to thank the two anonymous readers from OUP who offered extreme- ly perceptive and practical advice on developing the thesis into a book.

  I would like to thank the librarians and staff at the Bodleian library, the English Faculty library, the Philosophy Faculty library, the Theology Faculty library, and the Radcliffe Science library in Oxford.

  On a personal note, I would like to thank my family for their support, and also my friends. In particular, I would like to thank viii Acknowledgements Gorji, Andrew Marsham, Farrhat Arshad, Luisa Calè, Richard Caplan, Anthony Bale, Tim Phillips, Harriet Jaine, Leon Wilson, and Trisha and Tony Loncraine. Finally, the biggest thanks of all goes to Rebecca Loncraine, who has helped me in every conceivable way. I dedicate this book to her with all my love.


















Boyle, Works R. Boyle, Works of Robert Boyle, ed. M. C. W. Hunter and


CL Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. E. L. Griggs

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956–71)


CN The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Kathleen

Coburn and Merle Christensen (London and Princeton: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957–90)


CO Johannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel

(Munich, 1928–62).


There is in Form … something which is not elementary but

divine. The contemplation of Form is astonishing to Man and

has a kind of Trouble or Impulse accompanying it, which exalts

his soul to God.¹

  Coleridge’s theory of symbolism was an attempt to describe and explain a triadic analogy that he perceived to exist between the underlying laws of the natural world, the underlying laws of human reason, and their divine architect and source: the seminal Word of God. The theory aimed to account for his powerful poetic and religious intuition that human reason and the poetic imagination were finite echoes of the divine Reason, or Logos, out of which the natural world was created and then sustained. This divine Logos which, according to the Genesis account in the Old Testament, had called the language of nature into being and provided it with its deepest grammar and significance, was analogous to the organic form and unity of the poems Coleridge wished to write in praise of nature. His theory of symbolism was an effort, therefore, to connect human language and reason to the ‘intelligible’ language of divinity incarnate in the natural world, and to explain the relationship of reciprocity that exists between poems about nature and the divine poetry in nature that they ideally mirrored.

  After about 1805, Coleridge developed a ‘sacramental’ account of symbolism regarding the divine Logos as both immanent within and


¹ Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Notebook Entry, 1804. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor

Coleridge, ed. Kathleen Coburn and Merle Christensen, 4 vols. (London and Princeton,

  2 Introduction transcendent of the language of nature. Fearing either a panthe- ism that would entirely identify God with the finite language of nature, or an agnosticism that would entirely separate them, Coleridge always maintained that the Logos principle could be nei- ther reduced to nor separated from the finite language of God in nature, whose meaning and being was sustained by God’s intelligible speech.

  This, at least, was the theory. In practice, Coleridge was less con- fident in his own developing theory than some of his poetry and prose works would suggest. In letters, notebooks, and sometimes even within the body of his published works, Coleridge attempt- ed, and failed, to fully affirm the Logos doctrine, and he likewise failed to find experiential confirmation of his theory of symbol- ism. It may be legitimately argued that doubts expressed about this theory within ostensibly private notebooks and letters cannot undermine Coleridge’s published thoughts on the subject. It may be further argued that it is methodologically unsound to treat dif- ferent evidential sources as if they had an equal weight, even as part of an attempt to give a comprehensive picture of a writer’s views on a particular subject. These are important theoretical con- siderations; however, I do not use private evidence of Coleridge’s uncertainty about his theory of symbolism to suggest that the let- ters and notebooks can entirely undermine the affirmations of his published works. I argue, instead, that these unpublished para- texts provide us with legitimate evidence to show that he was not always entirely convinced by ideas affirmed in his published works.

  It must also be acknowledged that Coleridge on many occasions planned to destroy his notebooks, and even some letters, in order that certain of his thoughts should not be disclosed to posterity. In a notebook entry written in December 1804, for instance, he pleads directly to a future reader, who he hopes may not exist, to offer a charitable interpretation of his private anxieties and self-doubts:


I verily am a stout-headed, weak-bowelled, and O! most pitiably weak-hearted

Animal! … If I should perish without having the power of destroying these

& my other pocket books, the history of my own mind for my own

improvement. O friend! Truth! Truth! but yet Charity! Charity! I have never





only as a means of escaping from pains that coiled round my mental powers,

as a serpent around the body & wings of an Eagle!²

  Coleridge reasonably expects that he should not be condemned by, or confined to, the doubts and uncertainties he expresses within his notebooks, but he also acknowledges that these views are one authentic expression of his intellectual and emotional life: ‘O friend! Truth! Truth! but yet Charity! Charity!’ I hope to approach these sources employing the principle of interpretative charity and caution that Coleridge here recommends.

  The central question that this book is concerned to answer is why Coleridge was privately, and sometimes publicly, sceptical about his theory of symbolism. Scholars and critics of Coleridge’s work have fully explored both his theory of symbolism and the hermeneutic anx- iety that plagued him in connection with this theory over the course of his life. This book offers a new account of why this hermeneutic anxiety was present in Coleridge’s published and unpublished writ- ings, and why it happened to be explicitly connected with his theory of symbolism.

  Coleridge’s anxieties about his ability to perceive the symbolic presence of God in nature cannot be fully understood in isolation from the intellectual precursors whose work engaged him. I argue that in order to fully understand Coleridge’s theory of symbolism and his doubts on this subject, it is necessary to situate him within two important intellectual traditions. The first is a tradition of ‘epistemological piety’, which informs the work of predecessors such as Kant, Hume, Locke, and Boyle and is connected to Protestant critiques of post-lapsarian natural reason. The book begins with an examination of John Calvin’s views on the devastating ‘noetic’ effects of the Fall. According to Calvin, one of the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion and disobedience was that our reasoning powers had been vitiated and almost entirely destroyed by inherited original sin.

  Calvin argued that while God still revealed himself in an accom- modated form in the ‘book’, or ‘theatre’, of nature, mankind was now incapable of discerning this divine revelation. Only the Elect, guided by the ‘spectacles’ of a Biblical faith and illuminated by the Holy Spirit,

  4 Introduction could discern the legible marks of God’s presence in nature. The vast majority are blinded to this divine revelation, and are only capable of perceiving idolatrous substitutes for the one true God. These argu- ments concerning the effects of the Fall on our unaided reasoning powers had a powerful afterlife in the philosophical writings of Boyle, Locke, and even Hume. These thinkers, for pious Christian reasons in the case of Boyle and Locke, and strategic reasons in the case of Hume, tended to stress the divinely ordained limits of the human understanding, and to situate human knowledge within a vast abyss of ignorance and darkness.

  This tradition of Protestant-inflected epistemological scepticism, directed against the presumption that one can read God’s handwriting in nature without the assistance of a Biblical faith provided by divine Election, had a powerful and disabling impact on Coleridge’s theory of symbolism. Scholars have thoroughly explored Coleridge’s many pained reflections on himself as being a fallen individual, and they have connected these ideas to well-known biographical events such as his persistent addiction to opium, his clandestine love for Sara Hutchinson and his own loveless marriage. I will argue that Coleridge’s sense of being fallen can partly explain why he was uncertain about his ability to perceive God’s presence in nature. I explore Coleridge’s detailed familiarity with this tradition of epistemological piety in Chapters 3 and 4 of the book, and argue that while he could dismiss sceptical arguments in the writings of the ‘infidel’ Hume, for instance, he could not dismiss similar arguments when piously expressed in the writings of Calvin, Locke, Boyle, and Kant. I will conclude that Coleridge’s sense of being fallen generated a powerful, though pious, Christian doubt in his own ability to confidently read the divine language of nature; and that, correlatively, his inability to confidently read that divine handwriting reinforced his sense that he was indeed a fallen being, hidden from God.

  The second intellectual tradition that the book explores, one that is intimately connected with the first, is theological voluntarism. Theological voluntarists like Locke, Boyle, and Newton, tended to stress the omnipotence of God at the expense of His other attrib- utes, and to posit an entirely arbitrary and contingent relationship between God and His creation: the natural world. Theologians in



  5 an ‘intellectualist’ tradition, like St Thomas Aquinas, had argued that there are certain external constraints on any expression of God’s power (his other attributes of Justice, Mercy and Good- ness and the principle of non-contradiction, for instance) and that the created order must necessarily be an expression of all God’s accommodated attributes.³ Late medieval theological voluntarists, like William of Ockham and Duns Scotus, however, emphasized the arbitrariness and contingency of the created world as simply being one possible expression of divine omnipotence. Theological voluntarists consequently denied the idea that nature can be regard- ed as necessarily embodying, incarnating, or symbolizing divine truths.

  While theologians in this tradition stressed God’s radical tran- scendence of His creation, they also emphasized the finiteness and remoteness of our reasoning powers from those of God. Although Calvin made some disparaging remarks about theologians in this tradition, he would often stress God’s radical transcendence of the human understanding, particularly when trying to defend patently


³ According to Aquinas’s Neoplatonic account of causation, for instance, an

efficient cause (A) to some extent explains the nature of its effect (B), because part

of the nature of the A becomes present in its effect B. Since God is the primary

efficient cause, something of God’s nature must be present in the things He has

created. This does not mean that there is an equivalence of Being between God

and His creation (it would be inappropriate to describe God as being ‘cloud-like’

or ‘flower-like’, for instance), rather God ‘contains’ the perfections of His creatures

because He ‘necessarily contains within himself the full perfection of being’ (Summa

Theologiae, Ia. 4. 2). The perfections of God’s creatures are necessarily limited by

the finite and imperfect mode of being they share as members of a particular genus

and species. Nonetheless, according to Aquinas, there is a remote analogical ‘likeness’

(similitudo) between God and human beings (imago Dei): ‘[i]t is plain that people

bear some likeness to God that is derived from God as its original, though this likeness

does not amount to equality, since this particular original infinitely surpasses the

thing modelled on it. So then we say that God’s image is to be found in people, though

not his perfect image’ (Summa Theologiae, Ia. 93. I). Human beings resemble God

as artefacts resemble the craftsman who fashioned them. It is because of this partial

resemblance between God and humanity (later Thomists called this doctrine Analogia

Entis) that we are able to speak of God’s ‘Goodness’ and mankind’s ‘goodness’ without

equivocation. The relationship between God and His creatures was also characterized

by Aquinas in terms of ‘exemplar’ and ‘likeness’, ‘first cause’ and ‘effect’, ‘infinite’

and finite’, ‘perfection’ and ‘imperfection’, and ‘participation’. See G. P. Klubertanz,

St Thomas Aquinas on Analogy (Chicago, 1960), 35–76.

  6 Introduction anti-rational and barbaric doctrines such as absolute double predesti- nation. At these moments, Calvin affirms divine ‘Justice’, ‘Mercy’, and ‘Goodness’ in all His dealings with mankind, while frankly acknowl- edging that there is no intuitive connection between these divine qualities and our own creaturely understanding of mercy, justice, and goodness. Furthermore, when Calvin turned to God’s providential work in human history, he would often acknowledge that God’s handiwork appears a labyrinth to our minds, and that we must simply and piously affirm God’s benevolent role in history even if history seems, to our fallen minds, to be the handiwork of a lunatic.

  Many natural philosophers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Catholics, like Gassendi and Descartes, and Protestants, like Boyle, Locke, and Newton, were theological volun- tarists. In Chapters 1 and 2 of the book I explore this tradition in detail. The methodological axioms for reasoning in experimental philosophy developed by Boyle and Newton, and later exploited by Hume, are guided by the sense that, while human beings are obliged to try and formulate provisional scientific explanations for the law-like regular- ities and physical properties of the natural world, they should piously refuse to speculate about the hidden metaphysical Cause or causes of those ordained physical laws, and to admit the possibility that the laws of nature may be revised by God in the future. Because philoso- phers are acquainted only with the effects of divine omnipotence (the physical laws and properties of the natural world) and are prohibited from gaining insight into their Cause, it is very difficult to ‘read’ the language of nature as offering necessary truths about the mind and will of God. Coleridge was exposed to this tradition through his reading of Boyle, Locke, Newton, and Hume.

  Hume was brought up as a Calvinist and studied Newtonian physics and methodology at Edinburgh University and beyond. He was thor- oughly immersed in both of the intellectual traditions that the first two chapters of the book explore. In An Essay Concerning Human


Understanding (1748) and his posthumously published Dialogues

Concerning Natural Religion (1779), Hume attacked the foundations

  of post-Newtonian natural theology by exploiting both Newton’s rules for reasoning in natural philosophy (Regulae Philosophandi) and Protestant critiques of natural reason in order to attack the



  7 metaphysical and theological foundations of eighteenth-century nat- ural religion. The sceptic Philo, in the Dialogues, poses as a pious Christian philosopher adverting to the blindness and infirmity of nat- ural reason and attacking the presumption of the Newtonian theist, Cleanthes, who thinks that he can discern the craftsmanship of God in the natural world. Philo is aided in this pursuit by the character Demea, whose fideism and mysticism leads him to also reflect on the corruption of natural reason and the radical transcendence of God. Philo sides with Demea to attack the anthropomorphic basis of Cleanthes’s natural religion, and then sides with Cleanthes in order to attack the agnostic impasse that Demea’s fideism results in. In short, Philo ‘forks’ the respective positions of Demea and Clean- thes in order to argue that natural religion leads inevitably to either anthropomorphism or agnosticism.

  While Coleridge never ceased to attack the ‘infidelity’ and cor- ruption of the atheist Hume, he could not easily dismiss Hume’s arguments against natural religion, because they were couched in the language of ‘epistemological piety’ practised by Christian philoso- phers like Boyle, Locke, and Newton. Also he could not dismiss Hume’s arguments because they were founded on a shrewd strategic exploitation of the methodological axioms of Newtonian ‘experi- mental philosophy’ and the theological voluntarism they embodied. In pointing out how little can be safely inferred about God from a study of the natural world, and how little inferential reasoning can in general be trusted, Hume again disguised himself in the language and theory of pious Christian scepticism.

  Coleridge attempted to establish Hume as his own neme- sis, but Hume’s scepticism entered his own intellectual speculations through his immersion in Kantian aesthetics. I suggest that Kantian aesthetics were a kind of Trojan horse through which Hume’s scepti- cism breached the citadel of Coleridge’s piety. After 1802, Coleridge repeatedly and frankly acknowledged his intellectual debts to Kant, and yet Kant’s writings on religious symbolism and the sublime in the


Critique of Judgment (1790) and elsewhere, were a studied response

  both to the Humean ‘fork’ of agnosticism and anthropomorphism, and his own upbringing in Lutheran Pietism. Kant’s theory of the sublime is radically anti-symbolic. A world of spirit is disclosed,

  8 Introduction negatively, through the inability of the imagination to find adequate ‘sensible’ illustrations of Ideas of Reason. The imagination is in fact always humiliated in its attempt to ‘see’ noumenal realities embodied in the language of nature, and Kant diagnoses the desire to see such embodied Ideas as both psychological fallacy and fanaticism. Kant accepts the Humean fork of anthropomorphism and agnosticism and settles for the latter option: it is precisely because the imagination fails in its attempt to ‘see’ a world of spirit embodied in matter, that the existence of such a noumenal realm can be secured from doubt.

  While Coleridge tried to distinguish between the ‘letter’ and ‘spirit’ of Kantian aesthetics, both the letter and spirit of Kant’s writings were ultimately destructive of the premises of Coleridge’s theory of symbolism, which required the sacramental incarnation of spirit in the language of matter.

  Chapters 1 and 2 explore these two intellectual traditions of epistemological piety and theological voluntarism in detail. They provide the necessary intellectual context for a full understanding of Coleridge’s theory of symbolism and the doubts he had concerning it. In Chapters 3 and 4, looking exclusively at Coleridge’s writings, I examine some of the notebooks, letters, poetry, and prose works he wrote between 1795 and 1805, and 1815 and 1825. The book offers, therefore, an interpretation of two chronological phases of Coleridge’s thinking on these topics, rather than an analysis of his career as a whole.

  In Chapter 3 I begin by discussing a range of writings in which Coleridge explores his uncertain faith in his ability to read the handwriting of God in nature. I then turn to his Lectures on Revealed


Religion (1795), in which his early debts to post-Newtonian natural

  religion are made explicit, before discussing, in detail, his poem, ‘Religious Musings’. I then turn, in conclusion, to a discussion of three ‘Conversation’ poems: ‘Fears in Solitude’, ‘France: an Ode’, and ‘Frost at Midnight’ published together in 1798, which together reveal Coleridge’s religious uncertainty, and its connection with his sense of being fallen. Finally, in Chapter 4 I discuss some aspects of Coleridge’s published prose works written between 1815 and 1825, including The


Statesman’s Manual (1816), Biographia Literaria (1817), The Friend

  (1818), and Aids to Reflection (1825). I argue that, while Coleridge



  9 agnosticism, and cannot be said to have discovered an original solution to the philosophical and religious questions he encountered, his writings on religion, and particularly his pained acknowledgement of uncertainty and doubt, were authentic responses to the profound intellectual problems he had inherited from his precursors.


I hold it as a settled axiom, that nothing is more unsuitable to

the character of God than for us to say that Man was created by

Him for the purpose of being placed in a condition of suspense

and doubt


  As early as 1802, Coleridge considered writing accounts of the major theologians of the Reformation, including Calvin.¹ In a notebook entry listing projected works for the future, Coleridge mentions, among others, ‘Luther & Lutheranism, Calvin & Calvinism (with Zwinglius) … [,] Presbyterians & Baxterians in the times of Charles


  1 and 2 —George Fox—& Quakerism/Socinians & Modern Uni- tarians’.² Coleridge read Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559) and an English translation of his commentaries on the Synoptic Gospels, which included a separate translation of his commentary on St John.³ In Coleridge’s marginalia to Andrew Fuller’s The Calvinistic


¹ See John Beer, ‘The Development of Coleridge’s Religious Thought’, in Aids

to Reflection, ed. John Beer, Bollingen Series, 9 (London and Princeton, 1993),

pp. xlii–lxxviii.

  ² CN i. 118.

³ Wordsworth’s library contained a copy of Calvin’s Institutio Christianae religionis

(Geneva, 1569), which is signed by both Coleridge and Wordsworth. Coleridge also

read (possibly in 1820), and made marginal notes on, a copy of A Harmonie upon the

Three Evangelists, Matthew, Mark and Luke, with the Commentarie of M. Iohn Calvine:

faithfullie translated out of Latine into English by, by E. P[aget]. Whereunto is also added


Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason



and Socinian Systems Examined and Compared (1793), which he prob-

  ably read in 1807, he upbraids Fuller’s work for conflating authentic Calvinism with Priestleyan materialism:


I have hitherto made not objection to, no remark on, any one part of this

Letter; for I object to the whole—not as Calvinism, but—as what Calvin

would have recoiled from. How was it that so good and shrewd a man as

Andrew Fuller should not have seen, that the difference between a Calvinist

and a Priestleyan Materialist-Necessitarian consists in this:—the former not

only believes a will, but that it is equivalent to the ego ipse, to the actual self, in

every moral agent; though he believes that in human nature it is an enslaved,

because a corrupt, will.⁴

  In Aids to Reflection (1825), Coleridge again attempts to distinguish Calvin’s authentic views on predestination from those ‘Fathers of Modern (or Pseudo-) Calvinism’, such as Jonathan Edwards and Edward Williams.⁵ In August 1827 Coleridge declared his ‘great respect’ for Calvin, noting that he was ‘undoubtedly a man of talent’.⁶ In 1836, he criticized Jeremy Taylor because he ‘never speaks with the slightest symptom of affection or respect of Luther, Calvin, or any other of the great reformers’. In the same year, Coleridge defended Calvin’s posthumous reputation against the charge that he had been solely responsible for the death of Miguel Servetus.⁷

  Calvin’s profoundly pessimistic views on natural theology and the capacities of natural reason after the Fall are detailed in his Old and New Testament commentaries, and in the final expanded


The Holy Gospel of Iesus Christ, according to Iohn, with the commentary of M. Iohn

Calvine: faithfully translated out of Latine into English by Christopher Fetherstone,

student in divinitie. 2 pts in 1 vol. (London, 1584). See Coleridge, Marginalia, ed.


George Whalley, 5 vol. Bollingen Series, 12 (London and Princeton, 1980–), i. 476–7.

  ⁴ Coleridge, Marginalia, ii. 801. ⁵ Coleridge, Aids to Reflection, 159.

⁶ Coleridge, Table Talk Recorded by Henry Nelson Coleridge (and John Taylor


Coleridge), ed. Carl Woodring, 2 vols., Bollingen Series, 14 (London and Princeton,

1990), ii. 397.


⁷ See Coleridge, Table Talk, ii. 272. Coleridge defended Calvin against this charge

in his marginal notes (written in 1810) to James Sedgwick’s (1775–1851) Hints to the

Public and the Legislature, on the Nature and Effect of Evangelical Preaching (1808–10):

‘his [Sedgwick’s] abuse of Calvin displays only his own vulgar Ignorance both of the

man & of his writings. He is too ignorant to know, that the humane Melanchthon, &

not only he but almost every Church, Lutheran and Reformed, throughout Europe,

sent Letters to Geneva, extolling the execution of Servetus, & returning their Thanks’.

  12 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.⁸ Calvin maintained a constant duality of perspective in his writings on natural theology. He argued that while God’s accommodated attributes are witnessed objectively in the order, beauty, and workmanship of the visible universe, the Fall had deformed our natural reasoning powers to such an extent that natural theology had been rendered impossible. He was convinced that, although the human intellect had a considerable sphere of worldly competence, it was incapable of ascending to knowledge of spiritual truths through the contemplation of nature.⁹ The only reliable, redemptive knowledge of God was contained within the Sacred Scriptures, and disclosed to God’s Elect through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, Calvin’s radical Pauline and Augustinian view of the effects of the Fall on human reason served to dismantle that triadic analogy between human reason, the natural world, and the nature of God, which provides one of the key theological premises of Coleridge’s theory of natural symbolism. Human beings are incapable of perceiving God in the ‘book of nature’, because the spiritual analogy or ‘likeness’ between God and mankind (imago Dei) has been vitiated and nearly destroyed by human sin.

  A DA M I C R E A S O N


Three gradations, indeed, are to be noted in the creation of man; that his

dead body was formed out of the dust of the earth; that it was endowed

with a soul, whence it should receive vital motion; and that on this soul God

engraved his image, to which immortality is annexed.¹⁰


⁸ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), ed. John T. McNeill,

tr. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (London, 1961). The 1st edn. of the Institutes of

Christian Religion was published in 1536. Calvin completed his Commentaries on

the New Testament Epistles between 1539 and 1551. Until 1548, Calvin probably

used Simon de Coline’s 1534 edn. of the New Testament; this was then replaced by

Erasmus’s Novum Testamentum Omne. See C. Schw¨obel, ‘Calvin’, in R. J Coggins and

J. L. Houlden (eds.), A Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia and London,

1990), 98–101.


⁹ See John Morgan, Godly Learning: Puritan Attitudes towards Reason, Learning

and Education, 1560–1640 (Cambridge, 1988), 43–4.

¹⁰ Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 2: 7; Commentaries on the First Book of Moses


Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason

  13 In the Institutes, Calvin argued that the human soul is created immortal, and divine; and that even in its fallen state, it is still endowed with certain divinely implanted gifts of natural reason. Among these gifts of reason, Calvin noted our capacity to distinguish good from evil (conscientia), our ability to investigate the physical structure of the natural world (tota physica scientia), our memory and general inventiveness, as well as a universal ‘sense of divine judgement’ (sensus divinitatis).¹¹ These noetic gifts are ‘unfailing signs of divinity in man’, since they have been ‘implanted’ or ‘engraved’ on the soul by God and cannot ‘be defaced’.¹² According to Calvin, there are two principal sources for our knowledge of God: the revelation of His will in the created order (including providential history), and the redemptive knowledge of His will revealed by the Sacred Scriptures and incarnate in Christ.

  As well as defending the created and immortal nature of the soul in the Institutes, Calvin was concerned to trace what he called a ‘two-fold knowledge of man’, referring to knowledge of the soul in both its pre- lapsarian and post-lapsarian states. Book I, chapter 15, of the Institutes is devoted to human nature in its unfallen state, while the theme of Book II, chapters 1 to 5, concerns human nature in its fallen and now ruined state.¹³ In its unfallen state, we are told, the human soul was in a state of harmonious order with the senses and ‘affections’ both tempered and controlled by reason: ‘to begin with, God’s image was visible in the light of the mind, in the uprightness of the heart, and in the soundness of all the parts’.¹⁴ The purpose of the Adamic intellect, Calvin argues, was to allow the ‘creature’ to ascend to knowledge of the Creator, through the contemplation and praise of the visible universe:


texts can be consulted in Johannis Calvini: Opera Selecta, ed. P. Barth and W. Niesel

(Munich, 1928–62; hereafter CO), xxiii. 18–19.

  ¹¹ Calvin, Institutes, III. 19. 15, p. 848. ¹² Ibid. I. 5. 5, p. 57.

¹³ Mary Potter Engel argues that Calvin continually makes perspectival shifts in

his writings: moving from man’s fallen to his pre-fallen understanding, and shifting

between the perspective of the redeemed to that of the damned. It is therefore

important to clearly distinguish between Calvin’s conception of the soul in its fallen

and pre-fallen states, before discussing his views on natural theology. Mary Potter

Engel, John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology, (Atlanta, GA, 1988). See also Derek

S. Jeffreys, ‘How Reformed is Reformed Epistemology? Alvin Plantinga and Calvin’s

‘‘Sensus Divinitatis’’ ’, Religious Studies, 33 (1997), 419–31.

  14 Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason


Accordingly, the integrity with which Adam was endowed is expressed by

this word [imago], when he had full possession of right understanding,

when he had his affections kept within the bounds of reason, all his senses

tempered in right order, and he truly referred his excellence to exceptional

gifts bestowed upon him by his Maker. And although the primary seat of the

divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet

there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did

not glow … . From this we may gather that when his image is placed in man a

tacit antithesis is introduced which raises man above all other creatures and,

as it were, separates him from the common mass.¹⁵

  The natural world was a ‘mirror’, ‘theatre’, ‘painting’, or ‘book’ that displayed and reflected an otherwise hidden God.¹⁶ God accommo- dated Himself to our finite understanding in the ‘visible language’, ‘garment’, and ‘fabric of the world’, so that ‘all people might know and praise him’.¹⁷ Even after the Fall, Calvin argued, the ordered structure of the universe still bears witness to the divine attributes of its author. Similarly, despite the ‘blindness’ of natural reason after the Fall, mankind is still able to attain a very limited knowledge of God through its study.

  A detailed consideration of pre-lapsarian natural theology can be found in Calvin’s Commentary on John (1553).¹⁸ In his exegesis of the Johannine Prologue, Calvin conventionally suggested that, ‘the Word (Sermo) was, as it were, hidden there before He revealed Himself in the outward workmanship of the world’.¹⁹ Through His ¹⁵ Calvin, I. 15. 3, p. 188.


¹⁶ Ibid. I. 5. I ; I. 5. 10; I. 6. 1–2; I. 14. 20; Argument to Genesis, CO xxiii. 8; Comm.


On Gen. i. 6; CO xxiii. 18. Susan Schreiner notes that the idea of the vestigia Dei was

a traditional theme throughout the Middle Ages. Susan Schreiner, The Theater of his

Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Durham, NC 1991),

141–2. See also Ernst Robert Curtius, ‘The Book as Symbol’, in European Literature

and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard R. Trask, (Princeton, 1953), 319–26. See also

Peter Harrison, The Bible, Protestantism and the Rise of Natural Science (Cambridge,

1998), 64–107.


¹⁷ Calvin, Commentary on Psalms, 104: 1, Commentary on the Book of Psalms,

tr. James Anderson, 5 vols. (Edinburgh, 1847), iv. 145; CO xxxii. 85; Institutes, I. 6. I.

¹⁸ Calvin, The Gospel according to St John, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas

F. Torrance, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, iv, tr. T. H. L. Parker, 2 vols.

(Grand Rapids, 1961).


¹⁹ Calvin, Commentary on John, 1: 1, p. 8; CO xl. 7. Calvin’s commentary on

the Gospel of John was first published in Latin in Jan. 1553 as a folio entitled In


Protestant Critiques of Natural Reason

  15 accommodated revelation in the natural world, God displayed His will and intentions towards Adam in a manner that his unfallen reason could comprehend: ‘the Word of God came forth to outward action immediately from the creation of the world. For having been previously incomprehensible in His essence, He was then openly known by the effect of His power’.²⁰ Discussing the famous words from verse 4 of the Prologue, ‘[i]n him was life, and the life was the light of men’, Calvin explained that God’s ‘life’ and the effects of His ‘power’ are manifested objectively by the ‘stable and settled order of nature’, and subjectively by ‘that part of life in which men surpass the other animate creatures … the light of understanding’ (my italics).²¹

  Through the light and clarity of his unfallen intellect, Adam was able to discern a parallel light reflected in the harmony of the visible universe. From this twinned ‘light’ reflected in reason and in the natural world, he could ascend to knowledge of its single divine source: the eternal Word of God.²² Human reason and the external world were both reflective effects of the seminal Word of God, created as finite ‘mirrors’ of God’s infinite and transcendent perfections. Adam was meant to praise the wisdom of God, witnessed in the ‘stable and settled order of nature’, so that the ‘mute’ creation would become articulate and conscious in his praise.

  Calvin insisted that God could not reveal His essence (essentia) in the world, because it ‘transcends man in every respect’, and is ‘infinitely exalted above the comprehension of our understanding’. Through contemplation in the ‘mirror’ of the natural world, Adam discovered only God’s virtutes, a refracted or accommodated sense


work into French. Finally, in 1584 the work was translated into English by Christopher

Fetherstone bearing the title The holy Gospel of Iesus Christ, according to John, with

the commentarie of M. Iohn Calvine: Faithfully translated out of latine into englishe by