Undoing Misenchantment: Calvin, Demons, and Creation

One of the big criticisms of the Reformation is that it unintentionally led to the “disenchantment” of the natural world in modernity. For our medieval forebears, the created world was positively fizzing with the presence of the divine–whether of God or the devil. Charles Taylor famously advocates this narrative, summarising it thus:

The enchanted world in this sense is the world of spirits, demons, and moral forces which our ancestors lived in… The process of disenchantment is the disappearance of this world, and the substitution of what we live today: a world in which the only locus of thoughts, feelings, spiritual élan is what we call minds; the only minds in the cosmos are those of humans (grosso modo, with apologies to possible Martians or extra-terrestrials); and minds are bounded, so that these thoughts, feelings, etc. are situated “within” them.”[1]

The “disappearance” of the enchanted world is chalked up to various things–pre-Reformation shifts in medieval philosophy, the denial of transubstantiation, the gutting of the liturgical calendar. A prominent one is what Catholic historian Eamon Duffy famously called “the stripping of the altars”–the destruction of a medieval Christianity heavily influenced by what we would now call “superstition” surrounding (on the positive side) relics and miracles, and (on the negative side) bad omens and the nefarious workings of demons. The argument goes that, once people stopped believing that putting the eucharistic bread in the ground could bless the harvest, or that Satan might have tried to kill them with a falling branch, the whole created world became inert and colourless–like Dorothy leaving Oz–paving the way for scientific materialism.

Now, the Davenant Institute and its army of friends have done a fair bit of work pushing back against this narrative in various ways, often agreeing with the broad issue of disenchantment but rubbishing the idea that the Reformation is to blame (such as Brad Littlejoh does here) and placing its origins elsewhere (as Onsi Kamel does in this superb lecture). Or perhaps disenchantment never really happened anyway (as Onsi suggests here, drawing on the work of friend-of-Ad Fontes Jason Josephson-Storm).

I’d like to pick up the issue of demonic activity, specifically in the work of John Calvin–the supposedly po-faced chief architect of austere, disenchanting Presbyterianism. It’s doubtless true that Calvin and other Reformers intentionally set about dismantling what they viewed as harmful forms of medieval superstition. But did they really banish the malign “spirits, demons, and moral forces” that Taylor talks about in any notable way?

First, we should get a sense of what Taylor actually means. We may take, as an example, a section from John Mirk’s Festial. Mirk (active c.1380-142) was an Augustinian Canon regular in Shropshire, who authored texts popular among both priests and laypeople. His Festial is a collection of sermons accompanying the liturgical year. In one sermon exhorting his hearers to greater devotion, he first notes how “thondyrs ben oft herd” as a suggestion of God’s judgement. He then warns of the influence of “fendys” (fiends, or demons) over the natural world, as well as other day-to-day occurences:

Thay rerythe warres: thay makyth tempestys in the see, and drownyth schyppres and men, thay makythe debate bytwyx neghtburs and manslaughter therwyth; thay tendyth fyres, and brennen houses and townes; thay reryth wyndys, and blowyth don howysys, stepuls, and tres; they make wymen to ouerlaye hor children; that makyth men to sle homsolfe, to hong homsolf othyr down hom in wanhope, and such mony othyr curset dedys.[2]

“Enchantment” here, then, can be taken to mean that anything in the created order–from thunderclaps to cot death–can be a vehicle for divine revelation, whether on the part of God or Satan.

So, how does Calvin compare to John Mirk? Well, he has little to say about demons in his most extended discussion on the topic in Institutes 1.14.13-18, and he does not there at all discuss demonic influence over nature (though he does, like Mirk, affirm their capacity to sow error and division in 1.14.15). He seems to regard the whole question as a potentially dangerous distraction.[3] However, in Calvin’s sermons on Job (a hugely neglected part of his corpus which is about to finally be available in a new English translation), we find him affirming everything Mirk writes above. Preaching on Job 1:13-19, Calvin states:

“A man might demand how it happened that fire came down from heaven to burn up Job’s cattle. For the devil hath not the lightning and tempests in his power: we grant him no such sovereignty as to have dominion in the air to raise whirlwinds and tempests at his pleasure. The answer hereunto is easy… although the winds be God’s heralds to execute his will, and that the lightning have like nature, yet the devil worketh by them when God useth his service…. Then let us think it not strange that God should give the devil such a liberty as to be able to raise up lightnings, whirlwinds, and tempests. For he is not able to do it as much as he himself liketh, but God serveth his own turn by him as it pleaseth himself.”[4]

Like any medieval, Calvin affirms that both God and Satan work through natural phenomena. He couches the demonic aspect within God’s sovereignty, but in doing so says nothing which his medieval forebears would not also have said. Job was, as Susan Schreiner notes, a much-commented upon book in the middle ages, and when Calvin preached on it “his listeners heard not only the Genevan Reformer but echoes of that medieval tradition.”[5]

When faced unavoidably with the question of divine activity within discrete natural events, then, Calvin stands in continuity with the medievals. There is no banishing of the spirits here.

However, as we’ve touched on, there are discontinuities. Given Calvin’s overall lack of interest in discrete divine interventions, Calvin differs on the frequency and specificity with which either God or Satan act in this way. Rather than continually attempting to divine the intent of both God and demons in natural events, Calvin focuses instead on creation’s constant communication of God’s goodness. You can see this in the 1559 Institutes, when Calvin intentionally shifts from his brief discussion of angels and demons to God’s constant revelation in creation:

“Meanwhile let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theatre. For, as I have elsewhere said, although it is not the chief evidence for faith, yet it is the first evidence in the order of nature, to be mindful that wherever we cast our eyes, all things they meet at the works of God, and at the same time to ponder with pious meditation to what end God created them.”[6]

The warning: we may be so intent on discerning the discrete activities of angels and demons that we become ashamed of God’s constant revelation in creation all around us. According to Susan Schreiner in her classic book on Calvin’s doctrine of creation, Calvin is principally concerned with two things on this topic: order and providence. At the centre is “the concept of order”, rooted in the belief that “God is not a God of disorder but of peace” (1 Cor. 14:33).[7] This quest for order is driven by Calvin’s commitment to the providence of God as the sovereign creator and sustainer of creation. Schreiner characterises providence as the “proscenium arch” in Calvin’s view of the universe as a theatre of God’s glory, both upholding everything and making it visible to the audience.[8]

A strong emphasis on order may seemingly support the “disenchantment” charge against Calvin, making him seem a step on the road towards an atheistic, mechanised view of the universe. However, it is here that Calvin is in the greatest continuity with his forebears. Troubling natural phenomena in the medieval era were the exceptions that proved the rule that the universe is otherwise incredibly orderly. For example, in his book The Light Ages, Seb Falk chronicles the development of medieval astronomy, demonstrating how medieval monks viewed the cosmos as finely ordered. He describes the impression of the universe which would have been made upon one monk, John Westwyck:

As a child, John Westwyck could observe how important it was for farmers to understand the cycles of the Sun and the skies. As he grew older, contemplation of the stars gave meaning to the vast cosmos; a glimpse into the mind of God. Measurement and mathematical analysis could only heighten his sense of a world that was precisely designed and obedient to God’s laws.[9]

Calvin shared this view. Commenting on Psalm 104:5, he affirms the “whole order of nature” in which “each element has its peculiar property”. However, he never discusses this order without reference to God’s providence constantly sustaining that order, as seen if we expand his commentary:

[N]othing in the world is stable except in as far as it is sustained by the hand of God. The world did not originate from itself, consequently, the whole order of nature depends on nothing else than his appointment, by which each element has its own peculiar property…Yea, all the agitations which befall it more fully confirm to us the truth, that the earth would be swallowed up every moment were it not preserved by the secret power of God.[10]

In contrast to the likes of John Mirk, then, Calvin is in fact more properly focussed on creation itself and its constant, clear divine message, rather than the sporadic, mysterious portents which many medievals sought to divine. And yet, as our example from Seb Falk indicates, Calvin here isn’t saying anything that most medieval theologians wouldn’t have said. As Schreiner points out, compared with ancient and medieval traditions, Calvin “stood in a line of continuity with the past teachings of the church. He too taught the doctrines of creatio ex nihilo, the direct and mediate providence of God over nature and history, the goodness of creation, the revelatory function of natre, and the redemption of the cosmos”.[11] Rather than seeing himself as at odds with Romanists over creation, Calvin saw himself in opposition to the Anabaptists, Libertines, and Rationalists, whose views he saw as threatening the doctrine;[12] he also opposed the naturalism of both contemporary Stoics and Epicureans.[13]

Where Calvin differs from the medievals on creation then, is in a fairly small and specific area: the issue of the frequency and specificity of God or Satan’s action in discrete natural events. Of course, small things can have big consequences, but the “disenchantment” charge becomes harder to substantiate when we find such immense overlap on both the specific question of demons and creation more generally. Whilst God can and does, in his sovereignty, afford Satan the control of natural phenomena at times, or even speak through them himself, such things are trifles when compared to his constant communication through creation. Indeed, the constancy of creation’s voice in Calvin’s thought arguably means he thinks God speaks more often through nature than those who spend their lives waiting for signs and omens in the weather and seasons.

We could say that, for Calvin, there is no need to “enchant” creation with immediate instances of demonic or divine activity, because it is already, by its nature, “magical”–a constant site of divine activity, declaring the glory of God by displaying his eternal power and divine nature (Ps. 19:1; Rom. 1:20). Calvin was not, unintentionally or otherwise, introducing disenchantment; rather he was undoing a needless misenchantment undertaken by some of his medieval forebears.

  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 25-26; 30).

  2. John Mirk, Mirk’s Festial: A Collection of Homilies, ed. Theodore Erbe (London: Early English Text Society, 1905), 150. Archaic Middle English letters have been updated for legibility.

  3. “And what concern is it to us to know anything more about devils or to know it for another purpose? Some persons grumble that Scripture does not in numerous passages set forth systematically and clearly that fall of the devils, its cause, manner, time, and character. But because this has nothing to do with us, it was better not to say anything, or at least to touch upon it lightly, because it did not befit the Holy Spirit to feed our curiosity with empty histories to no effect. And we see that the Lord’s purpose was to teach nothing in his sacred oracles except what we should lean to our edification. Therefore, lest we ourselves linger over superfluous matters, let us be content with this brief summary of the nature of devils.” John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 1, trans. Lewis Ford Battles, ed. John T. McNeill, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 1.14.16, 175.

  4. John Calvin, Sermons of Master John Calvin Upon the Book of Job, trans. Arthur Golding (London: Lucas Harrison and Georger Bishop, 1574), 27. I have modernised some of the spelling for legibility.

  5. Susan E. Schreiner, “Exegesis and Double Justice in Calvin’s Sermons on Job”, Church History 58 no.3, September 1989, 322. Scheiner is referring specifically here to Calvin’s drawing upon commentators such as Gregory the Great, Moses Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas, Nicholas of Lyra regarding providence and justice, but the point, as we have evidenced, holds true regarding views of creation as well.

  6. Calvin, Institutes, 1.14.20, 179.

  7. Susan E. Schreiner, The Theater of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991), 3.
  8. Schreiner, Theater of His Glory, 7.

  9. Seb Falk, The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery (London: Penguin, 2021), 42
  10. John Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms Vol. 4, trans. James Anderson (Grand Rapids: Christian Classical Ethereal Library, n.d.), https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom11/calcom11.xiii.ii.html.

  11. Schreiner, Theater of His Glory, 3.

  12. Schreiner, Theater of His Glory, 3.

  13. Schreiner, Theater of His Glory, 17.


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