Between Two Graves: Calvin on the Waters Above and Below

One of the quirkier parts of the early books of Genesis for modern readers is the way in which it speaks of “waters above” and “waters below”. We first get this on the second day, when God creates the sky:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so. And God called the expanse Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

Genesis 1:6-8

The idea seems to recur in Gen. 2:5-7:

When no bush of the field was yet in the land and no small plant of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain on the land, and there was no man to work the ground, and a mist was going up from the land and was watering the whole face of the ground— then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.

Then, when the flood arrives in Gen. 7:11-12, we find waters above and below once more:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. And rain fell upon the earth for forty days and forty nights.

The idea seems inherently odd to us, given our modern understanding of the water cycle. We see all water on earth as being in constant motion, evaporating upwards before forming into clouds and coming down again as precipitation. We no longer picture a static “storehouse” (cf. Job 38:22) of water above us, distinctly separated from the water in the seas, lakes, and rivers down here. Because of our understanding of gravity, we see the primary “resting place” of water as down here on the ground, since it will always go with gravitational pull in its solid or liquid forms.

This further contrasts with a prevailing medieval/ancient Christian view of creation, which regarded God as directly holding the limits of water in place, a la Job 38:8-11. This view rested on a few medieval/ancient physical and cosmological assumptions: they viewed the cosmos as being structured as a series of concentric, Russian Doll-like spheres, and these spheres included the four elements (Earth, Water, Air, and Fire). Earth sat at the bottom, clearly being the heaviest element. But if water is lighter than earth, why then is the earth not entirely covered with water, which should naturally rise above it? The broad Christian answer was the miraculous providence of God, who held the waters back to allow for human life. I’ve described this as an ancient/medieval view, but it remained in place in the early modern era, and was that of Reformers like John Calvin.[1]

The above, then, can seem like another supposed incidence of modern science catching Genesis and the Christian tradition with its trousers down. And yet, stepping back from the scientific perspective, the division of “waters above” and “waters below” makes perfect sense of how we actually encounter the water cycle as human beings. If you’re watching the cricket and a summer deluge stops play, you’re guaranteed to hear a commentator say “the heavens have opened!” Apart from rare natural phenomena like waterspouts, we encounter water in just the way Genesis puts it: some above, some below, without perceiving the connection between the two.

What’s more, our modern understanding of gravity does not do away with the testimony of Job 38 or the Christian tradition that God’s providence holds back the waters, since the Christian tradition has long incorporated secondary causality within the providence of God. Gravity is no less providential a way of God holding back the waters below than is a more direct form of intervention.

So: modern science gives us no reason to jettison the view that there are distinct “waters above” and “waters below”, and that the limits of both are held in place by the providence of God.This being the case, in his commentary on Genesis 7, Calvin has an incredibly evocative description of God’s providential ordering of the waters above and below us. Calvin notes the fact that God limits the waters, and then comments on how he unleashed these waters in the flood:

Now, however, Moses states that when God resolved to destroy the earth by a deluge, those barriers were torn up. And here we must consider the wonderful counsel of God; for he might have deposited, in certain channels or veins of the earth, as much water as would have sufficed for all the purposes of human life; but he has designedly placed us between two graves, lest, in fancied security, we should despise that kindness on which our life depends. For the element of water, which philosophers deem one of the principles of life, threatens us with death from above and from beneath, except so far as it is restrained by the hand of God. In saying that the fountains were broken up, and the cataracts opened, his language is metaphorical, and means, that neither did the waters flow in their accustomed manner, nor did the rain distil from heaven; but that the distinctions which we see had been established by God, being now removed, there were no longer any bars to restrain the violent irruption.

That’s a chilling and beautiful turn of phrase: “between two graves”. Calvin here does something I don’t think I’ve seen before: he connects the wider biblical imagery of the waters to the waters above as well as those below.

Anyone relatively familiar with biblical imagery will know that the sea and the waters are pictures of death and chaos. God’s Spirit brings order from the chaotic deep in Genesis 1, the psalmists like Sheol to the deep (Ps. 42:7, 88:17), and in Revelation the new creation is shown as having no more sea (Rev. 21:1). Being low and deep, it is easy to consider the sea as a grave in which we are laid. I make a point now, when near the sea, of meditating upon death. In the 1960s, one of my great uncles was drowned in a harbour accident in the Channel Islands, and I make a point of visiting his memorial plaque whenever we visit the island, even though he died long before I was born. It’s always felt strangely notable that we had a drowning in the family. It is fitting, at the sea, to think of death.

Yet I never think upon death when the rain falls. In fact, since we usually complain about rain, I make a point of reminding myself that rain is good–which Scripture says also (e.g. Mt. 5:45), with drought being a regular sign of judgement (e.g. with Elijah and Ahab). Yet things can carry two distinct, even opposite, meanings in Scripture (salt, for example, is a sign of judgement, such as on Lot’s wife, yet also a sign of goodness and distinctiveness which should season our speech in Col. 4:6). The flood narrative alone illustrates that the waters above can be just as much a vehicle for death, chaos, and judgement as the waters below. Indeed, we’re made mindful of this any time we see news stories about mass flooding–all the more so in our current climate crisis. These things should shatter what Calvin calls our “fancied security”.

In God’s providence, then, we stand between two graves: the waters above and the waters below. Whatever secondary causes he uses to hold those waters back is immaterial, really. Just as the vastness of the sea dwarfs us and makes us mindful of death, so too, according to Calvin, should the falling of rain, for God’s providential ordering of its limits is no different from his ordering the limits of the seas. It’s a pretty metal thought, really.

  1. A succinct but slightly more detailed summary of all this can be found in Susan E. Schreiner’s The Theater of His Glory: Nature and the Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991), 23-24.


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