Calvin’s Angelology: His Approach

Calvin approaches angels with one rule: modesty and sobriety.[1] Calvin’s one rule of modesty and sobriety is due to his fear of idolatry.[2] Throughout history, fallen man has perpetually attributed divinity to angelic creatures. As a pastor and theologian, Calvin is mindful of this when he writes and speaks about angels. He does not want to say or write anything that will lead people to an unhealthy adulation of angels. For this reason, Susan Schreiner infers that Calvin’s “angelology was governed less by an interest in angels in and of themselves than by the concern to keep angels in their proper ‘rank’ or ‘degree.’”[3] It is not that Calvin is uninterested in angels; he is just more concerned with the supremacy of God over angels. In Calvin’s Institutes, commentaries, and sermons, he keeps angels in their proper rank and degree in three ways: he attempts to avoid speculation, to edify Christians, and to direct people’s gazes toward God.

Don’t Speculate!

First, Calvin attempts to avoid speculation. He opposes men like Dionysius who write and speak so much about angels that if you read their books “you would think a man fallen from heaven recounted, not what he had learned, but what he had seen with his own eyes.”[4] Calvin strongly disagrees with such an indulgent curiosity. Instead, because Scripture does not address every fruitless question people have about angels, the theologian must not address these fruitless questions either.

In regard to angels, Calvin tells his readers “not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know. . . anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word.”[5] In his sermon on Ephesians 1:19-23, he shepherds his congregants to “only give ear to God’s Word, and in all soberness learn from him without giving rein to our own foolish curiosity, as some do, disputing subtly about the angels.”[6] This pastoral advice—not to speak, know, or guess anything about angels except what has been revealed in Scripture—is one aspect of Calvin’s approach to angelology. He wants to avoid speculation and to remain grounded in Scripture. Yet, though Calvin largely avoids speculation, it is important to add that Calvin occasionally deviates from this method when he wants to emphasize an important theological point. This will become apparent in some of my upcoming blog posts.

Seek to Edify Christians!

Secondly, Calvin seeks the edification of Christians. In Scripture, God wills to instruct his people in sound godliness, the fear of the Lord, in true trust, and in the duties of holiness.[7] Calvin believes that “the theologian’s task is not to divert the ears with chatter, but to strengthen consciences by teaching things true, sure, and profitable.”[8] Thus, Calvin’s discussion on angels “is marked by the strongest practical tendency.”[9] Calvin wants people to know that God did not create men for angels; God created angels for men. In other words, when Calvin discusses angels, he generally limits his discourse to biblical truths that will build up and encourage the church.

Direct People’s Gazes Toward God!

Thirdly, Calvin endeavors to direct people’s gazes toward God. Calvin was aware that some Medieval Roman Catholics taught that angels were mediators—that angels were intermediaries that enabled people to approach God. He also knew that other people superstitiously attributed divinity to angels.[10] These practices inevitably led people to turn their gazes away from God and toward angels, a practice that Calvin regarded as preposterous.[11]

Instead, for Calvin, angels must turn people’s gazes toward God. Angels should lead Christians toward God so “that we may look upon him, call upon him, and proclaim him as our sole helper . . . that we may wholly depend upon him, lean upon him, be brought to him, and rest in him.”[12] To put it another way, Calvin desires the study of angels to lead people to God, the one who commissions the angels. So, like the apostle Paul, Calvin constantly labors to prevent the imaginary luster of angels from dazzling the eyes of men and obscuring the radiant glory of Christ.[13]

In Sum!

In summary, Calvin’s approach to angelology is modest and sober. He avoids speculation by adhering to Scripture. To prevent an unhealthy adulation of angels, he teaches that God created angels for the benefit of the church. To stop Christians from fixating on angels, he constantly turns their eyes toward God. Calvin recognizes that angels are distinguished and glorious creatures, and he strives to teach and write about them in a way that will not detract from the glory of Christ.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), I.14.4.

[2] Susan E. Schreiner, “The Theatre of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin,” 97.

[3] Susan E. Schreiner, “The Theatre of His Glory: Nature and Natural Order in the Thought of John Calvin,” 97.

[4] Calvin, Institutes, I.14.4.

[5] Calvin, Institutes, I.14.4.

[6] John Calvin, Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians, 3rd ed. (1973; repr., London: Banner of Truth Trust, 2017), 113.

[7] Calvin, Institutes, I.14.4.

[8] Calvin, Institutes, I.14.4.

[9] Benjamin Warfield, The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield: Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 (London: Oxford University Press, 1931), 309.

[10] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, ed. and trans. John Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 195-196.

[11] Calvin, Institutes, I.14.12.

[12] Calvin, Institutes, I.14.12.

[13] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians, ed. and trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 216-217.

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