The Goodness of Stuff PDF Print E-mail
Written by Steven Wedgeworth   
Tuesday, 16 February 2010 09:39

As curious as it may strike some, one of the great recoveries of the Reformation was anthropology.  The Reformers proclaimed the glories of being human and insisted on honoring all aspects of the human condition.  Many remember Luther and Calvin’s emphasis on sin, even the notorious concept of total depravity, but they rarely understand this doctrine in contrast to the human condition which immediately preceded it: that very good creation.  Man was created in the image of God, to include perfect righteousness and spiritual capabilities.  He was in need of no donum superadditum.  Indeed, as God’s image, man was a god on earth, and his original tasks were divine ordinances.

In his commentary on Genesis 1:26, John Calvin writes:

Truly there are many things in this corrupted nature which may induce contempt; but if you rightly weigh all circumstances, man is, among other creatures a certain preeminent specimen of Divine wisdom, justice, and goodness, so that he is deservedly called by the ancients mikrikosmos, “a world in miniature.”[1]

Interesting in this notion of man as microcosm is that Adam contained within him all that would be possible later.  Priesthood and kingship were present in Eden, with both retaining their integrity even after the Fall.  Zacharias Ursinus’ students compiled notes taken from his lectures on the Heidelberg Catechism.  In those notes, we are told that among the many reasons why God created man are “the preservation of society in the human race” and “a mutual participation in the duties, kindness, and benefits which we owe to each other.”[2]

This view of the original man as a social animal was important for human life after the Fall.  Though obviously impaired by sin, none of the original creation was lost in the Fall, nor did it need mediation in order to be valid.  Marriage, kingship, and vocation were all perfectly acceptable institutions after the Fall, and though they should have a harmonious relationship with the visible church, they were by no means subordinated to it.  This was important for debates with the Roman Catholics who insisted that all human institutions owed their livelihood to the visible church and particularly its magisterium in Rome.  The city, it was argued by Rome, was formed because of man’s need to protect himself from evil.  Even those more temperate voices claimed that temporal things were subject to “spiritual” ones, with a hat-tip to Pseudo-Denys.[3]

Contrary to this, the Lutherans and Reformed argued that all creational institutions had their own legitimacy.  Both spiritual and physical things were created by the good God, and thus apart from removing sin, no “extra” spiritual blessing needed to be added to physical things.  The city was not merely a community born out of fear, but rather friendship.  Philip Melancthon argued that, “There is in a man a certain friendship toward the state, not for personal utility but on account of virtue, to the extent that he would not hesitate to go to his death for the state if it were necessary.”[4] A little earlier Melanchthon had said that friendship itself was a virtue, and thus man’s service in society and in politics was inherently virtuous.  This state would not even need to be coercive, as Martin Bucer says, but rather:

If sin had not poisoned nature, such implanted love of one toward the other would never have
shown any deficiency in either spiritual or bodily matters. Unhindered by sin, men would have lived without law yet according to the law of God, in friendly service of one toward the other.[5]

What Bucer speaks of here is a natural state that has no need of coercion.  The state is not purely defined by its conflict with sin, but by its more basic natural love.

This commitment also allowed for a guiltless explosion of the liberal arts.  All of the original Reformers were unashamed humanists.  Before his sacred writing, Calvin penned a commentary on Seneca.  As one reads through the Institutes, he can’t make it two chapters without tripping over Cicero.  Zwingli went so far as to promote Hercules and Sokrates out of Limbo and into a state of beatitude.[6] The Reformation quickly became known for its emphasis on the arts, with the world-renown architecture of the Hungarian Churches, the Dutch masters, and English writers like Donne, Spenser, Milton, Bunyan, and, of course, William Shakespeare.

Contemporary moral philosopher Charles Taylor routinely promotes what he calls, “the affirmation of the ordinary life,” and he states that this found some of its greatest defenders in the Protestant Reformation.  This was true precisely because, as Taylor writes, “One of the central points common to all Reformers was their rejection of mediation.”[7] Creation had no need to be mediated through the institutional church.  Ordinary life was good in itself, according to the Reformers, and as Taylor goes on to argue, this affirmation of creation and humanity lead to the successive social gains that we now enjoy.[8]

This embrace of humanity and all of humanity’s stuff was absolutely critical for the Reformation.  It allowed the various churches to call on godly princes to defend them, it allowed them to translate the liturgy into the vernacular, it inspired them to compose new hymns, and it opened the church-doors to the world, creating godly citizens and productive workers.  In our own day, the Reformation’s affirmation of ordinary life might be just the solution to the various “culture wars.”  Typically that debate comes down to two positions on sacralizing secular institutions, those who say that we must baptize them in order to reclaim them and those who say we may not baptize them for fear of corrupting the church.  What is asked less often is, “Why do they need baptizing in the first place?”

Now if I’ve done my job, I should have some impassioned objectors after that, but let me explain.  It is not a denial of the original cultural mandate, nor is it a suggestion that secular institutions can have a “neutral” stance towards religion.  It is to affirm original goodness.  Baptism simply isn’t for institutions, vocations, and various cultural expressions.  Baptism is for people.  The waters of baptism wash away sin and bring the believer into the new creation, from which he goes on to create.  The baptized need not subvert their vocation, but fulfill and perfect them through their own natural abilities.[9]

And this is important for the preservation of the goodness of creation.  Whenever Christians set out to “reclaim” the culture, they invariably do a bad job of it.  This is usually because they have given too much credit to the devil.  As Uncle Screwtape has told us, the demons are actually incapable of producing anything good.[10] Indeed as Lewis teaches us elsewhere, along with Augustine and Athanasius, the devil is incapable of creating anything at all.  Whenever we engage cultural expressions, we should keep in mind that at the bottom of each and every one of them is a remnant of the good.  A proper culture will have much in common with the original culture, with natural culture.

This perspective allows us to show our gratitude to God’s original benevolence, and it also allows us to best honor and best enjoy creation.  Deifying is much less fun.  Perhaps a few words from Robert Farrar Capon will make my point.  Writing on the mistaken attempts to make wine divine, Capon critiques the pagan, the secularist, and the “contemporary theologian.”  In the interest of brevity (and supposing that the secularist has already taken a sufficient beating in times past), I will only give you two of Fr. Capon’s observations.  He writes:

Ah mischief.  Man is not always content to take reality at such width and depths.  He cuts the
wine of paradox with the water of consistency: The mystery of God and things is tamed to the
simplicity of God or things; he builds himself a duller, skimpier world.

If he is a pagan, he abolishes the secular in favor of the sacred.  The world becomes filled with
gods.  To improve his wine, he searches, not for purer strains of yeast, but for better
incantations, friendlier gods.  He spends his time in shrines and caves, not chemistry.  Things,
for him, become pawns in the chess game of heaven.  Religion devours life . . .

. . . Worse yet, if he is a contemporary theologian, he acquires an irrational fear of natural
theology.  He distrusts people who claim to see the vestigia Dei, the footprints of God, in creation; he blames them for being pagans, filling the world with gods.  Poor man, again!  The vestigia Dei are not irrelevant divinities ruffling the surface of a matter for which they have no sympathy. They are rather the tracks of God’s figure skating upon the ice of the world.  They are evidences  of play, not pilgrimage.  He cuts them, not to make a point, but because ice cries out for such virtuosity.  They prove He knows what the world is for.[11]

Indeed, the world and all its stuff is already righteous.  It was created that way.  A redeemed man is a good man, and a redeemed world is a good world.  And to top it all off, this was what our Reformed faith was saying all along.


Steven Wedgeworth is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, MS.  He is the Assistant Pastor of Immanuel Presbyterian Church (CREC) in Clinton, MS and teaches at The Veritas School, a Classical and Christian school in the Jackson area.



[2] Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, trans. G. W. Williard (1852; repr., Phillipsburg, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed, n.d.), 29

[3] This can be seen in Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam.


[5] Martin Bucer, Instruction in Christian Love (1952, Louisville, KY: John Knox Press), 26

[6] W. Peter Stephens, “Bullinger and Zwingli on the Salvation of the Heathens,” Reformation and Renaissance Review 7, no. 2-3 (2005): 283-300.

[7] see Charles Taylor,  Sources of the Self (1989, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 211

[8] As nostalgic for the golden days as one may be tempted to become, he is hard pressed to express a longing to return to caesaropapism or the trial by ordeal.  Much better are modern freedoms to marry for companionship, work for fulfillment, and to do or not do what we please.  “Ordinary life” really is better than ever before.

[9] Any vocation that needs subverting is most likely an unlawful calling.

[10] C. S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters (1996, San Francisco, CA: Harper San Francisco), 159

[11] Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb (2002, New York, NY: The Modern Library),  87-88

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 February 2010 13:04