As do so many who discuss Calvin and the arts, William Edgar, Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, begins tentatively. “The Arts and the Reformed Tradition” is uniquely titled among the chapters in Calvin and Culture in that it lacks Calvin’s name, almost as if to distance him from the arts. Edgar reminds us of Calvin’s qualification of painting as “a tedium of idleness,” and speaks of Calvin’s reputation in the arts as one requiring “rehabilitation efforts.” As an artist, I am admittedly sceptical about these efforts, but as a Christian, I appreciate their redemptive spirit as well as Edgar’s work (his Honours B.A. in Music from Harvard serves him well here) in highlighting the Reformer’s more nuanced aesthetic moments.
We find in Edgar’s writing an effort to balance modern and postmodern historiographies. He appreciates the worldview framework used by Kuyper, Rookmaker, Schaeffer, and others: that culture emanates from worldview. He also suggests correctives to this framework in that “the search for an ethos…that characterizes a given era can lead to oversimplifications.” Two approaches in hand, Edgar proceeds practically, looking at Calvin’s views on both religious and secular arts, and at the concrete aesthetic implications of a Calvinist worldview.
Calvin’s violence against “superstitions of Popery” is spun neatly into context, such that iconoclastic precedents and Swiss politics — but especially a robust theological basis — serve, for Edgar, to defend his iconoclasm. It was never pure vandalism, he says, but intended as reform, publicly measuring local preparedness for Word-based worship. The “robust theology” is partly Augustinian, in that images supposedly “remove fear and add error,” but Calvin connects image-prohibition also to God’s glory, and to Christ, whose fulfillment of Old Testament figures instituted “simpler” worship, with only two representations: Lord’s Supper and Baptism. Calvin’s musical minimalism was also Word-based, with instruments belonging to the “spiritually immature” Old Testament, and the Psalms alone, as “prayers given by God himself,” maintaining the gravity and majesty of singing in worship.
Calvin’s opposition to images, Edgar rightly maintains, was not all-encompassing: he listed “the useful arts” among God’s gifts, seeking the “pure and legitimate use” of painting and sculpture. Together with Christopher Richard Joby, Edgar sees in Calvin’s restrictions a counterbalancing call for imagination, as in the metricized Psalmody. Illustrated Bibles, anti-Catholic cartoons, Protestant engravings, stained glass, and decorated communion cups all demonstrate for him “a deep respect for poetry and visual interpretation” among Calvinists. He also notes that Calvin’s theology resulted in more relational worship spaces: God meets us through his Word, as is symbolized by the centrality of the pulpit.
|Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son|
Edgar finishes with a call to ongoing work: to further compare Protestant and Catholic sensibilities, and to study “cultural appropriations.” He joyfully notes that Calvinists are increasingly asking how to engage with the visual arts (rather than “whether” to engage them), and leaves artists with the challenge to articulate our misery but also our hope in the Lord.
|Makoto Fujimura’s Charis Seat|
from his Countenance collection.
Edgar’s final encouragement connects for me with what Andy Crouch reminds us of in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP Books, 2008): that it’s not enough to critique, to copy, or to consume culture; the Christian calling, “be fruitful and multiply,” has always included responsibility for cultural creativity. And although this aesthetic imperative has indeed found expression in Calvin, it must continue to flourish in new ways among those called to be his successors.
Harold Sikkema holds a B.A. in Art and Multimedia from McMaster University, and practises visual art in Hamilton, Ontario, where he attends Providence Canadian Reformed Church.