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Around this time of year, at the anniversary of Luther’s nailing the 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg, we thankfully celebrate the theological gift of the Reformation—salvation by grace through faith. It’s important to remember that the Reformation gave us many other gifts that should also be remembered and celebrated.
In a recent essay on the Reformation (The Givenness of Things), novelist and scholar Marilynne Robinson points especially to two of these other gifts. The first is that the Reformers, from Tyndale through Calvin, were dedicated to sharing their learning with the common people, the peasants and the merchants of their day, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Remember that all the learning at that time was written in Latin. By disseminating their writings in the vernacular, not only did the Reformers contribute to the spread of the gospel but also opened up a whole world to ordinary people.
The other gift of the Reformation was, paradoxical as it may seem, the rise of modern science. The Reformers, especially Calvin, held a profound belief in the revelation of God in the creation as discovered by science. Calvin proclaimed:
In the disquisitions concerning the motions of the stars [think of scientists like Copernicus], in fixing their situations, measuring their distances, and distinguishing the peculiar properties, there is need of skill, exactness, and industry, and the providence of God, being more clearly revealed in these discoveries, the mind ought to rise to sublime elevation for the contemplation of his glory.” (Inst. 1-5-2)
In other words, science is a godly endeavor, revealing the awesome ways of providence.
As children of the Reformation, and more especially as Calvinists, it is strange to see an emerging aversion to science, or thinking of science as a threat to faith. It’s no wonder that the Calvinist Belgic Confession then declares that creation “is before our eyes a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.” (Art. 2)
I especially love these wonderful words from the Calvinist pastor and hymn writer Isaac Watts:
Dig and draw up some valuable meditations from the depths of the earth, and search them through the vast oceans of water. Extract some intellectual improvements from the minerals and metals; from the wonders of nature among the vegetables and herbs, trees and flowers. Learn some lessons from the birds and the beasts, and the meanest insect. Read the wisdom of God and his admirable contrivance in them all; read his almighty power, his rich and various goodness, in all the works of his hands. (Quoted in Robinson,p. 24)
Since the Reformation teaches science is a godly pursuit for Christians, it’s no surprise that nearly all the early modern scientists were Christians. Let Reformation Day be the day we also recognize and commemorate our brothers and sisters in the sciences.