The Theater of God’s Glory
by David Hall
Ever since in the creation of the universe he brought forth those insignia whereby he shows his glory to us, whenever and wherever we cast our gaze. …And since the glory of his power and wisdom shine more brightly above, heaven is often called his palace. Yet…wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory.” (Institutes, 1.5.1)
From the Institutes’ preface, John Calvin portrayed the human condition as “naked of all virtue,” enslaved, blind, and weak. The purpose of this depiction was to preclude all occasion for self-glorying and give all glory to God. Human beings, thought Calvin, should be stripped of “vainglory” to “learn to glory in the Lord.”
Five centuries after Calvin’s birth, John Piper suggests that a fitting symbolic banner over Calvin’s work could be: “Zeal to illustrate the glory of God.” Whether in life or on his deathbed, Calvin professed to propound only “what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.”
At the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth, not only is Calvinism’s essence tied to “passion for the absolute reality and majesty of God,” but at his 400th anniversary Princeton giant Benjamin Warfield summarized, “No man ever had a profounder sense of God than [Calvin].” Whether it is “this relentless orientation on the glory of God” (Piper), or the “all-embracing slogan of the Reformed faith: the work of grace in the sinner as a mirror for the glory of God” (Vos), or Calvin’s own words, the glory of God distills the meaning of Calvin’s message.
Calvin described this world, moved by God’s providence, as theatrum gloriae. For him, every aspect of life from work to worship and from art to technology bears the potential to glorify God (Institutes, 1.11.12). Creation is depicted as a platform for God’s glory (1.14.20) or a “dazzling theater” (1.5.8; 2.6.1), displaying God’s glorious works. Calvin viewed the first commandment as making it unlawful to steal “even a particle from this glory” (2.8.16). Such comments support Lloyd-Jones’ later claim that for Calvin “the great central and all-important truth was the sovereignty of God and God’s glory.”
James Packer concurs that Calvin’s Christianity rested on a vision of God enthroned and reigning majestically: “How often Calvin used the words ‘majesty’ and ‘glory’! How often he dilates on the greatness of God! The passion corresponded to the vision. It was the passion expressed in that great phrase which has become the slogan of Calvinism — soli Deo gloria!”
While once urging political prudence, Calvin commended to “think carefully and to take God as our president and governor in our elections, and to make our choice with a pure conscience without regard to anything except the honor and glory of God in the security and defense of this republic.”
Warfield well summarized: “The Calvinist is the man who has seen God, and who, having seen God in His glory, is filled on the one hand, with a sense of his own unworthiness to stand in God’s sight as a creature, and much more as a sinner, and on the other hand, with adoring wonder that nevertheless this God is a God who receives sinners.”
Calvin still shines truth’s floodlight onto God’s theater of glory.