Given his tremendous output, as seen in the Institutes, his commentaries, his tracts and letters, sermons, confessions, and catechisms, many believe Calvin must have spent all his time in seclusion reading and writing weighty tomes. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth. As his biographer T.H.L. Parker noted, the Institutes “was not written in an ivory tower, but against the background of teething troubles.”[1] Calvin was a domestic man and was involved in the lives of the people around him.As has been noted elsewhere, Calvin’s vision of the glory and sovereignty of God was not an abstract idea. It was concrete and relevant to the common activities of every day life. Calvin was a man involved in raising children, burying the dead, preaching the word to common folk, singing Psalms with Genevans while fleeing persecutions from Kings and Popes. Calvin was truly a man who was in the world but not of the world (John 17:16).

Thus, the everyday facts of human existence, the “daily grind”, and the common activities of the men and women around him, were not absent when he penned his thoughts on Scripture in his commentaries. Of course, Calvin took his cues from Scripture first, he was not inserting his experience into his theology; however, he also recognized acutely that it was God who made this world, shaped the nature of it, and whose providence and government was constantly upholding and guiding it. Thus, in explaining the way the world worked, he used those facts of everyday life to explain what he had already found expressed in Scripture to make its message more understandable to the common person. Some have noted that Calvin’s understanding of nature and natural law was a significant component of overall theology [3].

It should not surprise us, then, that Calvin’s understanding of Scripture, nature, and the Christian Life had an agricultural component to it. Calvin would have been acquainted with the basics of farming and taking care of livestock; indeed, at one time, husbandry was called “the most general occupation of man” [2]. In this brief post, I will share excerpts from Calvin’s commentaries on subjects related to agriculture and husbandry. Husbandry is a topic of interest of mine and I was delighted to see it was something that came up in Calvin’s commentaries frequently. Webster’s original 1828 Dictionary defines husbandry as:

HUS’BANDRY, noun The business of a farmer, comprehending agriculture or tillage of the ground, the raising, managing and fattening of cattle and other domestic animals, the management of the dairy and whatever the land produces.

1. Frugality; domestic economy; good management; thrift. But in this sense we generally prefix good; as good husbandry

2. Care of domestic affairs.

Thus, we see that husbandry relates to the cultivation of the ground, frugal and simple living, the raising of animals, and the ordering of domestic life.

Law of Nature and Fertile Ground 

Calvin found the law of nature as a significant aspect of God’s design of the world. In describing the fertility of the earth, he says:

“Since, therefore, we daily see the earth pouring forth to us such riches from its lap, since we see the herbs producing seed, and this seed received and cherished in the bosom of the earth till it springs forth, and since we see trees shooting from other trees; all this flows from the same Word. If therefore we inquire, how it happens that the earth is fruitful, that the germ is produced from the seed, that fruits come to maturity, and their various kinds are annually reproduced; no other cause will be found, but that God has once spoken, that is, has issued his eternal decree; and that the earth, and all things proceeding from it, yield obedience to the command of God, which they always hear.”  [4] – Commentary on Genesis 1:13

Permaculture 

Permaculture, which focuses on sustainable land practices that allow for soil improvement, companion planting, and a host of other methods that make the land better than when it was first cultivated, finds a home in Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 2:

“Let him who possesses a field, so partake of its yearly fruits, that he may not suffer the ground to be injured by his negligence; but let him endeavor to hand it down to posterity as he received it, or even better cultivated. Let him so feed on its fruits that he neither dissipates it by luxury, nor permits to be marred or ruined by neglect.” Commentary on Genesis 2:15

Vocation, Natural Order, and Simplicity of Living

In the same commentary above, Calvin makes strong statements about vocation, simplicity of living, and the natural order:

And the Lord God took the man Moses now adds, that the earth was given to man, with this condition, that he should occupy himself in its cultivation. Whence it follows that men were created to employ themselves in some work, and not to lie down in inactivity and idleness. This labor, truly, was pleasant, and full of delight, entirely exempt from all trouble and weariness; since however God ordained that man should be exercised in the culture of the ground, he condemned in his person, all indolent repose. Wherefore, nothing is more contrary to the order of nature, than to consume life in eating, drinking, and sleeping, while in the meantime we propose nothing to ourselves to do. Moses adds, that the custody of the garden was given in charge to Adam, to show that we possess the things which God has committed to our hands, on the condition, that being content with a frugal and moderate use of them, we should take care of what shall remain.

For Calvin, labor is (by nature) a delight. Our vocations, as redeemed believers, ought to be a blessing to us and an aid toward our growth in holiness. This is what God intended for man according to his nature. Moreover, a contentedness with the “frugal and moderate use” of those “things which God has committed to our hands”  is the natural state of man. Greed, covetousness, sloth, and gluttony represent a perversion of that order.

We see this also in Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4. Man fulfilling the duties of his vocation, especially in husbandry, accords with the natural order.

“This, therefore, is the best means of a tranquil life, when every one, intent upon the duties of his own calling, discharges those duties which are enjoined upon him by the Lord, and devotes himself to these things: while the husbandman employs himself in rural labors, the workman carries on his occupation, and in this way every one keeps within his own limits. So soon as men turn aside from this, everything is thrown into confusion and disorder.”

– John Calvin, Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 4

Husbandry and the Chrisitan Life 

Principally, however, Calvin drew wisdom from the common experiences of husbandry to make a point about our spiritual lives. He comments later on the Book of Genesis:

“For if the husbandman knows how to separate the grains of wheat in his barn, which with the chaff are trodden under the feet of the oxen, or are struck out with the flail; much better does God know how to gather together his faithful people, — when he has chastised them for a time, — from among the wicked, (who are like worthless refuse,) that they may not perish together; yea, by the very event, he will, at length, prove that he would not permit those whom he was healing by his chastisements to perish.”  Commentary on Genesis 18

“For as…young oxen are not immediately yoked to the plough; so the Lord more gently exercises his own people, until, having gathered strength, they become more inured to toil.” – John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis 32

Calvin makes a point in both instances about suffering in the Christian life. To do so, he uses agrarian metaphors of toil to establish a greater purpose in suffering.

The Gospel Plow 
Calvin also used agrarian imagery when describing the preaching of the Word.

“That the earth may bring forth fruit, there is need of ploughing and sowing, and other means of culture; but after all this has been carefully done, the husbandman’s labor would be of no avail, did not the Lord from heaven give the increase, by the breaking forth of the sun, and still more by his wonderful and secret influence. Hence, although the diligence of the husbandman is not in vain, nor the seed that he throws in useless, yet it is only by the blessing of God that they are made to prosper, for what is more wonderful than that the seed, after it has rotted, springs up again! In like manner, the word of the Lord is seed that is in its own nature fruitful: ministers are as it were husbandmen, that plough and sow. Then follow other helps, as for example, irrigation. Ministers, too, act a corresponding part when, after casting the seed into the ground, they give help to the earth as much as is in their power, until it bring forth what it has conceived: but as for making their labor actually productive, that is a miracle of divine grace — not a work of human industry.

Observe, however, in this passage, how necessary the preaching of the word is, and how necessary the continuance of it. It were, undoubtedly, as easy a thing for God to bless the earth without diligence on the part of men, so as to make it bring forth fruit of its own accord, as to draw out, or rather press out [159] its increase, at the expense of much assiduity on the part of men, and much sweat and sorrow; but as the Lord hath so ordained (1 Corinthians 9:14) that man should labor, and that the earth, on its part, yield a return to his culture, let us take care to act accordingly. In like manner, it were perfectly in the power of God, without the aid of men, if it so pleased him, to produce faith in persons while asleep; but he has appointed it otherwise, so that faith is produced by hearing. (Romans 10:17.) That man, then, who, in the neglect of this means, expects to attain faith, acts just as if the husbandman, throwing aside the plough, taking no care to sow; and leaving off all the labor of husbandry, were to open his mouth, expecting food to drop into it from heaven.” – Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3

Husbandry and the Mixed Nature of the Covenant 

Calvin, taking a cue from Christ who spoke of the Kingdom of God as a sower casting seed, found elsewhere a way to use how a husbandman cultivate and harvests his crops:

“It is a most suitable comparison; for Scripture often compares us to a field, when it represents us as God’s heritage; and we have been chosen by God as a peculiar people for this end — that he may gather fruit from us, as a husbandman gathers produce from his fields. We can indeed add nothing to what God is; but there is a fruit which he demands; so that our whole life is to be devoted to his glory. God then would not have us to be idle and fruitless, but to bring forth some fruit. But what is done by hypocrites? They sow; that is, they shew some concern, yea, they pretend great ardor, when God exhorts them to repent, or when he invites them. They then make a great bustle; yet they mar everything by their own mixtures, the same as though one scattered his seed among thorns: but it will be of no avail thus to cast seed among thorns; for the ground ought to be well cleared and prepared. Hence God laughs to scorn this preposterous care and diligence, in which hypocrites pride themselves, and says, that they busy themselves without any advantage; for it is the same, as though an husbandman had wholly lost his seed; for when the ground is full of briers and thorns, the seed, though it may grow for a time, cannot yet bring forth fruit. For this reason God bids the Israelites to plough the fallows; [100] as though he had said, that they were like a rough ground, which is full of thorns, and that therefore there was need of unusual and by no means a common cultivation; for when thorns and briers grow in a field, of what benefit will it be to cast seed there? Nay, a field cannot be well prepared by the plough alone, so that it may produce fruit; but much labor is also necessary, as is the case with fallow ground, which is called essarter in our language.

The Prophet then intimates that the people had become hardened in their vices, and that they were not only full of vices, like a field left uncultivated for two years; but that their vices were so deep, that they could not be well cleared away by ploughing alone, except they were drawn up by the roots, as they were like thorns and brambles, which have been growing in a field for many years. We hence see, that not only impiety and contempt of God, and other sins of the people of Israel, are referred to by the Prophet, but also their perverseness; for they had so hardened themselves for many years in their vices, that there was need not only of the plough, but also of other instruments to tear up the thorns, to eradicate those vices which had formed deep roots. As then, he had before warned them, that they would labor in vain except they returned to God with sincerity of heart and acquiesced in him; so here he bids them to examine their life, that they might not cast away their seed, like hypocrites, who formally acknowledge their sins. Hence he bids them wholly to shake off their vices, which were hid within, according to what they do, who tear up thorns and briers in a field, which has been long neglected, and left without being cultivated.” – Commentary on Jeremiah 4

While this article may not get you to start a hobby farm, I hope it would accomplish its intended purpose. That is, that we would all better appreciate how Calvin communicated a wholistic vision for God’s glory, sovereignty, and providence in creating and sustaining the world.

 

FOOTNOTE:

[1] THL Parker, A Portrait of Calvin, published by Desiring God.

[2] According to the definition of “agriculture” in Webster’s 1828 Dictionary.

[3] Susan E. Schreiner, The Theater of His Glory, Baker Academic, 1995

[4] All quotation from Calvin’s Commentaries were obtained from the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

I am a Reformed Presbyterian. I offer all content as my own personal reflections. I am not a licensed minister.