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Jessica Hooten Wilson recently commented that because author Marilynne Robinson views all of created life as a sacred gift, her worldview “begins to sound more Catholic than Protestant.” But as Nicholas Wolterstorff has pointed out, “If ever there was a theologian who saw the universe sacramentally, it was Calvin.” In his Sermons on Job, Calvin ponders, “Why does God offer the earth to us as a mirror? It is so we can contemplate in it his glory, his wisdom, his virtue, his power.” It is precisely the Calvinist sacramental vision that allows Robinson to take sin and grace seriously in her novels.
Robinson’s most famous character, the Congregationalist minister John Ames, is devoted to Calvin—as is Robinson herself. She is a careful student of the Reformer and mimics his form: The Gilead novels, like the Institutes, should be read as a summa pietatis rather than a summa theologiae. This means that for both Calvin and Robinson, the goal is doxology.
Institutes - Subtitle - Work - Sum - Piety
The Institutes’ subtitle describes the work as “almost the whole sum of piety and whatever is necessary to know about the doctrine of salvation.” In the same vein, Robinson seeks to express in her novels a theology that has worship as its end. In her work, delight in the created order is a precursor to knowledge of God’s sustaining presence.
Unlike other contemporary fiction writers, Robinson has not abandoned metaphysics. She is conscious of what’s lacking in the contemporary theological imagination, arguing that “a theology for our time should help us to know that Being is indeed the theater of God’s glory.” This means careful attention to God’s presence in the world—its sacramental character—the extent of which is the entire created order and the sum of which is Christ’s cross. As Calvin writes, “The natural order was that the frame of the universe...
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