Monthly Archives: August 2013

Accessibility

I’m at the Denver Seminary Library right now, my favorite place to work because they have secluded desks and aisles upon aisles of delicious books, including all of Calvin’s letters and many compilations of his other writings. At this very moment they’re pumping cinnamon roll smell from the coffee shop into every nook and cranny. But I must stay focused, as much as I’d like to take my English tea and a book and be done with writing for the day. Anyway, I just came across this quote from Calvin in Beza’s biography of him, that shows how accessible he was, to everyone.

He says, “M. de Farges boasts of having talked with princes and kings, whereas I refused to speak to him. Speaking for myself, I do not boast of having talked to great noblemen. I will simply say that every day I talk to all those who need to see me, even the youngest and the poorest.”

Image

My nephew and I. This little child is easy to love.

Take a moment to think what this means. Though the theology Calvin wrote about penetrated through centuries of heresy to establish most of the doctrines that the evangelical church holds to today, Calvin himself wasn’t so busy being visionary that he couldn’t talk to little people with little minds and little finances. Beza describes his great gentleness in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others, and his remarkable affability in meeting the young on their own level.

To be able to explain great doctrines to both children and seminary students would be incredible, except that it is a characteristic that many great minds have had. C. S. Lewis was just as influential (perhaps more so) in his Narnia stories to the children as he was to the Oxford pupils he tutored, or to the adults who read Mere Christianity.  And Jesus rebuked his disciples for them turning children away from Him, saying “Let the little children come to Me.” Of such is the kingdom of heaven.

Are you convicted a little bit? Do you think more highly of your conversations than Calvin did? What would happen if we took a moment to talk with the “least of these,” to listen compassionately to the incessant woes of the widow, to explain what it means to get along with siblings to an eight-year-old, to “every day” talk to those who need to see you, “even the youngest and the poorest”? I don’t know what that would look like, but I think it would be good.

It’s interesting that his dying words included an admonition to the young, to beware of this very thing.

“Let the young retain a sense of modesty without wanting to press too far ahead, for youth always entails an element of boasting, which seeks to exalt oneself and look down on others.”

Hospitality in John Calvin’s Home

Calvin and Idelette’s home was famous for its hospitality. One guest to their home wrote to the couple, “Your hospitality in the name of Christ is not unknown to anybody in Europe.” One of Calvin’s personal friends, Theodore Beza, recounts several times in which Calvin invited people with disputes or questions into his home fora meal. As they relaxed and enjoyed their meals, they would inevitably end up talking about whatever it was that had troubled them, and usually in a peaceable manner. Friendship extended over a table of steaming platters did much to soothe a troubled heart. Beza describes Calvin’s “remarkable affability,” revealed in how “he could meet the very young on their own level when the need arose,” and how he demonstrated great “gentleness… in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others.”Image

He was also a fascinating conversationalist because of his great knowledge and memory. “If someone brought up the subject of particular things that he had witnessed in the past, whether in France, Italy, or Germany, [Calvin] would be able to talk about them, mentioning people and places by name and turning the discussion to good account.”

One preacher who enjoyed the hospitality of the Calvin house was John Knox, the famous reformer of Scotland. He greatly admired Calvin and had many questions for him, especially about his opinion on women in a civil office of authority. He was also astonished to find that “the Theologian” Calvin liked to play a game of “clef” after dinner! When all the dishes were cleared from the table, two objects—books or bottles perhaps—were set up at the opposite end of the table as “goal posts.” Each player was to slide a key across the table so it went between the two objects but did not fall off the other side of the table. Local lore also holds that he enjoyed playing lawn bowling too. This was a simple game of rolling a ball across the lawn, attempting to hit or touch a certain object.

Sometimes Calvin and Idelette took their visiting friends on a tour of the countryside, introducing them to other friends along the way. Writing to his friend Viret, Calvin dangles a tempting itinerary, hoping he’ll stay.

“Someone told me that you are inclined to come to Geneva. I have seized the hope with as much fervor as if you were already here. If such is truly your intention, come Saturday. Your arrival could not be more timely. You will preach for me Sunday morning in the city so that I can preach at Jussy, and join me after dinner. We’ll take a visit to Monsieur de Falais; then, crossing the lake, we’ll enjoy the pleasures of the country together at the home of our friends Pommier and Delisle, and we shan’t return until Thursday. The day following, if you’d like to go to Tournay or Bellerive, I’ll accompany you. Above all, you can count on the warmest reception.” (“Les Amitiés de Calvin,” Bulletin de la Société de L’Histoire du Protestantisme Français (Paris, 1864), page 93. Author’s translation.)

The warmest reception. Those who know little of Calvin’s theology and even less of the man himself assume that he was austere, judgmental, and scared people away. Yet both those who disagreed with him and those who were his closest friends were invited into his home for a warm meal, invigorating and affirming conversation, with games on the lawn to finish off the day.

John Calvin and Hospitality in Geneva

It’s well known that John Calvin the bachelor practiced active hospitality before he was married, and that during the first months of his marriage to Idelette, many guests and boarders enjoyed John and Idelette’s home for both long and short periods of time. Calvin believed that hospitality was not a question of personal preference, but of obedience to the command to show kindness to “strangers within your gates.” Hospitality has “nearly ceased to be properly observed among men,” Calvin writes, “for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers.” (Calvin, John, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), p. 340)

Calvin was especially hospitable to religious refugees, teaching others in his congregation that “no duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God” than to provide kind hospitality to religious refugees.

“Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, ‘He is a stranger;’ but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that He forbids you to despise your own flesh (Isa. 58:7, Vg.). Say, ‘He is contemptible and worthless;’ but the Lord shows him to be one to who He has deigned to give the beauty of His image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to Himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” (Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.7.6.)

Calvin’s preaching on hospitality influenced more than his own home and congregation. During Calvin’s years in Geneva, the city’s population more than doubled! Most were refugees looking for a place to safely raise their families, and with Geneva being just a few miles from the border of anti-Protestant France, Geneva was a practical and nurturing “city of refuge.” We find numerous letters of Calvin’s inviting his friends and friends of friends to Geneva. He loved having all his friends near him, and he loved adding people he had not met yet to his circle of friends.

One modern-day visitor to Geneva described some of the homes from Calvin’s era that still carry a visible mark of the incredible hospitality the Genevans practiced during the reformation. With the streets in Geneva narrowly winding in a tightly-cramped city and the surrounding gardens being very small, there was no place to expand a house’s square footage, but up! So roofs were literally lifted off these homes and another floor or two was added onto the upper story in order to accommodate more guests. The roof was then put back on the highest story, and the house was twice as accommodating than before. Like a high water-mark in a river, these homes show a high point in Geneva’s history. (Rev. Mark Englund-Krieger, “Report to the Presbytery, May 22, 2012,” on Carlisle Executive Presbyter, <http://markekrieger.blogspot.com/2012/05/report-to-presbytery-may-22-2012.html> accessed on June 16, 2012.)

Calvin was also known to have established the “5% rule” amongst local businessmen in order to obtain loans for foreign refugees in Geneva. He personally requested that banks loan refugees what the refugees would need to start a life and a business in Geneva, and to only charge them 5% interest, with no increases. This request was not a civil or pastoral command, but more of a challenge and encouragement to the business owners of Geneva. As a result of this wise “hospitable” strategy of Calvin’s, the city’s economy boomed, bringing in more still more merchants and business owners.

Calvin Writes on the Role of Beauty and Attraction in Choosing a Wife

When Calvin was 32 years old and had ended up in peaceful Strasbourg after a tumultuous attempt at ministry in Geneva, he was ready to get married. Calvin’s friend Farel was eager to help, and had all sorts of ladies to suggest. In response, Calvin reminded Farel that he was “not one of those insane lovers who embraces also the vices of those they are in love with, where they are smitten at first sight by a fine figure.” Evidently he was not waiting to be captivated by external beauty, or swept off his feet by some sort of magical chemistry beyond his control. 

Some could easily misinterpret Calvin’s meaning if they only looked at this letter to determine his thoughts on beauty and physical attraction. Though Calvin did not give high priority to physical attraction when finding his own marriage partner, he certainly condoned it as an important aspect in the equation of a good marriage. 

Calvin makes clear that having “regard to beauty” is not a fault when choosing a wife, but that beauty in a woman should not be the only factor that compels a man to marry a girl. Look at Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 2:6 (“That the sons of God saw the daughters of men, that they were fair, and they took them wives of all whom they chose,”):

“Moses does not deem it worthy of condemnation that regard was had to beauty, in the choice of wives; but that mere lust reigned. For marriage is a thing too sacred to allow that men should be induced to it by the lust of the eyes! For this union is inseparable comprising all the parts of life; as we have before seen, that the woman was created to be a helper of the man. Therefore our appetite becomes brutal, when we are so ravished with the charms of beauty, that those things which are chief are not taken into the account. Moses more clearly describes the violent impetuosity of their lust, when he says, that “they took wives of all that they chose;” by which he signifies, that the sons of God did not make their choice from those possessed of necessary endowments, but wandered without discrimination, rushing onward according to their lust. We are taught, however, in these words, that temperance is to be used in holy wedlock, and that its profanation is no light crime before God. For it is not fornication which is here condemned in the sons of the saints, but the too great indulgence of license in choosing themselves wives. And truly, it is impossible but that, in the succession of time, the sons of God should degenerate when they thus bound themselves in the same yoke with unbelievers. And this was the extreme policy of Balaam; that, when the power of cursing was taken from him, he commanded women to be privily sent by the Midianites, who might seduce the people of God to impious defection. Thus, as in the sons of the patriarchs, of whom Moses now treats, the forgetfulness of that grace which had been divinely imparted to them was, in itself, a grievous evil, inasmuch as they formed illicit marriages after their own host; a still worse addition was made, when, by mingling themselves with the wicked, they profaned the worship of God, and fell away from the faith; a corruption which is almost always wont to follow the former.”

The story of Jacob and Rachel also reveals Calvin’s thoughts on beauty and attraction in choosing a marriage partner, where Calvin warns against the “very culpable want of self-government, when any one chooses a wife only for the sake of her beauty.” “Excellence of disposition ought to be deemed of the first importance,” he says. In this passage, Calvin also acknowledges what we moderns call “falling in love” by giving it the phrase, “a secret kind of affection [that] produces mutual love,” which is often difficult to restrain. But I give you the full text, below, so that you can see the natural progression of Calvin’s thoughts, in his exposition of Genesis 29:18.

“Further, it is not altogether to be deemed a fault that Jacob was rather inclined to love Rachel; whether it was that Leah, on account of her tender eyes, was less beautiful, or that she was pleasing only by the comeliness of her eyes, while Rachel excelled her altogether in elegance of form. For we see how naturally a secret kind of affection produces mutual love. Only excess is to be guarded against, and so much the more diligently, because it is difficult so to restrain affections of this kind, that they do not prevail to the stifling of reason. Therefore he who shall be induced to choose a wife, because of the elegance of her form, will not necessarily sin, provided reason always maintains the ascendancy, and holds the wantonness of passion in subjection. Yet perhaps Jacob sinned in being too self-indulgent, when he desired Rachel the younger sister to be given to him, to the injury of the elder; and also, while yielding to the desire of his own eyes, he undervalued the virtues of Leah: for this is a very culpable want of self-government, when any one chooses a wife only for the sake of her beauty, whereas excellence of disposition ought to be deemed of the first importance.” 

In Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 39:6, the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, Calvin uses this opportunity to point out that Joseph’s “elegance of form” caused a unique trial in this case. Perhaps beauty isn’t always a blessing, Calvin seems to be saying here. Have you ever thought of that? 

“‘And Joseph was a goodly person, and well-favored.’ Whereas elegance of form was the occasion of great calamity to holy Joseph, let us learn not greatly to desire those graces of person which may conciliate the favor of the world; but rather let each be content with his own lot. We see to how many dangers they are exposed, who excel in beauty; for it is very difficult for such to restrain themselves from all lascivious desires.”

Nor was Calvin a foreigner to romantic feeling, or at least to understanding the romantic feelings of others. He talks about how “most tender is that love a youth has for a young virgin in the flower of her age.,”

When Calvin looked for his own wife, he believed there were certain practical components that would make a good wife for himself, and evidently he had given beauty some thought as well, though a different sort of beauty than most desire. “This is the only beauty which allures me,” he says, and lists his qualifications, which I will include in a later post on Calvin’s List.

 

Calvin Writes on the Blessing of Marriage to Men and Society

Calvin had no sympathy with those husbands who jokingly repeated the “vulgar proverb” that a wife is a “necessary evil.” It was years later, after Idelette had passed away and Calvin was near his own death, that he wrote his commentary on the phrase, “it is not good that the man should be alone.” He wrote, “Many think that celibacy conduces to their advantage, and, therefore, abstain from marriage, lest they should be miserable. Not only have heathen writers defined that to be a happy life which is passed without a wife, but the first book of Jerome… is stuffed with petulant reproaches, by which he attempts to render hallowed wedlock both hateful and infamous. To these wicked suggestions of Satan let the faithful learn to oppose this declaration of God, by which He ordains the conjugal life for man, not to his destruction, but to his salvation.”

Calvin’s explanation of how the woman is a blessing to the entire world, as well as to her husband, is fascinating:

 Moses now explains the design of God in creating the woman; namely, that there should be human beings on the earth who might cultivate mutual society between themselves… Since it was not expedient for man to be alone, a wife must be created, who might be his helper. I… take the meaning to be this, that God begins, indeed, at the first step of human society, yet designs to include others, each in its proper place. The commencement therefore, involves a general principle, that man was formed to be a social animal…

Now, the human race could not exist without the woman; and, therefore, in the conjunction of human beings, that sacred bond is especially conspicuous, by which the husband and the wife are combined in one body, and one soul… But although God pronounced, concerning Adam, that it would not be profitable for him to be alone, yet I do not restrict the declaration to his person alone, but rather regard it as a common law of man’s vocation, so that everyone ought to receive it as said to himself, that solitude is not good, excepting only him whom God exempts as by a special privilege. Many think that celibacy conduces to their advantage, and, therefore abstain from marriage, lest they should be miserable. Not only have heathen writers defined that to be a happy life which is passed without a wife, but the first book of Jermoe, against Jovinian, is stuffed with petulant reproaches, by which he attempts to render hallowed wedlock both hateful and infamous. To these wicked suggestions of Satan let the faithful learn to oppose this declaration of God, by which he ordains the conjugal life for man, not to his destruction, but to his salvation… 

Now, since God assigns the woman as a help to the man, he not only prescribes to wives the rule of their vocation, to instruct them in their duty, but he also pronounces that marriage will really prove to men the best support of life. We may therefore conclude, that the order of nature implies that the woman should be the helper of the man… The voice of God [is] to be heard, which declares that woman is given as a companion and an associate to the man, to assist him to live well. I confess, indeed that in this corrupt state of mankind, the blessing of God, which is here described, is neither perceived nor flourishes; but the cause of the evil must be consider, namely, that the order of nature, which God had appointed, has been inverted by us. For if the integrity of man had remained to this day such as it was from the beginning, that divine institution would be clearly discerned, and the sweetest harmony would reign in marriage; because the husband would look up with reverence to God; the woman this would be a faithful assistant to him; and both, with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as friendly and peaceful [communication].

Did the “sweetest harmony” reign in Calvin and Idelette’s marriage? Did he look up with reverence to God for his instruction in how to lead his wife; and was she a faithful assistant to him, helping him to “live well?” Did both in unity cultivate a holy, friendly, and peaceful relationship with each other? Every scrap of information I have gleaned about their marriage says they did.

[All these quotes from John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. 1, Genesis, (Grand Rapids, Baker Books: 2009) p. 128 – 130]

John Calvin and Idelette DeBure

A few years ago I was looking for information on John Calvin’s family. Specifically, on his wife Idelette. There was so little material, and what there was, was spread thinly over Calvin’s biographies, like butter over too much bread.

Image

So I began a research project that has extended into two years so far, and which I expect to continue for at least another year. Some of my findings have been unexpected: glimpses into the heart of a man who greatly influenced Christianity and yet who was so human that he overate when he was distressed about a piffle between his housekeeper and his brother, and so loving that he wrote hundreds of letters his childhood friends for his entire life.

Image

And Idelette, the mysterious lady who captured Calvin’s heart and served the Lord as a  worthy companion to her husband in Geneva, and whose dying words were centered on the resurrection of Christ, this lady has dropped many fascinating clues about her life. She shows up at the end of Calvin’s letters, sending her greetings to his friends. She is found at the deathbed of an elderly pastor, who uses his dying words to encourage her in her newlywed life of ministry alongside her husband, that she should not fear what Geneva would hold for her.

My research on John and Idelette is almost completed, but there is still much to write in order to turn it into an enchanting biography worthy of publication. My next project is to work through Calvin’s commentaries to glean out every reference to family, marriage, children, and women, and to work his eloquence on those topics into the story I’ve already written about Mr. and Mrs. Calvin.

This blog will be my training ground. I plan to put scraps from my book on this blog to see what people think of what I’ve written so far. It will also serve as accountability for my writing: for I will try to always post a portion of what I’ve written each day after I write it.