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.