Monthly Archives: October 2013

Advice for Idelette Calvin from a Dying Old Man

In the summer of 1542, a few months after Idelette had arrived in Geneva as the new wife of John Calvin, a friend of Calvin’s lay dying. His name was Ami Porral, and he was the chief magistrate of the city, as well as the one who Calvin had consulted in drawing up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances the year before. Porral was the kind of man who loved to teach and exhort. Calvin visited him before his wife Idelette had a chance to, and they talked about salvation, the resurrection, and church unity.

Calvin recounted, “Whoever called to see him, heard some suitable exhortation; and that you may not suppose it to have been mere talkative vanity, as far as was possible he applied to each individual what was best adapted to his circumstances, and most likely to be of use to him.” Porral directed some extraordinary advice to Calvin and Viret, who visited his bedside each day that week. His advice nearly knocked them over.

John CalvinCalvin says, “We were both of us in a sort of stupor of astonishment; and whenever it recurs to my memory, even yet I grow bewildered. For he spoke in such a way, that it seemed to reflect some discourse by one of ourselves after long and careful meditation… Thence he proceeded to exhort us both, as well regarding the other departments of our charge as ministers, as also to constancy and firmness; and when he discoursed at some length on the future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel, he seemed inspired with the foresight of a prophet. It was wonderful how wisely he spoke to purpose on what concerned the public weal.” The tone of Calvin’s letter shows how sincerely he took to heart this strangely insightful advice from his dying friend. The “future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel” were to be great indeed, and Calvin no doubt pondered Porral’s words in his heart for many years after.

The second afternoon, when Idelette was able to free herself from household duties, she joined her husband at Porral’s deathbed. Porral’s specific advice for Idelette penetrated her heart as well. Porral “told her to be of good courage whatever might happen, that she ought to consider that she had not been rashly led hither, but brought by the wonderful counsel of God, that she also might serve in the Gospel.”

Idelette de bure calvinThat the dying man chose this topic to encourage Idelette is interesting, because it exposes that she may have been distressed about her move to Geneva and the role it would play in her life (or he may have thought as much, whether or not it was true). At this point, she was eight months pregnant with her third child, feeling like she might be coming down with the flu, still trying to navigate this strange and new city of Geneva, and finding the inhabitants not very welcoming to foreigners. To “be of good courage, whatever might happen,” was probably exactly what she needed to hear. Porral’s encouragement that “she also might serve in the Gospel” shows his desire for her to be a true helpmeet to Calvin, “also” serving Geneva by preaching the Gospel in her work alongside her husband.

Reading over this detailed account in Calvin’s letter, I am struck by how fully the Lord used this man’s dying words to prophetically address specific fears and weaknesses in both John and Idelette Calvin’s lives. John Calvin was young and timid, by his own admission, and shied away from public spectacle whenever he could. Yet here he was exhorted to “constancy and firmness” in every future difficulty that he must take on. Idelette was far away from the home, and family, and religion of her youth, and may well have felt “rashly led” to Geneva. But Porral’s exhortation was to consider that it was by the Lord’s providential counsel that she had been brought here, and that she should courageously serve in the Gospel.

Calvin and Idelette remained at his bedside the rest of the day until he could no longer speak. Since it was getting late, Calvin and Idelette started for home, walking slowly up the dark street, pondering together the unique charges they had been given to carry out. The next morning they found out that Porral had passed away. “Scarcely had we left,” Calvin writes, “when he gave up his pious soul to Christ.”

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Ask John Calvin: What is a wife for?

This summer I began to work through reading all of Calvin’s commentaries, particularly noting the sections in which he wrote about families, women, marriage, children, husbands, and fathers, and all the many ways they are intertwined. It has been incredibly rewarding. One of the major ideas so far has been that a marriage includes “all parts and usages of life” and it wasn’t established just for procreation of children. Calvin loved the Scriptural idea that God created a wife to be a man’s companion, so they could work alongside each other as if they were one and the same person, neither being inferior because both were created in God’s image.

Floris Gerritsz van Scooten  (Dutch artist, 1590–1655) Larder

“Christ is the head of man and woman without any distinction,” he said, and his view of women as equally faithful, intelligent, and spiritual followers of Christ made its way into numerous sermons and writings.

He plunged into the Hebrew of the phrase “meet for him” in the story of Eve’s creation, showing linguistically that the phrase expressed that the woman was “as if opposite to,” or “over against him… because she responds to him.” He continued,

“The Greek translators have faithfully rendered the sense, and Jerome, ‘Which may be like him,’ refuted the error of some, who think that the woman was formed only for the sake of propagation, and who restrict the word ‘good,’ which had lately been mentioned, to the production of offspring. They do not think that a wife was personally necessary for Adam, because he was hitherto free from lust; as if she had been given to him only for the companion of his chamber, and not rather that she might be the inseparable associate of his life.”

There was no place for man being the “spiritual” spouse, and women being the “practical” one, created to fulfill a man’s sexual needs, produce children, and manage the home. Though this was a common philosophy of the day and contains a bit of truth, the Scriptures—and Calvin—so obviously disagreed. A wife is the “inseparable associate of his life,” which must mean she is intelligent, companionable, talented, and fully able to come alongside or “across from” her husband to help him with his mission in life.

Jan_Vermeer_van_Delft_021

Part of this mission may be to cuddle in bed, carry his children, cook his meals, and teach his sons and daughters how to spell. But that should not at all detract from the understanding that her mission is to inseparably associate herself with every aspect of his life in which she can prove herself helpful, be it business accounting, back massages, writing letters and making phone calls, editing books, research and writing, understanding and being able to discuss the gospel, buying land, giving to charity, making decisions he would have made when he is absent, and in every way proving herself a help. She should truly be a crown that does not diminish the glory of God in her husband, but causes it to show the brighter. Those are my thoughts, but read Calvin. His opinion is what you really want to hear. It’s a long quote, but hopefully my (added) paragraph breaks will help you to process it! Here it is:

“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 considered, 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 would be a faithful assistant to him; and both, with one consent, would cultivate a holy, as well as friendly and peaceful [communication]. (from John Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1)

I especially love this line: “The sweetest harmony would reign in marriage, because the husband would look up with reverence to God, and the woman would be a faithful assistant to him.”