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Marie Dentiere—The Woman on the Reformation Wall

There is one woman’s name on the famous Reformation Wall in Geneva. She is Marie Dentiere, and she has become a somewhat controversial figure in the story of the reformation. Some have labeled her an early feminist and suggest she was a nuisance to Calvin. Others see a bold and passionate woman who used the means available to her to spread the gospel, and who ended up writing the preface to one of Calvin’s books as a result.

Marie was a French noblewoman who joined an Augustinian convent in her mid-twenties. In the convent she studied some of Luther’s writings, and as a result, left the convent within three years of her arrival. Soon after, Marie met and married another monastical escapee, Simon Robert, who was active in the reformation movement. Together they moved on a pastoral assignment to Valais, where William Farel was a missionary at the time. This was the first time a married couple, not just a solo pastor, had accepted a pastoral assignment for the French reformed church, and people began to take notice of Marie’s active involvement in many aspects of the ministry. She learned Hebrew and Latin, and helped her husband translate a Bible. She also accompanied her husband on many of his evangelistic trips. Eventually, her husband, Simon, died. She married her husband’s good friend, Antoine Froment, and together they moved to Geneva.

Marie Dentiere BookMarie’s personal mission was evangelism, particularly evangelism of women. She visited a convent early in Geneva’s reformation, where she tried to persuade the nuns to leave the Catholic faith, join the reformation, and start a family. Marie was acquainted with the sister of the King of France, Marguerite de Navarre, to whom she wrote a strong letter encouraging her and all women to study the Bible themselves, and to use what means were available to women for spreading the Word:

“For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth. And even though we are not permitted to preach in public in congregations and churches, we are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity.”

Though her letter was addressed to Marguerite, her tone indicated that she wanted, and expected, her letter to be spread to many women all across Europe “and principally for the poor little women wanting to know and understand the truth, who do not know what path, what way to take, in order that from now on they be not internally tormented and afflicted, but rather that they be joyful, consoled, and led to follow the truth, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Her letter was later published by a printer in Geneva.

Because Marie had left the convent and found new spiritual life in being able to study the Bible and apply its meaning to her own life, she desired that all women take up this master-tool available to them. In her letter Marie also mentioned her “little daughter” who is perhaps not so little because she had just authored a Hebrew grammar curriculum to instruct other “little” girls in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. Marie hoped that Marguerite’s daughter will find it useful, “For as you well know, the female sex is more shameful than the other, and not without cause. For until now, Scripture has been so hidden from them. No one dared say a word about it, and it seemed that women should not read or hear anything in the Holy Scriptures. That is the main reason, my Lady, that has moved me to write to you, hoping in God that henceforth women will not be so scorned as in the past.” Marie didn’t push against the Biblical restrictions on women teaching in reformed churches, but merely desired that women take up all the opportunities that the reformation made available to them.

“Therefore, if God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by His Holy Scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write, speak, and declare it to one another because of the defamers of truth? Ah, it would be too bold to try to stop them, and it would be too foolish for us to hide the talent that God has given us, God who will give us the grace to persevere to the end.”

She knew that her words would not be accepted by everyone.

“Some might be upset because this is said by a woman, believing that this is not appropriate for her, since woman is made for pleasure. But I pray you to be not offended; you must not think that I do this from hatred or from rancor. I do this only to edify my neighbor, seeing him in such great, horrible darkness… No man could be able to expose it enough. How, therefore, will a woman do it?”

She desired to dispel the myth that women were made only for sensual enjoyment, and didn’t have brains to think and study. She resisted those who said, “It is not up to women to know [Scripture]… but they should just believe without questioning anything.” She continued, “[the Catholics] just want us to give pleasure, as is our custom, to do our work, spin on the distaff, live as women before us did, like our neighbors.” She countered, “Do we have two gospels, one for men and another for women? One for the wise and another for fools? Are we not one in our Lord?”

Marie also authored one of the first eyewitness histories of the reformation in Geneva. She wrote under the guise of a masculine merchant. Her perspective was not exactly chronological, but she put great care into interpreting the various events from a spiritual point of view. She drew metaphorical parallels between the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and the exodus of Geneva from Catholicism. She wrote this history to encourage fellow protestants in their sufferings, much as the Israelites had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, and her message was to “hope against all hope.”

However, this remarkable lady wasn’t without her vices. On several occasions, Marie Dentiere made herself a nuisance to the reformers of Geneva, possibly because of her public lectures on street corners and in taverns, where her audience was usually men. Her message was allegedly that of the reformation, and she seemed to support all that the the reformers were doing, but historians say that it was her manner of delivery and her chosen audience that called her message into question. On several occasions, Farel said she was corrupting her husband and indicated that she seemed to be the leader in their marriage. Calvin mentioned her in a letter to Farel (Marie is called “the wife of Froment” here).

“I am now going to give you a humorous story. The wife of Froment lately came to this place. She declaimed through all the shops, and at almost all the cross-roads, against long garments. When she knew that I was aware of it, she excused herself by alleging that she had said with a smile, that we were either unbecomingly clothed, to the great detriment of the Church, or that you taught what was erroneous, when you said that false prophets could be distinguished by their long vestments. When I was rebutting so stale a calumny, she began to ascribe even to the Holy Spirit what she had directed against us. What is the meaning, said she, of that passage of the Gospel, “They will come to you in long garments?” I replied, that I did not know where that sentence was to be found, unless, perhaps, it might occur in the gospel of the Manichaeans; for the passage of Luke 20:45, is as follows: “Beware of the Scribes, who desire to walk in long robes,” but not, “They will come to you,” etc., which she had interpolated from Matthew 7:15. Feeling that she was closely pressed, she complained of our tyranny, because there was not a general license of prating about everything. I dealt with the woman as I should have done. She immediately proceeded to the widow of Michael, who gave her a hospitable reception, sharing with her not only her table, but her bed, because she maligned the ministers. I leave these wounds untouched, because they appear to me incurable until the Lord apply His hand.”

It is hard to know exactly what Calvin though of her “ministry” on the street corners, but it is obvious that he disagreed with her interpretation of this specific passage of the Bible. It also seems that he didn’t think highly of her loud mannerisms. Perhaps it didn’t seem appropriate for a lady to give herself such a public platform, so open to derision or debate. The fact that she maligned the ministers and retorted when Calvin tried to correct her is also unfortunate. Others (men, mostly) who maligned the Genevan ministers were usually taken to the authorities and asked to publicly apologize, but Calvin seemed to think that nothing more was needed in her case. Perhaps he realized that God was working on her in other ways. This must have been true, because the most interesting aspect of their relationship occurred fifteen years later, when Calvin asked Marie Dentiere to write the preface of his sermon on women’s apparel. Marie agreed, and exhorted women to shun the womanly vices of covetousness and materialism, especially in elaborate dress and makeup.

“You will find that those who are the most concerned about adorning their bodies, are little concerned that their spirits be adorned with true, solid virtues. As for us, we should not seek the ornament of garments, but of good behavior. As for women, who are in that regard more covetous than men, may they understand that too much daring has always been associated with immodesty; likewise, on the contrary, simplicity in clothes has always been a mark of chastity and continence.”

At the very end of her preface, she introduced Calvin and the passage he preached on, with this:

“Let us listen to the Apostle speaking to Timothy and to the man who preached publicly about that passage, a man who because of the purity of his teachings deserves to be heard among all the ministers and faithful pastors in Europe today.” In both her “Epistle” to Marguerite and this “Preface” to Calvin’s sermon, Marie included a subtle mention of her husband by including the word “froment,” which meant “wheat” but was also her husband’s last name. Some believe this to be an acknowledgment that her husband helped in authoring each of these publications.

Throughout Marie’s years in Geneva, she often spoke in favor of the reformers. When Calvin and Farel were kicked out of Geneva after their initial unsuccessful attempt at establishing the reformation in that city, Marie was one of the prominent citizens who wrote and spoke in their defense. She mentioned Calvin and Farel several times in her letter to Marguerite, affectionately referring to them as “exiles” who “don’t care or worry about pleasing anyone but their Lord and master, serving, honoring, and valuing Him.”

From these two interactions, we cannot guess very much about what Calvin thought of Marie, though many recent female writers hold that Calvin conspicuously ignored her throughout his ministry, because she was a woman behaving outside of her proper role. However, there is little evidence for this. Calvin disagreed with her teaching on long robes because she was quoting a verse improperly in order to prove her point. He took the time to stop and correct her. Her “maligning of the ministers” was certainly a serious offense in 16th century Geneva, but he treated her gently, and trusted that she would change, which seems to have been the case. When she was asked to write the preface to his sermon, she freely spoke her opinion, drawing what she believed to be Scriptural application. No doubt she had always retained great influence over the women of Geneva, and her preface to this sermon would probably increase the sermon’s readership among women. Historian McKinley suggests that the heat of the battle for the reformation had drawn Calvin’s and Marie’s goals into closer proximity. The persecution of their French brothers and sisters was increasing, and both Calvin and Marie desired to strengthen the reformation movement.

John Calvin on Women

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In late October a friend of mine told me about some quotes of Calvin’s she had read that seemed to point to him being a sexist male chauvinist. I went on a wild goose chase and hunted down these quotes and what people were saying about them, read some context surrounding his quotes, and have come back to my original conclusion. John Calvin was not a sexist male chauvinist. ‘Tis true. My own research, as well as the research done by many who have made a lifetime of studying this topic, declare otherwise. John Calvin haters will always hate, but if they actually carefully read what he wrote on women, they would find that he was no radical. His theology on women fits pretty well within the complementarian box, which was actually quite rare in his day. Calvin’s views on women were no different from the Apostle Paul’s. Woman was created from man, to be his helper, and thus holds an earthly rank that could be called inferior to the rank given to the man. But Calvin was careful to point out that spiritually, and in regards to the humanness of man and women, they are equal. Unlike many theologians before him who thought woman was the more “sinful” of the genders (Aquinas was one of these), Calvin points out example after example of how a woman’s uniquely-created gifts bless not only her husband and children, but also the entire world. She does not have to have the same ranking as her husband to be equally used of God for furthering His kingdom. I don’t have the space here to quote every example of this that I found in Calvin’s commentaries, but I am putting it all in my book.

Even an essay by Jane Dempsey Douglass in the book Religion and Sexism (not exactly the place I’d expect to find it) revealed that John Calvin had a beautifully biblical view of women and their role in the family, culture, and church. She describes the “new” theology that the Reformation taught, and proves how this theology elevated women and gave them more freedom than the previous medieval and Roman Catholic perspective. Several other researchers and writers agree with Douglass’s statement that:

“The protestant doctrines of Christian vocation and the priesthood of all believers, along with a new view of marriage, did in fact tend to change the image and role of women in the direction of greater personal freedom and responsibility, both immediately and over the centuries.” (p. 141 in Religion and Sexism)

The doctrine of Christian vocation placed equal honor on the work of the field-laborer, the merchant, the mother, and the housekeeper, as on the pastor or preacher. All vocations that are not outside of the law of God, are blessed of God, and holy when done to the glory of God. Therefore, the wife and mother who found herself entirely occupied by the tasks of “taking pains about housewifery, making clean her children when they be arrayed, killing fleas, and other such like,” as Calvin writes, is giving “sacrifices which God accepteth & receiveth, as if they were things of great price and honourable.” (A Sermon of Master John Calvin, upon the first Epistle of Paul, to Timothie, published for the benefit and edifying of the Church of God [London: G. Bishop and T. Woodcoke, 1579], excerpted from Calvin’s sermon on 1 Timothy 2:13-15)

The doctrine of the priesthood of all believers freed all women to have as deep a relationship with their Lord Jesus Christ as was previously only attributed to men and nuns. Calvin used many of the stories of women in the Bible to bring out rich and nourishing commentary designed to encourage women in their faith. He writes of the power of women’s prayers, of the beautiful honor of the resurrected Christ appearing first to the women, and then with almost breathless wonder, he describes the miraculous way that women have been gifted to defeat the effects sin by bringing children into the world. His practice was no different than his writing. In 1541 during Calvin’s time in Geneva, the city set up its first Protestant school for young girls. Calvin also was the one who suggested a change in the divorce law of the city so that women could initiate divorce proceedings as well as men (within the lawful biblical parameters for divorce, of course). The Protestant Reformation, and particularly the reformation in Switzerland, brought the first instance of women joining their voices with men during the congregational singing during church, and one refugee visitor to Calvin’s church described, with great pathos, the grandeur of “women and men singing together.”

The new view of marriage which Bucer, Luther, and many other reformers held, gave women a more hopeful perspective in the way they viewed themselves and their work. Previous to the reformation, women were considered to be the cause of lust. According to some church fathers, women were specially gifted with all the pleasing characteristics that caused good men to stumble. Therefore, righteous men who were not “gifted” with celibacy or could not take the vow of the monk, married to escape the sin of lust. Yet even then, marriage was “second best” because it allowed physical intercourse, and celibacy was the ideal, if it could be achieved. Virginity received special rewards in heaven, and women who could deny every womanly desire for a husband and children were the most revered.

After the Reformation, as many historians have pointed out, the new role of “pastor’s wife” was formed. Though she was not up front teaching, she was ministering to the congregation in her own womanly way. We see this in Idelette Calvin, who could take dictation for her husband in Latin when his secretary wasn’t available, and who visited sick beds with Calvin, and who helped Calvin to open their home to house and feed many wayfaring strangers.

John Calvin’s Personality – “I assure you that by nature I am shy and timid.”

Many people have categorized John Calvin as a particularly severe and judgmental man.  Their insights are based not so much on the many eyewitness accounts or on Calvin’s own perception of himself, but on the multitude of misconceptions about his theology. This is crazy. Why not go to the people who knew him to find out what he was really like? And it wouldn’t hurt to look at what he thought of himself, too.

  • “a bow that was always tightly strung.” -Wolfgang Musculus, a minister and professor
  • “of a rather timid disposition” -Theodore Beza, personal friend and biographer of Calvin
  • “I assure you that by nature I am shy and timid.” -Calvin
  • “a person rather overmuch attentive, not to say troublesome, in the frequency of my correspondence.” -Calvin
  • “[his preaching was] marked by much grace, strength and simplicity and yet was completely lacking in ostentation.” – Theodore Beza
  • “every day I talk to all those who need to see me, even the youngest and the poorest.” -Calvin
  • “He was constantly filled with a great sense of compassion, as if he could see for himself the distress which overtook the churches and the dreadful massacres perpetrated against the poor believers.” – Beza
  • “His only difficulty was that his body had trouble keeping up with his mind, although at times he tried hard to make it do so.” -Beza, p. 95
  • “even when we thought he was resting, he continued to give himself unstintingly to the work.” -Beza
  • “God had bestowed upon him such a measure of wisdom and discernment that no one was ever any the worse for having followed his advice.” – Beza
  • “He sat supporting his head with one hand, as he often did.” -Beza
  • “You could see from his face how he was rejoicing in the Lord with the whole congregation.” -Beza
  • “Besides a temperament that was by nature prone to anger, there were a number of things that tended to make him irritable and difficult to get on with. These included, for example, his own lively mind, the lack of discretion on the part of many of those around him, and the many varied affairs he had to deal with concerning the church of God. …But he was far from seeking to make excuses for this failing. On the contrary, no one was more aware of it, or more conscious of its importance, than he was himself.” -Beza
  • “…his remarkable affability, which meant that he could meet the very young on their own level when the need arose.” -Beza
  • “gentleness in bearing with the weaknesses and failings of others” -Beza
  • “in what way was he any different from the rest of us, except that he surpassed all of us in humility and went to a lot more trouble than any of us?” -Beza
  • “Some have accused Calvin of being short-tempered. I do not want to make this man out to be an angel. However, I cannot fail to mention the remarkable extent to which God made use of the very forcefulness of his character.” -Beza
    Drawing of John Calvin by one of his students.

    This drawing of John Calvin was done by one of Calvin’s students while Calvin was teaching.

    Was Calvin aloof? Disapproving? So cranial that he had no heart?

    Not at all. He was always accessible and eager to converse. He wrote more letters than any other protestant reformer, and at a guess from what I’ve read so far, I’d say 70% of those or more were to good friends who he retained his entire life, in spite of theological differences. His letters are full of relational content. He apologizes for the lateness of the letter. He inquires about the health of the family. He explains in great detail how he hoped not to offend. He begs a recently widowed friend to come for a visit and a change of pace. He includes greetings from his wife to his friends’ wives. He congratulates a father on the marriage of his daughter, and sends condolences when a man loses his child to the plague. Also, the hospitality of John Calvin’s home was famous in all of protestant Christendom.

    From Calvin’s own admission, it’s true that Calvin had an occasional temper flare-up. The trigger seemed to be when there was a particularly erroneous statement made about essential doctrines of the faith, and none of Calvin’s peers detected it, but instead embraced it without looking into it. That was what angered him. But most of the time he was able to discuss theological differences with gracious and elegant rhetoric, but occasionally the foolishness of others got the better of him. When this happened, nothing worked better to calm him and bring him back into the room after he had stormed out, than the famed “architect of subtleties,” reformer Martin Bucer. This gentle man was especially gifted in peacemaking, and as a good friend of Calvin’s, could always bring peace to the situation.

    We find all kinds of personality synopsis for Calvin on the internet. Some say he was a crazed control-freak who burned up people who didn’t believe the same thing as him. This is far from the truth. Initially, he had to be forcibly put into a position of authority by an older man who needed his help in Geneva. Calvin was well known by the Council of Pastors as well as the Consistory in Geneva (the ruling bodies of the church and state, respectively), as shunning control and deferring to others’ judgment, though he readily gave his advice when they asked. All major decisions that were made in Geneva were made by a ruling body, not by Calvin. The “burning” incident was the heretic Servetus, who Calvin had, for many years, attempted to reconcile, or at least to convince Servetus to stop preaching his heresy. The decision for Servetus to be put to death was not Calvin’s alone, and Calvin begged his fellow pastors to give Servetus a more merciful death. Calvin was the one who visited Servetus in prison, and spent much of the night before his death with him, to try to convince him to come back to the truth. If anything, Calvin was the most merciful Genevan authority involved in this situation. But because his name is tied with everything Geneva, he frequently gets bad-mouthed over this.

    Who was he? A genius, an introvert, a man who could remember and quote everything he read, a good friend, a passionate disposition that occasionally erupted, and very much a human.

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]