Tag Archives: marriage

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.