Tag Archives: women

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.

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.”

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]