Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva, Volume 1: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage

Paul Helm Articles

'Calvin had no taste or stomach for things outside his particular calling. For him social pleasures were nonexistent. He never mentions domestic joys or woes in his letters. The beauties of nature left him cold. Art, poetry and music seem not to rouse his interest'. So reports Herman Bavinck. Not strictly true, (Bavinck takes no account of Calvin's fascination with astronomy, for example). But the words have enough of the ring of truth in them to explain how the word 'Calvinist' comes nowadays to have its uniformly negative connotations. In the UK the scowling, dour, nail-biting, workaholic Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, is routinely described in the media as 'Calvinistic', a 'son of the Presbyterian manse'. The language seems to fit nicely.

You might think that a series with the title 'Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva' could do something to change this. Could it? Judged by the first volume of this bold project, it could and it couldn't. We learn, or are reminded, that Calvin's 'calling' was not merely to be a pastor or teacher, but that it was much more expansive, including the root-and-branch reformation of the life and manners of the city-state of Geneva. He was no mere 5-pointer. He was thus brought face to face with the need for a reformulation of the legal basis of courtship and marriage, and with the consequent obligation to give advice in letters and (along with Theodore Beza and Germain Colladon: all three were Frenchmen trained in the law) in legal judgments, and to show the biblical basis of his views in his sermons and commentaries, though less so in the Institutes.

Calvin was faced not only with enunciating principles, but with adjudicating and advising on a multitude of hard 'cases'. What if a promise of marriage was made frivolously, or when drunk? Is it possible to promise marriage upon certain conditions? What of those wives who had become Protestant and were as a consequence abused by their husbands? Could they flee? (Calvin's answer: only if a wife was in danger of her life should she leave her husband). If an engaged person was deserted by her fiancÈ, how long need she wait before seeking another husband? So Calvin's calling did not take him away from domestic joys or woes, certainly not domestic woes. He even fancied himself as something of a matchmaker.

The basis of the reformation of Genevan society was two-fold: Calvin's view (shared by many other Reformers) that the magistrate is a minister of God equally as much as are ministers of the Gospel. And so the apparatus of the state is not 'neutral' as regards the upholding of the Christian faith. The second view follows from the first: the central importance of natural law as a foundation of revealed law. Speaking generally, neither of these positions impresses today's Calvinists very much. Whether de facto or de jure, they celebrate the severance of church from state, or seek to link them only through political pressure and manipulation. How anyone could read this fine collection of documents about sixteenth-century Geneva and opine that Calvin is among the founders of modern democracy and of the personal freedoms that it has made possible beggars belief. He is no more a father of democracy than Descartes was of modern atheism. There is the idea, dominant in the thought of Calvinists influenced by the Kuyper-Bavinck stress on (one is tempted to write , 'invention of') common grace, that Calvin, more consistent and revolutionary than Martin Luther, abandoned the 'dualism' of nature and grace. But that can't survive a reading of this material either. Calvin would not have recognized any opposition between the two. These pages show him as having a positive, if not rosy, view of natural law while adhering to something like Luther's 'two kingdoms' view of society. The claim that common grace (one denying the place of natural law) has a pedigree starting with Calvin seems less and less plausible.

What of Calvin's own personal experience of courtship, engagement and marriage? While at one point he was able to write 'I have never married, and I do not know whether I ever will', Martin Bucer had different ideas, and during Calvin's stay in Strasbourg (1538-41) found someone for him. Calvin seems to have had marriage to her in mind, but nothing came of it. The Guillaume Farel tried and in February 1540 two women were introduced to him, one of whom (the less wealthy, but francophone) Calvin preferred. He admitted that we shall 'look very foolish' if the courtship fell through. But it did. The family of the wealthier lady renewed their pursuit. Calvin was embarrassed and 'exceedingly annoyed'. By June 1540 he had given up the chase for a wife. 'I have still not found a bride, and I doubt that I'll look for one any more' he wrote to Farel. But two months later he married Idelette de Bure, an Anabaptist widow with two children of her own. She met his criteria of piety, modesty and frugality. But also she was 'actually pretty', Farel noted. She and John had a 'very happy honeymoon'. Idelette bore him three (or perhaps four) children, but to their parents' grief all were stillborn, and their mother died in 1549. Not quite the stony-hearted Reformer after all.

The editors have brought together a vast number of passages extracted from every conceivable source, (most but not all of them from Calvin, some newly translated into English), beginning with the Marriage Ordinance of 1546 which overturned the pre-Reformation canon law. They have collected them under the following themes: an over view of Calvin's reformation of marriage in Geneva, the alliance of Church and State, courtship and matchmaking, consent to engagement and marriage, parental consent, the various impediments to marriage, interreligious marriage, economic aspects of marriage, premarital sex and desertion, and banns and weddings. In setting forth what be believed to be the biblical view of marriage Calvin (and his colleagues) stressed the importance of mutual attraction, and so of the free consent of the parties and of their parents. John Witte Jr. in his final summing up of these data, thinks that Calvin's view of marriage is 'covenantal'. It was certainly non-sacramental and contractual. Perhaps it was also covenantal, but to say so is not very informative until it is clear what sort of covenant is in view. Professor Witte is not much help here, since his own view of covenants and covenant theology is distinctly hazy, telling his readers that the covenant with Israel was a 'covenant of works'.

Still, one must not carp. The editors have provided students of Calvin and of the Reformation with much food for thought, opening up fresh areas of Calvin's social ethics in an emphatically new way. Here is Calvin the counselor, Calvin the casuist and, in this sense, Calvin the compromiser. What exactly is Calvin's view of natural law? Is there in Calvin's correspondence the beginnings of a genuinely Protestant casuistry? What were Calvin's ethical standards and criteria? In what ways is the legislation of the Old Testament appealed to to fill out the spare principles of the new Genevan legislation on marriage? Did Calvin's own views change, and how? It is not difficult to imagine that this ambitious series, together with the equally ambitious publication of the minutes of the Consistory, (Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin Volume I 1542-1544, (edited by Robert Kingdon, Thomas A Lambert and Isabella Watt, translated by Wallace McDonald, Eerdmans, 2000)), will provide material for much reflection, and for many scholarly dissertations thereafter. More significantly, they challenge contemporary Calvinists to think afresh about matters that most have taken for granted.

Edited by John Witte Jr. and Robert M. Kingdon - Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005

Review by Paul Helm