Against Hotels: Calvin on Gen. 18.1-8

Somewhat curiously, Calvin judged "the great number of inns" populating the landscape of his day to be rather obvious "evidence of our depravity" -- the "our" in question being, in the first instance, early modern Europeans. What prompted such disapproval of something as seemingly innocuous, if not romantic to modern eyes, as the early modern inn? Early modern inns provided food and lodging for travelers, as well as a convenient place, especially in urban settings, for locals to gather, have a drink, and take in the recent gossip. Such being so, it's tempting to assume Calvin's disparagement of inns stemmed from simple aversion to drinking and gossiping as such. Or perhaps the innkeeper's wish to turn a profit in providing food, drink, and accommodation to others prompted Calvin's censorial comments. Calvin, after all, was known to take a swing now and then (cf. his commentary on Isaiah 58.7) at those who pursued their vocation toward the end of padding their pockets rather than serving their fellow man -- no matter the efforts of certain folk to enlist Calvin as a champion for modern day economies which make peace with, or even endorse, human greed.

But no. Whatever Calvin's views on (excessive) drinking, gossiping, and profiting/profiteering, his distaste for inns stemmed from other considerations. Calvin disapproved of inns because he believed that persons travelling -- i.e., those who frequent inns -- should be offered food, drink, and accommodation cost-free in private homes. Inns, simply put, testify to the failure of (Christian) folk to extend hospitality -- that is, food, drink, and accommodation -- to those in need. Inns, in other words, "prove...that the principal duty of humanity has become obsolete among us."

Calvin's admittedly brief tirade against inns and insight into what the same say about the ethical state of a culture follow from observation of Abraham's apparent zeal for hospitality as evidenced by the events of Genesis 18.1-8. In that text Abraham spots "three men" (vs. 2) -- three travelers -- making their way past his home and prevails on them to stop, rest, and eat. In doing so he proves to be the perfect model of hospitable behavior. And Calvin judges hospitality, in turn, to be utmost proof and the principal instance of charity towards others.

"Hospitality," the reformer writes, "holds the chief place among [the] services [of charity]" which one might perform in relation to another. Why so? "Because it is no common virtue to assist strangers, from whom there is no hope of reward. For men in general are wont, when they do favors to others, to look for a return; but he who is kind to unknown guests and persons, proves himself to be disinterestedly liberal." Abraham's actions toward the three passersby of Gen. 18 are, then, perfect illustration of the disinterested liberality which exists at the heart of hospitality: "Wherefore the humanity of Abraham deserves no slight praise; because he freely invites men who were to him unknown, through whom he had received no advantage, and from whom he had no hope of mutual favors."

So remarkable, in fact, is Abraham's apparent disinterested liberality in Gen. 18, that Calvin questions -- following other unnamed interpreters -- whether Abraham recognized those whom he served to be more than men. The biblical narrative, of course, eventually unmasks two of these three men as angels, and the other -- at least in Calvin's judgment -- as Christ in pre-incarnate human form (i.e., a Christophany). But Scripture also leads Calvin to reject the notion that Abraham recognized the genuine identity of the three persons before him. There is, firstly, the statement of Gen. 18.2 that Abraham looked and beheld "three men" before him. There is, secondly, the statement of Heb. 13.2 that certain persons in salvation history have "entertained angels unawares," which statement Calvin reads as a direct reference to Abraham and the events depicted in Gen. 18.

The angels of Gen. 18 were, then, "received by the holy man as by one who intended to discharge a duty towards men.... It was therefore a merely human and civil honor which he paid them." Of course, the fact that Abraham initially recognized (and fed) his guests as men doesn't preclude the reader from recognizing their true identity from the first, and so from asking -- as Calvin does -- how beings without natural (or permanent) bodies can eat food at all, or what happened to the food they ate when their temporary human bodies were discarded! Calvin seems to entertain the possibility that when these beings laid aside the human form with which they were temporarily entrusted, the food they had eaten remained, dropping to the ground in whatever state of digestion it had reached in those temporary bodies. But he concludes otherwise: "As God speedily annihilated those bodies which had been created for a temporary use, so there will be no absurdity in saying that the food itself was destroyed together with their bodies."

However speculative and ultimately unfruitful Calvin's thoughts on angelic digestion might be, his comments on hospitality (or the lack thereof in modern cultures) bear much practical import for present day persons. If Calvin judged early modern Europe depraved on account of the presence of numerous inns, what would he make of modern day America, with its cluster of hotel and motel chains competing for business at nearly every exit on the nation's freeways?

Whether the number of hotels, motels, lodges, and inns at any given location is really inversely proportionate to a nation's moral health is, of course, debatable. Regardless, Calvin recalls us to a virtue -- namely, hospitality -- which is decidedly biblical and, arguably at least, much neglected in the present. The author of Hebrews states our obligation rather bluntly: "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers." Most of us, I'd wager, struggle to muster up the moral energy to extend hospitality to persons we don't know all that well in our own churches. Extending hospitality to those who occupy even more remote circles of our attention -- to those who genuinely have very little if anything, even appreciation, to offer us in return -- never crosses our minds. On this score we might take a lesson from Abraham, and from Calvin who highlights the patriarch's remarkable charity to what at (his) first glance appeared to be nothing but tired travelers -- persons least in a position to reciprocate kindnesses received.