The Joys (and Sorrows) of Parenting: Calvin on Gen. 4.1-26

By virtue of his sin Adam "was banished from that royal palace of which he had been the lord." Yet God did not leave Adam homeless; "he obtained elsewhere" -- somewhere east of Eden -- "a place in which he might dwell."

Adam quickly learned how complicated life in his downgraded digs would be. Everywhere he turned he was confronted with the consequences of his sin: "innumerable miseries;" "temporal exile;" ultimately "death itself." Everywhere he turned he was equally confronted with evidence of God's "paternal love" for him, even in the face of his rebellion, and sustained by reminders of the promise delivered to him and his wife of the "seed" who would one day triumph over the Serpent and thus regain for true believers that "life from which he had fallen."

Calvin discovers a case study in the complexities of life lived between the fall and the consummation -- life lived, that is, with constant reminders of both sin's consequences and God's "paternal love" -- in the meal plan that comes with Adam's new accommodation. Adam was "bereft of his former delicacies," but "he was still supplied with some kind of food." Adam could fill his belly, but nothing tasted quite so good as Eden's fruits had, and he had to eat his food with bandaged fingers (having wrestled with thorns and thistles to secure his meal).

A far more poignant reminder -- or two reminders, as it happens -- of the complexities of life lived between the fall and the consummation presents itself to Adam and Eve in the opening verses of Genesis chapter 4, in the form of twin baby boys. Calvin concludes that Cain and Abel were twins from the fact that Genesis mentions only one act of conjugal relations between Adam and Eve and one subsequent conception (Gen. 4.1), but two births (Gen. 4.1-2). According to Calvin's reasoning, humanity's first naturally born children were actually identical twins, though Calvin wouldn't have had the biological wherewithal to grasp the point. Twins, in Calvin's judgment, were far more common in the early years of humankind's history, "when the world had to be replenished with inhabitants."

"Adam recognized, in the very commencement of having offspring, the truly paternal moderation of God's anger." He recognized, in other words, how good God intended to be his human creatures, even when he had every reason to withdraw his goodness from them entirely. Few human pleasures, to be sure, compare with the birth of healthy babies, or speak so loudly of God's liberality towards us. Newborn babies trigger emotions of love, joy, and responsibility within us that we wouldn't have known we were capable of, and those emotions, most importantly, give us a partial glimpse at least into the "paternal" nature of God's sentiments towards his own image-bearing offspring.

But as every proper parent knows, the birth of children can also trigger emotions of fear and anxiety. The world is full of sinners (not least of all us), and we cannot help, as we hold our newborn children in our arms, but wonder what crimes will be committed against them (or, worse, what crimes they will commit) in however many years God gives them.

Of course, the worst fears of Adam and Eve for their twin boys came true. One son was brutally murdered. The other son committed the brutal murder in question. Adam must have felt both realities in a particularly poignant way, since his own personal decision to violate God's commandment lay at the root of his children's wayward inclinations and the tragic outworking of those inclinations. Adam's sense of horror at the perversity he had unleashed on the world by his defection from God could only have deepened as he lived to witness Cain's great-great-great-grandson Lamech both up the ante on Cain's violence (Gen. 4.23) and "violate the sacred law of marriage ... [and] perpetual order of nature" by committing polygamy (Gen. 4.19).

So "horror-struck" were "our first parents... at the impious slaughter" of their son and the subsequent crimes of Cain's lineage that they "abstained for a while from the conjugal bed." It would seem that Adam and Eve stayed out of "the conjugal bed" for quite a long "while" in fact, since Calvin apparently reads the renewal of relations and conception of Seth (Gen. 4.25) as chronologically subsequent to Lamech's misadventures (Gen. 4.19-24); i.e., Adam and Eve effectively "abstained ... from the conjugal bed" for a succession of five generations. Adam and Eve thus became the first of many human beings to wonder whether it's really a good idea to bring kids into this messed up world.

Calvin offers no insights into what, on his admittedly suspect reading of Adam and Eve's marital relations, eventually incited our first parents to re-ignite the procreative flame. But if we were to adopt his reading and push it even further, we might speculate that Adam and Eve's renewed inclination to have children was driven by the hope that their next named child, Seth, would be exactly who Seth turned out to be -- that is, one who, like his brother Abel before him, "called upon the name of the Lord," which Calvin reads as shorthand for engaging in "the whole worship of God." In Seth, and in Seth's own "rightly constituted family, the face of the Church began distinctly to appear, and that worship of God was set up which might continue to posterity."

Adam and Eve, in other words, overcame their fear of whatever evils their children might encounter or propagate in this life by resting upon God's promise that his ultimate gift, paradise regained, belonged to them and to their children. And in Seth (as in Abel) the highest hope that believing parents can sustain for their child, the hope that their child will himself or herself also believe by virtue of God's own faithfulness and gift, was realized. Adam and Eve eventually recognized that the worst thing about Cain's crime was not the crime itself, but the unbelief that informed his aggression against Abel and marked him as an alien to God's eternal fellowship. They likewise realized that however horrible the loss of Abel had been, Abel was an heir with them of God's eternal promises appropriated through faith; although they were deprived of Abel's company in this life, they would enjoy his company in the life to come forever.

Adam and Eve thus experienced the ultimate joys and sorrows of parenting. But the ultimate joy (the believing child) was joyful enough to lead them to entrust their future children's fortunes to God and fulfill his abiding command to be fruitful (Gen. 1.28). Though they had experienced the ultimate sorrow  (the unbelieving child), Adam and Eve moved forward in faith, confidant that even their tears over Cain and his sin would, in some way presently incomprehensible, be one day wiped from their eyes (Rev. 21.4).

As a footnote, it's worth noting that Calvin himself, when he wrote these comments on Gen. 4, had himself experienced his share of sorrows relative to children. During the nine years of Calvin's marriage to his wife Idelette (who was five years dead when Calvin published his Genesis commentary), none of the several children they conceived survived birth. Calvin knew the unfathomable sorrow which the loss of children can bring. But he, also, I think, knew some significant joy in the midst of the pain that losing children brings. He almost certainly had his own stillborn children in mind when he noted in his Institutes that "God... adopts our infants as his children before they are born." Though deprived of the company and joy of his children in this age, Calvin had every expectation of enjoying the company and joy of his children for eternity in the age to come.

Aaron Clay Denlinger is Professor of Church History and Historical Theology at Reformation Bible College in Sanford, FL.