Blog 204: 4.12.25 - 4.13.3

Iain D Campbell

In this section of the Institutes, Calvin addresses too issues that demonstrate the prevalence of corruption in the church. First is the issue of clerical celibacy. The insistence that priests remain unmarried has, says Calvin, 'no only deprived the church of fit and honest pastors, but has introduced a fearful sink of iniquity, and plunged many souls into the gulf of despair'.

Calvin rightly draws our attention to 1 Timothy 4:3, with its declaration that in the latter days, impiety would evidence itself in a proscription of marriage. This not only demeans marriage itself, which Christ has made 'an image of his sacred union with the church' (4.12.24), but also demeans the Christian ministry.

The justification for priestly celibacy in the Levitical priesthood Calvin sees as a gross mishandling of the Old Testament. Occasions when the priests had to come apart from their wives in the exercise of their office was part of the ceremony which anticipated the coming of a spotless priest in the person of Christ himself.

Furthermore, the apostles by their example, and the church fathers in their teaching, demonstrate that marriage is honourable. The marriage of priests continued after the Council of Nicea, in spite of the question of celibacy having been raised at that point. Those who advocate celibacy have 'a too superstitious admiration' of it, with an attendant 'unmeasured encomium on virginity' (4.12.27). But what is abhorrent in Calvin's view is the immorality and lust of which he is aware in the priesthood, and he quotes a moving statement from Chrysostom: 'The first degree of chastity is pure virginity, the second, faithful marriage' (4.12.28).

From clerical celibacy Calvin turns to consider vows. His argument, it will be recalled, is against the tyranny of an unwarranted church government which robs the church of her freedom in Christ. One of the ways in which this is done is by devising unbiblical vows.

Calvin begins by discussing the nature of vows. 'What is called a promise among men is a vow when made to God' (4.13.1). A genuinely biblical vow has regard to three things: the one to whom it is made, who it is that makes it, and the intention with which it is made. Remembering that God goes before us, and that his word must circumscribe our religious behaviour will keep us from making rash vows.

But it is also rash when we vow something which we cannot pay or deliver. 'Your vows should be adapted to the measure which God by his gifts prescribes to you' (4.13.3). He not only gives us the opportunity to vow to him; he also gives us the means by which to do so.

In an interesting application of this principle, Calvin again refers to priestly celibacy, and almost suggests that the vow to remain celibate is a vow to give what is not in one's means to give: 'it is to tempt the Lord to strive agains the nature implanted by him' (4.13.3).