Guest Post by Mark Nenadov
Have you ever found a little, unassuming book, only to find that takes you by the feet, and shakes you up a bit?
About seven years ago, I found such a book in the University of Windsor library here in Canada. It was an English translation of The Humaness of John Calvin: The Reformer as a Husband, Father, Pastor & Friend by Richard Stauffer.
On the surface, there’s probably nothing in that little 100 or so page book that is, earth shattering. But, nonetheless, it blew me away at the time.
Stauffer does not resort to hagiography, but attempts to give a brief and accurate portrayal of John Calvin in various spheres as Husband, Father, Pastor, and Friend was really illuminating. Stauffer clearly shows Calvin in a way that contradicts the false image of him as a cold-hearted dictator. He shows a pastor who supports the very church leadership which overthrew him. He shows a father and husband who cares for his family through difficult circumstances, such as the plague. He shows a faithful friend, who seeks out friendships and nurtures them, pouring himself out for his friends.
Three Surprising Angles
There are, however, three other aspects of Calvin which aren’t really hinted at in the title.
1. Calvin as a Bachelor. In a letter to William Farel, the single John Calvin reveals his ideals of beauty, love, and femininity. He does have a bit of a “starry eyed” side, so much so that Melanchton teases him by saying he was “dreaming of getting married”. The single life was discouraging for him, and he even once asked whether he should “search [for a wife] any more”. And, yet, the noble bachelor had a serious view of marriage, even reversing the typical platitude about celibacy, commenting that getting a wife would be done in order to “dedicate myself more completely to the Lord”. As it turns out, at the age of 31, Calvin found himself an “upright and honest…even pretty” women in Idlette de Bure.
2. Calvin as a Matchmaker. Calvin desired good matches for his friends, and sought to take actions towards that.
3. Calvin as an Insulted Man. This one is less surprising, and is generally common knowledge to most Reformed people. However, there are some surprising details to this that Stauffer covers.
One Particular Line of “Insults”
I would like to elaborate on #3 a bit. It is incredible to see how far Calvin’s opponents went to bring his name and character through the mud. I seem to remember one attack claiming that Calvin had rats crawling in his garments, or something similar to that.
Since reading Stauffer’s book, I learned that one French Catholic writer, Louis Richeome, in a hit piece on the Huguenots, actually made the audacious claim that Calvin’s impudence “surpasses that of the Devil”.
And, yet, not all of Calvin’s most staunch opponents realized how their words could be taken two ways. Stauffer’s book provides a delightful example of this. One particularly flamboyant critic of Calvin, Jacques Desmay, who was the vicar-general of the diocese of Rouen, tried to condemn Calvin, but it sounds to “Kuyperian” ears more like a commendation:
“[John Calvin] is the author of a religion of the table, the stomach, the fat, the flesh, the kitchen”
“in [John Calvin], the whole reformation only tendeth to “establish the reign of wine, women and song”.
Although, I am sure John Calvin would not have felt that was a fair characterization of the Reformation, I can’t help but surmise that he must have taken a certain secret delight that this was really the best Jacques Desmay could come up with.
There is some measure of truth in it in this attack, especially when we consider these statements in light of Calvin’s writings about beauty and God’s gifts. He certainly felt that God gave things such as food and drink in a spirit of “superabundant liberality”.
Joel Beeke, in Living For God’s Glory: An Introduction to Calvinism, says it well:
“Typically, Calvin uses the complexio oppositorum when explaining the Christian’s relation to the world, presenting opposites to find a middle way between them. Thus, on the one hand, cross-bearing crucifies us to the world and the world to us. On the other hand, the devout Christian enjoys this present life, albeit with due restraint and moderation, for he is taught to use things in this world for the purpose that God intended for them. Calvin was no ascetic; he enjoyed good literature, good food, and the beauties of nature.”
Calvin’s detractors took the fact that Calvin promoted the enjoyment of these good gifts, and blew this a bit out of proportion.
I suppose sometimes our enemies even get us partially right. And sometimes insults go both ways. I suppose it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we, in our day, had a few more “Docteurs Dans la Cuisine”, theologians with a hearty appreciation for things that fill the plate and the cup. And if that causes detractors to think it is establishing a reign of “a religion of the kitchen”, so be it!