Okay, this is a strange place to begin but I think it pertains to the debate. I want to look first at John Calvin’s love life. Not that his love life would have made the tabloids of the day. There was no scandal. There were no “Exclusive Photos of Calvin’s Beach Vacation” in the Medieval Inquirer. But Calvin’s love life reveals a lot about who he was as a man.
My premise is simple. A man’s theology is shaped in some degree by who he is. Yes, I know we often claim pure objectivity and strict biblical interpretation but, let’s be honest, we all see things through our own particular personality and experience. This is not relativism (all perspectives are equally valid) but realism (all perspectives are perspectives). Truth is truth. It is what accords with reality. But we each look at truth from a particular angle with a certain personality. Consider the four gospels. All point to Jesus; all see Him in a slightly different way. I believe that God ordained it such so that we would need the entire body of Christ to give us the most balanced and comprehensive view.
Okay, back to Calvin’s love life.
Calvin was not what you would call a “romantic man.” He was an academian to the core. A brilliant man who loved to study. Lived to study. From an early age, he would spend the majority of his time reading and reflecting upon what he read. He rarely entered into any social relationships and even disdained those who spent their time in frivolous social activities.
Even though Calvin’s conversion to Christ (and to Protestantism) was a radical decision in that day and age. He only referred to it one time in a later commentary on the book of Psalms.
I was at first so stubbornly devoted to the superstition of the Papacy that I could only be extracted from such deep mud with difficulty. Then by a sudden conversion God made my heart tame and compliant, although at my age I was already very hardened in these things.
That’s about it. Calvin was not the type of man that you asked to speak on testimony night! He was much more comfortable talking about the theology of salvation than his own personal experience of it. Someone has said, “If Luther was the heart of the Reformation, Calvin was its head.” Someone else has noted:
His [Calvin’s] godly, self-denying life and walk and holy example would often reprove you, and might stir you up to desire for yourself a measure of the same grace; but if you were much tempted and tried, plagued by sin, assailed by Satan, and sometimes almost at your wits’ end, you would rather open your heart to Martin Luther than to John Calvin. He lived for the most part out of the storm and whirlwind of human passions; and therefore had little sympathy with those that have to do business in deep waters. (http://www.gracegems.org/18/p-Calvin.htm)
Perhaps nothing reveals Calvin’s personality better than his search for a wife.
After being chased out of France (for being Protestant) and then Geneva (for being too stringent and unyielding), Calvin found refuge in the city of Strasbourg. There he had the freedom to study and to write which was his heart’s desire. However, while he was there, he began to notice the strong marriages of some of the other Reformers. Though Calvin had no interest in romantic love, he did see the practical value of having a good wife. He decided that it would be in his best interest to be married too. So Calvin did like most men do when they want to get married…he wrote a full job description for his future bride and started taking applications from interested parties. He even put a date on the calendar for his future nuptials. Okay, maybe that’s not the way most men do it. But it sure fit John Calvin.
Several candidates presented themselves. Bachelorette #1 was a wealthy German woman. The extra cash in the bank would help a struggling young theologian. The only problem was that Calvin was French and didn’t speak a lick of German. And bachelorette #1 wasn’t interested in learning French. Time to move on to bachelorette #2. She was French but 15 years older than Calvin…and apparently not the most attractive. Calvin passed on this one too. Bachelorette #3 was a French woman a little younger than Calvin. It seemed like a match but, at the last minute, she backed out. Rumor has it that Calvin gave her tulips instead of roses on Valentine’s Day and she was offended…just kidding.
Finally Calvin gave up on the search. But about a year later, he met a young widow (and Anabaptist) named Idelette. They got married and had a good marriage….though Calvin was gone 32 of the first 45 weeks of their marriage on ministry trips. Idelette would die nine years later from poor health. Calvin would never marry again.
The point of all this is not to disparage Calvin’s marriage. By all accounts he was a good, faithful husband. The point is to show how Calvin approached relationships and love. He was not a man prone to deep emotion. He approached marriage like he approached most things…with a practical, orderly mind and a guarded, stoical heart.
Does that have any significance on his approach to theology? I think it does. And I will give a brief overview of Calvin’s Institutes in my next post.