Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Valentine thoughts of John Calvin


I never get tired of reading John Calvin. In my mind, he is the most brilliant post-apostolic theologian to ever live. The focus of this entry, however, is not upon Calvin's theological prowess, but rather his marriage, since Valentine's Day is upon us.

Calvin got married at the age of 31. He had been so busy studying, teaching, preaching, and governing that he didn't seem to have much time for romance. When he and his mentor, William Farel, were unceremoniously run out of Geneva for three years, he took refuge in Strassburg, Germany where he had more time to consider the ladies. Don't get me wrong, Calvin wasn't the stud of the football team, in fact, he was scrawny and sickly most of his life. Couple his appearance (cool beard and sweet hat not withstanding) with a propensity to enjoy deep philosophical and theological discussions, he didn't have the obvious makings of a top ranked most eligible bachelor.

His time in Germany was a temporary sojourn where he remained busy, but not like his ministry in Geneva. We have a small window in to Calvin's romantic thinking through correspondence with close friends Farel and Bucer. His friends urged him to take a wife, that he might enjoy the comforts of a well ordered home. In response, Calvin wrote to Farel-

"I am none of those insane lovers who, when once smitten with the fine figure of a woman, embrace also her faults. This only is the beauty which allures me, if she be chaste, obliging, not fastidious, economical, patient, and careful for my health. Therefore, if you think well of it, set out immediately, lest some one else gets the start of you. But if you think otherwise we will let it pass."

I love it! Calvin is asking his buddy to hook him up! Can you imagine Farel trying to find a wife for Calvin- "um...I have this friend. He's really, really, smart. I mean, really smart. He studies most mornings and evenings. He pastors, preaches, teaches and writes the rest of the time. He's a bit on the stoic side, and not the most humorous dude you'll ever met. Still, he has a tender side, and oh, by the way, it's very likely that he will become one of the biggest influences on the Church of Jesus Christ man has ever seen...so...are you interested in meeting him?" Needless to say, neither Farel or Bucer successfully scored Calvin even a single date with a righteous babe.

On two occasions in Strassburg, Calvin came close to marrying. First, a German speaking woman was recommended to him, things seemed to be going well enough, but she wasn't willing to learn French. This eventually led to their parting ways. I'll bet she regretted that when Calvin's Institutes went platinum! Second, Calvin's brother tried to match him with another woman, they even got engaged. Calvin had invited his good friend Farel to the wedding but it fell through before the March 10, 1540 date for reasons not mentioned in any of Calvin's letters. I wonder if she gave him a "Dear John" letter?

Finally, by God's good providence, John Calvin found his helpmate. He married Idelette de Bure in 1540. Idelette was a widow with several children (total number of children unknown, most say four). Calvin was familiar with she and her former husband as he pastored them through his eventual death by pestilence. Idelette, like Calvin, was frail and of ill health. She was a devout woman and great encouragement to John immediately. Calvin wrote to his friends saying he was attracted to her quiet, modest, gentle character. As Philip Schaff said, he found in her what he desired- firm faith, devoted love, and domestic helpfulness. Calvin called her the "excellent companion of my life...the ever-faithful assistant of my ministry...a rare woman."

John and Idelette lived in Germany for a year before Calvin was called back to Geneva. John and Idelette had one infant son who died shortly after birth. They lived as one flesh for just nine years as Idelette died in Geneva after a protracted illness. Calvin wrote a most personal and precious letter to William Farel shortly after his wife died, describing the last moments of her life:

Having been removed to another apartment after seven, she immediately began to decline. When she felt her voice suddenly failing her she said: 'Let us pray; let us pray. All pray for me.' I had now returned. She was unable to speak, and her mind seemed to be troubled. I, having spoken a few words about the love of Christ, the hope of eternal life, concerning our married life, and her departure, engaged in prayer. In full possession of her mind she both heard the prayer, and attended to it. Before eight she expired, so calmly, that those present could scarcely distinguish between her life and her death. (taken from Schaff's History of the Christian Church)

Calvin felt the loss of his wife very deeply. He lived fifteen years after Idelette's death and never remarried. He later wrote, "My wife, a woman of rare qualities, died a year and a half ago, and I have now willingly chosen to lead a solitary life."

Calvin's second ministry in Geneva was his most memorable and influential, by all accounts he had "mellowed out" considerably. I am sure his domestic tranquility assisted his demeanor. Calvin's marriage, even if relatively short, served as a strength and encouragement to him and his ministry- a benefit to us all.

3 comments:

M. Jay Bennett said...

That is a sweet hat! But I think a half- fu man chu would have suited him better.

Frontier Forest said...

I really expected you to share a precious Valentine love story about you and Shari? Or at least a little romantic flavor about how you met and fell madly, head over heals for her? Instead you tell us a Calvin love story. Some romantic you are! Hope you take a true “Tony-Tune Love Story” home this evening! It’ll last a bunch better than a Candy-coated Calvin Classic!

AJF said...

ah...good point Woody! I'll save that story for another day or for the making of a major motion picture!