John Calvin on the Image of God in Men and Women

Man and WomanOne the advantages of reading those from the past is you realize that the question you are asking is not new and has been answered before. You may disagree with answer, but at least  you are kept from the proud idea that you alone or your generation alone has asked the question. For example, how can Christ be Savior of both men and women and yet Paul says in I Corinthians 11:3 that Christ is the head of man? Here John Calvin’s answer to that question. Brackets are mine.

There you have what we need to observe concerning St. Paul’s statement here, that the head of man is Jesus Christ. He is indeed the head of both men and women, as I have set forth. It is through him that we are joined with each other and united to God so as to be recognized and avowed as his children, and to have our refuge in him with complete confidence. Yet, be that as it may, as regards policy and order belonging to the present life, and without which men would be as dumb animals, Jesus Christ exercises the office of head over men. And let us observe that our Lord Jesus Christ thus affords us a double blessing: namely the eternal salvation of our souls [which applies to men and women equally], and the blessing  of order for this passing life [in which Christ is head of men and men are head of women]. Both of these things are quite useful, once one understands.

Calvin sees two levels at which Christ is working. First, Christ and the salvation he offers, as well as the benefits of that salvation are offered to and given to men and women equally. Men are not more saved than women. They are not closer to  Christ than women. We are all God’s children. But in this life order is required. Order demands hierarchy. This hierarchy is put in place by Jesus to guide us through this life with order and decency. Therefore men are the head and rulers in “this passing life.” Calvin states this another way in the next sermon on I Corinthians 11:4. 

Here one [I Cor. 11:7] might raise an objection we touched upon earlier: when it was said that the head of man was Jesus Christ, we asked if he was not as much the head of woman. We resolved that then [see above quote]. Yet there is a similar question when it is said that man is the image of God and his glory, for this also must surely be true of all women. If they are not of the church, then they have no hope of the promised salvation. Now we know that it [i.e. salvation] is founded on the fact that God has sent Jesus Christ to us, who has gathered us under himself in such a way that the image of God which was defaced by the sin of Adam has been repaired. As for this image, it is certain that it pertains to all the females as well as to the males…Must men now have this holiness all to themselves, and the women left by the wayside? Quite the contrary.

How then are we to understand it when St. Paul says that man is the image and glory of God? The answer is that this does not deal with the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ which is purely spiritual. Just as we said in the previous sermon, there is neither male nor female there, nor great nor small…In short, we can be neither members of Jesus Christ nor children of God, unless there be no more male nor female, no more of one being ranked above the other…Yet there is outward policy [order, structure, hierarchy, etc.], which is the subject St. Paul is addressing here, and which has been given us through our Lord Jesus Christ…It is with regard to this aspect, namely the matter of policy for this present, fleeting life, that St. Paul says we [men] are the image and glory of God.

Let us observe as of right now that women should not be angry that God has been pleased to assign them a lower station, given that they have what is most important [salvation], and rejoice in it…And if, for this temporal state that will pass away and vanish with the form of this world, it is said that women are not given the image of God as men are, they still should not be angry or displeased, since they see that God has created all men after his own image, both male and female.

This is two kingdom theology applied to gender roles. Calvin goes on to use the creation of man first and woman from his side to prove the same point. Men and women both bear the image of God. Both are saved through Christ. Both are united to Christ as children of God. Both have the Spirit equally. But to preserve order in this life Jesus as God decided that men would rule in “this temporal state that will pass away.”

2 thoughts on “John Calvin on the Image of God in Men and Women

  1. Pr. Peter,

    I hope you will allow me to take exception with Calvin here, or at least to lump him together with all expositors of Paul who miss his point, not only in 1 Cor. 11:7, but throughout the verses 1 through 16. The key mistake is to miss that Paul is insisting that men and women differ with respect to their glories, and so Paul wishes this difference to be afforded an express display when both men and women are assembled to give glory to God (e.g. to worship Him).

    Indeed, they equally bear God’s image. Just as certainly, they differ as to their glories. Man is the glory of God, and woman is not. Woman is the glory of man, and man is not. Because of this difference in glory, Paul mandates that this difference be accentuated via the covering on women when the church is assembled for worship. In so doing, the woman covers two glories – the man’s and her own, viz. her hair. The one glory which is not covered is God’s glory, viz. the man.

    Two additional points:

    1. What does it mean to say that man is God’s glory, that woman is man’s glory? A simple concordance study of the concept – which takes one often into the Psalms and the Proverbs – generates this definition for the concept: a thing’s glory is what comes to mind when that thing is mentioned.

    Thus, the Eiffel tower is the glory of Paris. Also the Arc de Triomphe. The Parthenon is the glory of Greece, the Coliseum the glory of Rome, and so forth. The cedar tree is mentioned in Isaiah 60:13 via the phrase “the glory of Lebanon.”

    To say that man is the glory of God is to say that when God is mentioned a man comes to mind, not a woman. It’s the equivalent of saying “God is masculine.” And, of course, everywhere in Scripture He is always He, never She; Father, never Mother; Brother, never Sister; King, never Queen. Son, never Daughter.

    Finally, 11:7 incidentally affirms the equality of image in both man and woman because Paul moves past the notion of image to focus on the concept of glory as that which distinguishes them. The image of God is not what distinguishes a man from a woman. But the concept of glory does indeed distinguish them from one another.

    Consider, for example, this statement: “Ben is an American Yankee of the Bostonian sort, but his wife Sarah is a Southern Belle.” This sentence, in distinguishing Ben and Sarah with respect to the culture of different American regions, does not deny that Sarah is an American! Her “Americanness” is passed over because the point of the sentence is to distinguish Ben from Sarah based on some other factor, viz. the distinctive cultures of two regions of America.


  2. Pingback: Calvin on Men as Heads in General | Singing & Slaying

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