Engagement, Marriage, and Consent in Calvin’s Geneva

Wedding Ring

This is part of a continuing series on John Witte and Robert Kingdon’s excellent book: Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva.

Coerced marriages were a problem in Geneva. Men would try to get women to marry them through various deceitful methods. The reasons were the same reason men lie to women today: sex and money with occasional family connection thrown in. The laws in Geneva were designed to make sure both parties consented freely to the marriage. Here were the rules Geneva set down to make sure engagements were not coerced.

First, all engagements were to be initiated by a “sober proposal” from the man in front of at least two witnesses of “good reputation.” “Engagements made in secret, qualified with onerous conditions, or procured by coercion were automatically annulled.” “Engagements procured through trickery, ‘surprise,’ or made frivolously, as when merely touching glasses when drinking together, could be annulled on petition by either party.” They took this so seriously that if a man promised to rescue a woman from a bad situation if she married him, such as an abusive father or being in Roman Catholic city,  she could have that promise annulled because it was coerced. Continue reading

Calvin’s Attack on Marriage as a Sacrament

Marriage 1Here I continue to look at the changes in marriage during the Reformation. In this post I examine Calvin’s attack on the Roman Catholic view of marriage as a sacrament. The quotes are from Kingdon and Witte. 

This post looked at the basic foundations for marriage law in the church at the time of the Reformation. Some of the ideas taught were retained by the reformers, some were modified, and some were rejected all together. The first chapter focuses on the general changes that the Reformation in Geneva brought about to the law. The core change the reformers made was to reject marriage as a sacrament. Here is a short summary of Calvin’s views on marriage.

For Calvin

Marriage is a “good and holy ordinance of God just like farming, building, cobbling, and barbering.” Marriage serves to procreate children, to remedy continence, and to promote “love between husband and wife.” Its morals and mores are subject to the laws of God that are written on the conscience, rewritten in the pages of Scripture, and distilled in the Ten Commandments. Marriage, however, is not a sacrament of the heavenly kingdom. Though it symbolizes the bond between Christ and his Church, Yahweh and his chosen people, marriage confirms no divine promise and confers no sanctifying grace, as do true sacraments. Though it is a righteous mode of Christian living in the earthly kingdom, it has no bearing on one’s salvation or eternal standing.

For the church to subordinate marriage to celibacy is to commit spiritual “arrogance” of supplanting God’s ordinance with human tradition.

For the church to impose new laws on its own members is to obstruct the simple law and liberty of the Gospel.

One would think that rejecting marriage as a sacrament would lead to a rejection of marriage in general. In other words, it is odd that by saying marriage is a normal part of human and Christian life marriage was elevated. But that is exactly what happened.  The Middle Age theology of marriage had made marriage into something it wasn’t. Whenever man does this he ultimately destroys the thing. In this case marriage was not elevated by making it a sacrament. It was denigrated. By returning to the Scriptures the reformers restored marriage to its proper, glorious, place.

Here are a couple of other lines from Calvin’s attack on marriage as a sacrament from Institutes. 

But having graced marriage with the title of sacrament, to call it afterward uncleanness and pollution and carnal filth-what giddy levity is this? How absurd it is to bar priests from this sacrament! If they say they do not debar them from the sacrament, but from the lust of copulation, they will not give me the slip. For they teach that copulation itself is part of the sacrament…There is also another absurdity in their grand offices.  They affirm that in the sacrament the grace of the Holy Spirit is conferred; they teach copulation to be a sacrament; and they deny that the Holy Spirit is ever present in copulation. Not to have mocked the church simply in one thing, what a long train of errors, lies, frauds and misdeeds have they attached to this one  error…At length, we must extricate ourselves from their mire, in which our discourse has already stuck longer than I should have liked. Still, I believe that I have accomplished something in that I have partly pulled the lion’s skin from these asses. [1536 version of Calvin’s Institutes, p. 236-40]

The attack on marriage as a sacrament was a key battle line in the war over marriage with the Roman Catholics. When this domino fell the reformers felt that a lot of unbiblical and unwise traditions would fall with it. The restoration of marriage should be included with such key doctrines as sola scriptura, justification by faith, and proper worship as central to the Reformation’s long term impact.

Marriage in Medieval Canon Law

Warrior and his LadyThis is the second in a series of posts on Kingdon and Witte’s excellent book Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Vol 1.

In an earlier post I mentioned some general findings from the book Courtship, Engagement and Marriage in Geneva. Now I will work through the different chapters of the book. I find these studies fascinating for two main reasons: it puts the Reformation in context and it forces me to go back to the Scriptures to evaluate why I believe what I believe.

In the first chapter, the authors give an introduction to Roman Catholic theology of marriage and then use Geneva’s Marriage Ordinance of 1546 to show how Geneva changed prevailing theology and practice. This post will briefly look at the Roman Catholic view on marriage prior to the Reformation.

The Marriage Tradition at the Time of the Reformation
Here are some of the key ideas which dominated Roman Catholic marital theology and practice of the time. As we move through the book we will see that some of these ideas carried over into the Reformation, some were modified, and some rejected altogether. Continue reading

The Inferiority of Marriage to Celibacy in Roman Catholic Theology

Kingdon and Witte’s summary of medieval views on marriage and celibacy. This follows a paragraph where they describe how the Roman Catholics viewed marriage as natural and on some level good. All punctuation, except bold, is theirs.

Many medieval writers, however,-following St. Paul’s teaching in I Corinthians 7-subordinated the duty of propagation to that of celibate contemplation, the natural drive for sexual union to the spiritual drive for beatitude. For, as Peter Lombard put it: “The first institution [of marriage in Paradise] was commanded, the second permitted…to the human race for the purpose of preventing fornication. But this permission, because it does not select better things, is a remedy not a reward; if anyone rejects it, he will deserve judgment of death. An act which is allowed by permission, however, is voluntary, not necessary.” After the fall into sin, marriage remained a duty, but only for those tempted by sexual sin. For those not so tempted, marriage was an inferior option. It was better and more virtuous to pursue the spiritual life of celibacy and contemplation than the temporal life of marriage and family. For marriage was regarded as an institution of the natural sphere, not the supernatural sphere. Though ordained by God and good, it served primarily for the protection of the human community, not for the perfection of the individual. Participation in it merely kept a person free from sin and vice. It did not contribute directly to his or her virtue. The celibate, contemplative life, by contrast, was a calling to the supernatural sphere. Participation in it increased a person’s virtue and aided in the pursuit of beatitude. To this pursuit, Thomas Aquinas put it, “marriage is a very great obstacle, ” for it forces the person to dwell on the carnal and natural rather than the spiritual and supernatural aspects of life. (p. 29-30)

Marriage was seen as settling for something less than the best. This view would have been reinforced by the celibate priesthood.

Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

Kingdon and WitteI am going to repost, with some revisions, my blog series on Kingdon and Witte’s excellent work: Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Vol 1.  There were supposed to be two more volumes, but Robert Kingdon died. I am not sure the status of the next two books. We cannot nor should we adopt all the specifics of pastoral care in Geneva. However, in our age where moral formation through pastoral care is an afterthought, books like these are of great value. The sheep wander off cliffs regularly while pastors waste their time or better yet push them. This books gives a way godly shepherds cared for their sheep in the a specific time and place. And while we cannot adopt all the particulars, the principles do not change.  And the subject of marriage, children, and sex is never boring and always relevant. 

What pops in your mind when you think of John Calvin? Austere reformer? Man who had Servetus killed? A man who taught that evil, black doctrine of predestination? Or do you think of a man who protected women and children and sought to reform marriage? This latter picture is the one painted by this book. I think most people will find me weird for loving this book so much. But I did. As a pastor I am always looking for different perspectives on pastoral care. This book is a great picture of pastoral theology and care in action during a specific time period. This book is supposed to be the first of three volumes on Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva. I sincerely hope they get the other two written. This one focused on pastoral counsel up to and including the wedding. The next volume will focus on marriage and children. The final volume will focus on divorce, desertion, abuse, and widows/widowers.

Continue reading

Three Goals of Church Discipline

More from Scott Manetsch and church discipline in Geneva.

Geneva’s ministers believed ecclesiastical discipline had three primary purposes or goals. First, moral correction helped preserve the purity of Christ’s church and protected the Lord’s Supper from being profaned. Second,  church discipline was intended to protect Christians from the bad influence of wicked people. Third, moral discipline was intended to shame rebellious sinners, thereby hastening their repentance and making possible restoration to the Christian community.

Two notes on this.

The primary goal of church discipline is always to honor Christ and his church. While we want to see sinners restored that is not the primary aim. Christ is honored when ministers consider his church, which he shed his blood for, precious enough to remove those who through heresy or wicked living flagrantly dishonor Christ. A refusal to do this is a refusal to love Jesus.

Second, the loss of shame across our society has made church discipline much less effective. Even in churches shame is considered a bad thing, something to be avoided. How can a sinner be brought to repentance without being ashamed of his actions? The only goal of discipline is not to shame a person. Nor is the shame to exceed the nature and gravity of the sin. Still, without shame excommunication loses its power. It is a terrible thing for men’s souls when they can go down the road, head held high, and join another church after having been excommunicated.

The Keys to the Kingdom in Geneva

Reformers 1

Man, am I enjoying Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors. I have decided to describe it as a pastoral theology disguised as history. Here is Manetsch’s summary of the ways Calvin and his successors believed ministers exercise the power of the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19).

First, the spiritual authority to “bind and loose” was exercised in a general way when ministers preached the gospel in their sermons, announcing God’s righteous judgment upon the wicked and God’s promise of salvation to those who turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Second, the power of the keys was employed more particularly when pastors and lay elders conducted annual household visitations to examine the character and doctrine of church members, or when they admonish sinners in private conferences. Finally, ministers and elders employed the power of the keys through the ministry of the Consistory as they confronted people who were guilty of moral failure and excommunicated from the Lord’s Table those who refused to repent of their error. At each stage of discipline, church leaders needed spiritual discernment to apply the appropriate measures of rigor and gentleness to bring about the repentance and restoration of the sinner. Wise pastors, Beza [Calvin’s successor] once observed need “not only to discern the illness, but also the best medicine to prescribe, preaching the Law to the hardened, and the gospel of grace to those despairing. In brief, let us always condemn the sin, but try to save the sinner.” This was Calvin’s view as well. The power of the keys needed to be exercised with wisdom and gentleness in hopes of rescuing the sinner.  Otherwise discipline might degenerate into “spiritual butchery.”

Just a couple of notes from this paragraph.

First, church discipline is often understood only as excommunication. This is a serious mistake and fails to recognize that a majority of discipline in a church occurs from the pulpit in a general fashion or one on one either through visitation or counseling.

Second, the lost art of visitation is one of the reasons why sin among the congregation is not more quickly recognized and dealt with. Visitation does two things: it creates a stronger relationship between the minister/elders and the members so when rebuke is necessary there should already be a bond of love. And it gives the minister a chance to be in the home and ask questions about how the member is doing. If the only time a minister/elder speaks with a member is before or after a regular meeting or when there is crisis then sin will not be adequately dealt with.

Third, discipline in all it forms, preaching, private meetings, and excommunication requires great wisdom on the part of ministers. It is easy to make mistakes, especially in our age where the congregation usually does not want anyone exercising authority in their lives, whether from the pulpit or in their living room, and the pastors have rarely seen spiritual authority exercised well, if at all.