Choosing the Right Spouse in Geneva

Courtship

This post is a revision of a post titled “Courtship in Geneva” based on John Witte Jr and Robert Kingdon’s book Sex, Marriage and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Volume 1, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage.  

Marriage was done differently 500 years ago than it is today. Today many, if not most marriages are arranged by the two parties with little consideration of what their parents or other adults might think of the proposed spouse. Often the path that leads to marriage is taken by the two parties alone. There is very little parental instruction to the young people on how to proceed. From the youngest years dating dominates our interaction with the opposite sex and usually our closest advisers are peers. This usually means that the choice of a marriage partner is driven by a fluttering heart or an excited body instead of reason, discretion, and prudence.

But it has not always been so.  In John Calvin’s time romantic interaction with the opposite sex was supposed to be reserved for when a person could physically and financially marry. When a couple began to seriously consider marriage they were usually overseen by their parents or guardians. In the third chapter of Witte and Kingdon’s book they explore this process of courtship in Geneva.

In Geneva, courtship did not take an exact shape. Calvin gave a few courtship rules such as no sexy dressing, unsupervised trips, overnight stays, dancing, “ribald letters,” and premarital sex. But as to the exact way a courtship worked out there were no strict rules. The parents were involved. There had to be free consent of both parties. There parties were to be honest about their financial state. But the details of courtship were a matter of wisdom. “While the Bible said a great deal about the sins of fornication, it said little about the ethics of courtship.” Since Scripture is largely silent on the specifics of courtship, so was Calvin. This is an important point for modern courtship advocates. I believe courtship is the model most rooted in Scriptural principles. There are general guidelines, which should govern courtship. However, the specifics should be left up to the parents, couple, and church. Those specifics will flex from family to family, community to community, and age to age. To say, “This is how courtship must be done” is to go further than Scripture.

While how a couple courted was left vague, who they courted was not. There were two issues. First, who could they legally and biblically marry. There were “conditions, experiences, or relationships past or present [that] disqualified [certain parties] from courtship and marriage.” It was forbidden for certain people to marry certain other people and in some cases people could not get married at all. This idea is explored in later chapters of the book.

Second, a potential spouse’s moral, physical, and socio-economic status were to be evaluated.  Christians were expected to think through these factors before pursuing marriage. A potential spouse’s moral character was most important when determining whether or not to marry. A person with moral failings, such as laziness, a bad reputation, or sexual immorality should not be pursued. Someone of a different class should not be pursued either. An educated man should not pursue an uneducated woman. A rich woman should not consent to marry a poor man. The elders at Geneva would not have necessarily forbidden such a marriage, but they would have strongly counselled against it. They felt marrying in the same class would give the couple the greatest chance of success. Reformers were especially wary of young men marrying rich widows. All of this backs up what Steven Ozment says about the Reformation approach to marriage.

While moral and class issues played a large role in courtship, Calvin did not ignore the physical side of it either.

Physical beauty was thus properly part of the natural calculus of courtship and marriage, Calvin believed. It was not ‘wrong for women to look at men.” Nor was it ‘ wrong for men to regard beauty in their choice of wives’…It was thus essential to Calvin that couples spend some time together before considering marriage…If there was no natural and mutual attraction, there was no use for a couple to go forward toward marriage. Accordingly, Calvin opposed the late medieval tradition of arranged or child marriages, sight unseen.

The authors conclude the chapter with this,

A strong pro-marriage ethic and culture was the new norm of Reformation Geneva…One key to a strong marriage, Calvin insisted, was picking the right mate-a person of ample piety, modesty, and virtue especially, of comparable social, economic, and educational status as well. A mate’s physical beauty could play a part…but spiritual beauty was the salient issue.

There is one funny anecdote in the chapter. Calvin was a bachelor for quite some time. In fact, he had all but given up getting married when someone suggested an Anabaptist widow named Idellette, whom he eventually married. Calvin’s good friend Farel wrote to him saying that she was an excellent wife, filled with all godly virtue and to his surprise she was pretty as well. Was Farel surprised that such a godly woman could be so pretty? Or was he surprised that a man like Calvin could land such a pretty woman? I am betting on the latter, but unfortunately we do not know.

The Power of the Consistory in John Calvin’s Geneva

Here is the latest post in a series I am doing on John Witte and Robert Kingdon’s excellent book Sex, Marriage and Family Life in John Calvin’s Geneva. This post more than others is simply historical, giving a basic outline of what the Consistory was and how it worked. If you want further explanation you can read chapter 7 in Calvin’s Company of Pastors. 

In 1538 John Calvin was exiled from Geneva. For the next few years he lived in Strasbourg where he learned from Martin Bucer and preached. In 1541 the city of Geneva asked him to return. One of the demands he made if they wanted him back was the creation of a institution to oversee the Christian discipline of the population of Geneva. Calvin’s request led to the creation of the Consistory, a church court that oversaw the discipline of the citizens of Geneva. The Consistory became the primary ecclesiastical tool to deal with the sins of the people.

The Consistory was made up of around 2 dozen men, which included pastors, elected officials, and Calvin,the moderator. It met every week on Thursday with sessions that could last for several hours. The Consistory had spiritual authority, but no civil authority. It could and often did recommend that the civil authorities look into a situation. Some situations, such as murder and rape, never came to the Consistory, but went directly to the civil magistrate.  Continue reading

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.

Sex, Procreation, and Historical Context

BedIn a  previous post I said this:

If you could not physically have sex you could not get married. There was no marriage of the heart only. If you could not have sex the Lord had made you a eunuch (Matthew 19:12). If you went to battle and lost your man parts, you could not marry. But if something happened physically after marriage the vows still held.

Geneva refused marriage to those who could not have sex. One question that arose from this comment was, “Did they do this because they felt marriage was for procreation?” The answer to this is yes, but it helps to put the laws in their historical context. What I am about to say is brief and there are exceptions, but in general it is true. Continue reading

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

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