Reading Scripture with John Calvin: 1 Peter 3.5-7

1 Peter 3.5-7

[5] For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their husbands, [6] like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear. [7] Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.



Unfortunately, this section (which Calvin treats as two different entries, and which I have combined) contains more of the same sort of notions about women as we saw in the previous section. Having acknowledged that Calvin was a man of his age when it comes to these matters, I do not want to dwell on them further here.

However, I mentioned previously that Calvin did in fact have some rather salutary views on the marriage relationship, and these views come out to some extent in this section. When he arrives at verse 7, Calvin writes: “dominion over their wives is not given them, except on this condition, that they exercise authority prudently.” I was surprised that he used the term “condition” rather than speaking in terms of purpose because condition implies a state of affairs that must be fulfilled in order for the dominion to be in effect. If this condition is not fulfilled, is the dominion in effect? In any case, the Genevan Consistory (the corporate organ for church discipline) often arbitrated in marital disputes, and while wives were held accountable in their submission, husbands were also held accountable to this condition of prudence. Moreover, Calvin goes on to affirm that part of this prudence means that “husbands honor their wives” in order to protect the “friendship” and “love” of the marriage relationship.

Of course, the whole patriarchy thing is undermined by the end of verse 7 where women are spoken of as “heirs with you of the gracious gift of life.” Calvin certainly comments on this material: “For since the Lord is pleased to bestow in common on husbands and wives the same graces, he invites them to seek an equality in them” and “[the hope of salvation] is offered by the Lord to [women] no less than to their husbands.” It is a shame that Calvin didn’t better understand that if men and women are to be equal in receiving salvation, perhaps they are to be equal in other ways as well.

Here is an interesting aside. When dealing with the bit at the end of verse 7 on prayer, Calvin mentions that some of his contemporaries link this with the notion in 1 Corinthians 7.5 about a couple abstaining from sex for a time in order to devote themselves to prayer. He doesn’t think that these two are linked, but the funny part is how he sets things up: “Some give this explanation, that an intercourse with the wife ought to be sparing and temperate, lest too much indulgence in this respect should prevent attention to prayer…” By going on and refuting this position, Calvin could be read as saying something like this: “Sparing and temperate intercourse? Forget that!”

One last comment on the bit in verse 6 about Sarah obeying Abraham and calling him ‘lord’. Calvin points out that “God, indeed, does not regard such titles.” In any case, this bit of the biblical text seems like revisionist history to me. The way I remember it, Abraham did as much obeying of Sarah (think Hagar) as Sarah did of Abraham, and when Sarah did obey Abraham it usually got her hit on by other men.


Jason Evans said…
"One last comment on the bit in verse 6 about Sarah obeying Abraham and calling him ‘lord’. Calvin points out that “God, indeed, does not regard such titles.” In any case, this bit of the biblical text seems like revisionist history to me."

By whom...Peter?
WTM said…
That is what I am suggesting. Granted, it isn't exactly false (Sarah does call Abraham 'lord' at one point), but it is an instance of the NT being somewhat narrow-minded in what it lifts up from the OT, and what it leaves alone.

NT use of OT is, I think, a fascinating study.
Jason Evans said…
Your assertion seems to be "narrow-minded". Peter though in Christ, he nor the other apostles were not divorced from their customs which were formed in an Ancient Near East and Greco-Roman background. present notions of equality are foreign to the early church. How women practiced their freedom in Christ was through submission (which was a instituted law in the Roman empire for wives). The differ was the women were willing submitting themselves "as to the Lord".
Like Peter instructed as well as Calvin pointed out the "here and not yet" tension is balanced by husbands honoring their wives, "as unto the weaker vessel." I believe Peter is not calling the women essentially weak. He spoke to the present condition in which the women experience in their culture. These women knew who they were in Christ, heirs of grace along with their husbands.

In Christ there are no such hierarchical privileges, but they lived in a world were those for a favored are Roman, of noble rank, and male who owned slaves. The pater familias house code was in effect. The early church's concern was for unity and reaching outside world with the gospel. And by the way, the Old Testament was the early church's Scripture.

If speaking in tongues was offensive to the unbeliever or the unlearned, so was women dishonoring their husbands in public.

I believe the early churches male-female relationship ethics was both subversive and honoring the culture. The women submitting THEMSELVES to their OWN husbands and the husbands LOVING their wives as CHRIST LOVES the Church.

WTM said…

It seems to me that you have failed to understand what I am saying. I used the term ‘narrow-minded’ with reference to the selective way in which the NT writers seem to read the OT, not with reference to the position vis-à-vis gender issues taken by those writers. I agree that the NT is – taken as a whole – rather subversive on the question of women when seen in its proper context (which you have alluded to). But, I fail to see how anything that I have written would contradict that – my only contention was that, when judged by today’s standards (and I was speaking primarily about Calvin), they appear to fall short.

That said, please refrain from typing in caps for emphasis. I rather prefer underlining or italics, as the caps carries a connotation of emphasis by way of elevated volume (i.e., yelling) as opposed to other forms of emphasis. This doesn’t seem to convey the ‘peace’ to which you refer. Don’t, however, take this to mean that I don’t appreciate your engagement. I do appreciate it, and look forward to conversing with you further as opportunity allows.
Jason Evans said…

I apologize for my unwarranted tone (usage of caps) and misconstruing what you originally intended to convey in your post. I do enjoy this dialog and will continue to read your insightful post. Blessings.

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