Adam Neder, “The Humanness of Calvin” – Part 3

[Ed. note: Adam Neder is associate professor of theology at Whitworth University, a graduate of PTS, an author, and a friend of DET.]

Calvin’s Friends: Preamble

Perhaps a more obvious way to try to humanize Calvin would have been to give you a glimpse into his warm relationship with his wife, Idelette de Bure. Idelette was a member of Calvin’s congregation, the widow of a converted Anabaptist, and the mother of two children, a boy and a girl. When she and Calvin married, Calvin became the father of these two children, and during their marriage she bore Calvin three more children, all of whom died in infancy. When Idelette herself died after only nine years of being married to Calvin, it came as a devastating blow to him.

Here’s an excerpt from a letter he wrote to his friend Pierre Viret soon after Idelette’s death:
“Although the death of my wife has been bitterly painful to me, I restrain my grief well as I can. . . . You know well enough how tender, or rather how soft, my mind is. Had I not exercised a powerful self-control, I could never have borne up so long. And truly mine is no common grief. I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, who, if any severe hardship had occurred, would have been my willing partner, not only in exile and poverty, but even in death. As long as she lived she was the faithful helper of my ministry. From her I never felt even the slightest hindrance. During the whole course of her illness she was more anxious about her children than about herself. Since I was afraid that she might torment herself needlessly by repressing her worry, three days before her death I mentioned that I would not neglect my fatherly duties to her children. When I said this to her, she spoke up at once, saying, ‘I have already committed them to God.’”
Or another way would have been to focus on Calvin’s pastoral care, especially his care of those in situations of extreme suffering. To take just one example, Calvin and Idelette would rent rooms in their home to students in order to supplement their income. Once, while Calvin was away, one of the young men living with the family died of plague. Here’s an excerpt from a letter that Calvin wrote to the boy’s father:
“When the news first reached me of the death of your son, Louis, I found myself so distracted and confused in spirit that for several days I could do nothing but cry. And in prayer to God I was not comforted at all nor helped by the aid which he gives us in times of adversity – even if in the presence of other people, I appeared to have some control over myself . . . For I continued to be seized by grief and pain that such a young man, with so much potential, and with so many gifts, had been taken away from us – carried off in the very beginning of the prime of his life. You see, I loved him as if he were my own son, and he honored me as if I might have been his second father. I tell you this because I want to console you. But I do not want my consolation to become a heavy burden for you, which it might become if you think of me as someone recommending bravery and steadfastness at a distance, but not sharing in the same grief that you experience. For in fact, God in his unique goodness has in some measure graciously alleviated my grief and pain – grief and pain that I have in common with you, indeed almost in the same degree as you.”
But even more than his family life or pastoral care, I think Calvin’s friendships open the broadest window onto his humanity. And apparently Calvin thought so too. Here’s how he put it: “When we are dealing with our friends, our hearts are gladdened, all our feelings can be expressed, nothing is hidden – and our minds open out and display themselves freely.”

In my judgment, of all the possible ways one might begin to evaluate a person’s character, the capacity to establish, cultivate, and retain close friendships has to be one of the most revealing. This may seem like a strange thing to say, since we often view friendship as a kind of luxury – desirable, of course, but not essential, and certainly an inferior form of love than marriage. But the classical world disagreed. To them, friendship was the “happiest and most fully human” of the various forms of love. As C.S. Lewis puts it in The Four Loves, the Ancients viewed friendship as “the crown of life and the school of virtue . . . a main course in life’s banquet.” But for us it’s marginal – “something that [merely] fills up the chinks of our time.”

In the classical Christian world, Augustine and Jerome stand out as two of the church’s indisputably great teachers. But nothing so starkly distinguishes their respective personalities than their capacity, in Augustine’s case, and incapacity, in Jerome’s, to establish lasting friendships. Whereas Augustine seemed nearly incapable of losing a friend, Jerome seemed equally incapable of keeping one. For Augustine, deep and open friendships came naturally. In Book IV of the Confessions, he describes one of his friendships as, “sweeter to me than all the pleasures of life.” But Jerome’s friendships were notoriously conflicted and fragile.

I draw the comparison simply to point out that when it came to friendships, Calvin was like Augustine and quite unlike Jerome. He established close friendships at every stage of his life, and apart from a few rare exceptions, he retained them. According to Emile Doumergue, one of Calvin’s foremost biographers, “no other reformer had the personal attraction which Calvin had.”

Recently, a wonderful book has come out that details dozens of Calvin’s friendships. The fact that such a book could be written at all, much less that it could be so vivid and revealing, testifies to Calvin’s expertise in this area. Which means that when it comes to selecting which friendships to focus on, I’m spoiled for choice. I nearly decided to do Phillip Melancthon, whom Calvin once said could no more be separated from him than he could be torn from his own bowels. But in the end I’ve decided to take a look at Calvin’s friendships with William Farel and Martin Bucer.

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