Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2:13–16

Malachi 2.13–16

[13] Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. [14] You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. [15] Has not the LORD made the two of you one? You belong to him in body and spirit. And why has he made you one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. [16] “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate it when people clothe themselves with injustice,” says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.

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COMMENTARY: Calvin continues his hammering on the priests. Although vs. 13 seems to have the whole people in view, Calvin nonetheless blames the priests because they had lead the people astray. This is compounded in that the priests had compromised the institutional worship of God, so the people had no way to reestablish the proper relationship with God. “It was to be ascribed to the priests that no one could from the heart worship God, at least with a cheerful and willing mind; for God was implacable to the people, because the only way of obtaining favour under the law was when the priests . . . humbly entreated pardon in the name of the whole people. But how could God attend to the prayers of the priests when they had polluted his altar by the filth of wickedness” (550)? While Calvin does not make the connection explicitly, it is certain that he understands this situation as analogous to that in his own day with reference to the Roman clergy. He certainly made a lot of this comparison in the previous sections.

Vs. 14 brings up the question of spousal relationships. To begin he has to explain why the text would single out this issue when talking about Israel’s failings. To that end, he reads it as though Malachi singles out this one example from a long list of the people’s failings. To this end Calvin uses his fun rhetorical device: “as though he had said, ‘Your hypocrisy is extremely gross; but, to omit other things, by what pretext can you excuse this perfidy—that there is no conjugal fidelity among you? . . . There is then no ground for you to think that you can escape by evasions, because this one glaring vice sufficiently proves your guilt” (552).

Calvin has a lot of traditional baggage in his thinking about spousal relationships, but he makes a number of good points once you get past the patriarchal way that he couches / words them. Consider, for instance, the first line of vs. 15. The rendering given above follows Calvin’s interpretation, but the text itself requires interpretation. Calvin has to argue that it should be understood in terms of the unity between spouses, such that God makes them a single entity. (Coincidentally, along the way he gives a glimpse into his own developing interpretation of the passage.) So, Calvin explains “that man with the woman is called one.” But even more, Calvin describes the personhood of a man as incomplete without being joined with the personhood of a wife: “So also when we come to individuals, the husband is as it were the half of the man [i.e., the singular unity of human being], and the woman is the other half” (557). As far as Calvin is concerned, one cannot be truly male or female without having your being as such completed through relationship with your gendered opposite. Whatever criticisms we would level at this from our current socio-historical vantage point, the truth of the matter is that Calvin here provides women in the marriage relationship with quite a bit more theological weight than they were accustomed to have.

What about folks who are single? This was an important question for Calvin because he was single when he wrote this commentary. As far as I can tell, he lectured through Malachi in the late 1550s (1558/9-ish) and he had been a widower since the death of his wife Idelette in 1549. So Calvin clarifies: “I speak of the ordinary state of things; for if any one objects and says, that bachelors are not then complete or perfect men, the objection is frivolous: but as men were created, that every one should have his own wife, I say, that husband and wife make but one whole man” (557).

So, to recap: Calvin’s thinking about marriage and gendered relationships is severely problematic by today’s standards but—in his context—he had a higher estimation of the importance of women and wives than did many.

Moving on. Calvin concludes by addressing divorce in vs. 16, and this provides him with the opportunity to make a distinction between what is “desirable” and what is “possible”: “It is indeed desirable, that no vice should be tolerated; but we must have a regard to what is possible” (559). This is a deeply pastoral point for Calvin and is tied up with the practice of church discipline in Geneva. He was always concerned to discern not only what should be the standard for Christian life, but also what it was possible to enforce. This leads Calvin into a discussion of why it is better to permit divorce than it is to practice polygamy. His reasoning comes down to the idea that the latter causes deeper pain and suffering for the man’s first wife: in polygamy “the husband impurely connects himself with another woman, and then, not only deals unfaithfully with his wife to whom he is bound, but also forcibly detains her: thus his crime is doubled. . . . And when any one introduces a harlot [i.e., second wife], how can a lawful wife bear such an indignity without being miserably tormented” (560)?

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that though we daily in various ways violate the covenant which thou hast been pleased to make with us in thine only-begotten Son, we may not yet be dealt with according to what our defection, yea, the many defections by which we daily provoke thy wrath against us, do fully deserve; but suffer and bear with us kindly, and at the same time strengthen us that we may persevere in the truth and perform to the end the pledge we have given to thee, and which thou didst require from us in our baptism, and that we may each of us so conduct ourselves towards our brethren, and husbands towards their wives, that we may cherish that unity of spirit which thou hast consecrated between us by the blood of thine own Son. – Amen.

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