John Calvin: Marriage, Singleness, and Sexual Sin
My first post in this series looked at 1 Corinthians 7, considering the somewhat famous 7:9, “It’s better to marry than to burn with passion.” The second post considered the so-called ‘Corinthian problem.’ In both I noted that throughout 1 Corinthians 7 Paul commends celibacy, or singleness, calling it a good gift from God (7:7-8). On the other hand Paul seems to make a concession for marriage, possibly even suggesting that it is not the Christian ideal. For most Christians living in the 21st century, Paul’s comments are unpalatable—if not roundly absurd. Ultimately I think that most of us reject the biblical teaching that clearly says singleness or celibacy is good because we have a made an idol out of romance, marriage, and the nuclear family. At the same time we conflate singleness with loneliness.
However, there is more to our fixation on marriage than cultural idols and the fear of being alone. Many Christians struggle to square 1 Corinthians 7 with what they’ve been told the Bible teaches about marriage. Below I will consider two popular but somewhat misleading views of marriage prevalent in the church today. Both of these are incidentally developed by John Calvin in his Institutes. We might summarise them as: (1) marriage makes us whole, or completes us; and (2) guards against sexual sin.
1. Does Marriage Complete Us?
Alluding to Genesis 2:18, Calvin writes, “It is not good that the man should be alone…Man has been created in this condition that he may not lead a solitary life, but may enjoy a helper joined to himself” (2.8.41). Our created nature is conditioned towards marriage (2.8.42). Calvin is not entirely wrong—he very rarely is. However, I am not convinced that the creation account makes marriage fundamental to our humanity. Furthermore, we were created to glorify God regardless of life station.
Were we created for marriage? Is marriage essential to our humanity? And if the answer to these questions is yes, are we incomplete until we are joined in marriage to another? Putting aside the fact that Jesus Christ, the most fully human person to ever live, was single, let us consider Genesis 2. Yahweh says, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (2:18). But we should note what follows, both in what Yahweh’s solution and in how the text goes on to speak about human marriage.
Immediately after Yahweh declares something, for the very first time, to be “not good” we are told that he provides Adam with a “helper” (2:18). But, in his commentary on Genesis, Robert Alter notes, “‘Help’ is too weak because it suggests merely an auxiliary function,” when the Hebrew word “connotes active intervention on behalf of someone, especially in military contexts” (see Isaiah 30:5; Ezekiel 12:14). Thus Wenham writes, “It seems to express the notion of complementarity rather than identity.” In other words, being a spouse is not fundamental to our humanity. We were not created for marriage. Of course, as Alter writes elsewhere, what sets man apart determines his loneliness. But surely marriage is not the only place companionship can be found.
Following from the above point, we must read further in the Genesis narrative to complete our picture of marriage. Does marriage complete the first man or woman? Can we swap out “not good” for ‘incomplete’? This is what many ancient Greeks thought. In The Symposium, Plato views lovers as bifurcated halves in pursuit of wholeness and completion. Some have suggested that the Genesis 2 narrative conveys a similar notion when it says, “they shall become one flesh” (2:24). The picture of “one flesh” is certainly a vivid glimpse of the sex act: they were naked together and unashamed (2:25). But in 2:25 our English translations possibly obscure an important detail in the Hebrew. Alter notes that 2:24 emphatically concludes with the word “one,” yet 2:25 awkwardly doubles back on this by referring to ‘the man and his woman’ as ‘two.’ Despite their remarkable intimacy in sex constituting “one flesh,” the man and woman remain two. They do not form one new whole for each were already complete human beings, made in the image of God (see 1:27).
Thus we were not created for marriage—unless you are referring to the celestial wedding celebration when Christ takes the church to be his bride. Just as marriage does not complete the human person, we should not view singles as being somehow incomplete. We were created for something even more splendid than the wonderful gift of marriage. Our ‘special day’ is already set, fixed in eternity when God chose the church to be holy and blameless before him (Ephesians 1:4; 5:27).
2. Does Marriage Prevent Sexual Sin?
Despite the issues I’ve outlined above regarding our created purpose, as man and woman, there is a more significant weakness in John Calvin’s presentation. This might be summarised as overemphasising sin while not giving enough weight to gospel events—especially the coming of the Spirit. Big claims, indeed.
Calvin writes, “The companionship of marriage has been ordained as a necessary remedy to keep us from plunging into unbridled lust” (2.8.42). He suggests that sin compounds our created nature meaning we “should turn to matrimony to help them preserve their chastity in the degree of their calling.” He goes on to discuss 1 Corinthians 7, specifically celibacy, writing, “It is not given to every man to keep chastity in celibacy, even if he aspires to it with great zeal and effort” (2.8.43). Thus, for Calvin, marriage is doubly necessary because of: (a) our created and (b) sinful natures.
Calvin seems to make our sinfulness, or fallen nature, more fundamental than our new nature in Christ. Thus I feel as though he underplays the role of the Spirit who renews our desires. Can we really say that a man who struggles with lust but chooses celibacy, or singleness, is contending with God? Calvin thinks so. Within God’s command for sexual purity he says each person must measure their own abilities. So in 2.8.43 he writes, “Let no man rashly despise marriage as something unprofitable or superfluous to him; let no man long for celibacy unless he can live without a wife…Let every man abstain from marriage only so long as he is fit to observe celibacy.” But is marriage really necessary for the man, or woman, who struggles with lust? Again, Calvin insists that it is. He writes, “If his power to tame lust fails him, let him recognise that the Lord has now imposed the necessary of marriage upon him.”
I am sympathetic towards Calvin’s pastoral intentions. For he highlights the seriousness with which we should treat sexual sin—a commitment to sexual purity that is desperately lacking in many churches today (Ephesians 5:3). However, I am unconvinced of his view that makes marriage a refuge from and remedy for sexual sin. Untamed sexual desires are not remedied by marriage. Temptation does not disappear with the advent marital sex. Nor is lust sated. Singles and marrieds must respectively pursue holiness and sexual purity while putting sin to death.
Marriage is not the silver bullet for sexual temptation and lust specifically, or sin more broadly. “Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires…be renewed in the spirit of your minds…put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22-24). This command is given to all Christians, whether married or single.
Marriage will not complete you, nor will it kill sexual sin. Both of these things are the work of God, through his Spirit, found ultimately in communion with him rather than a human spouse.