13 November 2014

John Witte: Sex, Marriage, and Family in Calvin's Geneva

John Witte has done well for all who take seriously the historical accuracy of our knowledge of the law in action in Reformation Geneva. Witte's book chapter, Church, State, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva: Domestic Disputes and Sex Crimes in Geneva's Consistory and Council can be downloaded here.

Witte does an excellent job of explaining the sometimes-complicated relationships between Geneva's newly-created Consistory, made up of the pastors of each of Geneva's churches as well as a dozen lay representatives ("elders") elected annually by the church-member citizens of the city, and the three levels of civil government--the Small Council, the Council of Two Hundred, and the General Council. As he goes on to explain, the relationship between the Consistory and the everyday city government provided through the Small Council was particularly important because their jurisdictions overlapped. In other words, ecclesiastical and civil governments were separate, as were their sanctions, but their concerns were substantially the same: the prohibition of vice and the inculcation of virtue.

Virtue in Geneva, as Witte explicates, was explicitly biblical and included reconciliation. In other words, while the Consistory could exclude persons from communion or refer the unrepentant to the civil arm of the Council, it more often used persuasion and pastoral advice to bring contending parties or "sinners" back to the fold. I found the many examples and depth of Witte's explanations of the the Consistory's work to be especially interesting.

Church, State, and Family in Calvin's Geneva is also a great resource by which to check the ambitions of those who believe that the application of "biblical law" is a straightforward matter of transposing text of Torah to contemporary society, even if the society in question was far more homogeneous and monolithic than any in today's world. It should particularly check arm-chair theologians who don't know the law. If even one of the greatest theologians in the Reformed tradition struggled to apply the reformulated laws of a small city to real-life messes, how much more should those who think they can apply biblical "principles" to modern life take care. A lengthy excerpt should give the flavor of Witte's perceptive analysis:
It was one thing for Calvin, the theologian, to insist that marriages should be publicly celebrated with parental consent. It was quite another to decide whether a secretly married couple with a brand new child should be separated and their child thereby illegitimated and reduced to a public ward. It was one thing to thunder loudly from the pulpit that adulterers of all sorts should be stoned in accordance with the Bible. It was quite another to decide whether an engaged couple caught in heavy foreplay in their own bedroom on the eve of their wedding should be executed. It was one thing to declare anathema on interreligious marriages. It was quite another thing to deal with the hundreds of desperate new emigrants who poured into Geneva with spouses of various confessions on their arms. It was one thing for Calvin to say that married couples must live together at all costs, save in cases of adultery or desertion. It was quite another to insist on such reconciliation when a battered wife, already bent and lame from her husband’s repeated savageries, stood before him with newly blackened eyes.
In other words, then as now, wisdom should accompany the application of the law. But it's at this point that I have a small nit to pick with Witte's work: it pays insufficient attention to Calvin's explicit use of the classical notion of equity as a means of tempering unthinking application of a black-letter rule to a complex situation. Far more than any other work, Witte's shows how Calvin used equity to achieve restoration in light of law, but he doesn't back up to the the theory by which Calvin did so. Perhaps Witte simply chose not to address the topic; after all, it is his book. Yet some reference to the Roman-law concept of aequitas would have been helpful.

Interested readers can find an in depth-consideration of Calvin's use of equity in Gene Haas's The Concept of Equity in Calvin's Ethics. Haas's book is not easy to find so for a short introduction you can download my article, God's Bridle: John Calvin's Application of Natural Law here.

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