Was John Calvin a feminist?
It’s Blast from the Past Week on Holistic Body Theology. Here are some of my theological reflections from a class I took on “Women in Church History and Theology” at Fuller Seminary.
First posted May 27, 2008 as “Calvin on Women”
Was John Calvin an accidental feminist?
Jane Dempsey Douglass, in her article “Christian Freedom: What Calvin Learned at the School of Women,” suggests that Calvin might be something of a cloaked and even accidental feminist. She notes that the significant mark of his attention to women is his choice “to place Paul’s advice for women to be silent in church among the indifferent things in which the Christian is free” (155).
In other words, Calvin thinks a woman’s silence is not an irrevocable command from heaven but rather a “human law which is open to change” (156). If this is the case, then churches have the freedom to decide individually what is and is not consistent with order and decency in worship.
Douglass argues that Calvin makes no remarks in his many works that would contradict her reading of the implications of his classification of a woman’s silence in church as “indifferent.” She notes that the “only mention of women’s subjection I have found is in the context of submission of the church to the Word of God” (160).
In fact, in the passage in his Institutes concerning head coverings, Calvin writes, “If the church requires it, we may not only without any offense allow something to be changed but permit any observances previously in use among us to be abandoned” (qtd. 158). Thus, argues Douglass, Calvin is open to changes in church order concerning indifferent issues.
She even goes so far as to suggest that “Calvin feels the need to correct the apparent meaning of Paul’s statement lest his readers understand that women lack the fullness of the created image of God” (159). He even allows women to speak in church should God call them in a special situation (164).
In light of this evidence, Douglass suggests several conclusions: Calvin argues concerning the subordination of women “in the context of Christian freedom” (165); he labels Paul’s directive as human, not divine, law; he advocates for women being made in the image of God theologically if not in the realm of human order; interestingly, Calvin seems to “relativize the authority of the epistles” because he does not take Paul’s statement or arguments at face value (166).
Nevertheless, Douglass must conclude that regardless of the implications Calvin’s classification raises, he “expected women to return to their traditional subordinate roles” (172). This conclusion leaves me with the question: how much good does a proposition like this do if it is unintentional and in any case not capitalized on in general church order during and after the Reformation?
Human vs. divine rule in Calvin’s theology
John Thompson, in his article “Polity as Adiaphora in John Calvin: The Strange Case of Women’s Silence in Church,” is less enthusiastic about the positive implications of Calvin’s classification than is Douglass. He argues that in fact Calvin would never have supported women speaking in church and wrote to that effect, because “such an office [of public ministry] does not befit one who is in submission” (2); Calvin was also unaware of the positive implications Douglass attaches to his classification since he never discussed them further; mostly, Calvin was not a man likely to approve any kind of change, much less one so controversial.
At best, Thompson asserts, Calvin means by his classification the possibility of “a suspension of the rules, not a change” (4). Thus, there may be occasions when the voice of a woman in church will be called for or at least unavoidable, but these occasions do not permit “a change in polity but a temporary suspension thereof in circumstances of necessity or emergency” (5), a position Calvin is not the first to hold (re. Vermigli).
Thompson also notes that while “polity is a humanly-created order,” there are some rules of polity that “are divinely-instituted” (6). Since Calvin’s only examples for his classification of women’s silence as indifferent concern occasional or emergency situations, and since Calvin does not seem to be aware of any other implications of his concession, it is more likely—Thompson argues—that Calvin is not advocating very much freedom for women at all but rather asserting that one’s lack of decorum in a certain instance will not endanger one’s salvation (8).
Models/lessons from Calvin
Calvin’s example of stressing order and decorum in church worship is commendable. As a Presbyterian, I can at least give him that much credit. His distinction between God-ordained commands and human-devised rules is also a useful model as we try to extricate from its cultural seat the truth of scripture for today’s practical application in our many and various church settings. Even his admittance that indifferent rules may be suspended when necessary (if not amended or entirely altered) shows a flexibility in order and structure that allows one at least to breathe, if not grow.
In my opinion, regardless of Calvin’s intention or motive, his classification of the issue of women’s silence in church as indifferent to salvation does have positive implications for women in ministry. He may not have meant to give the kind of freedom Douglass hopes for in her analysis of his humanist background and theological writings, but he did open the door for it.
Perhaps it is for later theologians and scholars to build on the foundation Calvin laid for an orderly kind of worship that he would not have been able to see clearly through his own cultural lens. If Calvin, in his context, could make concessions on a temporary basis, perhaps he has paved the way for more permanent changes in today’s context.