Disability Images and Implications in Calvin


Inst. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Quotations are from the translation by Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, Vols. 20-21. Citations provide the book, chapter, and section; volume and page numbers from this edition are then given in parentheses.

This paper is part of a long-term project whose goal is to understand and interpret religious expressions of the value of a person. A point of focus of this project is various religious views of the body, especially a body with disabilities. This involves attempting to understand the presumptions which lie behind these views and the treatment of people with disabilities. By “disability” I understand a wide sense of any bodily characteristic that impedes or inhibits full participation in society. Today, when someone mentions “disability,” we frequently think of mobility obstacles, which are very real. However, through much of history, being female has been a serious disability. The status of women thus provides insights into the wider range of disabilities.

The focus of this paper is John Calvin. Calvin occupies a crucial place in theological history. Among other matters, one cannot undertake a history of American religious thought without an understanding of Calvin’s ideas. His views strongly influenced the English Puritans, whose descendants became the early founders of several American colonies. Neither Puritan, colonist, nor American theologian has always represented Calvin’s teachings without modification. However, in either original or modified form, or as a point of opposition, Calvin’s teachings are foundational to American thought.1

The material for this paper is drawn largely from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin’s definitive theological summary. I have also used portions of his commentaries where they contain discussions of specific issues which bear on matters found in the Institutes. My intent in this paper is to learn from Calvin. This does not exclude comparisons to other theologians, but such efforts are secondary.

A continuing issue in any discussion of Calvin’s thought is what, if any, role the body plays in it. In many interpretations, the body is, at best, part of utterly depraved humanity. In such interpretations, Calvin elevates God’s glory and denigrates the creation. Thus, the body is often considered peripheral, and approached with an ambivalent attitude.2 Whether or not Calvin denigrates creation, however, he refers to the body frequently in the Institutes, especially when he explicates human nature. Therefore, Calvin’s teachings about the body play a significant role in understanding his teaching.

Much of the dispute over the role of the body arises because Calvin is consistently neither positive nor negative about it. Mary Potter Engel, noting these disputes, has proposed a “perspectival” approach to interpreting his statements. The essence of this approach is that one needs to know what issues Calvin was addressing when interpreting a point. Much of the Institutes is polemical. Consequently, when Calvin addressed someone whom he thought was proud, his emphasis was negative. When he addressed those who saw no hope for humanity, he presented an optimistic view. Calvin’s goal is a balanced viewpoint that considers both the goodness and depravity of humanity. Furthermore, one must consider the human condition. A look at the table of contents of the Institutes shows that Calvin used an organizational structure of creation, fall and redemption, and consummation of human restoration. A concluding book details the structures of present life (the church, sacraments, and civil order). This salvation history approach should be considered when interpreting Calvin’s remarks on the body. The human body began as a glorious divine creation. After the fall, it suffered corruption. In the end, God will restore the body to its rightful place. Meanwhile, humans live in a state of contradiction. The final aspect of a perspectival approach is that while God has an absolute perspective, humans view all things relatively. God’s ways are not humanity’s ways, and the two must be kept distinct.3

This paper adapts the noted salvation history approach for its pattern. I start with a discussion of Calvin’s views on the nature of humanity, particularly the effect of the Fall (I). After that, I consider the nature of the present life, which includes the problems of evil and suffering (II). Then I take up the resurrection body (III), and examine how Calvin’s teachings play out in practical issues (IV). In these sections, I attempt to let Calvin speak for himself. I then apply the findings of a disability-oriented inquiry to various discussions of the body in Calvin’s thought (V).


For Calvin, the first step toward understanding humanity is to recognize the importance of knowledge of God and self. One cannot know anything about God if one does not know the truth about human nature. Calvin gives two reasons for humans to learn about their nature. The first is to remove pride, so that humans will submit to God’s authority. The second is so that humans will understand their original nature, and by that find inspiration to seek goodness. One should know “how great our natural excellence would be if only it had remained unblemished,” and also the present contrasting state of the “sorry spectacle of our foulness and dishonor.” Only with this, the true self-knowledge, is one able to recognize his need for God, for only then is one aware of how far he has fallen, and how much he has to attain.4

God created humans in the image of God. The image of God is an important aspect of self-knowledge, for the image of God is what distinguishes humans from animals. This image is not found in any physical traits, such as walking upright, or anything else related to the body. The difference is that humans alone are composed of a soul and body. The soul is the incorporeal center of human intelligence. As such, it animates and directs the body. It is the human component that can conceive of God. With this ability, the soul can grasp concepts of rightness which are hidden from the body. The image of God means that humans have “an inner good of the soul.”5

Self-knowledge also recognizes a sharp distinction of the human condition before and after the Fall. The Fall has twisted human perception and thought. The responsibility for the Fall lies solely with humans, for they have made a choice to turn from God.6 Because of the Fall, humans lost the “heavenly image” and became subject to “the most filthy plagues, blindness, impotence, impurity, vanity, and injustice.”7 Although this is a pessimistic view, Calvin does find room for optimism. He emphasizes that God’s image was originally available to the human mind, and that the “soundness of all the parts” in the original human state fully reflected the divine image. In the future, God will restore this original and highest state of creation.8

In the present state, however, sin overwhelms the whole person, and brings all sorts of evil.9 According to Calvin, the Fall also corrupted the body, and the mortal body will always exist in sin.10 Calvin often writes of the body as a prison.11 Interpreters have often taken such statements to be Platonic references. Because Calvin seeks future restoration of the body, he does not, however, have the same goal in mind as Plato. Further, Calvin finds much to praise about the human body, for it is God’s handiwork.12 Calvin asserts that the body has no inherent defects, for God has made it. Only human sin produced the present corruption.13

The perspectival approach can help us understand what Calvin has in mind with these statements. We know that Calvin suffered from many physical ailments. One could hardly expect him to state much of a positive nature about the body.14 Calvin is also aware of a tendency of humans to glorify themselves and their bodies. He speaks of the body as the soul’s house in terms such as frailty and poverty so that we do not glorify ourselves, but put our hope in God.15 Moreover, the body, with its sensory perception, is an important part of the Christian life. Out of love, God graciously accommodates humans in the fallen state through the sacraments. In the sacraments, God has given humans visible things to impart spiritual grace.16 As one writer puts it, “one most fully knows and understands the salvific event of Christ through the body and its senses, rather than through the intellectual capacity of the soul alone apart from the body.”17

Calvin’s assertion of an incorporeal divine image in humans is not the only separation of the physical nature from the spiritual. As does Aquinas, Calvin states that God does not have a body. Calvin writes that God’s spiritual nature “forbids our imagining anything earthly or carnal of him.” One cannot therefore make any connection from a perfect divinity to any human body. We should understand scriptural references to bodily attributes as God’s way of accommodating human frailty,18 or as a contrast of divine and human natures.19 Any effort to create or imagine a body for God is idolatry, and distances the perpetrator from God.20

In his writing about knowledge and the body, one finds that Calvin places great importance on right relationships. A right relationship with God comes only when one knows the right place of humans in creation. That knowledge is two-sided: from the perspective of faith, God created humans with well-crafted bodies. Those bodies were perfect companions for the soul. However, human corruption has altered that relationship. God will restore the right relationship at the resurrection of the body.

Understanding right relationships is the first stage of a construction of a Calvinist response to disabilities. Calvin adopts a realistic approach to the body: it is necessary and important. God created good bodies, but the Fall brought corruption. Thus, the body has become a burden. All bodies suffer because of the Fall, and Calvin does not suggest any reason to distinguish any particular forms of suffering. Furthermore, he is very careful to separate outward appearances from any link to divine goodness. Although humans have physical characteristics which are different from animals, the image of God is solely spiritual. This first stage, then, is positive for the person with a disability. To have a body is to suffer. Why some suffer more than others is the next step in understanding the divine-human relationship.


The present, earthly life of humans is subject to the limitations caused by the Fall. One of those limitations is that humans have lost their original perfection. Another limitation is how far human knowledge can extend. Much knowledge about the world belongs only to God, and humans have no business exploring these matters. One of these matters is the working of God’s rule of the world. Calvin claims that scripture tells humans what we need to know, and only that. For humans to press beyond these limits is not only fruitless and unnecessary, it demeans God’s greatness.21

In particular, Calvin advises humans not to pry into the origins of evil. Noting scriptural silence on this subject, Calvin finds that humans are full of “inordinate curiosity.”22 He writes that the Holy Spirit did not include such information in the scriptures because it “has nothing to do with us.”23 What humans need to know is that all events, whether good or evil, ultimately come from God, and accord with a divine plan. Good and evil are not just the operations of nature, but reflect God’s active involvement in ordering the world.24 God does not either merely permit or allow events; nothing occurs by chance.25

Calvin finds two immediate causes of evil of which humans do need to be aware. First, Satan causes evil so as to bring trouble and incite humans to distance themselves from God. Second, God may cause evil to stimulate the human mind to turn toward the effects decreed by divine justice.26 Writing about the Lord’s Prayer, Calvin explains that when Satan tempts, he seeks to “destroy, condemn, confound, [and] cast down.” God, however, seeks to determine the sincerity of the believer and develop character.27 Although Satan resists God, this is only because God allows it. That resistance occurs only to the extent that God allows.28 Therefore, evil serves to fulfill the divine purpose as much as good does. The remedy for all evil is patience, prayer, and remaining faithful to God.29

Calvin adds that while the world often seems unjust, God does not fulfill God’s promises to the faithful in this world.30 God has ordered this world for a purpose hidden from humans. Humans should accept what God decrees, and should not seek to change the way in which God has ordered the world. The poor person is poor because God so chooses, and an attempt to “shake off the burden laid upon them” is to go against God’s will.31 Calvin also advises that humans should recall that Adam was not content with his position in Paradise. Such discontent, as with all resistance, dissatisfaction, and inquiry, is a sign of pride. Pride caused Adam to fall, and initiated evil in the world.32

From these statements we can further our construction of a Calvinist response to disabilities. The primary response to a person probing a disability, or any other apparently evil occurrence, would be, “mind your own business.” This response would be suitable for a theological inquiry as well as an inquiry from one person to another. It is up to God, not humans, to know about such things. Satan may have sent a disability to create trouble. If so, one should trust God, for such things occur only because God has allowed them. A disability may also have occurred because God is testing or strengthening one’s faith. In either case, God will reward faithfulness, although probably not in this life.

Calvin reinforces that these matters are beyond the realm of human knowledge in his comments about the church. No one can determine whether another is among the elect, for that knowledge is God’s secret. Nor is one to attempt to find any signs which could suggest a distinction.33 Although Calvin allows that some signs might exist, they are never absolute. The exact meaning is open to human interpretation, which is clouded. Consequently, Calvin finds a degree of toleration necessary in human life.34 Calvin also notes a human tendency to rash judgment, which needs to be restrained.35

Calvin’s teaching on this point is much like Augustine’s: one cannot tell from what source a particular instance of evil occurs, so not probing is best. No one should draw a conclusion about such events (for example, that they might be retributive). Therefore, no one ought to discriminate because of disabilities, or any other outward distinctions.

If God sends disabilities, whether directly or by allowing Satan to inflict them, should one seek medical relief? Calvin writes that God is the source of cures, and is the only one who can rescue those who seem doomed.36 Therefore, it is not surprising to read that seeking medical cures for disease is not only pointless, but an example of humans trying to attain their own desires.37 However, as we may expect by now, Calvin also finds another aspect. God has “provided means and helps to preserve it [life].” Calvin admonishes us that “if he [God] makes remedies available, not to neglect them.”38 Although Calvin’s attitude seems contradictory, one must read it in the context of the larger argument of the passages, which is that providence does not excuse wicked action. Calvin’s point is that humans obey God by striving toward the goal of salvation, not by inventing means of their own. We will return to this question later, for it provides insight on Calvin’s goals.

We may also note that we can call no body healthy. All carry the “cause and matter of disease,” even when “pain does not yet rage.”39 Calvin’s use of “not yet” is significant. No body is ultimately exempt from pain. It seems that Calvin would approve of modern statements that all humans are disabled, but that not all disabilities are equally noticeable.

The human response to suffering should be to turn in prayer to God, “whose hand can best impress patience and peaceful moderation of mind upon us.” The one who learns that nothing happens outside God’s will does not grow angry and impatient. Furthermore, one also learns that whatever God decrees is “just and expedient.” Citing Ephesians 6.11-12, Calvin also reminds humans that what happens on earth is not the ultimate struggle. We are engaged in a spiritual war with the devil.40

A line of thought often overlooked in discussions of Calvin’s approach to evil is that humans should conceive of God as loving. Tests, trials, and even the allowance of evil show God’s concern, and God’s desire that humans not succumb to Satan.41 God also shows God’s care and concern in that God does have something to offer the person who suffers. Calvin tells us that one may take comfort in adversity from the knowledge that adversity comes only from God’s command. Although the world is full of uncertainty, it is under control. God does not forget the one who suffers.42 God protects the believer, and will, one day, vindicate the innocent. In the future life, the innocent will prosper, and the wicked who presently prosper will suffer. This knowledge “soothes and mitigates” present pain.43

From Calvin’s assertion that God provides comfort to those who suffer comes a theology that reverses typical attitudes to human weakness. Human weaknesses are not evil of themselves, but are a blessing and a grace to humanity. Calvin finds that humans are chronically weak and live in misery. Even the description of God available to humans has been accommodated to this weakness.44 Christ submitted voluntarily to this weakness, out of love and mercy. However, such weakness “does not in the least detract from his power” and should not alarm believers.45 This is because human weakness is an opportunity for God’s strength to be perfected.46 As Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12.5, infirmities are a glory, because God uses them to expose folly. As with the bodily resurrection, this notion may seem insurmountable to reason. Yet in the end, human weakness is a powerful tool for God’s victory: “the unarmed, few and weak, snatch victory from the armed, many and strong.”47

In sum, then, humans are limited. Because of their limitations, humans should not pass judgment on the causes of anyone’s condition. All humans suffer, and should turn to God for comfort. One should perceive disabilities and other illnesses of as signs of human failing, but not a particular human’s failing. Some of these defects occur because the body is corrupted by the Fall. These defects may come with age, from inherent physical weakness, as well as some unknown effect. If one is in the right relationship with God, medical relief for these problems is a gift of God, and one should use it to provide reasonable care for God’s gift. Finally, in the end, God will reward patience, because this life is not the final word.


Because of the fall, the present life is troubled. Calvin advises the believer to bear this trouble with patience. The believer’s happiness is in his desire for God.48 The eternal life with God is the goal of this life, and the goal of Calvin’s thought.

According to Calvin, Scripture teaches that at death the soul leaves the corruptible body.49 With Augustine and Aquinas (among others) he affirms a later, bodily resurrection. At the resurrection, the soul will be reunited with the same (although transformed) body. Calvin acknowledges the difficulty of this doctrine that the body, “consumed with rottenness,” will be raised. Although the resurrection is beyond human understanding, Calvin states that it is a teaching of scripture, and one should hold it in faith.50

Although God intends the resurrection to be an “incalculable miracle” that is beyond human understanding, humans do have some intimation of its nature. At his resurrection, Christ received a perfect body, immune from corruption.51 At our own resurrection, the mortal body will similarly become incorruptible. The “corruptible body will not perish or vanish, but having laid aside corruption, will put on incorruption.”52 Calvin does not expound on the resurrection body beyond this in the Institutes. He gives more insight in his commentary on 1 Corinthians 15. Here he again asserts that the resurrection is miraculous, for it is “not from nature.”53 The bodily substance will be retained, but with a different quality. It will no longer be “quickened” (anima) by the soul, but by the Spirit. This quickening will be “more excellent” than the soul’s, for it will be complete. Consequently, the incorruptible body will be exempt from necessities of nature such as food, drink, and sleep.54 Making certain that we know this is not renewal but transformation, Calvin affirms that “we shall rise again in that same flesh that we now carry with us,” but that it will have “a new quality to it which will serve as a garment.”55

Calvin is more interested in affirming the reality of the resurrection than defining what it will be like. He contrasts the life to come against the present life. This contrast presents the believer with a goal and reward. In the resurrection life, God recompenses us for present affliction.56 This is more than a simple reward; for the life hereafter will be so blessed that it cannot be expressed.57

Again, here we find points that are positive for the person with a disability. Although Calvin does not go into details as Augustine did, he affirms a resurrection body. This body will not suffer from present ailments. However, one senses a vacuum in this. Confronted with practical questions, Calvin has little to say. He advises the believer to turn to God in faith. Beyond that, Calvin finds inquiry not only to be futile, but to go against God’s instruction.


What, then, are the practical implications of Calvin’s teachings? First, let us consider differences among people. Differences among people are a display of God’s gracious distribution of gifts, abilities, and other characteristics, material and spiritual. God is not bound to anyone, and freely gives to some and withholds from others. As we would expect, Calvin affirms that such unequal distribution does not detract from God’s justice.58 As we have noted earlier, the poor person is to be content with his lot, for it comes from God. Imagining that someone could interpret Calvin’s theology to justify discriminatory treatment is not difficult. Although many of Calvin’s theological statements seem to suggest that people should be treated equally, his lack of practical advice is problematic.

It is also problematic that much of Calvin’s language counters ideas of equality. To a degree unprecedented in comparison to Augustine and Aquinas, Calvin freely uses images drawn from disabling conditions. Most of these uses are pejorative. He frequently uses “blindness” to refer to sin. “Blind” likens an inability to see physically to an inability to see spiritually.59 Calvin also likens blindness to superstition and obstinacy, which he calls degenerate knowledge.60 The inability to sense spiritual matters produces distorted desire, which is also “blind.”61 Calvin labels human reason, unable to discern God or accept divine revelation, “blind.”62 Even as metaphors, such uses are problematic. They are even more problematic when Calvin expresses no hope for a change, which is typical of physical blindness. To add to this, those who are blind have chosen to be so, and nothing can help them.63 As part of the human choice, blindness is one fault, along with injustice and plagues, coming to humanity from the Fall, further confusing and weakening the metaphor.64

Calvin’s choice of “blind” also reflects what I will call “able-bodyism.” One should understand this term in the same way that “sexism” denotes a person’s superior attitude toward his own gender role, and leads to one’s formation of values which support that attitude. It is noticeable that Calvin portrays certain disabling conditions in much more palatable terms than others. For example, humans need scripture to act as spiritual spectacles. These spiritual spectacles make it possible to understand the human condition, much as physical spectacles make it possible to understand a printed book. Calvin writes here about needing spectacles as part of the normal condition of advancing age. There is not a hint of denigration toward anyone who needs this intervention to correct their eyesight.65 Using spectacles is a legitimate use of means given by God to aid infirmity. Calvin portrays this defect, which one might expect to occur to anyone, including himself, very differently than he does blindness.66

Calvin’s attitudes toward women reinforce his problematic use of images. He assumes that women cannot be pastors, and never offers an explanation as to why.67 Calvin does allow women to work in the care of the poor. While this is a “ministry,” he differentiates it from the pastoral office.68 Calvin also writes that women are not allowed to baptize, for that would be a mockery, and such actions are “inexcusable under any pretext.”69 The only explanation that Calvin ever offers about the role of women is from Paul’s injunction that women should not go out with uncovered heads or teach. This is a matter of order that removes confusion by maintaining customs. However, one does not find religion in this, so there is no sin if a woman should rush out to give assistance and forget the covering. Calvin adds to this that “there is a place where it is no less proper for her to speak than elsewhere to remain silent,” but again offers no guidelines.70

A similar problematic use of images coupled with lack of guidelines is found in Calvin’s exposition of the Fall, where he writes of the corrupted image of God that “whatever remains is a frightful deformity.”71 Not only is this a statement that recalls images of physical disabilities, it recalls an Old Testament regulation. Leviticus 21 prohibits ritual participation by persons with certain deformities. In the Institutes, Calvin writes that the Ten Commandments stand for Christians as instruction in righteousness, but the ceremonial law, fulfilled in Christ, is abrogated “in use.”72 However, here and in the Commentaries, he leaves us uninformed about the status of these particular regulations.73

Calvin’s practical use of language poses a problem to the person concerned about disability. These uses undermine his more general statements which seem to suggest that people should be treated equally, without regard to disability or other external status. They also indicate that Calvin is profoundly ambivalent in his views of the human body.


In the preceding sections, I have intentionally read Calvin without significant references to secondary sources. Now, I turn to these sources as they touch on the body in Calvin’s thought. In 1981, Margaret Miles wrote an article which concludes that overall, Calvin was ambivalent toward the body. The article has drawn several responses. The perspective of Calvin’s views of disabled bodies provides material for a critique of this discussion. It also leads to a unifying vision.

Miles’s approach draws on Calvin’s distinction of body and soul. For Calvin, the soul is the center of human consciousness. The divine likeness is located in the soul, and thus is internal. This point creates a sharp separation in Calvin’s thought, and is the foundation for the rest of Miles’s argument. The body is where the soul lives, and the body is dependent on the soul for life. Miles concludes that Calvin’s emphasis on the soul reflects his ambivalence about the body.74 Further evidence of ambivalence is that the body stands in three states at once. First, it is a “helpless victim” of the soul, which, as the seat of consciousness, caused the Fall. Second, the present body has an important role, for it will be altered, not discarded at the resurrection. It is a permanent part of the person. Finally, the body is weak and cannot survive on its own, and its significance to Calvin is only as a reflection of the soul.75

One response to Miles claims that she has overstated Calvin’s separation of body and soul. Added to this, bodies are important to Calvin because Christ needed a real body to reach humans. The doctrine of the two natures is also essential to Calvin.76 Another response notes that Christ’s body played a significant role in sacrificial atonement, and that through the body one is best in touch with the salvation mediated by Christ’s body. The writer claims that this emphasis is best explored in Calvin’s Eucharistic teaching, where Christ’s body gives life to the soul.77 One can also argue that Calvin does show some consciousness of the role of the body. For example, in his expositions of the sixth and seventh commandments, he emphasizes the role of bodily obedience.78

Several problems exist with these responses. First, the cause of the body-soul separation is corruption of the person and loss of the divine image. It would be very difficult to argue that Calvin does not find that the Fall resulted in such a thorough change in human nature. Part of this change was the loss of unity between body and soul. Therefore, it seems that Miles has not overstated Calvin’s degree of separation. Second, although Calvin emphasizes the reality of Christ’s body, we must be aware that Calvin portrays Christ as different from other humans. He did not live with the corruption that plagues humans. However, the greatest difficulty is that Calvin’s Eucharistic teaching is not at all body-conscious. Trying to prove the incorrectness of the doctrine of transubstantiation, Calvin has spiritualized the Eucharist. No physical presence remains; the only presence is spiritual. Finally, these arguments overlook the soul’s control of the body. Bodily obedience to law occurs when the soul exerts its control. Such control implies separation.

Miles’s claim is not that Calvin disparages, ignores, or is inconsistent about the body, but that he is ambivalent toward it. Calvin’s emphasis on the soul is one indication of this ambivalence. Another indication is the way he treats many disabling conditions. Although many of Calvin’s theological statements suggest that disabilities should not be a factor of concern, we have found that his practical treatments show a very different attitude.

Calvin’s long-term concern is the restoration which will come at the resurrection. Meanwhile, we must live in a corrupt physical body where our spiritual senses are dimmed. Thus Calvin is not only ambivalent about the body, but about all physical existence. It is therefore right that Calvin is ambivalent about the human body. Ambivalence is a balanced viewpoint that shows a right relationship when confronting a conflicting situation such as that of life in a body. This would be especially true for Calvin, whom we know lived with a body that would produce strong feelings of being trapped.

Perhaps the real issue behind these discussions is something that none of the responses address. Miles concludes that Calvin’s teaching requires an affirmation of the status quo which blocks all reform impulses. Humans are to accept the world as given by God, and not attempt to make any changes.79 As we have seen previously, this is exactly what Calvin argues. This means that humans have no business seeking to improve the lot of others: such action would interfere with God’s ordering of the world just as much as it would for the poor person to seek to improve his own position. Such an attitude is problematic. Not only does it grate against twentieth-century sensibilities, it opens the door to a path of abuse. Accusing Calvin of being insensitive to suffering would be difficult, but his work, although probably misinterpreted in doing so, provides a foundation for such rigid social structures and accompanying insensitivity. Two examples of such ideas may be found in nineteenth century America (although they are hardly exhaustive). One is Horace Bushnell, who argued that God favored genteel good taste and disdained those who were unable to acquire the physical trappings of refinement. Despite his interest in education and perfectibility, Bushnell saw little hope for those to whom God did not bestow the gift of taste to advance their position, because their economic inability mirrored spiritual deficiencies.80 Another example is Phillips Brooks, who stated that God had appointed economic inequality, and argued that most suffering was deserved.81

From the perspective of a disabled body, the separation and internalization which Miles notes in Calvin’s anthropology works in two other ways. As noted earlier, this separation can be positive because it removes physical appearance from reflecting the divine. It removes a possible argument that a disabled body does not reflect divine physical perfection, and is therefore borne by an inherently flawed person. However, this separation can lead to a view that the body is outside God’s area of concern. As such, the body can readily become the object of manipulation.

The latter possibility points to a larger sphere in which Calvin’s attitudes to the body play a major role. Benedict Ashley’s massive book, Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian, traces the development of ethical ideas about the body. He links ethical development to development of technological systems which allow the manipulation of nature.82 One prominent theme in his discussion of Calvin is the “desacralization” of the human body. To moderns, the body is no longer a gift from God used for God’s glory. Rather, it is a part of nature, subject to “manipulation and reconstruction by technology” at the will of humans. The beginnings of this desacralization came about when the Reformers undermined the sacramental significance of the body. This occurred as the guiding principles of ethics shifted from nature to law. Although the Reformers proclaimed relief from the Law, they actually moved salvation into an arena defined by legal terms such as justification. As a result, they portrayed the true religious life as spiritualized, and earthly existence became secularized.83

Ashley’s argument that Calvin has desacralized the body and contributed to later attitudes that separate the body from God’s concern opens areas of further inquiry. First, Calvin’s treatment of the Eucharist confirms this desacralization, and helps to explain his attitude toward disabilities. Second, this desacralization explains much of Calvin’s direct treatment of disabilities.

For all the emphasis which Calvin gives to Christ’s bodily resurrection, he places that body at a great distance from the Eucharist. Calvin, working against the doctrine of transubstantiation, declares that the Eucharist is an analogy to spiritual things. The bread and wine, things that nourish the physical body, are but symbols of Christ, who nourishes the soul. No longer does one have physical contact with Christ.84 Although Calvin insists that Christ is real food and drink for the soul, he has made a distinct break that severs the physical from the spiritual. Ashley also notes that Calvin’s theology of the Word of God minimized the sacramentality of the physical world. In part, this was because he sought to distance his doctrine from that of the Roman church. However, it also reflects a change of world-view. The physical world, where the body exists, was becoming the realm of science, and by that losing its religious significance.85 To this may be added that as one of the Reformers, Calvin abolished most of the sacraments, thereby removing a sense of daily contact with God in life. The culmination of this shift is that the body, along with the rest of the physical world, became viewed as an object. Humans can discover the principles by which these objects operate and manipulate them. God no longer is in control: “it seems that every traditional concept of the body had to be abandoned and replaced by a ‘utilitarian’ rather than a ‘sacramental’ view.”86

We can see this process at work in Calvin, and how a utilitarian, non-sacral view of the body led him to separate God from physical reality to a greater degree. In one sense, it must be admitted that Calvin held to a very sacred view of the body. He argued that it is subject to God’s decree, and not to human manipulation. However, he also had to face the reality of his age, and when he did, God lost. Calvin accepted manipulation of the body by humans in the form of spectacles. To retain a domain for God, Calvin was forced to spiritualize God’s role in life. This spiritualization is particularly noticeable in Calvin’s description of civil life. He argues that the scriptures carry no expectation of a physical kingdom of God. Further, the kingdom of God has nothing to do with earthly laws.87

Not surprisingly, Calvin found that self-knowledge, which includes the nature of the body, was important for knowledge of God. But he also created a distinct gulf between humans and God, for the physical cannot understand spirit. Medieval theologians, who also acknowledged this gulf, could bridge it with a Christ who remained present on earth in the sacraments. But in Calvin’s doctrines, the gulf has, at least in physical reality, become unbridgeable. With the best of intentions, Calvin has left humans with little that they can actually grasp that will lead them to God.

Ashley argues that the body is pre-eminent in any system of thought: “I exist and live as a body in a world of bodies. We bodies contact each other and by this contact we create the world-space.” However, being in a body is problematic, for the body experiences constant change.88 When humans get to the foundation of existence, only the human body remains as reality. Yet self-knowledge tells us that this body alone is insufficient to understand the world, because it is not a firm foundation. Calvin’s theology is not inconsistent, but it is very human. While he sought to affirm God’s control, Calvin’s treatment of the body weakened God’s relationship with the world, and provided a foundation for a later complete separation.


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Bushman, Richard L. The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge. [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953], CD-ROM reprint in The Master Christian Library, Albany OR: Sage Software, 1996.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Library of Christian Classics, Volumes. 20-21. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.

Calvin, John, translated by John Pringle. Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Volume Second. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948.

Cooper, John W. Review of Ashley, Benedict M. “Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian,” Calvin Theological Journal 22 (1987): 362-363.

Cooper, John W. “The identity of the resurrected person: fatal flaw of monistic anthropology,” Calvin Theological Journal 23 (1988): 19-36.

Davis, Thomas J. “Not ‘hidden and Far Off’: The Bodily Aspect of Salvation and Its Implications for Understanding the Body in Calvin’s Theology,” Calvin Theological Journal 29 (1994): 406-418.

Engel, Mary Potter. John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.

Hallett, Adrian. “The Theology of John Calvin: Part 2, The Christian’s Conflict with the Flesh,” Churchman 105 (3, 1991): 197-245.

Lears, T. J. Jackson. No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920. New York: Pantheon Books, 1981.

Leith, John H. Calvin Studies V. Davidson NC: Davidson College, 1990.

Miles, Margaret R. “Theology, anthropology, and the human body in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981): 303-323.

Parker, T. H. L. Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986.

Reid, J. K. S. Calvin: Theological Treatises. Library of Christian Classics, Volume 22. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954.

Vos, Arvin and John W. Cooper. “Biblical and philosophical anthropology: a short dialogue” Calvin Theological Journal 26 (1991): 143-155.

1Throughout this paper, I stand indebted to T. J. Jackson Lears, No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture 1880-1920 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1981), which traces the paths of Calvinist and pseudo-Calvinist teachings in American religious and secular thought, particularly their spiritualizing tendencies and the backlash to that in this period. The fruits of Lears interacting with Calvin are the stuff of another paper in the future; here he has provided insights into matters to understand in Calvin himself.

2Frank Bottomley, Attitudes to the Body in Western Christendom (London: Lepus Books, 1979), 144.

3Mary Potter Engel, John Calvin’s Perspectival Anthropology (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988), ix-xi, 1-2. Margaret R. Miles, “Theology, anthropology, and the human body in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion,” Harvard Theological Review 74 (1981): 308, adopts a similar tripartite structure of human existence: before the Fall, after the Fall, and future resurrection.

4Inst., 2.1.1-3 (1: 241-244).

5Inst., 1.15.2 (1: 184-185); 1.15.4 (1: 190) (quotation); 1.15.6 (1: 192).

6Inst., 1.15.1 (1: 183).

7Inst., 2.1.5 (1: 246).

8Inst., 1.15.4 (1: 189).

9Inst., 2.1.9 (1: 253).

10Inst., 3.3.10 (1: 603).

11e.g, Inst., 1.15.2 (1: 186); 3.6.5 (1: 689), 3.9.4 (1: 716); 4.1.1 (2: 1012).

12Inst., 1.5.2-3 (1: 53-55).

13Inst., 2.2.12 (1: 270).

14Thomas J. Davis, “Not ‘hidden and Far Off’: The Bodily Aspect of Salvation and Its Implications for Understanding the Body in Calvin’s Theology,” Calvin Theological Journal 29 (1994): 406-410.

15Engel, op. cit., 169.

16Inst., 4.14.3 (2: 1278); 4.14.6 (2: 1281).

17Davis, op. cit., 415.

18Inst., 1.13.1 (1: 121); 1.14.8 (1: 168); 1.17.13 (1: 227).

19Inst., 3.1.4 (1: 541).

20Inst., 1.11.2, 8 (1: 101, 108).

21Inst., 3.21.1 (2: 923); 3.23.5 (2: 952).

22Inst., 2.1.10 (1: 254).

23Inst., 1.14.16 (1: 175).

24Inst., 1.16.2-4, 6, 9 (1: 198, 200, 202, 205, 208-209).

25Inst., 1.18.1 (1: 230).

26Inst., 2.4.5 (1: 313).

27Inst., 3.20.46 (2: 913-914).

28Inst., 1.14.17 (1: 176). Calvin’s assertion that God orders all events, even those brought about by Satan, stands in tension against his affirmation that the Fall was the result of human choices alone. The problem of human freedom and divine control has been the subject of much discussion. Most attempts to resolve the question use a perspectival approach (absolute vs. temporal). However, it is beyond the scope of this paper to deal with these attempts at resolution.

29Inst., 1.18.3 (1: 234).

30Inst., 2.10.17 (1: 443).

31Inst., 1.16.6 (1: 205), 1.17.2 (1: 212).

32Inst., 2.1.4 (1: 245).

33Inst., 4.1.2-3 (2: 1013-1015).

34Inst., 4.1.12 (2: 1026).

35Inst., 4.1.8 (2: 1022).

36Inst., 1.5.8 (1: 60).

37Inst., 1.17.3 (1: 215).

38Inst., 1.17.5 (216-217).

39Inst., 2.3.2 (1:291).

40Inst., 1.17.8 (1: 220).

41Inst., 1.17.1 (1: 210).

42Inst., 1.16.3 (1: 200).

43Inst., 1.5.8, 10 (1: 60-62).

44Inst., 1.17.13 (1: 227); 2.3.1 (1: 289).

45Inst., 2.16.12 (1: 518).

46Commentary, 317, 377.

47Inst., 1.5.8 (1: 61).

48Inst., 3.25.2 (2: 988-989).

49Inst., 1.15.2 (184).

50Inst., 3.25.3 (2: 990-991).

51Inst., 3.25.3-4 (2: 990-993).

52Inst., 3.25.7-8 (2: 998-1003).

53John Calvin, translated by John Pringle, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, Volume Second (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 18. Hereafter cited as “Commentary.”

54Commentary, 50-51.

55Commentary, 61.

56Inst., 3.25.4 (2: 993).

57Inst., 3.25 .10 (2: 1004).

58Inst., 2.2.17 (1: 276).

59Inst., 1.5.13 (1: 67); 1.15.2 (1: 184); 2.2.18 (1: 277); 3.2.7 (1: 551); 3.2.33 (1: 580); 3.24.13 (2: 980).

60Inst., 1.4.1 (1: 47).

61Inst., 1.11.8 (1: 109).

62Inst., 2.2.19 (1: 278); 2.2.21 (1: 280); 2.2.24 (1: 283); 2.8.4 (1: 370).

63Inst., 1.4.2 (1: 48); 2.1.1 (1: 241); 3.1.4 (1: 542).

64Inst., 2.1.5 (1: 246). Calvin’s free use of such images seems to flow from the polemical nature of the Institutes. Calvin writes that one of his opponents should be “treated by drugs for insanity rather than be argued with” (Inst., 3.5.1). False teachers are “snakes,” (Inst., 1.13.4), and his opponents are barking dogs (Inst., 1.13.8). The commentaries read for this paper are free from this kind of language. However, other polemical works such as “Organization of the Church” and “Necessity of Reforming the Church” also use pointed language of this nature: J. K. S. Reid, Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954), 48-55, 184-216. The Reformation has changed theology from contemplation of God to a divine weapon, it seems.

65Inst., 1.6.1 (1: 70); 1.14.1 (1: 160-161).

66There are many studies in social-scientific literature which indicate that this is a typical pattern of distinction. People are far more likely to accept disabilities that are thought to be from a natural process or a non-preventable accident than those whose cause is mysterious. The studies also indicate greater tendency to accept “mysterious” disabilities when an all-controlling God is thought to be behind the operation of the universe. Although a fuller investigation is beyond the scope of this paper, Calvin’s psychological profile seems to fit this style of coping perfectly. R. J. Bulman and C. B. Wortman, “Attributions of blame and coping in the real world” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35 (1977): 351-363; Kenneth Pargament, “God Help Me: Toward a theoretical framework of coping for the psychology of religion” in Monty Lynn and David Moberg, eds, Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 2 (Greenwich: JAI, 1990), 202-207; Kenneth Pargament, Joseph Kennell, William Hathaway, Nancy Grevengoed, Jon Newman, Wendy Jones, “Religion and the Problem-Solving Process: Three Styles of Coping” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 27 (1988) 90-91; H. J. M. Eric Vossen, translated by S. Ralston, “Images of God and Coping with Suffering: the psychological and theological dynamics of the coping process,” Journal of Empirical Theology 6 (1993): 24-25.

67Inst., 4.3.7 (2: 1059).

68Inst., 4.3.9 (2: 1061); 4.13.18 (2: 1273).

69Inst., 4.15.21-22 (2: 1321-1323).

70Inst., 4.10.29-31 (2: 1207-1209).

71Inst., 1.15.4 (1: 189).

72Inst., 4.20.15; 2.7.16.

73T. H. L. Parker, Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1986).

74Miles, op. cit., 308-312.

75Miles, op. cit., 314-319. Quote on 314.

76J. Goodloe, “The Body in Calvin’s Theology” in John H. Leith, ed., Calvin Studies V (Davidson NC: Davidson College, 1990), 109-111.

77Davis, op. cit., 411-412; cf. Inst., 4.17.17 (2: 1380).

78Goodloe, op. cit., 108; cf. Inst., 2.8.40-41 (1: 404-406).

79Miles, op. cit., 305.

80Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 329-331.

81Sydney E. Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1972), 739-740.

82Benedict Ashley, Theologies of the Body: Humanist and Christian (Braintree MA: Pope John XXIII Medical-Moral Research and Education Center, 1995), 5-7.

83Ashley, op. cit., 177-178.

84Inst., 4.17.3 (2: 1363); 4.17.7 (2: 1367); 4.17.11 (2: 1371).

85Ashley, op. cit., 185.

86Bottomley, op. cit., 145.

87Inst., 4.22.1 (2: 1486).

88Ashley, op. cit., 3.


28 March 2011