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Christian Freedom: What Calvin Learned at the School of Women

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2009

Jane Dempsey Douglass
Ms. Douglass is professor of church history in the School of Theology at Claremont, and professor of religion at Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California. This is her presidential address delivered at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History, 28 December 1983. Changes in printers' deadlines forced delay in printing this address until June.


Christian freedom was a major concern for Calvin from the very beginning of his theological career. The very long sixth and final chapter of the first edition of the Institutes is devoted to this question. He opens the chapter by calling this freedom “a matter of prime necessity; … without a knowledge of it consciences dare undertake almost nothing without faltering, often hesitate and draw back, constantly waver and are afraid … unless this freedom be grasped, neither Christ nor gospel truth is rightly known.” From this first edition till the last Calvin continues to talk at length about three aspects of Christian freedom: freedom of the conscience and freedom from the law because of justification by grace alone; freedom of the liberated Christian to obey God's will voluntarily and not out of necessity; and freedom in outward things which are “indifferent,” that is, in themselves neither necessary nor forbidden. For much of this understanding Calvin is deeply indebted to Luther and Melanchthon.

Research Article
Copyright © American Society of Church History 1984

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Translations of Calvin quoted in the text from the Institutes or the New Testament commentaries are based upon the following translations, though freely altered: Institution of the Christian Religion (1536), trans. Battles, Ford Lewis (Atlanta, 1975)Google Scholar (hereafter cited as 1536 Institutes); Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), ed. McNeill, John T., trans. Battles, Ford Lewis (Philadelphia 1960)Google Scholar (hereafter cited as Institutes); Calvin's New Testament Commentaries; ed. Torrance, D. W. and Torrance, T. F. (Grand Rapids, 19591972).Google Scholar References to the 1559 Institutes are by book, chapter, and section. All other translations are by the author from the following editions: Opera quae supersunt omnia, ed. Baum, G., Cunitz, E., Reuss, E.. 59 vols.Google Scholar (Corpus Reformatorum, vols. 29–88), Brunswick, 1863–1900 (hereafter cited as C.O.); Joannis Calivini opera selecta, ed. Barth, P. and Niesel, G.. 5 vols. Munich, 19261962 (hereafter cited as O.S.).Google Scholar

1. 1536 Institutes 6; O.S. 1, pp. 223224.Google Scholar

2. See Augsburg Confession 2:7 (article 28); Tetrapolitan Confession 14.

3. De Boer, Willis P., “Calvin on the Role of Women,” in Exploring the Heritage of John Calvin, ed. Holwerda, David E. (Grand Rapids, 1976), pp. 236272.Google ScholarBratt, John, “The Role and Status of Women in the Writings of John Calvin” in Renaissance, Reformation, Resurgence, ed. DeKlerk, Peter (Grand Rapids, 1976), pp. 117.Google Scholar

4. Institutes 3.19; 4.10.27–32.

5. Calvin's preface to the 1559 edition of the Institutes, O.S. 3.6.

6. O.S. l, p. 38.

7. O.S. 1, pp. 49, 50–51.

8. O.S. 1, p. 53.

9. O.S. 1, pp. 220–223.

10. O.S. 1, pp. 256–257.

11. Institutes 1.15 and 2.1.

12. Institutes 2.1.4.

13. Institutes 1.15.4.

14. Institutes 1.14.14; 3.4.37; 2.10.11–12; 2.11.9; 3.2.31; 2.13.1,3; 2.16.5,14.

15. Institutes 4.3.9; 4.13.18–19. Both sections were added in 1543. Compare Comm. Rom., C.O. 49, p. 240; Comm. I Tim., C.O. 52, pp. 309–314.

16. Institutes 2.13.3.

17. Institutes 2.13.3.

18. Institutes 2.13.3.

19. Maclean, Ian, The Renaissance Notion of Woman: A Study in the Fortunes of Scholasticism and Medical Science in European Intellectual Life (Cambridge, England, 1980), pp. 2846;CrossRefGoogle ScholarIrwin, Joyce, Womanhood in Radical Protestantism: 1525–1675 (New York, 1979), pp. 37, 1220;Google ScholarInstitutes 1.5.2.

20. O.S. 1, p. 244.

21. Institutes 4.8.13.

22. Institutes 4.10.27–32.

23. Institutes 4.1.12.

24. Institutes 4.15.20–22. Compare C.O. 7, pp. 681–686; C.O. 11, pp. 625, 706.

25. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, pp. 472–475; Serm. I Cor., C.O. 49, pp. 718–720, 726–729. Compare Serm. Gal., C.O. 50, pp. 567–568.

26. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, pp. 475–476.

27. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, pp. 532–533.

28. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, p. 533.

29. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, p. 533.

30. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, p. 534.

31. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, p. 535.

32. Comm. Acts. C.O. 48, pp. 15–16.

33. Comm. Acts. C.O. 48, pp. 437–438.

34. Comm. Rom., C.O. 49, p. 285.

35. Comm. Rom., C.O. 49, pp. 284–285. Compare Comm. Rom., C.O. 49, p. 240.

36. Serm. I Tim., C.O. 53, p. 221–222. Comm. I Tim., C.O. 52, p. 276.

37. Serm. I Tim., C.O. 53, p. 223. Compare Calvin's discussion of the prophetess Anna, Comm. Harm. evang., C.O. 45, pp. 95–96.

38. For Luther, see WA 26, p. 47.

39. Comm. I Tim., C.O. 52, pp. 276–277.

40. Comm. I Tim., C.O. 52, p. 276.

41. Comm. I Tim., C.O. 52, p. 277.

42. C.O. 36 Prolegomena; C.O. 17, pp. 490–492; C.O. 15, p. 125.

43. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, pp. 535–536; Compare Institutes 4.10.30.

44. Telle, Emile, L'oeuvre de Marguerite d'Angoulême, reine de Navarre, et la querelle des femmes (Toulouse, 1937; reprint ed. Geneva, 1969)Google Scholar, chaps. 1, 2, especially p. 43. Compare Kelso, Ruth, Doctrine for the Lady of the Renaissance (Urbana, 1956)Google Scholar, chap. 2.

45. Nettesheim, Henricus Cornelius Agrippa von, “Declamatio de nobilitate et praecellentia Foeminei sexus,” Opera (Lyon, n.d.; photo. reprint ed. Hildesheim, 1970), 2:504, 508.Google Scholar

46. Agrippa, , Opera 2:505.Google Scholar

47. Agrippa, , Opera 2:507.Google Scholar

48. Agrippa, , Opera 2:517518.Google Scholar

49. Agrippa, , Opera 2:518.Google Scholar The reference is to canon law, pars 2, causa 33, questio 5, c. 13; Compare Corpus iuris canonici, ed. Friedberg, (Graz, 1959), vol. 1, col. 1254.Google Scholar The canon draws upon I Cor. 11.

50. Agrippa, , Opera 2:518519.Google Scholar

51. Agrippa, , Opera 2:533534.Google Scholar The mention of preaching has been noted by Telle, L'oeuvre de Marguerite d'Angoulême, p. 51.

52. Naef, Henri, Les origines de la Réforme à Genève (Geneva, 1968), 1:309342.Google Scholar

53. Comm. I Pet., C.O. 55, p. 230.

54. Comm. I Tim., C.O. 52, pp. 276–277.

55. Comm. Joel, C.O. 42, pp. 564–570.

56. Telle, , L'oeuvre de Marguerite d'Angoulême, pp. 360363.Google Scholar

57. Quoted by Telle, , L'oeuure de Marguerite d'Angouidême, pp. 363364.Google Scholar

58. Jussie, Jeanne de, Le levain du calvinisme, ou commencement de l'hérésie de Genève (Chambéry, 1661; reprint ed. Geneva, , 1853), p. 164.Google Scholar

59. Ibid., pp. 176–177.

60. Fromment, Anthoine, Les Actes et gestes merveilleux de la cité de Geneve, Nouvellement convertie à l'Euangilefaictz du temps de leur Reformation et comment ils l'ont receue redigei par escript en fourme de Chroniques Annales ou Hystoyres commencant l'an MDXXXII, ed. Gustave, Revilliod (Geneva, 1854), pp. 1521.Google Scholar

61. Fromment, Actes, p. 233.

62. Marie Dentière, La guerre et desliurance de la ville de Genesve, Rilliet, A., ed., Mémoires et documents publiés par la Société d'histoire et et d'archéologie de Genève, 20 (1881), p. 312.Google Scholar Introduction and text, pp. 309–376. An appendix includes “Defense pour les Femmes” and extracts from the “Epistre très utile,” pp. 377–384.

63. Dentière, in Rilliet, , Mémoires, pp. 339343.Google Scholar Compare Dentière in Herminjard, A.-L., ed. Correspondance des réformateurs dans les pays de langue francaise (Geneva, 1874), 5:300.Google Scholar

64. Dentière, “Epistre très utile,” in Herminjard, , Correspondance, 5:295304.Google Scholar The covering letter is printed here in its entirety, along with extracts from the “Epistre très utile.” See Rilliet, , Mémoires, pp. 377378.Google Scholar

65. Herminjard, , Correspondance, 5:295Google Scholar, n. 2; Compare Rilliet, , Mémoires, pp. 319335.Google Scholar

66. Herminjard, , Correspondance, 5:296, n. 2; 5:302303,Google Scholar n. 18; Davis, Natalie Z., Society and Culture in Early Modern France (Stanford, 1975), pp. 82, 85.Google Scholar

67. Dentière, , in Herminjard, , Correspondance, 5:297298.Google Scholar

68. Dentière, , in Rilliet, , Mémoires, pp. 378380.Google Scholar

69. Comm. John, , C.O. 47, pp. 92, 434.Google Scholar

70. Dentière, , in Rilliet, , Mémoires, p. 380.Google Scholar

71. Parker, T. H. L.,John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia, 1975), p. 153.Google Scholar

72. Comm. I Cor., C.O. 49, pp. 532–533.