Friday, June 01, 2007

Calvin on Hospitality

I have presented an 11 week course outline proposal to my local church regarding the radical nature of Christian hospitality. I don't yet know whether the Discipleship Committee will approve the course (though the early indications seem positive), but in the course of my research, I have discovered that Calvin had quite a bit to say about hospitality, much of which is very relevant to us today. A sampling of Calvin's thoughts:

"No duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God" than hospitality to religious refugees. Such a practice is a "sacred" form of hospitality. Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. 1, 484.

Calvin laments the deterioration of authentic Christian hospitality even in his day:

[Hospitality] has nearly ceased to be properly observed among men; for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories, is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers. Commentaries on the Epistle to the Hebrews, 340.

Calvin saw hospitality within a solidly moral and theological prism:

Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, "He is a stranger"; but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that he forbids you to despise your own flesh (Is. 58.7). Say, "He is contemptible and worthless"; but the Lord shows him to be one to whom he has deigned to give the beauty of his image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to himself. Say that he does not deserve even the least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions. Institutes, 3.7.6

[God] has impressed his image in us and has given us a common nature, which should incite us to providing one for the other. The man who wishes to exempt himself from providing for his neighbors should deface himself and declare that he no longer wishes to be a man, for as long as we are human creatures we must contemplate as in a mirror our face in those who are poor, despised, exhausted, who groan under their burdens...If there come some Moor or barbarian, since he is a man, he brings a mirror in which we are able to contemplate that he is our neighbor. Corpus Reformatorum: Joannis Calvini Opera Quae Supersunt Omnia, vol. 51, col. 105

Regarding the poor person, Calvin said that in viewing such a man,

we should think "now I have been in that condition and certainly wanted to be helped; indeed it seemed to me that people ought to have pitied me in order to help me"; But what [is the the usual case]? When we are comfortable, it is not a matter of our remembering our human poverty, rather we imagine that we are exempt from that and that we are no longer part of the common class. And that is the reason why we forget, and no longer have any compassion for our neighbors or for all that they endure. Calvin's Sermons on the 10 Commandments, 127.

Calvin is clearly developing a doctrine of hospitality not only from the Scriptures, but from the theology of shared human experience and the Imago Dei. In particular, Calvin is quite distinct from other theologians in emphasizing social disconnections in his appeals for hospitality, believing that great harm comes to humanity from the absence of relationships. As in our day, social crises of suffering, isolation, loneliness and hopelessness were prominent in Calvin's day as well. By advancing Christian hospitality as a major remedy to these maladies, Calvin was well ahead of his time in establishing a broad basis for mutual human respect and care that provide a strong precursor foundation for modern recognition of human rights.

But Calvin goes on. In answering the perennial question 'Who is my neighbor?', Calvin says:

Christ has shown us in the parable of the Samaritan that the term 'neighbor' includes even the most remote person (Luke 10.36), [and therefore] we are not expected to limit the precept of love to those in close relationships. Institutes, 2.8.54

Getting to the heart of the matter, Calvin offers this penetrating and challenging statement:

Let us beware that we seek not cover for our stinginess under the shadow of prudence. Sermons from Job, 202

Calvin offers this statement in a discussion about appropriate levels of scrutiny and inquiry regarding our generosity to strangers. While Calvin was concerned about hospitable people being taken advantage of, he insisted that inquiry should never be "too exacting". Instead, inquiry should be conducted with a "humane heart, inclined to pity and compassion."

In all of the above quotes, we get a glimpse of Calvin the theologian, and especially Calvin the pastor. The image of Calvin as a stodgy, cold-blooded, harsh theologian is a caricature that is terribly uninformed and unresearched. Calvin offers a very relevant word to us today regarding the moral and theological dimensions of hospitality, and urges us to reclaim our own heritage radically and comprehensively.


J. Matthew Cleary said...


Thank you for this brief glimpse of "Calvin the pastor". All too often we see him presented only as "Calvin the tyrant"...*cough* Dave Hunt *cough, cough*...Excuse me... ;-)

Gojira said...

Hi Jason,

I too thank you for this glimpse into Calvin as well. This was an excellent post.

Anonymous said...

A good article. Hospitality is too often unseen among Chrstian people. Yet a gift for hospitatlity is supposed to be a sign of someone qualified for office in the church. May Calvin be a light to us in recapturing this importaant practice of our heritage.

David McCrory
The Reformed Puritan