Wine, Food, and Friends: John Calvin on God’s Gifts

November 11, 2016

Writing in 1548 to one Monsieur de Falais, a French nobleman intending to visit Geneva, John Calvin assured his guest that “I have purchased a good cask of wine.” However, when de Falais changed his plans, the reformer was hardly disturbed, remarking that “I have got rid of it without difficulty.” The image of the leader of Reformed Protestantism buying wine from a merchant is hardly the first thing to come to mind when we gaze upon his stern and unforgiving countenance at the Reformation monument in Geneva. In short, Calvin is not traditionally associated with the pleasures of life. However, he was a Frenchman whose hymn of praise to creation in Genesis offers profound gratitude for God’s good gifts freely offered for the enjoyment of men and women.

Food and wine for Calvin were not solely to sustain our bodies; for this reformer, they were no mere essentials for our existence. Instead, Calvin believed that, as gifts of God, they offer richer treasure. In Genesis 43:34, Joseph’s brothers “feasted and drank freely with him” at the Pharoah’s table. In response to any objection that “a frugal use of food and drink is sufficient for the nourishment of the body,” Calvin answers that:

Although food is a proper provision for our bodily need, yet the legitimate use of it goes beyond mere sustenance. For good flavors were not added to food value without a purpose, but because our Heavenly Father wishes to give us pleasure with the delicacies he provides. It is not by accident that Ps. 104:15 praises his kindness in creating wine to cheer man’s heart.

Calvin drank wine regularly, often sharing a glass with friends and visitors. Still, he was always mindful that “the more kindly God treats us, the more it becomes our duty to be careful to control ourselves and to use his gifts temperately.” He had frequent cause as a pastor to reflect on the idea that large quantities of wine, irresistible for most people, were also the source of terrible domestic and public violence. It was the duty of pastors and the rulers of the city to maintain peace and to control temptation to excess through preaching of the Word and the just application of law. Nevertheless, for the reformer, the message of scripture was unequivocal:

Someone will perhaps say that the flesh is much too clever at camouflaging extravagance, and therefore nothing beyond actual necessities should be allowed it. I certainly agree that Paul’s requirement (Rom. 13:14) must be observed, and we must not serve our lusts. But what is most important for religious people is to receive their food from God’s hand with a quiet conscience. And to do this, we must determine how far the enjoyment of food and wine is allowable.

Following Paul, Calvin saw eating and drinking as symbols of the freedom of a Christian in matters of practice and conscience. Reflecting on I Timothy 4:1-5, the Frenchman commented at length:

Let us notice the reasoning in this matter: we ought to be content with the freedom which God has given us in the use of different foods, because it is for our use that he has created them. It is the joy of all godly people to know that every food that nourishes them is offered them by the hand of the Lord; that to eat it is pure and lawful. What arrogance it is to take away what the Lord himself bestows upon men! Did the papists create good? Can they void God’s own creation? Let us always keep in mind that he who has created food also gave us free use of it, and that men’s efforts to keep us from it are in vain. I say that God created food to be eaten, that is, for our enjoyment. There is no human authority that can change this.

Throughout his life, Calvin made close friends, although he lost some of those on account of the religious divide. He was devoted to friends and relied on them heavily, both in his work and for emotional support. Two of the most prominent of these were his old colleague Guillaume Farel and the younger Pierre Viret. Although he lost both his wife and child, Calvin took great pleasure in the familial happiness of his companions. After Viret and his wife were blessed with another child, Calvin became concerned that his friend was overburdened by the demands of work and household and invited him to spend a week in merriment. “I beg you to come to our house on Saturday,” Calvin wrote:

You will never find a better time all this year. Sunday morning you will preach here in the city and I will leave for Jussy. You may join me there after lunch. From there the two of us will go to M. de Falais’ home.  From this place we will move on to the other side where we will remain in the country at the homes of Lisle and Pommier until Thursday. On Friday if you with to make a trip to Tournay or to Bellerive, you will also have me for a companion… Try not to miss all of this, much awaits you here. Until you come, goodbye. Greet the brethren and also your wife and little girls.

In his final years, his body ravaged by terrible illness, Calvin spoke of how his friends gathered around his bed as he continued to dictate letters and commentaries on the Bible. Food and wine were an essential part of early modern medicine, yet Calvin in all his pain remained a discerning connoisseur.

They prescribe to me all the best and most digestible kinds of food, none of which flatter my taste, so that my strength gets gradually more and more feeble. I struggle against my illness, nevertheless, and recruit my exhausted stomach with the most insipid of food…They pointedly exact of me to drink Burgundy wine, which I am not allowed to temper with water or any more common beverage. Nay, unless I had obstinately protested, they want to kill me outright with the heating fumes of Malmsey and Muscat wine.

Even in the midst of great pain, then, Calvin was not willing to accept inferior wine.

For Calvin, the act of eating and drinking was a deeply spiritual activity, reminding us that, according to the reformer’s interpretation, God feeds us daily through the Word. Calvin believed that the gathering of family or friends at the table foreshadowed eternal communion with Christ. That unity was manifested for Calvin in the central act of the Church, which for him was the community gathered around the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ. In book three of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin expressed the fulfillment of human community in friendship with God with the metaphor of the wine.

When we see wine presented as a symbol of his blood, we ought to think of the uses of wine to the human body, that we may contemplate the same advantages conferred upon us in a spiritual manner by the blood of Christ.

About the Author
  • Bruce Gordon is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. He also teaches in the History Department. He has written Calvin (Yale, 2009) and John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion (Princeton, 2016). He is currently completing a project on Protestant Bibles in the Sixteenth Century.

What are your thoughts about this topic?
We welcome your ideas and questions about the topics considered here. If you would like to receive others' comments and respond by email, please check the box below the comment form when you submit your own comments.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

There are currently no comments. Why don't you kick things off?