John Calvin’s Views on Medicine and the Work of the Physician

Below is a paper I recently wrote for a history of medicine class. I found the subject matter to be quite interesting and thus the length of the paper  (I believe it is some 4300 words, which is actually not above the word count! An odd occurrence for me. The prof. said it had to be at least 3000 words). Due to what I deem to be the fascinating nature of this subject I thought I would share it with you.

“Show your wounds to the Lord, the best of physicians; and seek medicine from him”: A Look into Calvin’s Health and How Views on Medicine and the Work of the Physician Actively Encouraged the Advancement of Medicine

It is hard to underestimate John Calvin’s influence when it comes to the Reformation and Christianity today. Calvin not only produced a library of influential works on Christian doctrine and living, but he also established Geneva as a center for the Reformation. Men from Scotland, France, Germany, the Low Countries, England, and Scotland all studied in Geneva and then left it to spread the teachings of the Reformation all over Europe and, eventually, the rest of the world. Today, various Presbyterian and Reformed Churches share a set of doctrinal beliefs that have come be known as Calvinism. A key focus of Calvinism is an emphasis on the sovereignty of God over all the affairs of the universe. Tied to that idea of sovereignty is also the belief that one must pray to God alone and not to the saints. After all, since the saints have no power over what happens in this life, it is superfluous to pray to them.

But it would be improper to state that Calvin was only influential when it came to mere outward doctrine and mere academic theological teaching. Calvin’s theology was very practical and one especially sees this when it comes to how Calvin influenced medical thought and practice. This paper will demonstrate that Calvin influenced medicine with his belief in God’s sovereignty and that intercession can be made only to God. This paper will prove this thesis by examining what Calvin’s own personal words were on these issues. In order to do this, this paper has been divided into three major sections. The first section deals with Calvin’s own personal health and view of physicians. The second section deals with Calvin’s belief in God’s sovereignty and providence. The final section examines Calvin’s belief that intercession can only be made to God and that the Christian ought not to pray to saints or make pilgrimages to shrines.

John’s Calvin’s Own Personal Health and His View on Physicians in General

Perhaps the most amazing part of Calvin’s influence on medicine is he suffered with numerous diseases and sicknesses throughout his life. He by no means had an easy life when it came to the health of his body. His works are scattered with references to illness and disease. He even uses examples from medicine as illustrations for his doctrine and the practice of that doctrine. From this one gets the impression that this subject was one he quite often had on his mind.

That he would quite often have issues of health on his mind is made very clear when one understand what he all suffered from. To start with, he suffered from indigestion throughout his life. Beza recounts that this was a product of the long hours he spent studying during his law student days: “By these prolonged vigils he no doubt acquired solid learning, and an excellent memory; but it is probable he also contracted that weakness of stomach which afterwards brought on various diseases, and ultimately led to his untimely death.”[1] Due to Calvin’s unsettled stomach, he ate very sparingly and Beza remarks that for about ten years he never dined and left off eating till supper time.[2]

Calvin also suffered from numerous ailments with his lungs and it would appear that he

calvin-farewell-sermon_wileman_john-calvin_p96_1200dpi

Figure 1 William Wileman, “Calvin Preaching His Farewell Sermon in Expectation of Banishment” in John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence. (London: Robert Bank & Son, c. 1900: 96.) Taken from Reformation Church.org.uk (http://www.reformationchurch.org.uk/gallery-c.php) Accessed March 29, 2016

suffered from some type of asthma.[3] Calvin, in a letter to Bullinger, makes a brief mention of the problem: “my lungs are so full of phlegm that my breathing is difficult and short.”[4] A lot of the problems with his lungs were only compounded by the fact that he had to speak so often. He was often preaching, giving lectures, teaching, dictating books and pamphlets[5], and entering into hearty conversations with fellow reformers and citizens of Geneva.

Perhaps Calvin’s most troublesome and painful ailments were the bladder stones and gout he continually had to deal with. It is these two issues that Calvin spends the most time writing about. Indeed, he writes quite a lengthy letter to the Physicians of Montpellier talking about his gout and bladder stones. To get an idea of what it was like for Calvin, it seems most fitting to quote most of his letter here:

at that time I was not attacked by gout, knew nothing of the stone or the gravel, was not tormented with the grippings of colic nor afflicted with piles nor threatened with haemorrhages. At present all these enemies charge me like troops. As soon as I recovered from a quartan fever, I was taken with severe and acute pains in my calves, which, after being partly relieved, returned a second and then a third time. At last they turned into a disease of the joints, which spread from my feet to my knees. An ulcer in the haemorrhoid veins long tortured me . . . . Last summer I had an attack of nephritis. As I could not endure the jolting of horseback, I was carried into the country in a litter. Coming home I wanted to walk some of the way. I had hardly gone a mile when I was forced to stop, because of a feeling of lassitude in the loins, for I wanted to make water. And then to my surprise blood flowed instead of urine. As soon as I got home I went to bed. The nephritis was very painful and remedies gave me only a partial relief. At last, with the most painful strainings I ejected a stone, and this lessened the evil. But it was so big that it tore the urinary canal and the flow of blood could be arrested only by an injection of woman’s milk through a syringe. Since then I have ejected several others, and the heaviness of my loins is sufficient symptom that there is still some stone there. It is a good thing, however, that mixture or at least moderately small particles continue to be ejected. The sedentary war of life to which I am condemned by the gout in my feet prevents all hopes of a cure. I am also prevented from taking exercise by the trouble in my seat. For although no ulcer appears, yet the veins are very swollen . . . . But I am thoughtlessly taxing your patience, giving you double labour as the reward for your kindness, not indeed in consulting you but in giving you the trouble of reading over my trifles.[6]

It will be noticed with this letter that Calvin has a very gracious attitude towards physicians. This letter is a response to the Physicians of Montpellier asking if they could help with anything. The beginning of the letter expresses Calvin’s great gratitude towards them, “I have no way of showing my gratitude other than recommending you to draw from my writings what may afford you spiritual medicine. Twenty years ago I experienced the same courteous services from the distinguished physicians of Paris, Acatus, Tagant, and Gallois.”[7] It is also equally evident that Calvin believes that the work of a physician is very important to human life. This is seen in how he describes the Lord as the best of physicians: “Show your wounds to the Lord, the best of physicians; and seek medicine from him”[8] and “He is the physician, therefore let us show our wounds to him.”[9]

This is in contrast to a widespread criticism of physicians, even among other reformers. Harley writes that Thomas Becon (a 14th century English pastor) condemned physicians for their greed.[10] Martin Luther himself is suspicious of doctors as is evidenced by a quote from The Table Talks,

When I was ill at Schmalcalden, the physicians made me take as much medicine as though I had been a great bull. Alack for him that depends upon the aid of physic. I do not deny that medicine is a gift of God, nor do I refuse to acknowledge science in the skill of many physicians; but, take the best of them, how far are they from perfection?[11]

 John Calvin’s View on God’s Sovereignty and Providence in Relation to Sickness, Medicine, and the Work of Physicians

John_Calvin_on_his_deathbed,_with_members_of_the_Church_in_a_Wellcome_V0006910 (1)

Figure 1 William Wileman, “Calvin Preaching His Farewell Sermon in Expectation of Banishment” in John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence. (London: Robert Bank & Son, c. 1900: 96.) Taken from Reformation Church.org.uk (http://www.reformationchurch.org.uk/gallery-c.php) Accessed March 29, 2016

That background information is very important to understand that Calvin is not unaware of what he is talking about when it comes to practical theological advice on issues of health and medicine. He suffered a lot more than many could imagine to suffer today. It is no wonder then that his theology is so very practical when it comes to issues of health. The rest of this paper will proceed to examine his doctrinal beliefs when it comes to health and medicine.

As has already been briefly mentioned, one of the significant features to Calvin’s thought is his strong belief in the complete sovereignty of God. Calvin believed that the Scriptures clearly taught that God is in control of every aspect of life on earth.[12] This belief in the sovereignty of God in relation to life on this earth is commonly referred to as providence. Calvin speaks of several different aspects of providence. One of these aspects, known as General Providence, is the manner in which God guides the creation. He sends rains, storms, drought, famine, and prosperity.[13] Another aspect is Special Providence. This is God’s dealings with humanity in general.[14] Finally, there is what can be termed “Particular Providence.”[15] This is God’s special care of His elect believers so that everything works towards their benefit.[16]

For Calvin, God’s sovereignty meant that He is in control of health and sickness, life and death, diseases and cures. This meant that there was no such thing as accidents or events happening by chance. In the same way cures do not just happen, a cure has to be blessed by God. Therefore, the work of physician is useless unless God so determined that a cure could be produced.

Martin Luther seems to take a slightly different view. While Calvin emphasises the sovereignty of God in all aspects of human life, Luther directly attributes certain diseases and trials to the work of the devil. This is evidenced by numerous accounts in The Table Talks. For instance, Luther states, “A woman at Eisenach lay very sick, having endured horrible paroxysms, which no physician was able to cure, for it was directly a work of the devil.”[17] He also states elsewhere that,

the physicians in sickness consider only of what natural causes the malady proceeds, and this they cure, or not, with their physic. But they see not that often the devil casts a sickness upon one without natural causes. A higher physic must be required to resist the devil’s diseases; namely, faith and prayer, which physic may be fetched out of God’s Word.[18]

Luther further seems to have a much more superstitious view regarding disease. Luther seems to have a belief in astrology and remarks that the planets can impact the years of one’s life and sickness and disease. He remarks, “One’s thirty-eighth year is an evil and dangerous year, bringing many heavy and great sicknesses; naturally, by reason, perhaps, of the comets and conjunctions of Saturn and of Mars, but spiritually, by reason of the innumerable sins of the people.”[19]

That being said regarding Luther, it is important to demonstrate that Calvin avoids the extreme of those who say that if all things are controlled by the providence of God, then is it useless to seek the help of a physician or to take precaution. Calvin says quite a bit regarding those who hold to this careless belief regarding the sovereignty of God. Part of what he states is quoted below, but the sarcasm he uses must be understood in order to comprehend the quote. It must be observed that Calvin is speaking as one who contends that the work of a physician is useless for a good part of the quote and so he writes,

If the Lord has marked the moment of our death, it cannot be escaped – it is vain to toil and use precaution. Therefore, when one ventures not to travel on a road which he hears is infested by robbers; when another calls in the physicians, and annoys himself with drugs, for the sake of his health; a third abstains from coarser food, that he may not injure a sickly constitution; and a fourth fears to dwell in a ruinous house; when all, in short, devise, and, with great eagerness of mind, strike out paths by which they may attain the objects of their desire; either these are all vain remedies, laid hold of to correct the will of God, or his certain decree does not fix the limits of life and death, health and sickness, peace and war, and other matters which men, according as they desire and hate, study by their own industry to secure and avoid. No, these trifles even infer, that the prayers of the faithful must be perverse, not to say superfluous, since they entreat the Lord to make a provision for things which he has decreed from eternity. . . . Has a son waited with indifference for the death of his parent, without trying any remedy? He could not oppose God, who had so predetermined from eternity.[20]

Notice that Calvin does not deny that the work of a physician is useless, or that it is wrong to use drugs to remedy the ailments of the body. This is not a subversion of the providence and sovereignty of God; it is not rebellion to God’s sovereignty (to think such would be to posit that it is even possible to rebel against God’s sovereignty: an inconceivability). Rather, Calvin appears to believe that God so uses the drugs and the physicians as a means to perform His sovereign decrees. He writes, “Now our duty is clear, namely, since the Lord has committed to us the defense of our life – to defend it; since he offers assistance – to use it; since he forewarns us of danger – not to rush on heedless; since he supplies remedies – not to neglect them.”[21] This is further enforced by what David Harley writes,

Bodily healing, like that of the soul, lay with God although the sick should use all legitimate means . . . Medicine was the means ordained for use in sickness by God who usually acted through second causes. . . . No medical means were forbidden by Calvinist theology, apart from sorcery.[22]

Furthermore, Calvin argues that the believer must be content with the will of God when it comes to trials, diseases, pains, and injuries. He states that the believer must trust in the providence of God and must be patient with His will:

When afflicted with disease, we shall groan and be disquieted, and long for health; pressed with poverty, we shall feel the stings of anxiety and sadness, feel the pain of ignominy, contempt, and injury, and pay the tears due to nature at the death of our friends; but our conclusion will always be, The Lord so willed it, therefore let us follow his will.[23]

This is a very important point and one that has had a very important effect on pastoral counseling throughout the history of the church.[24] When it comes to disease and the sufferings of this life, the sufferer is often reminded (by both the laity and the clergy alike) that God is in control and that he is to be content with the will of God. Yet the crucial part of this, for the believer, is the Particular Providence of God. This means that all problems in the life of the elect are for their own benefit and God sends hardship as a loving Father. As Calvin states, “Hence, our Savior, after declaring that even a sparrow falls not to the ground without the will of his Father, immediately makes the application, that being more valuable than many sparrows, we ought to consider that God provides more carefully for us.”[25]

With this special care to the believers and followers of Christ, one may wonder how Calvin explains why adversity and hardship fall upon the believer. Part of the answer to that is that in God doing so, He chastises the believer for their sins, urging them to repent. So physical hardship draws the believer closer to God.[26] Furthermore, hardship (including sickness and infirmities of the body) causes the believer to trust evermore in God; the believer puts his trust in God and is thus comforted. The believer’s comfort in providence is that:

his heavenly Father so embraces things under his power – so governs them at will by his nod – so regulates them by his wisdom, that nothing takes place save according to his appointment; that received into his favor, and entrusted to the care of his angels, neither fire, nor water, nor sword, can do him harm, except insofar as God their master is pleased to permit.[27]

All these teachings regarding the providence of God had a profound impact among Calvinist communities throughout the world. One sees this especially in Scotland, England, and the Netherlands with the adoption of Calvinistic confessions and catechisms as the statement of faith for their respective churches. These confessions and catechisms include: The Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and The Canons of Dordrecht.

Christians in the Dutch, English, and Scottish churches were taught that since God is in control of all things, health and sickness come by His hand. Since disease comes by His hand, the cures for those diseases must also come by His hand and so physicians have a very important calling to find the cures for those diseases. Perhaps this is just one of the reasons that “both the physical and the biological sciences were dominated by Calvinists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”[28] For example, in England, the Puritans (quite often strong Calvinists) dominated the “early membership of the Royal Society of London.”[29] This society was created for the purpose of promoting the study of the natural sciences, included in which would, of course, be the study of medicine. Therefore, the belief in the sovereignty of God actively encouraged physicians to seek cures for diseases and it also provided a theological understanding for why God sends diseases to Christians and humanity in general.

John Calvin’s View on Relics and Praying to the Saints and Its Effect on Medicine 

That all being said about the providence and sovereignty of God in relation to medicine and the work of the physician it is now time to see how Calvin’s views on the saints and relics helped the development of medicine.

During the years of widespread Roman Catholicism throughout Europe it was common for people to go on pilgrimages to what were deemed holy sites where religious relics quite often were stored. Indeed, towns and countries would collect vast arrays of relics. One of the numerous purposes of going to these sites and seeing these relics was to be healed of diseases. For the exact same reason people would pray to saints. Calvin recounts such a practice in his Treatise on Relics:

It is said that during his [i.e. Francis Xavier’s] residence in Japan a woman of his acquaintance lost her daughter, after having sought in vain during her illness for St. Francis, who was absent on some journey. At his return the bereaved mother fell at his feet, and said, weeping, like Martha to our Saviour, ‘Lord, if thou hadst been here, my daughter had not died.’[30]

Further, Calvin remarks in The Institutes, “Then individuals adopted particular saints, and put their faith in them, just as if they had been tutelar deities. And thus not only were gods set up according to the number of the cities . . ., but according to the number of individuals.”[31]

It was Calvin’s firm belief that going on pilgrimages, making oblation to relics, and praying to saints was not only a waste of time, but absolute idolatry. He writes, “can there be any thing more heathenish than the custom of burning lights before images or relics, which is nothing else than sacrifices which the Pagans offered to their idols?”[32] He also quotes Vigilantius (a leader of the church in the 5th Century A.D.), who stated, “That the honours paid to the rotten bones and dust of the saints and martyrs, by adoring, kissing, wrapping them in silver, and enclosing them in vessels of gold, placing them in churches, and lighting wax candles before them, was idolatry.”[33]

As with many of Calvin’s theological beliefs, this was not simply a doctrinal position with no direct impact on life. His arguments against the use of relics and praying to the saints were a great benefit to the development of medicine. It removed a lot of superstition regarding healing, which pushed physicians and scientists to find natural reasons for disease. As Harley explains, “Rejecting the miraculous efficacy of the sacraments and relics, Calvinists saw God as operating almost exclusively through second causes, a view that was very favourable to the advance of medical knowledge and the medical professions.”[35]

Further, Calvin writes that prayer ought to only be made to Jesus Christ: “Christ . . . is the only Mediator by whose intercession the Father is rendered propitious and exorable . . . . As there is nothing in the intercession of Christ to prevent the different members of the church from offering up prayers for each other, so let it be held as a fixed principle, that all the intercessions thus used in the church must have reference to that one intercession.”[34] Thus, to pray to saints was to deny Christ as the mediator between God and mankind. It was to deny the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Ultimately, then, it was a denial of justification by faith alone and was idolatry.

Therefore, in conclusion, John Calvin was influential in a number of ways when it comes to medicine and the work of the physicians. His views on God’s sovereignty and providence allowed for the development of medical cures, since he viewed God as using means to accomplish His divine decrees. Furthermore, the condemnation and abolition of praying to saints and making oblation to relics encouraged the medical profession to seek cures inside of nature and not superstitiously to trust in relics. Thus, Calvin’s legacy ought not to be regarded as simply an academic theological one, but also a very practical one. His legacy is one that very much encouraged the development of science and medicine.

Bibliography

Calvin, John. A Treatise on Relics. The Project Gutenberg Ebook, 2010. https://archive.org/details/atreatiseonrelic32136gut Accessed March 29, 2016

Calvin, John. Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XVII: Harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John 1 – 11. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 2003.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008.

Harley, David. “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640” in Medicine and the Reformation. Edited by Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham. New York: Routledge, 2001: 101 – 117

Hogenberg, Frans. “The Calvinistic Iconoclastic Riot of August 20, 1566.” Image, 1588. Available from Web Gallery of Art, http://www.wga.hu/html_m/h/hogenber/frans/iconocla.html Accessed March 29, 1016

Luther, Martin. The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Edited by Thomas S. Kepler. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 1979.

MacKinnon, James. Calvin and the Reformation. New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1962

McGrath, Alister. A Life of John Calvin. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991

Shelley, Bruce. Church History in Plain Language Third Edition. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson, 2008

Steinmetz, David C. “The Theology of Calvin and Calvinism” in Reformation Europe: A Guide to Research. Editted by Steven Ozment. St. Louis: Center for Reformation Research, 1982: 211 – 232

The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. United States of America: Protestant Reformed Churches of America, 2005

The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Edited by Hans J. Hillerbrand. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978.

Walton, W.L. John Calvin on his deathbed, with members of the Church in attendance. Protestant Reformed in Geneva. Image, c. 1865. Available from: Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Calvin_on_his_deathbed,_with_members_of_the_Church_in_a_Wellcome_V0006910.jpg Accessed March 29, 2016.

Westminster Assembly. “The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines, Now by Authority of Parliament Sitting at Westminster, Concerning a Confession of Faith.” Image, 1647. Available from: Wikipedia Commons, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Westminster_Confession_of_Faith_title_page.jpg Accessed March 29, 2016

Wileman, William. “Calvin Preaching His Farewell Sermon in Expectation of Banishment” in John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence. London: Robert Bank & Son, Image, c. 1900: 96. Taken from Reformation Church.org.uk  http://www.reformationchurch.org.uk/gallery-c.php Accessed March 29, 2016

[1] Quoted in The Reformation: A Narrative History Related by Contemporary Observers and Participants. Ed. by Hans J. Hillerbrand. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1978), 174

[2] Ibid, 207, 209

[3] Ibid, 206

[4] Quoted in ibid, 108

[5] Ibid, 206

[6] Quoted in ibid, 179 – 180

[7] Quoted in ibid, 179

[8] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 412

[9] Ibid

[10] David Harley, “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640” in Medicine and the Reformation. Ed. by Ole Peter Grell and Andrew Cunningham. (New York: Routledge, 2001), 105

[11] Martin Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther. Ed. by Thomas S. Kepler. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker House Books, 1979), 318

[12] Calvin, Institutes, 118

[13] Ibid, 118

[14] Ibid, 119

[15] Although Calvin never appears to use this term, David Harley terms it such in his article “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640”, 101

[16] Calvin, Institutes, 128

[17] Luther, Table Talk, 292

[18] Ibid, 317

[19] Ibid, 321

[20] Calvin, Institutes, 126

[21] Ibid

[22] Harley, “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640”, 101, 102

[23] Calvin, Institutes, 462 – 463

[24] This is evidenced in part by the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 10 (a Calvinistic Catechism published in 1563) and the Belgic Confession (a Calvinistic Confession written in 1561) Article 13. The very personal nature of the Heidelberg Catechism allowed it to be quite readily used for pastoral counselling. See The Confessions and the Church Order of the Protestant Reformed Churches. (United States of America: Protestant Reformed Churches of America, 2005), 35 – 37, 93 – 94

[25] Ibid, 128

[26] Ibid, 129 – 130

[27] Ibid, 131

[28] Alister McGrath, A Life of John Calvin (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, Inc., 1991), 254

[29] Ibid

[30] John Calvin, A Treatise on Relics (The Project Guteberg Ebook, 2010),  https://archive.org/stream/atreatiseonrelic32136gut/32136-pdf#page/n87/mode/2up/search/84 (Accessed March 29, 2016)

[31] Calvin, Institutes, 581

[32] Calvin, A Treatise on Relics, https://archive.org/stream/atreatiseonrelic32136gut/32136-pdf#page/n115/mode/2up

[33] Ibid, https://archive.org/stream/atreatiseonrelic32136gut/32136-pdf#page/n59/mode/2up

[34] Calvin, Institutes, 579

[35] Harley, “Spiritual physic, Providence and English medicine, 1560 – 1640”, 112

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