Calvin on parents and children

Having had a look at what Calvin has to say about slaves and masters based on Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5-6, I thought it would be worth having a look at his comments on the other two issues treated there, first on parents and children, then on wives and husbands.

Calvin picks up on the spiritual dimension to fatherhood. Back in Ephesians 5:1-2, Paul instructs his readers to be Christlike in imitating God. This call to imitate arises out of our standing as children of God so that Calvin observes.

“The same principle is followed out and enforced by the consideration that children ought to be like their father. He reminds us that we are the children of God, and that therefore we ought, as far as possible, to resemble Him in acts of kindness.”[1]

He goes on to add:

“If, then, we are the children of God, we ought to be followers of God. Christ also declares, that, unless we shew kindness to the unworthy, we cannot be the children of our heavenly Father.” [2]

In Ephesians 6, having set out what it means for husbands to love their wives and wives to submit to their husbands, Paul then goes on to talk about parents and children. The OT law says that children are to honour their parents but Paul changes this to “obey.” Calvin asks why?

It is because Obedience is the evidence of that honour which children owe to their parents, and is therefore more earnestly enforced. It is likewise more difficult; for the human mind recoils from the idea of subjection, and with difficulty allows itself to be placed under the control of another. Experience shews how rare this virtue is; for do we find one among a thousand that is obedient to his parents? By a figure of speech, a part is here put for the whole, but it is the most important part, and is necessarily accompanied by all the others.”[3]

Notice that for him, honour and respect needs to be evidenced in behaviour. Notice too that this both something we find difficult to do, it goes against pride and indeed he considers it rare for children to have this healthy relationship with their parents. However submission is also something given out our own volition and it requires us to entrust ourselves to the care and supervision of another.

It is because the requirement here is not easy that it is accompanied by a promise.  Calvin notes that whilst there are other commandments grounded in general promises of God’s grace, this is the only one that has a specific promise directly linked to obedience. [4]

“The promises annexed to the commandments are intended to excite our hopes, and to impart a greater cheerfulness to our obedience; and therefore Paul uses this as a kind of seasoning to render the submission, which he enjoins on children, more pleasant and agreeable. He does not merely say, that God has offered a reward to him who obeys his father and mother, but that such an offer is peculiar to this commandment.” [5]

The promise in Calvin’s view concerns temporal and practical benefits, it’s about a good life now.

The promise is — a long life; from which we are led to understand that the present life is not to be overlooked among the gifts of God. On this and other kindred subjects I must refer my reader to the Institutes of the Christian Religion;  satisfying myself at present with saying, in a few words, that the reward promised to the obedience of children is highly appropriate. Those who shew kindness to their parents from whom they derived life, are assured by God, that in this life it will be well with them. [6]

Remember that for Calvin, there is a level of mutuality within the context of a God-given order.  Just as husbands are to sacrificially love their wives and masters are to attend to their servants needs, so too, parents are under obligation to their children.

“Parents, on the other hand, are exhorted not to irritate their children by unreasonable severity. This would excite hatred, and would lead them to throw off the yoke altogether. Accordingly, in writing to the Colossians, he adds, “lest they be discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21.) Kind and liberal treatment has rather a tendency to cherish reverence for their parents, and to increase the cheerfulness and activity of their obedience, while a harsh and unkind manner rouses them to obstinacy, and destroys the natural affections. But Paul goes on to say, “let them be fondly cherished;” for the Greek word, ( ἐκτρέφετε,) which is translated bring up, unquestionably conveys the idea of gentleness and forbearance. To guard them, however, against the opposite and frequent evil of excessive indulgence, he again draws the rein which he had slackened, and adds, in the instruction and reproof of the Lord.” [7]

Specifically for mums and dads this means.

“Let their conduct towards their children be at once mild and considerate, so as to guide them in the fear of the Lord, and correct them also when they go astray. That age is so apt to become wanton, that it requires frequent admonition and restraint.” [8]

Those who have learnt to see John Calvin as austere, harsh even, academic and remote might be surprised to discover a practical/pragmatic pastoral concern and a warmth to his exposition. Furthermore, we see in his application that arising out of the greatness of God’s sovereign grace are real obligations on the believer to live a life that is pleasing to God and loving to others.

For Calvin, the call to love and submit within the context of family life is  challenging due to The Fall, possible through God’s grace and beneficial both to parent and child alike.


[1] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 95

[2] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 95

[3] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 114.

[4] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 114.

[5] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 114.

[6] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 115.

[7] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 115-116.

[8] Calvin, John. Calvin’s Writings On Ephesians, 116.