Calvin & Mary’s Perpetual Virginity (vs. Francisco Tourinho)

Calvin & Mary’s Perpetual Virginity (vs. Francisco Tourinho) June 3, 2022

Francisco Tourinho is a Brazilian Calvinist apologist. He described his theological credentials on my Facebook page:

I have the respect of the academic community for my articles published in peer review magazines, translation of unpublished classical works into Portuguese and also the production of a book in the year 2019 with more than 2000 copies sold (with no marketing). In addition I have higher education in physical education from Piauí State University and theology from the Assemblies of God Biblical Institute, am currently working towards a Masters from Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, and did post-graduate work at Dom Bosco Catholic University. Also, I am a professor in the Reformed Scholasticism discipline at the Jonathan Edwards Seminary in the postgraduate course in Philosophical Theology. [edited slightly for more flowing English]

This is a reply to his article, “JOÃO CALVINO DEFENDIA A VIRGINDADE PERPÉTUA DE MARIA?” [Did John Calvin Defend the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?] (6-27-18). His words will be in blue, John Calvin’s in green.

Today I came across the following quote:

There were certain people who wanted to suggest from this passage [Mt 1,25] that the Virgin Mary had other children besides the Son of God, and that Joseph was intimately related to her afterwards; but what stupidity! The gospel writer did not intend to record what happened afterwards; he simply wanted to make Joseph’s obedience clear (…). He therefore never dwelt with her nor shared her company (…). Furthermore, Our Lord Jesus Christ is called the firstborn. This is not because there was a second or a third son, but because the Gospel writer is stressing his precedence.— John Calvin. Sermon on Matthew 1:22-25. Year 1562 (Max Thurian. Mary: Mother of All Christians (translated by Nevill B. Cryer, New York: Herder & Herder, 1963, pp. 39-40)”

The friend who defended the Marian dogma of perpetual virginity categorically stated, through this source (Max Thurian apud Calvino), that the great reformer defended the Marian dogma. I went looking for the source, and I found the same quote on several Catholic apologetics websites, but they all look like this, a quote, that is, a secondary source. 

This was almost certainly derived, or indirectly derived from one of my blog articles.

I also looked for the sermon quoted by the apologists, attributed to John Calvin, and I didn’t find it either.

You’ve come to the right place, then, because I ran across the original primary source in French. I didn’t have it at first (or else I would have cited it). Then I did. It has been posted on my blog since 10-14-14: three years and eight months before the article I am now critiquing.

But first, let’s look at the quotation I produced: longer than the above “abridged” version:

There have been certain strange folk who have wished to suggest from this passage [Matt 1:25] that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then dwelt with her later; but what folly this is! for the gospel writer did not wish to record what happened afterwards; he simply wished to make clear Joseph’s obedience and to show also that Joseph had been well and truly assured that it was God who had sent His angel to Mary. He had therefore never dwelt with her nor had he shared her company. There we see that he had never known her person for he was separated from his wife. He could marry another all the more because he could not enjoy the woman to whom he was betrothed; but he rather desired to forfeit his rights and abstain from marriage, being yet always married: he preferred, I say, to remain thus in the service of God rather than to consider what he might still feel that he could come to. He had forsaken everything in order that he might subject himself fully to the will of God.

And besides this, our Lord Jesus Christ is called the first-born. This is not because there was a second or a third, but because the gospel writer is paying regard to the precedence. Scripture speaks thus of naming the first-born whether or no there was any question of the second. Thus we see the intention of the Holy Spirit. This is why to lend ourselves to foolish subtleties would be to abuse Holy Scripture, which is, as St. Paul says, “to be used for our edification.”

From this we learn several things:

1. It serves as a further interpretation or clarification of his allegedly “agnostic” commentary on Matthew 1:25, as actually affirming perpetual virginity.

2. It shows that his denial of a vow of perpetual virginity from Mary is not necessarily and not in fact the same as a denial of her perpetual virginity.

3. Calvin does indeed believe in the traditional doctrine, as we see in his statement: “not because there was a second or a third” and his assertion that Joseph never dwelt with Mary. Mary had no further children. This is why he habitually refers to her as “the virgin” in his writings, much like Catholics have through the centuries. It implies perpetual virginity.

4. Since they never lived together, according to Calvin, obviously they had no children together. Thus, Mary was perpetually a virgin.

This 1562 sermon may be one reason why many Protestant (including Calvinist) scholars agree that Calvin adhered to Mary’s perpetual virginity:

David F. Wright, in his book, Chosen by God: Mary in Evangelical Perspective (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989, pp. 173, 175), stated:

. . . his more careful biblicism could insist on only Mary’s refraining from intercourse before the birth of Jesus (i.e., her virginity ante partum). On the other hand, he never excluded as untenable the other elements in her perpetual virginity, and may be said to have believed it himself without claiming that Scripture taught it. . . . [Calvin] commonly speaks of Mary as “the holy Virgin” (and rarely as simply as “Mary” preferring “the Virgin”, etc.).

Thomas Henry Louis Parker, in his Calvin: an Introduction to his Thought (Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), concurs:

. . . the Virgin Birth, which Calvin holds, together with the perpetual virginity of Mary. (p. 66)

He is the author of several books about Calvin, such as John Calvin: A Biography (Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), and Oracles Of God: An Introduction To The Preaching Of John Calvin (Lutterworth Press, 2002), Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (S.C.M. Press, 1971), Calvin’s Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 1992), Calvin’s Old Testament Commentaries (Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), and several other Calvin-related volumes, and translator of Calvin’s Harmony of the Gospels in its 1995 Eerdmans edition. Presumably, he knows enough about Calvin to have a basis for his beliefs about this matter and Calvin’s own position.
The article “Mary” (by David F. Wright) in the Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith (edited by Donald K. McKim, Westminster John Knox Press,1992, p. 237), proclaims:

Calvin was likewise less clear-cut than Luther on Mary’s perpetual virginity but undoubtedly favored it. Notes in the Geneva Bible (Matt. 1:18, 25; Jesus’ “brothers”) defend it, as did Zwingli and the English reformers . . .

Donald G. Bloesch, in his Jesus Christ: Savior and Lord (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006, p. 87), joins the crowd:

Protestantism . . . remained remarkably open to the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Among others, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Wollebius, Bullinger and Wesley claimed that Mary was ever-virgin (semper virgo). The Second Helvetic Confession and the Geneva Bible of the Reformed faith and the Schmalkald Articles of the Lutheran churches affirm it.

Geoffrey W. Bromiley in his article, “Mary the Mother of Jesus” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: K-P (edited by Bromiley, revised edition of 1994 published by Eerdmans [Grand Rapids, Michigan], p. 269), wrote:

The post-partum or perpetual virginity concept is held by some Protestants and was held by many Reformers (e.g., Calvin in his sermon on Mt. 1:22-25) . . .

Note that this refers to the sermon I cited above, not just Calvin’s Commentaries. And this is from the revised ISBE: not a source one can easily dismiss.

Derek W. H. Thomas, writing in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (edited by David W. Hall & Peter A. Lillback; Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing [Calvin 500 series]: 2008, p. 212), makes a casual reference: “a perpetual virgin in Calvin’s view!”

He is a professor of systematic and pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary.  His doctoral dissertation was devoted to Calvin’s preaching on the book of Job.

Timothy George concurs, with slight qualification:

To be sure, there is nothing theologically problematic about affirming Mary’s perpetual virginity. This venerable tradition, first given dogmatic sanction at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553, was affirmed by Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin during the Reformation, though Calvin was more agnostic about this belief than the other two reformers. (in Mary, Mother of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans Pub. Co.: 2004;  p. 109)

Dr. George is the dean of Beeson Divinity School at Samford University, teaches Church history and serves as executive editor for Christianity Today. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Southern Baptist Convention, has written more than twenty books, and regularly contributes to scholarly journals. His book Theology of the Reformers is used as a textbook in many schools and seminaries.

J. A. Ross MacKenzie wrote: “Calvin, like Luther and Zwingli, taught the perpetual virginity of Mary” (in Alberic Stacpoole, editor, Mary’s Place in Christian Dialogue, Wilton, Connecticut: Morehouse-Barlow, 1982, 35-36).  Dr. Mackenzie was a professor of church history at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia, and has translated or written more than twenty theological books.

Robert H. Stein, professor of New Testament interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also agrees:

If one believes in the perpetual virginity of Mary, a teaching held not only by Roman Catholicism but also by Greek Orthodoxy, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, then the Helvidian view must be rejected. (Mark [Commentary], Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic: 2008, p. 187)

Calvin’s successor Theodore Beza argued that Catholics and Protestants agreed on the perpetual virginity of Mary, at the Colloquy of Poissy in 1561 (see William A. Dyrness, Reformed Theology and Visual Culture: the Protestant Imagination from Calvin to Edwards, [Cambridge University Press, 2004], pp. 86-87). Here are some other Calvin utterances on the topic:

Helvidius displayed excessive ignorance in concluding that Mary must have had many sons, because Christ’s “brothers” are sometimes mentioned. (Harmony of Matthew, Mark and Luke, sec. 39 [Geneva, 1562], vol. 2 / From Calvin’s Commentaries, translated by William Pringle, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1949, p.215; on Matthew 13:55)

[On Matt 1:25:] The inference he [Helvidius] drew from it was, that Mary remained a virgin no longer than till her first birth, and that afterwards she had other children by her husband . . . No just and well-grounded inference can be drawn from these words . . . as to what took place after the birth of Christ. He is called “first-born”; but it is for the sole purpose of informing us that he was born of a virgin . . . What took place afterwards the historian does not inform us . . . No man will obstinately keep up the argument, except from an extreme fondness for disputation. (Pringle, ibid., vol. I, p. 107)

John Calvin’s comment on the text quoted by the Catholic apologists’ source also does not suggest that he defended perpetual virginity. Calvin’s text in this part seems to be more cautious, however, we learn from him that the Marian dogma of perpetual virginity was not unanimous among the church fathers, since he cites Helvidius as not defending this thesis, and Jerome, at a later period, disagreeing with Helvidius.

Under the word “brethren” the Hebrews include all cousins and other relations, whatever may be the degree of affinity. (Pringle, ibid., vol. I, p. 283 / Commentary on John, [7:3] )

Also, Calvin habitually calling Mary “the virgin” or “holy virgin” (as Calvin scholar T.H.L. Parker noted), is further evidence, since that had always been understood in Church history (I’m pretty sure) as a belief in perpetual virginity, and was clearly understood as such in Calvin’s time. Examples:
Institutes of the Christian Religion
II, 10:4 . . . the blessed Virgin . . . [footnote: “Beata Virgo.” French, “la Vierge Marie;”—the Virgin Mary] 
II, 13:3 . . . being descended of the Virgin; . . . nourished to maturity in the Virgin’s womb. . . . Matthew does not here describe the Virgin . . .
II, 13:4 . . . conceived miraculously in the Virgin’s womb . . .
II, 14:1 . . . he made choice of the Virgin’s womb as a temple in which he might dwell.
II, 14:4 . . . the name of the Son of God is given to him who is born of a Virgin, and the Virgin herself is called the mother of our Lord (Luke 1:3243).
II, 14:5 . . . he was begotten in the womb of the Virgin by the Holy Spirit. . . . We indeed acknowledge that the Mediator who was born of the Virgin is properly the Son of God.
II, 14:6 . . . He who was born of a Virgin, . . .
II, 14:8 . . . he was conceived in the womb of the Virgin by the Holy Spirit . . .
Harmony of the Gospels
Matthew 1:18 . . . the virgin . . .
Matthew 1:19 . . . the virgin . . .
Matthew 1:22 . . . the virgin . . . [twice]
Matthew 1:23 . . . the virgin . . .
Matthew 2:16 . . . the virgin . . .
Matthew 5:6 . . . the Virgin . . .
Luke 1:26 . . . the virgin . . .
Luke 1:28 . . . the virgin . . .
Luke 1:30 The holy virgin . . .
Luke 1:31 . . . the virgin . . . [twice]
Luke 1:32 . . . the holy virgin . . .
Luke 1:34 The holy virgin appears to confine the power of God . . . the mind of the virgin,. . . the holy virgin . . . the virgin . . . the virgin . . . [Calvin in the same section denies that this passage suggests a vow of perpetual virginity made by Mary]
Luke 1:35 He only leads the virgin . . .
Luke 1:36 . . . the mother of the holy virgin . . .
Luke 1:38 . . . the holy virgin . . . [three times]
Luke 1:39 . . . the Virgin . . .
Luke 1:46 . . . the holy virgin . . . [twice]
Luke 1:48 . . . the holy virgin . . .
Luke 1:49 . . . the holy virgin . . .
Luke 2:34 The holy virgin . . .
Luke 2:35. . . the holy virgin . . .
Luke 2:48 . . . the holy virgin . . . [twice]
This is not simply referring to the virgin birth. Think about it. We don’t call women who are married now and sexually active, “virgins” their whole lives and thereafter. That would make no sense, since they ceased being virgins. It is as illogical as calling them “children” when they are adults. They’re not lifetime eunuchs or celibates or virgins. They were simply one thing and then another, by virtue of getting older and passing into the state of marriage. They did not have the gift of celibacy that Calvin acknowledged, per clear Pauline teaching.
Calvin didn’t even use the phraseology of Theotokos [“Mother of God”] (as Luther and many other Protestants — even in some confessions — did), so I think that if he continued to use “holy virgin” that it is more plausible to believe that he retained the traditional view than that he did not. Otherwise, it stands to reason that he would cease using that title for her, too, since he was well familiar with historical usage and patristic teachings. Therefore this is another relevant evidence of Calvin’s position, by both linguistic and commonsense criteria, and it’s direct.

Not satisfied, I did some research on what John Calvin thought on the matter, and look at Calvin’s opinion, in Luke 1:34, Calvin comments:

The conjecture which some have drawn from these words, that she had formed a vow of perpetual virginity, is UNFOUNDED and COMPLETELY ABSURD. She would, in that case, have committed treason, allowing herself to be joined to her husband, and would have poured contempt on the sacred covenant of marriage; which could not have been done without scorning God. Though the Papists exercised a barbarous tyranny on this subject, they never went so far as to permit the wife to form a vow of continence at her own pleasure. Furthermore, it is an idle and unfounded assumption that a monastic life existed among the Jews.

Now, at first glance, the evidence from this comment did seem fairly compelling against my stated position. But I knew (because I had documented it previously) that many Calvinist  scholars and other Protestant experts on Calvin agree that he did accept the perpetual virginity, and so I wondered why that is, and I started digging for more information. I found another related citation, that I think affirms what I and others have been arguing, lo, these many years. [the one at the top, from a 1562 sermon]

Moreover, it wasn’t a question of corrupting marriage, since for Calvin, they never lived together and thus were not “united.” Thus, the difficulty for the belief that he held to the perpetual virginity of Mary, suggested prima facie by his comment on Luke 1:34 vanishes. For Calvin, both things are true: Mary didn’t make such a vow and they didn’t live together in a chaste fashion, since he thinks they didn’t live together at all.

Another internal argument based on Calvin’s own commentaries can be produced. I alluded to it in on page 60 of my 2010 book, “The Catholic Mary”: Quite Contrary to the Bible? In his Harmony of the Gospels (Vol. II, p. 65; “translated from the original Latin and collated with the author’s French version, by William Pringle), Calvin is commenting on Luke 8:19 (“And his mother and his brethren came to him”), and  casually mentions that the parallel passages of “the other two Evangelists . . . represent Christ’s mother and cousins as having come . . .” (my italics). The other two passages are the following (RSV):

Matthew 12:46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him.

Mark 3:31 And his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside they sent to him and called him.

This is fascinating. Calvin is not being neutral or agnostic here at all, as to the specific meaning of adelphos in these instances. He has taken a definite position: it means “cousins.” He believes that Jesus doesn’t have siblings and that these instances of adelphos / adelphe / “brothers” / “brethren” do not prove otherwise (as countless contrary arguments against perpetual virginity falsely assume is the case). Calvin adopted the classic “cousins” theory as to the meaning of “Jesus’ brothers” in Scripture (which is the usual view that Catholic commentators take).

Nor is there any hint of “waffling” on Calvin’s part, as far as I can tell, in all of this information, taken together. My take is a perfectly plausible and self-consistent explanation for all of it, in line with what the Calvin scholars also say: he believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary. He didn’t “waffle” on it; he didn’t appear to change his view over time, He simply wasn’t quite as explicit as Luther and others were, on this question. It requires a little digging to ascertain his position (which I have done).

I also don’t think that Calvin was “neutral” or “agnostic” regarding Matthew 1:25 and the notorious “until” argument of those who deny perpetual virginity. That text neither asserts nor denies perpetual virginity in and of itself. That far, we all agree, I think. What detractors of the doctrine do is insinuate that “until”  implies sexual activity on Mary’s part after the birth of Jesus. Calvin firmly responds that it does no such thing. He shoots down this very common argument, made by Protestants all the time today. He responds precisely as a Catholic apologist would: arguing that the text doesn’t in any fashion  prove what it is claimed that it supposedly proves.

To me, that is not an agnostic or uncommitted position at all. It is in favor of perpetual virginity (or if we want to nitpick) totally consistent with it, and inconsistent with one of the most common biblical arguments made against it. The “brothers” argument is the other most common (and thoroughly fallacious) argument made. Calvin points out that the word doesn’t have to always mean “siblings.” He’s exactly right.

But if that sounds neutral or agnostic at his commentary on Matthew 13:55, it ain’t when he comments on Luke 8:19 (and also on Mathew and Mark) and says that the meaning of “brothers” in the parallel passages is “cousins”. He is no longer neutral or undecided or uncommitted or agnostic. He has taken a position. And it is exactly what we would expect him to argue, if indeed he holds to the perpetual virginity of Mary, as I believe he did. Furthermore, the 1562 sermon explained how Calvin’s objection to a vow of virginity did not mean he denied the perpetual virginity of Mary.

In another instance of Calvin interpreting a “brother of Jesus” as a cousin, we have his commentary on Galatians 1:19 (“But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.”):

Except James. Who this James was, deserves inquiry. Almost all the ancients are agreed that he was one of the disciples, whose surname was “Oblias” and “The Just,” and that he presided over the church at Jerusalem. (33) Yet others think that he was the son of Joseph by another wife, and others (which is more probable) that he was the cousin of Christ by the mother’s side: (34) but as he is here mentioned among the apostles, I do not hold that opinion. Nor is there any force in the defense offered by Jerome, that the word Apostle is sometimes applied to others besides the twelve; for the subject under consideration is the highest rank of apostleship, and we shall presently see that he was considered one of the chief pillars. (Galatians 2:9.) It appears to me, therefore, far more probable, that the person of whom he is speaking is the son of Alpheus. (35)

Footnote 35 elaborates:

This is fully consistent with the opinion commonly held, that Alpheus or Cleopas was the husband of the sister of Mary, the mother of our Lord, and consequently that James, the son of Alpheus, was our Lord’s cousin-german.

All of this is perfectly consistent with, if not direct evidence of, Calvin’s belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary.

I then went searching for the 1562 sermon in question. I had an idea where it might be found, and wrote in one thread:

I think the sermon would likely be part of the Corpus Reformatorum, since volumes 29-87 are devoted to his works. It’s in Latin (unless some stuff is French). We just have to figure out what volume it’s in. Many volumes are available in Google Books.

I started looking through online volumes; went to the index volume and found “Sermons on the Nativity” in Volume 46. I then wrote:

I’m almost certain I found it. Go to this link and download the pdf of vol. 46 (“Tome 46”) of the Corpus Reformatorum. It’s called “Sermon 22” on the Harmony of the Gospels, dealing with Matthew 1:22-25, and runs from pp. 259-272. It’s in French.

I did that, and cut-and-pasted the entire sermon.  Google and Babylon translation pages revealed that it was indeed the sermon in question, based on a comparison to the Thurian version (above). I then posted it on a separate web page, and asked on Facebook if anyone could translate the last portion of it. Gregory Fast did so. Here is his translation of the key portion of this sermon:

Certainly, it is said that he did not know the Virgin until she gave birth to her first Son. By this, the Evangelist means to signify that Joseph did not take his wife to live with him, but in obedience to God and to  discharge his duty towards Him. It was not then to be carnal love, nor to take advantage of the situation, or any reason at all, that he took his wife, but it was to obey God, and to accept the grace he had been offered: as that was a blessing beyond estimation.

See, that is what we have to remember. But there were some crazy people who wanted to gather from this passage that the Virgin Mary had had other children than the Son of God, after Joseph had lived with her, but it is foolish to think that because the Evangelist would not recite what happened afterwards: he only wants to declare the obedience of Joseph, and how he showed a well-certified tenderness in that God sent his angel to him. 

[Google Translate: But there have been some, fantastic who wanted to gather from this passage that the Virgin Mary had other children than the Son of God, and that Joseph had then afterwards dwelt with her: but that is madness.”]

He never lived with her. He never had her company. And there we see that [he] took no regard for himself because he was deprived of a woman. He could have married another, but he could not swear off the woman he had engaged. But better he leave his beloved rights and abstain from marriage (even though all the while he was married), he preferred to remain so as to employ the service of God, while watching what came over him through his agreement. 

He forgot all these things in order to submit fully to God. And in the rest (of the account) of our Lord Jesus Christ, he is called the first born; there was not a second, nor a third, but the Evangelist looks only to the first. And Scripture speaks thus of naming the first born, again that there may be no second. 

So we see the intention of the Holy Ghost: and yet we must abandon these crazy subtleties; it would be abuse of the holy Scripture, to us a not even useful edification, as St. Paul says.

And besides, when men are like fretillans, and they have the ticklish ears to listen to speculative news, it is necessary that the devil has done so they may harden, and we seek the right way, and they disturb rather than have the sky and land, they maintain their mistakes and dreams with diabolical obstinacy, especially all the more must we strive to be sober to receive the doctrine given to us to accept the Redeemer to us from God the Father, being knowledgeable and virtuous, we learn from this to keep us fully to him as we prostrate ourselves before the majesty of our good God, etc.

Also in Matthew 1:18, the Reformer comments:

The phrase employed by the Evangelist, ‘before they cohabited,’ is a modest appellation for the conjugal relationship, or simply means ‘before they came to dwell together as husband and wife, Forming a home and a family.

As we have seen, Calvin clearly rejects the interpretation that Mary is a virgin always a virgin, which leads us to the conclusion that the source they use is false, and so we will defend it until they show us the primary source of this quote that they use so much in several websites. . . .

We conclude that the arguments of Catholic apologists lack solidity, since it is a secondary source, and John Calvin himself totally contradicts what is said in it. If this argument is used again, I consent that the brothers demand the primary source (ask for the pdf or link or even the photo of the book that contains the sermon) of the quote presented by the Catholic apologist and then present Calvin’s thought on the subject.

I produced the primary source, and as far as I am concerned, it’s decisive in showing that Calvin believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary in 1562: two years before his death. What has been translated is compelling. It would be very difficult to synthesize it with a view that he denied the perpetual virginity of Mary.

I used Google Translate to see if I could find any more “clues” in it. I gave up looking through the whole thing, since it was so long, but I added one alternate reading to the Fast translation above.


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Photo credit: Annunciation (c. 1489), by Pietro Perugino (1448-1523) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


Summary: Brazilian Calvinist apologist Francisco Tourinho demanded the primary source for a 1562 sermon by Calvin on Matthew 1:22-25. I produced it (in 2014), and it’s decisive.

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