The Joy of Calvin: Food and the Calvinist culinary ethos

John Calvin’s Geneva was a grand social and theological experiment.

His particular brand of reform touched all aspects of Genevans’ lives from the songs that they were able to sing, the people they were allowed to associate with, and even to the food they were able to eat. Indeed, Calvin’s theology systematically purged Catholic feast days, the eating of fish on Friday, and other parts of the Catholic culinary tradition. In its place, Calvin imposed a more pragmatic ethos based on his reading of the Book of Ephesians, which spurned drunken debauchery but allowed for reasoned, even joyful, consumption of food and drink.

This transition represents a re-conceptualization of the fundamental way in which medieval Europeans interacted with, related to, and thought about food. The fanciful medieval feasts, their accompanying spiritual and cultural significance, were replaced by a pragmatic ethos centered on sola scriptura, which eliminated medieval identity by destroying the Catholic culinary cycle.

In his sermons on Ephesians, Calvin approaches the issue of food and drink when he asks, “What then is the lawful use of wine, of water, of bread, and of all other viands?” He answers his own question by stating, “Indeed to feed ourselves with them, according to the need of our infirmity, and to sustain us so in life that we may not live idly, but that first of all we may do homage to him of whom we hold our life (sic).”1

For Calvin the main aim of eating is to sustain people so that they may give thanks to God and serve him through earthly labor. However, this does not mean that the dutiful Calvinist should not enjoy food. Indeed, Calvin states that “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.”2 In many ways this is a much simpler culinary ethos. It promotes a direct relationship between God and man, with the vehicle of communion being food. Thus, there is no room in this theological framework for the old medieval feast cycle because, from the Calvinist perspective, it is an artifact of man, created to celebrate the saints and the seasons, not God.

This theological assertion was translated into action through the judgments of the Consistory. In a March 20th session in 1553, Janne Aprin was called before the Consistory and admonished for her retention of the medieval ethos. The record states that she was brought before the Consistory:

Because of papal superstitions. Answers that she cannot go to the sermons except sometimes on Sunday … And says that if she ate meat Friday and not Saturday it would be wrong … And that she has no scruples about anything except eating meat of Fridays. And intends to live according to the Reformation. The opinion of the Consistory: that she frequent the sermons.3


Here the main contention is over the eating of meat on Fridays, which was part of the old ritual calendar. In an interesting twist, the woman states that she supports Calvin’s reformation but believes that eating meat on Fridays is morally wrong. This clearly demonstrates that the vestiges of the medieval culinary ethos still clung to this woman’s conception of time and identity. She is admonished to frequent the sermons in the hope that she will glean an understanding of Calvin’s doctrine, which dismissed such abstinence as “superstitious.”

If the Consistory records demonstrate the implementation of Calvin’s culinary ethos in Geneva, then the application of it in late-sixteenth century Scotland illustrates its longevity and importance to modern Presbyterians. This can be seen in The First Book of Discipline, which set up the guidelines for the Kirk, the Scottish version of the Consistory. In the First Head entitled “Of Doctrine” the book states:

By the contrary doctrine we understand whatsoever men by lawes, counsels, or constitutions have imposed upon the consciences of men, without the expressed commandment of Gods word, such as … the superstitious observation of fasting dayes, difference of meat for conscience sake … and keeping of holy dayes of certain Saints commanded by man … we judge them utterly to be abolished from this Realme.4


This section establishes the doctrines under which the reformed Church of Scotland would function. Yet before doing this the authors of the book found it necessary to distinguish themselves from the Catholic Church by attacking its fundamental precepts. It is worth noting that the distillation of these precepts centers on the social and cultural doctrines of the Catholic Church. In essence, what was important to these reformers was the re-orientation of society and culture towards a more direct relationship with God.

It is within this general framework that Calvin’s culinary ethos is espoused. In this section the medieval “superstitious” cyclical calendar is abolished because it is not found in the Bible. Thus, no longer are people allowed to celebrate fast days, abstain from meat on Fridays, nor celebrate saint’s days by feasting. Here, as in the Consistory of Geneva, Calvin’s reformed doctrine found its way into all aspects of society and fundamentally altered the way in which people understood time and interacted with their surroundings. This of course did not mean that feasting and fasting ceased being an integral part of early modern society and culture. Instead it represents a re-orientation of goals rather than deeds.

As modern Presbyterians we must recognize the importance of these theological transformations, not simply for their historical merit but also for their relevance in our own lives. The next time we sit down at a church fellowship dinner, gather to celebrate communion, or even eat dinner with our families we should ask ourselves, in the spirit of Calvin, what is the correct way to consume our food? The answer unequivocally is to enjoy food for its intrinsic ability to sustain us and to connect us with the divine.


Jonathan Bowdler is a recent history graduate from Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wash. He is the grandson of John E. Ensign, honorably retired, Richmond, Va.


1 John Calvin. Sermons on the Epistle to the Ephesians. (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987) pp. 544.

2 John Calvin. Calvin: Commentaries. Translated by Joseph Haroutunian. For the Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia, The Westminster Press,1962) 349.

3 Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin. V. 1. Translated by M. McDonald, Edited by Robert Kingdom. (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000) 209

4 The First Book of Discipline. Edited by James K. Cameron. (Edinburgh; The Saint Andrew Press, 1972) pp. 88.