Michael Servetus was an renowned heretic in Calvin's time - who was executed like most out spoken heretics during the 1500's. The Spanish Inquisition was actually seeking Servetus for his writings against the Trinity - and had sentenced him to death by burning. But what makes this pertinent is that it was in Calvin's Geneva that Servetus was executed.
Some how when we were talking about Calvin in my theology class at seminary, Servetus's name was brought up. I stated something like: "Servetus is the guy that Calvin killed for disagreeing with him." my professor was quick to offer some explanation with a very defensive tone: "You have to understand that is just what was done with heretics back then." He also stated "Calvin didn't kill him, Calvin's followers did."
That shut me up as a freshman in my first theology course, but the though lingered in my mind for a very long time - something seemed a little off. Calvin's action, or at best his inaction around the execution of this man and many Christians propensity to ignore or glaze over this action is a perfect example of what kept me away from Christ for so many years.
What finally brought me to Christ when I was 27 years old was reading the stories of Jesus told in the Bible: Jesus lead by example - and did not carry out acts of violence on people. The turning over of the money changers tables was the most violent thing he did [Matthew 21, John 2] (and maybe the withering of the fig tree [Matthew 21]). But he did not work to assure the conviction and execution of those who critiqued his theology. Even when Jesus' "people" (the apostles) carried out violence - he spoke out against it. (See Jesus' arrest in Matthew 26)
Also, the common way to deal with some one who contradicted the powers that be in Jesus' day was also execution - there were "Messiahs" before and after Jesus who had attempted to carry out the same violence that Calvin was party to.
But the actions of Calvin towards heretics are not the paths that Jesus took.
"He didn't make them do it. That's what everyone else was doing." Many reformed Christians and Theologians offer these arguments on behalf of Calvin in unresearched, un-resourced, and self serving documents. Here is a good example:
This article is not just slanted, but completely void of any citations - something I would use if I was defending some one from an accusation of murder. This article has the standard mixed message that most defenses of Calvin offer: 1. Calvin wasn't all that involved in this "matter". 2. And if he was involved what's the big deal? Every one was doing it? The article and these common arguments are written more to assuage fears of people who have devoted their lives to Calvin and his theology then to actually explore the facts of the matter.
If there are better defenses of Calvin's actions - please point them out to me, but this article uses the blanket generalizations that all the other articles/arguments I have seen and heard. I do not wish to set up a straw man - so if there is a better argument out there - please let me see it.
Arguments like this are also what kept me away from Christianity - they are uninformed, unresearched, and unwilling to bend in light of new information. The commitment is to proving the goodness of Calvin at all costs.
Stating that Calvin had very little involvement as my theology professor did completely ignores Calvin's own words in the matter. Calvin's own writing: Defense of the orthodox faith in the sacred Trinity outlines clearly a justification for the execution of heretics.
Additionally "He didn't make them do it. " and "That's what everyone else was doing." are not legitimate excuses for any Christian ever. We all sin and fall short of the glory of God, and do use these justifications for our less proud moments, but Calvin was clear that the persecution of Servetus was not one of those moments for him.
Many people exclaim the gift that John Calvin's theology is to the world. My question is: If your theology encourages you to actively seek the persecution and death of those who oppose you in thought, then isn't there something fundamentally wrong with your theology? By my estimation, if you believe that you have to protect God's work through executions, then you have missed the mark. You have not read and understood the prophets, and you have not read and understood the accounts of our Savior's life. God is so much bigger than us, and does not need protected.
I hope to make clear that this is really a question, and that I am open to recieving new information about this - I am not committed to feeling that Calvin is a detriment to the spread of the Good News of Jesus Christ, but in my experience and from the information I have seen he is. His theology not only approved of the executions, but this same theology seems to encourage his followers to deny or defend his actions - instead of repenting from them. Paul said it best: it is in our weakness that we are strong. [2 Corinthians 12]
We must be honest about our Christian heroes - if our theology does not allow for this, we have missed a very important part of the story of God. My greatest Christian hero is Martin Luther King Jr. He cheated on his wife. I admire MLK deeply, but I will not deny or justify his betrayal of his wife. I don't think that he would justify it either, but rather repent of it. Again I say: it is in our weakness that we are strong.
Last updated 9/17
(FYI - I came up with the idea for this post a few month's ago when people were celebrating John Calvin's 500th birthday also, I have made some revisions to this post and will continue refine this post with the help of any one who wants to answer my initial question - that is my revised title. So you may find that issues in the comments are now addressed, and the comments don't make as much sense anymore, that is because I am changing the article ;)