15 September 2009

Why should Christians celebrate John Calvin's Birthday?

Alternative title: Open Letter to my first year theology professor.

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 ;)


John said...

Are you seriously raising the question of whether or not Calvin was actually a Christian because of the Servetus affair?

I'm no expert on the thing, but questioning whether Calvin was a true believe on the evidence of this alone is rather rash.

I also think you're being a bit simplistic in your exposition of Jesus' take on heresy.

Your account of the matter is very simplistic, as it lays the blame heavily upon Calvin, when in fact he had little to do with the matter.


bobbydale said...

Hey John - thank you for reading.

Your source of information for the "Servetus affair" does not seem impartial. Reformed-theology.org probably have a little bit at stake in maintaining Calvin's name. This article also offers no sources for any of its claims like: "The idea that Calvin was 'the dictator of Geneva' is utterly unfounded in fact."

Your article completely neglects Calvin's own writings. His Defense of the orthodox faith in the sacred Trinity clearly advocates for the execution of heretics.

Here is a very evangelically minded article with clear citations that contradict your source (while it is also slanted, the sources offer additional insight into Calvin's political role in Geneva that your article denies):

Did Jesus ever say that the Pharisees or Sadducees were not Jews? I am not claiming that Calvin was not a Christian, that is not for me to say - I am saying that his actions were in line with human's sin and desire for power and control, and not in line with the call of Jesus, Paul, James...

That being said, a life devoted to humility and service is more important to me in my Christian role models than "right" theology.

That may be where we differ.

John said...

Granted, the link is not impartial, though I don't think that means it is untrue.

You're right that Calvin does seem to condone capital punishment for heretics. But that position does not necessarily make Calvin guilty of the execution of Servetus.

Your source too, seems rather partial, and makes judgments that seem unwarranted.

In any case, I'm not going to argue on Calvin's complicity in the execution, since I don't have the time or inclination to do so.

I initially commented because you seemed to question Calvin's faith, which I believe would be very presumptuous. Now that you've clarified that, my concern has dwindled.

I do agree that it is important in looking at how theology impacts life--so I agree that we need to examine the lives of those whose theology we admire.

Yet to ignore, or choose to not celebrate the great contributions Calvin made, because of the Servetus affair is both unfair and unwise.

bobbydale said...

Thanks again John - I have updated the post per your feedback. This dialogue is very helpful for me. I really appreciate learning how some one who reveres Calvin processes these things. I really want it to be clear that I am not committed to this stance - just exploring it - hence the change of my title of this post to "Why should...?", a question, from a statement.

The reason I had posted the article I did was not to say that I agreed with it ( for full disclosure I didn't read the whole thing) but to demonstrate the difference that citations make to an argument.

Also I am not claiming that the bias/slant of your article makes it wrong (if I thought bias made an article wrong I wouldn't have posted the link I did). I am claiming that it is hard for me to take an article seriously that is so slanted, makes so many "it just wasn't like that" statements but has no resources to back that up.

If you put 2 and 2 together on this article it seems that J. Steven Wilkins is even in support of the persecution and burning of heretics. His citation of Aquinas, for me, only calls attention to issues with Aquinas' thoughts - it does not justify Calvin's actions. These theological failures are what repentance is all about.

I also don't understand your defensiveness about raising questions about Calvin's faith. Calvin and many of his modern day followers (including Wilkins) have no problem dismissing the faith of those around them who don't agree, and why that raised so much concern for you. If Calvin can dismiss other people's faith, it only seems right that others should at least be able to question his - it sounds like a reasonable thing to do before one takes a theology to heart.

Additionally can you explain how I am being simplistic in my exposition of Jesus' take on Heresy, or more to the point what am I missing that would shed greater light on Calvin's persecution of his critics. My one request of your response is that you only cite the Bible in that discussion - as I have.

(I wish you could edit posts, I found a typo, and all I could do was delete the post and put a new one up.)

John said...


I am reluctant to get into this, as I fear I may be biting off more than I can chew... I will try to tread lightly.

I appreciate your willingness to hear me out on this. First, Calvin's legacy upon the church is remarkable, and probably unrivaled by any theologian in church history.

Look at all the books, sermons, and commentaries he published during his lifetime. It is an amazing legacy. Whether you agree with everything he believed, I think you can agree that his legacy is a gift to the church.

Just yesterday I used his commentary on the Psalms for a devotional in my small group.

His devotion to Christ and his commitment to biblical Christianity just doesn't seem to be disputable. How much Calvin have you read? I ask because in the readings of Calvin that I've done, mainly commentaries, it is quit evident that he loves our Lord and there is no evidence that makes me doubt this.

Perhaps you're aware that the Desiring God conference this year is on Calvin--it is actually next weekend. The speakers were all asked "What's One Thing You'd Change About Calvin?" They responded via video which are all on YouTube. Piper's video is on Servetus.

Here is another interesting post on it, stemming from Piper's video.

That blog says it well, I think, when he says,

"Even if Calvin pleaded to release or not sentence Servetus to death, he would have been an anomaly. There simply were no categories of doing anything different with Servetus at that time than what was done. You cannot take Servetus, Geneva, Europe, or Calvin out of their times."

The same argument could be made regarding slavery, or any other sin that we modern Christians now find so repugnant. The problems are the same, and the answers, I believe are the same.

There were many systemic sins in the church throughout history, and though we can call many of the era Christians, we cannot dismiss their sin. We have our own sins in this era, and I am confident that both you and I support larger systemic sins that we are blind to, just as Calvin was regarding Servetus.

To dismiss Calvin as an apostate because of Servetus is to cast our own faith into doubt. We are all sinners, and Calvin was no exception. We can't dismiss his otherwise strong legacy simply because he, like practically every other Christian of his era supported executing heretics.

More to come in another post, this is looking long...

John said...

Now, regarding my assertion that your argument on Jesus and heresy is simplistic:

I believe the argument is simplistic because you selectively chose texts that portray Jesus in a particular light. You've ignored the texts which speak of the wrath that Jesus will bring upon the unrighteous. See Revelation 14.

I agree that Jesus did not model violence during his earthly ministry, and he did clearly speak out against violence, as you say in Matthew 26.

But do not forget that Jesus hates unrepentant sinners, and judgment awaits them--regardless of whatever earthly judgment, if any, they may face.

Matthew 23 is a good example of the judgment of Christ, the judgment to come upon the Scribes and Pharisees. There are many more such examples, but I'm sure you get my point.

John said...

Bob, one more thing. I noticed you put this in bold:

"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?"

I believe this is a helpful question NOW. But looking back at church history, you're going to find there aren't many theologians of value if this is your benchmark question.

Again, the issue is one of time and proportion. I agree that Christians must refrain from perpetrating violence against heretics. But this is only a more modern understanding, and one that much of our forefathers did not agree with. That is not to say it wasn't sinful--I think it was. But it is to say that we recognize that all humans, even Christians, are still under the influence of sin, and we must use discernment to separate the wheat from the chaff when looking at their theology.

It isn't as simple as dismissing them as frauds.

bobbydale said...

In response to your 11:09 post:
Thank you for the links. Piper's reaction to the Servetus affair is the most informed one I have heard from a Calvinist. I appreciate also your point that every Christian gets sucked into some societal sins. It is the unwillingness to see another possibility that I see in Calvin's act that causes me to worry about Calvin in a larger sense. It also feels often to me that many followers of Calvin have this same feeling of "I have it all figured out, so why would I listen to you for any other reason than to tell you how wrong you are." I would like to see a great appreciation for conversations like the one we are having where steel can sharpen steel.

What I like about Piper is that he doesn't make excuses like the blog you quoted does: "There simply were no categories of doing anything different with Servetus at that time than what was done." Piper actually dismisses these excuses, and that is refreshing.

This other problem with this excuse is also not true. There were Christians around who were calling for different treatment of dissenters: Sebastian Costello (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sebastian_Castellio) is probably the best example - but the Anabaptists were also around and working on the radical reformation at the same time. One irony is that one of the things that condemned Servetus was his opposition to infant baptism. That is now a very central part of many "Calvinist" churches.

Please recommend some reading from Calvin for me. I have read some, but have yet to see the beauty.

Re: 11:29am Post
Revelation is about what God/Jesus can and will do, and has no place being used to justify or explain human actions. This chapter seems to be more against people who worship "The Beast" and I would need to do a little exegesis to even hazard a guess at what that means. As a side note - it looks like you and I aren't part of the 144,000: "These are those who did not defile themselves with women, for they kept themselves pure." (Rev 14:4) Hopefully "defilement" doesn't include marital relations ;)

I get your point about Jesus' proclaimed future judgment/wrath, but that is very different from inflicting wrath.

Re: 11:33am response
"I believe this is a helpful question NOW. But looking back at church history, you're going to find there aren't many theologians of value if this is your benchmark question."

I am glad you acknowledge this. My question is not "Was Calvin's theology helpful in the 1500's?" But my question is about how helpful is his theology today. I am fine with throwing out most theologians if they bought in to the sin of their society. You bring up slavery - but it seems that even Paul argued against slavery in Philemon - not to mention the John Chrisostom in the 300's and then William Wilberforce and the Great Awakening.

There has always been a Christian voice challenging the human desire for power and influence. The flip side are those who have been pulled in by the desire to be right - many who are revered as the primary theologians of our faith. I am fine with regecting the giants who have advocated slavery and persecution (Augustine, Calvin, Aquinas) because there are plenty who have forsaken power and priveledge to become servants of God. Many of them aren't as popular - because they do and advocate things like selling everything you have and giving it to the poor ;)

John said...


I am not, nor will I ever attempt to defend a block of people, such as Calvinists. I have my disagreements with them, and even more importantly, it is not a task worth the effort.

But I will defend Calvin's important place in church history. As I said earlier, what individual can truly compare to Calvin in terms of output and contribution to understanding the Bible? His works are voluminous and laudable.

Of course there are always people like Castellio, whom I'd never heard of before, but already have begun to appreciate. Yet I'm certain he too had his flaws. Again, we're all human, and it is not people we worship, but God.

People can serve God in many ways, and I have a great appreciation for the work of John Calvin--as I think most should. Yet he clearly isn't perfect and any defense of him regarding the Servetus affair will always be strained and sound sort of pathetic.

The only Calvin I can think of that I've read is all from his commentaries, though I've heard good things about Institutes. I've read most of, if not all of his commentary on Hebrews and James. I have used his commentaries for other passages and books over time as well. I found his commentary on Psalm 1 helpful.