John Calvin

Bible Studies

A Man of his Times

I do not agree with everything that John Calvin did while serving as a pastor in Switzerland in the sixteenth century, but before I criticize him too severely, I have to ask myself what I would do were I in similar circumstances.

Fast forward to today and suppose that you are a pastor in the Washington, D.C. area, and several Supreme Court justices attend your church. It is 2003, and they have recently heard the arguments in Lawrence et al. v. Texas. These justices come to you unofficially to seek your prayers and counsel in the matter of state sodomy laws. Besides pressing them personally to keep the Seventh Commandment, what would you do?

Except for the Word of God, human standards of judgment constantly change with the successes and failures of history. Suppose for a moment that the Axis Powers had won World War II, in spite of all that history records the Allies did. Would Harry S Truman be put on trial as a war criminal for his carpet bombing of Dresden, Germany, or for annihilating hundreds of thousands of Japanese non-combatants, including elderly women and little children, in the most horrific act of state terrorism recorded in human history, the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August sixth and ninth, 1945?

How should people judge the events at the Alamo? Do we go by Walt Disney’s version or that of the Mexican history book that I bought in Mexico City a decade or so ago? What about the events that took place in the United States between the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860, and the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse on April 9, 1865? Was this conflict a “Civil War,” or was it a “War Between the States,” with one group of states defending themselves against foreign invaders? Were those who tied this war to the issue of freeing the slaves simply shills hiding the real issues of lust for central power and the economic betterment of their cronies? Or was this true instead for those who cried “States Rights” and “We must defend ourselves from foreign tyranny,” while holding fellow Christians in involuntary servitude? Were the victorious Union generals who went on to carry out the doctrine of Manifest Destiny in the ensuing decades guilty of genocide toward the Native American population of the Western Plains?

Can we find one unchallengeable hero in all the annals of recorded history? (Several years ago our church had a guest speaker who referred to the “anals of history.” Maybe his slip of the tongue was not far from the mark!)

Forget for a moment that we live in the twenty-first century, enjoying the fruit of the sacrifices of millions of people and the synthesis of various systems of jurisprudence. We are back in the sixteenth century, and we find ourselves in the position of being asked by the civil authorities for our counsel regarding how to do the business of the state. What do we do? Do we attempt to share insights from God’s Word with them about civil justice, or do we talk to them about nothing except for matters pertaining to their own personal piety?

Were we serving the Church in the sixteenth century, we would find ourselves living in a time when no nation on the face of the earth was secular, completely divorced from some kind of underlying religious foundation that gave structure and legitimacy to its laws. In the lands where Christianity had taken root, we would find ourselves in a position where the Church and the state had been intertwined for twelve hundred years, with essentially only two models to follow: that of western and central Europe, where the Holy See exercised significant control over the state, and that of the Caesaropapism of the rest of Christianity, where the Christian state profoundly influenced what the Church could and could not do.

Suppose for a moment that certain “anarchists” have failed in their quest to overthrow the order of the state and have fled to other city-states, do we encourage the civil authorities to pursue these rebels in order to prevent their being able to regroup and attempt once again to engage in revolution? Suppose that an individual comes to our community and advocates positions that the entirety of the nations around us believes would result in the overthrow of the existing order of society. What leadership do we provide to the civil authorities against this anarchist threat?

Whatever the verdict of historians is regarding the work of Calvin as the leading religious authority in Geneva, one incident is singled out with particular opprobrium: his role in the execution of Spanish physician Michael Servetus.

“In 1553, at a point in his career when that resistance was at its keenest, events occurring in connection with a certain Michael Servetus seem to have secured for Calvin a permanent bad reputation. Throughout the intellectual centers of Europe, Servetus, a Spanish physician and theologian, was infamous for his anti-Trinitarian polemics. A Catholic, he had already been condemned by the Catholic Inquisition but had escaped. When Servetus appeared in Geneva, he was recognized, arrested at Calvin’s instigation, found guilty, and burned at the stake with the unanimous approval of the other Protestant Swiss cities. Despite the fact that religious toleration did not become a popular conviction until at least two hundred years later, and that what was done in Geneva was done virtually everywhere else in Europe on a much grander scale, Calvin’s part in that execution has evidently served to confirm his image as an intolerant authoritarian.” [B. G. Armstrong, “John Calvin” in Who’s Who in Christian History, Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House (1992).]

“When some of Servetus’ letters to Calvin fell into the hands of Guillaume de Trie, a former citizen of Lyon, he exposed Servetus to the inquisitor general at Lyon. Servetus and his printers were seized. During the trial, however, Servetus escaped, and the Catholic authorities had to be content with burning him in effigy. He quixotically appeared in Geneva and was recognized, arrested, and tried for heresy from Aug. 14 to Oct. 25, 1553. Calvin played a prominent part in the trial and pressed for execution, although by beheading rather than by fire. Despite his intense biblicism and his wholly Christocentric view of the universe, Servetus was found guilty of heresy, mainly on his views of the Trinity and Baptism. He was burned alive at Champel on October 27. His execution produced a Protestant controversy on imposing the death penalty for heresy, drew severe criticism upon John Calvin, and influenced Laelius Socinus, a founder of modern unitarian views.” [“Servetus, Michael” in The Encyclopaedia Britannica.]

John Calvin was a man of his times; he cannot be lifted out of his historical setting and judged by the standards of a twenty-first century liberal democracy. Curiously, however, Calvin, more than any other historical figure, is the one who bequeathed to humankind the modern political system of representative government under law, with checks and balances, and the guarantee of basic human rights we now enjoy. Recognizing that fact makes the Servetus episode all the more bizarre to most of us, but here are a few facts:

1.     Inasmuch the state is intimately bound with religion—naively today, more self-consciously so in the past—heresy was viewed as an attack on the civil order and the state itself. This was not simply a Catholic or Protestant viewpoint—for all practical purposes every state in history has seen itself as resting on religious foundations. It’s one reason that Christians were executed by Rome during the first three centuries of Christianity. When Christianity became established in the Roman Empire, whether in the Papal variety of the West or the Byzantine form of the East, the political leaders understood that an attack on the Faith was an attack on the very basis of the legitimacy of the state as well. In A. D. 1553, when Michael Servetus was legally executed by the state, virtually all European governments punished heretics with death.

2.     The Spanish physician, Servetus, had already been condemned as a heretic by the Roman Catholic Holy Inquisition in France. Had he stayed in France, he would have been burned at the stake, but he escaped during his trial, and the French authorities had to be content with burning him in effigy.

3.     Servetus came to Geneva to challenge Calvin. In Servetus’ pride he imagined that once people were presented with his views, they would come around to them.

4.     Calvin did not bear a personal grudge against Servetus, but he understood Servetus to hold damnable heresies, heresies that would undermine both the Church and the state.

5.     Calvin himself did not burn Servetus; it was the legal act of the government of Geneva.

6.     Calvin, while pressing the prosecution of Servetus and for his execution, requested that he not be burned.

7.     Calvin was guided by the general equity of the civil code that God gave to Israel ; that Law called for the execution of those who attempted to turn others aside from the true God:

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.” (Deuteronomy 13:6-11.)

This does not mean that I favor executing heretics, but it does mean that we must look at this episode in light of its place in history—Calvin sought to see to it that each authority in life follow the Bible as he understood it. The episode also serves to prevent our ever looking at our heroes with hagiographic spectacles as if they didn’t have significant flaws. Only the Lord Jesus stands the test of heroism without moral failure and frailty.

John Calvin was extraordinarily gifted by God with insight into Scripture. In no small measure this was true because he strove to be reticent where Scripture is silent and allow the Scripture to speak for itself. Nevertheless, Calvin was not always correct in his thinking, much less always right in what he did. But who is? Not Saint Peter, whom the Apostle Paul had to withstand in public. (Galatians 2:11 ff.)

I have been a licensed preacher for some forty years, and I still come very far short of being what I want to be, much less of being what God wants me to be. But my wife of almost thirty-seven years has almost always profited from my preaching through all those years, even though she knows my frailty and sinfulness better than anyone on earth, perhaps even better than I do myself. How does she do it? How does she profit from the Word, coming as it does from the mouth of a man who she knows all too well? She puts things into perspective. Apart from the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Apostles Peter, James and John and every other person of God in history, even at their holiest moments, still deserved no less a fate than to burn in hell forever. In Christ, my wife’s frail and sinful husband is just as holy and righteous as every one of Christ’s holy apostles. She knows this, and so she can accept me as a man of God and receive God’s Word through this earthen vessel as if I were Christ himself. (2 Corinthians 4:7.)

So I will read Calvin and profit from his insights, too, but I will read him critically, carefully comparing what he wrote by the standard of Scripture alone. And I will not knell at his altar nor worship him. Indeed, I won’t do that even for Christ’s own apostles: “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.” (1 Corinthians 3:5.)

Bob Vincent