Let us beware lest our words and thoughts go beyond what the Word of God tells us…We must leave to God His own knowledge,…and conceive Him as He makes Himself known to us, without attempting to discover anything about His nature apart from His Word. (Quoted in The Story of Christianity Vol. 2, by Justo L.Gonzalez, pg. 61)
If only John Calvin had followed his own advice and discovered God through His self-revelation alone, rather than positing a secret divine will that contradicts God’s will as revealed in Scripture and making “secret decrees” the foundation of his soteriology, decrees that the Bible nowhere mentions or describes.
Calvin apologists take different approaches to defending their theological hero with regards to the Servetus execution. One such approach is to say that Calvin was not culpable for the killing of Servetus, since he did not personally have the power or authority to put him to death. Unfortunately, for the Calvin apologist who takes this approach, Melanchthon and Calvin (who makes use of Melanchthon’s pronouncement in his own defense) would disagree. Calvin writes,
Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster. (emphasis mine)
Therefore, Calvin was proud to take personal credit for “purg[ing] the church of so pernicious a monster [as Servetus].”
Writing in 1561 to the Marquis Paet (chamberlain to the King of Navarre), Calvin said,
Honour, glory, and riches shall be the reward of your pains; but above all, do not fail to rid the country of those scoundrels [Anabaptists and others] , who stir up the peoples to revolt against us. Such monsters should be exterminated, as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard. (emphasis mine)*
Therefore, Calvin was proud to take personal credit for having “exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.”
So much for that defense.
*Update: Concerning the second quote, there is some question as to its authenticity based largely on what are claimed to be historical inconsistencies in the whole of the letter. I hope to look into this more when I get the time and write a follow-up post. This post was initially written without the second quote since the first quote is adequate enough to make the point. The second quote served only as a second example. If that quote proves to be inauthentic, the point of this post remains valid, that Calvin took personal credit for the death of Servetus. A further point that needs to be made against those who wish to say that Calvin had tremendous pastoral concern for Servetus and tried to help him as much as possible, is the language he uses in describing him (as a “pernicious…monster”). That doesn’t sound like the language that would proceed from a pastoral heart filled with concern for Servetus and grief over his unfortunate end. There really is no way to rescue Calvin from his own words and it is hard to imagine anyone would try to do so unless they were being driven by some sort of strong bias.
A few days ago I saw someone wearing a “Calvin is my homeboy” T-shirt. I have to admit that the shirt made me cringe. My thoughts immediately went to questions concerning Calvin’s character. While I believe that John Calvin did contribute some solid exegesis in his works, I must admit that I feel uneasy about him as a person. There is no question that John Calvin thought it was a good thing to persecute and even execute heretics. There is no question that John Calvin was instrumental in carrying out such persecutions and executions.
Personally, I find the “man of his times” argument to be very weak. I don’t think God judges us by our times, but rather judges us according to His word. The New Testament and the teachings of Jesus simply give no sanctions for the persecution and execution of those who reject Christianity or deviate from certain Christian positions of orthodoxy. Jesus and the New Testament are in harmony that we should be willing, instead, to give our lives for the truth of the gospel (if necessary) when the surrounding culture and government is in opposition to basic Christian principles. This John Calvin did not do, and I simply cannot condone nor respect his involvement in persecuting and executing heretics. There is simply no legitimate defense for such actions.
What I find particularly damning are Calvin’s comments long after the execution of Michael Servetus. These comments are impossible to square with the common defense that Calvin tried so hard to save Servetus, and was apparently against (or largely uninvolved in) the consensus to have him killed (the best that can be argued is that Calvin wanted him beheaded rather than burned, though it has been pointed out that this may well have been primarily for political reasons, rather than a desire to be merciful). Nine years later John Calvin wrote these chilling words,
Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster. (Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, pp. 690, 691)
Schaff later writes,
Calvin’s work against Servetus gave complete satisfaction to Melanchthon. It is the strongest refutation of the errors of his opponent which his age produced, but it is not free from bitterness against one, at last, had humbly asked his pardon, and who had been sent to the judgment seat of God by a violent death. It is impossible to read without pain the following passage: ‘Whoever shall now contend that is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. (ibid. 791)
This is incontrovertible evidence that John Calvin was unrepentant of the murder of Servetus even nine years after his death. Rather, Calvin actually felt that posterity owed him a debt of gratitude for purging the church of “so pernicious a monster”! Do we really want to venerate such a man, even if we agree with his theology? Have we stopped to consider that according to John Calvin, it is a God ordained and perpetual rule for the Church to persecute and execute heretics and that any who might disagree should themselves be put to death! Do we really want to wear a shirt that says “Calvin is my homeboy” in light of such disturbing truths concerning his character and beliefs?
I do not believe that the proper way to falsify Calvinism is to point to such sinful behavior on the part of John Calvin, but I am coming to agree more and more with Roger Olson who wrote,
However, I do not admire or respect John Calvin. I have been told that he should not be held responsible for the burning of the heretic Servetus because, after all, he warned the Spanish doctor and theologian not to come to Geneva and he urged the city council to behead him rather than burn him. And, after all, Calvin was a child of his times and everyone was doing the same. Nevertheless, I still struggle with placing a man complicit in murder on a pedestal. [link]
So to those of you proudly sporting a “Calvin is my homeboy” shirt, I ask,
Are you sure you want to wear that shirt?