John Calvin (image courtesy Wikipedia)
By Spencer D Gear
On the Internet, you’ll find statements like these:
- ‘Calvin had 57 people put to death in 16 years. That is a recorded fact’ (#17 HERE).
- ‘Should heretics (non-calvinists) be burned alive? “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death, knowingly and willingly incur their guilt. It is not human authority that speaks, it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for His Church.” John Calvin
Calvin said that if you don’t believe heretics should be killed, you are worthy to be killed. Should heretics be burned at the stake, as Calvin practiced? If you say no, you should be glad you don’t live in Calvin’s day, or else he might have burned you alive!!’ (#18 HERE).
- ‘Calvin’s character has nothing to do with the doctrines contained within the theological label “Calvinism”’ (#16 HERE).
Calvin, heresy & capital punishment
Did John Calvin, the Genevan Reformer, authorise the killing of his opponents? Take a read of Did Calvin Murder Servetus?
Church historian, Earle E. Cairns, wrote:
In order to set up an effective system [in Geneva], Calvin used the state to inflict more severe penalties. Such penalties proved to be much too severe, fifty-eight people being executed and seventy-six exiled by 1546. Servetus (1511-53), who questioned the doctrine of the Trinity, was executed in 1553. Though we cannot justify these procedures, we can understand that people of those days believed that one must follow the religion of the state and that disobedience could well be punished by death. This belief was held by both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Some of Calvin’s regulations also would today be considered an unwarranted interference in the private life of the individual (Cairns 1981:311-312).
Yale University church historian, Kenneth Scott Latourette, wrote of this situation with Michael Servetus:
More serious was the test given by Michael Servetus (1511-1553)…. Deeply religious and devoted to Christ, wishing to restore what he believed to be true Christianity, he would not conform with the accepted doctrine of the Trinity. He also denounced predestination and infant baptism and believed that the millennial reign of Christ was about to begin…. He and Calvin had already violently disagreed when, in 1553, fleeing from condemnation for heresy in Roman Catholic Vienne and passing through Geneva, he was recognized and arrested, certainly at Calvin’s instance. In his trial for heresy Calvin’s enemies rallied to his support. Had he been acquitted, Calvin’s power in Geneva would have been threatened. Indeed, Servetus demanded that Calvin be arrested as a false accuser and a heretic, be driven out of the city, and his goods be given to him, Servetus. Servetus was condemned by the civil authorities on the charge that he had denied the Trinity and rejected baptism, offences punishable by death under the Justinian Code. In spite of Calvin’s plea for a more merciful form of execution, Servetus was burned at the stake (October 27, 1553), crying through the flames: “O Jesus, thou Son of the eternal God, have pity on me.”
The condemnation of Servetus was a major defeat for Calvin’s opponents. Henceforward his position in Geneva was not to be seriously contested (Latourette 1975:759). Also available HERE.
Michael Servetus (image courtesy Wikipedia)
A professor of church history at Yale University of an earlier generation, George Parker Fisher, wrote:
In a commonwealth based on such principles as was that of Geneva, it was inevitable that outspoken religious dissent should be suppressed by force. The modern idea of the limited of dissent. function of the state had not yet arisen. In the system which had ruled the world for centuries, heresy was considered a crime which the civil authority was bound to punish. The Old Testament theocratic view was held to be still applicable to civil society. Although there were occasional pleas put forth by the reformers for toleration, their general position is clearly defined in the words of Calvin: “Seeing that the defenders of the papacy are so bitter in behalf of their superstitions, that in their atrocious fury they shed the blood of the innocent, it should shame Christian magistrates that in the protection of certain truth they are entirely destitute of spirit.” Such convictions were not long in bearing their appropriate fruit. A noted case was that of Michael Servetus. He was a Spaniard of an ingenious, inquisitive, 1509-1553. restless mind. He early turned his attention to theological questions. His book on the ” Errors of the Trinity ” appeared in 1531.
In it he advocated a view closely allied to the Sabbellian theory, and an idea of the incarnation in which the common belief of two natures in Christ had no place. After a vain attempt to draw Calvin into a controversy he went to Paris and applied himself to studies in natural science and medicine, for which he had a remarkable aptitude. For many years he resided at Vienne, in the South of France, engaged in the practice of his profession. During this time he conformed outwardly to the Catholic Church, and was not suspected of heresy. It was his second book, the ” Restoration of Christianity,” a copy of which he sent to Calvin, which brought him into trouble. In this work he advocated theories of the world and of God which were pantheistic in their drift.
When it was discovered that Servetus was the author, he was arrested and brought to trial. He denied that he wrote either this book or the one on the “Errors of the Trinity.” But some pages of an annotated copy of the “Institutes,” which he had sent to Calvin, together with a parcel of letters, were obtained from Geneva. Seeing that conviction was inevitable, he succeeded in making his escape. Not long after, he went to Geneva, where he lived unrecognized for a month. But as soon as his presence was known, Calvin procured his arrest. In the trial before the senate, which followed, Servetus defended his opinions boldly and acutely, but with a strange outpouring of violent denunciation. He caricatured the doctrine of the Trinity. He intermingled physical theories and theological speculation in a manner considered by his hearers in the highest degree dangerous and even blasphemous. As he was setting forth his view of the participation of all things in the Deity, he told Calvin, contemptuously, that if he only understood natural science he would be able to comprehend that subject.
While his trial was in progress messengers came from the ecclesiastical court at Vienne demanding their prisoner. Servetus preferred to remain in Geneva, relying perhaps on the support of the Libertines. But they were unable to save him. After his condemnation he sent for Calvin and asked his pardon for the indignities which he had cast upon him. He maintained his opinions with heroic constancy, and was burned at the stake on the 27th of October, 1553. No doubt Calvin had expected, and from the course of Servetus in the past had reason to expect, that he would abjure his errors. When this hope failed, he tried to have the mode of carrying the sentence into execution mitigated. Yet he believed that such an attack upon the fundamental truths of religion as Servetus had made should be punished with death. This opinion he shared with Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor, and even with the gentlest of the reformers, Melanchthon (Fisher 1913:326-327). Also available HERE.
Servetus was a teacher of false doctrine and he was pursued by people associated with a church-state relationship in Geneva, Switzerland. Sadly, the State had in place capital punishment for church heresy. In my view, heresy of Christian doctrine is a church issue and not one for the government to deal with. Thus, church-state relationships should be abandoned in contemporary society as the Christian church does not belong to the nation-state of Israel.
When there was a union of church and state in Geneva, Switzerland, in Calvin’s era (sixteenth century), he used this governance to have his opponents who promoted heresy to receive capital punishment. He did that in approving the execution of Michael Servetus. However, Bullinger and Melanchthon also shared in this wickedness.
I’ve used the term, wickedness, because the government’s role is to discern between good and bad conduct and implement punishments (Rom 13:3-4 ESV) and not between good and bad theologies. The latter is the role of the local church. If heretical doctrines are promoted, the church has the role of correction and if that does not work, then the next step is excommunication from the church.
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile [i.e. pagan NIV] and a tax collector (Matt 18:15-17 ESV).
Tax collectors (traditionally called publicans) were local men employed by the Roman government to collect taxes for them. They were known to be officials who demanded unreasonable payments. So they had a bad reputation with the people and often were hated and considered traitors (NIV Study Bible 1985:1451)
John’s instructions were: ‘If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works’ (2 John 1:10-11 ESV). There is another dimension taught in Romans 16:17 (NLT), ‘ And now I make one more appeal, my dear brothers and sisters. Watch out for people who cause divisions and upset people’s faith by teaching things contrary to what you have been taught. Stay away from them.
So, there are five steps in the biblical process of discipline:
- Go to the Christian and speak with him or her about the ungodly behaviour or teaching that violates Scripture.
- If that does not cause the person to deal with the bad behaviour, take one or two other believers with you to discuss the issue so that there will be 2-3 witnesses.
- If the person refuses to listen to you, take it to the church for discipline.
- If this is not resolved, the next step is excommunication by the church and the person will be treated as a pagan or tax collector.
- Stay away from divisive people and those who teach false doctrine.
This will demonstrate that to belong to the church is to participate in a serious group for which you would not want to be excluded.
Cairns, E E 1981. Christianity through the Centuries (rev ed). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Fisher, G P 1913. History of the Christian Church. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Latourette, K S 1975. A History of Christianity: Reformation to the Present (rev edn), vol 2. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.
NIV Study Bible 1985. New International Version. K Barker (gen ed). Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Bible Publishers.
Copyright © 2012 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 11 November 2021.