CORRECTING CALVIN’S CRITICS
If you have or have ever had any enemies, you will know that they tend to tell lies about you and invariably paint you in a bad light. John Calvin (1509-64) had and still has lots of enemies. No doubt some hate this man merely because they have listened to some of the lies that have been spread about him.
One of the old canards constantly trotted out by Calvin haters involves a man called Michael Servetus a contemporary of Calvin. As do modern day so-called Jehovah’s Witnesses Servetus followed Arius’s (256-336) view of a non-divine Jesus. In other words, Servetus was in denial that Jesus Christ was the middle Person of the Trinity now in human flesh.
Says John Eidsmoe in footnote 9 on page 1044 of his Historical and Theological Foundations of Law, Volume III Reformation and Colonial, (Nordskog Publishing Inc.) – see:
“Calvin’s critics claim he engineered the execution of Servetus, but as J. Steven Wilkins demonstrates, the Geneva city council tried, convicted, and sentenced Servetus without Calvin’s involvement. Servetus had already been sentenced to death in France but had escaped; Calvin had warned Servetus not to come to Geneva, telling him he would not leave the city alive. Several Catholic cities wanted to try Servetus for heresy, and when the Geneva authorities gave him a choice of being tried in Geneva or being sent to Vienna, Servetus chose Geneva. The council found him guilty of denying the Trinity and teaching and printing other false doctrines and sentenced him to be burned at the stake. Calvin tried unsuccessfully to persuade the council to commute the sentence from burning to beheading; failing in that, he visited Servetus in his last hours and prayed with him. Significantly, Servetus was the only heretic to be burned in Geneva during Calvin’s lifetime, while thousands of heretics were executed elsewhere. J. Steven Wilkins, Calvin v. Servetus (1998); William Wileman, Calvin and Servetus.
Francis Nigel Lee writes of the same Servetus incident,
“Servetus had blasphemously described the most blessed Trinity as a three-headed dog and a monster from hell! Yet even at a time when the Catholic Inquisition was seeking to slay Servetus and every Protestant city in Europe had expelled him or condemned him, Calvin corresponded with him and sent him a copy of his Institutes. For Calvin sought to win Servetus to Christ!
“Knowing full well that Calvin favoured the punishment of exile for heretics and the death penalty for blasphemers, the wretched Servetus arrogantly made his way to Geneva planning to overthrow Calvin and de-christianize the city. Put on trial by the civil magistrates of Geneva (and not by Calvin who was neither a judge nor a citizen of that city) Servetus was found guilty of blasphemy and sedition and sentenced to death by burning. Calvin unsuccessfully tried to get Servetus to recant his errors. When Servetus would not recant, Calvin pleaded for a milder form of punishment. And later still, Calvin also pleaded with Servetus in his death cell to get right with God and accept the Divine Christ as his Lord and Master!
“Rarely in the annals of history has so much evangelical concern ever been shown to such a monstrous miscreant, as Calvin showed to Michael Servetus, enemy of Christ and Christianity and of public law and order! Even during that highly intolerant age, the gentle Calvin tenderly yet firmly presented Christ and His salvation to the very man who had sought to destroy him!” – Francis Nigel Lee, John Calvin True Presbyterian, Jesus Lives Series, pp. 17-18.
Gerald Christian Nordskog made the very observant connection between Calvin visiting Servetus in jail and Dr Lee (just quoted above) visiting his father’s murderer in jail! Says Gerald,
“As our dear brother Francis Nigel Lee was so compassionate and loving to his dad’s murderer, leading the man to Christ while he was in jail....... he obviously was touched by this Calvin pursuing the evil man even in jail. Dr. Lee had the same characteristics in this regard as the great theologian of Calvin's Institutes.” (In an email to me.)
(See Gerald Christian Nordskog’s Christian Books Website at Nordskog Publishing Inc.: https://www.nordskogpublishing.com/
(See Dr. Lee’s Brothers Because of Bloodshed at: http://www.dr-fnlee.org/brothers-because-of-bloodshed/
And Dr. Lee’s The Sovereignty of God in the Salvation of my Father’s Slayer at: http://www.dr-fnlee.org/the-sovereignty-of-god-in-the-salvation-of-my-fathers-slayer/
So, far from being the flaming-torch wielding burner of heretics as portrayed by Calvin-haters and the ignorant, Calvin was instead a lover of all God’s image-bearers, including those who vehemently disagreed with him such as Servetus, and evangelically and compassionately sought their humane treatment and, if not more, just as importantly, their salvation.
Allen Guelzo says in a review of Alister E. McGrath’s A Life of John Calvin: A Study of the Shaping of Western Culture,
“There is no sense in which McGrath’s Calvin could be mistaken for a Geneva Jim Jones: Calvin had little personal authority with the city council and no legal political standing or following (as a foreigner, he had no vote or voice in Genevan politics), and could rely only on the persuasiveness of his own ideas and preaching to carry his reforms forward. In making these points, McGrath clearly throws the notorious arrest and execution of Michael Servetus into the lap of Geneva’s secular leadership at a time when that leadership was hardly more sympathetic to Calvin than it was to Servetus; and he rightly stresses (as other biographers have not) that Servetus’ execution was due as much to his anarchical Anabaptism as to disagreements with Calvin on the Trinity.” (A Life of John Calvin: A Study of the Shaping of Western Culture by Alister E. McGrath, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990) Reviewed by Allen Guelzo. See:
Says Professor Roy Clouser,
“Re the execution of Servetus: Since Calvin is often accused of ordering Servetus be burned at the stake, I think it apropos to mention that it is one of the many lies about the Reformers that has been repeated over & over.
“First, it is important to note that Calvin never held a political office in Geneva. Indeed, as a foreign national and not a Swiss citizen, he was not even eligible for office. Geneva was ruled by a town Council, which hired Calvin to perform certain duties. One of these was to interview Servetus after he’d been asked to leave Geneva & refused. I have read (a translation of) the letter that Calvin wrote to the Council following the interview. In it he confirms that Servetus is a heretic, but recommends that ‘the sentence not be carried out’. I also found the letter he wrote to the Council after it condemned Servetus to be burned. In it Calvin said that if they insisted on executing Servetus it should not be by burning ‘which is a cruel and inhumane method of execution’. The council again ignored Calvin.
“BTW, I’ve also read accusations about how Calvin was supposed to have used state power to enforce church attendance. The fact is, however, that he opposed the political party that wanted to make the church of Geneva (in which he was a pastor) the state church. When that party was elected anyway, Calvin left Geneva for 6 years in protest and returned only after it was voted out. He regarded such a law was an intolerable intrusion of the state into matters that belonged properly to the church.
“There is a fine recent book on the Reformation that I’ve found helpful titled ‘The Reformation World’, Ed Pettegree London: Routledge, 2000). (The letters were contained in a multi-volume set titled ‘Calvin’s Correspondence’ which I found in the library of Princeton Theological Seminary.)” Letter (10 Oct 2003) from Prof Roy Clouser on ‘Thinknet’ Dooyeweerdian discussion forum.
In a day when there is so much “Fake News” being bandied around, it is a good and honourable thing to seek the truth of the matter rather than lazily listening to the haters. Always remember that Satan is the father of lies and that Jesus Christ is the Truth. Honour Him!
(Photo of two unashamed Calvinists)