Thinking of Servetus on Calvin’s Birthday

kinnon —  July 10, 2009 — 19 Comments


Certain nodes on the interwebs are awash with celebration of the 500 year anniversary of Jean Calvin's entering into this mortal coil. Even folks from my Arminian end of the theologimical pool are saying some nice things (though with rumors of other thoughts to come). Ben Witherington III says,

…he is to be respected for understanding that Biblical theology can only be done on the basis of a detailed and comprehensive exegesis of all the relevant Biblical material.

With impetus from John Armstrong, I ordered Calvin's Institutes a while back and need to spend serious time digesting them. The two volume set is on my list of books to read. Along with a book that has just arrived from Kevin DeYoung and his partner in crime, Ted Kluck. DeYoung did make me chuckle when he commented on Calvin's temperment in his mildly hagiographic Jean-rave this morning,

We do the memory of Calvin no disservice to admit that he had weaknesses. He was physically frail and could be emotionally volatile. No one lamented his own weaknesses–physical and spiritual–more than himself. And no one understand general human weakness better than Calvin.

What?! No mention of Calvin arranging that Michael Servetus be put to death for his "heretical blasphemies" – Servetus held a unitarian view of the Godhead and was against infant baptism. Perhaps Kevin feels that "emotionally volatile" covers Calvin's pronouncement of the death penalty for Servetus' "errors". (Please, one of my Calvinist friends, take me on using the argument that I "need to understand the context." I can't wait.)


Now, in fairness to Calvin, he only wanted Servetus to be beheaded as he was later successful in achieving for Giovanni Valenti Gentile's "heresies" – Jean was against Servetus' eventual burning at the stake which Giovanni fortunately escaped – without his head, of course.

Many hold Calvin up as one of the greatest Scriptural exegetes who ever lived. So, I ask, in all humility (yah, right) did Calvin simply skim over the Gospels? Did he miss Paul's statement that one of the fruits of the Spirit was long-suffering?(Apparently Servetus was rather obnoxious in the way in interacted with Calvin.) Or is their a Secret Message of Jesus that the rest of us can't find that allows theologians to put heretics to death.

Let me put Calvin's action in context. Bishop TD Jakes is viewed as a oneness Pentecostal. (Often referred to as Jesus-only – they don't subscribe to an orthodox understanding of the Trinity.) He's known to speak in New York on regular occasions. What if Dr. Tim Keller were to agitate for Jakes arrest and further to have him put to death for his "error?" And what if Dr. Tim succeeded. Would that change your opinion of Dr. Keller? Would Dr. Tim still be "one of the finest expositors of the Word of God?" (Forgive me, Tim for using you as an example – it is simply to show the ludicrous nature of the situation.)

I'm just asking?



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

19 responses to Thinking of Servetus on Calvin’s Birthday

  1. Do you really want people to answer that Keller illustration? 🙂

    Yeah, this is a birthday that makes me want to go paint up a whitewashed church somewhere.

  2. We pray, work with, engage, sharpen iron with, love and serve those who teachings are heretical.

    We pray that God would save them and that the Holy Spirit would renew their mind.

    Remember, sanctification is a beautiful thing.

  3. Remind me not to invite you to my 500th birthday party!

    Good post. Calvin has lots to offer, but it’s a blemished record. We shouldn’t gloat about this. It makes me wonder what my blind spots are.

    Thank God for grace or else we’d all be in a whole heap of trouble.

  4. Thank you, Mr. Bill. A sensible post if ever there was one.

  5. OK. I’ll play. Here’s one response to the Servetus-in-New-York thought experiment. My most recent read on the Servetus case came via Carter Lindberg’s The European Reformations (Blackwell, 1996), pp. 267-272. Along the way he cites Roland Bainton (writing in 1951):

    “We are today horrified that Geneva should have burned a man for the glory of God, yet we incinerate whole cities for the saving of democracy.”

    A slightly different effort at “putting in context”!

  6. Bill – you need to understand the context! 😉

    If Keller did that would it mean that it would be wrong to credit him for the good he has done so far? Would it make everything he has done so far unusable?

    Is the Bible wrong to credit David with being a man of God even though he was an adulterer and a murderer? Wait a minute – Moses was a murderer too, and so was Paul. And Peter was racist, as was Jonah. Virtually every man in the Old Testament was polygamist and the vow of Jephthah should have him banned from ever having anything good said about him – what could the writer to the Hebrews have been thinking?

    Should I put off buying the book being advertised on this blog until I know what secrets you may be hiding? Nothing personal – just wondering.

    It’s a motley crew that God chooses to use. It is why He can use you and me. It prevents us from getting glory. So let’s thank God for what He was able to do through such a flawed instrument as Calvin was and take heart – he might even be able to use us. Although it is highly unlikely that anything we produce will still be in print 500 years from now – because it isn’t as good.

    So let’s celebrate what Calvin accomplished.

  7. Mark Twain said it best:

    “If the man doesn’t believe as we do, we say he is a crank, and that settles it. I mean, it does nowadays, because now we can’t burn him.”

  8. Michael Wittmer writes:
    “It is true that Calvin thought that Servetus should die, but so did most everyone in the 16th century, including the Roman Catholics, who were furious that Servetus had escaped from their Viennese prison, thereby depriving them of the honor of killing him.”
    link to

    Calvin was a product of his age, as we are.

  9. Perhaps we have learned from Calvin not only that we will be judged by our greatest contributions of theological wisdom, but also that we will judged concerning the fruit our theology brings to bear.

    In addition, if we did not already learn from the coverage of Michael Jackson following his death that human beings are more prone to remember the good contributions one has made, particularly when they are of great magnitude, rather than our more shameful moments, then Calvin is yet another example.

  10. Darryl,
    Wittmer well overstates his “everyone.” One time Calvin friend and fellow preacher & theologian, Sebastian Castellio certainly did not support Calvin’s actions,stating “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.” He wrote as well, “When Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings.” And quoted Calvin himself, when Jean was complaining of his own harsh treatment, “It is unchristian to use arms against those who have been expelled from the Church, and to deny them rights common to all mankind.” Castellio was not alone in this.

    If Keller’s understanding of the New Testament was one that allowed him to put to death those he labelled heretics, then it would be safe to question his reading of the NT – regardless of the good accomplished through his ministry.

    Calvin is celebrated for his “understanding” of scripture. One might reasonably question that understanding in light of his actions. Remember that in my case, I am Arminian in my theology so I do not celebrate all that Jean offered the church 500 years ago. As BWIII says regarding Calvin in the same post I quote from above, “…I disagree with a great deal of what he has to say about God, his sovereignty, the nature of his grace, election, predestination, human freedom, and perseverance of the saints.

    As well, the reason for this post was a response to the hagiography rampant on the interwebs leaving one to believe that Jean must have been the 13th original Apostle. Read Kevin DeYoung’s post linked to above. Note as well, that as I said, I’ve purchased Calvin’s Institutes with the intent on reading them. So I am not denying Calvin’s impact or influence.

    My reading of the New Testament would not find support for Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki – to name but three cities levelled by mankind. Your point is?

  11. Bill, I really like this post – and incidentally, I’m willing to extend the indictments of Calvin (and Luther for that matter) into the realm of economics for their absolutely shameful endorsements of systems that are blatantly unbiblical (IMO, of course).

    However, what I REALLY like about this post is that your LinkWithin widget is pulling Calvin and Hobbes posts! Appropriate…don’t you think?

  12. Darryl, you’re quite gracious but I doubt your blind spots include killing a man for Jesus.

    David R, damn straight. It’s horrifying to kill, for the glory of God or government.

    Ken – context schmontext. : ) The big difference between Calvin & the biblical examples you give is that the biblical examples repented. They saw, 2,000-3,000 years before Calvin’s time, that “killing in the name of” (God, lust, empire) was shameful and wrong – and of course there’s grace for that, and this makes them more interesting figures. The difference is that, as far as we know, Calvin was an unrepentant murderer who justified his actions by a theology that (I’m sorry if this is too polemic for my Reformed friends) creates a god that subordinates love to make Judgment and Severity this god’s defining characteristics, to be imitated by his followers in rhetorical or physical violence.

    Bill, whatever gripes you & I may have had in the past, I love you. 🙂

  13. Mike,
    I don’t know what your particular stance is on theological issues but be assured of this – It is near impossible to be too polemical for Reformed types 🙂

  14. It seems the essence of the issue is that Calvin was a product of his age and not a product of God’s grace. The fruit clearly bears that out. Futhermore, there was nothing unique about his era: people are still dying all over the world at the hands of religious zealots who choose to continue to immortalize some dead leader at the expense of a life of love in Jesus.

  15. Bill wrote: “My reading of the New Testament would not find support for Dresden, Hiroshima or Nagasaki – to name but three cities levelled by mankind. Your point is?

    My point (implied in other comments, too), and I take it Bainton’s and Lindberg’s point, is that we can often justify (and for Christians, even biblically) what our culture justifies. Which in turn inclines me, anyway, towards Matthew 7:1-5 // Luke 6:41-42.

    In any case, I have a sneaky feeling we’re on the same side on this one! Still, I think I have enough sense of anachronism and my own sin to see Calvin and his context from a different angle than you are advocating here.

    A bit more on Castellio (since you mention him). Lindberg, in the book I quoted from earlier (p. 269), cites the famous saying (“To burn a heretic…”), and then goes on:

    “In this Castellio was far ahead of his time, for Calvin and Geneva received congratulations and applause from all quarters for the execution of the arch-heretic. On the other hand, Castellio also shared the common concept of the corpus Christianum, for after admitting he had not read Servetus’s writings he said if he were indeed a blasphemer he deserved to die….”

    Puts a slightly different light even the enlightened Castellio, does it not?

  16. Let’s not forget that George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards had slaves, too! These Reformed guys!

  17. Dan MacDonald July 12, 2009 at 3:36 pm

    Did and Arminian ever own slaves? Did a slave ever own an Armani?

  18. Yea David! Yea Ken! Good rejoinders. Yea!

  19. Yea Dan!


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