Luther’s Very Scholastic Reformation

Luther hammerI’ve been enjoying working my way through William Jan Van Asselt’s edited volume on Reformed Scholasticism lately. One of the main points the various contributors have been underscoring is that far from being a specific body of content, scholastic theology ought to be seen rather as a method of approach that could be used by various theological perspectives. Indeed, nowhere is this highlighted best than when we consider what is usually painted as the explosive, revolutionary act that kicked off the Reformation:

When, as tradition has it, Martin Luther (1483–1546) nailed his theses on indulgences to the door of the castle church of Wittenberg in 1517, the hammer blows appeared to usher in a new era for the church. Luther’s act is often considered the beginning of the Reformation. However, a close look at the theses will make it clear that they do not condemn indulgences as such, but only the misuse of them. When it comes to content, Luther’s first act of reform was therefore more medieval than has commonly been assumed.

But the form of this important act in the history of the church also must be seen against a medieval background. Nailing theses to a door was not an unusual thing to do, since theological disputations were regularly held on theses that previously had been made known. When Luther nailed those famous theses to the door, his intention was to enter into a theological disputation. The disputation genre had developed in the medieval schools and formed an important part of the scholastic method. Luther’s hammer blows may have drawn the curtains on the Middle Ages and heralded a new era in church history, but as such his first act of reformation was entirely medieval.

Added to this paradox is the fact that Luther engaged in disputes against scholastic theology only shortly before nailing the ninety-five to the door. In his attack on scholastic theology, Luther thus used an element from scholastic method, the disputation. This was because Luther understood the concept of scholasticism in terms of content, as representing the teaching of Aristotle and William of Ockham. Luther’s Galatians commentary (1519), whose contents identify it as a Reformed commentary, was similarly the fruit of a medieval pedagogical method, the lectio (reading), in which a (biblical) book was read and commented on by the master during his lectures.

–Pieter L. Rouwiendal, “The Method of the Schools: Medieval Scholasticism.” in Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Willem J. Van Asselt. Ed. (Kindle Locations 1140-1152). Reformation Heritage Books.

Far from being a great anti-scholastic revolt, Luther’s initial reformatory foray was scholastic, both in content and in method. It was somewhat of an unintentional revolution initiated by professor thoroughly shaped and formed from within a tradition, not the work of an outsider rebel disrupting the system from without.

At the expense of moralizing an interesting historical tidbit, there might be a bit of cautioning, or at least chastening, word for would-be theological revolutionaries. Luther, Calvin, and the other great Reformers were all, for the most part, trained and schooled in the classic texts, sources, methods, and theology, which is what allowed them to be so devastatingly effective, both in retaining the best of the catholic tradition, as well as criticizing its excesses. There is likely more value in learning and submitting to the tradition, doing the hard work of study and so forth, than hot-blooded young types looking to reshape the Church want to do.

Soli Deo Gloria

5 Thoughts on the Logic of Exile as Judgment

fall of samaria2 Kings 17 recounts the story of the Fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrians and her Exile:

But the king of Assyria found treachery in Hoshea, for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and offered no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up and bound him in prison. Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria, and for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria captured Samaria, and he carried the Israelites away to Assyria and placed them in Halah, and on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. (2 Kings 17:4-6 ESV)

At first it looks like a simple case of power politics gone wrong. Hoshea backs the wrong horse in putting his trust in Egypt, calling down the wrath of the more potent political power found in Shalmaneser’s Assyria army. Open and shut case here, right? If we’re dealing with the purely human level of motivation and machination, then yes. But the author of Kings invites us to peer deeper into the providential working of God in the events of Israel’s Exile. Please don’t skim this, but read it carefully:

And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and had feared other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the LORD drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had practiced. And the people of Israel did secretly against the LORD their God things that were not right. They built for themselves high places in all their towns, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there they made offerings on all the high places, as the nations did whom the LORD carried away before them. And they did wicked things, provoking the LORD to anger, and they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, “You shall not do this.” Yet the LORD warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, “Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the Law that I commanded your fathers, and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets.”

But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God. They despised his statutes and his covenant that he made with their fathers and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false, and they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the LORD had commanded them that they should not do like them. And they abandoned all the commandments of the LORD their God, and made for themselves metal images of two calves; and they made an Asherah and worshiped all the host of heaven and served Baal. And they burned their sons and their daughters as offerings and used divination and omens and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger. Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight. None was left but the tribe of Judah only. (2 Kings 17:7-18 ESV)

Reflections on the Exile as Judgment. As I was reading through this story earlier this year, I was struck with the clear progression at work here. In this short narrative passage, we have a constellation of disputed but crucial themes involved in understanding the deeper logic at work in our theology of atonement and sovereignty. I’ll list them in no particular order:

  1. Sin as Idolatry – First of all, sin is presented to us as both relational and legal violation. The LORD gave Israel the Law, the covenant that codifies in its clear commandments the special relationship between the LORD and his chosen people. All of Israel’s sinful actions are committed “against the LORD”. To despise God’s commandments is to despise the God who gives them. This point is deepened when we reflect on the fact that the sin that is singled out here, almost exclusively, is that of idolatry in its various forms. Reflecting both the metaphors of King and husband, Israel’s violation of the 1st and 2nd commandments can only be seen as a betrayal of trust, fealty, and fidelity to her covenant Lord. In the covenant we have a relationship of law and love. Indeed, in their placement as the head of the commands, we are instructed to understand that, first and foremost, all sin has a God-ward dimension that cannot be reduced to its horizontal implications.
  2. Patience – Next, the God of the Old Testament is radically merciful and patient. After clear violation after violation, God sends warning after warning, prophet after prophet, both before and after the period of the kings of Israel, in order to draw his people away from their sin. I’ve told my students this before, but the history of Israel is not the history of God getting mad and destroying things. Instead, it is the history of God having patience with a people that repeatedly, irrationally, and violently reject him, until his hand is forced to act.
  3. Wrath - His warnings go unheeded. In fact, they seem to provoke only greater disobedience and idolatry of such depravity that includes child sacrifice and every sort of abomination that the Canaanites who dwelt in the land before them were driven out for. And so, God is presented to us as one is who is provoked to “anger” and wrath by sin. Three times God’s anger is mentioned here in this passage, twice after a laundry list of Israel’s sins, and once in the judgment formula. I’ve mentioned Volf’s reflections on God’s anger before, but once again we’re faced with the reality that the holiness, goodness, and yes, the love of God means he does not shrug his shoulders with a “meh”, in the face of gross evil, or really, any evil. For Though God’s emotions mustn’t be thought of in a simplistic fashion, we cannot deny the reality that God observes human sin and idolatry with great displeasure and the will to ultimately remove them. With references to God’s wrath/anger reaching spanning between 400-600 times in the Old Testament alone, if we are to take the revelation of God to Israel seriously, we cannot brush this aside.
  4. Judgment – Which brings us to the Exile. The judgment and exile of the Northern kingdom is clearly presented to us in what can only be described as a judicial execution of as the God’s anger at sin. “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” Judgment is the enacting in history of the LORD’s moral evaluation of Israel’s actions in eternity. Given our prior reflections, we can’t help describing it as a penal judgment rendered in reference to the covenant law. This is not just some “Western, legalizing” interpretation of the event, as is so commonly charged, but a reading that flows from carefully attending to the logic of the text, as well as its placement within the broader narrative of God’s dealings with Israel. That said, we see the logic of the Exile as well. If the land is symbolic of, and part of, the covenant blessings Israel enjoys as part of her relationship with the LORD, it only makes sense that her rejection of the LORD would result in exclusion from the land. It is the “fearful symmetry” of judgment we’ve talked about before.
  5. Multiple-Agency – Finally, this judicial execution is presented both as the work of both divine and human agents. Shalmaneser is clearly given responsibility, acting for what were presumably less than holy reasons like imperial dominance and greed. And yet, in the inspired author’s presentation, without denying or explaining away the freely chosen actions involved, the ultimate agent of judgment is the LORD himself. Again, “And this occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God”, and “Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight.” We see, then, both Divine and human agency at work in one and the same event, one wicked, and one wholly righteous in the destruction and Exile of Israel. While no explicit theology of mulitple-agency is cleanly laid out here, something like it is clearly presupposed.

This is the logic of exile: Israel violates God’s covenant at length, ignores God’s mercy, provokes God’s anger, and brings down God’s judgment. I’ve chosen one key passage where it is laid out rather cleanly, but it’s important to note that each of those five points could be buttressed with skads of verses, narratives, prophecies, and long-range themes in Scripture.

The Cross as Exile – So that people don’t misunderstand, breaking down the logic of exile takes on the importance it does for me because, again, it is that logic that informs part of how we understand Jesus’ glorious, representative work for us on the Cross. As the author of Hebrews hints at, Jesus’ execution on the cross was that of the Levitical scapegoat, carrying the sins of the people beyond the camp in a mini-representative-Exile:

So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. (Hebrews 13:12 ESV)

What’s more, in line with the curse of execution, he suffered “outside the gate” as the Law prescribes (Lev. 14; Num. 15; Deut 17) to exhaust the covenant curse of Exile-as-judgment in our place as our great High Priest, make us holy once more, and institute a new covenant with the people–a truer, more inviolable one–in his own blood:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17 ESV)

But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. And the Holy Spirit also bears witness to us; for after saying, “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws on their hearts, and write them on their minds,” then he adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.” Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin. (Hebrews 10:12-18 ESV)

I know that I’ve only just sketched a basic, partial, and patchwork understanding of these New Testament texts, but when you understand the logic at work in the Exile of Israel, you can begin to see how deeper logic of Jesus’ Exile on the Cross as divine judgment on sin isn’t just some “rationalistic, systematic-theological”, or “medieval”, imposition on them, but rather a way of understanding them describing the Cross as the culmination of a number of themes central to the divine drama of God’s faithful relationship to unfaithful Israel. Again, the dark backdrop of sin and judgment is the only one in which the light of sacrifice and grace can be see in all of its glory.

Soli Deo Gloria

Creation, Covenant, Curse, and the Seed of the Woman (The Story Notes #2)

My church is, across all departments, going through The Story, a chronological, abridged edition of the Bible that takes you through the story of Scripture from Genesis to the end of Acts in 31, novel-like chapters. It’s a fun project that’s challenging me to deal with narrative sections, teach large chunks at a clip, and point my kids to Christ throughout the whole redemptive-historical story-line of the text.

That said, it seemed worth it to start posting my notes for these talks on a regular basis. It might happen every week, or not, depending on how helpful I think it is, or time constraints. My one request is that you remember these are pretty rough notes and I’m teaching my students, not a broader audience.

Last week we talked about Genesis 1 and the picture it gives us of the God who stands at the beginning, middle, and end of the story. If last week was the first act (Creation), we’re going to dive in and look at that act again from another angle, as well as the second act, the Fall and where we fit into things.

the-garden-of-edenGenesis 2-3

I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but vacation is good for about a week, maybe two. After that we start to go stir-crazy. Something in us desires to do something with actual meaning and purpose. We need to take something up, a cause, a piece of wood to carve, or an idea to flesh out with pen and paper, but we need to do something. We’re task-oriented beings at core. That’s part of what this text is about. It’s about our purpose, our place here in the cosmos.

But first, to understand the human task, you have to understand the human set-up.

God Sets Us Up in The Garden – Remember last week we said that God created the world and everything in it as his Temple, the place where he would dwell with his people? Well, these first sections describe the Garden of Eden as a Temple. It’s got everything that is needed for the Temple, including gold, onyx, the right kind of wood, water, garden stuff. Actually if you follow the language used of the Temple and the Tabernacle in the Law, if you read it, it all mirrors the language we find here in the Garden. The Temple was supposed to mirror the Garden in that it was the place that God dwelt and the Garden was a sort of proto-temple.

Now, beyond that, it’s a sweet set-up. God gives us EVERYTHING. There is food, there is beauty, there is companionship between the man and the woman. It truly is the definition of paradise (minus the resort hotel.) But…that doesn’t mean God put them there to sit around.

For a Task – We see that God makes man and woman, male and female in his Image in Genesis 1. That means that there is something about humans that distinguishes us from the animals and puts us in a place of authority whereby we are to run the world the way God would as his representatives. Well, the same thing is true here in Genesis 2.  That’s what the naming the animals thing was about. It’s Adam assuming his authority, to rule the creation. In other words, he’s starting his job.

What that means is that central to our identity is work. This is weird for a lot of us.

N.D. Wilson points out that a lot of us think that if we were just born into the garden, life would be easy. We think that work is there only because of the fall and sin. That’s not true. This is Genesis 2. Sin hasn’t happened yet. Life as God intended it is good, but part of the good life, is good work. We are inherently task-oriented beings, called to be God’s priest-kings. It makes sense, though, right? God works, so we work. We are made for relationship, yes,  but we’re also made for a job. Two jobs, in fact.

Priest-Kings – First, we are to spread the Kingdom of God or God’s Garden-Temple and second, we are to keep it free from the serpent. Adam is placed in the garden to “cultivate (abad)” and “keep (samar)” it (Gen 2:15). The same two words are translated elsewhere “serve” and “guard”, and when they appear together, they are either referring to Israelites serving or obeying God’s word, or more usually, to the job of the priest in guarding and keeping the Temple. (Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 1 Chron. 23:32) .  In those days, the task was to keep God’s garden ordered, and some theologians (e.g. G.K. Beale) argue, to expand it into the deserted areas, sort of advancing the Kingdom of God as we went. God forms and fills the earth, so we do as well.

Next, we were also born to a fight. We forget that before we fell, we had an enemy. Before we sinned, we had an opponent, the Serpent, or the one the serpent represents, Satan.  See, just as the priests were supposed to keep the Temple precincts clean from pollution Adam’s job was to keep the garden free and clean from the corrupting elements of the Serpent, the Dragon.

This is why our hearts resonate when we see these stories about a task, an adventure, a goal, a fight, a great job to build, or grow, or make beautiful all things. It’s what we were created for. We were made to expand the Garden, to create culture, to fight evil and spread beauty throughout God’s world, just as God does.

The Structure of the Job (Covenant) – Now, there was a structure to the task. See, if we look at the text, it actually shows us that our relationship with God was structured like an ancient covenant treaty. What’s that? Well, it’s kind of an established relationship between a Sovereign King, and a sub-king. The King would protect and bless the sub-king and the sub-king would be loyal and serve the great king. If you compare the text to the ancient copies of these treaties, there is a marked structural similarity:

Now, these are the typical features and how it matches up with what we see in Genesis 2:

  1. Parties Named (the Lord God and the humans)
  2. History of relations (Here’s God giving you everything)
  3. Stipulations (Keep the Garden, Don’t eat from the Tree)
  4. Blesses and Curses for obedience (Tree of Life and eventual immortality, Curse of death)

So, Adam and Eve are the sub-kings promised blessing for obedience and cursing for disobedience. The idea is “you will have eternal Sabbath and life if you keep the garden, obey God’s commands and enjoy all that you’ve been given. But, If you disobey and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you’re breaking covenant and bringing death on yourself.” Sounds pretty simple right? Good deal? Yeah, it was. Until this happened.

Re-read Chapter 3:1-11

The Lie and the Fall -  We don’t have time to go into all of this, but what was the Serpent’s basic lie? “God is holding out on you. If you’re going to have the life you deserve, the one you need, you’ll have to take it for yourself apart from God’s command.” This is absurd on multiple levels. In light of what we just read, the idea that God is holding out is ridiculous, right? He gave us everything plus the promise of eternal life, right? But we fell for it. We still do. We still believe if life is going to be good, we need to take control and take what we need for ourselves.

That’s kind of what the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is about.  Some think that eventually we would eat from it, when we were ready and had proved faithful, at the time that God appointed. But for now, it remained a test: whether we are going to trust God for our knowledge and life, or if we are going to try and rule our own lives as if we were the great king, instead of just the sub-kings who learn from God what is right and wrong. Will we rule as God would, or will we make up our own rules and take what we think he’s holding out on us?

The Fallout – Now, what could have happened was God could have just killed us right there.  I mean, that’s what he said. That would have been justice. But, but…God is gracious. You might not see it, but what God says next is actually grace.

(Read the curse, Gen. 3:14-24)

Everything is cursed because of them, human relationships, our ability to take delight in our work, and nature itself. In a sense, as they were the King and Queen, like the first link a chain, their fall, their disconnection from God took everything down with them. Now, the grace of this is that, well, again, he didn’t just end it. He let life go on when he could have snuffed it out there.

The second grace is that God frustrates all of our possible attempts of living our lives apart from him. If relationships were perfect, we could make them into gods. If work was perfect, we could make it into a god, that we trust for our happiness and joy. God looks at us and says, ‘I will not let you settle for less. You will try to worship created things, but I will frustrate your efforts to rob yourself of your thirst for a knowledge of me.’ That is grace.

The Hope – Now, looking at things, how do things go forward? God gave them a task, but history has stopped. They believed the lie and fell into sin. They were supposed to keep the garden and defeat the snake, but now they’ve been kicked out of the Garden and been defeated by the snake. God didn’t end it, but on their own, it was still hopeless. On their own, they were out on their luck.

So where does the story go from here? How does it move forward, when Adam stopped it up with sin? With God’s word. That’s how it always works. Creation happened at God’s word and so does the rest of the story.

Curse to the Snake, Promise to the Woman – There is a line here in the pronouncement of God to the snake that is a curse to the snake, but promise to the woman. It says that the ‘seed of the woman’ will crush the Serpent’s head. See, now that’s a weird promise because everywhere else in scripture, ‘seed’, which refers to an heir or progeny, is related to a man. So, it would be ‘Adam’s seed’, or ‘Joseph’s seed.’ But here, it is the seed of the woman who would conquer the Serpent.

Now, back then it could have only been a tantalizing mystery, but for us today, this side of Jesus, we realize that the Seed of the woman refers to Mary’s Son, the great descendant Son of Adam and Eve. Jesus is the who comes to rescue us from the plight we were in.

Jesus is the hope of Adam and Eve and the rest of the world. We’ll continue to see this later on, but Jesus is the new Adam who does right all that Adam did wrong. He is the priest who spreads the presence and kingdom of God throughout the world, like Adam was to do in the Garden. He is the king who defeats Satan the Serpent, and rids the world of his pollution.

And how does he do it? He does it by suffering the curse for us. See, it says that the serpent will bruise his heel.  When Jesus went  to the Cross, the Serpent was going for his heel. But he didn’t know that by going to the Cross Jesus was lifting his heel up to crush his head. The irony is that on the Cross, Jesus suffered the judgment that our sin deserved, the curse that God said would come on Adam. By doing so, he  suffers it in our place and then, passes on the blessings that He actually earned by obeying what Adam was supposed to. This is what we call substitution. Jesus gets what we deserve and we gets what he deserves. In this way, he overcomes the Serpent’s lies and tricks that lead us to death, and gives us life.

This is grace. This is salvation. This is our hope.

Wrap-up – I don’t know where you’re at tonight, but I do know this: you were made for a task. God put you here for a purpose, but like our spiritual parents, you and I have believed the lie that God was holding out on us and have brought death into our lives by trying to get happiness for ourselves. The challenge might be different for all of us tonight:

  1. Stop believing the lie that you need to provide life for yourself and believe that God is good and has given you all you need in Jesus.
  2. Get up and realize that you were made for more than you’ve settled for. You were created for a task, for a fight, for a life that reflects God’s will for the world.
  3. Trust that Jesus has defeated our enemies, taken the curse, and that you’re not disqualified from that calling.

Or again, maybe the challenge is just to worship the great Priest-King, and praise him for his glorious victory over the Serpent, the Dragon. He has conquered through the curse and crushed our enemies’ head!

Soli Deo Gloria

Could Constantine Have Been James Madison?

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

Definitely not a 4th Century Emperor.

So after a few months of having it stare at me from my book shelf, I was able to start reading Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine:The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom.  Admittedly I’m only about half-way through the work, but to me this is a tour de force of historiography and theological polemic re-examining the life and times of the first Christian Emperor, as well as the theological critique of “Constantinian” relations between church and state a la John Howard Yoder. Given that I’ve just arrived in Orlando for the Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference I can’t take time for a truly substantial post about it yet. Still, one section in particular stuck me as worth briefly sharing and commenting on.

In reviewing his involvement in the internal affairs of the Church such as the Arian controversy and conflict between the Catholics and the Donatists, Leithart addresses the criticism Constantine receives as an un-baptized Emperor with no particular religious authority mucking about in such matters. For us moderns, it seems so obvious that there ought to be a separation between Church and State. Constantine should have taken a hands-off approach and left it bishops to handle their “spiritual” business while he took care of the affairs of state. Leithart calls this suggestion “implausible” and comments:

As we saw in the last chapter, Constantine did in fact follow a policy of tolerant concord. Beyond that, no one in the fourth century would have thought that a political regime could function without religious sanction, and it is naive to think that Constantine’s conversion  would have instantly turned him into James Madison…The question is, what were Constantine’s historical options in the fourth century? What were the constraints on his action? What, perhaps more important, were the limits of his imagination? Only when we have considered those questions are we capable of doing justice to Constantine’s interventions in church politics.

Defending Constantine, -pg. 132

The point is, when dealing with Constantine’s political legacy, we need to consider our historical distance and the limits of the subject’s own political horizon. Constantine wasn’t ruling his Empire after the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the various historico-political developments that have shaped Western thought on religion and politics. Indeed, the separation between the two would have been an entirely foreign one, and so would the idea of an Emperor who kept a distance from the cultus. While admittedly not the biblical ideal, Leithart gives us good historical reason to think that Constantine’s foray into a constructive relationship between the State and the Church isn’t the sheer, unmitigated disaster that popular polemics would have us believe.

Soli Deo Gloria

Responses to “Calvin Killed Servetus!” by Denomination (Or, Dealing with Theological Moral Hubris)

men_debate_calvinism

HT: The Sacred Sandwich

It’s a well-known fact that the heretic Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva during Calvin’s pastorate there. This is universally condemned by both Calvin fans and foes alike. At least it should be. What’s often debated is Calvin’s role in the whole affair and what impact, if any, it should have on our judgment about the man, his theology, and the subsequent theological tradition that follows him. And indeed, it is problematic. That anybody could think that burning at the stake those with whom we disagree on theological matters is, in any sense, compatible with the Gospel of the crucified Messiah, is a morally-disastrous lapse in judgment to say the least.

So what do we say to this? Especially when the subject is brought up in order to discredit Calvin or the Reformed tradition as a whole?

Two Classic Responses
1. The General Point - The first typical, and valid, response is to make the general point that one wrong action, incident, statement, or even habit, doesn’t necessarily invalidate someone’s entire career. Obviously one can find dubious actions and statements in the biographies of most of history’s heroes. Lincoln’s anti-slavery record is brilliant and yet he made statements that by contemporary standards (as well as transhistorical ones) are quite racist. Martin Luther King Jr. broke his marital vows to Coretta Scott King numerous times. And no, this isn’t just prudery or relativistically equating personal sexual misdeeds with corporate violence. By engaging in the adulterous trysts he did, he risked the public moral integrity of the entire Civil Rights movement he came to represent. At the biblical level, one might point out that not a single figure in the Bible, even its authors, comes out clean except for Jesus. In that sense, Calvin keeps company with the long line of saved wretches like Abraham, Moses, David, and Paul.

2. Moving to Calvin – Second, one can move to the particulars of the case, placing Calvin in his historical context. Clearly he wasn’t the only one at the time to make that lapse. Calvin was unfortunately a “Constantinian” in the sense that he un-biblically mixed the authority of the State with that of the Church, but then again so was everybody else. It’s easy to forget that Servetus was already condemned to death by the Roman Catholics. Similarly, if the Lutherans had gotten their hands on him he would have been a goner.  Further, Calvin explicitly warned Servetus in correspondence not to come to Geneva or things would not go well for him there either. He even risked his own life at one point to go meet him in an area outside of Geneva where he himself was a wanted heretic in order to reconcile theologically. It is not the case that Servetus was the victim of Calvin’s peculiarly authoritarian personality that flowed from his inhuman, predestinarian God. If anything, it was an inherited, though still culpable, flaw in thought and practice. It should be noted that Calvin held no explicit political authority in Geneva and was not even a citizen until much later in life. Also, he is reported to have pleaded with the city elders to, at the very least, execute him in a more humane manner than burning. (Now, to us that doesn’t sound like much, but comparatively-speaking that’s something.) To place it in a broader framework, sadly Servetus was one of many heretics tried and executed in the Reformation era by both Catholics and Protestants of all stripes–they were universally more violent and barbarous times. To put it bluntly, the reason Servetus is brought up today is that he was a little more famous, and because it’s an easy way to criticize and single out Calvin. For more along these lines, see R. Scott Clark’s post on the “Calvin as Tyrant Meme“, and a more complete summary of the Servetus affair here.

Dealing with Theological Hubris by Denomination
Now, while all of these points ought to be considered and weighed, there’s another way to handle the whole charge: the tu quoque (“you too”). Admittedly, it is formally a fallacy, but in response to the ad hominem nature of the “Servetus” denunciation, I think it has a part to play in the discussion. It’s more commonly-observed that most of us suffer from chronological moral hubris, the malady that makes us think we obviously wouldn’t have done what our historical forebears did if we had been there, attributing to ourselves a righteousness in some particular area that is only ours by dint of our social-historical location. What also needs to be recognized is how easily people fall into denominational or theological moral hubris, in thinking one’s own tradition has no truly dark stains in it. This particular hubris is commonly-spotted whenever the Servetus charge is raised.

In order to remedy this situation, I thought it would be helpful to begin to catalog differing “Calvin Killed Servetus”-type rejoinders to some of the major theological and denominational traditions. Some might find this dubious and divisive. I sympathize. I find my writings dubious most of the time as well. In this case, I’d like to think of it as a helpful moral reminder to cool your theological jets when it comes to traditions other than your own. It’s a negative task, with a positive goal: greater humility towards the various wings of God’s family.  That’s a little easier when we remember that everybody’s got something–I just thought it might be helpful to list some of the biggies.

Note: this is not intended to be a comprehensive list, nor is it intended to be denial of the fact that each of these denominations have martyrs, and gentle heroes of the faith. Still, in no particular order, here goes:

  • Anglicanism – Long history of violently persecuting Puritans, Dissenters, Lollards, Society of Friends, Catholics, and everybody not going to the State church. Also, Henry the VIII. ‘Nuff said.
  • Anabaptists - John Leiden and the freaky weird, violent, Munster incident. I’ve long been convinced the Anabaptists saw the beauty of pacifism partly because they got their lunches handed to them at Munster. I know that’s not entirely true, but…
  • Roman Catholics – Do I really have to? Well, just off the top of my head: the Inquisition, various Crusades, vaste swathes of Papal history…
  • Eastern Orthodoxy – Some crossover highlights with the Roman Catholics, (Crusades), 1000s of years of collaboration, collusion, and sanctioning of corrupt governments by various patriarchs and theologians in the church. In our own day, one thinks of the persecution of fellow Christian Evangelicals in Orthodox countries like Russia supported by current patriarchs.
  • Lutherans – Well, Luther wasn’t a daisy himself. Most of us know that, but let’s just mention two: “The Jews and their Lies” and the Peasant revolt.
  • Methodists, Baptists, Society of Friends - All three of these streams and denominations, in their American iterations at least, have, alongside of others, had devastating struggles with slavery and racism. For quite some time it was perfectly acceptable to own slaves within the Society of Friends until the valiant efforts of John Woolman. Both the Baptists and the Methodists had separate African-American counterparts formed because of white racism.
  • Pentecostalism, Charismatics – Now, when you start moving closer in historical distance to the current day, denominations and traditions are less likely to make some of the tragically violent mistakes of their pre-cursors, simply by dint of cultural and political shifts. Given that the rise of Pentecostalism and Charismatic movements in the last 100 or so years, most of the excesses will be of the more common sort: pastoral indiscretion, financial shadiness, abuses of power, and widespread problems with heresy and false teaching. This can happen in all streams, though.
  • Non-Denoms and Young Denoms – Of course, there are many random theologically-indeterminate, non-denominational evangelicals, or maybe emergents, who don’t feel very bound to any tradition and sit loose with respect to Christian history as a whole. They might pride themselves on their virtually stainless record. Let me just say that having a decent theological-history that goes all the way back to the 70s is nothing to brag about. That’s like boasting about your perfect attendance on the second day of school. The reality is, in some way you’re dependent on what comes before so you, regardless of whether or not you acknowledge it.

As I said, this is a far from comprehensive list. It’s open to revision and addition. Sadly the history of Christian sin and failure is broad and wide. Thankfully so is the grace of God. He can use the broken and sinful to do his good work. People like you and me. Even people like John Calvin. Just something to keep in mind next time you’re about to write of a particular thinker or an entire tradition. 

Soli Deo Gloria