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 I believe 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. He escaped a death sentence in Vienne to run to Geneva. Similarly, if the Lutherans had gotten their hands on him he would have been executed. When the Magistrates of Geneva asked the magistrates and theologians in places like Zurich, Basel, and Wittenberg, they all agreed that Servetus should have been burned.
Further, Calvin had earlier 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. He did play theological witness in the trial, while at the same time arguing with him in private in prison, urging him to recant. Beyond that, he is reported to have pleaded with the city elders to, at the very least, execute him in a more humane manner than burning, but rather by hanging. (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, something of a symbol, 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… (For contemporary Anabaptists brought in via John Howard Yoder, you might want to think about his shady legacy.)
- 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
Addendum: Benjamin Corey wrote a version of this Calvin argument recently. Honestly, there’s not much new here. The one extra point I did want to address is his comments about “Calvinists” who’ve never read Calvin, nor grappled with the roots of their theology. The implication is that:
- To be a proper Calvinist is to follow the teachings of one man, John Calvin.
- If you would just look at the source, you’d see it’s a spoiled well.
Let’s take those in reverse order. First, this is essentially a version of the genetic fallacy. The fact that my fourth grade teacher was a drunk and a torturer of puppies would do nothing to invalidate him as a source of history, mathematics, English, or anything I may have learned in his class. Also, see the whole article above.
Second, the term “Calvinist” originated as a pejorative insinuating that the Reformed Churches took their teachings only from one man, John Calvin, that they were novel, and so forth. In fact, “Calvinism”, so-called (thought of only as predestination), had its origins (excluding the NT), at least as far back as Augustine, and much of the Medieval tradition, which affirmed a very robust account of predestination (Anselm, Aquinas, Ockham, not to mention Luther, etc). Also, Calvin had a ton of contemporaries (Bucer, Zwingli, Viret, Vermigli, Musculus, etc) who taught in various churches and cities in and beyond Geneva, who crafted confessional statements and wrote theology consistent with Calvin’s, independent of Calvin, and even, at times, influencing Calvin. It is, then, a gross theological caricature of “Calvinists” or the Reformed based in historical ignorance to say that we are limited to, or even find our roots in this one teacher. It’s simply not true.
For more on this sort of thing, I’d point you to Kenneth Stewart’s 10 Myths About Calvinism.