Recently I’ve been reading some articles about John Calvin (Nine Things You Should Know About Calvin and John Calvin’s Geneva Theocracy: A Study in Religious Tyranny).
I have a fondness for Calvin, because his Institutes of Christian Religion were a balm to my soul (a least the parts I read in the abridged version). But now, after learning about Martin Luther’s well documented hatred for Jews, I discover that Calvin was involved in some equally, if not more egregious behavior towards those who did not doctrinally divide the Word of God into like manner.
When I say egregious behavior I’m talking things like supporting torture and burning at the stake kind of egregious. Those examples are the most sensational…but there are many other issues for which Calvin should be scrutinized, some of which are identified in the article “Calvin’s Geneva Theocracy” mentioned above.
According to John Piper, Calvin had a “dramatic conversion” in his early 20’s. In the video below Piper speaks of Calvin’s motto “after darkness comes light” and the prolific writer, preacher of the gospel of “grace” that he was and because of the impact his prolific work had on the world. Yet, the reality is, that for many people, Calvin denied the perseverance of grace by sanctioning their deaths as heretics and sinners. After all, killing someone removes their opportunity to repent (there is no repentance in the grave). Repentance, if it be granted to a person, is bestowed upon an individual in and through the Providential and irresistible work of the Holy Spirit of Grace. It is He Who imparts the strength, faith and conviction to do so in His good timing.
It’s befuddling to say the least, to grasp how the very man who brought us the doctrine of “irresistible grace” could sanction the cruel torture and killing of so many people.
Take a listen to John Piper’s 6 minute video, filmed in Geneva where Calvin “ministered” and “light broke out of darkness and gave hope to a suffering people.” Interestingly, moments before Piper speaks the above, he mentions, without explanation, a letter Calvin received from a parent whose son was “burned alive” for something Calvin taught him (at least that’s what I understood Piper to say.)
At Piper’s Desiring God Conference on the Life of Calvin a panel discussion was held on some of the controversy surrounding Calvin’s life that is rarely brought to light, i.e. the burning at the stake of Michael Servetus a famous physician who denied the trinity. Unfortunately the panel did not address the many other questionable things that Calvin was involved in some of which are outlined in the articles cited above.
Here is the video of the panel discussion …
This new information (to me) about the life of John Calvin has caused me to contemplate a few things:
- 1. Is it possible for one to be strongly led by the Holy Spirit to preaching, teaching and writing and understanding the great doctrines of the word of God and not be strongly led in the areas of church disciple, legislating morality and civil punishments etc.
- 2. How is it that depending on who is writing/speaking about historical events there can be such a radically different rendition and digestion of the facts? Can we really know the truth about historical things? Are we really that blind to our own biases that we are unable to be more objective about historical facts?
- 3. If we can justify burning “heretics” at the stake 500 years ago because it was the culture of the day, should we not be able to justify this same punishment from a moral perspective today. After all, if we think YHWH is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, the question we should ask is: do we think “God smiles down on the torture of sinners and the cruel annihilation of heretics?” But if God did not smile down on these acts then, how can we in any way justify it based on the culture of the day or excuse the questionable issues surrounding Calvin’s life?
- 4. As an example, if we determine that Calvin’s support and sanctioning of torture against accused adulterers and other sinners was not “of the Spirit” or “not Biblical” why would we have such great confidence in his theology? Can we be lead of the Spirit and Word in one area of life and be devoid of it in another?
- 5. Is it really possible to have a regenerated heart (a new spirit that causes one to follow the Torah of God Ez 36:27) and believe that torture and burning at the stake are a God sanctioned means of dealing with sin? If so, was it the Spirit of Christ Who moved Calvin and the inquisitors to use such means of punishment?
In closing it’s interesting to contemplate that the non-trinitarian physician Michael Servetus was willing to die for his beliefs. He knew he was considered a heretic and he well knew what the punishment was for heretics in Geneva at the time.
His words to the “inquisitors” who sentenced him to death were, “I will burn, but this is mere incident. We will continue this discussion in eternity.” I expect so…