The dark side of the Reformation: John Calvin and the burning of heretics

On this day in 1553, the condemned heretic Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva, largely thanks to the efforts of theologian and Protestant reformer John Calvin.

Though he remains popular and influential today, Calvin’s involvement in this execution remains a dark mark on his past, and an unforgettable reminder of how theology can turn sinister.

Calvin and his landmark Institutes of the Christian Religion have left an undeniable impression on the modern world. Reformed theology is indebted to his legacy and has inspired popular ‘neo-Calvinist’ evangelical pastors like John Piper, Tim Keller and groups like The Gospel Coalition. Calvin’s thinking emphasised themes such as human depravity and a total reliance on God’s sovereign grace, not earned or chosen by human beings but predestined for (some of) them by divine election.

Calvin was a towering intellectual and devoted student of Scripture – but at least one moment has blighted his legacy.

It’s chronicled well by historian Nick Page in his recently published A Nearly Infallible History of the Reformation (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99). The Spanish physician Michael Servetus was not a popular man – in fact he was a widely despised heretic – a rare point of agreement for Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century. He was a Unitarian, which means he didn’t subscribe to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, a historic tenet of Christian orthodoxy. He saw no such doctrine in Scripture and felt that rejecting it would provide significant unity between Christians, Jews and Muslims.

Calvin and Servetus corresponded for a time before the former gave up in frustration. He warned that if Servetus came to visit him in Geneva, ‘I would not let him leave alive’.

He wasn’t exaggerating. Calvin informed the Catholic Inquisition of Servetus location – they decreed that he be burned, though the lucky heretic escaped his capture. He was caught out when he came to Geneva however, where he was spotted and the local council had him arrested and sentenced to death. To give some credit to Calvin, he encouraged Severtus to repent, with no success. He also unsuccessfully lobbied for some (relative) leniency for the prisoner, suggesting beheading instead of being burned alive.

But various correspondence shows that even though Calvin didn’t sentence Severtus, he still believed it was right for him to die for his heresy. As for those who criticised his enthusiasm for Servetus’ death, Calvin revelled in their opposition – and said they were just as guilty as the heretics.

One contemporary of Calvin’s, Sebastian Castellio, said that his hands were ‘dripping with the blood of Servetus’. Even though Servetus would have probably faced death without Calvin’s help, it’s not an unfair assessment.

The glee of Calvin (and those around him, like Scottish reformer John Knox) at the death of a heretic remains deeply troubling, even with historical accommodation granted. It displays a remarkable lack of mercy and is a far cry from humble ‘good disagreement’. Even though the threat of death for heresy is rarer today, it’s not hard to see a similarly confident, antagonistic conservatism in the Church that’s still alive and well. In a choice between being loving and supposedly ‘correct’, many Christians favour the latter.

Even Calvin devotees accept this was not his finest hour. The death of Servetus stands as a dire warning to warring theologians.

In the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, its important to celebrate all the good that came of the era. It’s also crucial to mark that like anything in human history – but tragically tinged here with conservative Christian ‘enthusiasm’ – it has a dark side too.

source

Advertisements


Categories: Christianity, History

29 replies

  1. Thankfully, christians are not commanded to blindly follow the examples set by flawed human beings in all things, nor to obey tyrannical caliphs or leaders.

    Because christians are not bound by absurd divine commands to imitate sinful humans we are able to separate the good things that such men of the past gave to us whilst wholeheartedly and genuinely condemning the bad.

    Like

    • Calvin was simply obeying biblical law (ie God’s commandments) in this matter. Have you read the Bible? Do I need to cite the verses?

      Like

    • There are no commands for christians to kill heretics. I suspect you know this.

      Like

    • Having said that, if you want to go over the same tired old verses that you think are problems for christians, then be my guest.

      Like

    • There are commandments from God in the Jewish Bible to put to death heretics and apostates. Christians until the modern liberal era mostly obeyed them without controversy (Bible Christians, Evangelicals and Catholics).

      I suspect you are a modernist Christian who has rewritten the religion. Christianity is plastic like that. Always changing. This proves that it is to a considerable extent a man-made religion that follows the spirit of the age. Who knows what changes will be made to Christianity in future eras? One can only guess.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Paul

      So, where, again, are christians commanded to kill heretics? Which NT verses command this?

      “There are commandments from God in the Jewish Bible to put to death heretics and apostates. Christians until the modern liberal era mostly obeyed the wm without controversy. “

      This is why christians are not commanded to follow the example set by flawed, sinful humans in all things. Granted, many men have taken it upon themselves to kill heretics, but I’m yet to find a verse in the NT that justifies it. But, christians are not obliged to follow the examples set by flawed human beings.

      As for jewish law, it applies to a specific period of time, to a specific people, in a specific location. Support for this is found in the stories of the patriarchs – there was no law commanding killing of apostates for Abraham, jacob, etc, confirming that mosaic law applied only to israelites living in the land of israel between the time of joshua and the end of the second temple.

      The quran and the men who wrote it were ignorant of these nuances.

      Like

    • spoken like a true modernist!

      Christians used to take OT laws very seriously. The 10 commandments were seen as still binding as was the Holiness Code in Leviticus 18 which mandated the death penalty for adultery and homosexual acts. There is nothing in the NT that abrogates these punishments for serious crimes/sins.

      They were considered by virtually all Christians to have continuing force.

      Regarding the punishments for apostates and heretics, highly esteemed Christian theologians such as St Thomas Aquinas discussed the reasons why Biblical laws were still in force for Christians. Have you read the the Summa Theologiae?

      Liked by 2 people

    • “They were considered by virtually all Christians to have continuing force.”

      That can’t be demonstrated, so it must be dismissed.

      Either way, humans are sinful and flawed, that’s why christians don’t blindly follow the examples of any human for all time.

      Speaking of “for all time”, which verses in the OT command that the law be obeyed for all time? And if this is the case, why were the patriarchs not bound by it?

      The quran is strangely silent on all this. Wonder why?

      Like

    • > Either way, humans are sinful and flawed, that’s why christians don’t blindly follow the examples of any human for all time.

      Wow, are you holding that Jesus was sinful and flawed?

      Like

    • “Speaking of “for all time”, which verses in the OT command that the law be obeyed for all time? And if this is the case, why were the patriarchs not bound by it?”

      where did yhwh say in deut 30 that his laws WERE NOT MEANT TO BE FOLLOWED for ALL time?

      “Either way, humans are sinful and flawed, that’s why christians don’t blindly follow the examples of any human for all time.”

      where did yhwh say NOT to follow moses FOR ALL time , even your pagan blood god was SLAVE of moses .

      yhwh chose sinful people to be followed ,and jesus told sinful people to OBEY the laws sent to moses.

      yhwh gave laws to sinful people , to do what? to obey . yhwh called them ETERNAL and never ending .

      you are cursed and damned by yhwh for living under rule which breaks the law which yhwh set it stone.

      Like

    • heathcliff

      Argument from silence…………

      Like

    • “christians are not commanded to blindly follow the examples set by flawed human beings in all things”
      Christians have been following the human law & the examples set by human beings since they adopted Paul’s religion known as “The God’s law is garbage.”
      If you don’t follow Calvin now, you are following another human being. You may have the answer now why Jesus will say these words “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of LAWLESSNESS.”

      Like

    • abdul

      Not seeing your point. You sound upset.

      Like

    • How about Matthew 27v25 Mr Joel?

      “Let his blood be upon us and our children”

      Christian priest Rev Todd Barker admitted in an article that

      “The anti-Jewish interpretation
      of Matthew 27:25 provided a
      convenient excuse for
      outright persecution and
      slaughter of the Chosen
      People and the unwarranted
      replacement of Israel in God’s
      plan with the Church by
      Replacement Theology”.

      The bible was once used as a terror manual brother. Wish Christians will cease their disgusting ‘holier than thou’ attitude. History is not really their friend.

      By the way, Elizabeth Leah Gibson wrote an interesting book on this subject a few years ago. It is aptly named “VIOLENCE IN THE NEW TESTAMENT”. I happily recommend it for any seeking a link between the old testament wars/genocides and some verses in the new testament.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Coco got schooled on this long ago. Remember Ezekiel Coco? According to him, the Biblical laws are for all time. So is the temple sacrifice. This flatly contradicts your modernist approach.

      Like

    • choc

      “How about Matthew 27v25 Mr Joel?”

      What about it?

      This is why christians are commanded not to blindly follow the example of flawed, sinful human beings. The text does not call for the persecution of the jews.

      Like

    • qb

      “Coco got schooled on this long ago. Remember Ezekiel Coco? According to him, the Biblical laws are for all time. So is the temple sacrifice. This flatly contradicts your modernist approach”

      LOL!!

      Still going for the sloppy seconds of other commenters, menstruation boy?

      You’ll have to demonstrate where ezekiel does this, idiot.

      Like

    • “This is why christians are commanded not to blindly follow the example of flawed, sinful human beings. The text does not call for the persecution of the jews.”

      quote :

      6 “So keep and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’
      7 “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him?
      8 “Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?

      my question

      which great nation today has statutes and judgments as righteous as yhwh’s ?

      yhwh is saying that anything jesus said IS NOTHING compared to what yhwh has given , this is why jesus said :

      19 “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven;

      so since yhwh and jesus see yhwhs LAWS and rituals GREATER than ANY other laws , then you are BOUND by these laws .

      yhwh says :

      2 “You shall not add to the word which I am commanding you, nor take away from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.

      ACCORDING to yhwh NO OTHER NATION has laws as good as yhwh’s laws

      you are CURSED AND CONDEMNED when you PUT THE LAWS of secularism ABOVE yhwhs laws.

      Like

    • LOL, read Ezekiel 40 till the end. It lays out detailed instructions about the temple sacrifices, the various festivals etc. In other words, the law remains in place. This completely contradicts your NT. Now dance monkey!

      Like

    • Allow me to illustrate how he’ll dance.

      “So so so so so duuuuuuuuuuuuuuuumbbb. You’re not making seeeeennnnseeee. “

      Liked by 1 person

    • qb

      “LOL, read Ezekiel 40 till the end. It lays out detailed instructions about the temple sacrifices, the various festivals etc. In other words, the law remains in place. This completely contradicts your NT. Now dance monkey!”

      You moron. Ezekiel does nothing of the sort you imbecile – you just can’t read or you are stupid.

      There’s nothing in Ezekiel 40 that contradicts the NT.

      Go on run away again, you’re black and blue from all the beatings you’re getting. LOL!!

      Like

    • Rational Discorse [sic] of the Methods set forth here and there

      “Wow, are you holding that Jesus was sinful and flawed?”

      No.

      Like

    • LOL, what a moron! Keep reading, you illiterate buffoon! Ezekiel 40 till the end of the book. Like I said, it gives detailed instructions about the temple sacrifices, festivals etc. It even says that foreigners (Gentiles) are not allowed in the temple.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hey where d’ya go Coco? Licking your wounds after yet ANOTHER beating, imbecile?

      LOL!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul.

    The reformers were instrumental in distinguishing the moral law from the civil and ceremonial laws of Moses. The former being binding, the latter not. Punishment for apostasy being in the latter category.

    I would be interested to know, therefore, how Calvin can be guilty of both being a “modernist” to use your term, while equally being guilty of supposedly adhering to the mosaic law? Care to explain?

    Like

    • when your god revealed a PUNISHMENT law about worshiping other gods , that law was was about right and wrong . that law was literally a law which yhwh understands as :

      7 “For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as is the LORD our God whenever we call on Him?
      8 “Or what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as righteous as this whole law which I am setting before you today?

      is there a law in TODAY’S day and age which is RIGHTEOUS THAN THE law which says KILL those who WORSHIP others gods besides yhwh?

      yhwhs law which says to kill those who tempt others to worship other than yhwh is about WRONG AND RIGHT

      in yhwhs eye, his “righteous ” law SEES IT AS RIGHT TO KILL THOSE who tempt one to worship another god.

      yhwh your god , said that it is AN ETERNAL never ending law. TO break this moral law will SEND curses upon you , according to yhwh THERE IS NO OTHER LAW greater than this

      Like

Trackbacks

  1. Gewortelden in Christus en factoren voor het succes van de reformatie | From guestwriters
  2. Do Christadelphians belong to Protestants – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven
  3. Do Christadelphians belong to Protestantism – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

Please leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: