Sunday, June 28, 2009

John Calvin and the Executions of Heretics

Benjamin and Abigail fly in to Oklahoma City tomorrow. I can't wait to pick them up and bring them to Amarillo!
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The last post mentions that John Calvin is most-often remembered for advancing the doctrine of double predestination. The one other thing people typically remember about Calvin is that, like most every other leader of his day, he gave his consent to the executions of public heretics, most notably Michael Servetus.

Here's my take on that. I think it reveals not so much a fault in Calvin. Instead, it points to the difference in values between modern America and sixteenth-century Europe.

In recent history, our country has used atomic bombs to annihilate two Japanese cities. Why? Because we feared the specter of a conventional invasion and viewed our actions as the lesser of two evils. People of the Middle Ages had different fears. As historian T. H. L. Parker explains, they were terrified at the thought of souls destroyed by false doctrine, of churches torn apart into factions, and of the vengeance of God brought against them in war, pestilence, and famine. They believed it was the government’s duty to establish and maintain true religion, and that the execution of a heretic was therefore justified. The Reformation was born into that world.

Am I'm going too easy on Calvin?


Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting these events in their context. Our challenge is to prayerfully discern our own context as we seek God's will for our own lives. To unconsciously view John Calvin through our own lens may contribute to our self-righteousness.

Unknown said...

When are we going to stop justifying what Calvin did? The Apostle Paul lived under the same circumstances, and he had Christians killed before his conversion. After he got saved, he had no one killed. John Calvin did not believe in the same Christ that Paul did. I guess next we'll be justifying the muslims for killing infidels. What's the difference?

Frank Bellizzi said...


In writing what I did, my intention was not to necessarily justify Calvin. Rather, I was hoping to interpret him in his times. Each person wants his or her decisions to be understood in the sometimes-difficult circumstances in which they were made.

In a small part of one level, there's not a difference between Calvin and contemporary Islamic terrorists, in that both believe there are certain things that justify taking another's life. Put Augustine in that same group. However, at another level, there are vastly different reasons why and circumstances under which people actually do or consent to such drastic actions. Compare, for example, Augustine's teachings about just war with the rationale of modern Islamic terrorists. There's not much comparison.

Was Calvin right to do what he did? I don't believe so.

Unknown said...

I like that last comment Frank. Although I completely denounce the actions and the ungrace with which Calvin lived his life, he did provide the church with some very insightful and sound doctrine.
But to have his own stepdaughter executed for adultery, and to arrest people caught dancing or people who did not name their children biblical names is an extreme form of legalism that Christ condemns in many times over.

-Dan in Dubai

Anonymous said...

In my opinion you need to hold up these men in not what society justified then or now but in what Jesus Christ did. He was a servant and served, i cannot see any person that professes to be a christian in taking part in a killing. The main point of peoples life should be to glorify God. As far as Calvin's interpretation of the scripture i would be careful to say it was sound. It was a man's interpretation. There are alot of difficulties in his doctrine, but since most are unwillingly to study God's word from different perspectives then they can be led down any path put in front of them.


Frank Bellizzi said...

Rob, you're right. Jesus Christ is the standard for Christians. John Calvin was one of many millions of people who have followed Jesus imperfectly.

harry said...

Calvin was not following Jesus, the meek and lowly one who allowed himself to be persecuted for righteouness sake. No Calvin was going 180 degrees in the opposite direction. He was actually persecuting those who did no agree with his teachings. The absolute sovereignty of Calvin. follow Jesus to heaven; do not follow Calvin to hell.

Anonymous said...

Calvin was an unrepentant, egomaniacal, sadistic serial killer of at least 58 people by drowning, beheading, and burning at the stake for the "crime" of disagreeing with his interpretation of the Bible. Toward the end of his life, he said that the church owed him a debt for ridding the world of monsters. What about ANY of this sounds "Christlike"?

Frank Bellizzi said...


I appreciate the relative value of pointing out the failings and flaws of important characters from the past. But what about making exaggerated claims, like referring to Calvin as a "sadistic serial killer"? There's little distinction we can draw between Calvin and, say, Ted Bundy? Really?

Add to that the fact that you're making such claims anonymously. By contrast, take the example of Calvin himself. He issued his public statements with his name attached.

Calvin personally whacked 58 people? (Remember, that's what serial killers do). Okay, name them and establish that they died at Calvin's hands. My suspicion is that you'll have your work cut out for you on that count.

If you discover that what you've asserted here isn't exactly true, then you must ask: How do unfounded, skewed claims advance the study of history? How do they promote the purposes of Christ?

As I see them, the previous two comments do not reflect an awareness of history. They simply rail against a projected phantom.

For what it's worth, maybe I should add that I have no interest in either advancing or condemning John Calvin. I don't see myself as a Calvinist in much of any sense. My goals here are simply to get a handle on who this person was, and how his legacy continues to ramify in the present. As the comments here suggest, we're far from being done with Calvin. I think we should attempt to figure out why.

Anonymous said...

Research the life of John Calvin yourself. He was known as "the Protestant Pope of Geneva" because he created a theocracy tying his view of the Bible with the authority for capital punishment. He declared everything he said and wrote to be "orthodoxy" so that anyone who disagreed with him was by definition a "heretic". Ted Bundy didn't have the power of the law in his pocket, but even Saul before his conversion to Paul was not as monstrous as Calvin AFTER Calvin supposedly became a Christian.

Frank Bellizzi said...


What we have here is a failure to communicate.

Let's be clear. I'm not the one saying that 58 people lost their lives because of the so-called serial killer John Calvin. That was your claim. Remember? So why should the responsibility of digging up the victims become mine? You're the one making the assertion, not me. So back it up. Don't attempt to transfer your responsibilities to someone else.

Of course we know that Calvin gave his assent to the deaths of heretics. I've said as much myself. But to say that the number was 58 and that Calvin was closely involved in their deaths (like serial killers are closely involved with the deaths of their victims) is another thing.

I'm not saying that you couldn't paint a historical portrait of John Calvin that looked pretty bad. But whether or not you could is beside the point.

Here's the way doing history works: If you make a claim or state a thesis, then you have to provide evidence and connect the dots so that a coherent portrait emerges and your thesis is believable. Mere assertion doesn't cut it.

Imagine a history teacher who says, "Columbus personally strangled a dozen of the crew members on the Santa Maria."

A student says, "That's interesting. Can you prove that?" How much credibility will the teacher have if he says, "No, YOU prove it."??

That teacher will have about as much credence as your assertions have here. None.

Okay, that's it. No more "Anonymous" comments here at Frankly Speaking. I'm officially "killing off" all the people who have no names. Start your own blog! And for your own sake, take ownership of the words you want to speak in public. It builds character. And more people will actually listen to you.

StillThinking said...

Too easy on Calvin, yes. There are some people who are outraged that Joe Paterno was fired, but Penn State has chosen to define itself by what is right, not what is legal.

Frank Bellizzi said...

On the other hand, you might say that Penn State has NOW chosen to define itself by what is right (as though there was another option available to them at this juncture). They were merely thinking ahead. ;-) After all, what if the school chose to retain Paterno and he was convicted of complicity or perjury? When a group takes its only workable course, it's a stretch to call that "choosing."

Anonymous said...

So it is the "everyone was doing it in those days argument" (Even though the New Testament never authorized such executions). Couldn't the same argument be used to justify the actions of Governors,Orval Faubus and George Wallace? What about the pro slavery and pro segregationists? Wouldn't this argument justify the Spanish Inquisition?
I think what we should say instead is that Calvin, like all of us was human and was (in this case) influenced by the wisdom of the world instead of the word's of Christ.
I believe that this episode in history should be used as a warning that we need to be continually vigilant concerning the power of the present culture to creep into our exegeses. And, worse yet, into our daily actions.

Frank Bellizzi said...


You have completely missed the point of the original post. You seem much more interested in bring in other events from history than you are in actually reading and accurately portraying my comments.

There is a vast difference between historical analysis and absolution. I have nowhere absolved or, to use your word, justified all the attitudes and actions of John Calvin. What I have sought to do is to explain how he might have believed that the executions of heretics were justified. Can you really not see the difference? If not, then go after historians who attempt to explain how the Holocaust could have happened. They're much bigger game. But then, they might not like you putting words in their mouths.

Frank Bellizzi said...

For those who would like to register their thoughts as "Anonymous": Sorry, but I am no longer publishing such comments here at Frankly Speaking. Before I implemented this policy, there was too much nameless nitpicking, too many who wanted to tear down and bash without taking personal responsibility for their ideas and words. This, I decided, was one aspect of cyber-space that had a negative effect on virtue. That is the reason for the change.

Florin G said...

The acts of this man are indefensible against the words of our Lord Jesus. I have just spent a weekend awakened to the fact the old historical heroes are no heroes at all. I am appalled at what I learned of Calvin, Luther, Zwingli and other reformers. We shall all be judged by the same Word regardless of historical context. Yes, Frank you've gone too easy on this man. The more I think of Calvin, the more I am horrified. I am also concerned that those that defend him really understand the message of the Gospel and are Christians at all.

Unknown said...

Great truth!