Is It Fitting for We Who Are Calvinists to Adopt the Theology of a Man, and One Who Murdered Servetus?

from May 08, 2009 Category: Articles

As my friend Doug Phillips has pointed out, this year has brought, in the providence of God, a strange confluence of anniversaries. The two men who have had the greatest impact on these United States may well be, on the one hand, Charles Darwin, and on the other John Calvin. Darwin was born two hundred years ago this year, Calvin five hundred years ago. Our perspective on each of these men will serve as a potent bell-weather for our perspectives on a whole host of issues. In the culture wars most of our enemies will celebrate the birth of Darwin and mourn the birth of Calvin. Our side, on the other hand, will have many Calvin fans, and precious few friends of Darwin. Many of us who give thanks to God for the ministry of John Calvin will be gathering together to celebrate his influence and the influence of the Reformation at Vision Forum’s Reformation 500 event this summer in Boston. I will have the opportunity to speak to Calvin’s influence in giving the western world, and especially these United States a truly free economy. You can read up on that event here.

That said, in answer to the question, of course it would be wrong to adopt a theology of a man. Those who accuse Calvinists of doing so, however, expose their own historical ignorance. Calvinists are not followers of Calvin. Neither are they followers of a theology created by Calvin. Instead we are they who embrace a system of thought that has a long and honored history in the church. If our theology derived from any lone man, and it didn’t, that man would be Saint Augustine , whom Calvin quoted more than any other scholar. Our tradition includes the Puritans, and the Pilgrims, the Dutch Reformed church, the Scottish Kirk that blossomed under John Knox. It includes the German Reformed church and the French Huguenots. Calvinism existed before Calvin and it thrives now five hundred years after his birth. Ours is the theology of the Reformation.

Which still is reason enough in some people’s minds to reject it. Some point out the all too painful reality that in some instances the power of the sword was used during the time of the Reformation to “settle” theological disputes. Servetus was indeed put to death in Geneva , the town where Calvin served, and put to death not for what we would today consider crimes, but for propagating heresy. More broadly still the Reformed during the time of the Reformation believed it fitting to wage literal war against theological opponents on both ends of the spectrum. They warred with Rome , and together with Rome warred against the Anabaptists. My spiritual fathers took up carnal weapons in their quest to make known the reign of Christ over all things. I believe they were wrong to do so, horribly, horribly wrong.

The willingness to use the power of the state in this kind of context was, in my judgment, both grievous error, and terribly common error. It was, in fact, evidence of an insufficient Reformation. Our spiritual fathers sadly here followed in the footsteps of their immediate fathers, Rome herself. The Anabaptists, though they erred and continue to err in denying the fittingness of Christians to wage just war, rightly understood that war was not the right means to persuade those either outside the kingdom, or even occupying a different corner of the kingdom. In a similar manner, Calvin erred, in my judgment, in not urging the city fathers of Geneva against the execution of Servetus. (Remember, however, that however muddied their conception of appropriate spheres of authority, it was the civil government, over which Calvin had no authority, that condemned Servetus.) Calvin murdered no one. He did have a deficient understanding of the appropriate limits of state power.

We would be wise to remember that all our heroes save one had feet of clay. As we this year celebrate the 500th birthday of Calvin, let us not fall into a hagiography that he himself would not approve, turning heroes into sinless saints. Let us not, on the other hand, however, succumb to revisionist history that would turn heroes into monsters. Let us give thanks for that Biblical theology that we sometimes call Calvinism, and give thanks for Calvin.