John Calvin is often black-eyed because of his aggressive, sometimes virulent personality. Even the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church claims that “Calvin was the ‘cruel’ and ‘the unopposed dictator of Geneva.’” Bruce Gordon, a Calvin biographer, states that Calvin knew how to manipulate relationships, intimidate, bully, and humiliate. In other words, he was a normal human being like you and me. Calvin seemed to be aware that his character hindered his ministry as in many of his writings he confessed and lamented his sinfulness.

For many of Calvin’s critics the infamous “Servetus affair” defines his posthumous reputation. Michael Servetus was a theologian who taught doctrines contrary to the historic Christian faith in Geneva, the city where Calvin ministered. He was arrested in August 1553 for denying the Trinity and that Christ was the eternal Son of God. He was executed two months later when he was burned at the stake. To Calvin, Servetus was outside the circle of orthodoxy, for Servetus publicly denied the essentials of the faith and encouraged people to embrace his doctrines. Calvin was zealous for God’s reputation and did play a role in Servetus’s execution. Therefore, many think that John Calvin was racing around Switzerland and all of Europe hunting down heretics. Even more, many Christians categorically dismiss the doctrines Calvin taught because of this perception.

Before assuming Calvin was a heretic-burning maniac and dismissing his teachings, consider these points:

  1. People were often executed in Calvin’s day to maintain public order, and heresy was a capital offense. Because of the inherent connection between church and state, anyone who disturbed the peace could be branded as a revolutionary who may do harm to the common good.
  2. Calvin did not oppose Servetus because he was an Arminian. In fact, Servetus was not an Arminian, but a Pelagian (he denied original sin), a Modalist (he denied the Trinity), and a Pantheist (he rejected the fundamental distinction between Creator and creation). Calvin did not oppose people who disagreed with his theological system. For example, he agreeably disagreed with the likes of John Knox over the English prayer book controversy. In reality, Calvin only opposed people who opposed the gospel.
  3. Servetus was the only person put to death for religious opinions during Calvin’s time in Geneva, even though executions for heresy were common elsewhere. Alister McGrath, a historian and Calvin biographer, states that Calvin acted more as a technical advisor or expert witness, rather than prosecutor. Additionally, the great historian Roland Bainton notes that Geneva’s prosecutor was a noted enemy of Calvin and acted independently of Calvin in Servetus’s trial.
  4. Though this may count for little in some eyes, Calvin asked that Servetus receive a more humane execution of beheading rather than being burned at the stake. Calvin’s request was denied.

In Calvin’s zeal to protect his flock, he often lacked mercy and grace, as was most certainly the case with Servetus. We must not, however, envision that if Calvin were alive today he would be seeking out heretics to roast. At the same time, we know that Calvin was not an innocent bystander in this situation; yet his legacy is not in jeopardy because of Servetus’s death.Let us remember that Calvin failed us, and not just in the Servetus affair. Like the great men and women of the faith who went before him and came after, Calvin’s virtue lies in pointing us beyond himself to the only One who never failed us and never lacked mercy and grace. Like you and me, Calvin was a great sinner in need of a great Savior.


11 thoughts on “Was John Calvin a Heretic-Burning Maniac?

  1. When I examined the question, I also found some other unmentioned facts. Servetus, as it turned out, originally Calvin told him to leave Geneva. He was warned that if he returned he would be put to death. He left, but he was under a death sentence by the Roman Catholic church for his heresy. So he returned to Geneva. He was allowed to remain in Geneva as long as he didn’t proclaim his heresies. He refused to keep silent. While it is no excuse for the execution, Servetus went a long way and worked hard at earning it.

  2. Thank you for your reply. I am studying the beliefs of both John Calvin and Martin Luther. I didn’t know the church i attended, which has recently changed its constitution speaks highly of Martin Luther. With the title First Baptist Church as cover I’ve discovered it really is a Protestant Church under a cloak of deception.

  3. I agree with florin.

    To say that Calvin was the least bit justified by being a child of his times denies the fact that he acted in contradiction to what he himself put in his Institutes – that heretics should not be burned at the stake or otherwise executed. The reason? He himself was pursued by the Roman Catholic Magesterium for heresy in France before fleeing to Geneva. Church and state were hardly separate under any modern USA notion, so he in the very least shared in the responsibility for Servetus’ execution, and the execution of other heretics. It can be argued that Calvin took the easy way, instead of doing the right thing and persuading the government of Geneva not to execute anyone at all, especially about spiritual matters. The fact of theocracy in Calvin’s time gave him great responsibility for what was allowed to happen. Under a mistaken and exaggerated adoption of Old Testament principles, there was far too much bloodshed over fine points of doctrine.

    I am also persuaded that what Jesus taught about trees and fruit was meant to be applied in any age irrespective of circumstance. Florin correctly points out that Calvin’s behavior is not to be discounted when it comes to his influence as a teacher of Gospel things. Jesus made it clear that where the fruit is bad, the doctrine is just as bad and is to be rejected. Therefore we need to consider all that is historically available about all the “greats” which we now allow authority in this age practically without question.

    Thank you for listening to my views.

  4. Does anyone have the sources that show that Calvin asked for beheading, that he stayed with Servetus and pled for his repentance, or that the decision was not fully his?

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