Was John Calvin a Heretic-Burning Maniac?

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.

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