I have two words for you … John Calvin.

A name with which to conjure. What do we make of Calvin, whose 500th anniversary of his birth occurred in July 2009, just a few months after I started this blog?

At the time, I was still working my way through the Catholicism of my birth and formative years up through the Anglicanism of my adult years.

Until then, Calvin was to me anathema. However, the celebrations going on in Geneva and in other parts of the world encouraged me to read more about the man and his theology.

On June 25, 2009, I wrote a piece based on an article from Canada’s United Church Observer which exploded the myths about this much-contested theologian who sought refuge in one of the world’s most beautiful (and once tranquil) cities — Geneva, Switzerland.

Although you can read more at either link, these are a few of the highlights from my post:

– Myth — Calvin ruled Geneva as a theocracy: The only public office Calvin held in Geneva was that of chief pastor and then only for two years.  The city council might have dismissed him, but they invited him back in 1541. Upon his return, he became somewhat of a celebrity and those fleeing Catholic persecution wanted to hear him preach. His writing made him internationally famous.  Yet, ironically, those who were opposed to him actually governed the city during this time.  

– Myth — Calvin was an unforgiving disciplinarian: Minutes from the Genevan Consistory Panel reveal that Calvin and the panel’s members wanted to achieve ‘healing and understanding’ from the punishments they meted out.  (What the article doesn’t say is that similar ‘vice patrols’ were in operation in most European cities at the time.  Geneva was not an anomaly.)

– Myth — Calvin was a champion of self-denial: Calvin actually encouraged the rich to be more charitable, believing that the poor were ‘God’s proxies’ sent ‘as agents to gather in what is God’s’.

– Myth — Calvin was the spiritual father of capitalism: Although the Catholic Church criticised Calvin for encouraging the charging of interest, the kings of England and France were already lending out money at 12% or 14% interest.  Calvin, on the other hand, instructed his followers to charge no more than 5% (and, what the article doesn’t say, never to collect interest from the poor).

As I would find out, the one name connected with Calvin is Servetus, who died, sentenced as a heretic, in that great Swiss city. Arminians — Protestants who believe in ‘free will’ — often cite this episode in Church history to prove that Calvin was no good. Yet, Calvin was often subject to Geneva’s City Council in matters ecclesiastical.

Dr R Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California and the newly-revived Heidelblog explained the Calvin versus Servetus story on September 15, 2012. Emphases in the excerpts below (except for the subheads) are mine:

Calvin was more refugee than tyrant. At any rate, church-state relations in Geneva were fluid and complex.

The Servetus Episode

By “heretics” [Molly] Worthen presumably refers [to] the capital punishment of Miguel (Michael) Servetus (1509/11–53) for heresy in Geneva. Sadly, one thing that every educated person thinks she knows about Calvin, to quote the novelist Anne Rice, is “Calvin was a “true Christian” when he burned Michael Servetus alive in Geneva.” Even those who should know better sometimes position Servetus as if he were issuing a “prophetic challenge” to Calvin’s “overbearing dominance” in Geneva (Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 21).

Of course, the actual history is much more complicated. Servetus was a well-educated Spanish humanist, physician, and amateur theologian. Servetus published an attack on the doctrine of the Trinity in 1530. He and Calvin corresponded and in 1546 Calvin wrote to [good friend and fellow theologian] William Farel that, should Servetus visit Geneva, he would do his best to see that the heretic did not leave alive and he warned Servetus that, should he come to Geneva, his life would be in danger. Servetus was arrested in Lyons in 1552 for having published heresy against the catholic faith. He was tried and sentenced to death but escaped the prison and strangely made his way to Geneva in July of 1552. Servetus was spotted in church, arrested, and examined twice regarding his teaching on the Trinity. Calvin served as theological prosecutor on behalf of the city council. Servetus was convicted by a unanimous vote of the city council and a majority of the council of 200. Servetus was burned at the stake in October, 1553.

As a matter of history it is inescapable that Calvin played a central role in the arrest and prosecution of Servetus but it is simply not true that Calvin killed Servetus. The city council is responsible for Servetus’ death. Had Calvin objected to the death penalty it is unlikely that the city council would have listened or could have listened. The [Roman Catholic] House of Savoy was poised to invade Geneva without much provocation. Servetus was a condemned heretic. Had a protestant city failed to death a notorious heretic it would have confirmed the suspicion of Roman critics that the Protestants were nothing but crypto-fanatics, hiding their true colors under a false profession of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

In fact, the killing of heretics at the stake was not uncommon under Christendom. Rome put her share of Protestants to death (including no fewer than 42,000 Reformed Christians in the period) and both Roman and Protestant magistrates killed about 3,000 Anabaptists …

The Reformed ministers in Heidelberg insisted on capital punishment of anti-Trinitarians in 1572 about which very little has been written in English. Arguably, that act was twice as heinous as the action of the Genevan civil authorities. Why then the focus on Servetus’ death? This episode is singled out because it is a convenient way to vilify Calvin and to reinforce the stereotype of Calvin the predestinarian monster of Geneva and, as Worthen’s article illustrates, the image of repressive Reformed churches.

Another episode occurred in 1546. Clark explains:

Pierre Ameaux, a member of the Petit Conseil, at dinner party one evening, anticipating the modern critique of Calvin, complained that Calvin taught false doctrine and exerted too much influence over the council.

On the surface this seems to be another example of Calvin’s alleged tyranny but there was more happening beneath the surface. Certainly Ameaux was humiliated because Calvin insisted, but technically it was the city council who effected the sentence and, more importantly, it was part of a metaphorically bloody political fight, dating to the mid-40s, over the direction of the city and the church. This was less about Calvin’s person than it was about the authority of the church to make ecclesiastical policy. Those interested in a balanced account will notice that Ameaux was made to apologize for criticizing the city’s pastors (an office), not for insulting Calvin’s person. T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, 99. says that what was at stake was the authority of the Word.

Calvin had only been back in Geneva since Easter, 1541 and Ameaux was a member of the powerful libertine party contesting the Consistory’s authority and especially Calvin’s. Further, this episode followed a legal and an ecclesiastical case (Register of the Company of Pastors, 1.309–10) concerning Ameaux’s wife, so there was some history. Further, Ameaux was not an ordinary layman. He was a successful businessman, who manufactured playing cards, and a member of the Petit Conseil and a leading member of the “Libertine” party seeking to discredit Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva. According to Bernard Cottret, Calvin, 187, “he was sentenced to make a circuit of the city, his head bare, a lighted torch in his hand.” This is a translation of CO 21.377, Registres du Conseil 41, fol. 68.

Surely it strikes us as severe today—It wasn’t for nothing that Calvin was called “The Accusative Case” by his fellow students—but remember the times and the context. Was it a confusion of the civil and ecclesiastical spheres for Calvin to demand civil penalties for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely. From the perspective of a distinction between the ecclesiastical and common spheres, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Civil Authorities.

The true moral of this story, however, is of the danger of the Constantinian church-state alliance wherein civil authorities have the power to punish heresy. Nowhere in the New Testament or in the moral law is theological heresy a ground for civil punishment. The only sphere authorized by God to correct theological error is the visible church (see Matthew 18) and their means are purely spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline (e.g., rebuke, censure, excommunication).

Calvin had far more influence over civil life than we are accustomed to seeing but he was no tyrant in Geneva. He was not even a citizen until late in his life. He was a sixteenth-century man and a Constantinian—but so was most everyone else in the period. The real argument here cannot reasonably be over Calvin’s influence in civil affairs or else the entire magisterial Reformation must be convicted. Where’s the moral outrage over Bucer, Melanchthon, Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger et al? ? So, we may fairly wonder whether something else is bothering so many moderns and late moderns.

Two points about the last paragraph. One involves Zwingli and the drowning of Felix Mann, falsely attributed to Calvin. The second concerns Roman Catholics in the Low Countries (Benelux) at the time. This from D G Hart, an Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) elder in Pennsylvania, and co-founder of the Old Life Theological Society and, yes, the Nicotine Theological Journal. He reminds us:

In the sixteenth century when Roman Catholics wanted to rid the Low Countries of Protestantism they depended on Phillip II and the Duke of Alba (Margaret of Parma wasn’t too shabby either) to implement the church’s ban on heretics. In fact, Rome’s mechanisms of inquisition generally relied up civil authorities to enforce the temporal penalties for heresy.

But, then, we also have the notion that Calvin was a socialist before his time. For this, we return to Dr Clark:

This is amusing but wrong for two reasons:

1) It’s an anachronism. It’s true that Calvin lived on the cusp of what we know as capitalism but contrary to the typical schoolbook presentation (derived from Max Weber) the connections between capitalism and Calvin are best characterized as indirect. There were a number of changes afoot in the 16th century that helped set the preconditions for modern capitalism and Reformed theology was one of them.

Calvin was not exactly a free-market capitalist but neither was he any sort of socio-economic anarchist or statist or whatever social-economic views the Occupy movements represent. In some respects Calvin was socially “progressive” insofar as he was willing to reconsider the existing order …

2) It simply misrepresents Calvin’s concerns. If there was a single potential effect of the Protestant Reformation (and other social changes that coincided with the Reformation) that he feared it was the social chaos that might be unleashed as result of the changes. He was deeply worried about social mayhem. In that respect he was quite conservative of the established order. Even though his theory of two kingdoms  (Institutes, 3.19.15) has become strangely controversial in recent years he formed that theory within a web of Constantinian assumptions about the nature of civil power and the righteousness of the civil enforcement of religious orthodoxy. Calvin opposed the Anabaptist movements not only on theological grounds but also on socio-political grounds. He, like the rest of the magisterial Reformers, saw in Münster Rebellion (1534–35) a realization of what might happen were the radicals to gain influence or power.

And that is why Anabaptists, pietists and Arminians call Calvin ‘Satan’, ‘spawn of the Devil’ and so on. He opposed their so-called interests in a biblical way.

Calvin was a complex man. Outsiders saw him as cold and unfeeling. Others, like his wife who predeceased him, loved him dearly.

Calvin had a brilliant mind. He first studied law, then read theology. He attempted to codify, as far as possible, scriptural norms. He was a product of his time. John Knox took the theology further — badly, as it happened — as did Cromwell. However, it is doubtful whether we can blame Calvin for others’ departures from his own theology.