Sunday, April 8, 2007

Maligning the Theologian

"I am also duly clear in my own conscience, and have God and the angels as my witness, that since I undertook the office of a teacher in the church, I have had no other purpose than to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness. Yet I think that there is no one who is assailed, bitten, and wounded by more false accusations than I." - John Calvin

John Calvin is a controversial figure to say the least. It is common to hear opponents of Calvinism take the route of attacking John Calvin's character in order to discredit the Doctrines of Grace. The myths that are often perpetuated seem to sway many into thinking that Calvin was some sort of monster who "ruled Geneva with an iron fist." One will quite often hear the execution of the arch-heretic Michael Servetus being brought up as a proof that Calvin was an evil monster.

When people bring up the "murder" of Michael Servetus in order to slander Calvin (and Calvinism), I have to shake my head and roll my eyes... They make the story sound as if Calvin walked up and torched the man personally -with malice in his heart. Such is far from the truth. If these people would take the time to read some objective history of the event, they might understand that Servetus was not murdered at all! He was executed by the civil magistrate for the crime of heresy.

Calvin's involvement in the affair was not much different than if a Christian helped catch and testify against a serial killer today. Ultimately the state -and not the Christian involved in the trial- is the authority putting the criminal to death. Back in Calvin's era, heresy was a capital crime. I realize that doesn't sit well with the pluralistic minds of our modern age, but that was the reality of their day. It also bears mentioning that Calvin himself might have been tried, convicted, and burned at the stake had the Catholics ever gotten their hands on him! Before his arrest in Geneva, Servetus had already been arrested, tried, and convicted by the Catholics, but he managed to escaped before the Papists could execute him.

After his conviction in Geneva, Servetus requested a meeting with Calvin prior to his execution. Servetus is reported to have apologized to Calvin for any personal harm he may have caused, but sadly, Servetus maintained his heretical opinions and would not be persuaded by Calvin. Calvin requested his sentence be reduced to beheading, but the request was denied by the authorities. One author adds that Calvin refused to take part in the execution! In light of all these things, I must say that if John Calvin really murdered Michael Servetus, he sure picked an interesting way of doing it!

I think the reason we see so many slanderous attacks on John Calvin is because people believe that if they can discredit Calvin, then they might be able to overthrow "Calvinism." Well, that simply won't work. Someone once said that if Calvin thought he was inventing some new teaching, he would have never written it down in the first place. Many of the things Calvin wrote about concerning the sovereignty of God in salvation can also be found in the writings of Luther, Augustine, and others. I am certain that even if John Calvin would have never been born, the "Doctrines of Grace" would still be taught today!

If I were a betting man, I would wager that many of the talking heads who love to malign Calvin probably have never read any of his works. What they have read was probably in a book written by another person who also hated Calvin and his teachings. I believe it would do these people some good to get some of Calvin's works and see for themselves what he actually taught.

Most detractors probably believe the only thing Calvin taught about was Predestination, but that isn't true. I happen to have a copy of Calvin's Institutes. I have not read it all from cover to cover, but if anyone just opens it up and scans the table to contents, they will see that Calvin devotes much more space to the errors of the Papacy than to the doctrines of Election and Predestination. Glenn S. Sunshine, in his book The Reformation for Armchair Theologians has written:

"Calvin... thought that the Scripture taught double predestination. At the same time, he did not think it was an issue most people needed to deal with. Calvin was more interested in preaching the fundamentals of the faith and applying Scripture to life than in teaching predestination, particularly because the discussion would likely distract from more important issues. So Calvin taught predestination in his theological works and commentaries, but not from the pulpit."

Ultimately, I think people's problem isn't really with John Calvin or "Calvinism." Their problem is with the Bible! The eternal Word of God is the ultimate source of the doctrines we now call Calvinism. No writer more plainly declares the sovereign grace of Almighty God over the destinies of men than does the inspired Apostle Paul in Romans 8 and 9!

Malign Calvin as much as you will, but you cannot overthrow the Word of God; which plainly teaches us that "[God] has mercy on whom He wills, and whom He wills He hardens (Romans8:18 ESV).

Soli Deo Gloria!

Please see the article "Calvin's Christ" by Mafia member Fred Pifer.


Gordan said...

Great post, Rhett.

It's history repeating itself, for so they treated the prophets and the Christ, and the apostles.

We have no answer for their message, so we'll destroy the messanger.

Another historical fact on Calvin. Enemies often do accuse him of being something of a dictator in Geneva, ruling with an iron fist, as you say. Truth is, Geneva was ruled by a city/state council, which Calvin was NOT part of. And, plainly this council was not stacked with Calvin's friends. In fact, the opposite is true. This council pretty obviously resented John Calvin and seemed to make decisions (at times) based on what they knew he would hate, or be grieved by.

Rhett said...

Good points Gordan!

Lin said...

Leonard Verduin who wrote 'Step Children of the Reformation' on a grant from the Calvin Institute, stated that Calvin ordered 'green wood' so that Servetus would take longer to burn. There are also references in the book to Calvin being upset at some of the criticism he took for his part in the affair.

This was very well researched book all sourced very well. I have no idea if it is true or not but he did quote some original documents from his research in Europe.

Rhett said...

FĂ©lix Bungener in his book: "Calvin: His Life, His Labours, and His Writings" (Published 1863) says that Calvin didn't...

In fact, he states that if it were true, then green wood was actually merciful because the smoke from the green wood would stifle the criminal before the flames ever reached him. He seems to indicate that some of the documents that this information comes from are questionable.

He goes on to say that this is "one of thousands of fables that blind hate have heaped upon the name Calvin."

Rhett :)

Gordan said...

Justo Gonzales writes that Calvin in fact pleaded with Servetus while the latter was in prison, and took some time to try and show him his theological error, in an effort to save his life.

One preacher I know said this, and I love him for it: "If Servetus were alive today, I'd burn him myself."