Was John Calvin a Murderer?

Q – Was John Calvin a Murder?

Jim – This is a question that shows up in my email from time to time. It’s a claim that is leveled by those who seek to besmirch Reformed Theology. Usually, the claim that Calvin was a murderer is an attempt to make all Calvinistic doctrine wrong through “guilt by association.”

However, historically speaking, the so-called “Doctrines of Grace” – which go by the nickname of Calvinism – did not originate with Calvin. They are the result of a Synod held in Dort, Holland in 1618/19, after Calvin was long dead. Those of us who hold to Reformed Theology do so not because we are attempting to replicate the theology or ecclesiology of John Calvin, but because we are convinced that the Biblical arguments and conclusions stemming from that Synod are valid and our own exegesis confirms the five points.

If it could be proven that John Calvin was indeed a murderous wretch, it would have no effect on the theology that sprung from the pen of the Reformers. In other words, the “guilt by association” tactic has no teeth. That being said, let’s clear up the history and let the proverbial chips fall where they will.

The person most often referenced by the “Calvin was a murderer” crowd is a fellow named Michael Servetus. Here’s the Wikipedia entry describing him:

Michael Servetus (also Miguel Servet or Miguel Serveto; 29 September 1511 – 27 October 1553) was a Spanish (Aragonese) theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist and the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation. His interests included many sciences: astronomy and meteorology, geography, jurisprudence, study of the Bible, mathematics, anatomy, and medicine. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology. He participated in the Protestant Reformation and later developed a non-trinitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was burnt at the stake by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council as a heretic.

Events in history have a context. We must remember the time period during which Calvin and contemporaries lived. The thousand years that preceded them are commonly known as the “Dark Ages,” owing to the general ignorance and illiteracy of the populous and the near monolithic influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Church was intertwined in every aspect of social and political life. For instance, a child’s baptism record was tantamount to his birth certificate. And the church wielded the sword of governmental authority to suppress schismatics, dissenters, and those deemed heretics. This practice was known as “Sacralism” – a merger of church and state until the two are virtually indistinguishable. As the Latin saying described it, “Cuius region, eius religio.” In other words, “Who has region, decides religion.” It was common for the ruler of an area to determine the religion of his realm based on his own faith.

The Reformers were not initially intending to create a new religion. As their name implies, their aim was to reform the Church at Rome; correcting its theology and abuses “from the inside.” However, facing the brick wall of a thousand years of entrenched power and tradition, they moved to safer territories and established churches in accordance with their convictions: Luther to Germany, Zwingli to Switzerland, Calvin to Geneva, etc. However, they carried many of the trappings of Rome with them, such as Sacralism.

This is not surprising. The Reformation was not a start-from-scratch project. The only church governance they had known was the combination of church and state. In their effort to establish the theology of salvation by grace (in opposition to Rome’s works-based soteriology), they failed to fully and utterly reform every aspect of Christian life and ecclesiastic behavior. Hence, the motto passed to future generations – “Ever Reforming.”

So, back to Servetus. What was Calvin’s relationship with Servetus? In his essay “John Calvin and Reformed Europe” J.I.Packer wrote:

The anti-Trinitarian campaigner Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553, and this is often seen as a blot on Calvin’s reputation. But weigh these facts:

1. The belief that denial of the Trinity and/or Incarnation should be viewed as a capital crime in a Christian state was part of Calvin’s and Geneva’s medieval inheritance; Calvin did not invent it.

2. Anti-Trinitarian heretics were burned in other places beside Geneva in Calvin’s time, and indeed later — two in England, for instance, as late as 1612.

3. The Roman Inquisition had already set a price on Servetus’ head.

4. The decision to burn Servetus as a heretic was taken not only by Calvin personally but by Geneva’s Little Council of twenty-five, acting on unanimous advice from the pastors of several neighboring Reformed churches whom they had consulted.

5. Calvin, whose role in Servetus’ trial had been that of expert witness managing the prosecution, wanted Servetus not to die but to recant, and spent hours with him during and after the trial seeking to change his views.

6. When Servetus was sentenced to be burned alive, Calvin asked for beheading as a less painful alternative, but his request was denied.

7. The chief Reformers outside Geneva, including Bucer and the gentle Melanchthon, fully approved the execution.

The burning should thus be seen as the fault of a culture and an age rather than of one particular child of that culture and age. Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode. As regards the rights and wrongs of what was done, the root question concerns the propriety of political paternalism in Christianity (that is, whether the Christian state, as distinct from the Christian church, should outlaw heresy or tolerate it), and it was Calvin’s insistence that God alone is Lord of the conscience that was to begin displacing the medieval by the modern mind-set on this question soon after Servetus’ death.

History is not specific concerning the number of people who were executed in Geneva during Calvin’s time. Modern critics try to give the impression that the number was high and there was non-stop bloodshed as Calvin oversaw the wholesale elimination of anyone who opposed to him. But, this is simply not the case. According to Matthew Gross of ReformedAnswers.org –

There is a number that is oft-repeated but rarely footnoted of 57 executions during 4 years “at the height of Calvin’s power”. I am unable to locate the source of this number, and a more moderate anti-Calvin source, Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret, puts the number at 38.

In considering these executions, it is important to note that Calvin never held any formal power outside the Church during his time in Geneva. The government of the church in Geneva was Presbyterian ?- it had a pastor and a consistory, or board of ruling elders. Contrary to popular portrayal, the government of the church was not the government of the city. The government of the city was called “the Council.” The consistory handled moral matters, and the maximum penalty it could impose was excommunication. However, for many years they could not even excommunicate someone without the prior approval of the Council. The maximum penalty that the Council could impose was death; however, even the Council’s decisions could be appealed to another body called “The Council of Two Hundred” – so named because it consisted of two hundred citizens of Geneva. Calvin himself was not a citizen of Geneva during the upheaval in Geneva, and thus was disqualified from voting, holding public office, or even serving on the Council of Two Hundred until very late in his life, and at least four years after he achieved “the height of his power” to which so many Calvin detractors refer. Thus, it is with this understanding, the understanding that Calvin held no formal secular power, and that any power he did have was subject to the review of two different citizen’s councils that we turn to the discussion of the executions in Geneva.

Of the 38 executions accounted for in Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret, Calvin himself writes about 23, and the justification given is that they spread the plague by witchcraft. This is often given as mocking proof that Calvin really must have been an ignorant tyrant – after all, we know that witchcraft isn’t real, etc. But if you read the primary source, the actual letter to Myconius of Basel (March 27, 1545), you see that witchcraft, if it was a charge, was in addition to the charge of committing other malicious acts:

“A conspiracy of men and women has lately been discovered, who, for the space of three years, had spread the plague through the city by what mischievous device I know not. After fifteen women have been burnt, some men have even been punished more severely, some have committed suicide in prison, and while twenty-five are still kept prisoners,?the conspirators do not cease, notwithstanding, to smear the door-locks of the dwelling-houses with their poisonous ointment. You see in the midst of what perils we are tossed about. The Lord hath hitherto preserved our dwelling, though it has more than once been attempted. It is well that we know ourselves to be under His care.”

When you read this quote, you see that these people were accused of actually trying to spread the plague, not by casting spells, but by smearing “the door-locks of the dwelling-houses with their poisonous ointment”. Once again this seems innocuous, but it is possible that their “ointment” was spreading the disease if it contained blood or bodily fluid from someone infected with the disease. Even if it didn’t work, the people putting the ointment on the door handles apparently thought it would. Thus, at the very least these inept bioterrorists would be guilty of what we call “conspiracy to commit murder”. This is in addition to the charge of witchcraft, itself a capital crime in the Old Testament, which Calvin thought was directly applicable in Geneva.

Of the other executions, several are named to be executions for serial adultery, also a capital crime in the Old Testament. Contrary to what is commonly implied, this was not a group of all women or all poor people who were executed. Among the executed was a prominent Genevese banker who went to his death proclaiming the justice of the judgment – Geneva did not discriminate on the basis of sex or class, as is often implied. It is debatable whether or not adultery should ever be or have been a capital offense. Many people who think that it should not be one today think that it should not have been a capital offense in ancient Israel either. Thus, they reject the Old Testament law as unjust even when it was originally given. This is an error we should be careful to avoid as we debate whether or not these executions were just.

So the bulk of the executions were for conspiracy to commit murder and for adultery. In addition to these, there was one girl who was executed for striking her mother – another capital crime in the Old Testament which could be, at least in ancient Israel, justly enforced by the penalty of death in certain instances. We are not told by history whether Calvin approved of this execution, but if he did, it was because he believed that it was the proper application of Old Testament law. Of the other executions, history has only given us details of two – the beheading of Jacques Gruet and the burning of Michael Servetus. Gruet was executed for heresy and sedition. He attached an anonymous note to Calvin’s pulpit threatening to kill Calvin and overthrow the government of Geneva if they did not flee the city. He was arrested, tortured for 30 days, and, upon confession, beheaded. History does not tell us whether Calvin approved of the torture; if he did he was wrong to do so. The execution, for conspiring to overthrow the government, may have been justified given the danger to the citizenry that such a conspiracy entailed. Either way, Calvin did not have the authority in Geneva to arrest, torture, or execute anyone. Those were the decisions, not of Calvin or the church Consistory, but of the Council and of the Council of 200.

This brings us to Servetus. He was arrested for heresy, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by the Council. After escaping from prison when he was on trial for heresy in Lyons, Servetus traveled to Geneva on his way to Italy. According to Schaff’s Church History, Servetus stayed at Geneva for about a month, taking few pains to conceal his identity. After attending services in Calvin’s church one Sunday, Servetus was arrested on charges of heresy. Calvin believed that it was just and right for heretics to be put to death. In this regard, he was not different from Servetus who also believed that heretics, specifically the heretic John Calvin, should be put to death by the Genevese Council.

During the trial it was Calvin’s job as expert witness to prove that Servetus was a heretic. Calvin’s expert reason and clear thinking triumphed when Servetus chose to hurl insults at Calvin rather than offer a defense. It is important to note that at this time the Council was not controlled by friends of Calvin but by his enemies, the patriots and libertines. This is probably why Servetus felt that he did not have to offer a substantive defense against charges of heresy. We have a written record of the debate because each was required to write their statements and responses for review by the churches of four other prominent protestant cities.

During the time that the other cities were reviewing the debate Lyons requested extradition, but Servetus pleaded to stay in Geneva and protested that he would accept the judgment of the Genevese Council rather than be sent back to Lyons. He had reason to believe that the libertines on the council were on his side, given their intense hatred of Calvin. However, in the end, after receiving recommendations of guilt from the four cities, and in light of the publicity the trial had generated throughout Europe, the libertines and the patriots on the Council decided that Servetus was not worth saving. In a show of bravado intended to send a message that they could be just as “tough on crime” as John Calvin was, they sentenced Servetus to death by burning. When Servetus heard, he could not believe it. Despite Calvin’s intercession on behalf of Servetus that he be put to death humanely, the Council refused and Servetus was burned on October 27, 1553.

So, what are we to make of all this? Times have changed and certainly no one would argue that executing heretics is justifiable behavior in our modern context. Here in America we live under a constitution that creates a wall of division between the church and the state. And it is shortsighted to judge the actions of John Calvin through our modern spectacles. Calvin held to the end of his life that the execution of Servetus was just because he was a blasphemer, a heretic, a murderer of souls.

While John Calvin and I certainly have areas of agreement in questions of theology and soteriology, we have significant differences in our ecclesiology. My understanding of the New Covenant causes me to argue that the crimes of Servetus required excommunication, but the Church has no authority to put a man to death. But, my understanding of the historic context and political situation surrounding the execution of heretics in Geneva also forces me to conclude that John Calvin was not a murderous man, nor was the Council acting against its conscience or its laws. Any effort to paint John Calvin as a power mad authoritarian who ruled the church and the city with an iron fist and the threat of death simply belies the ignorance and lack of historical research on the part of the man who makes such a biased claim.
Additional resources (both positive and negative)
www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/8_ch13.htm – this link is from Schaff’s Church History. If you want the background and the big picture, this is good.
www.ccel.org/s/schaff/history/8_ch16.htm – this is Schaff’s chapter on Servetus.
www.christainhistory.com/articles/death_penalty.html – this link is basically a compilation of history-text quotations that put Calvin in a bad light.
1. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Servetus
2. theologica.blogspot.com/2007/06/calvin-and-servetus.html