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5 Myths about John Calvin

This article is part of the 5 Myths series.

Dispelling Urban Legends

Like many larger-than-life figures in the history of the church, the memory of the French Reformer John Calvin has been subjected to various distortions that amount to urban legends.

Myth #1: Calvin had Michael Servetus executed.

During what has been called the Servetus Affair in Geneva in 1553, Calvin was embroiled in the trial and execution by burning of Anabaptist Michael Servetus (c.1511–1553), who was adamant in his denial of the Trinity. Calvin had warned Servetus not come to Geneva since he told him that he would surely be arrested by the city authorities. But the Anabaptists believed that God was telling him to go to Geneva and engage in some kind of end-times show-down with Calvin. Despite Calvin’s warning, then, Servetus, who had narrowly escaped being burned by the Inquisition in Spain, turned up in Geneva and was spotted at a worship service in the Cathedral of St. Peter, and subsequently arrested.

John Calvin

John Calvin

Derek W. H. Thomas, John W. Tweeddale

Leading Reformed pastors and scholars reflect on the importance of John Calvin’s life and teaching for the church today.

Calvin was not at that time a citizen so he had no political power to put Servetus on trial, let alone convict him. Servetus was indeed put on trial for heresy, and Calvin was called as a witness for the prosecution. Calvin pled with the authorities not to burn Servetus, but they, wanting actually to demonstrate their independence of Calvin, opted for burning the Anabaptist.

Now, I do not wish to whitewash Calvin in this regard. In his own day, the Reformer Sebastien Castellio (1515–1563) rightly remonstrated with Calvin for executing Servetus. The state has no biblical mandate, under the new covenant, to execute heretics. Nonetheless, what Calvin actually did and did not do needs to be set forth as well as understanding those actions in the context of his times.

Myth #2: The tyrant Calvin ran a gulag-like operation in Geneva during the main period of his ministry in that city from 1541 to 1564.

Calvin’s involvement in this gruesome incident of Servetus’ burning has given rise to his posthumous reputation as a bloody tyrant who ran Geneva like some sort of gulag.

Calvin could certainly be vicious in his verbal attacks on those whom he regarded as heretics and his theological opponents, but there is no evidence that he regularly sought to kill them. Thus, theologians who crossed swords with Calvin in Geneva—men like Jérôme-Hermès Bolsec (d. 1584) and Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563)—were exiled from the city. Moreover, it is vital to note that most sixteenth-century Christian figures, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, regarded heresy not simply as a wrong-headed intellectual pathway, but as imbued with “the stigma of moral corruption,” and as such it had to be cut out of the body politic lest it pollute the entire community.1 If the Genevan authorities had let Servetus live once he had been recognized and arrested in the city, it would have given the enemies of the Reformation, notably the Roman Catholic Church, proof that the Reformers were also heretics for tolerating such heresy.

Moreover, Calvin’s political standing in Geneva was still tenuous in the early 1550s. Many of the city’s patricians looked askance at the French Reformer and would have been all too happy to boot him out as they had once done in 1538.2 In fact, one of Calvin’s co-Reformers, Wolfgang Musculus (1497–1563) was convinced that Servetus had come to Geneva on purpose to exploit the differences between Calvin and the city council. Although Calvin’s “visceral hatred of Servetus was all too clear” during the 1550s,3 he simply did not have the power to execute the heretic. The charge by the nineteenth-century author J.B. Galiffé that Calvin was a “tyrant priest who submitted Geneva to the most infamous servitude” is patently wrong, failing as it does to understand the severe limitations on Calvin’s political power.

There were indeed others who were put to death during Calvin’s ministry in Geneva. During an outbreak of the plague in Geneva during 1544–1545, some thirty-eight men and women were accused of aiding its spread and subsequently executed for what we would call bioterrorism today. Calvin appears to have believed this charge about these sixteenth-century bioterrorists, who were accused of smearing plague-contaminated ointment on the key-holes of Genevan houses!4

One other execution was that of Jacques Gruet in 1547, a materialist who may also have been an atheist. He was executed not for his beliefs, though, but for threatening the life of Calvin and seeking to instigate a coup in the city. Not surprisingly the numbers of those executed in Geneva during Calvin’s time were exaggerated by his enemies, exaggerations that were bandied about especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when Calvinism (a word that Calvin loathed) was often a house under attack.

Myth #3: Calvin’s theology can be summed up by the acronym TULIP (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints).

Fans of Calvin’s thought have also unwisely supported myths about their hero. For example, they have attributed the use of the acronym TULIP as a means of summing up biblical soteriology to their great hero. Actually, its usage is fairly recent and dates from the turn of the twentieth century.5 The foundation of Calvin’s theology rests securely on two pillars: the utter sovereignty of God over every sphere of creation and the glory of God as the end of all of his activity and works in space and time. There is legitimate debate about whether or not Calvin was committed to particular redemption or not—I think he basically was—but this issue was not at the forefront of Calvin’s theological concerns, hence to use TULIP, to sum up his theology is totally anachronistic. It was Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the Dutch Calvinist, who rightly said and in this he was true to Calvin’s thought: “No single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” 7

Calvin is unaccommodating regarding the uselessness of human works to save us since he is passionate that “the Lord’s glory should stand undiminished.”8 A salvation that is based on human works robs God of his glory of being the sole source of salvation. As Calvin rightly observed: “see how often and how earnestly Scripture urges us, wherever righteousness is concerned, to give thanks to God alone.”9 If the key question that Martin Luther (1483–1546) had asked was, “How can I find peace with God?”, the central question for John Calvin was: “How can I live a life to the glory of God?”

By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the life of a Christian should be one that is holy and filled with works that are truly good.

Myth #4: Calvin’s emphasis on monergistic soteriology has an antinomian bent.

In answering this question—“How can I live a life to the glory of God?”—Calvin was led to insist on the necessity of good works in the Christian life. Though none are saved by works, Calvin is nevertheless insistent that none are saved without them. As the French Reformer put it on one occasion:

The faithful are never reconciled to God without the gift of sanctification, yea, to this end are we justified, that afterward, we might worship God in holiness of life. For Christ does not otherwise wash us with his blood and by his satisfaction reconcile God to us, unless he makes partakers of his Spirit, which renews us into a holy life.10

By the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, the life of a Christian should be one that is holy and filled with works that are truly good. In fact, Scripture, Calvin noted, sets forth Christ as the pattern to which his followers must conform their lives.11 As Tony Lane notes, Calvin here provides his own version of the late medieval theme of the imitation of Christ, a focus that had produced such books as Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ.12 It is also noteworthy that Calvin does not turn the believer to the Decalogue for the ultimate pattern of holiness. Rather, he simply points the Christian disciple to Christ. Ever the realist, Calvin is well aware of the fact that such a life of discipleship can never issue in perfection in this world. But with “sincere simplicity” the believer must seek to make steady, daily progress towards the goal of perfect holiness, a goal that will only be realized in the world to come.13

And what does the life of Christian discipleship, a life of good works, look like? Well, first of all, it is marked by self-denial, the recognition that the Christian does not belong to himself or herself, but belongs totally to God and is to live for God’s glory. In Calvin’s words:

Even though the law of the Lord provides the finest and best-disposed method of ordering a man’s life, it seemed good to the Heavenly Teacher to shape his people by an even more explicit plan to that rule which he had set forth in the law. Here, then, is the beginning of this plan: the duty of believers is “to present their bodies to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to him” [Romans 12:1] …we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may hereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory. sup>14

Myth 5: Calvin was not interested in missions.

It has often been maintained that Calvin, like the sixteenth-century Reformers in general, had a poorly developed missiology, that missions were an area to which they gave little thought. Yes, this argument runs, they rediscovered the apostolic gospel, but they had no vision to spread it to the uttermost parts of the earth. In some quarters, it is considered axiomatic that the Reformers had no concern for overseas missions to non-Christians and that they evidence no recognition of the entire missionary dimension of the church.

Now, it is vital to recognize that, as Scott Hendrix has shown, the Reformation was the attempt to “make European culture more Christian than it had been. It was, if you will, an attempt to reroot faith, to rechristianize Europe.”15 In the eyes of the Reformers, this program involved two accompanying convictions. First, they considered what passed for Christianity in late mediaeval Europe as sub-Christian at best, pagan at worst. As John Calvin put it in his Reply to Sadoleto (1539):

. . . the light of divine truth had been extinguished, the Word of God buried, the virtue of Christ left in profound oblivion, and the pastoral office subverted. Meanwhile, impiety so stalked abroad that almost no doctrine of religion was pure from admixture, no ceremony free from error, no part, however minute, of divine worship untarnished by superstition.16

The Reformers did indeed view their task as a missionary one: they were planting true Christian churches.17

There are innumerable examples of Calvin’s mission-mindedness in his writings. For instance, in his comments on Isaiah 12:5, Calvin deals with a common misinterpretation of God’s divine sovereignty.

[Isaiah] shows that it is our duty to proclaim the goodness of God to every nation. While we exhort and encourage others, we must not at the same time sit down in indolence, but it is proper that we set an example before others; for nothing can be more absurd than to see lazy and slothful men who are exciting other men to praise God.18

Calvin was rightly convinced that one major way in which God uses his people for the conversion of others is through prayer—their prayers for the conversion of unbelievers.19 In Calvin’s words, God “bids us to pray for the salvation of unbelievers”20 and Scripture passages like 1 Timothy 2:4 encourage us not to “cease to pray for all people in general.”21 We see this conviction at work in Calvin’s own prayers, a good number of which have been recorded for us at the end of his sermons. Each of his sermons on Deuteronomy, for instance, ends with a prayer that runs something like this: “may it please him [i.e. God] to grant this [saving] grace, not only to us but also to all peoples and nations of the earth.”22 In fact, in the liturgy that Calvin drew up for his church in Geneva, there is this prayer:

We pray you now, O most gracious God and merciful Father, for all people everywhere. As it is your will to be acknowledged as the Saviour of the whole world, through the redemption wrought by Your Son Jesus Christ, grant that those who are still estranged from the knowledge of him, being in the darkness and captivity of error and ignorance, may be brought by the illumination of your Holy Spirit and the preaching of your gospel to the right way of salvation, which is to know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.23

It also needs noting that Calvin and the Genevan pastors helped further the work of Reformation evangelism in Europe through print media. In fact, by Calvin’s death, his interest in Christian publishing meant that there were no less than thirty-four printing houses in Geneva that printed Bibles and Christian literature in a variety of European languages. In the 1550s Geneva was particularly a hive of biblical editions and translations. There was, for example: Robert Estienne’s Greek New Testament of 1551, which divided the text into verses for the first time; a new edition of the Vulgate; an Italian translation and Spanish translation in 1555 and 1556, respectively; and at least twenty-two editions of the French Bible. And in 1560 a complete English translation of the Bible was printed sometime between April 10 and May 30 of that year. This was the Geneva Bible, the bedrock of early English Puritanism.

Calvin was vitally concerned about the evangelization of his native land, France, and his countrymen, the French. It has been estimated that by 1562 some 2,150 congregations had been established in France with around two million members, many of them converted through the witness of men trained in Geneva.24 That two million comprised 50% of the upper and middle classes and a full 10% of the entire population. The growth is enormous when one reckons that at the time of Calvin’s conversion, in the early 1530s, there were probably no more than a couple of thousand Evangelicals in France.

But Calvin was concerned for not only France but also for the reformation of the church in places like Scotland, England, and Spain, as well as Poland, Hungary, and the Netherlands. He even encouraged a mission to Brazil in 1555, which turned out, though, to be a failure.25 It is noteworthy that when the church in Geneva heard of this Brazilian opportunity, contemporary chronicler (and participant in the mission to Brazil) Jean de Léry recorded that “Upon . . . hearing this news, the church of Geneva at once gave thanks to God for the extension of the reign of Jesus Christ in a country so distant and likewise so foreign and among a nation entirely without the knowledge of the true God.”26

Notes:
1. Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 217–218.
2. Kenneth J. Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press/Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2011), 188.
3. Gordon, Calvin, 224.
4. See John Calvin, Letter to Oswald Myconius, March 27, 1545.
5. See Stewart, Ten Myths About Calvinism, 75–98.
6. Abraham Kuyper, “Sphere Sovereignty” in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper, A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1998), 488.
7. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.13.1 (Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles [The Library of Christian Classics, vol.20; Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960], 1:763).
8. Calvin, Institutes 3.13.1 (McNeill and Battles, 1:763).
9. Corpus Reformatorum 49:104.
10. Calvin, Institutes 3.6.3 (McNeill and Battles, 1:686–687).
11. Tony Lane, A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 106.
12. Calvin, Institutes 3.6.5 (McNeill and Battles, 1:688–689).
13. Calvin, Institutes 3.7.1(McNeill and Battles, 1:689–690).
14. “Rerooting the Faith: The Reformation as Re-Christianization,” Church History, 69 (2000): 561.
15. John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto, A Reformation Debate, ed. John C. Olin (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1976), 74–75.
16. Hendrix, “Rerooting the Faith,” 558–568.
17. John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah 12:5 [Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, trans William Pringle (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1851), 1:403].
18. In this regard, see the masterful essay by Elsie McKee, “Calvin and Praying for “All People Who Dwell on Earth”,” Interpretation, 63 (2009): 130–140.
19. Cited McKee, “Calvin and Praying,” 133.
20. Cited McKee, “Calvin and Praying,” 138.
21. McKee, “Calvin and Praying,” 139–140.
22. Cited McKee, “Calvin and Praying,” 139.
23. W. Stanford Reid, “Calvin’s Geneva: A Missionary Centre,” The Reformed Theological Review, 42, no.3 (September–December, 1983): 69.
24. See the story of this important mission in G. Baez–Camargo, “The Earliest Protestant Missionary Venture in Latin America,” Church History, 21 (1952): 135–145; Amy Glassner Gordon, “The First Protestant Missionary Effort: Why Did It Fail?,” International Bulletin of Missionary Research, 8, no.1 (January 1984): 12–18.
25. Jean de Léry, Journal de Bord de Jean de Léry en la Terre de Brésil 1557, presénté et commenté par M.R. Mayeux, as quoted in R. Pierce Beaver, “The Genevan Mission to Brazil” in John Bratt, ed. The Heritage of John Calvin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1973), 61.

Michael A. G. Haykin is a contributor to John Calvin: For a New Reformation, edited by Derek W. H. Thomas and John W. Tweeddale.



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