Not long ago, a good friend of mine had interacted with a person (whom I shall denote by J) who claimed that John Calvin was basically a blood-thirsty wretch. This is a common accusation made by those who dislike the theological system that goes by his name and often they take to character assassination instead of substantive debate. He asked me what I thought about the accusation. Below was my response.
I just finished a biography on Calvin by Bruce Gordon. I don’t know where Gordon falls on the theological spectrum (he may not even be evangelical, for all I know), but he is a very respectable scholar with impeccable credentials as a historian of the 16th century Reformation. He currently teaches at Yale, and before that at St. Andrews. His book on Calvin is a very balanced take on the man, and he navigates very well the extremes of hero worship and undo cynicism. There are several things that need to be noted about the criticism of J.
1. There were several early biographies of Calvin by his enemies, most of which included gross lies, but which unfortunately have been repeated on the basis of such doubtful witnesses. Their aim was not historical reliability, but to undermine the Genevan reforms by attacking its leader, John Calvin. It is probably from such a source that J is either quoting directly or indirectly. It simply is not true that Calvin put scores of people to death.
2. In fact, Calvin didn’t actually put ANYONE to death! The closest Calvin came to involvement in the death of anyone was Servetus who was burned at the stake outside Geneva in 1553 for his heresy. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that even in this case, Calvin didn’t “flip the switch,” so to speak. He couldn’t order Servetus’ death for several reasons. He wasn’t even a citizen of Geneva (he didn’t become a citizen until a few years before his death) and therefore didn’t even have any authority in the city to execute anyone. It was not Calvin, but the Genevan councils that ordered the death of Servetus. What makes this even more amazing is that the membership of the city councils were at that time dominated by opponents to Calvin, not his friends. So you can’t say that they only did this because of Calvin’s influence. When Servetus was ordered to be executed, Calvin asked the city council to substitute the sword for the stake because beheading was more merciful than burning. Now this doesn’t mean that Calvin didn’t favor capital punishment for heresy. He did. But so did everyone else, including the other Protestant cities (and including theologians of a less Calvinistic bent!). It was their advice, not Calvin’s, that sealed the fate of Servetus. Calvin, in the end, was a man of his age. He shared the warts of that time. We should all recognize this. He may well be a hero to some of us, but that does not mean he was perfect.
3. Capital punishment was more liberally bestowed in the 16th century for all types of crimes in every city of the West, not just Geneva. It was a harsh time, and Calvin unfortunately did not see past the inadequacy of such “justice.” Again, he was a man of his time. But it is also unfair to single Calvin out. We could say similar things about all the reformation leaders: Zwingli, Luther, Melancthon, Bullinger, Bucer, etc. But these are the men God used. You may be scandalized by some of their words or behavior. But beware of mocking and scorning those whom God has used.
On a personal note, Calvin IS a hero to me. I am humbled by and learn from his complete surrender to God’s will and sovereignty over life. His theology was not a mere theoretical system worked out in the ivory towers of Switzerland, but hammered out through many trials and tribulations. His goal was not his own but the glory of GOD. And God used him mightily. When Moody once said, “The world has yet to see what God can do in and with a man who is entirely devoted to Him,” he was wrong. Calvin was such a man.
And by the way, I am not a Calvinist because of Calvin. I am a Calvinist because I am a Biblicist and love the Bible.
Hope this helps. Soli Deo Gloria.