When it comes to lying by omission, few do it better than John Piper.
The Christian author and former pastor is an adherent of Calvinism, a subset of Christianity essentially founded on the fear that somewhere, someone is having fun. So of course, Piper reveres the man who birthed it: Geneva-based John Calvin, the 16th-century theologian and a leader of the Protestant Reformation.
“The majesty of God mastered him,” Piper trumpets in a new hagiographical piece on his website. In turn, he says, Calvin was “a man utterly devoted to displaying the majesty of God.” (The word majesty appears in the article 17 times.)
But leaving the preaching and writing aside for a moment, what was there in Calvin’s actions that exemplified how holy and God-inspired he was? How did he live his life to bring out all that divine glory and sublimeness he constantly bathed in?
The answer: Calvin displayed well-documented pettiness, vengeance, and bloodlust. Most damningly, he orchestrated the punishment and occasional execution of heretics — with a triumphant kind of cruelty that puts the Sparrows sect in Game of Thrones to shame.
Oddly, in Piper’s entire 2,000-word piece, we learn nothing about any of that. It’s just one big sloppy repetitive paean to a man he believes was one of the Almighty’s noblest representatives ever. In the interest of balance, I think a correction is in order. Let’s dive in.
The central theological drama in Calvin’s life was his war of words with the Spanish physician, Bible scholar, and Renaissance humanist Michael Servetus. Like Calvin, Servetus rejected the authority of the Catholic Church. Unlike Calvin, however, he couldn’t get on board with child baptisms and with the concept of a triune God — and to his great detriment, he was unafraid to say so. The dispute between the two men soon centered on Servetus’ apparently scandalous contention that Jesus was the Son of the eternal God, but not the eternal Son of God.
That may seem like picayune nonsense to you and me, but Servetus’ dissent gravely displeased Calvin, who wasn’t a man of tomato-tomahto conciliation. When Servetus returned a theological treatise of Calvin’s to him after scribbling critical notes in the margins, Calvin became both incensed and implacable. He had a history of calling people he disagreed with “pigs,” “asses,” “riffraff,” “dogs,” “donkeys,”and “stinking beasts”; but for Servetus, he had something in mind that transcended schoolyard epithets. He wrote to his friend Guillaume Farel,
Servetus offers to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive.
Though Calvin had no official civil authority in Geneva, he certainly had the ear of the powerful people in the city, including councillors and magistrates. In November 1552, this entanglement became official, and Calvin managed to have it declared a criminal offense to disagree with the magnum opus he had written in his twenties, the influential Institutes of the Christian Religion. When Michael Servetus, unwisely, traveled to Geneva and actually attended one of Calvin’s Sunday sermons, he was recognized and arrested on charges of heresy. After a lengthy trial, the suspect was sentenced to burn at the stake.
Calvin acted perturbed. His kindest biographers later made much of the fact that he tried to get Servetus’ sentence reduced to mere decapitation; and that he even “visited the unhappy man in his final hours” (not to quietly gloat, we are asked to believe). The court, unmoved, held fast to its verdict.
And so, on October 27, 1553, God’s henchmen did this:
[G]reen wood was used for the fire so Servetus would be slowly baked alive from the feet upward. For 30 minutes he screamed for mercy and prayed to Jesus as the fire worked its way up his body to burn the theology book [he’d written] strapped to his chest.
People acquainted with Calvin’s radical rancor toward heretics could’ve predicted Servetus’ fate. After all, six years earlier,
Jacques Gruet, a theologian with differing views, placed a letter in Calvin’s pulpit calling him a hypocrite; he was arrested, tortured for a month, and beheaded on July 26, 1547,
… but only after the executioner first nailed his feet to a stake, perhaps to prevent the condemned man from kicking or thrashing.
… Gruet’s own theological book was… found and burned along with his house while his wife was thrown out into the street to watch.
In his Institutes, Calvin, who was 27 when he finished the first edition, had actually denounced violence against heretics. Punishing dissenters was abhorrent to him then:
“It is criminal to put heretics to death. To make an end of them by fire and sword is opposed to every principle of humanity.”
A dozen years later, his opinion had turned 180 degrees — presumably after encountering too many upstart theologians like Gruet and Servetus, who were insufficiently deferential.
Remorse wasn’t in Calvin’s constitution. In some ways, he was just like his Catholic counterpart and contemporary Sir Thomas More, who hunted heretics and appeared to enjoy imagining the flames devouring their flesh. Both men held that they were not responsible for blasphemers’ executions; after all, they only helped deliver such criminals to the state courts, whose verdicts were supposedly free from church influence.
Not all those who personally knew Calvin bought that disingenuous argument. At considerable risk, his former friend and protégé Sebastian Castellio wrote that Calvin’s hands were “dripping with the blood of Servetus,” and argued for freedom of conscience and a modicum of rationality:
“When Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings,”
… Castellio opined.
“We can live together peacefully only when we control our intolerance. Even though there will always be differences of opinion from time to time, we can at any rate come to general understandings, can love one another, and can enter the bonds of peace, pending the day when we shall attain unity of faith.”
What does it say about Christianity that Calvinism survived and thrived, and that there is no such thing as Castellioism?
There’s some comfort in the fact that the execution of Servetus did somewhat dim Calvin’s star. For the next 11 years, until his death, he was forced to return to the topic again and again, prodded by friend and foe alike. And time upon time, he doubled down on his evisceration of Servetus, writing
“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church… Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that I would like to kill again the man that I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face“…
…“[W]hat crime was it of mine if our [Geneva] Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? … [P]osterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster.”…
“I am persuaded that it is not without the special will of God that, apart from any verdict of the judges, the criminals have endured protracted torment at the hands of the executioner“…
“[D]o not fail to rid the country of those scoundrels, who stir up the people to revolt against us. Such monsters should be exterminated, as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.”
All this happened 500 years ago. Can’t we let bygones be bygones?
It’s tempting. But as Piper unwittingly demonstrates, there is today a cottage industry perversely dedicated to erasing Calvin’s legacy of cruelty and ruthlessness. The reason this matters is that, aside from Piper, Calvinist pastors like Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, and Mark Dever have gained great influence. In the last few decades, Calvinists implanted themselves deeply into American evangelicalism, especially in the Southern Baptist branch. It got to the point where the New York Times noted that “evangelicals find themselves in the midst of a Calvinist revival,” if not a hostile takeover.
The success of that operation requires the rehabilitation of Calvin — restoring him to his mid-16th-century glory. This means that the faithful mustn’t hear about Servetus; and that if they do, the story has to be recast to remove from it the stink of blood and hypocrisy. Thus, historically dicey but-did-you-knows are put to work. The six below are actual apologias written by modern-day Calvin defenders, as you can see if you click on the links.
• But did you know that Calvin wasn’t the executioner? He didn’t light the match!
Literally? That’s right, he didn’t. Figuratively, the record says otherwise.
• But did you know that Calvin preferred that Servetus be beheaded instead of burned alive?
He visited Servetus before the execution. If he cared so much, he could’ve slipped the man a razor or a fast-acting poison. By the way, the “Calvin was only 90 percent monster” defense fails to impress.
• But did you know that the Roman Catholic Church wanted Servetus dead, too?
So you’re saying that two wrongs do make a right?
• But did you know that Calvin probably had a very warm relationship with his wife, a widow?
I don’t believe we were talking about that, but thanks for trying. (Also, meet Blondi.)
I didn’t demand perfection. But the absence of fiendishness, barbarism, and killing sure would be nice.
“Many people have accused me of … ferocious cruelty.”
Besides, shouldn’t the figurehead of an eternally true, God-given theology have a standard of behavior that lives up to religion’s vaunted Golden Rule, at a minimum? The average schmo at the time probably shouldn’t be the benchmark for such a leader.
Calvin was, of course, a no-nonsense type of guy, says Bratt. “He tried to get people to live up to their obligations as citizens and as members of God’s world.” At the same time, says Bratt, “he was no killjoy.”
Right. No-nonsense John Calvin occasionally set his sights on something better to kill than joy — enemies.
As I said, you won’t learn that from propaganda-farting mythomaniacs like John Piper. I hope this post sets the record straight. If you’d like to burrow deeper into the topic, follow the two dozen links above. Should you prefer a book-length plunge, the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Dan Barker, who I called to verify a historical detail, recommends Did Calvin Murder Servetus?, by Stanford Rives.
I expect that Rives, in his book, solves this not-much-of-a-mystery. One riddle that endures is why God, whose “majesty” supposedly “mastered” Calvin, chose to outfit Calvinism’s pecksniff-in-chief with the characteristics of not just a bully, but a pitiless killer. Maybe it takes one to make one?
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