Church History: John Calvin, Part 2

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73 Responses

  1. Servetus will always be a mark against Calvin, like the Southern ministers who defended slavery.

  2. Michael says:

    How is it a mark against Calvin…and not against the entire Body of Christ with the exception of the Anabaptists?

  3. Michael says:

    An even better and more difficult question…how did we all get this so wrong?

  4. Why do people even remember Michael Servetus – isn’t he just one on many heretics at the time?
    I had never heard of him before he was mentioned here a couple of years ago – so why this one heretic in particular?

  5. papiaslogia says:

    Servetus may be linked to Calvin, but not the other way around.

    People should read Selderhuis’s “John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life”

  6. Michael says:


    Servetus has been the object of great sympathy from people who hate Calvinism and there are thousands of articles and dozens of books that claim he was “murdered” by Calvin.

    The end game is that if you can discredit Calvin , then you can discredit his theology.

  7. “How is it a mark against Calvin…and not against the entire Body of Christ”

    Well, it is…just like slavery is a mark against the Body of Christ. Calvin took part in the execution, like Richard Furman defended slavery. They may be no more guilty than you or me, but they will be remembered for those actions.

  8. Michael says:


    Great book…the best on Calvin, I think.
    I met Selderhuis in Geneva…he was trying to balance working the conference for Calvins 500th and his twenty fifth anniversary.
    His wife cut short our discussion… 🙂

  9. “The end game is that if you can discredit Calvin , then you can discredit his theology.”

    I don’t think so, but it is an ugly stain on his life. I’m not sure how one would try to link the execution as being a product of theology, though. I think that would be a dishonest leap.

  10. I remember listening to an iTunesU lecture on Calvin’s life from a Reformed Seminary (sorry don’t remember the prof or institution) where he said (I think I remember correctly) that Calvin had actually made a trip back to France (where he would have been executed himself if he was discovered) to try and meet with Servetus to try to get him to change his mind, but Servetus didn’t show…

    Can anyone comment on whether this is true?

  11. Michael says:


    That was Dr. Frank James, the series was called “The Calvin I Never Knew”.
    16 years before his execution, Servetus asked Calvin to meet him in Paris to discuss the deity of Christ.
    Despite the fact that Calvin had a price on his head in France, he made the attempt to meet with the heretic.
    Servetus didn’t show.
    Thank you, for noting that!

  12. “books that claim he was “murdered” by Calvin.”

    These claims were around even during Calvin’s lifetime.

  13. Michael says:


    The point is that the stain has only stuck to Calvin when every leader in Europe voted to execute him.

  14. Michael says:


    They are all the product of a biography written by a man named Bolzec…who also claimed that Calvin was an adulterer, winebibber, abuser of children, and a homosexual.
    He didn’t like Calvin…

  15. josh the baptist says:

    Castellio thought him guilty of murder. In facg, did not Calvin write a formal defense of the persecution.

  16. Michael says:

    Casteliio was close to Bolzec in his loathing of Calvin.
    The facts are that Calvin couldn’t have pulled this off on his own if he wanted to.
    He simply didn’t have the authority to do so.
    Critics ignore the fact that Servetus was a wanted man…and every Protestant leader from Bullinger to Melancthon felt him guilty of heresy and sedition and worthy of death.
    Calvin wrote at length about the power of the state to enforce such laws, using an OT civil law template to do so.
    We believe now that he was very wrong…but those writings were affirmed at the time by the Protestant majority and Rome had always believed it so.

  17. Jean says:

    “The lessons to be learned here have little to do with the character of John Calvin…and much to be learned about the proper relationship between church and state.”

    I think this is basically correct, because if the church and state aren’t intertwined, then the church won’t have the power of the “sword” and/or the state won’t have juridical authority in matters of religion.

    I also think learning this history is so important so that both church and state can learn from the past (and not repeat its mistakes) and so that we don’t have an inaccurately formed memory of some imagined pure form of religion or church that never really existed.

    Thank you Michael for taking the time to distill this history for us. I know you are trying to be neutral in your presentations, but I perceive that it’s more of a challenge when it comes to Calvin. Well done!

  18. “We believe now that he was very wrong…but those writings were affirmed at the time by the Protestant majority and Rome had always believed it so.”

    This is true, like I said about slavery. However, I don’t understand why you try to distance Calvin from the execution. In that day, he was very much attached to the execution, by those who agreed with him, and those who disagreed.

    And I don’t think it fair to say Castellio just didn’t like Calvin. He was a prized student until they had disagreements working together.

  19. Though the following does make Calvin’s intentions clear (wikipedia). The defense seems to be that Calvin wanted Servetus dead along with almost everyone else, not that Calvin had nothing to do with it. I’ve heard both errors.

    Calvin and Servetus were first brought into contact in 1546 through a common acquaintance, Jean Frellon of Lyon; they exchanged letters debating doctrine; Calvin used a pseudonym as Charles d’ Espeville, while Servetus left his unsigned.[51] Eventually, Calvin lost patience and refused to respond; by this time Servetus had written around thirty letters to Calvin. Calvin was particularly outraged when Servetus sent him a copy of the Institutes of the Christian Religion heavily annotated with arguments pointing to errors in the book. When Servetus mentioned that he would come to Geneva, “Espeville” (Calvin) wrote a letter to Farel on 13 February 1546 noting that if Servetus were to come, he would not assure him safe conduct: “for if he came, as far as my authority goes, I would not let him leave alive.”[52]

  20. Michael says:


    What I try to distance Calvin from is the historical notion that he was alone responsible for the death of Servetus.
    It’s simply not factually true.

  21. btw, thanks for filling in the details of my hazy memory in #11 there Michael 🙂

  22. SJ says:

    Priceless and very witty…..
    “He was wanted throughout Europe, not for speaking engagements but for the stake.”

  23. “What I try to distance Calvin from is the historical notion that he was alone responsible for the death of Servetus.”

    Yeah, anyone who claims that just hasn’t read history.

  24. Michael says:


    Calvin was no cardboard saint.
    He could be temperamental and proud.
    He confessed these sins himself and his correspondence is full of both temper tantrums and repentance from temper tantrums.
    He was a product of his time in many ways and in the case of Servetus neither he nor the rest of the Reformers rose above it.
    However…he also was not the tyrant that he is made out to be…and we shall see how some of his better ways affected history right down to today.

  25. Very good article, by the way. i appreciate it!

  26. Michael says:

    Thank you, Josh, thank you, SJ.

  27. Jean says:

    “Calvin was no cardboard saint.”

    There really aren’t any, are there? Seems many people today either don’t care at all about history or have a really distorted view of history usually based, not on study, but on what someone in their tribe is selling. And I don’t limit this observation to only history of religion.

    Thank you for not being a salesman.

  28. Babylon's Dread says:

    Ok the description of life in Geneva under Calvin/Council and the issue of making sin a matter of civil as well as religious offense is odious beyond words for me. I understand that it was a different time but it reveals a functional view of the Christian life as sin management rather than grace. For a very long time I have chilled at the notion that the Christian life is so much about avoiding sin. When I listen to most Bible church preaching it is clear to me that we think of the New Testament as a kind of reissue of the law.

    We are under the law of the apostles rather than the law of Moses. Already we know that the reformers were given to drink and women and other carnal pursuits at least to some degree. So one wonders what sins would get the attention of the civil magistrate and what punishments?

    All I have to do is read the first half of the article to know that Geneva could not succeed and should not succeed. The kingdom of God is not what they attempted. Frankly I think such efforts help to prove it.

  29. Babylon's Dread says:

    My old professor used to tell us that Servetus cried out “Jesus, Son of God have mercy on me.” And he would add that had Servetus cried out “Jesus, God the Son have mercy on me” they would have extinguished the flames. I don’t know if it is anecdotal or true but it made great classroom theatre.

    Thus Servetus for preferring the language of the text to that of the academy is silenced. But such was the way of the heretic. Many souls were deemed to have been rescued by killing these whose words damned souls forever.

  30. Michael says:


    The records of the consistory are fascinating.
    The issues ranged from drunkenness to excessive partying to poor church attendance to blasphemy.
    Lots and lots of domestic disputes…
    I wouldn’t have wanted to live there, but the idea that our faith should affect all of our lives is one we may have lost.

  31. Michael says:


    That is nowhere in any historical document I’m aware of.
    Servetus wrote reams and reams of heresy and recanted none of it.

  32. I agree with Babs – sin is overrated 😉

  33. Babylon's Dread says:

    I’ll drink to that MLD

  34. Jim says:

    Good article.

  35. Muff Potter says:

    Michael @ # 16:

    “…Calvin wrote at length about the power of the state to enforce such laws, using an OT civil law template to do so.
    We believe now that he was very wrong…but those writings were affirmed at the time by the Protestant majority and Rome had always believed it so…”

    Interesting Michael, and as always I salute your balanced and factual approach to these kinds of things. How and why did this paradigm shift occur? One would think that Holy Writ would hold sway no matter what ‘new ideas’ came out of the pens of the Enlightenment Era thinkers. Nowhere in Scripture are the Rights of Man even remotely hinted at. If anything, the Bible points to a pecking order of potentates divinely ordained and established by the Almighty himself.

  36. Michael says:

    Thanks, Jim.
    The first marriage of church and state was with Constantine as you know.
    This was just another result of the ceremony.

  37. brian says:

    Michael this entire series on history has been very helpful, especially this one on Calvin. Thank You.

  38. PP Vet says:

    What brian said

  39. Babylon's Dread says:

    You have defended JC so aptly that this was actually easy and a very good post, succinct and honest.

  40. So, is Ted Cruz’ vision for America any different than Calvin’s Geneva? Here he wants to bring his rapture theology / dispensationalism into American politics

  41. Jean says:

    Cruz is an idiot!

    Cruz: “Christians have no greater ally than Israel.”

    Tell that to the Arab Christians in the West Bank who continually have their land confiscated and face roadblocks and daily harassment.

  42. Cruz and the rapture theology folks would say you are an anti semite.

    oh wait – he did say that in the article. 😉

  43. Mark says:

    Michael- thank you for this history. Would you expound on this statement:

    His job was to bring reformation to not only the church, but to the city and the daily lives of the citizenry.

    American evangelicals would have hated it.

    I do not understand your point.

  44. papiaslogia says:

    “The first marriage of church and state was with Constantine as you know.”

    For the Roman empire, this is true.

    But the first Christian kingdom is acknowledged to be the Armenian @ 301.

    There was also talk that there was a Christian kingdom in Ethiopia earlier than that, but not much has come of that.

    Not to nitpick or anything… 😉

    And all kingdoms that have been acknowledged as Christian in nature have been nominal Christian at best.

    Mark – Imagine working at a business that was Christian in name only, and then extrapolate that out to an entire nation. “Sure, we’re a Christian nation, look at our fish decal!”

  45. Michael says:


    Cooperation with the church was compulsory, not voluntary.
    You could be fined, jailed, or banned for not attending church or for persistent sin.

    Let me give one example.

    It was against the law to not call for the elders of the church if you got sick.
    You were to notify them within three days of coming down with something.

    On one hand it’s great that a system was in place to make sure everyone received pastoral care…but making it mandatory takes away it’s charm for us today.

  46. Michael says:

    The Lords table was served four times a year.
    Calvin wanted it weekly, but the council forbade him.
    Before the Easter communion every home in Geneva was visited by a pastor and had it’s spiritual temper taken in preparation.
    Good luck with that today…

  47. Michael says:

    The great flaw of Geneva (and the rest of the Reformed cities) was that they enforced external righteousness, but the law can only go so far in changing the heart.

    Calvin knew that this was a failed experiment…just as any attempt to make America a “Christian nation” failed and would fail again.

  48. Michael says:

    It’s difficult for us today to imagine living in a place where your citizenship is dependent on your professed faith.
    The lack of freedom appalls us.
    I think Geneva is a cautionary tale about any such connections between church and state.

    On the other hand…

    The crime rate went way down in Geneva.
    The economy boomed.
    The sick and poor were cared for.
    Education was provided for all.
    Geneva became the greatest center for missions in Europe.

    It was an extremely sharp two edged sword.

  49. papiaslogia says:

    “Only Christians can be citizens” …..very timely subject since Thockmorton put this up yesterday:

    What’s scary is that their are “Christians” who would approve of this mindset today.

  50. Jean says:

    “Calvin knew that this was a failed experiment…just as any attempt to make America a “Christian nation” failed and would fail again.”

    I don’t know about a “Christian nation” because I’m not sure we would all agree on a definition, after all it’s people who are Christians not sovereign states.

    However, by the grace of God, we could all pray and work for an America that is known as a “nation of Christians”.

  51. Michael says:



  52. “Calvin knew that this was a failed experiment…”

    Why would you say that? Didn’t Calvin write a defense of such governments?

  53. Michael says:


    When we speak of a “Christian nation’ we almost always invest that with particular policies and a particular mindset.
    As I read Scriptures, I see the church as a remnant, not the majority.

  54. Michael says:


    He wrote about the biblical justification for such.
    In his correspondence he’s clear that he understands that much of the change had been external and that sin and vice were still rampant in Geneva.

  55. Jean says:


    Yes, the church is a remnant, but that’s a global category. There’s no reason why Christianity can’t be more or less influential in any particular country based on the number of Christians in that country.

  56. papiaslogia says:

    And if sin is still rampant in a city, you can bet that the hearts of those who do not commit outward sins is not necessarily clean as well.

    It goes beyond acting right for the wrong reason.

    It turns out that you can legislate morality, but that doesn’t make everybody moral. It just sends sin underground where it festers and turns outwardly good men into hypocrites.

  57. Babylon's Dread says:

    It should be noted that Calvin did not have final authority over the people or over himself. That is the lesson we need today. I always say that if you cannot tell me who can say “no” to you and make it stick then you are a dangerous person.

    These pages on Calvin are refreshing in that way. The city council did not answer to him and could not be fired by him and could tell him NO. Nothing like that exists in the churches that are critiqued on these threads. When the people in charge of your discipline can be fired by you then you have final authority.

    Calvin likely had the most influence but not the most power. That matters a great deal.

  58. Michael says:


    “It should be noted that Calvin did not have final authority over the people or over himself. That is the lesson we need today.”

    Very well said…and yes, he had the most influence, but not the most power.

  59. Babylon's Dread says:

    8 of the 9 people who confronted Mars Hill with the statement of Tripp that MH is the most coercive and abusive church culture he has ever seen are GONE. With them them the moral voice of authority. My guess is that the inside word would be that they were all in process of being gone anyway. Or that their actions created a situation in which they are gone. In other words it is their fault. … Pretty much what every abusive husband says.

  60. Michael says:


    Now they are attacking the families as well…the sign of complete depravity.

  61. Jean,
    ” There’s no reason why Christianity can’t be more or less influential in any particular country based on the number of Christians in that country.”

    Are you as comfortable with Sharia as the Muslim population grows in some of these countries? France, England, Michigan?

  62. Jean says:

    MLD, If Michigan is a country, then I guess the U.S. doesn’t have to bail out Detroit 🙂

  63. Michael says:

    I will say this as a follow up to BD.

    I’m convinced that if Calvin were to have been given ultimate power he would have ended up like Mark Driscoll with matches despite his best angels.

    I’m convinced that I would too.

  64. papiaslogia says:

    Michael – #60.

    That whole methodology of using what has been shared in confidence to then perform character assassination is an abomination to anything resembling Church.

    And we wonder why people stop going to church after these experiences?

  65. Jean, we bail out and give aid to other Muslim countries – might as well include the Muslim Republic of Michigan. 🙂

  66. Rowdie Jones says:

    Servetus is a red herring used by Arminians.

  67. Jean says:


    I wish more people would have read and commented on this article. That is really scary and repugnat stuff. It would be hilarious if the authors weren’t serious.

  68. I had not read it because I thought it was another Throckmorton Driscoll article.

    These groups are just in breeders. I am sure that no one here has ever heard of them before.

    I will say I am quite surprised that General Boykin pulled out – he usually has his head so far up conservative christian butts I never thought he could see the light of day.

  69. Jean says:


    It pains me to say this, but Ken Hamm is somewhat known and respected in my neck of the woods.

    I didn’t, however, know until I read this article that groups like IOTC and League of of the South exist. It wouldn’t be so shocking to me if they didn’t associate themselves with Christianity.

  70. Well, just because one is Christian doesn’t mean one can’t be nuts.

  71. Jean says:


    Are those dudes nuts? That might be a relief.

  72. ken jacobsen says:

    “Calvin in fact established a dictatorship, becoming a civil and religious dictator. Geneva was nicknamed Protestant Rome and Calvin himself—the Pope of the Reformation….

    Calvin introduced an absolute control of the private life of every citizen. In his doctrine every man was a wretched being not worthy of existence, a sinner and evil doer, ‘trash’ (une ordure). He instituted a ‘spiritual police’ to supervise constantly all Genevese and they were subjected to periodical inspections in their households by the ‘police des moeurs.’ Anything that smacked of pleasure— music, song, laughter, theater, amusement, dancing, playing cards, even skating—was declared ‘paillardise’ and severely punished.

    Calvin managed to destroy the normal bonds between people and simple decency inducing them to spy upon each other. His method of intimidation and terror was so refined that it involved control of every petty activity.”

    Michael Servetus, by Marian Hillar, Claire S. Allen
    University Press of America, Jan 1, 2002
    p 153-54

  73. ken jacobsen says:

    As to the charge that Servetus “denied the diety of Christ”, it’s not Servetus who did that, it’s Trinitarianism that does, by making Christ into one head of a three-headed God-monster called the “Blessed Trinity”.

    “We who see God through Christ clearly sense the manifest falseness of other’s ideas about him.”

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