The theology of John Calvin is currently experiencing quite a renaissance. His followers are today called “young, restless, and reformed” or adherents of “The New Calvinism.” In fact, Time magazine in 2009 listed “The New Calvinism” as one of the “10 Ideas Changing the World Right Now.”
Calvin and his ideas are making inroads among Southern Baptists. Many seminarians and young pastors identify with his doctrines, while long established traditional Southern Baptist Churches (and their leadership) generally stay away from the thinking of Calvin.
Because of the contemporary emphasis on Calvinism, I thought that perhaps we should take a closer look at a man who, although he has been dead for over 400 years, still speaks to many in our day. Who was John Calvin? Where did he live? What did he teach? And would you want to live in a place where he exerted a dominating influence?
John Calvin was born in France in 1509. He was educated in the law and trained for a legal career and only later on became interested in religion. While living in Paris he became acquainted with numerous Protestant Christians who dissented from Catholic teachings on things such as transubstantiation (the view that at communion the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ and are not just symbolic of his body and blood). In 1533 many Protestants were forced to leave Paris because of their call for reform in the Church. Calvin “disguised as a vinedresser, escaped in a basket” from the city.1
Calvin was eventually asked by a friend to assist in the Reformation efforts in Geneva. In 1536 he arrived in Geneva, but was banished for three years in 1538 before returning for good in 1541. His banishment came at the behest of Roman Catholics who were aligned with less religious people in the city in opposing Calvin’s desire to make Geneva a “model Christian community.”2
Upon his return to Geneva, Calvin began to work in earnest to transform the city into his vision of a model Christian city. Until his death in 1564 this was the focus of his life.
What kind of community did Calvin seek to build? Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin did not believe in the separation of church and state. Religious Liberty was not to be found in Calvin’s Geneva. Although Calvin never officially held public office, he ruled the city as pastor of the church. How did he rule? An ecclesiastical court called The Consistory was formed that included laymen and ministers. Though not a member, Calvin’s will was expressed through this group. His teachings and reforms were the foundation of their decisions.
According to historian Clyde L. Manschreck, in Calvin’s Geneva “between 1542 and 1546, fifty-eight people were executed and seventy six people were banished.”3 During Calvin’s time in Geneva many were forced to leave the city while many who supported his teachings moved there from other areas of Europe.
Manschreck goes on to report that people were sentenced to death in Geneva for things such as adultery, being a witch, blasphemy, and various other offenses. One child was beheaded for striking his parents.
On one occasion, one of Calvin’s numerous critics in Geneva placed an unsigned letter on Calvin’s pulpit. The authorities conducted an investigation and searched the home of a man named Jaques Gruet. In Calvin’s Geneva, homes could be searched at any time without notice. In Gruet’s home they found evidence they used to arrest him. After being tortured, Gruet confessed to writing the letter along with other crimes. His confession, derived under torture, was cause for him to be condemned to death. He was beheaded for freely expressing his views. In Calvin’s Geneva, freedom of expression was not always tolerated.
As a Traditional Baptist who believes in Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State, I admit to being troubled by Calvin’s conflating of religion and government. As someone who believes that all people have the right to freedom of worship, I believe that no one should be coerced to worship. Freedom of conscience is important. Genuine faith cannot be forced. Genuine faith cannot be manipulated by law or government. Genuine faith comes from the heart.
But in Calvin’s Geneva the population was compelled to adhere to what Calvin viewed as God’s sovereign will for the model Christian community. It is difficult to understand how someone like Calvin could reconcile his soteriological positions with his political positions. Let me explain.
Calvin taught that God was absolutely sovereign, good, and just while mankind was totally depraved and corrupt. God thus sent Christ into the world as redeemer. But according to Calvin, not all have an opportunity for redemption (or salvation). He said that Election is the reason why some respond to the gospel and some do not. God, he taught, chose to save SOME through the work of Christ while others were left as reprobates. In Calvin’s view, some hit the jackpot and some don’t. Some are chosen for salvation. Others are left in a state of hopeless reprobation in which they will eventually end up in hell forever.
And why, we might ask Mr. Calvin, did God elect some and not others? He would answer “Because He wanted to!” Calvin taught that it pleased God to do so. And in Calvin’s view God has “determined what he would have to become of every individual of makind.”4
My conundrum is this: If God had determined that some would be elect (or redeemed) and others would not be elect (thus reprobate), then why would Calvin rule Geneva in a way that required all citizens to conform to his view of the “model Christian community?” How did he expect non-elect citizens to behave like elect citizens? If he truly believed that many were non-elect, how could he build a system of social control that was imposed on all citizens, many of whom were non-elect who didn’t believe in, nor have the desire to obey Calvin’s laws?
While I agree that there must be limits on behavior, Calvin imposed laws that were strict even in the 16th century. Calvin’s Geneva outlawed theatrical performances, coming late to church, laughter, dancing, playing cards, fighting, and charging interest in excess of five percent. Also prohibited in Geneva were things such as fastings, religious idols or symbols, and many things associated with Catholicism. And behind it all was the man in the pulpit, John Calvin.5
To many of his day, Calvin was viewed as an agent of God who was working to reform a city and remake it as a Christian community. To others, he ruled as a tyrant who dominated the city. Many Protestants streamed into Geneva from other areas of Europe wanting to live and learn in a city like Calvin’s Geneva. Others were forced to flee for fear of being convicted of violating the laws governing Calvin’s political system.
Perhaps the most notorious act of Calvin’s rule involved the notorious Spaniard, Michael Servetus. Servetus was a physician of some renown and not an orthodox Christian. His views on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other doctrines were outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. And Servetus took great exception to the teachings of John Calvin.
Servetus denied Calvin’s doctrine of original sin and infant baptism. And he stood in opposition to many other ideas promulgated by Calvin in his famous work Institutes of the Christian Religion. In fact, he and Calvin exchanged many letters in which they debated doctrine. One act that upset Calvin occurred after he sent Servetus a copy of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion. Servetus sent it back to Calvin with the margins filled with notes in which he pointed out what he believed were errors in Calvin’s arguments. 6
As if sending Calvin’s book back with corrections wasn’t enough, Servetus then published a book in which he took issue with Calvin’s Institutes. This was more than Calvin could handle. Through an aide he informed the French Inquisition of Servetus’ heresy and even gave them what he viewed as evidence of his errors.
Servetus fled France and headed for Italy, but on his way he stopped off in Calvin’s Geneva, where he went to church, was recognized and arrested. The following quote from historian Clyde L. Manschreck describes what occurred.
“The Genevan Council found Servetus guilty of obstinately spreading heresy and sentenced him to death by burning. Seven years earlier Calvin had vowed that if Servetus ever came to Geneva he would not leave it alive. On the day after sentencing, Servetus was chained to a stake, his book (in which he opposed Calvin) fastened to his arm, sulphur and straw rubbed into his hair. But the straw and fagots (a bundle of sticks or twigs bundled together as fuel) were damp and Servetus died only after half an hour of agony and screaming. At the end he cried ‘O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!’” 7
To be fair, Calvin and the Geneva Council were not the only ones of that period who believed that killing heretics was just. Many in the period thought that heresy was a poison to the people that must be dealt with severely.
However, we must not simply let those who acted in such a manner off the hook too easily. As a Baptist we must remember that we too were once a persecuted people. Baptists in the early American colonies were persecuted for dissenting from the majority view of the colonial leaders. Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College, was removed from that position in 1654 Harvard College when he became a Baptist. In 1651, Obadiah Holmes was beaten on the Boston Common for preaching as a Baptist in a state in which it was illegal to be a Baptists.
Persecution often occurs when the power of the government is used to enforce one religious group’s ideas upon others. The danger of integrating church and state is that it limits the freedom of those who don’t agree with the church that is supported by the state.
As a traditional Baptist, I believe in freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all. Let every person proclaim his views. Let us proclaim the gospel. And let the Holy Spirit use that proclamation to convict, convince, and call men and women into the kingdom. I believe so strongly in the gospel that I am willing to put it up against every man made philosophy and every religious idea ever presented and I am convinced the gospel will prevail!
When Christians attempt to prop up their faith by using the power of the state they are in reality demonstrating a lack of faith in their beliefs. We don’t need the government to fund our faith, preach our faith, or impose our faith. We need the government to allow freedom of conscience to all and to give us the liberty to preach the good news of Christ. And when we faithfully proclaim the truth about Jesus, lives will be transformed and culture itself will be transformed.
Those like Calvin who seek to dominate through governmental power are in actuality demonstrating a lack of trust that their faith can be victorious over the world. “‘Not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit’”, says the Lord,” should be our motto. As the hymn says, “Faith is the victory that overcomes the world.”
My final question is this: would you want to live in a world like Calvin’s Geneva? I’m not so sure the “model Christian Community” was all it was cracked up to be. No Religious Liberty. No freedom of expression. No freedom of conscience.
As a Traditional Baptist many doctrines that were taught in Geneva would have violated my conscience.
Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin taught that infants should be baptized by sprinkling. We believe in believer’s baptism by immersion.
Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin taught and practiced the melding of church and state. We believe in Religious Liberty and the Separation of Church and State.
Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin taught that Jesus died only for the elect and that all people were not savable. Traditional Baptist believe in the savibility of all. Whosoever will may come to Christ.
Unlike Traditional Baptists, Calvin believed those who held dissenting views should be persecuted, excommunicated, or otherwise punished. We believe those who hold dissenting views should be prayed for, witnessed to, and allowed to make a free choice of whether to convert or not to convert.
No doubt, Calvin was brilliant thinker, strong leader, and influential personality. We cannot ignore his influence on the Church throughout the centuries. His doctrinal positions continue to stir debate and demand intellectual engagement.
But his story, like all of our stories, includes more than meets the eye. When modern day “new Calvinists” or “Young, Restless, and Reformed” folks think of Calvin, I sometimes wonder if they know anything about him other than the TULIP, the 5 theological points that summarize Calvin’s soteriology (doctrines about salvation)?
Calvin’s story is more than the TULIP. And before we begin planting 21st century TULIP gardens, perhaps we should know a little more about the man behind the TULIP.
1. Clyde L. Manschreck. A History of Christianity in the World. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), 188.
2. John Dillenberger and Claude Welch. Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through It’s Development. (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1988), 23.
3. Manschreck, 190.
4. Ibid, 189.
5. Ibid, 190.
6. Ibid, 191.