How to Defend John Calvin?

tdunham736

Puritan Board Freshman
Hello PB!

I've been having some really good conversations with some arminian brothers in Christ who have argued to me that
1) I've gotten my theology from Calvin's Institutes and that
2) Calvin was a murderer (Servetus and the anabaptists, etc.).

While the first is not true by any stretch of the imagination (I get my convictions from Sola Scriptura) I'm having a harder time defending our good forefather in the faith John Calvin. Every source that I've looked at either bashes the poor man to no end or praises him almost to the point of godhood. Anyone have some honest information about this reformer?
 

RamistThomist

Puritanboard Clerk
Hello PB!

I've been having some really good conversations with some arminian brothers in Christ who have argued to me that
1) I've gotten my theology from Calvin's Institutes and that
2) Calvin was a murderer (Servetus and the anabaptists, etc.).

While the first is not true by any stretch of the imagination (I get my convictions from Sola Scriptura) I'm having a harder time defending our good forefather in the faith John Calvin. Every source that I've looked at either bashes the poor man to no end or praises him almost to the point of godhood. Anyone have some honest information about this reformer?

Regarding (2), just say, "So what?" Either what Calvin said was true or it wasn't. I like some Dominican theology and the Dominicans burned people.

On a more serious note: Calvin didn't exercise any judicial authority in Geneva. It's as simple as that.
 

Jake

Puritan Board Senior
If you actually want to have a good conversation, I've found it's helpful to first of all not lead with calling yourself "Calvinist" as it tends to make it all about one person in particular for some by the name. "Reformed" allows talking of a tradition and a history that is more than one man, but still defines some boundaries of what you believe.

If they bring up about Calvin, I usually reflect on what are some differences and similarities in what we believe. John Calvin has been an influential theologian to me, but, for example, I disagree with his position on the Sabbath and think the Puritans and framers of the Westminster Standards did a better job there.

If you actually do get to the point of having a conversation, I think it's helpful to frame the historical landscape of the 16th century. It was a time of a very different view of church and state than we have today, and while there were differences between the Roman Catholics, Reformed, Lutherans, and Anabaptists, the reality is that the bigger issue was that they were in a world where religious issues were treated very differently. You can argue about the extent to which Calvin was involved in the execution of Servetus, but the reality is that there was a recognition at the time broadly in the visible church of the heinousness of blasphemy. The only reason someone like Jacob Arminius probably stayed more out of those types of issues was the scope of his influence and the fact that he came a generation after Calvin and was raised and educated in a more religious homogeneous environment. He was probably also influenced by Caspar Coolhaes who differed from Calvin's view of civil government.
 

Jack K

Puritan Board Doctor
Defending John Calvin and defending Calvinism vs. Arminianism ought to be two different things. It sounds like these Arminians don't really understand their history and where their beliefs originated.

Most likely, they themselves probably get much of their theology from Calvin's Institutes. The Institutes are not really the best place to go if you want to understand what makes the doctrines of grace (commonly called "Calvinism") different from Arminianism—nor is the justice system in 16th century Geneva. To get to the heart of the matter, you need to discuss the Synod of Dordt vs. the Remonstrants, which came after Calvin.
 

Stephen L Smith

Administrator
Staff member
Have you read 'John Calvin for a New Reformation'? This is a fascinating book discussing Calvin's history, his ministry and how it was a blessing to the church, as well as a section on his theology. You come away from reading this book grateful to God for Calvin's ministry. Like us he had his flaws but he was a mighty servant of God. The book is about 600 pages. It is a substantial work.

Tell your friends the great need of the church is 'a new Reformation'. A serious study of Calvin using this book, will lay a solid foundation in this regard.
 

py3ak

Unshaven and anonymous
Staff member
Most of the time, there's no need to defend John Calvin. As others have suggested, the demise of Servetus can be a smokescreen for the real issues.

That being said a few points should enable us to explain the matter without embarrassment.
1. Calvin warned Servetus not to come to Geneva, but Servetus came anyway.
2. Servetus was escaping imprisonment pending execution under the Roman Catholics in Vienna.
3. The civil magistrate in Geneva proceeded according to their lights, and disregarded Calvin's plea for a more clement form of execution.
4. This was standard operating procedure at the time. One may or may nor agree with it, but it is either hypocritical or ahistorical to single out one person for their involvement in what was very widespread. E.g., the Elector-Palatine Frederick III ("the Pious") presided at the execution of a heretic.

You can find useful information about Servetus in the very sympathetic biography of him by Roland Bainton called Hunted Heretic. Calvin's life is well told by Theodore Beza and more recently by Herman Selderhuis in John Calvin: A Pilgrim Life.

You can see what Calvin had to say about the execution of Servetus by reading several letters he wrote: #322 to William Farel; #324 to the pastors of Frankfort; #326 to Heinrich Bullinger; #327 to Sulzer; #331 to William Farel; #334 to Bullinger again thanking the Zurich ministers for their help with the matter of Servetus (according to the enumeration in Selected Works of John Calvin, vol. 5).

For the record, there are letters to Servetus and mentions of him in other contexts. I only referenced the ones that are close to the execution.
 

Taylor

Puritan Board Graduate
Anyone who calls Calvin a murderer is historically ignorant (I really wanted to say “stupid”) and most likely has no interest in learning. I have learned, in general, not to waste my time with such folks. If anything, I would follow Jacob’s advice above and steer the conversation to Scripture.
 

John Yap

Puritan Board Freshman
At that time, Melanchthon and Bullinger had an influence that I believe would rival Calvin. When first published The Decades outsold Calvin's Institutes in England. All this is to say that Calvin was not the only stream from which the tides of Reformed theology bursted forth.
 

Eyedoc84

Puritan Board Sophomore
Having once been “on the inside” as it were, I’ll tell you that persons of this sort take whatever negative thing they can find on Calvin as gospel. Their reading of history goes no deeper than Dave Hunt and some heretic hiding behind the name of “Stanford Rives”. Even as one Arminian to another, the conversation went nowhere when trying to bring more accurate history to bear. Try to encourage them that the ninth commandment extends to dead men as well, and it is our duty to be faithful readers of history as well.

And I ditto the others here that even if Calvin was a murderer (he wasn’t), that wouldn’t invalidate his theology or his checkbook. Paul and David were both murderers.
 

alexanderjames

Puritan Board Freshman
Having once been “on the inside” as it were, I’ll tell you that persons of this sort take whatever negative thing they can find on Calvin as gospel. Their reading of history goes no deeper than Dave Hunt and some heretic hiding behind the name of “Stanford Rives”. Even as one Arminian to another, the conversation went nowhere when trying to bring more accurate history to bear. Try to encourage them that the ninth commandment extends to dead men as well, and it is our duty to be faithful readers of history as well.

And I ditto the others here that even if Calvin was a murderer (he wasn’t), that wouldn’t invalidate his theology or his checkbook. Paul and David were both murderers.
Agreed. Most of the hate around Calvin comes just from hearsay, especially on the internet.
 

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Professor
David Cloud, the IFB (whose textual work I appreciate), wrote some slanderous things about Calvin in this vein, and I wrote him asking for documentation regarding them, and he said he no longer could as he'd given away his library and didn't have the books. But his Way of Life books still carry this poison.

Ruben's remarks in post #7 are sound regarding Servetus.
 

Tychicus

Puritan Board Freshman
This book came out recently, it could be a good starting point (and perhaps ending?:cheers2:) :


I haven't read it and don't really intend to, but it must be good, it's been endorsed by Dr. Michael Haykin, who is excellent on the patristics and a fine historical theologian overall. Among others, John MacArthur has also given a glowing commendation.
 

Logan

Puritan Board Senior
Yeah, blaming Calvin for Servetus is really strange to me.

1. Servetus was anti-trinitarian and engaged in flame wars constantly trying to spread his false doctrine.
2. Calvin was not ruler in Geneva. The city council even booted him out for several years but later called him back.
3. Calvin corresponded extensively with Servetus, trying to persuade him of his errors.
4. Everybody wanted to kill Servetus, including the Roman Catholic church.
5. There was a death warrant on Servetus if he returned to Geneva...and he knew it yet still inexplicably fled there from the Roman Catholics.
6. Calvin did testify (as a theological expert) but begged for a more merciful death for Servetus (this was denied by the city council, reference point 2).
7. The night before Servetus' death, Calvin went to Servetus in prison and once again tried to persuade him of his error that he might be saved.
8. The execution of Servetus was approved of by many in the day, including mild-mannered Melancthon.

Whether it was right or wrong, it is insane to pin the entire situation on Calvin. He played a relatively minor role, and if he hadn't, someone else would have.
 

danekristjan

Puritan Board Freshman
As many have already pointed out, Calvin had little influence upon the situation, and any good he did try to accomplish with it (persuading Servatus to repent of his heresy and trust Jesus, and get a more lenient punishment for him) was rejected by both Servatus and the Genevan authorities. The truth of the matter is that Servatus would have been put to death in any city he showed up at in 16th century Europe. He was even executed in effigy in the city he escaped from. It is surmised that he fled to Geneva because Geneva was known as being a merciful city and thought he might fare better there than elsewhere. This information can be found in most faithful works on the time period (Schaff, JT McNeill, Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigné, and the aforementioned book "The Trial of the Century).

Also, as mentioned already, their issue isn't with Calvin, his actions or writings, but with the teaching of the Bible.
 

danekristjan

Puritan Board Freshman
Another thing most people don’t know—something I learned personally from Scott Manetsch, a noted Calvin scholar—is that Calvin never even achieved full citizenship in Geneva.
In the last few years of his life he finally did, but yes during most of his life there he was not given citizenship.
 

greenbaggins

Administrator
Staff member
This book came out recently, it could be a good starting point (and perhaps ending?:cheers2:) :


I haven't read it and don't really intend to, but it must be good, it's been endorsed by Dr. Michael Haykin, who is excellent on the patristics and a fine historical theologian overall. Among others, John MacArthur has also given a glowing commendation.
I read it quite recently. Excellently nuanced and balanced treatment of Calvin's relationship to Servetus. Servetus was a dead man in most of Europe, since his heresies were unwanted by Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed. Moorhead's treatment is succinct, and you can read it in less than a day.
 

Eyedoc84

Puritan Board Sophomore
Occasionally you will also see a couple quotes thrown around of Calvin apparently boasting about his “murderous deed”. One is an apparent forgery originating from a Calvin opponent and the other is taken out of context and framed in such a way as to make it sound more damning, but is really nothing more than Calvin being glad that Servetus could no longer torture the church and that he did what he could to see that justice was done.
 

arapahoepark

Puritan Board Post-Graduate
I used to be on rapture forums. They are some of the sweetest, most ahead of the news and proudly historically ignorant group of people I know. Calvinism was such a sticking point for them. I got kicked off due to that. I hid for a bit that I didn't believe the rapture.
 

Minh

Puritan Board Freshman
I am reluctant to share this controversial opinion, but I think when discussing history, we should defend nothing but the truth itself. History is complex, not one-sided, so we ought to accept any fact about John Calvin, however (un)favorable it is, if it's well proven by historical documents and archive. I don't really know if Calvin was responsible for Servetus death. But I would do exhaustive research to clarify the matter. To quote historian A.J.P. Taylor: "The lawyer aim to make a case; the historian wishes to understand a situation."

We should be the latter.
 

alexanderjames

Puritan Board Freshman
I am reluctant to share this controversial opinion, but I think when discussing history, we should defend nothing but the truth itself. History is complex, not one-sided, so we ought to accept any fact about John Calvin, however (un)favorable it is, if it's well proven by historical documents and archive. I don't really know if Calvin was responsible for Servetus death. But I would do exhaustive research to clarify the matter. To quote historian A.J.P. Taylor: "The lawyer aim to make a case; the historian wishes to understand a situation."

We should be the latter.
Absolutely. That shouldn’t be controversial here. I’m thankful for the more learned on the site who can shed more light on history.
 

David Taylor

Puritan Board Freshman
Hello PB!

I've been having some really good conversations with some arminian brothers in Christ who have argued to me that
1) I've gotten my theology from Calvin's Institutes and that
2) Calvin was a murderer (Servetus and the anabaptists, etc.).

While the first is not true by any stretch of the imagination (I get my convictions from Sola Scriptura) I'm having a harder time defending our good forefather in the faith John Calvin. Every source that I've looked at either bashes the poor man to no end or praises him almost to the point of godhood. Anyone have some honest information about this reformer?
I actually wrote an article on this a few weeks ago: https://reformedtruths.com/2022/05/05/john-calvin-and-the-servetus-affair/

Bottom line, if someone has to resort to attacking Calvin over Servetus there are two things to know. First, they are probably ignorant of what actually took place. Second, they have already lost their argument. We do not get our beliefs from Calvin. He helped articulate them, but our beliefs come from Scripture.
 

Jerusalem Blade

Puritan Board Professor
Just finished (on a Kindle) The Trial of the 16th Century: Calvin & Servetus. Excellent (and brief) presentation of the actual situation, exonerating Calvin, with nuances.
 
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