An old schoolmate of mine recently published a blog post accusing John Calvin of having heretics tortured and killed. I have no desire to defend or condemn Calvin. Like every single Protestant Christian in the world (including those that despise Calvin), I am indebted to Calvin for a lot of what I believe theologically, but also like every single Protestant Christian in the world (including those that love Calvin), I disagree with Calvin on a lot of things. I am taking up this matter not because it is Calvin, but rather because it is a good test case scenario of how to talk about the errors of Christians of the past.
So the question is are we able centuries later to speak ill of Calvin as a murderer or torturer of innocent people? I am not going to provide many answers. Instead what I want to do is provide a bunch of questions to help you see the tremendous difficulties inherent in passing judgment on someone who lived 500 years ago.
First, there are the larger religious and political ethical issues. For instance, is capital punishment ethical? This is a thorny question that still has not been fully resolved today. For the sake of the discussion before us, I think it is best to assume that capital punishment is an ethically allowable punishment. Is it ethical to kill and/or torture people deemed as heretics? It is pretty much universally agreed among Christians today that executing heretics is ethically wrong. Is it ethical for the power of the state to be combined with the power of the state? Again, it is pretty much universally agreed among Christians today that the separation of church and state is the only ethically correct option. That foundation being established, we can proceed.
Second, there are historical-factual issues. A lot of important and relevant historical facts are disputed, confused, or unclear. What was the general practice for handling heretics in that place and time? How many executions was Calvin involved in? What was his role in those executions? Did he give orders to execute? Did he just give testimony at trials? Did he do nothing? How did the church and city government and courts operate? Calvin did not run the city of Geneva as sole totalitarian dictator. There was a complex socio-political scene in Geneva. Many other people would have been involved in any capital case. What were the beliefs that caused the victims to be labeled as heretics? How unorthodox were those beliefs? Were the heretics good people, or were they perhaps causing trouble in other ways? All of these questions are rendered more difficult to answer by the fact that writing practice of the time did not include much of an emphasis on objectivity and unbiased reporting.
Third, there are legal issues. Essentially, the blog post accuses Calvin of murder and crimes against humanity. These are serious legal charges. If Calvin were living, making such a charge without proper evidence would be cause for a defamation/libel lawsuit. So the question is, if we were to put Calvin on trial for murder and/or crimes against humanity, would we have enough evidence to convict him? We have no eyewitnesses left alive and no physical evidence. We have only written records. Is that enough to declare that a man is guilty of a crime?
Fourth, there are the personal-moral issues. By this I mean something a little different than the broader ethical issues. Although it is ethically wrong to execute heretics, did Calvin as an individual do anything wrong? Whatever Calvin’s exact involvement was, was it wrong for Calvin to have been involved? Did Calvin think he was doing something wrong, or was he sincerely convinced he was doing the right thing? Was he sincerely convinced that God’s Word said it was acceptable to execute heretics? In fact, was he sincerely convinced that God said that we ought to execute heretics? If he was sincerely convinced it was the right thing to do, would it be wrong, or would it be as wrong? And did Calvin jump right to execution, or did he try other methods of discipline first? Did Calvin try to persuade heretics first? Did he give them plenty of time to recant? Was he truly concerned for their eternal souls? Did he believe that their false teaching could corrupt and endanger the eternal souls of others? Did he believe that heresy would lead to the disintegration of the society? Was he motivated by pettiness, power-mongering, hypocritical judgmentalism, etc.? Or was he motivated by a desire to see souls saved, to defend the truth, to honor and glorify the name of God, etc.? The point of all of these questions is whether or not Calvin participated in executing heretics because of some evil in his heart or because of a misguided desire to do what was right. And even if it was from evil in his heart, how evil was he? How much good was mixed in with the evil? There is so much that is good in his life and writings, it is hard to believe that Calvin is a man of total evil, but it is impossible for us to know the heart of a man who lived 500 years ago.
Fifth, there is the issue of other mitigating factors. What about the fact that executing heretics was a widely accepted practice of Calvin’s day? Was he just deceived by the generally accepted teaching of the church of his day? Was Calvin more or less fair and merciful than his contemporaries? Was Calvin just falling into line with everyone else, or was he trying to be better? We must remember that part of the reason that we no longer execute heretics and part of the reason that we separate church from state is the example of Calvin and the people of Geneva. We are gifted with hindsight. Another factor is that since Calvin was pulling away from the Catholic church, perhaps he was worried about the chaos that might result from a power vacuum. Was the marriage of church and state in Geneva an attempt to avoid chaos? In other words, although Geneva was not perfect, does it represent the next step forward? Does Calvin generally represent an improvement over the surrounding culture? Was he trying to do things better?
Sixth, there is the issue of judgment rights. Do we who live 500 years later have the right to judge Calvin? Do we have the right to condemn him? Do we have the right to call him an evil murderer? Do we have the right to declare that we know for certain what was in his heart?
Seventh, there is the issue of proper speech. Even if Calvin was evil, even if we can prove it, even if we do have the right to judge him, should we be writing less than complimentary blogs and creating insulting memes about him? Is it posthumous gossip? Is it an edifying discussion? Does it tempt us to brush aside the good in his writings and life? Does it cause us to think ill of Reformed churches? Is it unhelpfully inflammatory? Does it just make people angry for no good reason? Are there other examples that can be used to make the same points? Or can we just talk about Geneva in general rather than single out any individual for particular rebuke?
Eighth, there is the issue of proper emotional response. What should be our emotional response to the events in Geneva? Certainly the execution of heretics is disgusting and outrageous, but do we have a right to actually feel outrage? Do we have a right to be angry at Calvin? Do we have a right to hate Calvin? Did Calvin do anything to you or to me personally? On the other hand, should we be personally offended by people who insult him? In other words, should we in any way be wasting our emotional energies on a man long dead?
My point is not to try to justify Calvin in any way. My point is that it is a waste of time and energy to argue about it at all. We all agree that it is best to separate church and state. We all agree it is wrong to execute heretics. Why waste time trying to castigate or excuse Calvin? We have learned the lessons we need to learn. Let’s move on.
A great parallel in Scripture is King David. While he was king, David used the power of his office to seduce a married woman, to order her husband killed, and then to take the woman as one of his multiple wives. We know that David is guilty of these crimes because God declared him to be guilty. Yet, we also know that God forgave David in response to David’s repentant heart of faith. In Romans 4, Paul puts forward David as a prime example of a sinner forgiven by God in his grace on the basis of faith. In Hebrews 11, David is given as an example of faith.
If David did something evil out of completely evil and selfish motives, how is he able to be an example for us to follow? It is because David is primarily an example of God’s grace – of salvation by grace through faith. As with all of us, John Calvin was a mixed bag of good and ill, but you would be hard-pressed to find many people who have done more to revive the message of salvation by grace through faith. So the darkness in Calvin’s past may mean that he himself serves as an illustration of the grace of God. Because of this for Calvin, just as with David, we have no need to demonize or idolize him. We are able to redeem the good from his life while still learning from the bad.