In the 500th anniversary year of John Calvin’s birth, Calvin is getting lots of attention. Expect that to approach a real frenzy in a few weeks on his birthday, July 10th when I would expect to hear all manner of reports and stories about John Calvin as one of the great influences, not just in Reformed theology but in Christianity and indeed Western Civilization as a whole. Around the world there are a substantial number of celebrations going on, from Geneva to East Lansing. I have been to one conference exclusively on Calvin this year and I am going to another one in August. So 2009, at least in the Reformed ‘hood, is “All Calvin, all the time” even more so than usual.
Inevitably, whenever Calvin comes up so does Michael Servetus. The Michael Servetus thing frankly drives me batty in two respects. First, the way that people who either misunderstand or misrepresent Calvinism throw Servetus out as an argument against Calvinism. People, Calvinism stands or falls on it’s faithfulness to the teachings of the Bible, not on the character or actions of John Calvin. Calvinism would be true even if John Calvin had never been born. Second is the way that some who cherish the teachings of the Geneva Reformer try to defend the execution of Servetus.
Some of the details are sketchy. What we know is this. Servetus was an open and unapologetic heretic who denied the Trinity. That seems like a minor thing today when “pastors” who deny the Trinity have bestselling books in “Christian” bookstores and show up routinely on lists of the most influential Christians. But in the 1500’s, denying the Trinity along with a list of other heresies was punishable by death. Calvin also wrote a book defending the legitimacy of executing heretics (I have not read the book) after the death of Servetus, so he was fully aware of the consequences of a man put on trial for the supposed crime of heresy. Regardless, in 1553 Michael Servetus showed up in Geneva and was arrested, tried and burned at the stake as a heretic.
Whether Calvin enthusiastically encouraged the execution of Servetus as some suggest or he merely stood by mutely while it happened as others imply, it was the wrong thing to do. It is my understanding that Calvin had Servetus arrested which led to his trial and his execution, an outcome that Calvin had to know was likely. Calvin also reportedly pled for Servetus to be beheaded instead of burned, a quicker and more humane death than being burned alive at the stake but asking for a nicer way of execution is hardly the same as a plea for mercy. All of that is irrelevant to the value of Calvin for the church. It is not a news flash that Calvin was a sinner! Christians from Paul to Augustine to Calvin to John Piper have all recognized their own sins and flaws. I would hope that people who examine my beliefs base their judgment on the truth of what I say and how it conforms to the Word of God, not on my personal flaws and foibles which are myriad.
Let’s enjoy the 500th anniversary of John Calvin without the small minded attempts to paint him as a murderer nor the knee jerk reflexive defenses of him that are unnecessary. His work and his thoughts stand on their own. Let’s celebrate the life and legacy of a man who is arguably the greatest theologian the church has known in all of his brilliance and in all of his flaws.