Why Calvin Rejected Religious Liberty: Scott Clark on the Servetus Case

At the Heidelblog last week, and since republished on the Aquila Report, my friend Scott Clark writes a helpful response to dismissals of Calvin as the “tyrant of Geneva,” dismissals closely related to caricatures of Calvinism as a cold, authoritarian, and fatalist religion. Clark reminds us that it was not Calvin who sentenced the heretic Servetus to death, but the civil government of Geneva. More importantly, he points out that this took place during an age in which civil authorities throughout Europe, aligned with Rome, were killing thousands upon thousands of Protestants. Clark’s post is well worth reading in its entirety.

All of the leading magisterial reformers defended putting heretics, including Anabaptists, to death. Indeed, as Clark points out, Zwingli, Luther, Melanchthon, and Bullinger and other leading reformers were just as vocal in their defense of such policies as was Calvin. The reformer gets the extra press today because he is associated with a social movement that has had an impact far beyond its numbers. Luther, of course, gets bad press for his own blemishes and their supposed legacy in history.

Clark has no interest in defending the reformers’ complicity in the suppression of religious liberty. A strong two kingdoms advocate, he writes,

Was it a confusion of the civil and ecclesiastical spheres for Calvin to demand civil penalties [against one of his severe public critics] for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely. From the perspective of a distinction between the ecclesiastical and common spheres, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Civil Authorities.

The true moral of this story, however, is of the danger of the Constantinian church-state alliance wherein civil authorities have the power to punish heresy. Nowhere in the New Testament or in the moral law is theological heresy a ground for civil punishment. The only sphere authorized by God to correct theological error is the visible church (see Matthew 18) and their means are purely spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline (e.g., rebuke, censure, excommunication).

With all of this I agree, and I appreciate Clark’s putting Calvin’s actions in historical context. That said, I do think more needs to be said than simply that Calvin was a product of his time, that nearly everyone in Europe agreed Servetus should be put to death for denying the fundamentals of Christianity (not simply of the Reformation), and that in any case, it was not Calvin who technically condemned and burned Servetus, but the government of Geneva.

The fact is, Calvin was a vocal and dogmatic apologist for the suppression of religious heresy. He was severely criticized for his complicity in the execution of Servetus, and the theological fighter that he was, he wrote repeatedly in defense of his actions and those of his government. He considered the arguments that Clark raises above and rejected them on theological grounds. Had Clark made these arguments in Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin would have said that he simply “desire[s] to be at liberty to make disturbances with impunity.” There is no need for me to recap all of that here, as I’ve written on it before. But here is a brief sampling of Calvin’s arguments, drawn from his commentary on the Law.

But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion; and there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law, not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of his kingdom should be aided by the sword.

Calvin is aware of these arguments, and he agrees both that the use of the sword is alien to the spiritual kingdom of Christ and that Christ does not need it for his kingdom’s success. However, he insists that God can nevertheless require that magistrates promote and defend the true religion merely because it is his will that such be part of their earthly vocation. In essence, he simply denies that capital punishment for false doctrine is a confusing of the kingdoms.

But when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed… He did not impose on himself an eternal law that he should never bring kings under his subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of his church.

He then denies that any contrary conclusions should be drawn from Jesus’ silence (and in general, that of the New Testament) on this magisterial responsibility. This is the weakest part of Calvin’s argument, it seems to me – his lack of any clear New Testament support for his position. He attempts to make up for it by appealing to three passages – the same three passages he invokes in at least half a dozen places in his writings where he discusses the issue – that he thinks prove that even in the Christian era magistrates are to enforce the true religion: Psalm 2, Isaiah 49;23; 1 Timothy 2:2. Again, I’ve addressed his appeal to such texts here.

Why does it matter? I’m sure some Reformed people will read this blog post and complain once again that we shouldn’t be criticizing our forebears on matters that aren’t even controversial anymore. Why beat a dead horse? It simply threatens the credibility of our theological tradition, doesn’t it?

I disagree. I care more about the Reformed tradition than about Calvin’s particular political opinions, and the credibility of the Reformed tradition depends far more on whether or not we take seriously the legacy and theology of the past than on whether we can manage to whitewash our history with hagiography. In this case, I firmly believe, many in the Reformed tradition, along with many Evangelicals in general, have not come to grips with why we disagree (or should disagree) with our forebears who opposed religious liberty.

We think they were simply products of their time. As if, were Calvin to appear in the 21st Century, he would suddenly agree with us. As if we were not products of our time as well. And as a result, we never come to grips with the theological mistakes the reformers made that led them to the positions we now oppose. Calvin supported the suppression of religious liberty in part because, influenced by Plato, Cicero and others, he held certain assumptions about the nature of the Mosaic Law and of Israel, and about their normativity for Christians. He believed that magistrates were called to enforce the law of God as revealed in Scripture, unto the glory of God. He failed to see why the first table of the law (i.e., worship and piety) should be excluded from that principle.

Read a smattering of Evangelical political arguments on a host of issues today – abortion, homosexuality, economics, health care, etc. – and you will find that many Evangelicals hold the same assumptions about the simple correlation between Scripture (and the example of Israel) and politics. The only difference was that Calvin was much more consistent than they are. He didn’t exclude idolatry, blasphemy, sabbath-breaking, or adultery from the political realm. That modern Evangelicals do so is usually not so much because they understand the theological problems with Calvin’s (and the other reformers’) views, but because they, even more than Calvin, are products of their time.

But is there a biblical theological foundation for a democratic society that values religious liberty? That, for me, is what is at stake here. That’s why we need to keep hashing through the counter-arguments of our theological forebears, arguments that were better and more theologically rigorous than we are usually willing to admit. We need biblical theological arguments for democratic pluralism and religious liberty that seriously come to grips with the Christian political theological tradition and come out on top. Calvin’s political theology may have been a product of its time. It’s up to us to work as hard as we can to ensure that ours is a product of Scripture.

[Note: All the Calvin quotations are from his Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5]


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on May 8, 2013, in Calvin, Reconstructionism, Religious Liberty, The Reformation, Two Kingdoms and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Why Calvin Rejected Religious Liberty: Scott Clark on the Servetus Case.

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