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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]


Who cares about unity anyway? The Significance of the PCA

The Presbyterian Church in America is by far the largest conservative Reformed denomination in the United States. Totaling approximately 300,000 members, it represents a powerful proportion of the combined population of the United States and Canada: approximately 0.09%. If you are confused by the combination of decimals and percentages, take it simply as a decimal: 0.0009. Or if you find fractions more helpful, members of the PCA represent approximately one out of every 1,111 Americans and Canadians.

Perhaps with such staggering statistics in mind, PCA pastor Sam DeSocio suggests that the PCA might be too large and should consider splitting. The PCA is simply too big, containing within itself too many factions, none of which can win control of the denomination, with the result that it has no clear identity. In addition, the PCA’s size makes it hard for the various confessional Reformed denominations to unite together without being dominated by the PCA.

Part of the problem is that presently the PCA is so large that it has decided that it will invite other denominations to join with us, and be received, but that we will not merge with others to form a new organization. If instead of one larger theologically conservative Presbyterian church we were three such smaller groups, it might make it possible for us to better cooperate with many other denominations. What I’m suggesting is that maybe for the sake of framing a larger church we first need to do some demo.

The sort of split DeSocio proposes is therefore not the kind of split that is required when Christians have to defend the gospel, or expel heresy. Rather, it is the sort of split that is needed for better functioning. It’s all for the cause of greater peace and harmony – even unity. Never mind the fact that once denominations split the likelihood of success in getting them back together is about as high as is that of dismantling a federal program or bureaucracy. It’s happened once or twice, but I wouldn’t bet my spending money on it.

To be clear, I’m not trying to pick on DeSocio here, although it might seem like it. I take him at his word that his long-term objective is indeed greater unity. But I’m less concerned with what one person thinks than I am with the general assumptions an increasing number of Reformed leaders appear to hold when conducting these debates. It seems that there is little left of John Calvin’s conviction that unity in the gospel is one of the most fundamental obligations of the church. More precisely, there is little left of the old Reformed consensus that various churches are called by Christ to come together in assemblies of churches called presbyteries, synods, and ultimately national (if not international) assemblies. Our synods and general assemblies today are much more like voluntary associations, parties of like-minded churches, if you will, than like anything representing a confessional, territorial church. In short, we seem to believe that while there are biblical, Reformed principles of church government at the congregational level, these principles are not binding on any broader level.

Note that I’m not even talking about organizational unity with the vast majority of Christians in the world – that would be unthinkable – folks like Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, Pentecostals, or, obviously, Roman Catholics. I’m not talking about unity with “Reformed” denominations whose allegiance to the orthodox Christian creeds has significantly faltered. I’m talking about unity with Reformed denominations who hold to the Reformed and Presbyterian confessions.

What DeSocio is suggesting is that because the PCA is divided into various factions unified by their respective approaches to church and ministry, the common confessional allegiance is no longer sufficient to warrant organizational unity. Yet as Scott Clark writes in his excellent response to DeSocio’s argument:

What unites the Reformed and Presbyterian churches is not a philosophy of ministry but the Word of God as confessed by the churches. There’s no denying that real differences do develop in the life of a denomination but as these surface the first response should not be to divide but to re-form around God’s Word as confessed by the churches.

This is hard. Remaining united with people with whom you hold significant practical disagreements requires immense patience and humility. It requires the willingness to abandon unrealistic or inappropriate objectives of uniformity or power. As one Reformed elder, who is by no means happy with much of what he sees in the PCA, wrote to me,

Unity takes a lot of humility. I think it is of utmost important for denominations to know what is the basis of their unity and with Scott Clark it is our Confession. So we have to guard the confessions and swallow our pride when things are not as we like, but are not contrary to our confessions.

If unity takes humility, then its opposite is pride, or ambition. And as John Calvin never tires of observing, the main reason why Christians divide from one another – the vice that lies at the heart of virtually every heresy and schism – is ambition. It is often ambition for power, control, or influence that drives one faction against another at a church assembly. It is ambition for worldly success that frequently drives pastors and churches to abandon their more conservative brothers and sisters in order to forge some new path ahead. It is ambition for an unrealistically pure or perfect church that consistently leads others to insist that fidelity with the few is more important than unity with Christ’s whole body, if such unity requires toleration of its flaws and weaknesses.

One of Rome’s major apologetic arguments during the Reformation was that the Protestant logic of sola Scriptura would – rather than unifying the church under the true gospel – turn every church and every Christian into its own pope. Calvin may have been right to retort that fidelity to the gospel and to Scripture – in short, allegiance to Christ – is a sufficient bond for the maintenance of unity. But, ironically, he seems to have overestimated the interest of his followers in actually maintaining that unity.

Do Reformed Christians still believe that ecclesiastical unity is an obligation, or have we embraced the ethos of American Evangelicalism on this point, more interested in our freedom and independence than in solidarity. When it’s all said and done, the very important question underlying all of this is, Do we care? Does unity matter?

Why are Evangelicals fudging on the gospel to promote Mitt Romney?

On Sunday in the Aquila Report Bill Evans made some interesting claims concerning Mormonism in his attempt to persuade readers that there is a Christian position in the upcoming presidential election – a position that requires voting for Mitt Romney.

Evans writes:

While Mormons are not Christians in the traditional creedal sense of the term, I also have little doubt that there are Mormons who are looking in faith to Christ for salvation. In addition, the argument can be made that Mormons are closer to biblical truth on some issues than many liberal Protestants.

Scott Clark has a thoughtful analysis of Evans’s claim at the Heidelblog so I won’t offer that here. What strikes me is how so many Christian conservatives, from Bill Evans to Billy Graham, feel the need to soften their criticism of Mormonism in order to justify voting for Romney.

Part of what puts Evans, at least, in this position, may be his off-handed dismissal of the two kingdoms perspective. Christians who do not conflate the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world have less trouble justifying voting for a candidate who approximates their understanding of justice regardless of his or her religion. To be sure, they do give up the right to claim their perspective on the election as the Christian one, a concession Evans is loath to make.

For a much better perspective on the upcoming election – one grounded in the two kingdoms perspective – see Richard Phillips’s article published by the Aquila Report yesterday. Phillips argues that the church should proclaim the political principles taught in Scripture but should avoid entanglements in politics itself. Why?

The first [reason] is the doctrine known as the spirituality of the Church, which means that the Church is an institution of the Kingdom of Jesus Christ and His spiritual reign, and as such should avoid distracting itself by entanglements in the secular realm of politics (see John 18:37).

I have no problem with a Christian making an argument that people ought to vote for a particular candidate for various reasons informed by the Christian tradition. But I don’t think we should dilute our understanding of Christianity or the gospel to do so. Compromising Christ’s lordship for (the possibility of) four years of Republican possession of the White House doesn’t strike me as being the best trade.

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