What to Do About Unrepentant Murderers in the Church?

For a few years, I was raised Calvinist. Even today I would consider myself “Reformed,” in certain idiosyncratic senses that pleases no Reformed people I know. But something that always bothered me about “Calvinist theology” was “Calvin the man,” and the fruit his life bore–namely, that he and his theocracy in Geneva killed people with whom they disagreed, over moral and theological matters. Hat-tip to my Presbymergent friend Adam Walker Cleaveland, “Jarrod McKenna has written a very interesting post entitled “Orthodoxy and heretics like Calvin?” which is worth your attention, especially if you claim the Reformed tradition as your tribe.” It is a great article. Whaddaya think?

I have a question for my many Presbyterian (and Reformed Baptist, et al) friends: Would Calvin be allowed to be an elder in one of your churches today? If not, how much (or, I should say “in what ways?”) can we learn from the notoriously, unrepentantly violent in our churches?

Of course Calvin and his followers weren’t the only killers-in-the-name-of-Jesus, and sure there were nuances. But bottom line, Servetus (among others, I’ve heard) was killed. What implications does this (and the contemporary verbally-violent character assassination that often characterizes contemporary Christendom) have for our witness as peace-makers?

10 Responses to “What to Do About Unrepentant Murderers in the Church?”


  1. 1 godisthegospel January 14, 2008 at 3:34 am

    Interesting thoughts Michael, although I think they are a bit reactionary.

    Shall be think the same of Lord Chancellor Sir Thomas Moore? Moore essentially propagated so much public (and political) hate and derision for William Tyndale as to end the diligent English Bible translator’s life prematurely? I do not find too many who decry the it, which does not get him off the hook, but it was not a simple black and white situation, in my humble opinion. Perhaps you know many of the details, but it may be helpful to consider a scholarly look at the facts…

    See Appendix at the end of John Piper’s biographical sketch on John Calvin — about Servetus
    http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/Biographies/1471_The_Divine_Majesty_of_the_Word/

    On April 25, 1564, a month before his death, Calvin called the magistrates of Geneva to his room and spoke these words,

    “With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which [God] has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance. . . . I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. . . . For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust to no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.”

    I cannot help but think that his words echo those of the Apostle Paul who in ignorance and pride had believers arrested and put to death (as in Stephen’s case, Acts 7:54+). One could I guess argue that for Paul his horrific actions were all pre-conversion, but the point bears mentioning that his sinfulness and wretchedness were there ever before him until the end of his life, as was Calvin’s. (As are mine.)

    I do not think it is fair to say unequivocally that Calvin was unrepentant.

  2. 2 zoecarnate January 14, 2008 at 3:49 am

    Thank you for this detail, sir! I suppose he’s not unrepentant, at that, eh? And please understand, I’m not talking about Calvin’s eternal fate or anything so lofty. Only what he visibly did with his life on earth and the connection between character and authority. I don’t know if it’s fair to say that Calvin and Paul are equivalent, though. I mean, it may well be that Paul and Luke and Peter conveniently don’t mention Paul’s temporary post-conversion lapses of authorizing enclaves of Christians to be stoned, I don’t know.🙂

    I’m fully willing to own being reactionary, and I hope regular readers of this blog understand the inclusion of the above cartoon as satirical (as I’m sure the folks at Evangelical Outreach would have major issues with my theology as well, beginning right with eternal security, which I enthusiastically embrace), though I do agree that Servetus’s fate was abhorrent.

  3. 3 coreypaxton January 14, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    I think the idea that Calvin was repentant on his death bed misses the point of what Mike is pointing out here ever so slyly. The point of this post is the blatant contradiction between Jesus forming our lives as peacemakers, or ambassadors of reconciliation, and the actions of Calvin.

    The reformation thinkers did great work to liberate people from the works based theology/corruption of the Medieval church, but Calvin murdered and Luther condoned the persecution of Jews. While we can certainly learn much from these men, it is interesting that “orthodoxy” is often defined by a man whose family bought him his pastorate, wrote most of his works before he was 30, and killed people that disagreed with him theologically. In our culture, would anyone even listen to someone like that? I thought this was an interesting thought after the “heretic hunter” post just to point out—who is a heretic anyway?!

    Since Calvin, there have been many developments in biblical studies and theology that help us appreciate his contributions, but also to understand the Bible from a more holistic, Hebraic perspective that does not split our private relationship with God and public actions in relationship to one another. (if you are interested in the dulaism of Calvinism, many have written more than I want to write here) Maybe we could move beyond labeling each other heretics and help each other live in the way of Jesus these days?

  4. 4 andrewtatum January 16, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Mike, I’m taking a class this semester called “Calvin & the Reformed Tradition.” I am one of those who has long considered myself “reformed” in the sense that I embraced the five points of reformed theology in my early college years and have yet been able to shake them from my mind or my psyche. What I mean is that calvinism (and not Calvin, himself) have substantially shaped my worldview. At any rate, I have little to say in explicit response to this post except that, by today’s standards, a great deal of the church fathers wouldn’t fit the bill for church leadership today. Interesting post…I’m sure I’ll have much more to contribute once the class is over.

  5. 5 Lev January 27, 2008 at 5:49 pm

    i am in shock often when i see people defend the man John Calvin, or separate Calvin from Calvinism. in 1john it says that we know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. this man is the foundation of the religious movement that bears his name. why has luther and calvin and knox all been looked over morally on the issue of killing others on the basis of opinion? (many will argue that they never killed, but only stood by while the civil government did the deed) the whole of Christianity has been disqualified on this issue since Constantine. if you want to look at a man of moral character in Christianity you would have to look at Roger Williams…. i know that this is pretty harsh, but it is mild compared to what this judgment is against

  6. 6 andrewtatum February 8, 2008 at 2:53 pm

    But isn’t it strange that many historians consider Roger Williams to be an “orthodox Calvinist?” This may be beside the point. However, if the purpose of your comment here was to say that it is impossible to be a Calvinist or even someone who admires Calvin’s thought (especially his contributions to the field of biblical studies) to be a person of “moral character” then I think Roger Williams was probably a bad example to throw out. Maybe I’m just being cantankerous but, I thought I’d throw that out there. No harm intended.

    Grace & peace,
    A.T.

  7. 7 andrewtatum February 8, 2008 at 2:55 pm

    …..ANNND I can’t form a complete sentence. What I meant to say was that if the purpose of your comment here is to say that it is not possible for a Calvinist or an admirer of Calvin’s thought to be a person of strong moral Character, then I think that Roger Williams (a Calvinist) is a bad example (although I do believe him to be a Christian of strong character). Anyway…glad that’s clear.

    A.T.

  8. 8 Lev February 8, 2008 at 3:45 pm

    Roger Williams was ordained as a calvinist minister, but he quickly renounced the church of england. he then went on to found what has been called the first baptist church. he went on to renounce that also because of the lack of apostolic authority. he knew enough to see that historical Christianity had lost it’s moral high ground. he went off with no affiliation to live the way that he understood from his own reading in the scriptures. that led him to found a colony that allowed for complete freedom of religion, because he said that he didn’t know… to me, that is admirable.

  9. 9 Dr. James Galyon January 14, 2009 at 1:17 am

    Much to Lev’s chagrin, I’ll take up the charge here to defend Calvin. To say that Calvin murdered is to overstate the case, quite frankly. First of all, only one individual – Michael Servetus – was put to death for theological reasons in the city of Geneva. Calvin didn’t murder him. He was put to death by the City Council. He arrived only in Geneva because he had escaped execution in Vienne, France. Servetus was a celebrated heretic long prior to his arrival in the Swiss city. The City Council acted only after consulting all of the other Protestant city-states in Switzerland and the leading Reformers of the day. Because of the relation between church and state which existed in the 16th century, all thought it was imperative to carry out capital punishment. Does capital punishment for heresy seem severe to us in contemporary culture? Certainly it does, yet it was the reality of the time – both in Roman Catholic and Protestant spheres.

    A priesthood was certainly purchased for Calvin in the Roman Catholic Church when he was just a boy, but he stepped down from this position as a young adult. It had nothing to do with his position in Geneva. Most of his works were not completed before he was 30. For example, The Institutes, his magnum opus, was edited and expanded over several decades.

    BTW, I’m not a follower of John Calvin. I’m a follower only of Jesus Christ.


  1. 1 How To Spot A Grace-Hating Anabaptist Heretic In Your Church « The Online Discernmentalist Mafia Trackback on July 10, 2010 at 9:33 am

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