The Red Herring of Michael Servetus: Why I Never Bring Him Up When I Critique Calvinism

If you engage in the debate regarding Calvinism for any length of time, one of the names that will pop up is Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a contemporary of John Calvin, a brilliant young man like Calvin… and a guy that was burned at the stake in Geneva for being a heretic.  And he was no doubt a heretic for his anti-Trinitarian teachings, so the Catholic Church didn’t like him either.  In fact, he was on trial in Lyons for heresy before escaping to Geneva, where he was eventually caught and tried there as well.

Why Servetus comes up is because Calvin’s role in his brutal execution is oft debated.  Many critics of Calvinism charge that Calvin had immense power in Geneva and threw around his weight to get Servetus executed.  This is further supported by the fact that he seemed to boast about his role in the execution later and never hinted at any remorse over it.  These critics then angrily accuse Calvin of being a murderer, and since false prophets will be known by their fruit as it says in Matthew 7, Calvin is shown to be a false teacher.  If he’s a false teacher, then this whole system of theology which adopts his name, Calvinism, should be rejected as false theology from a false, murdering teacher.

Many Calvinists respond with equal anger and attempt to point out that Calvin did not wield the type of power that the aforementioned critics say he did; in fact, the Council of Geneva was filled with many of Calvin’s opponents.  Furthermore, they argue that Calvin A) Tried many times to get Servetus to recant his heresy by visiting him in prison and B) Tried to convince the Council to give him a more humane death by beheading rather than burning him at the stake.  Calvin, in their view, was a light among men, attempting to turn this man with love and then desperately asking for a more painless form of execution.  To say otherwise would be to slander this great champion of the faith.

Probably a great example of this exchange can be seen in the book Debating Calvinism, which is a written debate between Calvinist James White and non-Calvinist Dave Hunt.  I remember even being given the book by a Calvinist many years ago in order for me to learn more about Calvinism (because I couldn’t possibly not be a Calvinist if I understood it properly!)… I didn’t have the heart at the time to tell the giver that I learned nothing new from it and that I didn’t think it was a helpful book.  In any case, both parties use up some pages on this topic, with White seeking to paint Calvin as Mr. Awesome while Hunt calls him a murderer.

Who’s right?  Honestly, the right answer is probably somewhere in the middle.  Calvinists are right that Calvin did not wield the political power necessary to just have people executed he didn’t like, and they are right that even Calvin’s influence over the Council seems to be greatly exaggerated by his critics.  That said, he did seem to boast about the execution later and nevertheless did favor killing Servetus.  Historical context should be considered: Since Geneva operated as a theocracy, heresy can be viewed as something like treason, though it is worth noting that several Protestant contemporaries disapproved of killing heretics and criticized this event.  Calling him a “murderer” ascribes way too much power to Calvin over the verdict, but his attitude towards killing heretics can rightly be called a mistake, and his boasting about this can rightly be called sin.

Regardless, this whole discussion has always struck me as rather pointless (in terms of debating Calvinism, at least) because here’s the thing: Even if we were to grant that Calvin was a murderer who not only orchestrated Servetus’ burning but the execution of a couple dozen others, that does not necessarily mean that Calvinism is wrong.  It simply does not logically follow.  At best, it would make us wary of his teachings and subject them to intense scrutiny, but even if he were some closet fake Christian teacher, it may be that he still interpreted Scripture rightly at times (and clearly, even if he were a false teacher in terms of his behavior, he held to the core tenets of the Christian faith at least in explicit belief).

Of course, I do not think the picture of Calvin is that black and white as I said above; he was a complex man with many flaws… like many others.  It’s probably not a hard exercise to go through church history, look at different traditions, and find men who’ve done bad things within those traditions.  That does not mean that the tradition or system they come from is necessarily incorrect.  The Michael Servetus argument is thus not only a red herring that distracts from the actual debate, it could be considered ad hominem.  The ad hominem fallacy is not merely insulting someone (which is popularly believed), but it is a rejection of a position or argument by reason of attacking the character of the argument’s proponent.  There may be times when ad hominem considerations are appropriate, but given that there have been many godly Calvinists in history, it is fruitless to try to refute Calvinism by simply attacking Calvin’s personal flaws.  Also, it’s not like Calvin is the only person in human history to read the Bible and come to a conclusion that is around the ballpark of something like Calvinism.

Thus, dragging Calvin through the mud or, on the flipside, idolizing him as some pristine individual are both very silly.  The case for or against Calvinism does not hinge upon Calvin’s personal errors.  This is why I’ve never brought Servetus up until now even though I am clearly a sharp critic of Calvinism.  Argue from Scripture and philosophy, but this kind of garbage just riles people up.  If there is any good that comes from this, it exposes how much personal investment many Christians put in this debate, which is dangerous and immature.

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2 thoughts on “The Red Herring of Michael Servetus: Why I Never Bring Him Up When I Critique Calvinism

  1. I respectfully disagree. I think it is fair game. The reason I say that is that I believe that Calvin’s actions are a natural consequence of Calvinist theology. When you create a caste of people known as the Reprobate, then it is not that far of a leap to dehumanize such people. Now every Calvinist will tell you that they don’t know who the Reprobate are, which is why they believe in evangelism (well, most of them anyway). But here’s the thing, ideas have consequences, and I am convinced that even though Calvinists can assent to certain things, there is no way for the human psyche to refrain from making judgments of this kind, if we were, there would not be racism or sexism or any other type of discrimination. That is why you have aberrant doctrines like Lordship Salvation emerge from Calvinist congregations. Human beings have a need to make these kinds of distinctions, it is in our nature to try to determine who is in and who is out. I’ve made this analogy before to the ire of Calvinists, the first step in any genocide is the dehumanization of the other. I don’t think it is inappropriate to say that the concept of the Reprobate falls under this category. When you say there are human beings in this world who are hated by God, mind you, before even the creation of the world, who have no hope, who deserve no mercy, who are simply “objects” of God’s wrath, well, what’s so wrong about burning them at the stake? Sounds like you’re moving them to the front of the line that God put them in from time immemorial. Ideas have consequences.

    • I apologize for the delay of responding and approving this comment; I saw it through my phone’s email a while ago and honestly just forgot about it. It’s not my intention to let quality comments like this not get posted!

      I think where we differ, Dean, is that I do not see the clear connection between the doctrinal error of Calvinism as a whole to such mistakes. I think more nuanced Calvinists will argue that while certain people are Reprobate, that does not mean that we as humans can “dehumanize” them because they are still, after all, human beings, and judgment belongs to God. Furthermore, they would say that we do not know who are the Elect, so it would make little sense to go around killing people as if it is a guarantee that they will never profess faith. Not to mention the fact that any good Calvinist will readily hold to the ethical teachings of Scripture.

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