Did John Calvin teach his followers to kill heretics?

John Calvin
“God makes plain that the false prophet is to be stoned without mercy. We are to crush beneath our heel all affections of nature when his honor is involved”
-John Calvin
Bainton 1951:70
John Calvin was trained as a Roman Catholic scholar, but he lived in time when people were starting to challenge the authority of the corrupt Roman Catholic hierarchy. His studies and thought led him to write a series called “The Institutes of the Christian Religion” – writings which are avidly followed by many even today. Calvin moved from France and ended up leading a theocratic community in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was established not only as the principle cleric and interpreter of the mind of God, but also became tremendously politically powerful. Although Calvin broke with the authority of Rome, he did not break with many of the practices of Rome, undergirded by a certain view of the role of the church in the affairs of life. As the above quote indicates, Calvin believed he was doing the right thing in causing the execution of those who taught doctrine contrary to what he understood was the correct interpretation of the Bible.
It is a well known fact of history that Calvin arranged for the burning of the stake of Spaniard, Michael Servetus. Servetus had written to Calvin and wanted to engage in a theological discussion. There is no doubt that Servetus had some false doctrines – for example, about the nature of the godhead. No one should be in favor of false doctrines, but realistically – should we try to kill those who disagree with us? Many would argue today that Calvin’s doctrines were just as detrimental to the cause of truth. Calvin however, had political power, and he used this power to have Servetus burned at the stake in the slowest and most painful death that he could arrange – with green wood.

Calvin’s Influences

As well as reading the Bible,  and having a background in Roman Catholic canon law, Calvin was a student of Augustine of Hippo, a very influential Roman Catholic bishop who taught predestination to salvation or damnation based 100% upon the choice of God without reference to human response. Augustine also taught that it was right to put to death people who he deemed as heretics – the Donatists were a case in point. Calvin wrote that the Early Church Fathers before Augustine had little of value to say, but the truth is that these  church leaders from the 1st, 2nd and 3rd century were for the most part far closer to the apostles and their doctrines and practices than Augustine ever was. Protestants today could learn a lot about what early Christians understood by the New Testament by reading some of these writers who wrote before the rise of Constantine in the 4th century. Augustine was a 5th century church leader, a former Manichean gnostic, heavily influenced by Greek Philosophy  – but Augustine still did not even know Greek and could not read the New Testament in the orginal language! It was Augustine who first embraced the idea that there is no free will (as many Gnostics taught), and that people believe or disbelieve essentially because God has irresistably fated them to do what they do. It is not surprising that in Augustinian and Calvinistic thought, salvation is thought to have far more to do with having right opinions (knowing something – gnosis) than with right living – or abiding in Christ through walking in love by the power of the Holy Spirit.

When Did Christian Leaders Start to think they should Arrange the Execution of their Theological Enemies?

The idea that Christians should invoke State Power to force conformity of thought to their theological understandings had its roots in the time around the Council of Nicea, after the Roman Emperor Constantine had called bishops from around the empire to confer together on what true doctrine was. Religion is politically useful to the State when it brings people together under a common way of thinking. So Constantine was wanting to help the process of keeping the church united by getting the bishops to decide what true doctrine was. Their ideas were probably mostly healthy at that time, but the groundwork was being laid for the political persecution of all dissent. This way of doing religion became dominant during the Middle Ages and this thinking continued on with some of the early Reformers.
Calvin lived at a time where Roman Catholic bishops and kings believed that they had the right to kill people that the Pope said were heretics. So for Calvin, the idea that the church’s teachings should dictate to the State and recommend the destruction of heretics were quite normal. Augustine had supported such ways of thinking, and Calvin was a follower of Augustine. In trying to establish the Kingdom of God on earth through a reformation of the church, Calvin was trying to maintain doctrinal purity. One way to do this, ever since the merger of the church with State power, was to use lethal force.

Was Calvin Sorry for what he did to Servetus?

Some people who love and defend John Calvin would like us to believe that Calvin was sorry for anything he did to Servetus. But is this really the case. Please read these quotes from Calvin carefully.
Quotes from Calvin
“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honour, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories? Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that I would like to kill again THE MAN I HAVE DESTROYED. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.”
-John Calvin
Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus, 1554
Calvin was not sorry for what he did to the man he claims to have destroyed – Servetus. Calvin said he was indifferent to the comments of those who questioned his actions here. In other words, he couldn’t care less what others said against his apparently murderous actions. We can see from this quote that Calvin believed that God Himself prescribed these kinds of executions of heretics for the church – even though the Scriptures Calvin referred to came right out of the Law of Moses at a time when God’s Servant was speaking with the Lord Face to Face – something Calvin never claimed to do and probably believed was impossible.
If Calvin is indeed a teacher worth following, how would his followers today seek to implement what Calvin taught in his comments quoted below?
“Moreover, God Himself has explicitly instructed us to kill heretics, to smite with the sword any city that abandons the worship of the true faith revealed by Him.”
-John Calvin
Comments on Ex. 22:20, Lev. 24:16, Deut. 13:5-15, 17:2-5.
Has God really laid down such instructions to the true church of Jesus for this present age? Are Calvin’s followers today, who bear his name, willing to keep the teachings of Calvin, even if it means being thrown into prison or condemned as murderers and terrorists? I think not. But they should realise the fruit and character of the person they and their pastors are trusting to teach them the truth about God’s ways and God’s will.
Michael Fackerell

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