Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Nelson Price's attack on John Calvin. VI

We continue this task of defending John Calvin from extreme misrepresentation.

The system of theology he devised came to be known as Calvinism or Reform [sic.] Theology.

We assume that Price has merely left the 'ed' off the end of 'Reformed'. 'Reform' is a branch of Judaism. It is not so much that Calvin 'devised' the Reformed theology, but that he systematized it.
In the mid-1550s Protestants from France, England, Germany and the Netherlands fled persecution in their countries and came to Geneva. They joined Calvin’s efforts to establish the more radical Calvinistic doctrines. They believed all policies should be based on a literal reading of the Scripture. Not only should this be the standard in the church but in civil government and society in general.

Now obviously Christians all agree that, since God is the creator of man, He knows what is best for us. We are taught to pray for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Thus laws that reflect the Word of God are just laws. The Pilgrim Fathers in New England believed the same and tried to put it into practice. Christianity teaches a rule of laws, not of men, and is thus the only true source of genuine freedom from tyranny. Atheism, which derives all morality from man, logically leads to dictatorship and oppression.

Calvin instituted four primary categories of offices in the church.
Pastors: They exercised authority over all religious affairs in Geneva.
Teachers: They were to teach theology to the populace.
Elders: They were older individuals elected by the city council. Their job was to oversee everything everyone did. This formed a bond between church and state.
Deacons: They were appointed to look after the elderly, sick, poor, and needy.

Again this is misrepresentation. In fact it was the Consistory court that exercised authority over all religious affairs in Geneva, and this court was made up of pastors and elders. Teachers were those particularly set over schools and colleges. They taught not only theology but all other subjects, depending on where they taught. The account of the elders is substantially correct, but Calvin himself later regretted the appointment of elders by the city Council. None of this was Calvin's idea alone, he was in fact deeply influenced in his thinking by Martin Bucer of Strasbourg. This has been shown by a number of reputable scholars including T.H.L. Parker and Jean Cadier.

Servantus [sic.] of Spain was one who strongly opposed Calvin. Of the possibility of Servantus [sic.] coming to Geneva Calvin said:
“…if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.”
He did come, was arrested, and his property confiscated.
The theocratic government Calvin had helped establish desired to have him burned alive. Calvin belatedly appealed for him to be decapitated. He was burned alive with Calvin’s consent.
Calvin wrote, “Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in crime and is as guilty as they are.”

The Servetus Case (Price consistently mis-spells the Spanish Unitarian's name) is brought up by all Calvin's opponents as a method of blackening Calvin's reputation. Now we are Baptist, and therefore opposed to all persecution for the sake of religion. But although Calvin was in error in holding the death penalty to be appropriate in the Servetus case, it was an error he shared with most of his contemporaries. When Church and State are confused, is it any wonder that ecclesiastical offences are punished with the force of the state? If hundreds were killed in England, and thousands in Spain, in the name of the Church of England and the Church of Rome, is it any wonder that one man was burned in Geneva? We have to put this in perspective. The last execution of heretics in England was in 1612! Is it any wonder that one man was burned for heresy in Geneva nearly sixty years before?
We repeat that. ONE man. One man who was wanted for heresy in every country of Europe, who was on the run from the Inquisition, and a man whom even gentle Melanchthon judged worthy of death. In the sixteenth century a man such as Servetus could not survive long. The tragedy is that he was killed in Geneva, the only man to die at the stake there.

Servetus' theology should be mentioned in all fairness to the man. His writings have survived (ironically in one case in Calvin's own copy), and from them we find that he was a pantheist, one who believed that all things were made up of God. He was by necessity a unitarian, for if all things are part of God then there can only be one god (we use a small 'g' because such a god is not the God of Scripture).
Far from the case being as clear-cut as Price suggests, it was a bizarre climax to the struggle between Calvin and his enemies. The Council at the time was controlled by the Libertines, a party made up of old Genevans who opposed the Reformers' moral reforms and despised church discipline. Servetus was notorious throughout Europe, and there were several warrants out for his arrest on charges of heresy. Calvin himself had, in 1537, been accused of being in essential doctrinal agreement with Servetus, a circumstance that may have added to his desire to see the heretic brought to repentance or to justice.
True, Calvin was Servetus' accuser. We must remember that the French Reformer shared the error of his age in holding heresy to be a crime that ought to be punished by the state. But Calvin was far from the all-powerful dictator imagined by his modern-day critics. Hugh Reyburn writes:
During the time of Servetus' trial, Calvin himself was ceaselessly attacked by formidable enemies, his friends were few, and his power to defend himself was at its minimum. Everything that could be done was being done to humiliate him, and his ministry in Geneva might be ended at a day's notice." (Hugh Y. Reyburn, P. 165)

Calvin's enemies used Servetus to humiliate Calvin. They encouraged the Spaniard to think he might be free, so that Servetus called for Calvin to be 'eliminated' and thrown out of Geneva. But the Libertines knew that Geneva could not actually free so notorious a heretic once brought to trial. They condemned Servetus anyhow, and ordered him to to burned. Calvin was horrified by their cruelty and begged that Servetus be decapitated instead of burned to death. His request was refused, and ironically Calvin himself has been blamed for that mode of execution he himself opposed.
As Servetus waited in the condemned cell Calvin reasoned with him to recant. Servetus did not, and the Spanish physician went to his death calling out "Jesus, O thou son of the eternal God, have mercy on me!" If he had only said "O thou eternal son of God", he would not have died. But after all, execution is no way to convert men to true religion. We are glad that we live in more enlightened times. Ironically it has been men following out the logic of Calvin's position on the freedom of the Church who have secured us the very liberty that Calvin himself denied in his day.
It is vain to expect perfection of men. The best of men are, as has so wisely been said, only men at best. Yet it is just Calvin's own godliness that leads us to be shocked at his advocating the capital punishment of heretics.

God willing, next time we shall continue our task.

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