3 Myths about Calvin
I've been reading Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion in order to get a clearer idea of the thinking of this great reformer. It helps that this year is the 500th anniversary of his birth. Unfortunately, Calvin (and Calvinism in general) get a lot of unfair treatment by others simply because people do not try to understand Calvin. Here are a couple myths that I have discovered:
Calvin ruled Geneva with an iron fist.
Wrong. He wasn't a citizen until late in his life. He didn't vote. He was fired after only two years and sent packing unceremoniously. Do dictators get fired? To be sure, especially after he returned from exile his influence did grow considerably and he was probably the leading personality in the city by the 1550s. Nevertheless, the small city council (petit conseil) over ruled Calvin on at least two key issues. He wanted to observe the Lord's Supper weekly and he wanted to include an absolution or a declaration of pardon in the liturgy. Both of these should have been minor issues for a tyrant but he was unable to persuade the people and the civil leadership to let him do it. These failures to persuade suggest that Calvin did not have the sort of absolute authority that many people imagine. Indeed, at the end of his life, Calvin himself worried that not only was the Genevan Reformation a failure but that the entire episode might be coming to nothing.
Calvin murdered Miguel Servetus.
Wrong. To be sure Calvin did "rat out" but only after the former showed up in Geneva, despite Calvin's warning of what the civil authorities would do to him and then Servetus appeared in church.
It was the 16th-century. All the magisterial Reformers agreed that the magistrate should not tolerate public heresy against the catholic faith. It was a crime against the civil code in most European cities and Genva was no exception. If the Protestant cities had not treated heresy as a civil crime, the Roman authories would have accused them of giving hospitality to heretics. They were condemned if they did and condemned if they didn't.
There's little doubt that Calvin thought that the civil magistrate should be able to put heretics to death, but the fact is that Calvin didn't put to death anyone, let alone Servetus. Further, judging by the period, Calvin was a piker. Two or three anti-Trinitarians were put to death in Heidelberg in 1570, over the objections of the magistrate, at the insistence of the ministers! Why all the outrage over Calvin and his one heretic and virtual silence over the exponentially greater crime in Heidelberg? Calvin's opponents then and now use the episonde as a way of shaming Calvin (and Calvinists). It's not really about history. It's about the politics of perception.
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