Thursday, June 18, 2009

Would Calvin Have Tolerated Me?

John Calvin will continue to be in the news for the next month as we approach the 500th anniversary of his birthday (July 10, 1509). John Calvin was a brilliant and insightful interpreter of Scripture who advanced the reformation and laid the foundation (if not the entire structure) for protestant theology. Since that time he has been ushered into a reformed state of sainthood that places his person and his teaching above reproach by common men such as myself. Calvin was clearly one of the most gifted thinkers and writers of church history and I would be utterly speechless in an attempt to defend a contrary theological position in his presence. All though I am aware of this, and have his books, including his 22 volume commentary set, I often find myself wondering, "What was Calvin thinking?" Some of his ideas, interpretations and applications miss the context of the Scripture. By saying this I know many will think I have just blasphemed and committed the unforgivable sin. But, that leads me to my main point. I do not think I could have sat through a Calvin lecture in Geneva in the 1500's (or, a Calvin-parrot-preacher in 2009) with out wanting to debate at least one of his positions. Likewise, I do not think I could have been an honorable citizen in his city.

First, a doctrinal example: His commentaries on the Old Testament prophets consistently replace the historical references to Israel with a spiritualized reference to the church. Thus, all meaning is lost. This interpretation error is recovered with the hermeneutic principal: One correct interpretation and then, and only then, you have many applications. But, if you miss the correct interpretation you are forced to error in your application, also. This is why Mosaic law of Israel replaced the Canon Law of the Catholic church in Geneva during this time.

Second, some church, or civil issues: Calvin attempted to set up a church state in Geneva, Switzerland in 1536 but was rejected by the citizens. He returned in 1541 and during the next 14 years he worked to impose his version of liturgy, doctrine, morality, church organization and civil obedience on the city. These are some of Calvin's regulations for Geneva and its surrounding villages in 1542:
  • There were four positions established for governing the church - pastors, teachers, elders, and deacons. The elders (or presbyters) were laymen appointed to watch over the morals of their fellows.
  • The office of the elders was to watch over the conduct of every individual, to admonish lovingly those whom they saw doing wrong or leading an irregular life. . . they were distributed in each quarter of the city, so that they could have an eye on everything.
  • The elders would assemble once a week with the ministers, on Thursday mornings, to see if there be any disorders in the Church and discuss together such remedies needed . . . . If any one in contempt refused to appear before them, they would inform the council, who would then supply a remedy.
  • "The whole household shall attend the sermons on Sunday, except when some one shall be left at home to tend the children or cattle."
  • "If there is preaching on week days, all who can must come, - unless there be some good excuse, - so that at least one from each household shall be present . . . . Should any one come after the sermon has begun, let him be warned. If he does not amend, let him pay a fine"
  • "Let the churches be closed except during service, so that no one may enter them at other hours from superstitious motives. If anyone be dis­covered engaged in some superstition within or near the church, let him be admonished. If he will not give up his superstition, let him be punished."
  • "Those who are found to have rosaries or idols to adore, let them be sent before the consistory, and in addition to the reproof they receive there, let them be sent before the coun­cil. Let the same be done with those who go on a pilgrimage. Those who observe feasts or papistical fasts shall only be admonished. Those who go to mass shall, besides being admonished, be sent before the council, and it shall consider the propriety of punishing the offenders by imprisonment or special fines, as it judges best."
  • "If any one sings indecent, licentious songs, or dances, he shall be kept in prison three days and then sent to the council." Indecent singing could be punished by piercing the singers tongue. (A penalty in the 1500's is now fashionable in 2009.)
  • Sins were dealt with as crimes (no pleasure on Sunday, no work on Sunday, no extravagance in dress) and punishments included excommunication from church followed by banishment from the city.
  • Blasphemy could be punished by death. This occurred to John Servetus, (photo below) a theologian and physician, who disagreed with infant baptism (Calvin did not) and did not believe in the Trinity (Calvin did). (Servetus was the first to discover pulmonary circulation which refers to the blood circulating through the lungs and changing color as it picks up oxygen.) Servetus was tried and found guilty of heresy and burned alive. A negative account of the trial is here. According to church historian Philip Schaff (History of the Christian Church Volume VIII, page 692 ) John Calvin had said seven years before this execution:

"Servetus lately wrote to me, and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies, with the Thrasonic boast, that I should see something astonishing and unheard of. He offers to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety; for if he does come, and my authority be of any avail, I shall never suffer him to depart alive." (a letter to Farel, Feb. 13, 1546)
Nine years after the execution Calvin said (Philip Schaff, VIII, page 690) :

"Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? . . . posterity owes me a debt of gratitude of having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster."
Servetus died in the fire praying, "Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me."

Happy Birthday, John! Today I'll read your books, but if I were in Geneva around the 1550's I would have been a blasphemer, a heretic and a criminal. Today, in 2009, I consider you a very brilliant tyrant. (P.S. - I believe in the Trinity. Don't light the fire yet.)

Galyn Wiemers


Anonymous said...

I see you didn't mention his views on soteriology, which were borrowed largely from Augustine. Calvin, with his later coined "TULIP" theology, departed significantly from the early fathers who disavowed such concepts of unconditional election and irresistible grace.

It is alarming and potentially hazardous that many prominent evangelical leaders today are so keen for the historical Calvin. I'm not passing judgment on anyone's soul, but did he possess the character that Jesus states exemplifies a true disciple?

Food for thought.

Douglas Kofi Adu-Boahen said...

Hey Pastor Wiemers,

Interesting post. As someone who would agree with much of what Calvin taught (I'd disagree with his view of baptism, the nature of God's promise to ethnic Israel and his view of the sacraments/ordinances), I agree that there is much about the nature of the man himself which leaves much to be desired.

His involvement in the trial of Servetus serves to remind us that church and state are different divine institutions and when the two merge, it's not always good.

Overall, we thank God for where Calvin got it right, and we learn from where he got it wrong.

Tami said...

There is a danger from following any one man's teaching without delving into the Scriptures yourself. No one man has all things right. If he did, he would cease to be man and begin to be God. ;)