Who Was John Calvin? | Part Two

January 15, 2015

Dr. Marty Comer | Pastor
Sand Ridge Baptist Church, Lexington, TN

*This article was originally published HERE and was used by permission.

To many of his day Calvin was viewed as an agent of God who was working to reform a city and remake it as a Christian community. To others, he ruled as a tyrant who dominated the city. Many Protestants streamed into Geneva from other areas of Europe wanting to live and learn in a city like Calvin’s Geneva. Others were forced to flee for fear of being convicted of violating the laws governing Calvin’s political system.

Perhaps the most notorious act of Calvin’s rule involved the notorious Spaniard, Michael Servetus.  Servetus was a physician of some renown and not an orthodox Christian. His views on the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and other doctrines were outside the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. And Servetus took great exception to the teachings of John Calvin.

Servetus denied Calvin’s doctrine of original sin and infant baptism. And he stood in opposition to many other ideas promulgated by Calvin in his famous work Institutes of the Christian Religion. In fact, he and Calvin exchanged many letters in which they debated doctrine. One act that upset Calvin occurred after he sent Servetus a copy of his book Institutes of the Christian Religion. Servetus sent it back to Calvin with the margins filled with notes in which he pointed out what he believed were errors in Calvin’s arguments. [1]

As if sending Calvin’s book back with corrections wasn’t enough, Servetus then published a book in which he took issue with Calvin’s Institutes. This was more than Calvin could handle. Through an aide he informed the French Inquisition of Servetus’ heresy and even gave them what he viewed as evidence of his errors.

Servetus fled France and headed for Italy, but on his way he stopped off in Calvin’s Geneva, where he went to church, was recognized and arrested. The following quote from historian Clyde L. Manschreck describes what occurred.

“The Genevan Council found Servetus guilty of obstinately spreading heresy and sentenced him to death by burning. Seven years earlier Calvin had vowed that if Servetus ever came to Geneva he would not leave it alive. On the day after sentencing, Servetus was chained to a stake, his book (in which he opposed Calvin) fastened to his arm, sulphur and straw rubbed into his hair. But the straw and fagots (a bundle of sticks or twigs bundled together as fuel) were damp and Servetus died only after half an hour of agony and screaming. At the end he cried ‘O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!’” [2]

To be fair, Calvin and the Geneva Council were not the only ones of that period who believed that killing heretics was just. Many in the period thought that heresy was a poison to the people that must be dealt with severely.  However, we must not simply let those who acted in such a manner off the hook too easily.  As a Baptist we must remember that we too were once a persecuted people. Baptists in the early American colonies were persecuted for dissenting from the majority view of the colonial leaders. Henry Dunster, the first president  of Harvard College, was removed from that position in 1654 Harvard College when he became a Baptist. In 1651, Obadiah Holmes was beaten on the Boston Common for preaching as a Baptist in a state in which it was illegal to be a Baptists.

Persecution often occurs when the power of the government is used to enforce one religious group’s ideas upon others. The danger of integrating church and state is that it limits the freedom of those who don’t agree with the church that is supported by the state.  As a traditional Baptist, I believe in freedom of conscience and religious liberty for all. Let every person proclaim his views. Let us proclaim the gospel. And let the Holy Spirit use that proclamation to convict, convince, and call men and women into the kingdom. I believe so strongly in the gospel that I am willing to put it up against every man made philosophy and every religious idea ever presented and I am convinced the gospel will prevail!


[1] Clyde L. Manschreck.  A History of Christianity in the World. (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1985), 191.
[2] ibid.