Shocking Beliefs of John Calvin

“The greatest competitor of devotion to Jesus is service to Him. It is never ‘Do, do’ with the Lord, but ‘Be, be’ and He will ‘do’ through you. The only way to keep true to God is by a steady persistent refusal to be interested in Christian work and to be interested alone in Jesus Christ.”

~ Oswald Chambers

If you’re new to the “Shocking Beliefs” series, I’ll open this post by quoting from the preface to the first installment in the series:

This explains why – precisely – I’m producing this series.

A well-known Christian author whom I greatly respect encouraged me to begin a series on the shocking beliefs of some of the great Christians who have impacted church history.

Every follower of Jesus is a rough draft. Over time, the great Editor – the Holy Spirit – shapes our lives and views. But until we see the Lord and “know even as we are known,” we’re are in process.

This is also true for those Christians who have gone before us.

Therefore, one of the mistakes that we must guard against is to dismiss a person’s entire contribution because they may hold (or have held) to ideas that we find hard to stomach.

Speaking personally, if I demanded that a person’s views on every subject under the sun be identical to mine as a condition to be helped by them, then if I had met myself 20 years ago, I’d have to disfellowship myself!

The truth is, my views on some topics have changed over the years.

And so have yours.

Point: we are all in process. None of us gets everything right all the time. That stands true for every Christian who has ever breathed oxygen.

So my purpose in highlighting some of “the shocking beliefs” of those upon whose shoulders we all stand is not to burn these folks in effigy. Nor is it to dismiss their positive contribution to church history.

Rather, it’s to demonstrate that even though they may have held to views that would raise the eyebrows of most evangelicals today, that doesn’t overturn nor negate the valuable ideas they contributed to the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, many evangelicals are quick to discount — and even damn — their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ over alleged doctrinal trespasses, even if those same brothers and sisters hold to the historical orthodox creeds (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.). Such discounting and damning can always be avoided and it serves no one on the Kingdom side of the aisle.

When diversity within orthodoxy is encountered, grace should be extended. Just as we would want grace extended to us, seeing that none of us sees perfectly (Matthew 7:12).

The words of Paul of Tarsus contain thunder and lightning for us all, “Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete . . .” (1 Corinthians 13:9, NLT).

Note that these beliefs will be “shocking” to some evangelicals, but not all. Some evangelicals claim that they aren’t shocked or surprised by anything. (So there’s no need to write in the comments – with chest thrown outward – “I don’t find any of this shocking.” The Blog Manager says he will delete such statements as they will be wasting space.)

Today, we’ll be looking at some of the shocking beliefs of John Calvin.


Calvin is one of the founding fathers of Protestantism and someone who still has countless followers today. Hailed as being a master theologian, the French Reformer’s writings still live and breathe in the 21st century.

Calvin was a second-generation Reformer, being 26 years younger than Luther. He was a lawyer by training, possessing a keen analytical mind. By all counts, Calvin was an intellectual.

He wrote the original version of his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion when he was a mere 27 years old, updating it throughout his entire life. (Some regard the Institutes to be the single most influential theological work in history.)

Calvin left the Roman Catholic Church around 1530 and joined the Reformation in 1537.

Whether you agree with Calvin’s theological system or not, there’s no question that John Calvin has made an indelible mark on today’s Christianity, especially American evangelicalism.

And like all highly influential Christians, Calvin has been hailed and hammered, loved and loathed, adored and abhorred.

For example . . .

“Among all those who have been born of women, there has not risen a greater than John Calvin; no age, before him ever produced his equal, and no age afterwards has seen his rival. In theology, he stands alone, shining like a bright fixed star, while other leaders and teachers can only circle round him, at a great distance — as comets go streaming through space — with nothing like his glory or his permanence” . . . “the longer I live the clearer does it appear that John Calvin’s system is the nearest to perfection.”

~ Charles Spurgeon

“Calvin was the cruel and unopposed dictator of Geneva.”

~ From ‘John Calvin’ in The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, edited by FL Cross and EA Livingstone, (OUP: New York, 1974, 2nd ed.), p. 223.

“Taking into account all his failings he must be reckoned as one of the greatest and best of men whom God raised up in the history of Christianity.”

~ Philip Schaff

“The famous Calvin whom we regard as the apostle of Geneva raised himself up to the rank of pope of the Protestants.”

~ Voltaire

Calvin labored 12-18 hours a day as a preacher, administrator, professor of theology, superintendant of churches and schools, advisor, and regulator of public morality and worship.

He died at age 54. But he was incredibly productive. Prolific since his early 20s, Calvin preached an average of five sermons a week and wrote a commentary on nearly every book of the Bible.

What follows is not intended to debate the ethics or theological veracity of Calvin. Instead, it’s to (I’m repeating myself here) show that everyone who influenced the church of Jesus Christ has held to some surprising, albeit, even shocking beliefs.

Consequently, we Christians should be much more tolerant toward those with whom we may disagree. Meaning, those who admire Calvin, Wesley, C.S. Lewis, Luther, or Jonathan Edwards, etc. should be far more gracious and patient about theological differences in light of some of the shocking stuff all of these men believed along with the good things they contributed.

Caution: If you dare to read further, please read the entire post. Especially the “Don’t Miss the Point” section at the bottom.

1. Calvin believed that executing unrepentant heretics was justified.

The best known example of this is when Calvin consented to the execution of Michael Servetus, a man who denied the Trinity and infant baptism. Servetus burned for one hour simply because of his theological views.

Calvin supporters are quick to point out that the great Reformer didn’t directly execute the man. He even tried to persuade Servetus not to come to Geneva. Calvin also tried to get Servetus to repent and sought for him to be granted a more humane execution (which was beheading instead of burning).

Even so, Calvin made this remark regarding Servetus, showing that he believed death for heresy was justifiable.

“But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come [to Geneva], I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” [1]

During Servertus’ trial, Calvin remarked:

“I hope that the verdict will call for the death penalty.” [2]

Nine years after the execution, Calvin made this comment in answering his critics: “Servetus suffered the penalty due his heresies, but was it by my will. Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety.” [3]

Calvin is also quoted as saying, “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.” [3a]

Whether you agree with Calvin’s view or defend his actions because he was “a man of his times,” many Christians find the idea of executing heretics to be shocking.

This brings up another point for another post, but consider for a moment if murder was legal in our time.

If it were, I think we’d have a lot of dead Christians who lost their lives to other Christians over doctrinal trespasses.

If you think I’m wrong, just watch the vitriol and hatred in many “Christian” online forums as they verbally bludgeon one another over theological interpretations.

In addition to Servetus, Jerome Bolsec was arrested and imprisoned for challenging Calvin during a lecture, then banished from the city. Calvin wrote privately about the matter saying that he wished Bolsec were “rotting in a ditch.” [4]

Jacques Gruet was also a man who disagreed with Calvin. He called Calvin an ambitious and haughty hypocrite. The administrations of Geneva tortured Gruet twice daily until he confessed, and with Calvin’s concurrence, Gruet was tied to a stake, his feet were nailed to it, and his head was cut off for blasphemy and rebellion.

Pierre Ameaux was charged with slandering Calvin at a private gathering. He was to pay a fine, but Calvin wasn’t satisfied with the penalty, so Ameaux spent two months in prison, lost his job, and was paraded through town kneeling to confess his libel, also paying for the trial expense. [5]

2. Calvin believed that the Eucharist provides an undoubted assurance of eternal life.

Resembling the Roman Catholic view, Calvin stated that the sacrament of the Eucharist provided the “undoubted assurance of eternal life to our minds, but also secures the immortality of our flesh.” [6]

3. Calvin believed that the Reformed Church (his church) was the true Church and there was no salvation outside of it.

Calvin persuaded an Anabapist named Herman to leave the Anabaptists (which he considered a sect), and join the Reformed church. He wrote the following, which sounds strikingly similar to the way the Catholics of that time spoke of the Roman Catholic Church:

“Herman has, if I am not mistaken, in good faith returned to the fellowship of the Church. He has confessed that outside the Church there is no salvation, and that the true Church is with us. Therefore, it was defection when he belonged to a sect separated from it.” [7]

4. Calvin believed it was acceptable to lambast his opponents with vicious names.

Calvin treated his critics with contempt, calling them “pigs,” “asses,” “riffraff,” “dogs,” “idiots,” and “stinking beasts.” In this vein, Calvin said this of the great Anabaptist leader, Menno Simons: “Nothing could be prouder, nothing more impudent than this donkey.”[8]

5. Calvin believed that the Old Testament capital offenses should be enforced today.

The city of Geneva was ruled by the clergy, which was composed of five pastors and twelve lay elders chosen by Geneva’s Council. But Calvin’s voice was the most influential in the city.

Here are some laws and facts about Geneva under Calvin’s authority:

* Each household had to attend Sunday morning services. If there was preaching on weekdays, all had to attend also. (There were only a few exceptions, and Calvin preached three to four times a week.)

* If a person came to the service after the sermon had begun, he was warned. If he continued, he would have to pay a fine.

* Heresy was regarded as an insult to God and treason to the state and was punished by death.

* Witchcraft was a capital crime. In one year, 14 alleged witches were sent to the stake on the charge that they persuaded satan to afflict Geneva with the plague.

* Clergy were to abstain from hunting, gambling, feasting, commerce, secular amusements, and had to accept annual visitations and moral scrutiny by church superiors.

* Gambling, card-playing, frequenting taverns, dancing, indecent or irreligious songs, immodesty in dress were all prohibited.

* The allowable color and quantity of clothing and the number of dishes permissible at a meal were specified by law.

* A woman was jailed for arranging her hair to an “immoral height.”

* Children were to be named after Old Testament characters. A rebellious father served four days in prison for insisting on naming his son Claude instead of Abraham.

* To speak disrespectfully of Calvin or the clergy was a crime. A first violation was punished by a reprimand. Further violations with fines. Persistent violations were met with imprisonment or banishment.

* Fornication was punished by exile or drowning.

* Adultery, blasphemy, and idolatry was punished with death.

* In the year 1558-1559, there were 414 prosecutions for moral offenses.

* As everywhere in the 16th century, torture was often used to obtain confessions or evidence.

* Between 1542-1564, there were 76 banishments. The total population of Geneva then was 20,000.

* Calvin’s own step-daughter and son-in-law were among those condemned for adultery and executed.

* In Geneva, there was little distinction between religion and morality. The existing records of the Council for this period reveal a high percentage of illegitimate children, abandoned infants, forced marriages, and sentences of death. [9]

* In one case, a child was beheaded for striking his parents. [10] (Following Old Testament Mosaic law, Calvin believed it was scriptural to execute rebellious children and those who commit adultery.) [10a]

* During a period of 17 years when Calvin was leading Geneva, there were 139 recorded executions in the city. [11]

Sabastian Castellio, a friend of Calvin’s who urged him to repent of his intolerance, made the shocking remark,

“If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope [John Calvin], but one who burns men alive while the pope at Rome strangles them first.” [12]

Castellio also made this remark:

“Can we imagine Christ ordering a man to be burned alive for advocating adult baptism? The Mosaic laws calling for the death of a heretic were superceded by the law of Christ, which is one of mercy not of despotism and terror.” [12a]

6. Calvin believed that Jewish people were impious, dishonest, lacked common sense, were greedy, and should die without pity.

Calvin wrote, “I have had much conversation with many Jews: I have never seen either a drop of piety or a grain of truth or ingenuousness – nay, I have never found common sense in any Jew.” [13]

Calvin is also quoted as calling Jews “profane dogs” who “under the pretext of prophecy, stupidly devour all the riches of the earth with their unrestrained cupidity.” [14]

He also stated that “their rotten and unbending stiffneckedness deserves that they be oppressed unendingly and without measure or end and that they die in their misery without the pity of anyone.” [15]

7. Calvin believed that God did not create all humans on equal terms, but created some individuals for eternal damnation.

This idea is known as “double predestination.” According to this view, God predestines some to salvation and others to destruction. While this idea will not be shocking to some Christians, particularly Calvinists, the idea that God would knowing create some individuals so as to destroy them eternally in the end is shocking to many believers.

According to Calvin, “The predestination by which God adopts some to the hope of life, and adjudges others to eternal death, no man who would be thought pious ventures simply to deny . . . By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.” [16]

Chapter 21 of Book III of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is called “Of the eternal election, by which God has predestinated some to salvation, and others to destruction.”

Don’t Miss the Point

Now before any of you become apoplectic with ill feelings toward Calvin, here’s a comment to keep in mind about this post — and all the others in this series — by one historian. I asked him to review the post for accuracy before I published it.

I fully agree with his point about context, so you’ll want to put all of the above into perspective.

“This is a compelling and well-researched post. I do wonder if it merits further context; this is roughly the era of the Spanish Inquisition, for example, and Servetus purposefully forced Calvin’s hand by coming to Geneva. Calvin entreated him to give up his errors and sent him a copy of the Institutes (at great personal expense–books were rare commodities back then) and dialogued with him. He showed pastoral care in this respect.

Geneva was a place ruled by law, even theological law, but so were most every other European cities. This was not a nice era. It was rough. Life, as Hobbes said, was nasty, brutish, and short. Calvin’s Geneva provided all kinds of pastoral help to the city, and the city thrived under Calvin. It was also a place of refuge for Protestants from all over Europe. Geneva was not the exception in having tough communal strictures. It was the rule. Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors (OUP) has a ton of good background that could be of help here.”

~ Owen Strachan, Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College.

Again, as in all the posts in this series, the point is not to put the greatest influencers of the Christian faith in a bad light or disregard their legacy.

Rather, it’s the opposite.

It’s to show that even the most influential Christians who have changed the lives of countless people for good — Calvin being one of them — believed things that were surprising, shocking, and even outrageous.

So tread carefully the next time you come across another follower Jesus who doesn’t believe just like you do on every doctrinal point.

And when you’re tempted to burn them over a slow spit because of their “bad theology,” remember John Calvin — the man whom Charles Spurgeon said had a near flawless theology — and consider some of the other stuff the great Reformer believed.

WARNING: If anyone wields accusations like “John Calvin is the mouthpiece of Satan” and other such sentiments, our beloved Blog Manager says he won’t approve the comment.

So to the both of you who found this post on the Web somewhere and are starting to march toward the comments box with pitch forks, blow torches, and blunt objects in order to delegitimize, castigate, or marginalize Calvin beyond repair, your remark will vanish into the electricity after he hits the DELETE key.

For the comments: There are numerous followers of John Calvin today. In the comments, give us one or two Calvin quotes that have helped you in your walk with Jesus Christ. I may not be around to respond, for after writing this post, I’m looking for Salman Rushdie so I can hide with him! 😉

Comments are now closed. If you wish to share a quote by Calvin that has helped you in your walk with the Lord, or you want to comment on something specific in this article, write to

Remember, this article will be part of an upcoming book entitled ReGrace. So make sure you join the waiting list below to get a copy when it releases. It will not be sold in any online bookstore.

Other Posts in the Series – The Rest will Appear in the Upcoming “Shocking Beliefs” Book

Shocking Beliefs of John Wesley

Shocking Beliefs of Jonathan Edwards

Shocking Beliefs of C.S. Lewis

Shocking Beliefs of D.L. Moody

Shocking Beliefs of Augustine

Shocking Beliefs of Martin Luther



[1] Bonnet and Gilchrist, Letters of John Calvin: Compiled From the Original Manuscripts and Edited With Historical Notes, 2:19.


[3] Responsio ad Balduini Convicia, Opera, IX. 575: “Iustas quidem ille poenas dedit: sed an meo arbitrio? Certe arrogantia non minus quam impietas perdidit hominem. Sed quodnam meum crimen, si Senatus noster mea hortatu, ex plurium tamen ecclesiarum sententia, exsecrabiles blasphemias ultus est? Vituperet me sane hac in parte Franciscus Balduinus, modo Philippi Melanchthonis iudicio posteritas mihi gratitudinem debeat, quia tam exitiali monstro ecclesiam purgaverim. Senatum etiam nostrum, sub cuius ditione aliquando vixit, perstringat ingratus hospes: modo idem Philippus scripto publice edito testetur dignum esse exemplum quod imitentur omnes christiani principes.” Quoted in

[3a] Schaff. Quoted in

[4] Letter to Madame de Cany, 1552. See also The Secret of the Strength by Peter Hoover. Bolsec believed Calvin’s view of predestination turned God into the author of evil.

[5] The Constructive Revolutionary by Fred Graham, pp. 162-169; Will Durant, The Reformation, p. 479.

[6] Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.17.32.

[7] Letters of John Calvin, trans. M. Gilchrist, ed. J.Bonnet, New York: Burt Franklin, 1972, I: 110-111.

[8] Philip Schaff’s goes into this with sources in French, etc. in his History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII, p. 594ff. Schaff cites his sources. For the quote on Menno Simons, see The Secret of the Strength by Peter Hoover, p. 63; Calvin, IV, 176; HRE XII, 592.

[9] All of the above information about Geneva can be found in Will Durant, The Reformation, pp. 472-476. Durant cites his sources. See also Calvin’s Geneva: An Experiment in Christian Theocracy – published in The Radical Resurgence and Calvin’s Geneva: Applied Critical Thinking – published in The Radical Resurgence

[10] Fear of the Word by Eli Oboler, pp. 60-62.

[10a] See

[11] The Church Polity of John Calvin by Harro Hopfl, p. 136.

[12] Quoted in How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West by Perez Zagorin.

[12a] Will Durant, The Reformation, p. 486.

[13] Calvin’s commentary of Daniel 2:44–45 translated by Myers, Thomas.Calvin’s Commentaries. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948, quoted in Lange van Ravenswaay 2009, p. 146

[14] Quoted in Essential Papers on Judaism and Christianity in Conflict by Jeremy Cohen.

[15] A Response To Questions and Objections of a Certain Jew (Ad quaestiones et objecta Judaei cuiusdam responsio).

[16] Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.21.5. It should be noted that many Calvinists reject double predestination. For example, Spurgeon and Simeon both rejected the view.


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  • Frank Viola

    Friends, this is from the Blog Manager.

    “I’m deleting comments that (1) violate what I clearly specified not to discuss, like the fact that you don’t find any of this shocking. (2) dispute any of the history WITHOUT CITING A CREDIBLE SOURCE THAT REFUTES THE SOURCES PRESENTED which anyone can read for themselves and which have been confirmed by a reputable Calvinist scholar. Just saying you disagree without giving a source is unconvincing (3) are off the topic. The point of the post is why Christians must be tolerant toward other Christians they disagree with.

    My advice is to read the entire article, not just skim it and comment. Then read all the comments. Then answer the question that Frank put forth in blue. You will have a much better chance of seeing your comment approved. Thank you.

    ~The Blog Manager”

  • Frank Viola

    You’ve hit on something in history that’s hugely debated. Durant, one historian, in his “The Reformation” tome quotes people who say Geneva was a utopia, an impeccable place. He quotes others, however, believe it was a legalistic, oppressive, scary place. The laws I listed and stats are in fact documented. It all depends on how one views those rules and laws really.

  • Frank Viola

    Joshua, thanks for the kind remark and especially that you recognize all of it is true.

    Calvin’s influence in Geneva is open for debate; most of the Calvinist scholars I’ve read agree that he had profound influence in the city.

    But that’s really not the point. The point made was that Calvin DID believe in the execution of heretics and severe penalties for the immoral. And he did agree with many of the laws outlined in Geneva. That’s undeniable.

    Again, the point being of all of this is that every Christian – Calvinists included – should be much more tolerant, less harsh, and less quick to condemn or ignore those with whom they disagree theologically.

    Calvin’s beliefs are the summary witness to this.

  • Joshua Morrison

    I greatly appreciate this article. Church History follows the ancient Jewish Tradition of telling a truthful history, the good, the bad, and the ugly, the beautiful, and the warts and all. This series I think will be good. Furthermore, I am a follower of John Calvin. 😀

    I am familiar with all of this, and virtually all of it is true. However, the comments on his influence over the City Council, and all this supposed power he had in Geneva is just a regurgitation of lies spread by his enemies.

    Calvin did not have much influence with the Geneva Government. The City Council hated Calvin, so much so that after he had left and been gone for a few years the City Council asked him to return, to which Calvin replied, “I would rather die a thousand deaths than return to Geneva.”

    Prior to Servetus coming to Geneva, Calvin corresponded with Servetus. Agreeing to meet with him in Paris where he was an outlaw to discuss the Trinity which Servetus rejected. Calvin snuck into Paris, but Servetus was a no show. Prior to arriving in Geneva Calvin met Servetus outside of the city and pleaded with him to not come to the city for he would be arrested. Servetus refused. Interestingly enough, Servetus was going to Geneva to persuade the city council to charge Calvin with heresy. Servetus was prosecuted by the city council, that council asked Calvin to be a prosecuting attorney. Upon Servetus’ conviction, the council decided to burn him at the stake, while Calvin and many native Genevan clergy pleaded with the council to simply cut off his head.

    Calvin’s influence in the City of Geneva is over accentuated greatly, especially with regards to Genevan Law. He was a foreigner in Geneva, not become a voting citizen until just a few years before his death.

  • Julian

    Thank you for your research in this matter. The comments of Strachan need be understood in the context of where he is a Professor. Southern Seminary is in the fore front of Reformed Theology, which has its origin in John Calvin. The Church in Geneva had the same problem we face today and that is pastor centered Church’s rather than Christ centered. When are we going to stop justifying Calvin and start being believers who exhibit and declare the Good News of the Lord Jesus. After all as the Apostle Paul says “He died for all” not a select few. I guess the women who was brought before Jesus, who had been caught in adultery, is glad it wasn’t John Calvin.

  • Episcocrat

    As someone who sides with Arminius, as opposed to Calvin, I think Arminius’ comment here is fitting: “I exhort all my students to read the Commentaries of Calvin, on whom I bestow higher praise than Helmichius ever did, as he confessed to me himself. For I tell them that he is incomparable in the interpretations of Scripture; and that his Commentaries ought to be held in greater estimation than all that is delivered to us in the writings of the Ancient Christian Fathers: So that, in a certain eminent Spirit of Prophecy, I give the pre-eminence to him beyond most others, indeed beyond them all.” (Works, 1:295)

  • Teri

    “The test of worship is increase in love, trust, and loyalty to God, and in love of neighbor.”

  • Greg Carlet

    Too many to list, and too long to post here, but this one sums up the others:

    “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”