Nothing Comes Between Me and My Calvin

by Lorette C. Luzajic
Part 14 of the
Pillars of Faith series

Fall from Grace

My personal “fall from grace” began with John Calvin. I was participating in Buy Nothing Christmas last year, and for Dad’s free gift, I decided to write about his hero Calvin. Neither of us was expecting a lengthy piece called A Tremendous Blasphemy. This was a pivotal moment — my rabbit hole. To quote Johnny Cash, I went out walking with a Bible and gun… I examined the messengers of my family’s truth, only to see the immorality throughout our pillars of faith. Now you know how this journey for me began.

Calvin was born Catholic in France in 1509. His father encouraged his intelligence. John began college at 14, and excelled in theology, law and Greek. Calvin was critical of holes in the Catholic faith, and he began to study Scripture for answers. By 27, he wrote the Institutes of Christian Religion. This epic work of doctrine became a kingpin of the Reform movement, propelling Calvin to its forefront.

A Change is Gonna Come

Pullquote: God preordained a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.
John Calvin

Calvin rejected the primacy of the papacy. He declared the Eucharist was symbolic — the bread did not really transubstantiate, or become Christ’s flesh. But his central idea was that to know God, you must study the Bible. He would not reveal himself through the church or through the world, but through the word.

Images of God were idols. There was no salvation in works or the church, but only justification through faith. But even if you want faith, you can’t if God didn’t want you to. This was Calvin’s infamous “predestination” theory. As he put it, “God preordained … a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”

Branded a heretic of the church, Calvin fled, ultimately to Geneva, where he became a church leader and revolutionary. His contributions to free the grip of Rome are well known. That he preached passionately even in sickness is legendary. He wrote prolifically. He also spoke against slavery and built many schools for ex-Catholic refugees.

But for all the trumpeted freedom and reason Calvin brought, unspeakable atrocities are glossed over or swept under the rug.

Those Evil Catholics

Pullquote: On occasion, the decapitated heads of those Calvin had condemned were paraded victoriously through the streets to warn others.

Calvin’s theocracy in Geneva had councils banishing rosaries, card games, theater, fancy clothing, entertainment, and taverns. These things weren’t just poo-pood-punishments, for those offenses ranged from fines to torture to exile to death. Flash mobs of Calvinist vandals raged through convents and churches, ransacking “idolatrous” crucifixes and priceless artwork of saints, humiliating nuns, destroying and burning artifact, scourging clerics and priests.

Disobedient children were hung at the gallows by their feet as stern warnings. The press was censored. Muslims, Jews, and Catholics were exiled. To question Calvin’s doctrine was forbidden — just like the papacy he hated. It was Calvin himself who had a law passed that decreed anyone questioning his authority to be executed. On occasion, the decapitated heads of those he had condemned were paraded victoriously through the streets to warn others. Famously, one execution was of Calvin’s close friend, Servetus, who questioned the preacher’s trinity doctrine.

Oo, Oo, Witchy Woman

Pullquote: The Bible teaches us that there are witches and they must be slain. This law of God is a universal law.
John Calvin

And lest we forget: the witches. The Protestants and Catholics share equal guilt for The Burning Times, and witch sport was a favorite of Calvin. He expounded on woman’s romping with various demonic beasts. Some of the symptoms of witchcraft included owning pets, an easy birth, a difficult birth, a failed crop, and a suggestion of equality with men. “The Bible teaches us that there are witches and they must be slain. This law of God is a universal law,” Calvin said.

Calvin called menstruation “a foul disease,” he abhorred nuns their chastity for robbing men of their due, he advised battered women to stay with their husbands, and he claimed that women who used birth control were guilty of murdering a man’s sons.

Justification Through Faith

There are many apologists for Calvin’s nasty side, and Dad is their champion. Same old, same old: it was the times; he could have been worse; popular beliefs of the day; he didn’t have as much authority as critics say; Reform could not have happened without force; he did some good; etc.

But the scariest apologists say Calvin was right in all of these things. Apparently, the problem with Christianity is that we need to get back to the firm foundations of Calvinist doctrine and stop apologizing for the bad stuff in the good book.

Lorette C. Luzajic writes about all kinds of interesting people at Fascinating People.

So Long, And Thanks For All The Memories (From Dan)
Where the Fire Comes From
Being Agent Scully
Romance at Mars Hill
  • LRA

    Scary. I never bought in to predestination. I felt it totally removed the “free will” to love God argument, therefore nullifying sin altogether. Of course, I still went to church then. Now I don’t believe in sin at all… just in action/ reaction/ natural consequences. Eternal due/ eternal reward no longer make any sense to me.

  • Jer

    “God preordained … a part of the human race, without any merit of their own, to eternal salvation, and another part, in just punishment of their sin, to eternal damnation.”

    This is one of the most odious teachings of any religion on the planet. I put this up there with some of the more sociopathic teachings in Scientology and some of the more violent teachings in Islam as one of the most harmful doctrines to the human psyche.

    Even if Calvin had been a Saint in all other respects, unleashing this contemptible and hideous philosophy on the world would have been enough to condemn him as a monster. The rest of it is just extra proof.

    • Tobytwo

      The worst part is he had plenty of scriptural support for the idea.

      Growing up as a Christian, I had many “deep” conversations with friends about predestination — whether it could be true, how we had a really hard time accepting the idea, etc. It was just another of those things that is really hard to make sense of when you have to account for God and the bible.

      • Siberia

        The thing that bugs me about this talk of predestination and fate in general, is that it assumes we have no control whatever over ourselves – I mean, no matter what we think, do, imagine, dream – it’ll all come down to the same place. We’d be little more than automata – chess pieces in Gawd’s great game.


  • Jonny Rad

    Ah… I sure do hate this debate. Choosing who is “saved” and who is not sounds inconsistent with a loving God. I’ve had this debate with so many people and I’m sooooo sick of it. The Bible seems to have verses that go both ways, but I don’t know. My thought is that everyone has a shot, and Calvinism doesn’t really paint God as a loving and fair God.

    DISCLAIMER: I’m a Christian (youth pastor, in fact), and I read the “Christian cliche phrases” entry and found it HILARIOUS. I hate how people go into auto-Jesus mode and spout them out without thinking. Proud to say, I’ve never concluded an argument with “I’ll pray for you” : ) But I love wrestling with these issues cause they’re relevant, and saying “the Bible says so” or “you gotta have faith” really isn’t enough. So I hope to respect the views of each person on here, and I ask you do the same for me.

    Have a good day er’body : )

    • Elemenope

      Proud to say, I’ve never concluded an argument with “I’ll pray for you” : ) But I love wrestling with these issues cause they’re relevant, and saying “the Bible says so” or “you gotta have faith” really isn’t enough. So I hope to respect the views of each person on here, and I ask you do the same for me.


    • Unindoctrinated

      Of course it’s inconsistent with a loving god. Pretty much the entire Bible is inconsistent with the truly ridiculous and unsupported notion of a Christian ‘loving’ god.

      • Jabster

        However much I may agree with you this post is over three years old … maybe join a somewhat more current thread?


  • rjl

    A lot of what is written in the above article is highly inaccurate. Calvin did not organise mobs or pass laws encouraging capital punishment.

    To be honest, it’s rare to see so much false information on one page.

    • brgulker

      Calvin may not have organized the mobs, but the government in Geneva did permit them to an extent.

      But there is at least some misinformation here.

      • rjl

        The government of Geneva was not controlled by Calvin…

        • Unindoctrinated

          Leaders must, to some degree, be responsible for the actions of their followers. Christians call Christian terrorists ‘not real Christians’, yet state Muslim terrorists are following their faith. If Calvinist gangs caused problems then the blame belongs to Calvin unless he specifically instructed otherwise. Anything else is just scapegoating.

    • thegirlcanwrite

      I appreciate that you don’t want to just take some broad’s word for it, and I also appreciate that writers who I researched may be faulty. For the most part, running a search on the topic in question along with the name will bring up several sources, arguments pro and con, and so on.

      I’m happy, as always, to rectify misinformation. I can’t know everything, and my job and passion is learning.

      Nowhere did I say Calvin ‘organized’ mobs. The mobs were Calvinist thinkers. He did not decry their actions, however.

      The comment on battered women:

      Letter From Calvin to an Unknown Woman,” June 4, 1559, Calvini Opera, XVII, col. 539, in P. E. Hughes, editor, The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Eerdmans, 1966) , pp. 344-345

      The idea that avoiding pregnancy is murder of a son and the unforgivable sin is from Calvin’s Institutes work, Commentary on Genesis 38.

      On Calvin’s participation in the death of his friend Servetus

      : T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin: a biography. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975, and Jules Bonnet, editor, Letters of John Calvin. UK: Banner of Truth Trust, abbreviated English translation of 1855-57 edition in French, 1980

      On Bolsec’s allegations that Calvin committed sodomy, thought he was God, and lured every woman who walked by:
      Wycliffe Hall, Alister McGrath, reviews The Early Reformation on the Continent by Owen Chadwick
      on the idea that this was common knowledge and accepted fact from archived Europe, but covered up and denied by Protestant churches
      Schlusselburg, Théologie calvinienne).

      Not very detailed references, but sources nonetheless on the witch hunts and Reform

      Robertson, History of Christianity
      Haught, Holy Horrors
      Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches

      Livingstone, Dictionary of the Church
      Ranke-Heinemann, Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven

      information on the execution of Servetus and the witches, but in defense of how much reform Calvin brought to these groups:

      Calvin’s hatred of nuns, because they do not serve a man sexually or raise children, and his hatred of women who should love their place serving men, in his own words:

      A Sermon of Master John Caluine, vpon the first Epistle of Paul, to Timothie, published for the benefite and edifying of the Churche of God (London: G. Bishop and T. Woodcoke, 1579), excerpted from Calvin’s sermon on 1 Timothy 2:13-15.

      On death penalty for drinking, dancing, gambling etc, Geneva life at the time, general reform information, and biographical details;

      Bouwsma, William J. John Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

      Cottret, Bernard. Calvin: A Biography. Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 2000.

      Wellman, Sam. John Calvin: Father of Reformed Theology. Ulrichsville, OH: Barbour, 2001.

  • UU4077

    I would question whether Michael Servetus was a close friend of Calvin’s. In fact, Servetus was possibly Calvin’s intellectual superior. The only thing friendly Calvin did towards Servetus was to offer to have him beheaded instead of burned at the stake.

  • brgulker

    There are many apologists for Calvin’s nasty side, and Dad is their champion. Same old, same old: it was the times; he could have been worse; popular beliefs of the day; he didn’t have as much authority as critics say; Reform could not have happened without force; he did some good; etc.

    I find it very interesting that you chose to leave out Calvin’s tenuous relationship with the local government in Geneva and chose to place all of the blame squarely on one man’s shoulders.

    I’m not a Clavin apologist. I think what happened in Geneva was a disaster. But I don’t blame it all on him, because it’s not possible to if you study the history of the city, the power of the local government, etc. Calvin didn’t have as much power as you’ve intimated; that’s a fact of history that’s there for anyone to see.

    • brgulker

      By “tenuous relationship” I mean specifically how Calvin was run out of town, brought back, et al. That fact in and of itself demonstrates that Calvin did not have as much power as you seem to imply.

      But, I do see your detailed response above, so I’ll take the time to read through that.

  • thegirlcanwrite

    No arguements there- Calvin was absolutely not the only force at work. But with a brilliant scholar’s background in legal studies, he was integral in the establishment of the theocracy. That theocracy punished by torture, death and exile those things that their Reform hero called sin- gambling, drinking, other religions. Calvin set up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances, and government councils and committees indeed adhered to strict rules of the reform.

    Apologists reduce Calvin’s role as if his philosophy had nothing to do with the theocratic government. Haters say his role was vastly UNDERRATED and go so far as to say it was a brief dictatorship. I’m still learning as I go along.

    Thanks for comments and suggestions.

    • UU4077

      Your link provided in the comments above regarding the trial and execution of Servetus seems to rely too heavily on a few sources when discussing Servetus and, consequently, draws some inaccurate conclusions. For example, Servets was not anti-Christian. He was anti-Trinitarian.

  • Zotz

    Wow, some of the comments here just completely miss the point.

    Calvin’s philosophies form the basis of today’s protestant (capitalist) ethic. While we aren’t burning witches anymore, we still have vast numbers of Xtrians who believe “wealth = blessed by God”, “know your place” and “God’s Will”. Dan’s posting of Ty’s comment above this post relates.

    Calvin was an evil, evil man. So was the colonically challenged Luther who related that his 99 theses came to him after he took particularly good dump. I could go on and on…

    Shorter version: picking out pieces of corn from a steaming pile doesn’t change the fact that the pile really, really stinks and ought to avoided.

    • Elemenope

      Weber’s theory about Protestantism and the work ethic has been fairly torn to shreds. There are large numbers of counterexamples of Catholic areas experiencing rapid economic at the same time that the protestant regions had there’s, and it is more commonly linked to strengthening of property rights and the rule of law, esp. after the disintegration of the feudal land system.

      • Zotz

        Of course it’s BS! But, since when have the religious bigots ever been persuaded by facts?

        • JonJon

          I don’t think Weber counts as a religious bigot…

          • Zotz

            True, Max was a scholar. That does not change the fact that too many Americans have internalized Calvinist/Capitalist notions that recent events make clear cannot be sustainable.

            In fact I’d posit that capitalism is itself a bigoted “faith” in unending economic growth, supported by cheap fossil fuel and a sense of entitlement/exceptionalism.

            • not a gator

              You’ve got it, complete with an ideology (a twisted misreading of Adam Smith–honestly bearing no relationship to anything he wrote, but they like to drag his name in the mud) that claims that anything done for money is good and will have good results. Any careful investigation of these claims will show immediately that this is not the case and no serious economist would pretend so. Yet piles of Randroid MBA-holding MOTU wannabe’s spout this mantra. Maybe it makes them feel better about themselves.

      • Zotz

        And the catholics have a whole other sordid set of outrages…

  • Jonny Rad

    Well, I see a lot on here. The issue seems to come to this in my mind:

    I think that the issue with Calvin isn’t the “square one issue.” Calvin was a man, plain and simple, and whether he did great things or awful things his actions do not in any way validate or invalidate Christianity as a worldview. Flawed human beings not living up to the standard set forth by their religion are not a reflection on the validity of the world view they follow. For example, the Crusades, the Salem witch trials, etc. are all dark and awful things in Christianity’s past — no justification is applicable. However, the issue should really point back to Jesus. His life is the only one that can make or break Christianity as a worldview since He is the center of it.

    Conclusion: Calvin, whether saint or dictator, is a representation of one leader in Christianity. There have been plenty of poor leaders. The only way to accurately judge a worldview in accordance to its followers is if those followers are carrying out the morals of that worldview to a “t”. So if Calvin is, in fact, living out the Bible word-by-word and committing atrocious acts then you can condemn Christianity through his life. Other than that, hate the player, don’t hate the game ; )


    • Jonny Rad

      To be fair: same thing goes for any religion, even the “all evil” Islam. If their religion calls for them to fly planes into buildings or kill “infidels” and they are obedient by doing such, then you can judge the religion according to its adherents. If they are a radical sect spurred on by fanaticism which is not stated within their holy book, then Islam remains untouched by their actions.

    • Ty

      Don’t make the common mistake of thinking anyone is saying, “this religion is not true because some of its followers are bad.”

      The religion is not true because there isn’t any evidence to support it. In addition to not being true, some of its teachings when taken to extremes have serious negative consequences for society. The acts of some of the leaders of the religion show what happens when the more extreme teachings are enforced.

      And that’s it.

      • Jonny Rad

        So would you say the more devout a Christian is the more harmful to society he will become?

        • Ty

          That’s a meaningless question.

          Define ‘devout’.

          I think that viewing, for example, certain bible teachings as the inerrant word of god leads to things like stoning gay people or murdering ‘witches’.

        • Tobytwo

          “Devout Christian” is far too vague to properly answer the question. Provide a list of the tenets you consider to be essential to the Christian faith, and then we’ll play.

        • Siberia

          Depends on what (s)he is devout about.
          If (s)he is devout and thinks homosexuals are abominations and women should be kept as “helpmates”, that is, subjected to the men they marry or were born from, because of his/her devotion, then I’d say that’s harmful.

  • Julie

    It’s the old testament that usually lead and will poss. lead in the future to stonings and burnings, so why is the religion called Christianity anyway. Should be called Judeo-Christianity. The whole point is that Christ taught a new way. Aside from some comments on marriage that are offensive to women, Christ’s teachings are highly palatable. I don’t get how today even the most moderate churches use some books from the old testament that condone violence. It’s like saying…” well where it says says to skewer babies that’s just the ways things were back then, pay that no mind, but two pages over now that’s the word of God”

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