John Calvin: Capital Punishment for “Heretics” (Anabaptists, Etc.)

John Calvin: Capital Punishment for “Heretics” (Anabaptists, Etc.) February 4, 2016
. . . and Persecution of Catholics, Too

[public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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[all words below are Calvin’s own; blue-colored emphases are mine]

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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 shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail. (Letter to Farel, 13 February 1546; in Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, editors, David Constable, translator, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Volume 5: Letters, Part 2: 1545-1553; originally published in Philadelphia by Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, p. 33; cited also in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, ch. 16, section 136: “The Servetus Literature”)

From what I am given to understand, Monseigneur, there are two kinds of rebels who have risen up against the King and the Estates of the Kingdom. (1) The one, a fantastical sort of persons, who, under color of the Gospel, would put all into confusion. (2) The others are persons who persist in the superstitions of the Roman Antichrist. Both alike deserve to be repressed by the sword which is committed to you, since they not only attack the King, but strive with God, who has placed him upon a royal throne, and has committed to you the protection as well of his person as of his majesty. But the chief point is, to endeavor, as much as possible, that those who have some savor of a liking for the doctrine of the Gospel, so as to hold fast, should receive it with such humility and godly fear, as to renounce self in order to serve God; for they ought seriously to consider that God would awaken them all, so that in good earnest they may profit far more from his word than they have ever yet done. These madmen, who would have the whole world turned back into a chaos of licentiousness, are hired by Satan to defame the Gospel, as if it bred nothing but revolt against princes, and all sorts of disorder in the world. Wherefore, all the faithful ought to be deeply grieved. The Papists, in endeavoring to maintain the corruptions and abominations of their Romish idol, shew themselves to be the open enemies of the grace of Jesus Christ, and of all his ordinances. That ought likewise to occasion great sickness at heart among all those who have a single drop of godly zeal. And therefore they ought every one of them earnestly to consider, that these are the rods of God for their correction. (Letter to the Protector [Duke] Somerset, Regent of England, 22 October 1548in Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, editors, David Constable, translator, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Volume 5: Letters, Part 2: 1545-1553; originally published in Philadelphia by Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, pp. 187-188)

I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon him; but I desire that the severity of the punishment may be mitigated. (Letter to Farel, 20 August 1553in Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, editors, David Constable, translator, Selected Works of John Calvin: Tracts and Letters: Volume 5: Letters, Part 2: 1545-1553; originally published in Philadelphia by Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1858; reprinted by Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, MI, 1983, p. 417)

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. . . . Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that I would like to kill again the man that I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face. (Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus, written in 1554; in Philip Schaff, History of the Reformation, [New York, 1892], vol. 2, p. 791; cited in Stanford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus?, Infinity, 2008, pp. 348-349)

Lest idle scoundrels should glory in the insane obstinacy of the man as in a martyrdom, there appeared in his death a beastly stupidity; whence it might be concluded that on the subject of religion he never was in earnest. When the sentence of death had been passed upon him he stood fixed: now as one astounded: now he sighed deeply: and now he howled like a maniac: and at length he just gained strength enough to bellow out after the Spanish manner — Mercy Mercy! (Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus, written in 1554; cited in Stanford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus?, Infinity, 2008, pp. 410-411)

This passage has been most improperly abused by the Anabaptists, and by others like them, to take from the Church the power of the sword. But it is easy to refute them; for since they approve of excommunication, which cuts off, at least for a time, the bad and reprobate, why may not godly magistrates, when necessity calls for it, use the sword against wicked men? They reply that, when the punishment is not capital, there is room allowed for repentance; as if the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42) did not find the means of salvation. I shall satisfy myself with replying, that Christ does not now speak of the office of pastors or of magistrates, but removes the offense which is apt to disturb weak minds, when they perceive that the Church is composed not only of the elect, but of the polluted dregs of society. (Harmony of the Gospelscommentary on Matthew 13:39 [parable of the wheat and the tares], written in 1555)

As that holy king was harassed by the Philistines and other foreign enemies with continual wars, while he was much more grievously afflicted by the malice and wickedness of some perfidious men amongst his own people, so I can say as to myself, that I have been assailed on all sides, and have scarcely been able to enjoy repose for a single moment, but have always had to sustain some conflict either from enemies without or within the Church. Satan has made many attempts to overthrow the fabric of this Church; and once it came to this, that I, altogether feeble and timorous as I am, was compelled to break and put a stop to his deadly assaults by putting my life in danger, and opposing my person to his blows. Afterwards, for the space of five years, when some wicked libertines were furnished with undue influence, and also some of the common people, corrupted by the allurements and perverse discourse of such persons, desired to obtain the liberty of doing whatever they pleased, without controls I was under the necessity of fighting without ceasing to defend and maintain the discipline of the Church. To these irreligious characters. and despisers of the heavenly doctrine, it was a matter of entire indifference, although the Church should sink into ruin, provided they obtained what they sought, — the power of acting just as they pleased. Many, too, harassed by poverty and hunger, and others impelled by insatiable ambition or avarice and a desire of dishonest gain, were become so frantic, that they chose rather, by throwing all things into confusion, to involve themselves and us in one common ruin, than to remain quiet by living peaceably and honestly. During the whole of this lengthened period, I think that there is scarcely any of the weapons which are forged in the workshop of Satan, which has not been employed by them in order to obtain their object. And at length matters had come to such a state, that an end could be put to their machinations in no other way than cutting them off by an ignominious death; which was indeed a painful and pitiable spectacle to me. They no doubt deserved the severest punishment, but I always rather desired that they might live in prosperity, and continue safe and untouched; which would have been the case had they not been altogether incorrigible, and obstinately refused to listen to wholesome admonition. (Preface to Commentary on the Psalms, Vol. 1, 22 July 1557)

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? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster. (in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII, ch. 16, section 136: “The Servetus Literature,” reply to Baudouin, 1562Responsio 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.”)

Since the ministers of Satan deceive men by their plausible exterior, when they vaunt themselves to be the prophets of God, Moses had already admonished them, that all. teachers were not to be listened to indifferently, but that the true were to be distinguished from the false, and that, after judgment had, those should obtain credit who deserved it. He now subjoins the punishment of such as should creep in under the name of a prophet to draw away the people into rebellion. For he does not condemn to capital punishment those who may have spread false doctrine, only on account of some particular or trifling error, but those who are the authors of apostasy, and so who pluck up religion by the roots. . . .

It must then be remembered, that the crime of impiety would not otherwise merit punishment, unless the religion had not only been received by public consent and the suffrages of the people, but, being supported also by sure and indisputable proofs, should place its truth above the reach of doubt. Thus, whilst their severity is preposterous who defend superstitions with the sword, so also in a well constituted polity, profane men are by no means to be tolerated, by whom religion is subverted. Thus they are unable to endure, who desire to be at liberty to make disturbances with impunity; and therefore they call those sanguinary who teach that the errors by which religion is undermined and thence destroyed, should be restrained by public authority. But what will they gain by openly raving against God? God commands the false prophets to be put to death, who pluck up the foundations of religion, and are the authors and leaders of rebellion. Some scoundrel or other gainsays this, and sets himself against the author of life and death. What insolence is this! As to their denial that the truth of God stands in need of such support, it is very true; but what is the meaning of this madness, in imposing a law upon God, that He should not make use of the obedience of magistrates in this respect? And what avails it to question about the necessity of this, since so it pleases God? God might, indeed, do without the assistance of the sword in defending religion; but such is not His will. And what wonder if God should command magistrates to be the avengers of His glory, when He neither wills nor suffers that thefts, fornications, and drunkenness should be exempt from punishment. In minor offenses it shall not be lawful for the judge to hesitate; and when the worship of God and the whole of religion is violated, shall so great a crime be fostered by his dissimulation? Capital punishment shall be decreed against adulterers; but shall the despisers of God be permitted with impunity to adulterate the doctrines of salvation, and to draw away wretched souls from the faith? Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured; and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction? Finally, the magistracy, if its own authority be assailed, shall take severe vengeance upon that contempt; and shall it suffer the profanation of God’s holy name to be unavenged? What can be more monstrous! But it is superfluous to contend by argument, when God has once pronounced what is His will, for we must needs abide by His inviolable decree.

But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion; and there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the Gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law; not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of His kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For, although it was Christ’s will that His Gospel should be proclaimed by His disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world, and He exposed them armed with the Word alone like sheep amongst wolves, He did not impose on Himself an eternal law that He should never bring kings under His subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of His Church. . . .

Christ, indeed as He is meek, would also, I confess, have us to be imitators of His gentleness, but that does not prevent pious magistrates from providing for the tranquillity and safety of the Church by their defense of godliness; since to neglect this part of their duty, would be the greatest perfidy and cruelty. And assuredly nothing can be more base than, when we see wretched souls drawn away to eternal destruction by reason of the impunity conceded to impious, wicked, and perverse impostors, to count the salvation of those souls for nothing. But, if under this pretext the superstitious have dared to shed innocent blood, I reply that what God has once commanded must not be brought to nought on account of any abuse or corruption of men. For, if the cause alone abundantly distinguishes the martyrs of Christ from malefactors, though their punishment may be identical, so the Papal executioners will not bring it to pass by their unjust cruelty that the zeal of pious magistrates in punishing false and noxious teachers should be otherwise than pleasing to God. And this is admirably expressed in the words of Moses, when he reminds them that judgment must be passed according to the law of God. I have already said that this severity must not be extended to particular errors, but where impiety breaks forth even into rebellion. When it is added, “to thrust thee out of the way, which the Lord thy God commanded thee,” we gather from it that none are to be given over to punishment, but those who shall have been convicted by the plain word of God, lest men should judge them arbitrarily. Whence it also appears that zeal will err in hastily drawing the sword, unless a lawful examination shall have been previously instituted. (Harmony of the Law, Vol. 2Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5; written in 1563)

Addendum: Calvin’s Reaction to Henry VIII’s Murder of St. Thomas More

He attributed the execution of Thomas More to More’s hostility to Protestantism, his persecution of “good men by fire and sword,” and his vain desire for renown. “Do we need a more obvious example than this,” Calvin asked, “of the judgments by which God punishes the pride of the impious, unbounded desire for glory, and blasphemous boastings?” (cited in William Bouwsma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait, Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 96; primary source information inaccessible in the Google Book Search version; presumably from around 1535, when More was killed)

See also the related paper: “Calvin the “Destroyer” of Servetus: James Swan Misses Forest for Trees” [8-24-17]

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