The “Calvin As Tyrant Meme”

Calvinus AuthenticusFor a fellow who has been dead since 1564 and for a movement that, socially considered, is little more than a demographic blip (about 500,000 people in North America) Calvin and Calvinism continue to receive a remarkable amount of attention in the mass media. Typically, however, this attention draws upon a familiar “meme” (an idea or concept spread widely throughout a culture) that has its roots in Calvin’s earlist critic, Jerome Bolsec (d. 1584), a former Carmelite monk who opposed Calvin’s soteriology (from 1551).

The meme is that Calvin’s God was a tyrant and the corollary to that divine tyranny is Calvin’s allegedy tyranny over the civil life on Geneva. Most recently, a version of this theme appears in a article by Chris Lehmann on Joel Osteen. Lehmann writes:

Osteen’s serene depictions of God’s eternally uptending designs for the fates of individual believers are a sort of inverted Calvinism. Where the Puritan forebears of today’s Protestant scene beheld a terrible, impersonal Creator whose rigid system of eternal reward and punishment dispatched many an infant and solemn believer to the pit of damnation….

This invocation of Calvin(ism) also appears in Molly Worthen’s 2009 essay on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill. For our purposes, what is most interesting is the way Calvin appears and the function that story plays in her narrative about the nature of the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement.

The Reformed tradition’s resistance to compromise and emphasis on the purity of the worshipping community has always contained the seeds of authoritarianism: John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake and made a man who casually criticized him at a dinner party march through the streets of Geneva, kneeling at every intersection to beg forgiveness. [Benedict cites the Calvini Opera 21:21, 367, 370-77 and several secondary texts as evidence for this episode].

This compressed account of Calvin’s authority in Geneva reinforces the old and false stereotypes about Calvin, Calvinism, and the Reformed Churches as inherently authoritarian and tyrannical. It feeds what P. E. Hughes called “the popular fantasy” of Calvin as tyrant of Geneva. Calvin was more refugee than tyrant. At any rate, church-state relations in Geneva were fluid and complex.

The Servetus Episode

By “heretics” Worthen presumably refers the capital punishment of Miguel (Michael) Servetus (1509/11–53) for heresy in Geneva. Sadly, one thing that every educated person thinks she knows about Calvin, to quote the novelist Anne Rice, is “Calvin was a “true Christian” when he burned Michael Servetus alive in Geneva.” Even those who should know better sometimes position Servetus as if he were issuing a “prophetic challenge” to Calvin’s “overbearing dominance” in Geneva (Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), 21).

Of course, the actually history is much more complicated. Servetus was a well-educated Spanish humanist, physician, and amateur theologian. Servetus published an attack on the doctrine of the Trinity in 1530. He and Calvin corresponded and in 1546 Calvin wrote to William Farel that, should Servetus visit Geneva, he would do his best to see that the heretic did not leave alive and he warned Servetus that, should he come to Geneva, his life would be in danger. Servetus was arrested in Lyons in 1552 for having published heresy against the catholic faith. He was tried and sentenced to death but escaped the prison and strangely made his way to Geneva in July of 1552. Servetus was spotted in church, arrested, and examined twice regarding his teaching on the Trinity. Calvin served as theological prosecutor on behalf of the city council. Servetus was convicted by a unanimous vote of the city council and a majority of the council of 200. Servetus was burned at the stake in October, 1553.

As a matter of history it is inescapable that Calvin played a central role in the arrest and prosecution of Servetus but it is simply not true that Calvin killed Servetus. The city council is responsible for Servetus’ death. Had Calvin objected to the death penalty it is unlikely that the city council would have listened or could have listened. The House of Savoy was poised to invade Geneva without much provocation. Servetus was a condemned heretic. Had a protestant city failed to put to death a notorious heretic it would have confirmed the suspicion of Roman critics that the Protestants were nothing but crypto-fanatics, hiding their true colors under a false profession of Trinitarian orthodoxy.

In fact, the killing of heretics at the stake was not uncommon under Christendom. Rome put her share of Protestants to death (including no fewer than 42,000 Reformed Christians in the period) and both Roman and Protestant magistrates killed about 3,000 Anabaptists (according to Claus Peter Clausen).

The Reformed ministers in Heidelberg insisted on capital punishment of anti-Trinitarians in 1572 about which very little has been written in English. Arguably, that act was twice as heinous as the action of the Genevan civil authorities. Why then the focus on Servetus’ death? This episode is singled out because it is a convenient way to vilify Calvin and to reinforce the stereotype of Calvin the predestinarian monster of Geneva and, as Worthen’s article illustrates, the image of repressive Reformed churches.

The Ameaux Episode

The 1546 Amaeaux episode to which Worthen refers is fairly obscure. Philip Benedict’s Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed (p. 103) says that Pierre Ameaux, a member of the Petit Conseil, at dinner party one evening, anticipating the modern critique of Calvin, complained that Calvin taught false doctrine and exerted too much influence over the council.

When Ameaux’s words found their way to Calvin, he demanded action from the council. It decided to have Ameaux apologize on bended knee to Calvin before the assembly of the Two Hundred, but this was not a public penance enough to suit the minister. He refused to present himself for the ceremony and was not satisfied until the council condemned Ameaux to process through the city, kneeling at every major square or intersection to proclaim his regret at having dishonored the Word of God, the magistrates, and the ministers.

On the surface this seems to be another example of Calvin’s alleged tyranny but there was more happening beneath the surface. Certainly Ameaux was humiliated because Calvin insisted, but technically it was the city council who effected the sentence and, more importantly, it was part of a metaphorically bloody political fight, dating to the mid-40s, over the direction of the city and the church. This was less about Calvin’s person than it was about the authority of the church to make ecclesiastical policy. Those interested in a balanced account will notice that Ameaux was made to apologize for criticizing the city’s pastors (an office), not for insulting Calvin’s person. T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography, 99. says that what was at stake was the authority of the Word.

Calvin had only been back in Geneva since Easter, 1541 and Ameaux was a member of the powerful libertine party contesting the Consistory’s authority and especially Calvin’s. Further, this episode followed a legal and an ecclesiastical case (Register of the Company of Pastors, 1.309–10) concerning Ameaux’s wife, so there was some history. Further, Ameaux was not an ordinary layman. He was a successful businessman, who manufactured playing cards, and a member of the Petit Conseil and a leading member of the “Libertine” party seeking to discredit Calvin and the Reformation in Geneva. According to Bernard Cottret, Calvin, 187, “he was sentenced to make a circuit of the city, his head bare, a lighted torch in his hand.” This is a translation of CO 21.377, Registres du Conseil 41, fol. 68.

Surely it strikes us as severe today—It wasn’t for nothing that Calvin was called “The Accusative Case” by his fellow students—but remember the times and the context. Was it a confusion of the civil and ecclesiastical spheres for Calvin to demand civil penalties for being identified with the sufferings of Christ? Absolutely. From the perspective of a distinction between the ecclesiastical and common spheres, Calvin might have had a case before the Consistory but not before the Civil Authorities.

The true moral of this story, however, is of the danger of the Constantinian church-state alliance wherein civil authorities have the power to punish heresy. Nowhere in the New Testament or in the moral law is theological heresy a ground for civil punishment. The only sphere authorized by God to correct theological error is the visible church (see Matthew 18) and their means are purely spiritual: Word, sacrament, and discipline (e.g., rebuke, censure, excommunication).

As to authoritarianism and Calvinism generally, there’s a serious argument, that Bruce Gordon, I, and others have advanced that Calvinism in the period was a religion of refugees not tyrants (E.g., See R. Scott Clark, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant, ch. 1; Bruce Gordon, Protestant History and Identity in Sixteenth-Century Europe). After all no other group suffered more martyrs in that period than the Reformed. Remember that Calvin only came to Geneva as a refugee seeking shelter, was expelled by the city council in 1538, and only returned after they begged Strasbourg to release him in 1541. He stayed at the pleasure of the council. They could have expelled him at will but they did not.

Calvin had far more influence over civil life than we are accustomed to seeing but he was no tyrant in Geneva. He was not even a citizen until late in his life. He was a sixteenth-century man and a Constantinian—but so was most everyone else in the period. The real argument here cannot reasonably be over Calvin’s influence in civil affairs or else the entire magisterial Reformation must be convicted. Where’s the moral outrage over Bucer, Melanchthon, Luther, Zwingli, Bullinger et al? ? So, we may fairly wonder whether something else is bothering so many moderns and late moderns.

[An earlier version of this post first appeared on the HB in 2009]

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  1. Nathan writes:

    I realize Calvin was a man of his times, but it seems to me that there was a big difference between Wittenburg and Germany, for example (and if this is the case, I wonder about the influence of the particular theologies at play)

    Or are the claims of Pastor Fisk, a Lutheran, in this video, inaccurate?:

    I think he starts talking about what Calvin did in Geneva around the 10-12 minute marks.


    Yes, he does misrepresent Calvin the real question is why? I’ve explained the historical reasons here:

    “Calvin as Negative Boundary Marker in American Lutheran Self-Identity 1871–1934″ in Johan de Niet, Herman Paul, and Bart Wallet, ed., Sober, Strict, and Scriptural: Collective Memories of John Calvin, 1800–2000 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 245–66.

    Fisk knows a priori, before he ever starts reading Calvin, that he must be a “crafty sacramentarian.” For Fisk the only real question is how many ways does Calvin’s moralism manifest itself?

    It’s entertaining but it bears little resemblance to the Calvin of history. Fisk’s is the Calvin of Lutheran mythology, the bogeyman.

    Here are some resources for understanding the differences between Lutheran and Reformed traditions.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you.

    Are Fisk’s stats about the amount of people disciplined (and for what) off though? I am pretty interested in that.


    • Nathan,

      I’ve listened to about 1:30 of Fisk and that’s 90 seconds I’ll never get back. Okay, I watched a little more. Can’t take it. It’s so absurd, so misleading. It’s evil. Really. This is what happens when amateurs try to do history but this is worse because this kid is bright and he could have done better but he chose to mislead, to misrepresent, and to lie. Further, the fast cuts are giving me a headache. What a smart aleck. This is a family blog or I’d say what Luther would about Fisk.

      His entire approach is dominated by a 19th-century theory that the Lutherans had a Zentraldogma of justification and the Reformed ZD was predestination, from which they rationalistically deduced an entire system of doctrine. That’s been shown to be quite false.

      Go back and re-read my post more slowly. I anticipated his objections and answered them in the post. Then go read someone who actually knows something about Calvin such as T H L Parker or Scott Manetsch or Richard Muller.

      • Dr. Clark,

        I understand that you are saying that what Fisk has done is run roughshod over actual history and simplified things in an irresponsible way – even if he means well and is not intentionally doing this.

        That said – and I don’t mean to be a pest here – I am really interested in what he says about the kinds of discipline he says happened in Geneva. Of course, if that is true, that by itself does not determine my view of Calvinism!

        That said, it would be something that I would want to think deeply about and ask why what happened in Geneva might have been far more extreme than elsewhere.

        If there is anyplace you could direct me as to where I might find the facticity of these particular claims discussed – in this or that intelligent framework (providing the necessary context), I would appreciate that.

        Thank you,

  3. Nathan,

    There are lots of responsible studies of Calvin’s Geneva going all the way back to Monter. There’s Naphy, P E Hughes published the minutes of the company of pastors. The minutes of the consistory have been published. Scott Manestch just published a volume.

    Fisk just assumes and implies a massive discontinuity between Geneva and every other European city (Lutheran, Papist, or Reformed). Then he plays on stereotypes about evil Puritans. Whatever. Anyone who knows anything about the history of the English Reformed church(es) knows that the term “puritan” is highly problematic.

    • Dr. Clark,

      Thank you very much for those references.

      “Fisk just assumes and implies a massive discontinuity between Geneva and every other European city (Lutheran, Papist, or Reformed)”

      Are you aware of similar studies that have been done regarding the Lutheran churches in Germany and elsewhere? The reason I ask is because I am not really aware of Lutherans ever “running things” like they were done in Geneva.

      I think I heard of a couple death sentences – and a few exiles – but for the most part I’ve been given the impression that the way the Lutherans dealt with the matters of church discipline and enforcing God’s Law in the civil sphere was remarkable liberal (lax?) for the day.

      For example, one of the main focuses of the Lutheran polemics from the period of 1550s and 1560s was precisely the way Rome had used the state to hand down horrible disciplinary measures and death sentences to those who disagreed with them. I have found this book tremendously informative in this regard: (the author also shows how Flacius’ ideas of Christian (and yes, Christian state) self-defense were picked up and used by other confessional Protestants).


      • Nathan,

        I would have to do research I don’t have time to do right now. It’s the home stretch of the semester. My recollection is that certain things were crimes universally across Europe. Servetus was in jail in a Roman city before he escaped to Geneva. The latter, like Zurich, was a little different because these were cantons, city-states. Cities in the Empire functioned a little differently. Further, after ’55 Reformed cities were under a special pressure because they weren’t included formally in the Peace of Augsburg and thus were technically illegal. They were already suspected of being soft of heresy (e.g., Anabaptists flocked to Zurich early) and the Reformed reacted in some cases, e.g., Heidelberg in 1572, by trying to demonstrate that they weren’t soft on heresy.

        The regulation of daily life was in flux in the 16th century. Canon law was being replaced in Protestant cities with different results due to different circumstances. In some places Geneva was progressive, e.g., re divorce. See Kingdon’s work on that.

        Yes, the Lutherans formulated the earliest version of resistance theory in the ’40s and 50s and that was picked up by Reformed writers and elaborated.

  4. Another example of the “Calvin as Tyrant” meme can be found in Lecture 24 of “Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Rise of Nations” from The Great Courses (aka The Teaching Company). In a otherwise interesting and informative course, the lecturer, Professor Andrew C. Fix of Lafayette College, seems to be cribbing from notes on a class he took as an undergraduate. He simply repeats many of the tired old cliches and misrepresentations about Calvin. This lecture strikes me as an example of a good scholar who has swallowed whole some conventional wisdom, no matter how outdated it may be. As far as I can tell, the current top specialists in Calvin studies, be they Christian or “secular” in their personal worldview, have moved on from the older simplistic view of Calvin. I know that no professor can be an expert in every topic within his specialty, but every scholar should know something about current studies.

  5. If one is to indict Calvin over the Servetus episode, then indict the Lutherans…

    From Bruce Gordon’s biography, Calvin:

    “Melanchthon… had supported Calvin in the Servetus case, and for that the Genevan reformer had thanked him in his letter of March 1555…”
    (p. 243).

      • Richard,

        Ah, but remember – we consider Melanchton a “Crypto/Calvinist”! : )

        He also compromised too much with Rome, but that is because he, in general, lacked the courage of his convictions when faced with challenges that admittedly none of us would ever want to face. Flacius is the standard-bearer for this time among us. And he constantly emphasized the harshness and cruelty of Rome towards heretics, in actuality and in imagination.



  6. For those who don’t know, Philipp Melanchthon wrote the Augsburg Confession, both the Invariata (1530) and the Variata (1540). He wrote the Loci Communes, which became the first systematic expression of the Protestant/evangelical theology in the 16th century. According to Richard Muller, his commentary on Romans was formative for the development of Calvin’s Institutes from 1536–39. He did also play a crucial role in wrecking Protestant unity at Marburg (1529), the Regensburg compromise (1540 or ’41 on justification), the Leipzig Interim (on worship etc) among other things (there are episodes from the ’50s we could mention). Nevertheless, Luther unreservedly recommended his [1521?] Common Places and it’s still worth reading today. The later editions are larger and not as fundamentally different from the first as some accounts might suggest. He left a mixed legacy but, in the wake of Luther’s death in 1546 Melanchthon was perhaps the major figure in the Reformation, at least until the 1550s when arguably Calvin’s influence eclipsed his. Nathan will be encouraged to know that Melanchthon did ultimately leave Calvin hanging when Westphal attacked the latter in 1552 for daring to dissent from what was becoming Lutheran orthodoxy on the nature of Christ’s presence in the Supper.

    • I can identify with Melanchton’s weaknesses. He was a people-pleaser to the nth degree. I appreciate his willingness to engage everyone, and his irenicism, but I think he also should have made it a practice to be more forthright about what he continued to believe as expressed at Augsburg in 1530 – it he did in fact believe it.

      No encouragement felt in leaving Calvin hanging… Its too bad things played out like that.

      “what was becoming Lutheran orthodoxy”

      Best evidence for this viewpoint – i.e. that the belief here was not consistent from the beginning?


  7. Melanchthon’s views of the supper developed/matured as he realized that the Fathers did not teach the “in, with, and under” view of the Supper. That’s why he revised the Augsburg Art 10 from vere adsint to vere exhibitur.

    All confessionalists are ambivalent about Melanchthon but he cannot be dismissed. Sometimes he compromised and sometimes he didn’t. He was a complicated cat.

    BTW, he didn’t see Calvin as a crytpo-moralist or a “crafty sacramentarian.” He saw a distinction between Calvin and Zwingli.

  8. What we need to do is get off the merry-go-round in which Calvin’s theological foes recite the worst of Geneva in an attempt to discredit him and Calvin’s theological enemies ignore or explain away the worst of Geneva in order to support him.

    Calvinism doesn’t rise or fall on how the civil and ecclesiastical governments of Geneva ruled. Genevans were people of their time. But Calvinists should be in a position to admit Geneva’s faults and come to grips with the idea that Geneva is not something we would want to repeat.

    Schaff, who can’t be considered an extreme ant-Calvinist, writes on Geneva:

    Several women, among them the wife of Ami Perrin, the captain-general, were imprisoned for dancing (which was usually connected with excesses). Bonivard, the hero of political liberty, and a friend of Calvin, was cited before the Consistory because he had played at dice with Clement Marot, the poet, for a quart of wine. A man was banished from the city for three months because, on hearing an ass bray, he said jestingly: “He prays a beautiful psalm.” A young man was punished because he gave his bride a book on housekeeping with the remark: “This is the best Psalter.” A lady of Ferrara was expelled from the city for expressing sympathy with the Libertines, and abusing Calvin and the Consistory. Three men who had laughed during the sermon were imprisoned for three days. Another had to do public penance for neglecting to commune on Whitsunday. Three children were punished because they remained outside of the church during the sermon to eat cakes. A man who swore by the “body and blood of Christ” was fined and condemned to stand for an hour in the pillory on the public square. A child was whipped for calling his mother a thief and a she-devil (diabless). A girl was beheaded for striking her parents, to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment.

    During the ravages of the pestilence in 1545 more than twenty men and women were burnt alive for witchcraft, and a wicked conspiracy to spread the horrible disease. From 1542 to 1546 fifty-eight judgments of death and seventy-six decrees of banishments were passed.

    Fn Calvin himself states this fact in a letter…where he says “A conspiracy of men and women has lately been discovered, who, for the space of three years, had spread the plague though the city by what mischievous device I know not. After fifteen women have been burnt, some men have even been punished more severely, some have commited suicide in prison, and while twenty-five are still kept prisoner, – the conspirators do not cease, notwithstanding, to smear door-locks of the dwelling-housed with their poisonous ointment.”

    It doesn’t take a lot of work to find other evidence that Geneva was far from a Golden Age. From what I have been able to gather the authorities could be petty, intrusive, and harsh. There’s a serious question of whether the WCF idea of liberty of conscience was welcome in Geneva.

    If we own up to more of the faults of Geneva we might be in a better position now to think more clearly about what the magistrate should be doing.

    • Hi MM,

      I agree. From a modern, Enlightened, pluralist, post-1789-world, Geneva doesn’t look very pleasant but the precise issue is whether Calvin ruled Geneva like a tyrant. That’s just not so. These were mostly civil punishments.

      I’m not painting Geneva as a golden-age but I am criticizing the lazy popular historiography that knows that Calvin must have been a tyrant because he was a predestinarian.

      We also need to compare Geneva with other cities in the period. Witch burning, e.g., was not unique to Geneva.

      I also want to be a little cautious about Schaff, since 19th-century standards of evidence were a little lower. I’m not saying that it’s false but there were received stories that circulated in the 18th and 19th centuries that may or may not have been investigated.


  9. I see your point, and I trust you see mine: the proper reponse to an unfair criticism of Calvin is not whitewashing all that happened in Geneva. One could take the position that he was theologically brilliant but predominantly a man of his era in application of discipline and civil punishments. Perhaps you would take the postion that he was somewhat better than his era, but that positive difference will be hard to appreciate from a contemporary vantage point.

    • MM,

      I’m trying to a historian. As such my job isn’t to defend or prosecute Calvin. My job is to tell the truth about the past as best I can. Yes, 16th-century Geneva was just that. Relative to modern pluralism it was a miserable place. Relative to other places in 16th-century Europe, it was regarded as a hospital. The diaconal ministry of Geneva was famous across Europe/British Isles. Women fled to Geneva for safety. Pilgrims came to Geneva to escape persecution in France, Italy, and the British Isles among other places. The modern, hospitable Geneva that we know via the Red Cross et al began, in that sense, in the 16th century.

      Was discipline harsh? Yes. It was the 16th century. People weren’t allowed to say and do whatever they wanted in pre-modern Europe. It just wasn’t allowed, anywhere.

      He was a man of his time. He was influential but he was also a pilgrim who was expelled by the city council and then recalled, who didn’t want to be there and who was hated by a substantial portion of the community.

      The civil punishments were just that. They didn’t work for Calvin. He worked for them but those facts don’t fit the popular narrative. Hence the post.

    • I think you have the better point, MM. Of course, Dr. Clark is correct as an historian–Calvin was better than most of his time; as a reader of history myself, I despair that most Americans are not–the better tactic I think is to not whitewash what happened in Geneva. I can’t think of anyone who would wish to time warp themselves back into 16th century Geneva, in spite of what Knox said about what a terrific place it was.

  10. Just to put in my two cents…in reference to Fisk, you can call him an amateur historian all you like, but the fact is that in the referenced episode, he was reading everything about Calvin from Mayer’s Religious Bodies of America. In this particular case, your issue is with Mayer, not Fisk.

  11. The reason why Calvin and Calvinism receives so much opposition is found in Carroll Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope (on pages 1028,29 on the PDF that I googled online recently and downloarded), something I have known about for about 40 years.

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