Does Calvinism Lead To Domestic Violence?

Few bogeyman frighten Moderns as much as Calvin apparently does. He has been frightening them since about the onset of the European, British, and American Enlightenment movements and has served as a bogeyman for longer than that. He was caricatured during his own lifetime. One of earliest was by a theological opponent, Jerome Bolsec (d. c. 1584), a former Carmelite (Romanist) monk who converted to Protestantism about 1545. He married and became a physician. 1550 finds him in Geneva, a city of refuge for many Protestants looking for safe harbor. He did not impress the Genevan authorities who, in an October 1551 letter wrote, “one of those strolling physicians, who, by habitual deception and trickery, acquire a degree of impudence which makes them prompt and ready in venturing upon anything whatever.”1 He became especially notorious in Geneva when, early 1551, at the Friday night Bible Study in St Pierre Church, he stood up—thinking Calvin to be absent—to denounce Calvin and the “doctrine of free [unconditional] election.”2 He sided with the older semi-Pelagians against Augustine (and anticipated the Arminians) by charging that the doctrine of unconditional election makes God the author of evil.3

Calvin, as it happened, did hear Bolsec’s speech and proceeded to refute him at length. The city magistrate (not Calvin) arrested Bolsec and put him on trial.4 In his defense he claimed that a number of Reformed ministers, Heinrich Bullinger, agreed with him. Thus, the Genevans asked Bern, Zürich, and others for their judgment on the matter.5 The Genevans argued:

That we are justified by faith, we all agree; but the real mercy of God can only be perceived when we learn that faith is the fruit of free adoption, and that, in point of fact, adoption flows from the eternal election of God. But not only does this impostor fancy that election depends upon faith, but that faith itself is originated as much by man himself as by divine inspiration. There can be no doubt, on the other hand, that when men perish, it must be imputed to their own wickedness. But by the case of the reprobate whom God, from His own mysterious council, passes by and neglects as if unworthy, we are taught a striking lesson of humility.6

Some of the replies proved unsatisfactory to Calvin. He complained about Myconius’ “coldness” about the unconditional election.7 The Venerable Company of Pastors admonished Bolsec and Calvin even tried to tutor him privately.6 On a second offense he was summoned before the Genevan Consistory. He argued the salvation is accomplished for all (anticipating the Arminians) and that election has nothing to do whatever with whether one comes to faith or not. Finally, the Swiss Churches supported the Genevan rejection of Bolsec’s complaints against the basic Augustinian doctrine of salvation.

Bolsec was banished from Geneva for sedition in December of 1551. He moved to a town in Bern (who had been the most solicitous toward him of the Swiss Churches), but was banished thence in 1555. Bolsec was evidently a problem child. In France, he sought re-admission to the Reformed Church but eventually apostatized and returned to the Roman communion.9 In 1577 he published his alternative Life of Calvin—alternative to Theodore Beza’s earlier biography—in which he made a number of unsubstantiated charges. That volume is the principal source of much of what gets repeated today about Calvin. For Bolsec, Calvin and his doctrine of predestination was the source of what is wrong in the world.

The Enlightenment essentially agreed with Bolsec. His narrative became the dominant narrative and Calvin became the bad guy, the foil to Modernity. Many evangelicals have essentially absorbed the Modern story and, without realizing it, Bolsec’s narrative of Calvin as the tyrant of Geneva. This approach to Calvin and Calvinism is reflected in a recent short blurb in Relevant touting a study by Boston University’s Steven Sandage, which claims:

In particular, he says, that attitude is a danger in Calvinism, a word that may conjure notions of a God who preordains every human for salvation or hell, unalterably, before time began. But Calvinism—“a theology that makes Pat Robertson seem warm and fuzzy,” according to one writer—is enjoying a resurgence.

John Calvin (1509-64) taught that people lost their free will because of original sin, leaving it to God to determine everything in life, including who suffers and from what. Calvin specifically suggested that the Almighty programmed humanity for spouse battering, writing that a wife must “bear with patience the cross which God has seen fit to place upon her.” He taught, Sandage says, that wives “were not allowed to leave their husbands when beaten.”

Calvin’s theology appeals to some Protestants uncomfortable with modern mix-and-match religion cobbled together from various theological traditions.

Sandage says many of his Calvinist clients derive “a very clear social and moral structure” from their worldview.

He is particularly concerned about the “New Calvinism,” which, he says, “seems to promote a rather stoic and un-empathic attitude that valorizes suffering, particularly among women.… Calvinist beliefs were related to higher levels of domestic violence myth acceptance and lower levels of social justice commitment.”

The article is typical of a genre.

  • Set up Calvin as a shocking antithesis to Modernity ✔
  • Cite a social problem ✔
  • Link the problem to Calvin the bogeyman and thence to his contemporary followers ✔

Of course the article invokes the much quoted (but not always accurately cited) 1559 letter by Calvin to a woman in distress. The English translation appears in The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin.10. In this letter Calvin responded to an unknown woman who wrote to ask the pastors what she should do about her husband. Calvin replied that he had compassion for her and “special sympathy for poor women who are evilly and roughly treated their husbands, because of the roughness and cruelty of the tyranny and captivity which is their lot.” He explained, on behalf of the church, that they were constrained by the Word of God such that they could only advise a woman to leave her husband in the case that she is in fear for her life.”

The inference drawn by the Relevant article and by Sandage is that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination makes God a tyrant, which licenses his (male) followers to become tyrants too. I have already responded above (see the link) to this class of articles but some points in particular are in order:

  1. Calvin did not invent the doctrine of unconditional election. St. Paul taught it. Augustine taught it as did all the high Augustinians including St Thomas Aquinas and a number of neo-Augustinians in the 15th century. All the major Protestant Reformers, including Luther and Melanchthon taught unconditional election. So, if the doctrine of unconditional election leads to domestic violence then a great number of theologians must also be indicted.
  2. The doctrine of unconditional election does not a “Calvinist” make. It indicates an affiliation to Augustine perhaps but not much more.
  3. More to the point, the approach of the Genevan Pastors reflects much more their sixteenth-century location than their soteriology. This is the essentially the same advice that she would have gotten from virtually any other Protestant and most Romanists in the period. The women’s liberation movement was a long way off in 1559. Still, the approach of the Genevan Churches to suffering and the suffering of abused women is not fairly represented by the 1559 letter. They also had an active diaconal program in which hospitals were established and in which care was provided to refugee women and many others. Geneva was actually fairly progressive regarding divorce. Calvin himself acted as attorney for his brother who found his wife engaged in adultery with a household servant. Before the Reformation, the Roman communion forbade divorce altogether since marriage is a sacrament. The Genevans recognized two grounds for divorce, adultery and desertion. If Geneva was such a terrible place, why did so many flee there for safety? Perhaps the facts do not support the narrative?
  4. As I have noted here before, there is a distinction to be made between classical, confessional Reformed theology and the so-called “New Calvinists” (see also the Young, Restless, and Reformed movement). The Reformed credentials of the “New Calvinists” are very much in doubt. Few of them are eligible for the ministry of the Reformed churches and many of them would not even be eligible to join a Reformed congregation.
  5. The Boston University article looks suspiciously like blackmail. How does one affirm Calvinism without being liable to the charge of fostering domestic violence? Adopt the approved political-cultural positions. To wit:

    He doesn’t contend that all people embracing Calvinism endorse domestic violence myths: “There are many contemporary Calvinists who hold progressive views of gender and other social issues. But our research does offer some data suggesting the ‘New Calvinism’ that combines Calvinistic beliefs and very conservative, binary views of gender may be a kind of theological risk factor for the acceptance of domestic violence myths and other socially regressive attitudes.”

    So the problem is the alleged toxic combination of “binary views” of gender and “New Calvinism”?

    There is at least some evidence that some segments of the “New Calvinist” movement have beaten Standage to the punch and have already begun adopting the very progressive attitudes for which he calls.

Domestic violence is a serious problem, which I have tried to address here. Abusers need to be disciplined ecclesiastically and punished by civil authorities. Invoking centuries old caricatures of evident theological opponents (Boston University was founded as a Methodist school) hardly contributes seriously to addressing the problem. Further, setting up anyone who believes in “God the Father Almighty” (the first line of the Apostles’ Creed) and anyone who agrees, e.g., with Barack Obama’s 2008 position on same-sex marriage (he opposed it) or who believes that biology matters (e.g., Camille Paglia) as a contributor to domestic violence hardly seems a worthy argument.

Jerome Bolsec died in 1584 but his spirit lives on and apparently has tenure at Boston University.


1. John Calvin, Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnet vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2009), 307–08.
2. Ibid., 308; Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, vol. 8 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), 616. Schaff’s chronology, however, does not seem to agree with the October 1551 letter from Geneva to the Swiss Churches.
3. Ibid.
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid., 309.
6. Ibid., 309–10.
7. Ibid., 312.
8. Schaff, Ibid., 615.
9. Schaff, Ibid., 619.
10. Philip Edgecumbe Hughes, ed. and trans. The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 344–45.

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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Moderns, in great consternation,
    Hate Calvin’s predestination.
    Economics, we know,
    Or our gense run the show
    Of our lives. Is this liberation?

    Gee. I thought that the Calvin as bogeyman came from Unitarian demonography meeting Roman and High Anglican Demonography. Do you have some good sources (in either English of French) on Bolsec?

    • From the ODCC:

      Documents of his trial are printed in Calvin’s Opera, ed. G. Baum and others, 8 (Corpus Reformatorum, 36; Brunswick, 1870), cols. 145–248, and in Registres de la Compagnie des Pasteurs de Genève au temps de Calvin, ed. R.-M. Kingdon and J.-F. Bergier, 1: 1546–1553, ed. J.-F. Bergier (Travaux d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 55; 1964), pp. 80–131. Partial Eng. tr. of these and other primary documents by P. C. Holtrop, The Bolsec Controversy on Predestination from 1551 to 1555 (2 vols., Lewiston, Queenston, and Lampeter, 1993). F. Pfeilschifter, Das Calvinbild bei Bolsec und sein Fortwirken im französischen Katholizismus bis ins 20 Jhdt. (Augsburg, 1983), with details of edns. of Bolsec’s Life of Calvin. E. and E. Hagg, La France protestante, 2 (2nd edn., 1879), cols. 745–76; J. Dedieu in DHGE 9 (1937), cols. 676–9, both s.v.

  2. Boston U? Isn’t that the place where you can plagiarize your way through a Ph.D. dissertation and still be called “Doctor?”

  3. It seems to me that this comes down to the false religion of glory, which looks to man as able to achieve a glorified existence by denying the authority of God’s Word. It comes down to the question posed by Satan, “Did God really say….?” All of mankind chose to follow Satan in Adam. But God, in His mercy chose a people who he would save through the scandalous foolishness of the cross. Unless you are born again, you cannot see the kingdom of Heaven. That which is flesh looks to the flesh for its glory. John 3

  4. “Wife-beaters in [16th century] Protestant towns and territories were haled before the marriage court or consistory, and nowhere more speedily than in Geneva, which by century’s end had gained the reputation of ‘the Woman’s Paradise.'”

    —Steven Ozment, When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), p. 208, n. 79.

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