The “Calvin as Tyrant” Meme

For 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 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.


Here is the French text:

Ameaulx. Ayans vheu le contenuz de ces responces par lesquelle nous appert que il a meschamment parle contre Dieu le magestral et M. Calvin ministre etc. comment amplement est conpensez voz que ce pays soyt vostre? il est a moy tenus en ces responces: Ordonne qui soyt conet a mes compagnyons et serez gouvernés par nous dampne a debvoyer fere le tour a la ville en chemise teste nue une torche allumee en sa maien et dempuys devant le tribunal venyr crie mercy a Dieu et a la justice les genoulx a terre confessant avoyer mal parle le condampnant aussy a tous despens et que la sentence soyt profere publiquement.