Calvin, Preacher of Legalism

John CalvinSome words of Virgil Vaduva, quoted in a post The Toxic Fruit of Legalism by Martin Trench:

He killed fifty-seven people; banished seventy-six. Confiscated property of political and theological enemies; took power by public revolt and despotism; he ruled with an iron fist. … his name was John Calvin; an incredible attorney, stellar theologian, a tyrant and a murderer. …

There is more in Martin’s post, and a lot more in Vaduva’s 2006 article, The Right to Heresy. Vaduva explains how Calvin came to exert supreme power in the city state of Geneva, dominating the elected council in a way rather like how the Ayatollahs dominate the elected government in today’s Iran. And just like the Ayatollahs Calvin and his Consistory ruthlessly enforced public and private morality, with their officers randomly searching people’s bodies and homes for anything which didn’t meet their absolute standards. When the heretic Servetus arrived in Geneva, he wasn’t even given a fair trial before being burned to death.

Now I’m sure that today’s Calvinists would write that they reject this kind of behaviour. After all, so did Calvin, when he wrote, before he arrived in Geneva, in the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (as quoted by Vaduva – these words are not in later editions but may be footnoted in the Battles translation for which I give the Amazon link):

It is criminal to put heretics to death. To make an end of them by fire and sword is opposed to every principle of humanity.

But when Calvin had acquired the power to do so, he put a heretic to death. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Calvinists insist that theirs is a religion of grace, not of works, and that that is what Calvin preached. And indeed that is true as far as justification is concerned. But when it comes to sanctification, there seems to be no room for grace in Calvin’s scheme, but only for legalism. Jesus said

If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.

John 8:31-32 (NIV 2011)

Paul exhorted the Galatians:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1 (NIV 2011)

But Calvin brought Jesus’ disciples in Geneva (as well as those who believed only outwardly) under a new yoke of slavery, a new law of his own devising. As such his teaching was the very opposite of Christian.

Now I am not suggesting that all of today’s Calvinists are teaching this kind of legalism. Some clearly are not. But it seems very strange to me that, while claiming to be evangelical Christians, they revere so highly someone whose teachings and practice were so antithetical to the gospel message.

P.S. Please don’t think that I endorse the teachings on Virgil Vaduva’s site Planet Preterist, as made more explicit on a linked FAQ page. This site is promoting full preterism, not the partial preterism of Martin Trench which I largely accept. Full preterism includes the teaching that the second coming of Jesus will be

[not] a physical and bodily return of Jesus [but] a return of his spiritual presence

– and that this spiritual second coming took place in AD 70. Thus they have made the same manoeuvre as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and more recently Harold Camping: because eschatological events did not happen in a visible way when their understanding of the Bible says they should have happened, these groups have reinterpreted the events as spiritual and therefore invisible, rather than accept that they may have misunderstood the Bible. That, I would suggest, is one of the clear marks of a false teacher – but not as serious as Calvin’s error of turning Christian freedom into fearful bondage.

0 thoughts on “Calvin, Preacher of Legalism

  1. I have often wondered about this aspect of Calvin and why it is played down by Calvinists. He comes across as a nasty b**tard particulary his treatment of Servetus. In view of what the Bible says about ‘knowing them by their fruits’ can we be sure that Calvin was in fact a Christian?

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  5. I just love it when I can shed some light on a controversial subject!

    Did Jesus return in a spiritual manner already?
    Will Jesus return in person at the end of this age?

    I submit that the two answers are not mutually contradictory.

    John 14:15-18 If ye love me, keep my commandments (16) And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; (17) Even the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot recieve, because it seeth him not, neither knoweth him, but ye know him, for he dwelleth with you, and shall be in you. (18) I will not leave you comfortless, I will come to you.
    Jesus says the Father will send the Comforter, Spirit of Truth to the disciples. That happened just as Jesus said when the Holy Ghost fell on the 120 disciples gathered in Jerusalem. (Acts 2:4) That was when Jesus returned in the Person of the Holy Spirit, and it was not in 70 AD.

    Then we have this. Acts 1:9-11 (please read the preceding verses too) And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. (10) And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, (11) Which also said, Ye man of Galillee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.

    The two men in white were obviously angels. So we have it on good authority in many scriptures that Jesus will personally come back to Earth. How else could He reign for the Millennium as promised?

    The two comings are not contradictory, but complimentary.

  6. What I dislike most about Calvinism is the doctrine that, to paraphrase R.C. Sproul:
    “God has already decided, before you are born, that you are going to heaven or hell.”

  7. Mjazz, I agree.

    Galveston, I think I agree with you as well. Pentecost was not exactly the spiritual return of Jesus, but it was the coming of the Holy Spirit to be the spiritual presence of Jesus in his people. There is also a future fulfilment for us to look forward to.

  8. Welcome to Church History, terrible things have been done in the name of Christ for 2000 years, some of those things were done by people with terrible theology, some of those things were done by people with great theology. If we threw out all theology done by people who made some pretty obvious errors we’d have very little theology left.

  9. Joel, I take your point. We shouldn’t reject Calvin’s theology just because of his personal actions. As you know, I reject large parts of it for other reasons. But for people to call themselves Calvinists suggests more of a reverence for the person than I would consider appropriate.

  10. I agree, using the term can be unhelpful for a variety of different reasons. Piper sometimes says, ‘don’t necessarily say you’re a Calvinist, say what you believe’ which I agree with in general conversation with people, but on the internet to say ‘I believe in God’s absolute sovereignty in salvation’ or ‘I believe in total depravity e.t.c’ is just looong, and I’m lazy 😉

    I find the idea that calvinistic teachings are toxic fascinating. I know for me and many others a belief that God is totally sovereign in salvation is the fuel for evangelism. I’d never continue talking to my friends about Jesus if it were only their choice (because people do make real choices to become Christians, I just believe that God is sovereign even over our ‘free will’ choices) I know my friends, there’s no chance. Eventually (probably a few years ago), I’d have given up and tried to find other ways of making them Christians or stop attempting altogether.

  11. Joel, I am not actually saying that “calvinistic teachings are toxic”. Nor I think is Martin Trench. What I am saying, and I think Martin would agree, is that the kind of legalistic theocracy which Calvin put into practice in Geneva is toxic.

    I am unsure at the moment whether Calvin ever taught this kind of legalism in any way, What he practised seems to contradict what he taught in at least one place, his Commentary on Galatians, on 5:1:

    This liberty was procured for us by Christ on the cross: the fruit and possession of it are bestowed upon us through the Gospel. Well does Paul, then, warn the Galatians, not to be entangled again with the yoke of bondage, — that is, not to allow a snare to be laid for their consciences. For if men lay upon our shoulders an unjust burden, it may be borne; but if they endeavor to bring our consciences into bondage, we must resist valiantly, even to death. If men be permitted to bind our consciences, we shall be deprived of an invaluable blessing, and an insult will be, at the same time, offered to Christ, the Author of our freedom.

    It seems to me that Calvin, or at least the Council which he dominated, tried to bring into bondage the consciences of people in Geneva, from Servetus down to the man who smiled at a baptism.

  12. I’m not sure I fully understand Calvinism, but I think that the basic premise is that God is in total control of all affairs on Earth. I stand to be corrected if that is in error.

    I am going to shock some of you by the following statement, but hope to prove it to you by scripture.

    I do not believe that God controls everything that goes on here on this planet.

    Ultimately, the perfect will of God will be done, but right now other forces shape the affairs here. In addition to God, there is Satan and there is Man.

    Genesis 1:26 And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. (There are other passages that teach the same thing.)

    Psalms 115:16 The heaven, even the heavens, are the LORDS: but the earth hath he given to the children of men.

    Now read the book of Job carefully and prayerfully.

    At the end of the book, you will read that God was angry with Job’s friends and would not accept a sacrifice from them. Job had to sacrifice for them. Ask the question: Why was God angry with these men? After all, their argument was that God always rewarded the righteous and cursed the wicked, therefore Job had to be wicked because of what he was suffering. That sounds like they were saying good things about God, but were they?

    If you say that God is in total control of everything on earth, then you are accusing Him of all manner of crimes against humanity. Perhaps people have heard preachers thinking to glorify God say that He is in total control, and that is why those hearers do not like God.

    No, we are responsible for most bad things that happen to us, both as individuals and as a society. We make bad choices and they come back to bite us.

    The first bad choice down that road is the choice to reject the council of God.

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