An Unreformed Reformation

What has set great men in history apart from everyone else? Has it been their ability to blend in and uphold the party line? I think not. Great men are often times seen throughout history as being heterodox, heretics, or holding opinions against popular thought, opinion and action even amidst persecution they would encounter for such beliefs. They were willing to struggle on for what they believed was right, even if it meant being a social outcast and perpetually criticized.

In their own time, they were not always considered "extraordinary", but rather troublemakers and revolutionaries. It must be remembered that reformation is not a one time occurrence, there are constantly individuals "protesting" what they feel is an injustice and calling for "reformation". People have issued calls to action for many reasons, not least of which has at times been initiated by God.

When considering the Protestant Reformation it can easily be observed that those involved only reformed as far back as Nicaea, a partial Reformation, abandoning only selected Church laws or practices. While much was indeed reformed, it was still only a partial reformation, the dogma that had captured theological thought for over a millennium was still not overturned in favor of reverting strictly to the teaching of Jesus and Apostles. In this sense, it was still business as usual.

The declaration popularized from the Reformation was "Sola Scriptura," (Scripture Alone). While many agree wholeheartedly with this statement, it is in reality a reflection of the misinformation that permeates Christian thinking en masse. The beliefs of the Church at large today, even in the most conservative circles have their traditional interpretation not from the "words of Scripture" alone but rather in the doctrines that were formally drafted by Church councils, voted on by Bishops and manipulated by Emperors and Queens of the Empire. Although it is contested by some, it is evident from history that much of Christian doctrine taken for granted as having biblical authenticity is however, a development or evolution of later times.

The investigation of popular theologian and reformer John Calvin's writing and more importantly his actions reveal significant evidence that Scripture alone was not his main drive. It was Scripture plus some selected leftovers of the state church. The Reformation that many Protestants applaud today so vigorously, was far from a full reformation in many distinct ways. H.R Pike writes:

“It was Scripture plus the sword of the state, hangings, burning at the stake, prison, tortures...” (The Other Side of John Calvin, p. 54).

History is often written in favor the victors, or at least the perceived victors, and the other side to any given conflict or story of an incident can have an untold and perhaps unpopular perspective (whether true or not). As is the norm, a high and lofty image is often portrayed of certain individuals while the other side of them fails to find a place in the history books.

My intention is not an attempt to “right this wrong”, but rather give a glimpse into another side of a well-known story. Those who revere men like Calvin and Luther (or other post and ante-Nicene “fathers” for that matter) are very selective in what they teach/observe.

It was not until my investigation into this subject, that I uncovered more about Calvin (and Luther as well) which in some regards seemed to be “suppressed” information. And not only that, but if there was any validity to this information, it was certainly pertinent for an accurate estimation of who he really was, and that for which he stood. I don’t claim to be an authority on the church fathers or reformers, but I have read a good deal about them from multiple angles.

I also understand that like many conflicts (specifically theologically driven ones) in history, there is often some amount of fault on whatever side is examined. I offer here a mere sampling of the tremendous amount of writing and information available on this topic.

I will use Calvin as an example. He was slightly hypocritical in his views regarding the treatment of those who did not theologically align themselves to the orthodox perspective (orthodox in this sense is a bit loose, because it was being redefined). Right or wrong belief had to be (re)defined not by "Scripture Alone" but by those standards of interpretation forced upon the Scriptures by the group who "won."

In his book Institutes of the Christian Religion, the chapter entitled Of the power of making laws, Calvin speaks of the cruelty of the pope and his adherents, in this respect "tyrannically oppressing and destroying souls” (4.10.1), when speaking of the papal authority’s use of law to enforce doctrine, he writes,

“But thus the kingdom of Christ, as I lately observed, is invaded; thus the liberty, which he has given to the consciences of believers, is completely oppressed and overthrown.”

In another place he calls the papists the “most savage butchers.” Institutes, (John Allen translation) Vol. II at 369 et seq.


This is also true if one undertakes even a rough examination of “church” history, specifically in relation to the councils, revealing a trail of blood tied to doctrinal and theological dissension. Why do (have) so many feel (felt) the need to kill in the name or (as they see it) the defense of Christ? For Calvin to be viewed as an exemplary model of piety is to ignore much of what he said and did. Even Martin Luther said of Calvin's actions in Geneva, 

“With a death sentence they solve all argumentation” (Juergan L. Neve, A History of Christian Thought, vol. I, p. 285).

More specifically (and revealing of the power of religious intolerance) is the infamous dealings with the Spanish theologian and medical genius Michael Servetus. In 1553 he was denounced as a heretic. As Calvin said,

“Servetus was both an Anabaptist and the worst of heretics.”
Second Defence of the Sacrament in Answer to the Calumnies of Westphal, in Calvin's Tracts & Treat. II pp. 336.

He also stated,

“I detest all heresies condemned by the first Council of Nice, and likewise those of Ephesus and Chalcedon, along with all the errors revived by Servetus and his followers.” “But in our age, also, has arisen a not less fatal monster, Michael Servetus, who for the Son of God has substituted a figment composed of the essence of God, spirit, flesh, and three untreated elements” Institutes of the Christian religion 2.14.5.

Calvin was opposed to the way the papacy handled all those who disagreed with it, but himself participated in the same types of “hooliganism” exemplified by Athanasius of Alexandria. "Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus" was published in early 1554.

"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. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honour, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories? Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face."



In a letter to William Farel, February 13, 1546.

"If he [Servetus] comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight." Also Calvin wrote, “...after he [Servetus] had been recognized, I thought he should be detained. My friend Nicolas summoned him on a capital charge, offering himself as a security according to the lex talionis. On the following day he adduced against him forty written charges. He at first sought to evade them. Accordingly we were summoned. He impudently reviled me, just as if he regarded me as obnoxious to him. I answered him as he deserved... of the man’s effrontery I will say nothing; but such was his madness that he did not hesitate to say that devils possessed divinity; yea, that many gods were in individual devils, inasmuch as a deity had been substantially communicated to those equally with wood and stone. I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated.”

It does appear that Calvin was actually more in favor of a beheading (as a traitor) rather than fire (as a heretic). On June 17, the civil court found Servetus guilty, sentencing him

“To be burnt alive, over a slow fire, at the place of public execution, to that his body should be reduced to cinders as well as his book” Great Christians of France: Saint Louis and Calvin, p. 311.

On August 20, 1553, one week after Servetus' arrest, Calvin wrote in a letter to Farel, minister of the church of Neufchatel:

“He 
[Servetus] is prosecuted by Nicholas (da la Fontaine) who brought the next day forty head of accusation against him, offering himself to be tried by the lex talionis. He abused me, as if he had had great injustice done him. I have treated him as he deserves. At last the magistrates have declared that all the articles have been proved against him…I hope that Servetus will be condemned to death; but I wish the severity of his punishment may be softened.”

Farel answered Calvin’s letter dating Oct 8,

“Tis a wonderful providence (says he) that Servetus should come to Geneva. I wish he may repent though never so late. It will be a mighty thing if he dies a true penitent, undergoing but one death, though he deserves to die a thousand times and if he endeavors to edify the spectators, having made it his business to pervert many people that are dead, and others that are still living, and even those that shall be born hereafter. The judges must be very cruel, and perfect enemies of Christ and his church, if they are not affected with the horrid blasphemies with which that pernicious heretic attacks the divine majesty, and endeavors to overthrow the gospel, and to corrupt all the churches. But I hope that those, who are commended for inflicting a just punishment upon thieves and sacrilegious persons, will do their duty in this case, by taking off a man who has so long and so obstinately persisted in his heresy, and undone so many people. In desiring that the severity of the punishment should be moderated 
[Calvin wishing a “softened” punishment]; you act the part of a friend towards a man who is your great enemy. But I beseech you to behave yourself in such a manner, that no one may be so bold for the time to come as to publish new doctrines, and occasion so much disturbance as this man has done.” Others said that “he [Servetus] deserved to have his entrails plucked out, and to be torn in pieces”.

Ultimately, Servetus was perceived as a considerable threat to the radical Reformation as they intended it to be. Never mind that it was Jesus himself who taught that loving one’s enemies is greater than all, and that love would be the defining characteristic of recognizing a true follower of him (John 13:35). Putting this teaching of Jesus into practice is not dependent on theories of his hypostasis, monophysitism, dyophysitism, or consubstantiality with a tri-personal deity. Why has the “church” been consumed with trying to oppress and repress all that it cannot condone? Even the wise Rabbi Gamaliel stated in response to the proposed actions of his colleagues in an attempt to deal with heretical teachings:

“A teacher of the law who was respected by all the people, stood up in the Sanhedrin and ordered the men to be taken outside for a little while. He said to them, ‘Men of Israel, be careful about what you're going to do to these men. Not long ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a group of about 400 men rallied to him. He was killed, and all his partisans were dispersed and came to nothing. After this man, Judas the Galilean rose up in the days of the census and attracted a following. That man also perished, and all his partisans were scattered. And now, I tell you, stay away from these men and leave them alone. For if this plan or this work is of men, it will be overthrown; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You may even be found fighting against God.’ So they were persuaded by him.” (Acts 5)

Perhaps a closer examination as to why we do what we do, and how we treat others would be appropriate before building a "slow fire." Truth does not need you or I to defend it; that is the nature of truth, it stands on its own. We will not see eye to eye with everyone, such is human nature, but why is that such a problem? Why do so many feel the need to conform others to their own systems of belief? Conversing with others as to how we view the Scriptures and myriads of other religious topics is also a natural part of human interaction, but if someone fails to view it the same way, need we persecute, ostracize or in cases as examined above, exterminate? This is not what Jesus taught, exemplified or came to do. We need to reform back to Jesus.

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