devotional

11NOV
2015

On Calvin and Servetus

 
 
Many know that John Calvin voted to put Michael Servetus to death. 

 
     I wouldn't sugar coat it. States should not exercise the right to execute heretics, but my certainty in this is just another advantage of my day, having read the Bible, and coming on the heels of men (and times) like Calvin('s). Before the US there has never been a composite state in history, separating church and state. We saw the value of separating the church from the state literally as "Separatists" fleeing to America. We as a people learned this, quite literally, through trial and error. Or perhaps you could say the errors of trials. Geneva, like all before it on earth, was a church city-state. They then, like all of us, were a product of their time. There is biblical warrant for it mind you (which I'll get to). They saw government as a joint responsibility of both the church and the state, Romans 13:1-7; 1 Corinthians 6:1-6, etc. Servetus was an arch-heretic. He vehemently denied the Trinity and strongly provoked the known world with his many, many damnable heresies. In that system these were civil crimes as again there was little if any separation of ecclesiastical and state affairs. He was an influential man, and a man of many talents as well as a brilliant doctor. He was a prolific attacker and highly antagonistic. Rome also wanted him dead by the way. What the state did (with Calvin's consent (though Calvin wanted a sword)) in putting him to death at the stake was nothing next to the hell that certainly awaited him. I digress. In Geneva, Servetus made a b-line to Calvin's side to plead his case. He had long interacted with Calvin, and knew him as one who would hear him out. Calvin pled with him, but he would never deny his heresy. He was condemned, by the state, of which Calvin was not the head by a long shot. Shoot, Calvin himself was ejected from Geneva more than once in his life.
 
     St. Paul himself was not a statesman. He was a citizen of Jerusalem, however, which, being Jewish, had certainly become a decidedly staunch church city-state, and one from the start set up by God as a theocracy with the power of execution in both religious and civil matters from Sinai roughly 1,500 years prior. Paul was a defender of his faith even before his gentile heads. He affirmed the state's place to execute heretics. This isn't "prescriptive doctrine" for us so we don't deny the word to not do it, but he, like Calvin, was a man alive in a time where the states (as non-composite) judged as the church. They were to do it under God, but their authority was given. Again, even in his own day Paul did not say it was wrong. No one did! Jesus did not speak against it or argue for a democratic system. In fact, even he agreed with Pilate (a civil authority) that his governmental power to kill him was actually from God, John 19:10-11. Paul was wrongly struck during another trial, but still respected the "state/church" office of the high priest after he learned who he was, even though the man was corrupt as a high priest, Acts 23:5. They respected the church city-state construct they lived in. Even when Rome (another non-composite state) came in they were submissive to it.
 
     Acts 25:10-12: "But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you also very well know. If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die; but if none of those things is true of which these men accuse me, no one can hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar.” Then when Festus had conferred with his council, he answered, “You have appealed to Caesar, to Caesar you shall go.” Imagine Calvin as a seat in that authority under Festus and Servetus saying it. Would Calvin still be attacked? 
 
     Make no mistake, the Bible came in a time when its writers advocated for the same system of governing justice that many want to denigrate Calvin for affirming. In Paul's trial there were three state officials, at the request/behest of their subordinate Jewish priestly/governing body, namely Festus, Agrippa, and then ultimately Caesar, deciding Paul's religious (in Paul's mind) case. Acts 26:6-7, which is the same appeals trial, makes it clear that though they were also almost certainly accusing Paul of civil crimes (25:7) Paul knew that he was really being tried for matters of faith: "And now I am standing trial for the hope of the promise made by God to our fathers; the promise to which our twelve tribes hope to attain, as they earnestly serve God night and day. And for this hope, O King, I am being accused by Jews." Again though, Paul said: "If, then, I am a wrongdoer and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die…" This was a statement to the state. 
 
     Remember too as has been already said, that Israel from the Torah held a capital punishment authority as a non-composite theocracy. In justice, God said they should. They would've themselves executed Paul (wrongly) in Jerusalem, but Rome, the occupying force, had withheld this power to themselves. This was the same with Jesus.
 
     Calvin's love for Jesus and his theological prowess earned him the title "the Theologian" for a reason. He was brilliant. He didn't just write "five points" and die. He didn't even write the five points. They came way after him. His life of pastoral devotion, and his written "Institutes of the Christian Religion" as a magnificent full-orb theology is his legacy. His state exercised the right, nay the control even over him as a churchman, to put heretics to death. It was the day, and like Paul's Israel long before, it was the norm. He was a part of it with biblical warrant. We representative republicans have learned that a state church is dangerous. Thanks Calvin! Thanks Henry VIII! Thanks Luther! Thanks Constantine! Thanks Paul! Ultimately, thanks God! 
 
     Let's not boast. Hopefully future generations will benefit from us too. We are all still accountable to God.

 
     A two part audio message I did that might be of future interest to you here to consider how different times can be:
Pt 1): http://biblecia.com/audio.aid-1408.html 
Pt 2): http://biblecia.com/audio.aid-1409.html 
 
 
God bless!

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