John Calvin-The Original Reconstructionist and Mere Mortal

Recently, I was driving through Atlanta and happened upon a Christian talk show.  The host asked people to call in and explain their views on the differences between justification and sanctification.  All of the callers did a pretty good job defining their thoughts in their own words.  Then, a man called in and began what sounded like a lecture.  He went on and on and on.  The host finally interrupted him and explained that this was a forum for discussion, not for delivering a sermon.  At that point the caller stated that he was reading Calvin's words and if Calvin said it, it was absolutely correct.


I almost ran off the road!  As a Christian I believe the only infallible words on spiritual matters are found in the Holy Scriptures.  As I mulled this over, I began to realize that John Calvin is the current HOT commodity in certain Christian circles.  We Christians are a strange lot.  We run after the latest "thing", going from the Left Behind series to the Prayer of Jabez to the Purpose Driven Life.


It seems that Calvin has achieved rock star status in recent years, despite the fact that he was born a half a millennium ago.  Conferences focusing on the "Doctrines of Grace" are going on all over the country and are well attended.  John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Al Mohler, Mark Driscoll, and C.J. Mahaney, among others, are the band members.  Piper and the other Calvinistas are even being asked to autograph the ESV Bible, which they highly promote.  With such fanfare over the lastest and greatest Bible translation, one has to wonder…are they getting some sort of kick back?  And just how lucrative are all those conferences and book revenues?  For those of you who may not be familiar with this latest version of the Bible, the English Standard Version features "reformed" views on passages throughout the sacred text.  Piper autographing the Bible??!!!!  EGADS!


Recently, Russell Moore made a statement that the Bible sections in most Christian bookstores makes him sick.  Why?   He doesn't elaborate, but I guess he doesn't appreciate the demonized New International Version (NIV) or the heretical New American Standard Bible (NASB) or the outdated New King James Version (NKJV).  And forget about the KJV!!!  I guess one needs footnotes from Calvin to make it a real Bible.

Please don't get me wrong.  I really enjoyed Desiring God by Piper.  I just happen to think that he, along with the usual suspects, have gone off the deep end with this stuff.  But, they, along with the rest of us slugs, are sinners and are definitely NOT infallible.  Which leads me to this logical extension.  Calvin was not divine, infallible, the best of the rest, or an apostle (this title is reserved for C.J. Mahaney).


Allow me to put Calvin into perspective.  I certainly don't need to extol his virtues.  The Calvinistas do that ad nauseum!   I want to focus on the problems with his theology and where it could mislead us.  In fact, one could say that Calvin was the first ´Reconstructionist" as he attempted to build the "City of God".


Recently, I read an interesting novel by Sigmund Brouwer entitled Broken Angel.  In this imaginary United States, Appalachia has broken off from the Union, built a wall around the territory, and set up a theocracy.  The literal reading of the Scriptures (particularly the Old Testament) was the law of the land.  Bibles and books were banned because the 'elite leaders' claimed the average person was incapable of reading the Bible 'correctly'.  There was mandatory church attendance, and all the inhabitants were required to wear a video recorder so the leaders could make sure that everyone was following their orders.  Violators of the rules were stoned to death.


Interestingly, the rest of the country (USA) was called the 'outside' and was theorized to be 'godless'.  However, there was an active underground dedicated to helping people escape Appalachia.  These folks were the 'outside' Christians.  What made the novel interesting is that the 'outside' was revealed to have its own set of problems.  Because that society had a diverse set of beliefs, there was sin occurring in freedom.  The plot revolved around a young girl who had been experimented upon while she was an embryo.  Unfortunately, the human engineering led to imperfection in the form of physical defects.


The author makes a great point.  Both societies were sinful.  Setting up a theocracy ruled by anyone but God will ALWAYS be riddled with problems because all human beings have a sinful nature.  One of the purposes of The Wartburg Watch is to document cases of spiritual abuse happening all over the country.  We have shared a few examples of spiritual abuse already and will continue to do so.  Sigmund Brouwer explained that he has also experienced such abuse, which was probably his primary motivation for writing the book.


Calvin set up a city defined by St. Augustine as "The City of God" in Geneva.  It was ruled by a Consistory made up of religious and lay leaders.  The basis of the law was to be found in the Bible.  Actually, the basis of the law was Calvin's personal interpretation of Scripture.

"In 1541, added by the city council, Calvin drew up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances.  He rejected the organization of the Medieval Church as contrary to the New Testament.  He wanted a church modeled on the church in Apostolic times.  There were to be no bishops.  All ministers were equal.  They had to preach, administer the sacraments and look after the spiritual welfare of the people.  Moral discipline was also upheld by the ministers — but they were helped by the elders.

The elders were civilians (laymen) who lived within the congregation and who were elected by the city council.  Calvin was not keen on this, but it provided a link between the Church and state.  The elders and deacons (also laymen who looked after the relief of the poor) were subject to popular appointment and in that respect they introduced an important element of democracy into the church.  All officers in the church belonged to the consistory, and if there was a power struggle between the ministers and the laymen the outcome of that power struggle determined whether the church became Erastian (i.e. followed the way Erasmus wished a church to go) or the state would become theocratic (i.e. the church controlled all aspects of life).  Eventually, Geneva became theocratic.


Calvin was a strong believer in behaving as God wished.  Immorality was severely condemned, but the consistory was not an effective body to uphold this perfect standard because the members were just as fallible as those they oversaw.  It only started to be so when the number of appointed ministers was greater than the elders.  In 1555, the city council gave the consistory the right to excommunicate offenders.  Only after this date was a strict moral code imposed, and every sin was made a crime (e.g. no work or pleasure on a Sunday; no extravagance in dress).  If you were excommunicated you were banished from the city. Blasphemy could be punished by death; lewd singing could be punished by your tongue being pierced.


Calvin believed that the church and state should be separate, but the consistory tried moral and religious offenders.  Two members of the consistory, accompanied by a minister, visited every parish to see that all was well and that people could see that they were being checked on.  The state had to obey the teachings of the church, according to Calvin, and once he had managed to ensure this power, he felt confident enough to shut down taverns — though this was actually done by magistrates — and replace them with "evangelical refreshment places" where you could drink alcohol as long as Bible readings were occurring simultaneously.  Meals (in public) were preceded by the saying of grace.  Not surprisingly, these changes were far from popular, and even Calvin recognized that he had gone too far, and the taverns were re-opened with due speed!”


Was Calvin totally supported in Geneva?  It must be remembered that he was introducing a very disciplined code to the city and that this code effectively controlled peoples lives.”


Calvin also despised the Anabaptists.  He believed that they were a danger to his view of the perfect society.  They are the progenitors of today's Mennonites.  They believed in believer's baptism which was outlawed in Calvin's city.  Yes, John Calvin believed in infant baptism. 

I do not wish to debate the issues surrounding the Anabaptists.  Certainly, a case can be made that some of their views were not in keeping with Calvin's interpretation of Scripture.  Although he did not participate in their persecution, it's important to point out that he didn't speak out against it either.  Nearby, Zwingli was killing Anabaptists while Calvin remained silent.  Interestingly, it seems the widow Calvin had been an Anabaptist in her prior marriage.  Although John Calvin opposed medieval Catholicism in most areas of his religious thought, in his political theory the first enemy was Anabaptism.



One of the more troubling events that took place in Geneva was the execution via slow burning of Michael Servetus.  This man preached an anti-Trinitarian gospel, much like today's Oneness Pentecostals.  Serventus had been forewarned that he would be executed if he came to Geneva.  He came anyway because he wanted to hear Calvin preach.  Calvin had him arrested during the service.  Most historians believe that Calvin could have stopped this execution.  In fact, Calvin supported it, even agreeing with the slow, torturous method of burning with green wood that made the process take approximately 30 minutes.  No wonder the citizens of Geneva marched so precisely to Calvin's tune — this was the fate that awaited them if they got out of line!


Here are a few quotes from Calvin himself.

´7 years before the incident:

"If he [Servetus] comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight."

Written by John Calvin in a letter to Farel Feb. 13, 1546



During the incident

Again Calvin writes Farel in a letter dated August 20, 1553, where he has Servetus arrested.

"We have now new business in hand with Servetus. He intended perhaps passing through this city; for it is not yet known with what design he came. But after he had been recognized, I thought that he should be detained. My friend Nicolas summoned him on a capital charge. … I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon him"



In an effort to be fair, I have included a PCA defense of this situation.

“(1) Calvin was not directly responsible for Servetus' death.  The city council of Geneva tried and executed Servetus, a council controlled by Calvin's enemies.  Calvin functioned only as an expert witness at the trial.  Indeed, by their burning of Servetus they meant to demonstrate their authority in Genevan affairs, by way of undermining Calvin's.

(2) Calvin had warned Servetus to stay away from Geneva, tried to visit him in prison during his trial, and pleaded with the city council for a more humane form of execution (beheading rather than burning).  The attempts, therefore, to make Calvin out as some sort of cruel monster are mere slander.

(3)Not only was the execution of Servetus a city council matter, but was carried out with the advice of the cities of Berne, Basle, Zurich and Schaffhausen.  It was not even Geneva alone that was responsible, much less Calvin alone.”


Frankly, the PCA explanation is a bit lame.  Calvin could have stopped the execution at any point.  He even had Servetus arrested.  His only attempt to stop the execution was to go to Sevetus' cell and beg him to recant, which serves to demonstrate that Calvin was not a powerless man.

I fully expect the wrath of the Calvinistas to fall upon my rapidly aging head…  Hopefully, today's reconstructionists will not prevail.  Can you imagine the United States being modeled after Calvin's "City of God"?  I believe a fallible, real Calvin is better than a Pope Calvin with infallible declarations.

I believe that Calvin fell prey to both legalism and an unhealthy view of the validity of his own interpretation of Scripture.  His formation of Geneva as a theocracy clearly demonstrates that excesses can occur when men believe they have a corner on the application of Scripture to society.  There is no question that we are living in a time of great moral decay.  Guess what . . . divine prophecy is being fulfilled, even in our day!   

God created men to have the freedom to choose or not choose His ways.  A theocracy will ALWAYS fail.  Haven't we learned that important lesson by now?  What I will never understand is why anyone thinks that a perfect society can be created without a perfect leader.  Christians can look forward to the day when, in the new heavens and the new earth, a perfect City of God made up of the redeemed Body of Christ will rejoice in the rule of our perfect Redeemer Lord and King.  Come quickly Lord Jesus!


Calvin was an incredible thinker who profoundly affected the Reformation and human history.  He's still having quite an influence in our day.  However, he put his pants on just like the rest of us, one leg at a time.  To the Calvinistas, I say, drop the Calvinism moniker.  We are ALL Christians!  Let's keep our focus on the truly loving and infallible One, our Lord Jesus Christ.  The New Testament clearly teaches we are not to be "of Paul" or  "of Apollos" or "of Calvin".  Do I get an amen?



John Calvin-The Original Reconstructionist and Mere Mortal — 1 Comment