Passing judgment on historical persons is risky business; especially if that person lived 500 years ago on a different continent and with another language than the "judge."
The New York times has just run an article by Molly Worthen on Mars Hill Church's preaching pastor, Mark Driscoll. I was expecting some negative comments and critique of his views; we must remember that Calvinism and complementarianism are not very popular, especially in cities like Seattle and New York. But what I was not prepared for was a full scale attack on Driscoll rooted in a "historical" condemnation of John Calvin. You can find the article here.
I am currently writing this post in the Magnolia district of Seattle, and will be attending Mars Hill for an evening service. Nevertheless, my critique of this article will focus on the various aspects of Calvin and his thought that were mentioned, true and feigned.
Since the early 19th century, most evangelicals have preferred a theology that stresses the believer's free decision to accept God's grace. To be born again is a choice God wants you to make; if you so choose, Jesus will be your personal friend.This is unfortunately true historically, but hardly an argument against Calvinism unless you only want to appeal to what makes Christians feel warm and fuzzy instead of pleading the teaching of Sacred Scripture. Many, many American Christians do indeed believe that they chose to be born again but they would be hard pressed to find the Bible on their side; let alone reason. Did we have a hand in our natural birth? Should we assume that when Jesus tells Nicodemus, "Unless you are born again," that He is commanding us to be the midwife at our own spiritual birth? (John 3:3) Certainly not!
A close reading of the passage dispels this perspective. This is especially highlighted earlier in John's Gospel; Chapter 1 states, "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God." Notice that those "who did receive him" were born, past tense! John then further clarifies that the birth is not by the will of the flesh or man.
And here's the the seemingly everlasting condemnation of Calvin:
John Calvin had heretics burned at the stake...
This is like saying that the President of the United States is elected by popular vote on Election Day; sort of close, but not really true. According to the historical record there was only one heretic ever burned at the stake in Geneva, and Calvin's involvement in it is very nuanced.
Michael Servetus was a Spanish physician and theologian who developed a theology in the wake of the Reformation that denied the Trinity; according to Servetus Jesus wasn't God incarnate. He had corresponded with Calvin, and the Reformers in Geneva had already publicly denounced him as a heretic.
Servetus was then spotted at one of Calvin's sermons and arrested. John Calvin participated in his prosecution and did agree that Michael Servetus should die for his heretical beliefs; however, Calvin did not want him to be burned at the stake and tried unsuccessfully to get the sentenced commuted to beheading. I'm not trying to clear Calvin of all his culpability in the matter, but compared to burning alive beheading is an obviously more humane form of execution. In addition, the night before the sentence was to be carried out Calvin spent the night with Servetus in prison ministering to him by calling Servetus to repent.
Calvin sinned. That is not in dispute; he should have denounced the whole business of the state thinking it had the right to kill someone for their aberrant theology. But the truth about the events around Servetus' execution disperses the lie that John Calvin was some egotistical sadist who ruled Geneva with an iron fist. That picture is simply untrue.
We must remember that though we may be in Christ, the truth that our indwelling sin makes us a product of our time is still painfully true. I pray that our posterity judges us with more charity than we have shown our brother John Calvin.