Thursday, February 3, 2011

Theonomy, History, and Freedom: Part 1: Calvin's Geneva

(Above: Michael Servetus.)
The execution of the arch-heretic Servetus
is frequently paraded as proof that
enforcing biblical law is "dangerous."  By
what standard is this dangerous?
According to biblical law, convicted
blasphemers are to be executed.  The
same city where Servetus was executed
was hardly a tyrannical city--and in fact,
during the Reformation it was a city
of refuge.
by Steve C. Halbrook

            Humanists enjoy pointing to the use of biblical sanctions in history to “prove” biblical law leads to tyranny.  Somehow they fail to mention that Israel once had all the Bible’s sanctions on the books, and yet Israel survived, and, when it wasn’t apostate, even thrived.  With the exception of those who were actually executed for their capital crimes, spouses survived the capital sanction for adultery; sons survived the capital sanction for incorrigibility; trial witnesses survived the capital sanction for false witnessing to a capital offense; and cities survived the capital sanction against city-wide apostasy.

Humanists love to point out the burning of “poor innocent” Servetus in Geneva, where the Protestant Reformer John Calvin had influence.  Such criticism is agenda-driven, overlooking Servetus’ horrendous crimes against God.  Historian Otto Scott writes, “Servetus holds a special status in anti-Calvinist legends. … But theologians know Servetus as a forerunner of Unitarianism, a pioneer in the ‘historical school’ of Biblical criticism, a spreader of Judaic criticisms of Christianity and as one of the great theological disturbers of all time.”[1]  The Geneva City Council (not Calvin, who was just a witness) found Servetus guilty of blasphemy.  The trial was not in haste, and conformed to European legal standards.[2]  We must note that the Bible requires the death penalty for convicted blasphemers.  If Servetus’ punishment was unjust, it must be established that what the Council considered blasphemy was not actually blasphemy according to the Bible.[3] 

            Old Testament civil law did play an important role in Calvin-influenced Geneva.  According to E. William Monter’s data for the year 1562—the peak year of Calvin’s influence—criminal records from Geneva’s state archives reveal crimes that violated “a good deal of the Mosaic criminal code.”[4] During that year, thirteen executions occurred, some that require death under biblical law, and some that don’t.  Still, “In the majority of these cases the penalty meted out was consistent with the Mosaic Code.”[5]  “Calvin advocated the principles, if not the details, of Mosaic Law as the only viable legal form for a properly governed society.”[6]

            Did biblical law result in a bloodbath?  Hardly.  As noted, only thirteen executions occurred in one year, some of which are not even sanctioned by biblical law.  Moreover, men don’t flee towards a genocidal city.  Calvin’s Geneva was a city of refuge.  Here persecuted refugees from all European countries found shelter.[7]  The bishop John Bale, who visited Geneva after being ejected from Mary’s government, praised Geneva for its unique tolerance.[8]  He wrote,

Geneva seemeth to me to be the wonderful miracle of the whole world:  so many from all countries   come thither, as it were a sanctuary, not to gather riches but to live in poverty …Is it not wonderful that Spaniards, Italians, Scots, Englishmen, Frenchmen, Germans, disagreeing in manners, speech and apparel, sheep and wolves, bulls and bears, being coupled with the only yoke of Christ, should live so lovingly and friendly, and that monks, laymen and nuns, disagreeing both in life and sect, should dwell together, like a spiritual and Christian congregation.[9]  

Cavlin's Geneva--falsely accused as a city of
bloodshed--was "the hub of the Reformation,"
spreading liberty throughout the Western
What is more, after being educated in Geneva, refugees would eventually return to their countries (alive!), armed with Reformation doctrine.[10]  This infuriated the Roman Catholic Francis de Sales, who wrote about Geneva being an asylum for Protestants of all nations and the foundational threat against the Catholic Church.[11] 

     Calvin’s Geneva—falsely accused as a city of bloodshed—was “the hub of the Reformation,”[12] spreading liberty throughout the Western world.[13]  “Everywhere Calvinism spread, so did its views of putting government in its place.  Calvinism ‘placed a solid barrier in the path of the spread of absolutism.’”[14]  According to Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy (1860), biblical liberty sustained the “Calvinistic” Reformation countries in Northern Europe, while the superficial liberty of Renaissance humanism in Southern Europe degenerated into license.[15]

posts in this series (part 1part 2)

Excerpt from the (Lord willing) upcoming book, God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws: Biblical Theocracy, Justice, and Slavery versus Humanistic Theocracy, "Justice," and Slavery by Steve C. Halbrook.  Copyright © 2010 by Steve C. Halbrook.  Based on the master's thesis, God is Just: A Defense of the Old Testament Civil Laws.           

    [1] Otto Scott et al., The Great Christian Revolution: The Myths of Paganism and Arminianism (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1991), 133.
     [2] Curt Daniel, The History and Theology of Calvinism (Dallas, TX: Scholarly Reprints, 1993), 26. 
     [3] Even if it could be established that Servetus’ execution was unjust, the uproar against this execution would still be extremely disproportionate.  During Calvin’s entire Geneva stay, Servetus alone was tried and executed for a crime under the broad category of heresy (particularly blasphemy, in Servetus’ case).  In the neighboring city of Toulouse, within one year, 208 people were arraigned for heresy.  David W. Hall, The Genevan Reformation and the American Founding (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2003), 116, 117.  This is to say nothing of the humanistic Roman Catholic Inquisition, which executed multitudes without trial.  “Rather than blame Geneva … one should praise Geneva for enormous restraint.”  Daniel, History and Theology of Calvinism, 26. 
     [4] Marc A. Clauson, A History of the Idea of “God’s Law” (Theonomy): Its Origins, Development and Place in Political and Legal Thought (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2006), 106.  It must be noted that Calvin’s influence cannot necessarily be blamed or credited for all of Geneva’s laws at the time, since Geneva had inherited much of its existing law from the Corpus Juris Civilis (Ibid., 106, 107).
     [5] Ibid., 107.
     [6] Ibid., 109.
     [7] Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Philadelphia, PA: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1971), 409. 
     [8] John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism (NY: Oxford University Press, 1954), 178, 179. 
     [9] Cited in Ibid.
     [10] V. H. H. Green, Renaissance and Reformation: A Survey of European History between 1450 and 1660 (London: Edward Arnold [Publishers] Ltd., 1958), 176.
     [11] Francis de Sales wrote the duke of Savoy:  “All the heretics respect Geneva as the asylum of their religion …. There is not a city in Europe which offers more facilities for the encouragement of heresy, for it is the gate of France, of Italy, and of Germany, so that one finds there people of all nations—Italians, French, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, English, and of countries still more remote.  Besides, every one knows the great number of ministers bred there.  Last year it furnished twenty to France.  Even England obtains ministers from Geneva.  What shall I say of its magnificent printing establishments, by means of which the city floods the world with its wicked books, and even goes the length of distributing them at the public expense? …. All the enterprises undertaken against the Holy See and the Catholic princes have their beginnings at Geneva.  No city in Europe receives more apostates of all grades, secular and regular.  From thence I conclude that Geneva being destroyed would naturally lead to the dissipation of heresy.”  Vie de ste. Francois de Sales, par son neveu, 20. Cited in Boettner, Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 409, 410.
     [12] Scott et al., Great Christian Revolution, 133.
     [13] See, for instance, Douglas F. Kelly, The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World: The Influence of Calvin on Five Governments from the 16th through 18th Centuries (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1992).
     [14] Hall, Genevan Reformation, 92.  Hall quotes from Karl Holl, The Cultural Significance of the Reformation (Cleveland, OH: Meridan, 1959), 68.
     [15] Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1976), 100.

No comments: