Jordan Ballor Nota Bene

Calvinus Tyrannus Redivivus

Champel ServetR. Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California has updated a post about the accusation of tyranny against Calvin and the “theocracy” of Geneva. But as Matthew Tuininga points out, even though valid there’s only so much that such contextualization and tu quoque can do. Thus, writes Tuininga, “I do think more needs to be said than simply that Calvin was a product of his time, that nearly everyone in Europe agreed Servetus should be put to death for denying the fundamentals of Christianity (not simply of the Reformation), and that in any case, it was not Calvin who technically condemned and burned Servetus, but the government of Geneva.”

He goes on to explore more about the reformers’ rationale for holding elements of both tables of the Decalogue as under the purview of the civil magistrate, or at least under purview of civil penalties. As Tuininga observes, “Calvin supported the suppression of religious liberty in part because, influenced by Plato, Cicero and others, he held certain assumptions about the nature of the Mosaic Law and of Israel, and about their normativity for Christians. He believed that magistrates were called to enforce the law of God as revealed in Scripture, unto the glory of God.”

Tuininga goes on to wonder, “Is there a biblical theological foundation for a democratic society that values religious liberty?” I’ve written a brief essay on that question that I’ll highlight now, in part because it adds a bit to the contextual discussion about the reformers and the first table of the Law that isn’t quite explicit in the treatments of Clark and Tuininga. In “Principle and Prudence,” I argue that the reformers

recognized that true faith is ultimately a matter of internal disposition and the individual’s relationship with God. The reformers realized that true religion could not be coerced. But this was not the end of their calculus. They feared the hypocrisy that enforcement of religion would create, but they worried even more about the destructive social and spiritual consequences of an evangelical apostasy. Their judgment that true religion ought to be protected and promoted by the civil authorities was grounded in their principles, but was also an expression of their pragmatic judgment that apostasy was a greater threat than hypocrisy. The hypocrite might be damned by his or her false piety, but the apostate might lead many others astray, thereby endangering not only the tranquility of the commonwealth but also threatening their eternal beatitude.

In this way a great part of the reformers’ concerns to include first table or “religious” elements under the authority of the civil magistrate was that they considered such views to have significant implications for civil life. “Religion” was not simply something that was internal, individual, and private. We can agree or disagree about the conclusions that the reformers drew from such calculations about the social costs of toleration without dismissing the validity of this insight and their recognition of the trade-offs between hypocrisy and apostasy.

This aspect of the reformers’ position has not received sufficient attention, I don’t think, and it has important implications for what interests Tuininga and what I go on to explore at some length in the essay: “the fundamental tensions that have existed from the earliest days of the Christian church” concerning issues of religious liberty, toleration, and freedom of conscience.

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.