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Calvin on the True Supression of Heretics

Everyone knows that John Calvin believed in the use of force to suppress heretics. What this post presupposes is…. maybe he didn’t?

Perhaps the question is more complicated. We have written about the relationship between Calvin’s doctrine of the two kingdoms and the civil-political suppression of heresy here and here. He certainly did not promote a modern notion of separation of church and state, and he did think that the civil magistrate should suppress idolatry in all of the ways available to him.

However, a consistent reading of Calvin will show that he made this argument on political grounds. He thought that the best kind of statecraft called for this. Calvin did not believe that there was a divine-law mandate to suppress all false religions, and he did not even believe that the use of force was an effective way to change men’s beliefs. This can be seen in several places in Calvin’s writings, but one clear example is his commentary on Isaiah 11:4. While explaining “the rod of his mouth,” Calvin has this to say:

Hence it is evident that wicked doctrines cannot be driven away by any other method than by the gospel. In vain will the magistrate employ the sword, which undoubtedly he must employ, to restrain wicked teachers and false prophets; in vain, I say, will he attempt all these things, unless this sword of the word go before. (Deuteronomy 13:5.) This ought to be carefully observed in opposition to the Papists, who, when the word fails them, betake themselves to new weapons, by the aid of which they think that they will gain the victory. They are even so impudent as to boast that heretics cannot be refuted by the word, though both the Prophet and Paul lay down no other method.

Yes, Calvin does state that the magistrate will “undoubtedly… employ” the sword against heresy. But he does not believe it will work “unless this sword of the word go before.” That “sword of the word” is preaching and teaching, as Calvin’s subsequent explanation makes clear:

When the Prophet says, by the breath of his lips, this must not be limited to the person of Christ; for it refers to the word which is preached by his ministers. Christ acts by them in such a manner that he wishes their mouth to be reckoned as his mouth, and their lips as his lips; that is, when they speak from his mouth, and faithfully declare his word. (Luke 10:16.) The Prophet does not now send us to secret revelations, that Christ may reign in us, but openly recommends the outward preaching of doctrine, and shows that the gospel serves the purpose of a scepter in the hand of Christ, so far as it is preached, and so far as it is oral, if we may use the expression; otherwise it would have been to no purpose to mention the mouth and the lips. Hence it follows that all those who reject the outward preaching of the gospel shake off this scepter, as far as lies in their power, or pull it out of the hand of Christ; not that the efficacy which he mentions depends on the voice of men, but so far as Christ acts by his ministers; for he does not wish that their labor should be fruitless, without sacrificing the elect to obedience, (Romans 15:16,) and slaying the reprobate; as Paul in another passage boasts that there will be speedy vengeance against all unbelievers and rebels.

Here we must again call to remembrance what is the nature of Christ’s kingdom. As he does not wear a golden crown or employ earthly armor, so he does not rule over the world by the power of arms, or gain authority by gaudy and ostentatious display, or constrain his people by terror and dread; but the doctrine of the gospel is his royal banner, which assembles believers under his dominion. Wherever, therefore, the doctrine of the Gospel is preached in purity, there we are certain that Christ reigns; and where it is rejected, his government is also set aside. Hence it is evident how foolishly the Papists boast that the Church belongs to them, when they order Christ himself to be silent, and cannot endure the sound of his voice, but proclaim aloud, with distended cheeks, their own edicts, laws, decrees, and tyrannical regulations.

The role of ministers looms large here, as well. They are the initial forces in the spread of the kingdom. And yet, don’t miss it, their effectiveness is itself regulated by “doctrine of the Gospel… preached in purity.” Christ’s kingdom cannot simply be transferred to ecclesiastical law. Neither church nor state can spread the gospel through force.

It must always be the actual preaching and teaching of the gospel received by faith that extends the rule of Christ.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.