Would Today’s Reformed & Presbyterians Agree? Jean Calvin, father of the multiple Reformed & Presbyterian denominations, said: “Persons who persist in the superstitions of the Roman Antichrist [Catholicism] . . . deserve to be repressed by the sword.” Harkness, Georgia, John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics NY: Abingdon Press, NY, 1931
No, “today’s Reformed & Presbyterians” would not agree that Roman Catholics deserve the death penalty. The society we live in does not reflect the same sentiment as sixteenth century Europe. Modern European Catholics don’t think Protestants should be executed for theological reasons either, while in the sixteenth century, I’m sure many did find executing Protestants a worthy cause. I assume Mr. Ray used this quote for its “shock” value, but if you’ve ever read any simple biography of the Reformation, this type of quote doesn’t really shock. Most of the Reformers were of the opinion that the death penalty could be used for theological reasons.
The reason though why this quote got my attention is because I don’t recall ever reading of Calvin advocating the death penalty for Roman Catholicism. I realize this type of sentiment from Calvin’s pen is not out of the realm of possibility. I happen to have the book Mr. Ray has cited, John Calvin: The Man and His Ethics by Georgia Harkness. Even though Mr. Ray didn’t provide a page number, I managed to track down the quote:
In a letter to the Duke of Somerset, Protector of England during Edward VI’s minority, he urges the rooting out of Roman abuses in that country in these words: “There are two kinds of rebels who have risen up against the King and the Estates of the Kingdom. The one, a fantastical sort of persons, who, under color of the Gospel, would put all into confusion. The others are persons who persist in the superstitions of the Roman Antichrist. Both alike deserve to be repressed by the sword which is committed to you, since they not only attack the King, but strive with God, who has placed him upon a royal throne.” [Harkness, p.96]
That Mr. Ray simply used this information for its polemical and shock value becomes very clear when the actual context from Ms. Harkness is provided. She states Calvin was outspoken on the death penalty for heresy, but he was “far more guarded about Catholicism” (p.95), and that Calvin seemed very reluctant to arrive at the conclusion that the idolatry of Catholicism deserved the death penalty (p.96). In fact, of the quote in question, Harkness states it is the only quote she could find in which Calvin states such sentiment. She goes on to point out,
“…[I]n this letter he drops the suggestion without developing it. He has much to say about the need of extirpating papal abuses, but only a brief word about extirpating Papists themselves. Had Calvin really meant seriously to recommend the use of the death penalty, it is unthinkable that he would have been content to make the recommendation in so casual a fashion. Still more manifest evidence of his reluctance is the fact that he did not, in practice, attempt to employ the death penalty upon any Catholic. Servetus has no Catholic counterpart. Catholics were banished from Geneva, but there is nothing unique in this, since it occurred before Calvin’s arrival and was common practice. Aside from his insistence that the company of true believers be not polluted by the presence of Papists, Calvin’s venom found expression in words rather than overt acts. In a nature which usually drew conclusions with inexorable logic, this reluctance to advocate the killing of Catholic idolaters is significant. It indicates that Calvin was not, by his own volition, a persecutor, and that considerations of human charity sometimes outweighed legalism” [Harkness, p.96].
Any of you familiar with this book realize that Georgia Harkness was not overly sympathetic to Calvin. One may disagree with her interpretation and conclusion on this issue. I’m sure many Catholics interested in “shock” arguments now have another quote for their arsenal. But one needs to look at the methodology put forth by those entrenched in promoting Catholic apologetics. Steve Ray cited Calvin from a book he may have actually not read. If he did, I question why he would direct his readers to a context that spends more time defending Calvin than actually indicting him (he links to Amazon so you can buy the book as well). This isn’t even a difficult quote to track down if one wished to read Calvin in context. Mr Ray has been promoting his works on the Early Church Fathers, recently stating that “Those who begin to dig deeper frequently become Catholics.” Well, I just dug a bit deeper into one of his Calvin citations by looking at the book he refers to, and I’m not impressed.