When the enemies of Calvinism can’t successfully attack Calvinism on principled grounds, they resort to ad hominem. The stock example is Calvin’s role in the execution of Servetus.
Of course, this assumes that Calvin was wrong to sanction the execution of Servetus. But it’s worth asking, on what grounds was he wrong?
From the viewpoint of the anti-Calvinist, on what grounds was he wrong? And, from the viewpoint of a contemporary Calvinist, on what grounds was he wrong? Each side of the debate has its own burden of proof to discharge.
1. Calvin’s own reason for sanctioning the execution of Servetus was his belief in the duty of the civil magistrate to uphold both tables of the law. Now, we may disagree with Calvin, but it won’t suffice to simply pronounce him wrong and leave it at that. For this goes to issues that Christian have been debating for centuries. The proper relation between church and state. The proper relation between the OT and the NT.
And there are parallel arguments in the secular sphere regarding the proper jurisdiction of gov’t, ranging from libertarianism to socialism and totalitarianism. And they have their own inquisitions.
Mind you, even if we accept Calvin’s position regarding the duty of the civil magistrate, that—of itself—doesn’t warrant the execution of heretics. There are at least two additional steps you’d have to make.
i) You’d have to establish that the state enjoys the authority to define heresy.
ii) You’d also have to establish that heresy, even if a crime, ought to be a capital offense.
2. One might also object to the execution of heretics on the agnostic grounds that dogma is mere opinion. We should tolerate dissent because there is no way of telling who is right and who is wrong in matters of faith.
i) Such a sceptical attitude is appealing to theological liberals. However, many Christians who condemn the actions of Calvin are not that agnostic. They will have to use a different argument.
ii) And this would be an ironic way of defending Servetus, for he himself did not share their religious indifferentism. He took dogma quite seriously. He was quite dogmatic in his own right. He went out of his way to taunt and provoke the religious establishment of the day, both Catholic and Protestant, with predictable consequences.
He tried, by every means available, to convince people that he was right and his religious opponents were wrong.
3. What is the traditional argument for the execution of heretics? The traditional argument classifies heresy with soul-murder. Here’s a classic expression of that position:
With regard to heretics two points must be observed: one, on their own side; the other, on the side of the Church. On their own side there is the sin, whereby they deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death. For it is a much graver matter to corrupt the faith which quickens the soul, than to forge money, which supports temporal life. Wherefore if forgers of money and other evil-doers are forthwith condemned to death by the secular authority, much more reason is there for heretics, as soon as they are convicted of heresy, to be not only excommunicated but even put to death.
On the part of the Church, however, there is mercy which looks to the conversion of the wanderer, wherefore she condemns not at once, but "after the first and second admonition," as the Apostle directs: after that, if he is yet stubborn, the Church no longer hoping for his conversion, looks to the salvation of others, by excommunicating him and separating him from the Church, and furthermore delivers him to the secular tribunal to be exterminated thereby from the world by death. For Jerome commenting on Galatians 5:9, "A little leaven," says: "Cut off the decayed flesh, expel the mangy sheep from the fold, lest the whole house, the whole paste, the whole body, the whole flock, burn, perish, rot, die. Arius was but one spark in Alexandria, but as that spark was not at once put out, the whole earth was laid waste by its flame."
For Aquinas, you must quarantine the carrier to prevent a pandemic. And if the carrier proves to be incurable, he must be euthanized for the common good.
4. So what are we to make of this argument? Aquinas was nothing if not a logical man, so there’s a certain logical force to his argument—if you grant the premises.
i) From a Christian standpoint, there is a sense in which heresy is worse than murder. A murderer condemns his victim to death, but a heretic condemns his victim to hell.
ii) However, the argument from analogy suffers from certain equivocations. Except for voluntary euthanasia, a murder victim is not a willing victim. He is not complicit in his own demise.
By contrast, there’s a consensual element to heresy. You allow yourself to be persuaded by the heretic.
iii) From the standpoint of Protestant theology, while a given heresy may well be a damnable sin, we need to counterbalance the concept of soul-murder with the concept of soul-liberty. There’s an individualistic element to Protestant theology. Sola fide. The right of private judgment.
The position of Aquinas treats the “victim” of heresy as if he’s in a state of diminished responsibility. And that’s consistent with the paternalistic nature of Catholic ecclesiology. In Catholicism, the laymen are like impressionable children who require the adult supervision of the Magisterium.
But from a Protestant perspective, Christians are directly and individually accountable to God. By the same token, we can make allowance for differences in individual aptitude and opportunity. But a third party like the church doesn’t have the right to co-opt their personal responsibility.
A heretic can’t damn his victim in the way a murder can kill his victim. Damnation is a divine prerogative.
5. Ironically, militant atheists like Dennett, Dawkins, and Harris regard piety in the same way that Aquinas regarded impiety. They treat religion as a contagion. They think the general population needs to be shielded against the infectious disease of religion. They think it’s the duty of the state to restrain religious expression. For example, Dawkins equates religious indoctrination with child abuse.
So the extremes have come full circle. Dawkins is the flipside of Aquinas—although Aquinas has many compensatory virtues lacking in Dawkins.
6. Some Christians object to putting heretics to death on the grounds that, in the NT, the sanction for heresy is excommunication rather than execution. I myself think that’s basically correct, but the argument is somewhat complicated.
For example, the same sort of argument is used by Anabaptists to justify pacifism. They take the NT as their frame of reference, and there is no NT command for Christians to participate in gov’t. Moreover, from their reading of the NT, Christians forfeit the right of self-defense.
The traditional criticism of this position is that, since the NT was written at a time when Christians were a tiny religious minority, with no legal protection, it confines itself to the concrete situation of 1C Christians. But we shouldn’t construe its silence on various aspects of Christian statecraft as opposition to the role of a Christian magistrate.
And I think that criticism is basically correct. It’s also bound up with the contentious issue of whether NT ethics completely supplants OT ethics.
7. Since the OT treated some religious offenses as capital crimes, a Christian can’t very well argue that it’s intrinsically evil to execute someone for impiety. So we need to scale back the expressions of outrage.
8. However, you could argue that, in the OT, certain religious offenses were capital offenses due to the cultic holiness of Israel. And since the modern state isn’t set apart in that sense, we don’t execute people for mere sins or crimes against God. Rather, we only execute them for certain forms of social misconduct against their fellow man.
9. Let’s now revisit another issue: does the state have the authority to define heresy?
i) Even OT Israel didn’t enjoy that authority. God was the lawmaker. It was up to God to determine and disclose what constituted a religious offense in general, as well as a capital religious offense in particular.
ii) And there’s an obvious danger if we empower the state to define heresy. That would be a very useful weapon for the party in power to deploy against its political opponents.
10. Of course, you might argue that the church has the authority to define heresy. The church defines heresy for the state. The state merely enforces that definition. But there are some problems with that argument:
i) It made more apparent sense in the time of Aquinas, when there was only one church (in the West).
ii) It also made more sense if you believe in the authority of the Magisterium to formally define heresy.
Of course, as a matter of church discipline, Protestant denominations must also draw the boundaries of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. But they don’t lay claim to the same sort of divine guidance that you find in Catholicism (or Orthodoxy), or the fine gradations thereof. We define heresy, and excommunicate heretics, but we ultimately leave it to God to separate the sheep and goats.
11. Finally, if it’s appropriate to single out Calvin’s treatment of his religious opponents to discredit Reformed theology, then it’s equally appropriate to single out Archbishop Laud’s treatment of his religious opponents to discredit Arminian theology.