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Did the Reformers Persecute People?

Our question for this issue is: "Arminians are often quick to point out the persecution perpetrated by the Reformers on groups such as the Anabaptists. They say - 'How can you follow the teachings of men like Calvin and Luther who were involved in such atrocities?'"

In answer, we need first to correct some historical inaccuracies. The question leaves the impression that Calvin and Luther and the other Reformers were involved in widespread and regular persecution of the Anabaptists and others. This is simply not true.

Calvin can be accused of persecution in only one instance that we are aware of, the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553. In Calvin's defense we present the following:

(1) Calvin was not directly responsible for Servetus' death. The city council of Geneva tried and executed Servetus, a council controlled by Calvin's enemies. Calvin functioned only as an expert witness at the trial. Indeed, by their burning of Servetus they meant to demonstrate their authority in Genevan affairs, by way of undermining Calvin's.

(2) Calvin had warned Servetus to stay away from Geneva, tried to visit him in prison during his trial, and pleaded with the city council for a more humane form of execution (beheading rather than burning). The attempts, therefore, to make Calvin out as some sort of cruel monster are mere slander.

(3) Not only was the execution of Servetus a city council matter, but was carried out with the advice of the cities of Berne, Basle, Zurich and Schaffhausen. It was not even Geneva alone that was responsible, much less Calvin alone.

More generally, concerning other instances of so-called persecution, especially in Zurich, where a number of Anabaptists were executed with Zwingli's consent:

(1) The Anabaptists were radical seditionists, completely antiauthoritarian and tending to communism. Their views of civil government and society, therefore, threatened the whole social order of the day (contrary to Rom. 13:1-7) and it was for this, far more than for their religious views, that they were executed.

(2) The same is true of the execution of Roman Catholic priests in Elisabethan England. Their presence, rightly or wrongly (we believe rightly) was perceived to be subversive in light of the attempts, especially of Roman Catholic Spain to overthrow the Protestant government of England.

(3) Blasphemy and sedition, crimes of which Servetus was guilty were capital crimes in those days. Nor is it evident that they ought not be such today (Rom. 1:28-32).

Luther is usually accused in connection with mass execution of peasants after their uprising (1525). In his favor, it should be remembered that, though Luther concurred in the wholesale suppression of the uprising, that he had rebuked the rulers for their oppression of the poor people, as well as the warning the peasants against rebellion. When they did rebel, Luther advised their suppression in the conviction that Romans 13 considers rebellion not only worthy of the death penalty, but of eternal damnation!

However, though we would disagree with them at certain points and even condemn their actions, that in no way means we cannot benefit at other points from their teaching. It is abundantly clear that God used them, weak and sinful men though they were, to restore the truth of His Word in a time of great spiritual darkness. For that we continue to give God thanks.

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Additional Info

  • Volume: 5
  • Issue: 25
Hanko, Ronald

Rev. Ronald Hanko (Wife: Nancy)

Ordained: November 1979

Pastorates: Wyckoff, NJ - 1979; Trinity, Houston, TX - 1986; Missionary to N.Ireland - 1993; Lynden, WA - 2002; Emeritus October 15, 2017

Website: www.lyndenprc.org/sermons/

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