Can you really be a smart theologian and have people who disagree with you killed, too?


In his defense of John Calvin’s allowing Michael Servetus to be burned at the stake, J. Steven Wilkens says:

If one contends that Calvin was in error in agreeing with the execution of heretics then why is there not equal indignation against all the other leaders who supported and carried out and supported these measures elsewhere. None less than the honored Thomas Aquinas explicitly supported the burning of heretics saying, “If the heretic still remains pertinacious the church, despairing of his conversion, provides for the salvation of others by separating him from the church by the sentence of excommunication and then leaves him to the secular judge to be exterminated from the world by death.” (Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae q. 11 a. 3)

Which, to me, points out something rather chilling: Aquinas and Calvin are considered two of Christianity’s greatest theologians. What was wrong with their theology that it would promote this type of mindset?

If there is no radical change in Church orthodoxy from that time until today – if it is true that Christian doctrine is timeless (as many insist) – then isn’t that kind of frightening?

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  1. #1 by Sherry on May 11, 2010 - 1:35 pm

    Christian, I rather doubt there is an unchanging theology. Of course, for some there can be no other. Any change would indicate the absence of the Holy Spirit, and thus no point in the denomination, but for most, theology is seen as evolving. I cannot imagine an Episcopalian, or a UCC adhering to such a doctrine as that stated above. But I agree, if we were tied to the doctrines of old, I suspect many of us would depart for some other means to reach God.

    BTW, I think I got you mixed up originally with another blog which is ultra conservative (at least I think so!) called SharperIron? I have two different ones in my reader. Your’s is under my religious section, and the other is listed under my right wing flavor. lol..Sorry about that.

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on May 11, 2010 - 2:06 pm

    Thanks Sherry. SharperIron is a very conservative, Reformed website. I like to think he chose the name in response to my blog’s name, but I doubt it. He gets much more action over there then I ever have.

    I agree. I think that religion, just like humanity, is constantly evolving. We have (with some notably glaring exceptions) become a much more moral people. More tolerant and more involved with others. And God has certainly ‘evolved’ over the centuries, right along with us. I mean, not long ago he apparently approved of racism, misogyny and colonialism.

    I know that certain horrific practices were acceptable at different times in history. George Washington had men summarily executed and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. That doesn’t mean I should disregard their thoughts or impact on history. But Calvin et al were theologians who you would think might have a pretty good grasp of the Gospel. Where in there, I ask, is justification for burning heretics at the stake? And if they could be so outrageously off the mark in that regard, for what good reason is there to consider their other thoughts on God?

  3. #3 by anon on May 11, 2010 - 8:44 pm

    wasn’t he just following tradition?–heresy/killing heretics has been the practice of the Roman Church pretty much from the beginning—because of the wars over doctrine…….? —-not to mention, seperation of Church and State is a pretty recent idea, the Church was heavily involved in politics…?

  4. #4 by Christian Beyer on May 11, 2010 - 8:58 pm

    Absolutely. He was following tradition, not Christ.

  5. #5 by rey on May 16, 2010 - 12:26 am

    Its ironic by the way that Calvin felt the need to burn Miguel Servetus at the stake in order to protect his followers from his blasphemous and soul destroying doctrines seeing as how Calvin believed in predestination. How could Servetus’ doctrine affect the elect? And how could believing one more false doctrine condemn the non-elect any more than they already were? What we find in Calvin’s stalinesque policy on torturing and killing heretics is that he didn’t really believe in predestination when it came right down to it. He really deep down knew that free will existed.

    • #6 by Christian Beyer on May 16, 2010 - 9:08 am

      Hey, Rey. Welcome. Good point. Though I am unsure as to how many others, if any, were had killed by Calving. Got to look that up, unless you can give us some information.

      BTW – your site is interesting. Has me going back to the history of the early church. Your points about Christian orthodoxy are, IMHO, right on the money. I don’t know, though, if Marcion did not succumb to the same temptations that the winners in the debate did.

      Thanks.

    • #7 by - Sue Barnett, BA English on January 28, 2011 - 7:08 pm

      Hmm – I like this! Was Calvin Stalinesque or was Stalin Calvinesque?

      At first I laughed at my question, but I’ve just stopped.

      I read somewhere recently that one of Stalin’s famous remarks went along the lines of ‘ideas are more powerful than weapons. We wouldn’t let our enemies have weapons, so why should we let them have ideas?’

      For the heretic burners it looks more as if those who see themselves as Christian brothers and sisters become defined as enemies just by thinking differently. I think that is more to the point and Stalin put the cart before the horse (I seem to remember now having heard him accused of doing that before).

      It’s a bit of a hobby horse at the moment for me, being in 20 years post Communism Bulgaria.

  6. #8 by rey on May 16, 2010 - 12:27 am

    I use “blasphemous and soul destroying doctrines” in the sense that this was Calvin’s opinion, of course.

  7. #9 by - Sue Barnett, BA English on January 26, 2011 - 1:31 pm

    I don’t know what to make of this. I don’t know what is OK anymore. It seems anyone can interpret the Bible, and even the words of jesus and the apostles, to say anything they like. Even kill heretics.

    Kill heretics, kill Saddam Hussein etc – what’s the difference? Is there one? Of course, Christianity didn’t kill Saddam Hussein.

    But if we can justify one, can’t we as easily justify the other? So should we justify either? Or should we justify both?

    I didn’t know these guys justified burning heretics. I find that really upsetting and I don’t know what to do with it.

    • #10 by Christian Beyer on January 26, 2011 - 2:36 pm

      It should be upsetting, Sue. It amazes me that so many knowledgeable Christians don’t find it the least bit upsetting. You’d think that a true Calvinist or someone of the Reformed persuasion might consider the idea that Calvin’s actions invalidate his theology. But I realize now that Calvin’s theology (and the rest of historical Christianity’s theology) is what actually drives so much of this world’s violence.

      • #11 by - Sue Barnett, BA English on January 28, 2011 - 7:17 pm

        Thanks for posting my comment and letting me through, also for linking back to my site.

        I know I can’t make much sense at the moment because I’m very tired (it’s 1.12 am here, apart from anything else) but I’ve just re-read your reply to me about theology driving the world’s violence in the light of my response to Rey.

        I hope people are still reading this post, I realise now it is older than I thought. At first I looked the subject of heretic burning up deliberately, but I can’t remember why now.

        If you’ve read any of my blog please feel free to comment. I’ll try and stay on board and not be offended.

        • #12 by Christian Beyer on January 28, 2011 - 9:03 pm

          Gosh, I hope that I’m not that offensive! 😉 But seriously, thank you for your comments. I hope people are still reading it as well ( but I doubt it and am thankful that you found it). Hopefully we can keep the conversation going.

          Bulgaria, huh?

          • #13 by - Sue Barnett, BA English on January 29, 2011 - 9:30 am

            Yup, Bulgaria. I just read an online memorial to victims of communism a few days ago, and according to that people have been killed even since the year 2000, albeit unofficially. Run down by cars seems to be the choice. With all the stuff that has been going on around ME since I got here, I get scared myself!

            I didn’t mean your blog was offensive, I meant I’d try not to be offended if you didn’t like mine! I like your blog. It’s very thought provoking. When I get my own space and hopefully stop having idiots playing mind games with me in someone else’s I’ll probably handle life a lot better. That is my hope anyway.

  8. #14 by rey on January 31, 2011 - 1:39 am

    “But I realize now that Calvin’s theology (and the rest of historical Christianity’s theology) actually drives so much of this world’s violence.”

    I’ve come to realize myself that no brand of Christianity even remotely resembling anything ‘orthodox’ or ‘bible-believing’ can ever really get rid of the violence inherent in it no matter how hard they try. To accept the claims of ‘orthodox’ Christianity one must accept that God is a tyrant with blood on his mind who wants to damn millions to hell (eternal burning in hell, no less) for next to nothing (telling a few little white lies, lusting a bit, not believing in some history that sounds very much like mythology [Sampson being made superman by having long hair, for example]). The God that “historic” Christianity or ‘orthodox’ Christianity teaches is implacable. No matter how much you believe right or do right, its never enough. He’s always nitpicky enough to find that your belief is still lacking (yeah you believe in the Trinity, but you formulated it wrong) or your practice is (yeah, you were baptized, but not properly, or yeah you were ‘orthodox’ but you fellowshipped the non-orthodox). The truth is clear: the God of the ‘orthodox’ is just a projection of sad implacable human beings who are never satisfied with anything or anyone. Just as they are always looking for an excuse to burn someone at the stake (in our times more metaphorically by destroying their career or causing them problems with their family or in their church) so they invent to themselves a God who is always looking for an excuse to burn someone eternally in hell, and usually over the smallest of technicalities. Filoque anyone?

    • #15 by - Sue Barnett, BA English on January 31, 2011 - 12:39 pm

      Rey, I know what I’ve been taught, but I think your representation of the teaching is a bit inflammatory so I’m not sure if there would be any point in ME attempting an answer. I don’t know if you want a response or a fight. If you want a fight I’m not even going to engage on this, because I am sure you will win.

      Printed words are always inadeqate on their own, and I’m not trying to offend you. The alternative to the printed word in this format may be not to write at all, but what would be the point in that? I suppose we could have a Skype conversation and someone could post it up . . .

      • #16 by rey on February 13, 2011 - 6:47 pm

        I don’t think any of what I said above is “inflammatory.” Its just true. If the truth makes you mad, if the truth is “inflammatory” to you, then that is your conscience telling you that somewhere deep down you know that what you believe or claim to believe in not the truth after all. I speak from experience on that, since I used to be an ‘orthodox’ Christian and the truth made me mad. When someone showed that the Bible claims God had Mose give the Israelites permission to rape their female prisoners of war (what else can “kill all the males but keep the women children alive for yourselves” mean?) and such like things, it made me mad. It made me mad because it showed that the Bible is not really the inerrant word of God that I was claiming it was. It showed that what I claimed to believe was I lie. I had been brainwashed by the church into believing that lying for god was a virtue. By that I mean claiming that the Bible is always right even when it clearly isn’t. Now that isn’t really lying for God, its just lying for the church. But I had been brainwashed into thinking this was right and whatever trick was necessary to hide the flaws in the Bible, buddy I used it. Then around the age or 26, I grew up. Some people never do however. At 78 they’ll still be lying to save the perfection of a book that is so far from perfect it would be funny if it weren’t so sad. If this is inflammatory to you, its because you know its true, because you are in the same situation I was in and just don’t have the courage or maturity to admit it to yourself yet. But the realization that the Bible is not the word of God is not something to be feared, since it will enable you to love God finally. That’s what you’ve always wanted but could never do because you thought the Bible represents God accurately, and therefore it was impossible for you to love him. When you realize the Bible is wrong, then instead of cowering in fear of an almighty implacable tyrant who nitpicks everything you do and think even when its pure and good, you will finally be able to love a decent and good, mercficul God. This isn’t “rhetoric”: its my testimony.

      • #17 by rey on February 13, 2011 - 6:52 pm

        “Printed words are always inadeqate on their own” I have found that in religious discussions of any kind, written communication is better than a spoken discussion. The party whose views are wrong and have no evidence will always in a spoken discussion just keep saying “well what about this passage” to constantly change the subject. In a written discussion, that sort of subterfuge is not so easy. Also the party who is totally wrong can’t just stump the correct party by bringing up a passage that can’t be immediately found. The written forum allows for some time to go find a passage that one half-way remembers and look it up.

        • #18 by Christian Beyer on February 14, 2011 - 4:13 pm

          True. But I have been lured into many futile arguments on the web where my opponents respond only by proof-texting. And the verses are always taken out of context. It can be maddening.

          I once made an attempt at satire concerning this.

  9. #19 by Christian Beyer on January 31, 2011 - 1:05 pm

    Sue, other than Rey’s admittedly inflammatory rhetoric, where do you disagree with his argument, if at all.?

    Because, I have to admit, after nearly a a half century of Christian indoctrination ,this is precisely how I’ve come to see the “orthodox” Church. Too many times I’ve heard people make apologies for Christianity and Christians by saying that no one is perfect, everyone still has a sinful nature. So then, what’s the point? Only personal salvation? Did Jesus come to save the world or not? Because based upon the evidence, it looks like he missed the mark.

    Jesus taught about a way of living that, at least after Constantine, has never really been attempted or even encouraged by Church authority. I personally believe that a theology based upon blood sacrifice and the personal goals of eternal punishment is terribly flawed and not even based upon scripture. And that in fact, this theology, is precisely what drives people to perform, or excuse, heinous acts of violence and injustice. The Church’s history is damnable. (And in this case I include the atrocities and wars committed by nations that claim a Christian heritage. It helps to remember that Stalin studied for the priesthood.)

    But, as for Rey’s inflammatory, rhetoric, I can understand and even excuse it. Otherwise, I would be a hypocrite, as this has become my modus operandi as well. It wasn’t always, but after years of attempting to converse with conservatives and fundamentalists and being told that I am a heretic (agreed, not really a bad word though) and an apostate and that my opinions would put me in a hell and lead others there as well….patience tends to wear rather thin.

    But you are right, the printed word is completely inadequate in these types of conversations.

    • #20 by - Sue Barnett, BA English on February 2, 2011 - 5:57 pm

      Do you know why Stalin abandoned his apparent call? I suppose I should look it up, but you might want to put the answer on your thread anyway. I could look it up, but that kills even net conversation!

      I believe in hell, and these days I believe it is justifiable to ant to tell someone to go there. how it would work if you actually did say it to someone I don’t know. They might get offended then you’d have ANOTHER problem to deal with.

      But I think telling someone to go to hell should be an acceptable and understandable part of a relationship. Its function would be a bit like using any other code word for ‘stop’ or ‘no more’ in an argument or whatever (something I picked up from a book on counselling).

      It could be seen as quite strong, I don’t know how people feel about it these days. it’s just another way of saying ‘time out’ and ‘I don’t like your behaviour’, sort of ‘go to hell until you change, then you can come back’.

      It would have to be understood in the relationship though, and there would have to be a lot of respect there to support its use.

      But I still believe it has a reality outside of the world of psychology and relationships. I think we begin to experience it in life. In life it can be redemptive, I believe, but I don’t know about in death. My tradition teaches it is final and unchangeable after death.

      That’s why I didn’t want to enter an inflammatory argument about fundamentalism, because I don’t think it is as simple as that.

  10. #21 by - Sue Barnett, BA English on February 2, 2011 - 6:03 pm

    On the other hand, maybe I’ve EXPERIENCED so much violence of different kinds I’m trying to advocate and justify something monstrous. I’m not sure. Maybe I am.

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