A Product Of His Time
How often have we heard this excuse for someone we’d like to whitewash but who did something that is really evil? Can a Christian ever use this excuse? First let’s look at an important example, and then some scripture.
If you’ve ever read Fox’s Book of Martyrs, you read many hundreds of pages of Christian suffering, frequently at the hands of “church leaders”. The preferred method of the Roman Catholic Church was by burning alive at the stake. And Fox rightly points out the deep evil of these actions, things no Christian of any century should condone in any way. There is simply no excuse for this.
Unless someone you revere is doing the burning!
And Fox shows great prejudice and hypocrisy in this, his account of the life of Calvin. After many pages about the evils of Rome, we read this concerning Calvin’s burning of his enemy Servetus:
It has long been the delight of both infidels and some professed Christians, when they wish to bring odium upon the opinions of Calvin, to refer to his agency in the death of Michael Servetus. This action is used on all occasions by those who have been unable to overthrow his opinions, as a conclusive argument against his whole system. “Calvin burnt Servetus!—Calvin burnt Servetus!” is a good proof with a certain class of reasoners, that the doctrine of the Trinity is not true—that divine sovereignty is Antiscriptural, —and Christianity a cheat.
We have no wish to palliate any act of Calvin’s which is manifestly wrong. All his proceedings, in relation to the unhappy affair of Servetus, we think, cannot be defended. Still it should be remembered that the true principles of religious toleration were very little understood in the time of Calvin. All the other reformers then living approved of Calvin’s conduct. Even the gentle and amiable Melancthon expressed himself in relation to this affair, in the following manner. In a letter addressed to Bullinger, he says, “I have read your statement respecting the blasphemy of Servetus, and praise your piety and judgment; and am persuaded that the Council of Geneva has done right in putting to death this obstinate man, who would never have ceased his blasphemies. I am astonished that any one can be found to disapprove of this proceeding.” Farel expressly says, that “Servetus deserved a capital punishment.” Bucer did not hesitate to declare, that “Servetus deserved something worse than death.” Now of course Calvin’s defenders are quick to add the next paragraph:
The truth is, although Calvin had some hand in the arrest and imprisonment of Servetus, he was unwilling that he should be burnt at all. “I desire,” says he, “that the severity of the punishment should be remitted.” “We endevored to commute the kind of death, but in vain.” “By wishing to mitigate the severity of the punishment,” says Farel to Calvin, “you discharge the office of a friend towards your greatest enemy.” “That Calvin was the instigator of the magistrates that Servetus might be burned,” says Turritine, “historians neither anywhere affirm, nor does it appear from any considerations. Nay, it is certain, that he, with the college of pastors, dissuaded from that kind of punishment.”
Is changing the preferred method of execution a display of Christian mercy by Calvin? Such alleged benevolence is clearly not what it appears (see Here and Here, where he is called a ’hero of history!’). The fact remains that Calvin, for both political and religious reasons, hated the man! Can one who hates, and to the point of murder, be saved?
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another... If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen. 21 And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another. (1 John 4:7-11, 20-21)
Ah, but it isn’t murder because it was political, and as the ruler of the city, Calvin was only signing an execution, right? Wrong! He personally hated Servetus and wanted him dead. And even the most evil judge can grant mercy. But we must also remember that a leader is responsible for his followers while he lives, and Calvin had to take responsibility for what he taught them. Servetus’ blood is forever on Calvin’s unrepentant hands.
A product of his time? Calvin knew very well what Rome was doing and that it was evil. And what believer, especially a teacher, can claim this excuse when the writers of the New Testament were not “products of their time”? The government of ancient Rome was far worse than the Rome of Calvin’s time; the preferred method of execution was crucifixion! Yet never do we see Paul or Peter or John advocating even hatred, much less murder!
No, believers can never use the excuse “a product of their time”. We are not products of time but children of God, heirs of eternal life and citizens of God’s Kingdom. And in that kingdom there is no murder, no execution, no hatred; all of that is in “outer darkness”.