Calvin did not believe all Old Covenant laws had been set aside by the New Covenant Jesus inaugurated. He didn't buy into the plain sense of Hebrews: “God has made the first covenant obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13). He maneuvered around Paul’s conclusion: “the Law became a tutor to lead us to Christ and now that faith has come we are no longer under a tutor” (Galatians 3:24-25; cf. Rom 10:4). Therefore, laws from the Torah guided his actions.
Calvin justified capital punishment of heretics with Leviticus 24:16. “The one who blasphemes the name of the Lord should be put to death; all the congregation must stone him. Any foreigner or native who blasphemes the Name should be put to death.”
Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemies” didn’t stop Calvin from killing them. Paul’s instructions for dealing with people who theologically disagree with you were ignored: “A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone, be able to teach, and be patient with difficult people. Gently instruct those who oppose the truth. Perhaps God will change those people’s hearts, and they will learn the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24-25). Calvin authorized beheadings, death by fire, and torture rather than exercise patience and kindness with competing theologians. His enforcement of biblical doctrines looked more like ISIS than Jesus.
In 5 years as magistrate of the Geneva “church-city-state,” Calvin oversaw 58 death sentences and the exile of 76 people. He wasn't the sole decision-maker in those cases, but personal correspondence and city council records betray his extraordinary influence. When Jacques Gruet, a theologian with differing views, placed a letter in Calvin’s pulpit calling him a hypocrite, he was arrested, tortured for a month and beheaded on July 26, 1547. Gruet's own theological book was later found and burned along with his house while his wife was thrown out into the street to watch.
Michael Servetus, a Spaniard, physician, scientist and Bible scholar, suffered a worse fate. He was Calvin's longtime friend who resisted the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. However, he angered Calvin by returning a copy of Calvin's Institutes with critical comments in the margins. The next time Servetus attended Calvin's Sunday preaching service on a visit, Calvin had him arrested and charged with heresy. The 38 official charges included rejection of the Trinity and infant baptism. Servetus pleaded to be beheaded instead of the more brutal method of burning at the stake, but Calvin and the city council refused the quicker death method.
John Calvin argued:
“Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death, knowingly and willingly incur their guilt. It is not human authority that speaks, it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for His Church.”
Most bad Bible interpretation causes disappointment in an unbiblical god, anxiety about what he demands, or a false sense of security in your biased beliefs. But it can kill. John Calvin justified murder with his bad Bible interpretation. It isn't representative of his entire life or his contribution to the Protestant church, but we are wise to learn from a mistake he made.
That’s why I design and teach Hermeneutics courses. I don’t want culture to contort the way I compel people to follow Jesus. I want the Bible to shape my values and not the other way around.
If you want to interpret the Bible more accurately, download my Bible Interpretation workbook and start watching the free online video Hermeneutics course.