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The Christian Persecutory Impulse - pg 2 

Trim warns us that thinking that we are more enlightened, more sophisticated, more tolerant does not necessarily save us from oppressive behaviors ourselves. He argues that the temptation to persecute or limit religious freedom is persistent. “It may well be that what an eminent historian of the Reformation called ‘the virus of intolerance and persecution’ is ‘always present and [can] become virulent when the conditions [are] right.’ Understanding why past generations of Christians persecuted and that they did so from the best as well as worst of impulses might not inoculate us against the virus, but it might at least enhance our ability to resist it.”[12]

It is argued that at the start of the Reformation, persecution was undertaken out of love. (Argued unsuccessfully with me.)  “The actual horrors of immolation alive, of breaking at the wheel, of hanging, drawing, and quartering, and of torture — all commonly applied against religious dissidents — were now widely witnessed and spoke powerfully against the idealized view of persecution as an act of Christian love.[13] ” Trim concludes that gradually the instinctive revulsion at violence began to be expressed in print in the 1550s. I think the matter is more accurately summed up by theologian Augustin Marlorat when he asserted that “the true church of Christ [is] known in this, that it suffereth persecution and doth not persecute again.”[14] He offers us this astonishing contrast: what marked the “church of Antichrist [was] her bloody persecutions.”[15]

It was Castellio who in 1562 argued that it was wrong to force people to violate their consciences. He also posed this question: suppose those who had been punished were actually not heretics, but martyrs. Remember that Jesus had also been accused of heresy and blasphemy and his accusers were also the religious establishment.

John Foxe[16] argued from common humanity and from simple horror of the flames; and it is said that he argued for mercy even for those for whom he felt no sympathy.

I am astonished that one of the most significant of persecution accounts, that of the burning alive of Michael Servetus in 1553, is not even mentioned. Servetus was not only a brilliant medical doctor to whom the credit goes for the discovery of the workings of the pulmonary system. (This discovery has assured him of a lasting place in the history of science.) There is a museum in Spain dedicated to this remarkable man who has also been credited with the freedom of speech which we enjoy today.  He was an avid theologian, one who opposed John Calvin, and that was his downfall. As a 2008 book reveals, John Calvin had Servetus put to death.[17] Interestingly, the author concludes that Calvin was jealous of Servetus. Several other books have been written about this remarkable man, a man who spoke several languages, a passionate student of the Scriptures.[18] His was the first judicial murder in Geneva, precluding the thought that this was the order of the day. “Servetus died for his convictions in such an impressive manner that not even Calvin’s apologists, of whom there are not a few, can detract from it.”[19] To this day, John Calvin is hailed as a hero and this murder and the murders that followed Servetus20] are excused by many clergy.

“In 1897 Adolf Harnack in his History of Dogma wrote of Servetus’ ‘deeply pious spirit — the best of everything that came to maturity in the sixteenth century.’”[21] “There was an uproar in many quarters of Europe over this legalized murder. In truth Servetus was a symbol for the countless thousands — only God knows how many — who were killed for rejection of the triune God doctrine.”[22] Historian Paul Johnson[23] confirmed that Calvin used the Justinian Code to kill Servetus legally. I understand that this killing is a great embarrassment to the established church and that they simply wish that all memory of it would disappear, that it could be whitewashed from history. But it will not go away: historians and scholars keep writing about this devout man; in fact, Servetus’ The Restoration of Christianity was published in 2007 after ten years of work on the translation.[24] A Yale University professor of church history published his findings in Hunted Heretic, The Life and Death of Michael Servetus.[25]

Historian Kurt Aland describes the scene in Calvin’s Geneva two years after the murder of Servetus: “The leaders of the insurrection were brought to trial for rebellion and conspiring against the Christian Reformation. Torture was employed in the interrogations, and the result was that twelve people were sentenced to death and not a few were exiled or had their property confiscated.”[26] Were these deaths also attributable to John Calvin? Many were tortured in grotesque ways — and we are asked to believe that Calvin was a man of God?

David Trim summarizes: “Today persecution seems so hateful that it is easy to assume that it derived from hate — it seems so manifestly wrong and unchristian that it is easy to assume that the impulse to persecute comes only from what we perceive as the darker side of humanity.”[27] How I wish he had stopped there! But he continues: “But if that were so, it would not be as common. Persecution often springs from our higher, rather than our baser, instincts — harassment of the heterodox does not always derive from the desire to hurt, but sometimes from the desire to help; religious liberty is often denied out of the finest of motives. In trying to counteract the seemingly perpetual human addiction to persecution, therefore, we need to recognize that generosity of spirit and humane instincts are not enough, for they have been found among persecutors.”[28]

I believe that I can guarantee that no one undergoing or having undergone serious persecution would see it this way. I am very sorry that he rationalizes in this manner. The blood of martyrs and giants of the faith cries out for justice. Yes, the necessary conclusion of the matter would be grave for the church but better that than to be in the wrong camp as per Proverbs 17:15 where we are told that “The LORD despises those who acquit the guilty and condemn the innocent.”

I have not been able or willing in this review even to describe some of the torments suffered by the persecuted. The idea that the torturers would be pleasing in God’s sight is appalling to me and I find no evidence for it in Scripture. Could it even be blasphemy against God’s name? How is it that we can overlook Romans 12:19? “Dear friends, never avenge yourselves. Leave that to God. For it is written, ‘I will take vengeance; I will repay those who deserve it,’ says the LORD.”

While the emphasis here has been persecution by Christians, I am mindful of the fact that Christians in other countries are currently undergoing violent persecution today. I have in front of me a picture of several pairs of worn shoes, sandals and sneakers; shoes left outside a Christian church and belonging to those killed and injured in a vicious attack against Christians. May we be aware of the suffering currently being endured by Christians and pray for their faith, their strength, and an end to their suffering.

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[12] Ibid., p. 4
[13] Ibid., Part Three, p. 2
[14] Augustin Marlorat, a Huguenot theologian, himself martyred
[15] Ibid.
[16] John Foxe, English scholar, Actes and Monuments of These Latter and Perilous Dayes (Foxe’s Book of Martyrs)
[17] Did Calvin Murder Servetus?, Standford Rives
[18] Out of the Flames,  Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone
[19] A History of Christianity, Kurt Aland
[20] Ibid.
[21] Was John Calvin a Christian in Name Only?, Clark Barefoot
[22] Ibid.
[23] History of Christianity, Paul Johnson
[24] Edwin Mellen Press
[25] Roland Bainton, 1953
[26] A History of Christianity, Vol. 2, p. 195
[27] The Christian Persecutory Impulse, PartFive, p. 9
[28] Ibid.


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