(Average reading time: 4 minutes)

A while back I posted an article looking at the common objections raised against the scholar Jacob Arminius (1559-1609) and subsequently thought to also write about three common misunderstandings surrounding John Calvin as well (1509-1564). Here are three misconceptions: 

  1. Calvin killed Servetus.

A Catholic revert from the reformation Jerome Bolsec started writing elaborate accusations against Calvin about 13 years after his death accusing the reformer of lewd acts, murder and even intolerance. However, these accusations were mere slander and without any notable merit. Michael Servetus (1511-1553) was an eclectic Spanish Physician that attempted to discount the merits of the doctrine of the Trinity as well as the fact that Jesus was divine or the eternal Son of God. In the mid 40’s Calvin did correspond with him trying to show him the error of his theology. In 1553, Servetus was noticed in Geneva, after attending a sermon delivered by Calvin, and arrested for the counts against his heretical denouncements. Calvin mentioned that Servetus needed to be tried for his views. 

W Robert Godfrey writes;

“In October the trial finally took place. Members of the city council served as judges, and Calvin functioned as the chief prosecutor. Servetus was condemned and ordered to be executed by burning at the stake, the traditional medieval punishment for heresy. Calvin and other ministers pled that the punishment should be changed to beheading, a much quicker and less painful form of execution. The city council refused.”[1]

It is important to remember that the Church and State at this time was seemingly one entity under the perceived rule of God. Heretics all over the known world, including the Roman Catholic Church, were condemned to burning at the stake. Dillenberger and Welch writes;

“The notorious execution of Michael Servetus does not tell us much about the uniqueness of Geneva-for this was not strange in a time when death was the acceptable penalty for heretics who refused to recant, and when religious uniformity within a given territory was taken for granted.”[2]

W Robert Godfrey writes;

“Calvin and the other ministers continued to appeal to Servetus to repent up to the time of his execution, but Servetus adamantly maintained his heresy.”[3]

The stark reality of sixteenth-century Geneva was at ease and it was the common norm to execute heretics. Tim Challies reminds us that Church and state were inseparable in this era:

“Do remember that we are not dealing here with modern day Western nations where there was a clear separation between church and state. Religion was inseperable from politics. Church and state were mingled and both rulers and the common man felt that a common religion was absolutely critical to the maintenance of order…”

Dillenberger and Welch writes;

“central in the Geneva experiment was the vision of a city in every way dedicated to the glorification of God. It was this goal, together with the assumptions that total Christian patterns of life could be specified in detail and that the elect could safely be trusted to enforced such Christian standards, which led iron collectivism of Geneva.”[4]

  1. Calvin believed in limited atonement.

It is assumed that John Calvin held to particularism which states that all those Christ died for must necessarily experience salvation (ex-opera opera) but that assumption seems to be incorrect. Paul Helm makes a cumulative case trying saying if we look at Calvin’s unitary, singular view of the divine decree, his perspective on substitutionary atonement, effectual grace and his denial of bare foreknowledge, his scope of the atonement seems to indicate the ‘language’ of definite atonement.[5] Other Calvinist Scholars[6] deny this emphatically mentioning that Calvin neither explicitly stated this position nor did he defend those arguments against it.[7] Augustus H. Strong, shows that in Calvin’s later comments he might have grown substantially closer to a universal understanding of atonement when he adds;

“In later days Calvin wrote in his Commentary on 1 John 2:2-‘he is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for the whole world’-as follows:

‘Christ suffered for the sins of the whole world, and in the goodness of goodness of God is offered unto all men without distinction, his blood being shed not for a part of the world only, but for the whole human race; for although in the world nothing is found worthy of the favor of God, yet he holds out the propitiation to the world since without exception he summons all to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than the door unto hope’.”[8]

Amyraldian Scholar, Roger Nicole mentions that Calvin definitely espouses a universal intention of God’s extent of the atonement but not a universal application of the atonement. He adds;

“Calvin deals with texts which are usually associated with a universal saving intent in a way which shows that he was mindful at that very moment of the particular elective purpose of God. This is explicitly brought to the fore in the commentaries and sermons on Ezekiel 18:32, John 3:16, 2 Pet 3:9. In the commentaries and sermons on 1 Tim 2:4 and Tit 2:13 the word “all” is interpreted to refer to “all kinds or classes of men.”[9]

Tim Challies mentions;

“Christ took only the sins of the elect upon Himself on the cross, providing a full and effectual (fully adequate) atonement for their sins. He did not provide only the potential for atonement, but actually provided the effectual atonement. His death secured everything necessary for salvation and this includes faith, which the Spirit graciously applies to the lives of the elect. Though Christ’s sacrifice was sufficient for the entire human race, it is only imputed (or given) to the elect and hence the atonement is not limited in its power, but in its extent.”[10]

  1. Calvin coined the T.U.L.I.P acronym.

Calvin did not come up with the TULIP acronym, neither was it evident within the early reformed councils or structures. In fact, the TULIP acronym seems to have its origin in a 1905 lecture from a Presbyterian Pastor from New York named Cleland Boyd McAfee.[11] Calvinist, Michael Horton cautions us not to lean to heavily on this term to validate our faith. He asserts;

“Since the Reformed view teaches that Christ actually saved all for whom he died (rather than merely making salvation possible), “limited atonement” is not the best term. Furthermore, the Canons of Dort labor the point that our will is not coerced or forced, so “irresistible grace” is not as good as the traditional terms such as “effectual calling” and “regeneration.” But it’s hard to find a good flower for a more accurate acronym. It’s always better to read a confession than to reduce it to a clever device. One finds in the Canons of Dort an abundant appeal to specific scriptural passages—not merely proof-texting, but demonstrating how dependent the argument itself is upon the passages selected. These five points do not summarize the whole teaching of Reformed theology, but they certainly are essential to its faith and practice.”[12]

As for the credibility and use of the TULIP acronym, Calvinist Scholar Kenneth J. Steward shows very helpfully that its use has ‘varied widely and subjectively’.[13]


John Calvin was a prolific thinker and someone worthy to note. I would suggest that you read and study his works as a collective whole with careful consideration.


Rudolph P. Boshoff.


[1] ‘John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor’; Pg.133.

[2] ‘Protestant Christianity: Interpreting through its development’, Pg.86-87.

[3] ‘John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor’; Pg.133-134.

[4] ‘Protestant Christianity: Interpreting through its development’, Pg.86-87.

[5] ‘From heaven He came and sought her’, Pg 119.

[6] Jonathan H. Rainbow, The Will of God and the Cross: An Historical and Theological Study of John Calvin’s Doctrine of Limited Redemption (Allison Park, PA: Pickwick, 1990); Roger R. Nicole, “John Calvin’s View of the Extent of the Atonement,” WTJ 47 (1985): 197–225. See also: Fredrick S. Leahy, “Calvin and the Extent of the Atonement,” Reformed Theological Journal 8 (1992): 54–64.

[7] Not even Rainbow, who argues that definite atonement was the default medieval view of the atonement with which Calvin concurred, ever points to Calvin’s use of the doctrine in debate. Had Calvin committed himself to definite atonement (as Rainbow claims), then that would almost certainly have emerged in various polemical contexts, for example, in his debates with Sebastian Castellio.

[8] ‘Volume 3’ of his standard Systematic Theology; Doctrine of Salvation. Pg.778.

[9] Roger Nicole, “John Calvin’s View on the Extent of the Atonement,” in An Elaboration of the Theology of John Calvin, ed., Richard C. Gamble, (New York: Garland Publishing, 1992), vol 8., pp., 144

[10] https://www.challies.com/articles/the-l-in-tulip/

[11] William H. Vail, “The Five points of Calvinism Historically reconsidered”. New York City Weekly: The New York Outlook 104, 1913:394.

[12] https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2017/06/countdown-to-reformation-day-getting-past-the-tulip/

[13] Ten Myths about Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition, Footnotes, Pg 75. (pp.75-99).