Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 4: Harmony of the Law, Part II, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
5. And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the LORD your God, which brought you out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you out of the house of bondage, to thrust thee out of the way which the LORD thy God commanded thee to walk in. So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee.
5. Propheta antem falsus aut somniator interficietur, eo quod defectionem loquutus sit contra Jehovam Deum vestrum, qui eduxit tee e terra AEgypti, et redemit tee domo servorum, ut te depelleret a via quam princaepit tibi Jehova Deus tuus, ut ambules in ea: et exterminabit malam e medio tui.
5. And that prophet. Since the ministers of Satan deceive men by their plausible exterior, when they vaunt themselves to be the prophets of God, Moses had already admonished them, that all. teachers were not to be listened to indifferently, but that the true were to be distinguished from the false, and that, after judgment had, those should obtain credit who deserved it. He now subjoins the punishment of such as should creep in under the name of a prophet to draw away the people into rebellion. For he does not condemn to capital punishment those who may have spread false doctrine, only on account of some particular or trifling error, but those who are the authors of apostasy, and so who pluck up religion by the roots. Observe, again, that the season of this severity would not be until a positive religion should be established; and, therefore, the grossness of the impiety is expressly named, “if they should have tried to turn the people away from the worship of the true God.” Moreover, that all excuse might be obviated, Moses says that it is sufficiently manifested who God is, and how He is to be worshipped, both by the wonderful blessing of their redemption, as well as by the doctrine of the Law. Therefore, in order that God may shew that so heavy a punishment is justly inflicted upon apostates, He declares the certainty of that religion which should exist among the Israelites; as much as to say, that no pardon could be granted to such impious contempt, since God had abundantly proved the glory of His Godhead by the miracle of their redemption, and had manifested His will in the Law.
It must then be remembered, that the crime of impiety would not otherwise merit punishment, unless the religion had not only been received by public consent and the suffrages of the people, but, being supported also by sure and indisputable proofs, should place its truth above the reach of doubt. Thus, whilst their severity is preposterous who defend superstitions with the sword, so also in a well constituted polity, profane men are by no means to be tolerated, by whom religion is subverted. 53 Thus they are unable to endure, who desire to be at liberty to make disturbances with impunity; and therefore they call those sanguinary who teach that the errors by which religion is undermined and thence destroyed, should be restrained by public authority. But what will they gain by openly raving against God? God commands the false prophets to be put to death, who pluck up the foundations of religion, and are the authors and leaders of rebellion. Some scoundrel or other gainsays this, and sets himself against the author of life and death. What insolence is this! 54 As to their denial that the truth of God stands in need of such support, it is very true; but what is the meaning of this madness, in imposing a law upon God, that He should not make use of the obedience of magistrates in this respect? And what avails it to question about the necessity of this, since so it pleases God? God might, indeed, do without the assistance of the sword in defending religion; but such is not His will. And what wonder if God should command magistrates to be the avengers of His glory, when He neither wills nor suffers that thefts, fornications, and drunkenness should be exempt from punishment. In minor offenses it shall not be lawful for the judge to hesitate; and when the worship of God and the whole of religion is violated, shall so great a crime be fostered by his dissimulation? Capital punishment shall be decreed against adulterers; but shall the despisers of God be permitted with impunity to adulterate the doctrines of salvation, and to draw away wretched souls from the faith? Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured; and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction? Finally, the magistracy, if its own authority be assailed, shall take severe vengeance upon that contempt; and shall it suffer the profanation of God’s holy name to be unavenged? What can be more monstrous! But it is superfluous to contend by argument, when God has once pronounced what is His will, for we must needs abide by His inviolable decree
But it is questioned whether the law pertains to the kingdom of Christ, which is spiritual and distinct from all earthly dominion; and there are some men, not otherwise ill-disposed, to whom it appears that our condition under the Gospel is different from that of the ancient people under the law; not only because the kingdom of Christ is not of this world, but because Christ was unwilling that the beginnings of His kingdom should be aided by the sword. But, when human judges consecrate their work to the promotion of Christ’s kingdom, I deny that on that account its nature is changed. For, although it was Christ’s will that His Gospel should be proclaimed by His disciples in opposition to the power of the whole world, and He exposed them armed with the Word alone like sheep amongst wolves, He did not impose on Himself an eternal law that He should never bring kings under His subjection, nor tame their violence, nor change them from being cruel persecutors into the patrons and guardians of His Church. Magistrates at first exercised tyranny against the Church, because the time had not yet come when they should “kiss the Son” of God, and, laying aside their violence, should become the nursing fathers of the Church, which they had assailed according to Isaiah’s prophecy, that undoubtedly refers to the coming of Christ. (Isa 49:6-23.) Nor was it causelessly that Paul, when he enjoins prayers to be made for kings and other worldly rulers, added the reason that under them
"we may lead a quiet and peaceable life
in all godliness and honesty.” (1Ti 2:2.)
Christ, indeed as He is meek, would also, I confess, have us to be imitators of His gentleness, but that does not prevent pious magistrates from providing for the tranquillity and safety of the Church by their defense of godliness; since to neglect this part of their duty, would be the greatest perfidy and cruelty. And assuredly nothing can be more base than, when we see wretched souls drawn away to eternal destruction by reason of the impunity conceded to impious, wicked, and perverse impostors, to count the salvation of those souls for nothing. But, if under this pretext the superstitious have dared to shed innocent blood, I reply that what God has once commanded must not be brought to nought on account of any abuse or corruption of men. For, if the cause alone abundantly distinguishes the martyrs of Christ from malefactors, though their punishment may be identical, so the Papal executioners will not bring it to pass by their unjust cruelty that the zeal of pious magistrates in punishing false and noxious teachers should be otherwise than pleasing to God. And this is admirably expressed in the words of Moses, when he reminds them that judgment must be passed according to the law of God. I have already said that. this severity must not be extended to particular errors, but where impiety breaks forth even into rebellion. When it is added, “to thrust thee out of the way, which the Lord thy God commanded thee,” we gather from it that none are to be given over to punishment, but those who shall have been convicted by the plain word of God, lest men should judge them arbitrarily. Whence it also appears that zeal will err in hastily drawing the sword, unless a lawful examination shall have been previously instituted.
It is impossible not to be here reminded of Calvin’s acquiescence in the punishment of Servetus. In the principle he lays down, we have, as it were, his final apology for the part he took in that matter. Any discussion of the much-vexed question would here be out of place, but it may not be altogether amiss to introduce the few following calm reflections from the pen of a very able modern historian, M. de Felice — “1. Servetus was not an ordinary heretic; he was audaciously Pantheistic, and outraged the doctrine of all the great Christian communions, by saying that God in three persons was a Cerberus — a monster with three heads. 2. He had already been condemned to death by the (Roman) Catholic Doctors at Vienna in Dauphine. 3. The matter was adjudicated, not by Calvin, but by the magistrates of Geneva; and, if it be objected that his opinion must have influenced their decision, it must be remembered that the Councils of the other Reformed Cantons of Switzerland unanimously approved of the sentence. 4. It was of supreme importance that the Reformation should clearly separate its cause from that of an Infidel like Servetus. The (Roman) Catholic Church, which now-a-days accuses Calvin of having participated in his condemnation, would, in the sixteenth century, have much more harshly accused him, if he had sought for his acquittal.” — Hist, des Protestants de France. Liv. 1., Section 5.
“Quant a ce qui tels babouins alleguent,” etc. — Fr.