John Calvin the Anti-Vegan Hypocrite. By Dr. Chapman Chen
Abstract: John Calvin is a typical hypocrite when it comes to animals. On the other hand, he describes the animal world as a “most glorious theater” that discloses God's goodness and majesty; on the other, he views the animal world as a warehouse from which humans can take their food. On the other hand, he concedes that God cares about animals; on the other, he argues that humans were allowed by God to murder animals, skin them and eat their flesh even in Eden before the Fall! While he admits that the Bible still requires humans to "practice justice even in dealing with animals", he frequently uses animals as negative metaphors. His warning his Genevan farmers that "God will condemn us for cruel and unkind folk if we pity not the brute beast" is as oxymoronic as the modern farmers' argument that the act of killing is moral in a slaughterhouse because it’s done humanely.
1. Who's John Calvin
John Calvin (1509 –1564) was a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation. He was a principal figure in the development of the system of Christian theology later called Calvinism, including its doctrines of predestination and of God's absolute sovereignty in the salvation of the human soul from death and eternal damnation. Calvinist doctrines were influenced by and elaborated upon the Augustinian and other Christian traditions. Various Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian churches, which look to Calvin as the chief expositor of their beliefs, have spread throughout the world.
2. The Animal Kingdom as a Mirror of God's Goodness
In his Institutes (6.2), Calvin describes all of nature as a “most glorious theater” (note 1), which reveals the benevolence and divine splendor of the Maker. In his 1534 preface to Pierre Robert Olivétan's French translation of the Bible, Calvin asserts that "It is evident that all creatures... are able to act as witnesses and messengers of his glory...For the little birds that sing, sing of God; the beasts clamour for him." (note 2).
3. Animals as a Food Warehouse
While, as aforementioned, Calvin does say that the life of animals reveals a God whose providence maintains the entirety of corporeal reality, his (Calvin's) view of animals is primarily humanocentric (cf. Huff 1999:65). From the followings, we can see that Calvin, in essence, thinks that human beings are entitled to exploit animals for food, labor, clothing, entertainment and what not.
In his commentary on Genesis 1:28, Calvin seizes upon the word "dominion" and anthropocentrically claims that God "appointed man, it is true, lord of the world; but he expressly subjects the animals to him...And hence we infer what was the end for which all things were created; namely, that none of the conveniences and necessaries of life might be wanting to men" (note 3). In his commentaries on Genesis 9:1-29, Calvin unabashedly argues that eating animal flesh is not only consistent with Pauline teaching regarding liberty in meals, but is also likely a post-Ark restoration of accepted practice before the Flood (note 4). In fact, humans may take food from the animal kingdom as if from a "storehouse" (note 5) for the entire universe “was established especially for the sake of mankind” (note 6).
4. God Cares about His Creatures
Echoing scripture, in his Institutes 16.1, Calvin also emphasizes God's concern with creation by observing how “even to the least sparrow” God grants his creatures direct attention (note 7). In his Commentaries, Calvin admits that “Christ... declares that every single one of God’s creatures is under his hand and care" (note 8).
5. John Calvin Justifies Animal Holocausts!
While admitting that God cares about His creatures, Calvin actually tries to justify animal holocausts! He goes so far as to doubt whether God really prescribed humanity a strictly vegan diet in the Garden of Eden and prohibit them from murdering and eating animals! Presuming that God granted humans to eat animal flesh when Noah left the ark, Calvin argues that just because God gave Noah that permission, it does not mean that God had previously forbidden humans to consume animal flesh, not even when He prescribed Adam and Eve a vegan diet, on the ground that from the very beginning God had been accepting humans' holocaust-like animal sacrifices and humans had been wearing animal skins.
Readers may be surprised to learn that John Calvin himself is untroubled by the idea of prelapsarian meat-eating. In his sermon on Genesis 1:29, Calvin writes:
Now, because it is particularly mentioned that God gave man all plants and all fruits of the earth, some think it was not permitted at that time to eat meat, for it seems that God wanted to give a particular regulation to show men what they were permitted to eat. That is likely because we will see later that when Noah left the ark, God gave him leave to eat meat, but not the blood (Gen. 9:4). That permission served as a sign that previously men were not permitted to use meat for food and nourishment. But there are apparent reasons to prove that at this point God did not establish the restriction that man should not be given leave to eat meat, since God is speaking of fruits, herbs, and similar things. In fact, men have always sacrificed animals to God. Now we can only sacrifice what he has given us and what we have in hand. We can say that the sacrifices were holocausts, that is, they were burned. However, if God had not permitted men to kill animals, the sacrifices would have been abominable to him. For, as I have said, we must engage the principle that what we offer to God is from his free goodness, as if we were paying homage with what we receive from his hand. On the other hand, we know that men have dressed in skins from the beginning. For that they had to kill animals. Therefore, it is likely they were free to eat meat.(note 9)
Similarly, in his commentary on Genesis 9:3, Calvin writes:
The Lord proceeds further, and grants animals for food to men, that they may eat their flesh. And because Moses now first relates that this right was given to men, nearly all commentators infer, that it was not lawful for man to eat flesh before the deluge, but that the natural fruits of the earth were his only food. But the argument is not sufficiently firm. For I hold to this principle; that God here does not bestow on men more than he had previously given, but only restores what had been taken away, that they might again enter on the possession of those good things from which they had been excluded. For since they had before offered sacrifices to God, and were also permitted to kill wild beasts, from the hides and skins of which, they might make for themselves garments and tents, I do not see what obligation should prevent them from the eating of flesh. (note 10)
Below, we will examine whether God did gave Noah's clan leave to eat animal flesh, whether animal sacrifice pleased or displeased God in the first place, and whether God had given Adam and Eve animal skins to wear.
7. God Never Permitted Noah's Clan to Kill and Eat Animals
Calvin tries to argue that the permission given Noah to eat meat by God when the former left the ark (Genesis 9:3) should not signify that before that humans had not been allowed to consume animal flesh. But the author of this article will argue that God never permitted Noah and his clan to kill and eat animals in view of the context of Genesis 9:3.
Admittedly, soon after Noah emerged from the Ark, God said to him, "Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things" (Genesis 9:3 KJV). Many flesh-eaters seize upon this verse to claim that God thereby gave humans permission to kill and eat any animals they fancy. However, judging from its context, this verse is much more likely to be a descriptive preview of what atrocities humans were going to do to the animals on earth (cf. Wescoe 2017), a visualization of what horror Noah and his offspring were going to inflict on the inhabitants of the world, than an authorization to abuse animals (Chen 2023).
Now, the clause immediately following the ostensible "permission" to murder animals and eat their flesh, "even as the green herb have I given you all things" (Genesis 9:3 KJV), is a reiteration, a reminder of the vegan diet prescribed humans by God in Genesis 1 (cf. Denny 2022:107):-
"And God said, Behold, I have given you very herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. " (Genesis 1:29-30)
The first limb and the second limb of Genesis 9:3 are not easily reconcilable unless the former is seen as a warning instead of a permission.
Even more importantly, immediately following Genesis 9:3, God commanded,
"But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat." (Genesis 9:4 KJV)
The laws of kashrut actually interpret this line as God commanding humans to drain all the blood out of an animal before they can eat it. But this is "mission impossible"; it is to say the least physically infeasible. For blood is a symbol as well as a fact of life. That's how the word "lifeblood" comes about. For all sentient beings, life is blood, blood is life. Genesis 9:4 is therefore an unequivocal prohibition on eating animals with life and blood.
Moreover, immediately after the ban on lifeblood taking, God said, "And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning" (Gen. 9:5 ESV), which is likely to mean that humans will be brought to reckoning for the lifeblood they take from other sentient beings. Last but not the last, to confirm His love for the animals, God eventually made His covenant with both humanity and every other animal (Gen. 9:10).
6. Animal Sacrifice is Abominable to God
One of the two proofs given by Calvin for God's permission for meat-eating even in the Garden of Eden is the alleged phenomenon that the animal sacrifices offered by humans to God have never been found abominable by God.
However, in reality, God have on various occasions clearly indicated that he finds animal sacrifice abominable!
For example, in Isaiah 1, God explicitly states that fat of the sacrifice does not please Him, that He DOES NOT DELIGHT in it:
“Of what value to me is the abundance of your sacrifices? saith the Lord: I am FULL of whole-burnt-offerings of rams; and I DELIGHT NOT in the fat of lambs, and the blood of bulls and goats: neither shall ye come with these to appear before me; for WHO HAS REQUIRED these things at your hands?” (Isaiah 1:11-12, Greek Septuagint Bible).
Anther example. In Psalm 50, God emphasizes that He does not wish for the burnt animal flesh which the Israelites offered every day as His food. The Lord downright points out that He does not consume meat and that He does not imbibe blood but that He desires only spiritual offerings –thanksgiving and praise.
“Hear, O my people... I will testify against you; I am...your God! ... I will not take a bull from your house, no goats out of your folds. For every beast of the forest is mine... Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High…Whoever offers praise glorifies me” [Psalm 50:7-14, 23 NKJV].
7. God did NOT Make Fur Coats for Adam and Eve
The second proof given by Calvin for God's permission for meat-eating even in the Garden of Eden is the alleged phenomenon that humans have put on animal skins from the very beginning, presumably referring to Genesis 3:21, wherein "The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21 NIV). This verse has indeed been quoted by many a meat-eater to argue against Christian veganism. Did God actually hunt down in cold blood a couple of innocent animals, fray them mercilessly, and use their skins to make fur coats for Adam and Eve to wear? Sounds ridiculous, doesn't it? In reality, עור (`owr), the Hebrew original of "skin" in the verse, means human skin and/or the physical human body, in accordance with the Hebrew Lexicon. It is rarely used to refer to the skin of animals. In fact, in the context concerned, the death of an animal is in no way mentioned. So where did the Lord acquire the skin with which he provided clothes for Adam and his wife? The text doesn’t say. But it is likely that God just created it as either the human skin or the human body itself.
9. The Dignity of Animals
While Calvin ostensibly upholds animal dignity, he bad-mouths them without a moment's hesitation in actuality.
According to Peter Huff (1999), Calvin was resolved to defend the dignity of animals granted to them in their divine origin. The Old Testament orders concerning the appropriate treatment of animals are by no means abolished by the new decree of Christ. Instead, the ethical rules of the Bible still demand human beings “to practice justice even in dealing with animals” (note 11)
On the other hand, according to Higman (1967:144-149), for Calvin, the most effective form of insult is comparison with the animal world. For example, Satan, the father of all crimes and errors, is singled out for particular abuse. His power is like “the jaws of a mad and raging lion,” while his temptations, enticing the saints into rebellion and ruin, betray an insidious human quality: they are “the mousetraps of his treachery.”
Animal metaphors are also habitually used by Calvin to emphasize the more troubling or disagreeable traits of human nature. “God knows best,” he confessed, “how much we are inclined by nature to a brutish love of the world.” Humanity, he went so far to say, is “a five-foot worm” (Institutes 2.2.13, 3.9.1, 1.5.4; see Huff 1999). For Calvin, of course, it is sin that makes people such creatures. Recalling the many-headed monster of pagan myth, Calvin said that the wicked tendency of the human heart “lurks in the breast” of each person like a hydra. The sinful inclinations are so plentiful, he continued, that few people understood “how many heads” this beast bears, “and what a long tail” it drags along (Institutes 2.3.2, 3.4.16; see Huff 1999).
Last but not the least, the common tools for enslaving and exploiting animals are Calvin's favorite images: the yoke, the bridle, reins, and the spur. As the powers of chaos and even the devil bow to the restraining force of God’s harness, humans should not be like “mettlesome horses” that “kick against him who has fed and nourished” them, but should yield to the control of the Lord. Similarly, like the holy fathers and mothers of scripture, Christians should be “kept in obedience to the Word by God’s secret bridle” (Institutes 3.8.5, 3.2.31; see Huff 1999). Unlike the heathen who “can never submit to the yoke of being taught by human word and ministry” (Institutes 4.1.5; see Huff 1999),
10. Did Calvin Pity the Brute Beast?
Although Calvin does warn people to handle animals gently, lest that God will condemn them, it is hypocritical for there is nothing humane about taking the life of somebody who does not want to die.
John Calvin, immersed in urgent theological, pastoral and diplomatic tasks, nevertheless found time to warn his Genevan farmers that ‘God will condemn us for cruel and unkind folk if we pity not the brute beast’; and, remarkably, to assert that we owe an equal duty to animals as we do to people. (note 12)
When the Creator placed animals in subjection to the needs of humans, Calvin explained, “he did it with the condition that we should handle them gently” (note 13). Men and women, therefore, are granted superiority over animals (note 14), not to abuse them, but “to nourish them and to have care of them.”12 (see Huff 1999).
11. There's Nothing Humane about Killing Someone who Doesn't Want to Die!
"Is there such a thing as humane slaughter?" animal rights activist Ed Winters (2021) (note 15) questions. He goes on to say the followings:
So then we might make the argument that the act of killing is moral in a slaughterhouse because it’s done humanely. However, synonyms for the word humane include compassionate, benevolent and kind. Would you say it’s benevolent to take the life of someone who doesn’t need to die? Or, to put it another way, to cut the throat of someone needlessly.
The very act of taking someone’s life when they don’t need to die is the polar opposite of being compassionate, benevolent and indeed humane. Humane slaughter is an oxymoron that seeks to reassure us that we don’t need to worry about the animals, even though we would never want the bloody knife in our own hand (note 16).
12. Calvin Murdered both Animals and Humans
John Calvin did not only encouraging the exploitation and murder of innocent non-human creatures of God but also had his theological human opponents like Michael Servetus, the Comparets, and Jacques Gruet prosecuted, tortured, and executed (note 17).
According to Paul Penley (2015), Calvin particularly rationalized execution 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” did not prevent Calvin from endorsing and actively encouraging the killing of his theological opponents (note 18). “I am persuaded that it is not without the special will of God that, apart from any verdict of the judges, the criminals have endured protracted torment at the hands of the executioner.” - Calvin's letter to Farel on 24 July.
Calvin even expressed satisfaction that torture would probably wring from theological dissidents -- at least as far as the Comparets were concerned -- the information desired. [To Farel, Opera, xv. 693. Eng. trans. Letters of John Calvin (Phila.) Vol. iii. 206.] “Before ten days we shall see, I hope, what the rack will wring from them.” (note 19).
While John Calvin was a principal figure in the Protestant Reformation, he was in reality a hypocrite ready to cause pain and death to not only innocent non-human animals but also humans who disagreed with his theology. Deplorably, various Congregational, Reformed and Presbyterian churches have adopted Calvinist doctrines. As God is love (1 John 4:7 NIV), and Christ is compassion (Matthew 12:6-7), a real Christian, including, of course, a real Christian theologian, must be vegan.
17. https://www.reenactingtheway.com/blog/john-calvin-had-people-killed-and-bad-bible-interpretation-justified-it https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Servetus#:~:text=Calvin%20and%20other%20ministers%20asked,at%20the%20edge%20of%20Geneva.; https://www.patheos.com/blogs/davearmstrong/2017/08/john-calvin-torment-inept-execution-special-will-god.html
Calvin, John (1960). Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols. Ed. John T. McNeille. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminister.
Calvin, John (1996). Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Henry Beveridge. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers. https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/
Chen, Chapman (2023). "God Never Permitted Noah's Clan to Kill and Eat Animals." HKBNews, Sept. 24. https://www.hkbnews.net/post/god-never-permitted-noah-s-clan-to-kill-and-eat-animals-go-vegan%EF%BC%81by-dr-chapman-chen
Higman, Francis Montgomery (1967). The Style of John Calvin in his French Polemical Treatises. Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press.
Huff, Peter A. (1999). "Calvin and the Beasts: Animals in John Calvin's Theological Discourse." JETS 42/1, March, 67-75.