The Facts about Calvin and Servetus:
Those who throw out these charges against Calvin would do well to actually study the issue as opposed to bearing false witness.
2. Servetus was convicted by the Inquisition in France for his heresies, but he escaped before sentencing.
3. Calvin warned him not to come to Geneva because he was would not be welcomed by the Church or the government.
4. Servetus ignored the warnings of Geneva and arrived basically as an attempted revolution of the State.
5. The Geneva City Council believed that blatant heresy was punishable by death.
6. Servetus was arrested and given a fair trial that lasted two months. Servetus claimed that Calvin was a heretic and should be banished from Geneva and his property given to Servetus.
7. Many on the City Council were Libertines who did not like Calvin, but he was called as a witness.
8. The City Council, including the Libertines, found Servetus guilty and sentenced him to be burned at the stake.
9. Calvin strongly encouraged the City Council to use a more painless execution by decapitation, but they refused Calvin’s pleas.
10. On October 27, 1553, Servetus was burnt at Champel with the approval of all Reformers and Catholics.
12. Servetus would have been convicted even if Calvin had not been called as a witness.
13. Servetus was the only heretic executed for blasphemy in Geneva under Reformed auspices.
14. Compared to the Roman Catholic Inquisition, the City Council of Geneva practiced enormous restraint and fairness.
In Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin was a pastor, teacher, and statesman. He organized a school system for children, a hospital for the indigent, a charity system for the poor, built the University of Geneva, and designed a public sewage system when the City Council was unable. He taught the reformers of the English and Scottish Reformation. As a pastor his goal was to see the citizens of his city live godly lives. He viewed the Church and State equal but seperate (seperate in some areas and related in others). Calvin’s Geneva gave rise to Capitalism, Free Enterprise, a democratic republic governmental system, and a Protestant work ethic.
Go here and discover why it is important for us to never stop teaching people the truth about church history and Calvinism.
Calvin and Servetus
by William Wileman
A calm and impartial view of this sad subject has been reserved for this place, and for a chapter of its own. The immense advantage of having been able to consult and to weigh the evidence of the principal writers certainly not fewer than forty – about the case of Servetus, besides several biographies of the man himself, will greatly aid the writer.
It is very common to hear the remark, “What about Servetus?” or, “Who burned Servetus?” There are three kinds of persons who thus flippantly ask a question of this nature. First, the Roman Catholics, who may judge it to be an unanswerable taunt to a Protestant. Second, those who are not in accord with the great doctrines of grace, as taught by Paul and Calvin, and embraced and loved by thousands still. Then there is a third kind of persons who can only be described as ill-informed. It is always desirable, and often useful, to really know something of what one professes to know.
I shall narrow the inquiry at the outset by saying that all Roman Catholics are “out of court.” They burn heretics on principle, avowedly. This is openly taught by them; it is in the margin of their Bible; and it is even their boast that they do so. And, moreover, they condemned Servetus to be burned.
Those who misunderstand or misrepresent the doctrines of grace call for pity more than blame when they charge the death of Servetus upon those views of divine truth known as Calvinistic. Perhaps a little instruction would be of great value to such. It is very desirable to have clear ideas of what it is we are trying to understand. In most disputes this would make a clear pathway for thought and argument. Most controversies are more about terms than principles.
The third sort of persons are plainly incompetent to take up this case, for the simple reason that they know nothing whatever about it. Pressed for their reasons, they have to confess that they never at any time read a line about the matter.
The duty of the historian is not to plead, but to narrate facts. I shall do this as impartially as possible. One writer need not be imitated (W. H. Drummond, D.D.), who is not ashamed to disfigure his title-page: “Life of Michael Servetus, who was entrapped, imprisoned, and burned by John Calvin.” Less scurrilous, but equally prejudiced, is Dr. R. Willis. It is a weak case that needs the aid of ink mixed with abusive gall.
The simplest method of arranging my material will be to ask and to answer three questions. First, why was Servetus burned? Second, who burned him? Third, what part in the matter was taken by John Calvin?
Michael Servetus was born at Villanueva, in 1509. After a liberal education, he studied medicine; and anticipated Harvey in the discovery of the circulation of the blood. It appears that he had a lively genius, but was unstable, erratic, and weak. In 1530 he published a book “On the Errors of the Trinity.” His views need not be given here; one specimen will suffice to give an idea of them. He said that the doctrine of the Trinity was “a three-headed Cerberus, a dream of Augustine, and an invention of the devil.” The book, however, on which his trial was based was his “Restitutio Christianismi.” Only two copies of this are known to exist; and both are out of England. I have seen a copy of the reprint of 1790. Servetus sent the manuscript of this to Calvin for his perusal; and a lengthy correspondence took place between them, extending from 1546 to 1548. Of this Calvin says: “When he was at Lyons he sent me three questions to answer. He thought to entrap me. That my answer did not satisfy him lam not surprised.” To Servetus himself he wrote: “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.”
And now occurs what foundation there is on which is built the accusation against Calvin. It occurs in his well-known letter to Farel, dated February 13th, 1546. “Servetus wrote to me a short time ago, and sent a huge volume of his dreamings and pompous triflings with his letter. I was to find among them wonderful things, and such as I had never before seen; and if I wished, he would himself come. But I am by no means inclined to be responsible for him; and if he come, I will never allow him, supposing my influence worth anything, to depart alive.”
There lived at Geneva at this time a Frenchman of Lyons named William Trie; and he had a relative at Lyons named Arneys, a Roman Catholic. After the publication of this book by Servetus, Trie wrote to his friend Arneys a letter in which he said that it was base for Protestants to be burned who really believed in Christ while such a man as Servetus should be permitted to live to publish his vile errors. Arneys placed this letter before the Inquisition at Lyons, and cardinal Tournon arrested Servetus at once. Without giving the mass of details, it will be sufficient to say that Servetus escaped from prison one night by a pretext. His trial, however, proceeded in his absence; and on June 17th, 1552, the sentence of death, namely, “to be burned alive, at a slow fire, till his body he reduced to a cinder, ” was passed upon him by the Inquisition. On the same day, his effigy was burned, with five bales of his books.
After wandering for a time, he suddenly turned up in Geneva in July; and was arrested by the Council, which, as we have seen, was at this time opposed to Calvin. What Calvin desired from Servetus was his recantation: “Would that we could have obtained a retractation from Servetus, as we did from Gentilis’.” The thirty-eight articles of accusation were drawn up by Calvin. Two examinations took place. At the second of these, Servetus persisted in one of his errors, namely, that all things, “even this footstool,” are the substance of God. After further examinations, these articles, with the replies of the accused man, were sent to the churches of Zurich, Berne, Basle, and Schaffhausen, with a request for their opinion. Farel’s reply is worthy of record: “It will be a wonder if that man, suffering death, should at the time turn to the Lord, dying only one death, whereas he has deserved to die a thousand times.” In another letter, written from Neuchatel, September 8th, 1553, Farel says: “Your desire to mitigate the rigour of punishment is the service of a friend to one who is your mortal enemy. But I beseech you so to act as that no one shall hereafter seek with impunity to publish novel doctrines, and to embroil us all as Servetus has done.”
All these circumstances prove that his trial was lengthy, deliberate, and careful; and quite in harmony with the requirements of the age. All the Reformers who were consulted approved of the sentence that was pronounced. At the last stage of the trial, the discussion lasted for three days. The “lesser Council” were unanimous; and the majority of the Great Council were in favour of capital punishment, and so decided on the last day. Sentence of death by fire was given on October 26th, to be carried into effect on the following day.
And now one man alone stands forth to plead for a mitigation of the sentence, namely, that another form of death be substituted for the stake. That one man was John Calvin. He interceded most earnestly with the judges for this, but in vain. Both Farel, who came to Geneva for the purpose, and Calvin, prayed with the unhappy man, and expressed themselves tenderly towards him. Both of them pleaded with the Council for the substitution of a milder mode of death; but the syndics were inflexible. The historian Paul Henry writes of this matter: “Calvin here appears in his real character; and a nearer consideration of the proceeding, examined from the point of view furnished by the age in which he lived, will completely exonerate him from all blame. His conduct was not determined by personal feeling; it was the consequence of a struggle which this great man had carried on for years against tendencies to a corruption of doctrine which threatened the church with ruin. Every age must be judged according to its prevailing laws; and Calvin cannot be fairly accused of any greater offence than that with which we may be charged for punishing certain crimes with death.”
The main facts therefore may now be summarized thus:
1. That Servetus was guilty of blasphemy, of a kind and degree which is still punishable here in England by imprisonment.
2. That his sentence was in accordance with the spirit of the age.
3. That he had been sentenced to the same punishment by the Inquisition at Vienne.
4. That the sentence was pronounced by the Councils of Geneva, Calvin having no power either to condemn or to save him.
5. That Calvin and others visited the unhappy man in his last hours, treated him with much kindness, and did all they could to have the sentence mitigated.
Three hundred and fifty years after the death of Servetus, a “monument of expiation” was erected on the spot where he suffered death at Champel, near Geneva. It bears the date of October 27th, 1903; but the unveiling ceremony was postponed until November 1st. On one side of this monument are recorded the birth and death of Servetus. On the front is this inscription:
“Dutiful and grateful followers of Calvin our great Reformer, yet condemning an error which was that of his age, and strongly attached to liberty of conscience, according to the true principles of the Reformation and of the Gospel, we have erected this expiatory monument. October 27th, 1903.”
Should the Roman Catholic Church desire to follow this example, and erect ‘monuments of expiation,” let her first build one in Paris, and unveil it on August 24th (the date of the Bartholomew Massacre of the Huguenots. Ed.) And doubtless sites would gladly be given for the same purpose in Oxford, Coventry, Maidstone, Lewes, and other places in England. And should Romanists desire the alteration or abrogation of any oath, instead of tampering with the Coronation Oath of Great Britain, let them first annul the oath taken by every bishop at his consecration that he will pursue heretics to the death. All persecution on account of religion and conscience is a violation of the spirit of the gospel, and repugnant to the principles of true liberty.
Peace and Truth 2003:3 www.sgu.org.uk
“Is John Calvin in Heaven?”
That is the title of an article that appeared recently in Northwest Florida Daily News. Its author, Rev. Joel M. McDuffie, Jr., is pastor of First Baptist Church of Valparaiso. He quotes Dan Corner’s essay on Michael Servetus entitled, “His Ashes Cry Out Against John Calvin” as follows:
“At best, Calvin was spiritually blinded by his hate and therefore, spiritually hindered from rightly dividing the truth. At worst, which was apparently the case, John Calvin himself was unsaved, according to Scripture.”
Leaving aside the question of why the Southern Baptist McDuffie would cite the 5 point Arminian Corner as a trustworthy evaluator of a dead man’s salvation “according to the Scripture,” the assertions in this article are breathtaking in their arrogance and ignorance. Here is a sampling:
- “The heart of Calvinism contradicts the heart of everything revealed in scripture.”
- “The one who believes in Calvinism is fighting all of scripture.”
- “If choice and self-determination is [sic] not real, then why does everything God create demonstrate this ability[?]”
- “How does sovereignty from the Calvinist point of view, explain the meaningless and futile events of history, mankind and more importantly the cross [sic]?”
- “Calvinism reduces God and this creation to the awful experiment in futility that the atheist, agnostics and the lost world say it is if God is behind it.”
- “Calvinism also sets God up as a liar and fraud.”
McDuffie does include some sentences that have the appearance of argument but which are little more than the gratuitous assertions listed above. Here is one of his most ambitious efforts:
“If Calvinism is true, everything in Eden, [sic] is a great big hoax. Man is nothing more than an unfortunate victim in a sick drama he had not choice to play in. In this drama he is subject to illusions, lies and manipulation by his creator [sic]. He is told not to eat of the tree or he will die, he is shown a tree of life by which he can live forever, but then God makes the decision for him and damns him for it. A Calvinist will never express their [sic] view to such extremes, but these are unmistakably the implications of what they are [sic] saying.”
Consistent with his assertions, McDuffie does not treat one verse of Scripture in his essay. Although he does not directly answer the question posed in the title of his article, he certainly implies that the answer is a resounding “No.”
The misrepresentations so permeate this article that a thorough refutation would require far more words than what McDuffie has written. His erroneous presuppositions would have to be debunked and there are so many of them a complete response would almost get sidetracked dealing with them before getting to his actual assertions.
I will only comment on two of his statements cited above, because I have confidence that even mildly alert readers will recognize the disingenuousness that characterizes his comments.
“If choice and self-determination is [sic] not real, then why does everything God create demonstrate this ability[?]”
Why don’t we go ask a rock? But, let’s give McDuffie the benefit of the doubt that by “everything” he only means “people.” Choice is not the same thing as self-determination. Of course we have the ability to choose. McDuffie exercised his ability to choose in publishing his article and I am exercising mine in responding to it. But the capacity to choose does not mean that one is free to choose any and everything which he might determine for himself. McDuffie cannot, by self-determination, choose to live on Pluto just as I cannot choose to run 100 meters in 6 seconds (I am not even sure I could choose to do it in 15 seconds!). Why is that? Because in both cases, our choices are limited by our natures. He is not a space alien and I am not a cheetah. Let me say it again, our ability to choose is limited to our natures. There is a detailed history of theological debate clarifies this in terms of a man’s moral ability and natural ability. Suffice it to say that a fallen man’s chooser is limited by his sinful nature.
“How does sovereignty from the Calvinist point of view, explain the meaningless and futile events of history, mankind and more importantly the cross [sic]?”
Here McDuffie reveals how anemic his worldview is and how unbiblical his thinking is. There are no meaningless and futile events in history. Let me limit myself simply to one verse–Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” Even apparently “meaningless and futile events in history” are included in this verse. To claim otherwise is to parrot existentialist and atheistic writers.
The kind of screed that McDuffie has published will work against any efforts for Calvinists and Arminians to work together in the SBC. Such extreme, uninformed and inflammatory remarks should be rebuked by all Bible-believing evangelicals.
by Loraine Boettner
We must now consider an event in the life of Calvin which to a certain extent has cast a shadow over his fair name and which has exposed him to the charge of intolerance and persecution. We refer to the death of Servetus which occurred in Geneva during the period of Calvin’s work there. That it was a mistake is admitted by all. History knows only one spotless being—the Savior of sinners. All others have marks of infirmity written which forbid idolatry.
Calvin has, however, often been criticized with undue severity as though the responsibility rested upon him alone, when as a matter of fact Servetus was given a court trial lasting over two months and was sentenced by the full session of the civil Council, and that in accordance with the laws which were then recognized throughout Christendom. And, far from urging that the sentence be made more severe, Calvin urged that the sword be substituted for the fire, but was overruled. Calvin and the men of his time are not to be judged strictly and solely by the advanced standards of our twentieth century, but must to a certain extent be considered in the light of their own sixteenth century. We have seen great developments in regard to civil and religious toleration, prison reform, abolition of slavery and the slave trade, feudalism, witch burning, improvement of the conditions of the poor, etc., which are the late but genuine results of Christian teachings. The error of those who advocated and practiced what would be considered intolerance today, was the general error of the age. It should not, in fairness, be permitted to give an unfavorable impression of their character and motives, and much less should it be allowed to prejudice us against their doctrines on other and more important subjects.
The Protestants had just thrown off the yoke of Rome and in their struggle to defend themselves they were often forced to fight intolerance with intolerance. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries public opinion in all European countries justified the right and duty of civil governments to protect and support orthodoxy and to punish heresy, holding that obstinate heretics and blasphemers should be made harmless by death if necessary. Protestants differed from Romanists mainly in their definition of heresy, and by greater moderation in its punishment. Heresy was considered a sin against society, and in some cases as worse than murder; for while murder only destroyed the body, heresy destroyed the soul. Today we have swung to the other extreme and public opinion manifests a latitudinarian indifference toward truth or error. During the eighteenth century the reign of intolerance was gradually undermined. Protestant England and Holland took the lead in extending civil and religious liberty, and the Constitution of the United States completed the theory by putting all Christian denominations on a parity before the law and guaranteeing them the full enjoyment of equal rights.
Calvin’s course in regard to Servetus was fully approved by all the leading Reformers of the time. Melanchthon, the theological head of the Lutheran Church, fully and repeatedly justified the course of Calvin and the Council of Geneva, and even held them up as models for imitation. Nearly a year after the death of Servetus he wrote to Calvin: “I have read your book, in which you clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus…. To you the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after regular trial, this blasphemous man.” Bucer, who ranks third among the Reformers in Germany, Bullinger, the close friend and worthy successor of Zwingli, as well as Farel and Beza in Switzerland, supported Calvin. Luther and Zwingli were dead at this time and it may be questioned whether they would have approved this execution or not, although Luther and the theologians of Wittenberg had approved of death sentences for some Anabaptists in Germany whom they considered dangerous heretics, adding that it was cruel to punish them, but more cruel to allow them to damn the ministry of the Word and destroy the kingdom of the world; and Zwingli had not objected to a death sentence against a group of six Anabaptists in Switzerland. Public opinion has undergone a great change in regard to this event, and the execution of Servetus which was fully approved by the best men in the sixteenth century is entirely out of harmony with our twentieth century ideas.
As stated before, the Roman Catholic Church in this period was desperately intolerant toward Protestants; and the Protestants, to a certain extent and in self-defense, were forced to follow their example. In regard to Catholic persecutions Philip Schaff writes as follows:
We need only refer to crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, which were sanctioned by Innocent III, one of the best and greatest of popes; the tortures and autos-da-fé; of the Spanish Inquisition, which were celebrated with religious festivities; and fifty thousand or more Protestants who were executed during the reign of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands (1567-1573); the several hundred martyrs who were burned in Smithfield under the reign of bloody Mary; and the repeated wholesale persecutions of the innocent Waldenses in France and Piedmont, which cried to heaven for vengeance. It is vain to shift the responsibility upon the civil government. Pope Gregory XIII commemorated the massacre of St. Bartholomew not only by a Te Deum in the churches of Rome, but more deliberately and permanently by a medal which represents “The Slaughter of the Huguenots” by an angel of wrath.2
And then Dr. Schaff continues:
The Roman Church has lost the power, and to a large extent also the disposition, to persecute by fire and sword. Some of her highest dignitaries frankly disown the principle of persecution, especially in America, where they enjoy the full benefits of religious freedom. But the Roman curia has never officially disowned the theory on which the practice of persecution is based. On the contrary, several popes since the Reformation have endorsed it…. Pope Pius IX., in the Syllabus of 1864, expressly condemned, among the errors of this age, the doctrine of religious toleration and liberty. And this pope has been declared to be officially infallible by the Vatican decree of 1870, which embraces all of his predecessors (notwithstanding the stubborn case of Honorius I) and all his successors in the chair of St. Peter.3
And in another place Dr. Schaff adds, “If Romanists condemned Calvin, they did it from hatred of the man, and condemned him for following their own example even in this particular case.”
Servetus was a Spaniard and opposed Christianity, whether in its Roman Catholic or Protestant form. Schaff refers to him as “a restless fanatic, a pantheistic pseudo-reformer, and the most audacious and even blasphemous heretic of the sixteenth century.”4 And in another instance Schaff declares that Servetus was “proud, defiant, quarrelsome, revengeful, irreverent in the use of language, deceitful, and mendacious,” and adds that he abused popery and the Reformers alike with unreasonable language.5 Bullinger declares that if Satan himself should come out of hell, he could use no more blasphemous language against the Trinity than this Spaniard. The Roman Catholic Bolsec, in his work on Calvin, calls Servetus “a very arrogant and insolent man,” “a monstrous heretic,” who deserved to be exterminated.
Servetus had fled to Geneva from Vienne, France; and while the trial at Geneva was in progress the Council received a message from the Catholic judges in Vienne together with a copy of the sentence of death which had been passed against him there, asking that he be sent back in order that the sentence might be executed on him as it had already been executed on his effigy and books. This request the Council refused but promised to do full justice. Servetus himself preferred to be tried in Geneva, since he could see only a burning funeral pyre for himself in Vienne. The communication from Vienne probably made the Council in Geneva more zealous for orthodoxy since they did not wish to be behind the Roman Church in that respect.
Before going to Geneva, Servetus had urged himself upon the attention of Calvin through a long series of letters. For a time Calvin replied to these in considerable detail, but finding no satisfactory results were being accomplished he ceased. Servetus, however, continued writing and his letters took on a more arrogant and even insulting tone. He regarded Calvin as the pope of orthodox Protestantism, whom he was determined to convert or overthrow. At the time Servetus came to Geneva the Libertine party, which was in opposition to Calvin, was in control of the city Council. Servetus apparently planned to join this party and thus drive Calvin out. Calvin apparently sensed this danger and was in no mood to permit Servetus to propagate his errors in Geneva. Hence he considered it his duty to make so dangerous a man harmless, and determined to bring him either to recantation or to deserved punishment. Servetus was promptly arrested and brought to trial. Calvin conducted the theological part of the trial and Servetus was convicted of fundamental heresy, falsehood and blasphemy. During the long trial Servetus became emboldened and attempted to overwhelm Calvin by pouring upon him the coarsest kind of abuse.6 The outcome of the trial was left to the civil court, which pronounced the sentence of death by fire. Calvin made an ineffectual plea that the sword be substituted for the fire; hence the final responsibility for the burning rests with the Council.
Dr. Emilé Doumergue, the author of Jean Calvin, which is beyond comparison the most exhaustive and authoritative work ever published on Calvin, has the following to say about the death of Servetus:
Calvin had Servetus arrested when he came to Geneva, and appeared as his accuser. He wanted him to be condemned to death, but not to death by burning. On August 20, 1553, Calvin wrote to Farel: “I hope that Servetus will be condemned to death, but I desire that he should be spared the cruelty of the punishment”—he means that of fire. Farel replied to him on September 8th: “I do not greatly approve that tenderness of heart,” and he goes on to warn him to be careful that “in wishing that the cruelty of the punishment of Servetus be mitigated, thou art acting as a friend towards a man who is thy greatest enemy. But I pray thee to conduct thyself in such a manner that, in future, no one will have the boldness to publish such doctrines, and to give trouble with impunity for so long a time as this man has done.”
Calvin did not, on this account, modify his own opinion, but he could not make it prevail. On October 26th he wrote again to Farel: “Tomorrow Servetus will be led out to execution. We have done our best to change the kind of death, but in vain. I shall tell thee when we meet why we had no success.” (Opera, XIV, pp. 590, 613-657).
Thus, what Calvin is most of all reproached with—the burning of Servetus—Calvin was quite opposed to. He is not responsible for it. He did what he could to save Servetus from mounting the pyre. But, what reprimands, more or less eloquent, has this pyre with its flames and smoke given rise to, made room for! The fact is that without the pyre the death of Servetus would have passed almost unnoticed.
Doumergue goes on to tell us that the death of Servetus was “the error of the time, an error for which Calvin was not particularly responsible. The sentence of condemnation to death was pronounced only after consultation with the Swiss Churches, several of which were far from being on good terms with Calvin (but all of which gave their consent) . . . Besides, the judgment was pronounced by a Council in which the inveterate enemies of Calvin, the free thinkers, were in the majority.”7
That Calvin himself rejected the responsibility is clear from his later writings. “From the time that Servetus was convicted of his heresy,” said he, “I have not uttered a word about his punishment, as all honest men will bear witness.”8 And in one of his later replies to an attack which had been made upon him, he says:
For what particular act of mine you accuse me of cruelty I am anxious to know. I myself know not that act, unless it be with reference to the death of your great master, Servetus. But that I myself earnestly entreated that he might not be put to death his judges themselves are witnesses, in the number of whom at that time two were his staunch favorites and defenders.9
Before the arrest of Servetus and during the earlier stages of the trial Calvin advocated the death penalty, basing his argument mainly on the Mosaic law, which was, “He that blasphemeth the name of Jehovah, he shall surely be put to death” (Lev. 24:16)—a law which Calvin considered as binding as the decalogue and applicable to heresy as well. Yet he left the passing of sentence wholly to the civil council. He considered Servetus the greatest enemy of the Reformation and honestly believed it to be the right and duty of the State to punish those who offended against the Church. He also felt himself providentially called to purify the Church of all corruptions, and to his dying day he never changed his views nor regretted his conduct toward Servetus.
Dr. Abraham Kuyper, the statesman-theologian from Holland, in speaking to an American audience not many years ago expressed some thoughts in this connection which are worth repeating. Said he:
The duty of the government to extirpate every form of false religion and idolatry was not a find of Calvinism, but dates from Constantine the Great and was the reaction against the horrible persecutions which his pagan predecessors on the Imperial throne had inflicted upon the sect of the Nazarene. Since that day this system had been defended by all Romish theologians and applied by all Christian princes. In the time of Luther and Calvin, it was a universal conviction that that system was the true one. Every famous theologian of the period, Melanchthon first of all, approved of the death by fire of Servetus; and the scaffold, which was erected by the Lutherans, at Leipzig for Kreel, the thorough Calvinist, was infinitely more reprehensible when looked at from a Protestant standpoint.
But whilst the Calvinists, in the age of the Reformation, yielded up themselves as martyrs, by tens of thousands, to the scaffold and the stake (those of the Lutherans and Roman Catholics being hardly worth counting), history has been guilty of the great and far-reaching unfairness of ever casting in their teeth this one execution by fire of Servetus as a crimen nefandum.
Notwithstanding all this I not only deplore that one stake, but I unconditionally disapprove of it; yet not as if it were the expression of a special characteristic of Calvinism, but on the contrary as the fatal after effect of a system, grey with age, which Calvinism found in existence, under which it had grown up, and from which it had not yet been able entirely to liberate itself.10
Hence when we view this affair in the light of the sixteenth century and consider these different aspects of the case, namely, the approval of the other reformers, a public opinion which abhorred toleration as involving indifference to truth and which justified the death penalty for obstinate heresy and blasphemy, the sentence also passed on Servetus by the Roman Catholic authorities, the character of Servetus and his attitude toward Calvin, his going to Geneva for the purpose of causing trouble, the passing of sentence by a civil court not under Calvin’s control, and Calvin’s appeal for a lighter form of punishment, we come to the conclusion that there were numerous extenuating circumstances, and that whatever else may be said, Calvin himself acted from a strict sense of duty. View him from any angle you please; paint him as Cromwell asked himself to be painted “warts and all” and, as Schaff has said, “He improves upon acquaintance.” He was, beyond all question, a man sent from God, a world shaker, such as appears only a few times in the history of the world.
- This article is excerpted from Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination (Nutley, New Jersey: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1932), pages 412-419.
- Schaff, History of the Swiss Reformation, Volume II, page 698.
- Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, Volume I, page 464.
- Schaff, Swiss Reformation, page 669.
- Schaff, ibid., Volume II, page 787.
- Reference: Schaff, ibid., page 778.
- Doumergue, article: “What Ought to be Known About Calvin,” Evangelical Quarterly, January, 1929.
- Opera, VIII., page 461.
- Calvin’s Calvinism, page 346.
- Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism, page 129
Calvin vs. Servetus,
by J. Steven Wilkins
In the year 1553 an event occurred which would forever blacken the reputation of Calvin in the eyes of an ungodly world. In that year a heretic named Michael Servetus entered Geneva after fleeing from France after being condemned for his heresy there and escaping from prison in Vienna. He was seen in the streets of Geneva and arrested on August 13. This trouble he had brought upon himself by his book which denied the existence of the Trinity as well as the practice of infant baptism. Though the former is clearly a more serious error than the latter, the latter position identified Servetus with the hated Anabaptists who had spread the revolutionary ideas of socialism and communism. Why Servetus came to Geneva is not clear though the Reformer Wolfgang Musculus wrote that he apparently thought that Geneva might be favorable to him since there was so much opposition to Calvin.
On August 21, the authorities in Geneva wrote to Vienna asking further information on Servetus. The authorities in Vienna immediately demanded his extradition to face charges there. At this the Genevan city council offered Servetus a choice: he could either be returned to Vienna or stay in Geneva and face the charges against him. Servetus, significantly, chose to remain in Geneva.
The trial began and as it progressed, it became evident that the authorities had two choices: banish Servetus or execute him. They sent to their sister cities Berne, Zurich, Schaffhausen and Basle for their counsel. The counsel from each city was the same: execute the heretic. The method of burning alive was chosen. Calvin intervened to appeal for the more quick and merciful beheading as the method of execution but the council refused and on October 26, 1553, Michael Servetus was executed.
It is strange that this incident should bring such odium upon Calvin and another example of the hatred of orthodox Christianity that it has. The facts are that mass executions were carried out in other places throughout this time. After the Peasants’ War in Germany, after the siege of Munster, during the ruthless period of Roman Catholic dominance in Elizabethan England. Even as late as 1612 the authorities in England burned two men who held views like those of Servetus at the behest of the bishops of London and Lichfield. Thirty-nine people were burned at the stake for heresy between May of 1547 and March of 1550. The 16th century was not a time of great tolerance of heresy in any place in Europe.
If one contends that Calvin was in error in agreeing with the execution of heretics then why is there not equal indignation against all the other leaders who supported and carried out and supported these measures elsewhere. None less than the honored Thomas Aquinas explicitly supported the burning of heretics saying, “If the heretic still remains pertinacious the church, despairing of his conversion, provides for the salvation of others by separating him from the church by the sentence of excommunication and then leaves him to the secular judge to be exterminated from the world by death.” (Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae q. 11 a. 3)
Furthermore, Servetus was the only individual put to death for heresy in Geneva during Calvin’s lifetime. Strange indignation it is that men focus upon this one and virtually ignore the hundreds executed in other parts of the world.
Further still, it must be remembered that Calvin’s role in this entire matter was only that of expert witness at the trial. The idea that Calvin was “the dictator of Geneva” is utterly unfounded in fact. Calvin was never allowed to become a citizen of Geneva. He was technically among the habitants — resident legal aliens who had no right to vote, no right to carry weapons, and no right to hold public office. A habitant might be a pastor or teacher if there was no Genevan citizen who was qualified for the position. This is why Calvin was allowed to be pastor of the church there. But he was always denied access to the decision-making machinery.
The only place where Calvin could have exerted significant influence was in the Consistory. But the Consistory was completely bypassed in this entire matter by the council apparently in an effort to demonstrate that they were far more concerned for holiness and purity than Calvin (and some of the people) had thought. They sought thus to shut Calvin out of this matter as much as possible.
Why then all the outrage at Calvin? Simply because of who he was and what he taught. The world can live with Romanism and Arminianism, it cannot abide the truth of the Reformed faith. For this reason Calvin and Calvinism have been the enemies of the world and will be till the world ends.
Copyright 1998, J. Steven Wilkins
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