John Calvin and the execution of Servetus

John Calvin – we Jews know what we’re talking about – is the greatest theologian since Augustine. Much drivel has been written about Calvinism. Most people, including most Christians, have an abysmal knowledge or understanding of the profound biblical principle that God so loved the world, not Mars, that he elects to save only those on whom he has mercy.

Then there’s Servetus. Calvin, you murderer, you. Why did you chop off his head, or was it burn? If you want to understand the Servetus episode (who does?) you could benefit – if you put on, as Calvin would say about understanding scripture, the right specs – from these excerpts from the “Memoirs of the life and writings of John Calvin; compiled from the narrative of Theodore Beza, and other authentic documents. Accompanied with biographical sketches of the Reformation” by Mackenzie, John, of Huntingdon, 1809.

The history of Servetus, so often referred to, and so little understood, merits the minute attention of all who are sufficiently impartial to weigh the opposing interests and circumstances which mark this tragical transaction. The blemishes, real or pretended, of the reformer, having been maliciously employed to discredit the reformation itself, heit becomes of no small importance to elucidate this point of history, and to clear Calvin from the injurious imputations which have been falsely thrown upon him.
It has been confidently pretended, and boldly asserted, that Calvin had, through life, nourished an implacable hatred against Servetus, and that the Genevese theologian had employed all his efforts to satiate it in the blood of the unhappy Spaniard; that he denounced him to the magistrates of Vienna, and occasioned him to be arrested on the day after his arrival at Geneva. Things advanced with an air of confidence are readily believed, and it is scarcely suspected that they may be false. Bolzec, however, the mortal enemy of Calvin, who wrote the life of that illustrious man merely to blast his memory, and who was cotemporary with the facts which he relates; and Maimbourg, equally known by his partialities and his falsehoods, have never dared to advance those things which modern historians have not been ashamed to risk.

The principal accusations exhibited against Servetus were, First, his having asserted in his Ptolémée, that the Bible celebrated improperly the fertility of the land of Canaan, whilst it was unfruitful and barren. Secondly, his having called one God in three persons a Cerberus, a three-headed monster. LANE CRAIG. Thirdly, his having taught that God was all, and that all was God. Servetus did not deny the truth of the principal accusations, but
whilst in prison called the Trinity a Cerberus, a three-headed monster; he also grossly insulted Calvin, and was so fearful that death would be the punishment of heresy at Geneva, as well as at other places, that he presented a petition on the 22d of August, in which he defended the cause of ignorance, and urged the necessity of toleration: the procureur-general replied to him in about eight days, and no doubt did it very ill. Servetus was condemned upon extracts from his books, De Trinitatis Erroribus, and In Ptolemeum Commentarius; from the edition of the Bible which he had published in 1552; from his book Restitutio Christianismi; and from a letter which he had written to Abel Paupin, a minster of Geneva.*

* A copy of the sentence pronounced against Servetus will not be uninteresting to the reader. “We Syndics, judges of all criminal causes in this city, having witnessed the process made and instituted against you, on the part of our lieutenant in the aforesaid causes, instituted against you, Michel de Villeneuve, in the kingdom of Arragon, in Spain, in which your voluntary confessions in our hands, made and often reiterated, and the books before us produced, plainly shew that you, Servetus, have published false and heretical doctrines; and also despising all remonstrances and corrections, have, with a perverse inclination, sown and divulged them in a book published against God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; in sum against all the true foundations of the Christian Religion, and have thereby tried to introduce trouble and schism into the Church of God, by which many souls may have been ruined and lost, things horrible, frightful, scandalous, and infectious, and have not been ashamed to set yourself in array against the Divine Majesty and the Holy Trinity; but rather have obstinately employed yourself in infecting the world with your heresies and stinking heretical poison; a case and crime of heresy grievous and detestable, and deserving of corporal punishment. For these and other just reasons moving us, and being desirous to purge the Church of God from such infection, and to cut off from it so rotten a member, having had good participation of counsel with our citizens, and having invoked the name of God that we may make a right judgment, sitting upon the tribunal of our predecessors, having God and the Holy Scriptures before our eyes, saying in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, by that definitive sentence, which we here give by this writing, you, Michael Servetus, are condemned to be bound and led to Champel, and there fastened to a stake and burned alive with your book written with your hand, and printed, until your body shall be reduced to ashes, and your days thus finished as an example to others who might commit the same things; and we command you our lieutenant to put this our sentence into execution. Read by the seigneur syndic D’Arlord.”

It must be confessed, that the intolerant spirit of the age dictated the sentence of Servetus at Geneva; but, it is not equally evident that Calvin was the author of that atrocity, and that he laboured with ardour to accomplish it.

On the 27th of October, Servetus was condemned to be executed. It Hzhappened same day.

The civil and ecclesiastical jurisprudence of the tribunals with respect to heresy, was undoubtedly grossly inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity, and the principles of equity. But if we could transport ourselves into that age, and contemplate the circumstances in which Calvin was placed, divesting our minds of prejudice, we should no doubt perceive that the sentence was that of the civil judges, and that they strictly followed the ordinary course of the law; that Calvin followed the judgment of all the ecclesiastics of his time, and complied with the sanguinary laws of every country in Europe against heretics.
It cannot, however, be denied, that in this instance Calvin acted contrary to the benignant spirit of the gospel. It is better to drop a tear over the inconsistency of human nature, and to bewail those infirmities which cannot be justified. He declares that he acted conscientiously, and publicly justified the act. Cranmer acted the same part towards the poor Anabaptists in the reign of Edward VI. This doctrine they had learnt at Rome, and it is certain, that, with a very few exceptions, it was at this time the opinion of all parties.* The apostles John and James would have called down fire from heaven; Calvin and Cranmer kindled it on earth. This, however, is the only fault alledged against Calvin; but, “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone.”
“It ought, however,” says a sensible writer, “to be acknowledged, that, persecution for religious principles was not at that time peculiar to any party of Christians, but common to all, whenever they were invested with civil power. It was a detestable error; but it was the error of the age. They looked upon heresy in the same light as we look upon those crimes
which are inimical to the peace of civil society; and, accordingly, proceed to punish heretics by the sword of the civil magistrate. If Socinians did not persecute their adversaries so much as Trinitarians, it was because they were not equally invested with the power of doing so.

It was the opinion that erroneous religious principles are punishable by the civil magistrate, that did the mischief, whether at Geneva, in Transylvania, or in Britain; and to this, rather than to Trinitarianism or to Unitarianism, it ought to be imputed.*

2 thoughts on “John Calvin and the execution of Servetus

  1. Insightful. I found it interesting that the enemies of Calvin didn’t attribute some of the nasty things people today have said against Calvin concerning Servetus

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