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Calvin and Servetus

Calvin and Servetus
(excerpt from "The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination" 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." (1)

      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 indorsed 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," (p. 669). 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. (2) 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. (3) Bullinger declares that if Satan himself should come out of hell, fie 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 bad 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. (4) 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." (5)

      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." (6) 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. (7)

      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. fie 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 aftereffect 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. (8)

      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.


1 History of the Swiss Reformation, II, p. 698.
2 The Creeds of Christendom, I., p. 464.
3 The Swiss Reformation, II., p. 787.
4 See Schaff, The Swiss Reformation, II., p. 778.
5 Doumergue, Article. What Ought to be Known About Calvin, in the Evangelical Quarterly, Jan. 1929.
6 Opera, VIII., p. 461.
7 Calvin's Calvinism, p. 346.
8 Lectures on Calvinism, p. 129