This week, October 27, marks the 470th anniversary of the execution of Michael Servetus for the crime of heresy.
Given that this occurred within Geneva, the home of the Reformer, John Calvin, with his knowledge and consent, many have perceived this incident as a mark against Calvin’s life and ministry. To some, the execution of Servetus is evidence that Calvin systematically stalked and slaughtered any person who dared oppose him. He was a theological tyrant and thus an untrustworthy teacher. But this picture of Calvin is not accurate; it represents a gross caricature of the truth.
But, what is the truth? While an overview of the life and ministry of Calvin extends well beyond the purview of this blog, we will focus explicitly on what has been called “the Servetus affair.” Before harshly judging Calvin a pitiless persecutor, let us first pursue due process and hear the facts of the case. The following are helpful evidences to be admitted:
1. Heresy was a capital crime in Geneva. Unlike the modern, Western separation of church and state, the world Calvin inhabited was one in which no such division existed. To be guilty of theological error was to be guilty of criminal offense. Far from being unique, this political system existed as the norm for the vast majority of the world. As a result, there was rather universal approval of the execution among all who were consulted, both Protestant and Catholic. Think about the implications of this for a second. If the execution of Servetus necessarily disqualifies Calvin, then it also necessarily disqualifies nearly the entirety of Protestant and Catholic leaders of the day. Even if we find that we disagree with the execution (after considering the evidence fully), we shouldn’t lazily dismiss Calvin as if he were somehow unique in his approval.
2. The buck didn’t stop with Calvin. In fact, Calvin was not the ultimate authority in Geneva (he certainly was no dictator as he is often portrayed by the misinformed). Instead, the magisterial council formally decided the case and actually opposed Calvin (who was not a citizen of Geneva) and sought to use the trial to demonstrate their authority over him. Calvin’s actual authority to save or condemn Servetus went only so far as his consent to the council’s decree. Those familiar with Calvin’s life may even recall that at one point the council demonstrated its authority over him by removing him from his post and forcing him to leave Geneva for a prolonged season.
3. Servetus was not condemned for Arminianism (the rejection of “Calvinism”), but for Pelagianism (the denial of original sin), Modalism (an anti-Trinitarian heresy), Pantheism (a rejection of the fundamental distinction between Creator and creation) and other serious theological errors. Far from merely questioning the fundamentals of the faith, he was vehement in his opposition as was evident in his reportedly calling the trinity “the three-headed hound of hell.” To read most internet sensationalism, Calvin opposed anyone who challenged Calvinism. In truth, he opposed those who opposed the gospel.
4. Nearly two decades earlier, Servetus had asked Calvin to leave the safety of Geneva to discuss their differences. Though Calvin was wanted by the authorities in the area in which they were to meet, he went at the risk of his own life to reconcile Servetus to the truth of the gospel. But, Servetus never showed.
5. Calvin corresponded with Servetus before and during his imprisonment, imploring him to recant. One letter read, “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.” Reflecting later, Calvin wrote, “I reminded him gently how I had risked my life more than sixteen years before to gain him for our saviour. I would faithfully do my best to reconcile him to all good servants of God. Although he had avoided the contest I had never ceased to remonstrate kindly with him in letters. In a word, I had used all humanity to the very end, until he being embittered by my good advice hurled all manner of rage and anger against me.”
6. Calvin visited Servetus in prison and prayed with and for him. J.I. Packer stated, “Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode.”7. As Bruce Gordon has written, “Heresy was a capital offense, but Calvin did not want Servetus to die.” Even when the council ordered execution by burning at the stake, Calvin alone intervened to appeal for a more merciful beheading. The council refused.
Of Calvin’s role in the Servetus affair, the historian Paul Henry wrote:
“…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.”
While we may or may not agree that Calvin is completely exonerated from all criticism in the case, the actual circumstances should greatly temper the accusations often leveled at him.
Calvin and the leading reformers of his day approved the death of a heretic. But does this possible blemish invalidate the whole of their teaching?
Do David’s actions regarding Bathsheba and Uriah nullify the Psalms? Does Peter’s cowardice and prejudice negate his epistles? Does the fact that Paul approved of the death of Christians means we can just throw out most of the New Testament?
There is only One who has ever perfectly passed the litmus test of character; such unfortunate failures and flaws in His people highlight all the more the love of God in lavishing such grace on such dreadful sinners as us.Years later, on the verge of death, Calvin wrote, “With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which [God] has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance. . . I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain. . . For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust to no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner.”
- A balanced panel discussion can be found here.
- Calvin by Bruce Gordon contains an entire chapter devoted to the circumstances surrounding Servetus.
- The Legacy of Sovereign Joy by John Piper contains an appendix entitled “Calvin’s Barbaric World – The Case of Michael Servetus”.