Calvin and the Burning of Servetus

Upon the summit of the hill Champel, about a half hour journey from Geneva, stands a stone of granite, placed there to mark the spot where Servetus, the Spaniard was burned at the stake. There on a bright summer day of October 1553, out of a thick cloud of smoke that rose from a pile of smoldering wood, strewn with sulphur, screamed the tortured man: “Jesus, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me!”—and died. In this cry we detect his blasphemy, as the reformer William Farel called to him: “Direct thy plea to the Eternal Son of God. Servetus denied the essential divinity of Christ. This pyre with its victim represented the final verdict of a bitter strife between Calvin and Servetus. “Just who was this man Servetus?” is one of three questions that will be answered in this writing, the other two being: “Was the apprehension, trial and punishment of the man also the work of Calvin?” and, “What is to be our appraisal of this affair?”

1. Servetus was perhaps one of the most remarkable men in the history of heresy. Quoting Schaff, “he was of medium size, thin and pale, like Calvin, his eyes beaming with intelligence, and an expression of melancholy and fanaticism. Owing to a physical rupture he was never married. He seems never to have had any particular friends, and stood isolated and alone.”

His mental endowments and acquirements were of a high order, and placed him far above the heretics of his age and almost on an equality with the Reformers. He was a theologian, philosopher, geographer, physician, scientist and astrologer. His discoveries, writes Schaff, have immortalized his name in the history of science. He knew Latin, Greek, Hebrew as well as Spanish, French, Italian, and was well read in the Bible, the early fathers and the schoolmen. His style is frequently obscure. He accumulates arguments to an extent that destroys their effect. He gives eight arguments to prove that the saints in heaven pray for us; ten arguments to show that Melanchthon and his friends were sorcerers, blinded by the devil; twenty arguments against infant baptism; twenty five reasons for the necessity of faith before baptism.

But Servetus was a heretic and a blasphemer. He denied and railed against the trinity. Thus he was a Socinian and Unitarian with leanings toward Pantheism. He was terribly bitter toward Calvin and frightfully abusive of him. In his notes to the council on the eighteenth of September, he over and over calls Calvin a liar, an imposter, a miserable wretch, a hypocrite, a disciple of Simon Magnus. Expressions as these occur: “Do you deny that you are a man-slayer? I will prove it by your acts. You dare not deny that you are a Simon Magnus. As for me, I am firm in so good a cause, and do not fear death. You deal with sophistical arguments without Scripture. You do not understand what you say. You howl like a blind man in the desert. You lie, you lie, you lie, you ignorant calumniator. Madness is in you when you persecute to death. I wish that all madness were still in the belly of your mother. I wish I were free to make a catalogue of all your errors. Whosoever is not a Simon Magnus is considered a Pelagian by Calvin. All therefore who are in Christendom are damned by Calvin; even the apostles, their disciples the ancient doctors of the church and all the rest. Thou best thou best, thou best, thou miserable wretch.”

In setting forth the orthodox view of the Trinity, Servetus was equally as abusive. His fundamental doctrine was the absolute unity, simplicity and indivisibility of the Being of God in opposition to the tri-personality of Orthodoxy. He calls all Trinitarians “trithiests” and “Atheists.” They have not one absolute God but a three-parted, collective, composite God, which is no God at all. They worship three idols of the demons—a three-headed monster.

2. We must read Calvin’s own letters to determine whether he had a hand in the death of this heretic and if it appears that he did, to what extent he must be held co-responsible. There is first of all to be consulted Calvin’s letter to Farel on the 26th of October, in which Calvin gives a brief summary of the result of Servetus’ trial. The letter reads: “The messenger has returned from the Swiss churches. They are unanimous in pronouncing that Servetus has now renewed those impious errors with which Satan formerly disturbed the church, and that he is a monster not to be borne. Those of Basel are judicious. The Zurichers are the most vehement of all. “They of Schaffhausen agree. To an appropriate letter from (the Bernese is added one from the Senate in which they stimulate ours not a little. Caesar the comedian (so he sarcastically called Perrin), after feigning illness for three days, at length went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch (Servetus) from punishment. Nor was he ashamed to ask that the case be referred to the council of Two Hundred. However, Servetus was without dissent condemned. He will be led forth to punishment tomorrow. We endeavored to alter the mode of his death, but in vain. Why we did not succeed, I defer for narration until I see you.”

Mark the statements: “He (Servetus) is a wretch not to be borne. . . . Caesar went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch. . . . We endeavored to alter the mode—mark you, the mode—of death, but in vain.” The attempt of Calvin was thus not to free Servetus. These expressions prove that Calvin approved and thus advised Servetus’ death. For to approve, to consent to, is certainly to advise.

Not only dissenters and personal enemies, writes Schaff, but also, as Bazel discloses, some orthodox and pious people and friends of Calvin were dissatisfied with the severity of the punishment, and feared that it would justify and encourage the Romanists in their cruel persecution of the Protestants in France and elsewhere. So under these circumstances Calvin felt it to be his duty to defend his conduct, which he did in his work against Servetus. This work contains a paragraph that reads, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.” Calvin is here writing in defense and justification of the death of Servetus.

This defense of Calvin did not altogether satisfy even some of Calvin’s best friend. Zurkinden, the state secretary of Bern, wrote Calvin Feb. 10, 1554.

Calvin’s reply reads: “I am aware that I have been more concise than usual in this treatise. However, if I should appear to have faithfully and honestly defended the true doctrine, it will more than recompense me for my (trouble. But though the candor and justice which are natural to you, as well as your love towards me, lead you to judge of me favorably, there are others who assail me harshly as a monster in cruelty and atrocity, for attacking with my pen not only a dead man, but one who perished by my hands. Some wish that I had never entered upon the subject of the punishment of heretics and say that others in like situations have held their tongues as the best way of avoiding hatred. It is well however that I have you to share my fault, if a fault it be; for you it was who advised and persuaded me to it. Prepare yourself, therefore, for the combat.”

Mark the sentence: “for attacking with my pen not only a dead man, but one who perished by my hands. . . This ought to be conclusive in the way of evidence that Calvin must be held wholly responsible for Servetus’ death. Servetus, according to Calvin’s own statement about himself, died by the hand of Calvin. Further investigation shows that the established facts are the following: 1) Calvin wished for a

capital sentence: he had intimated this as early as 1546 in his letter to Farel. 2) He informed the Council of Servetus arrival in Geneva. 3) He drew up the articles of indictment from the writings of Servetus at his own instance. 4) He maintained these when face to face with Servetus before the syndics. 5) The only power in Christendom that wished an acquittal were the Libertines. 6) Their object was the overthrow of the Reformation in Geneva. 7) The sentence of the council was grounded mainly on the political and social consequences of Servetus’ teaching. 8) Calvin labored to substitute decapitation for burning.

3. What is to be our appraisal of this doing of Calvin? Some though they deplore the transaction and the share that Calvin had in it, are nevertheless reluctant to mete out to him the just amount of condemnation. The men of Calvin’s world, they say, having just emerged from the night of ignorance and superstition of the Middle Ages, were still unaccustomed to the dazzling light of the Reformation and were thus blinded by it. They were unsteady in their going and sometimes stumbled. And Calvin was a child of his time. Attention is further called to the perverse influence brought to bear upon Calvin by his friends, by Bucer, Melanchthon, Farel, Vireit, and others. They were all along urging him to insist on the extreme penalty of death. Further, account must be taken of the madness of Servetus—his assailing with such atrocious blasphemy the persons of (the trinity, and the horror of his abuse of Calvin’s person. However, if the transaction was wrong, and if Calvin had a share in it, then he must not be exonerated on the grounds of attending extenuating circumstances, if such there were. As to Calvin’s being a child of his time, fact is that he was far ahead of his time.

If it is wrong to minimize Calvin’s guilt, if guilt he had, it is just as wrong to magnify his guilt by holding him responsible for the riotings of Servetus. And some do this. Calvin, it is said, had introduced in Geneva an order so theocratic, despotic, and destructive of personal freedom, that it is a marvel that he was hot torn in pieces by the citizenry. He ruled with an iron hand saint and sinner alike. His set-up spelled religion by constraint. His aim was to fetter the licentiousness of the godless through the institution of the church. His striving was not according to the Scriptures, it is said. His zeal was carnal. The result was that men hated him. And he had no one to blame but himself.

These statements in their totality give us a wrong picture of Calvin’s work in Geneva. It is not true that he strove to repress sin through the offices in the church. His set-up in Geneva was not, rightly considered, theocratic. His zeal was not carnal. He was no despot. But he was firm, unmovable. If he had not been, the Reformation would soon have been driven out of Geneva. Let us present the facts. We first refer to the constitution—civil and ecclesiastical—of Geneva.

The civil-constitution. First came a convention of all citizens, termed the Council-general. To obviate the confusion incident to so large an assembly, a Council of two hundred was chosen by the people, termed the Great Council. Next came the Little or Ordinary Council, consisting of twenty five members and representing the four wards of the city. This last, the Council of twenty five, was the executive, judicial, and legislative power. This constitutional machinery was summed up thus—the People, the Council, and Senate of Geneva. Such was the republic of Geneva. The people, as was said, elected the Council of Two Hundred. This was changed and the election given to the council of twenty five. Calvin was strongly opposed to the change and urged the magistrates to again allow the Two Hundred to be voted by the people. And still Calvin is accused of introducing in Geneva a despotic constitution. But with what right?

Next to the Republic was the ecclesiastical authority introduced by Calvin. It was composed of five ministers and twelve elders. It had power only over the members of the church. It could only visit sins with censure and excommunication, by which is meant expulsion from the church. Calvin would not allow a particle of civil power to the Consistory nor, rightly considered, a particle of ecclesiastical power to the civil council. Thus he grasped the distinction between things civil and things ecclesiastical and placed the two under distinct powers. In this great question he stood ahead of all his predecessors. It is thus not true that in Geneva Calvin founded a theocratic state after the pattern of the Israelitish theocracy of the Old Testament dispensation. In a (theocracy the civil power and the ecclesiastical power are one, the elder in the church is the king in the state and the king in the state is the elder in the church.

However, according to Calvin’s conception, the civil magistrate derives his power from God. The Bible, that is, the first as well as the second table of the law, is the supreme code also of the state, and thus it is the calling of the civil magistrate to punish the blasphemer as well as the murder and the thief. Yet the Romish idea that heresy is to be punished as heresy—is to be smitten by the sword, though it should exist only in the depth of one’s bosom, was not Calvin’s. He would have the heretic punished only when he promulgates his opinions to the disturbance and great hurt of society. Thus Calvin was also tolerant. And this accounts for it that even while advising Servetus’ death at the hand of the civil magistrate, he tolerated the Unitarian Socinus. This discrimination must not certainly be ascribed to Calvin’s bitterly hating Servetus on account of the latter’s abuse of his person. Calvin was the kind of a man, who would have gone through with Servetus’s case, though the latter had been his very son. Attend to these words from Calvin’s pen: ‘It is not in vain that He (God) banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that He almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of His honor, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when His glory is to be asserted, humanity must almost be obliterated from our memories.” (Quoted from Calvin’s work against Servetus). Truly, these are remarkable words, that came from one of the most remarkable saints of all time. Calvin, let it be repeated, was a god-intoxicated man. In advising Servetus’ death, he was constrained by the love of Christ and devotion to his calling. And his conviction was that he acted out of right principle. “Whoever,” wrote Calvin, “shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.”

That it is the calling of the civil magistrate to maintain both tables of the law of God, that it is thus his duty to punish also heretics, was with Calvin a vital principle of truth. It was out of this principle that he consciously acted, when he advised Servetus’ death. Did Calvin do wrong? Was he in error? He was if this principle is a lying principle. But is it? Before we condemn Calvin for advising Servetus’ death, this will first have to be proven.

Now a word about Calvin’s iron yoke with which he provided the magistracy of Geneva that the latter might impose it upon the citizenry. This yoke was Calvin’s code of morals. It forbade games of chance, oaths and blasphemies, dances, lascivious songs, farces and masquerade. Taverns had to close at nine o’clock, and everyone was to be at home at this time. All were enjoined to attend sermon. Geneva had great need of reform when Calvin arrived. They indulged here in all sorts of excesses. This then was Calvin’s theocratic state—a state founded on the principle that its rulers derive their authority from God and have the calling to enforce the whole moral law of God. At the time of Calvin’s death, the city of Geneva had become an ideal community, as all the libertines had moved out, and as their places had been taken by people of an opposite spirit who had come to the city from all over Europe.