Calvin and the Burning of Servetus

The name of Michael Servetus is best known, by friend and foe of Calvinism, not for his intellectual prowess and scientific accomplishments, nor even for the diabolical heresies which he fathered and propagated, but for his execution near Geneva at the hand, more or less, of our own illustrious John Calvin. For four centuries now the latter’s disciples have been apologizing for this affair and struggling to present it in the best possible light, ― more, perhaps, than the facts in the case call for. During the same time his enemies have been pointing to this incident, with relish, to demonstrate Calvin’s monstrous character and doctrine and to cast a dark shadow on the memory of this man of God. 

It may be well that we be reminded at once of the fact, that had Servetus not escaped from prison, under strange circumstances, this same execution would have taken place only months before in Vienne, France, at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. As it was he was sentenced to death and, since the man himself had eluded them, burned in effigy. The Roman Catholic Church, therefore, would not want to cast the first stone at Calvin. 

That Servetus was a heretic of the worst sort, one who ridiculed and viciously attacked some of the most fundamental doctrines of our historic Christian faith, is beyond question. His denial of original sin, infant baptism, predestination, sovereign grace and many other doctrines merely belonged to his lesser evils. His most vicious and shameless attacks were reserved for the blessed and most vital truth of the Holy Trinity. God is not three Persons in one divine Essence. That only makes Him a three-headed monster. Christ and the Holy Spirit were not divine persons. Jesus was a mere man, not the eternal Son of God. The son of the eternal God, yes! So are we all. The eternal Son of God, no! While the flames are beating about his body we hear him cry out, “Jesus, thou son of the eternal God, have mercy on me!” Even in that late hour Farel wanted him to say: “Eternal Son of God.” Rather than do so, he died on the stake. The Holy Spirit is not a divine person either; only the power and influence of the one-personal God. All Trinitarians are simply “tritheists and atheists.” Their God is a three-parted, divided, composite God, Who is no God at all ― merely three idols of Satan. He could not have been a greater blasphemer. 

What are some of the facts in the case? Who was Michael Servetus and what, in brief, was his history? For some of the data I am indebted to Thea B. Van Halsema, whose recent publication, “This Was John Calvin” I would like to recommend for your instruction and edification. Written in popular and fascinating style, you will find it most interesting and informative. 

Michael Servetus was not unlike Calvin in several respects. Like Calvin, he was a man of medium size, thin and pale. Like Calvin he was the son of a notary, the brother of a priest, student of law and of theology as well. Like Calvin, Servetus too was a brilliant scholar and highly educated, far ahead of the age wherein he lived. He was a theologian, philosopher, geographer, physician, scientist, astronomer and astrologer, ―and more or less he excelled in all. He is still known today for his research and conclusions in the field of the circulation of the blood. He had a broad knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew and spoke Spanish, French and Italian fluently. In addition, he was highly familiar with the Bible and the writings of the church fathers. In short, Servetus was a most formidable adversary. 

Servetus was born in the year 1511 at Trudela, in Navarre, Spain, but spent little of his life in his own native land. At the early age of 18 he already came to the beliefs that later cost him his life. At the age of 20 Servetus published his first book, wherein he set forth the heresies enumerated above. The Protestant leaders considered this book one piece of blasphemy and Luther, Melanchthon, Bullinger, Zwingli, etc. all opposed it. So did the Roman Catholic Church and the Supreme Council of the Spanish Inquisition ordered the heretic returned to Spain for trial and inevitable execution. Servetus was at a loss to know what to do. The whole world was against him. Finally, however, the difficulty was resolved by the simple device of changing his name to Michel de Villanovenus, after the town of his birth, Villaneuve. For the next several years he lived in peace in the French town of Vienne. He edited books on various subjects; labored and lectured extensively; practiced medicine and contributed significantly to medical science. No one suspected who this model citizen, “devout” Catholic and brilliant scholar really was. 

Finally and inevitably, however, his true identity came to light. At Vienne Servetus wrote another book. He was now approaching the age of 35. In this book he reiterated all his previous heresies and maintained that all Christianity which existed previously was corrupt, that the Reformation was unchristian, and that all who differed from his views were damned. For some reason he sent a manuscript to John Calvin. Perhaps this was intended as an act of defiance. The two had corresponded much during that period, but the attitude of Servetus was consistently hostile and insulting. What Calvin thought of this forthcoming book is evident from this excerpt from a letter to his friend Farel, “Servetus has just sent me, together with his letter, a long volume of his ravings. If I, consent, he will come here, but I will not give my word, for should he come, if my authority is of any avail, I will not suffer him to get out alive.” Six years later this book was published under the initials M.S.V. (Michel Servetus Villanovenus). 

To make a rather long story short, the true identity of this so-called Villanovenus finally became known to the Roman Catholic Church. He was arrested and condemned. In April 1553 he was imprisoned to await his sentence. Servetus, however, escaped. It might be more accurate to say that he was permitted to escape to guard the archbishop and other noted friends in the Catholic Church against further embarrassment, since these had for years been his dear friends. In spite of his escape, however, the city court of Vienne sentenced Servetus to death and burned him in effigy. 

Four months later the heretic made his appearance in Geneva, the city where Calvin lived and labored. Just what it was that induced him to go there no one knows. Perhaps it was because he had heard that Calvin was having his troubles in Geneva and that his foes were working for his expulsion. Perhaps it was because he hoped to find support for his heresies among the Libertines of that city. Perhaps it was out of sheer curiosity. 

This turned out to be his fatal mistake. Arriving at Geneva on a Sunday, Servetus too attended church, the church where Calvin was the preacher. The latter was advised of the heretic’s presence and at once requested the council to arrest him. Calvin himself drew up a document of 38 accusations, which he presented to the Little Council of Geneva, before which the heresy trial took place, and which he defended with all his tremendous power and conviction. After some two and a half months of argumentation, and with no little difficulty, Servetus was finally condemned and sentenced to death by burning. Calvin pleaded with the Little Council to substitute beheading for burning, but to no avail. Also, he visited the heretic in his cell and begged him to repent. This, too, was to no avail. On the 27th of October, 1553, Michael Servetus died on the stake. 

What shall we say about all this ? In our answer to this question we must seek to be honest. We may not make Calvin less guilty than he was. By the same token, we may not make him more guilty than he was. If it is wrong to minimize, it is no less wrong to exaggerate. That Calvin took an extremely active part in the trial of Servetus, no one should want to deny. Consumed with zeal for the house of God and the cause of His truth, it was he who requested the council to arrest Servetus, who drew up the articles of indictment from the heretic’s own writings, and who defended these accusations when he faced his adversary before the Genevan court. 

That Calvin favored and hoped for a death sentence is another fact that cannot well be denied. It is true that he pleaded for decapitation rather than the torturous death of the stake, but this only proves that he agreed with the penalty as such. In a book written to defend his conduct in the case of Michael Servetus we find these words from the pen of Calvin: “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.” For this, then, Calvin will have to be held responsible, even though this implies responsibility for not being farther ahead of his own age than he already was. If there were no more, this would be sufficient to justify the monument now standing on the spot where Servetus was burned, bearing this inscription: “As reverent and grateful sons of Calvin, our great Reformer, repudiating his mistake, which was the mistake of his age, and according to the true principles of the Reformation and the Gospel, holding fast to freedom of conscience, we erect this monument of reconciliation on this 27th of October, 1903.” That date marked the 350th anniversary of this tragic incident. 

However, that Calvin “ordered” the death penalty, as the World Book Encyclopedia tells us, may be more than anyone is able to prove. It is most doubtful that Calvin’s influence in Geneva at the time of Servetus death was equal to the giving of such an order on his part. It was not great enough to change the form of death from burning to beheading. Is it likely, then, that it was great enough to order the death sentence itself? There was a time when Calvin’s power in Geneva was virtually unlimited. At the time of the trial and conviction of Servetus this was by no means the case. He found himself in the throes of a great struggle against the Libertines. There were many in the Little Council, the court that had the fate of the heretic in its hands, that hated Calvin and were sympathetic toward Servetus. In fact, it seemed entirely possible that Servetus would be freed to propagate his damnable heresies at will. All this was plainly reflected, too, in the attitude of Servetus himself. In spite of being confined to a filthy prison, his spirits were high. When offered the choice of returning to Vienne for trial or remaining in Geneva he did not hesitate to choose the latter, relying as he did on the support of the Libertines. He became so bold and defiant as to demand that Calvin himself be tried for heresy and that his possessions be confiscated and given to him. 

What finally turned the tide against Servetus was the decision of the Little Council to seek advice from the churches and councils of other Swiss cities. This action was taken contrary to the advice of Calvin and in the hope and expectation that the replies of these cities would be mild enough to enable them to free Servetus. However, what was intended to help the heretic actually proved to be his undoing. One church and council after another condemned Servetus and insisted that his blasphemies should be stopped. In our city, replied Berne, the penalty would be death by fire. This handcuffed the Little Council and they saw no other course open to them than to pass the sentence of death. 

What remains, therefore, is Calvin active part in the trial of Servetus and his acquiescence to the death sentence. And what shall we say about this? 

Looking back from our 20th century vantage point we could wish this incident had never taken place, and that the great Reformer had been even farther ahead of his age than he already was. Hindsight is always so much better than foresight. However, certain things should not be forgotten. . Other Protestant leaders also approved the death sentence for heretics like Servetus, even a man as mild-mannered as Melanchthon, who wrote: “The church of Christ will be grateful to you. Your government has proceeded in the death of this blasphemer according to all laws.” Calvin lived in a different day than ours, a day when men were of the unalterable conviction that heretics and others should be prosecuted by law, even unto death. Some were banished from the cities in where they lived. Others were imprisoned or punished in other ways. The Libertine, Jacob Gruet, who wrote that all Christendom was a fable, that Christ was only a deceiver, and that heaven and hell were but figments of the imagination, was beheaded in 1547. Another was banished for denying Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. And so it went in those days. With this Calvin was agreed. He did not believe in state rule over the church; nor did he believe in the rule of the church over the state. But he did believe that the magistrate had the calling to enforce the first table of the law as well as the second, and he did believe that those who propagated damnable heresies and thereby would lead whole masses astray should be punished to the fullest extent. Remember, too, that Servetus himself maintained this same principle. He sought to have Calvin imprisoned for heresy “until the trial be decided by his death or mine.” Remember above all, that Calvin was a man, who fought like a lion for the cause of his God and labored without consideration of gain or personal safety for the truth he loved. What the Rev. Ophoff wrote in one of his articles is so true: “Calvin was the kind of a man, who would have gone through with Servetus’ case, though the latter had been his very son.”