Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Calvin and Servetus—what a contrast! The most abused men of the sixteenth century, and yet direct antipodes of each other in spirit, doctrine, and aim: the reformer and the deformer; the champion of orthodoxy and the arch heretic; the master architect of construction and the master architect of ruin, brought together in deadly conflict for rule or ruin. Both were men of brilliant genius and learning; both deadly foes of the Roman Antichrist; both enthusiasts for restoration of primitive Christianity, but with opposite views of what Christianity is.
They were of the same age, equally precocious, equally bold and independent, and relied on purely intellectual and spiritual forces. The one, while a youth of twenty-seven, wrote one of the best systems of theology and vindication of the Christian faith; the other, when scarcely above the age of twenty, ventured on the attempt to uproot the fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christendom. Both died in the prime of manhood, the one a natural, the other a violent, death.
Thus writes Schaff as he introduces a long section in his History of the Christian Church on the struggle between John Calvin and Michael Servetus.
But Schaff also writes, as he introduces his subject:
The burning of Servetus and the decretum horribile are sufficient in the judgment of the large part of the Christian world to condemn him [Calvin] and his theology, but cannot destroy the rocky foundation of his rare virtues and lasting merits…. Human greatness and purity are spotted by marks of infirmity, which forbid idolatry. Large bodies cast large shadows, and great virtues are often coupled with great vices.
Schaff is referring here to Calvin’s doctrine of reprobation and Calvin’s participation in the burning of the heretic Servetus. He is sadly mistaken in his analysis of Calvin’s theology; but his verdict on the burning of Servetus is worth examining.
In Calvin’s time there were others who, while claiming to be a part of the Reformation, denied the truth of the Trinity, as Servetus did. They sometimes attempted to engage Calvin in a debate over these questions, and sometimes used the platform of the Reformation to disseminate their views. With most of them Calvin did battle. Servetus was one of them. Servetus lived the most colorful life of them all and came in closest contact with Calvin. To Servetus we turn to discuss this particular heresy as one with which the Reformation had to deal.
Servetus was born in either 1509 or 1511 in Spain. That made him a contemporary of Calvin and about the same age. He, by his own claim, was born from nobility. Although his first inclination was to enter the ranks of the clergy in the Roman Catholic Church, his interests soon turned to law, till at least 1528, when he was about 18 years old. He was an extremely intelligent young man, with mental powers bordering on the genius. At fourteen he became the secretary of the royal chaplain, a position that gave him opportunity to travel. Although all his travels are not clearly outlined (when speaking of the details of his own life, Servetus was accustomed to change his story to meet the circumstances under which he found himself), he was in Germany with his patron, the chaplain, and may have met Luther. He may also have seen other reformers, notably Bucer and Capito in Strassburg.
It was when he was still in his teens that he began to dabble in theology, a venture which was in time to be his undoing. Although he continued to study law, he began to read and study the Bible and the writings of some of the reformers, especially Melanchthon. This study, particularly, attracted the interest of Servetus, and it gradually took the place of his preparation for a career in law.
It is never a bad thing, of course, to study the Bible. Nor is it a bad thing to study the Bible on one’s own and learn for oneself what the Bible teaches. But one must be very careful, and Servetus was not careful. He was not careful because he was a very proud man, proud to the point where it was his damnation. In studying the Scriptures, one ought, surely, to recognize the fact that, at 18 or 19 years old, he is but a novice in biblical interpretation, no matter how much intellectual ability God has given him.
But, more importantly, one ought to recognize that the Bible is God’s Word to His whole church, and that countless thousands of saints, of equal or greater ability, and frequently with greater spirituality, have also made the Bible the object of their most intent scrutiny and meditation. The fact is that we may never come to Scripture alone, but must always come as a part of the church, to which we belong with a great throng of other saints. We study Scripture in the context of the church, which has had for hundreds of years, since Pentecost, the Spirit of Christ, who leads the church into all truth. We benefit from their studies, learn at their feet, find treasures in Scripture discovered earlier by them, and thus experience in a very real way the communion of saints with those who have now joined the company of just men made perfect. Further, in our studies we subject ourselves to the preaching of the gospel, and we test our ideas with fellow saints with whom we share our faith. All this requires an attitude towards Scripture of humility and willingness to hear what God says to us.
When we go to Scripture “on our own,” we reveal a towering arrogance that will lead to heresy and ultimately hell. We despise our fellow saints, pull up our noses at people of God of earlier years, and slap the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ in the face. Who can ever learn what Scripture says while doing that? That is, however, what Servetus did. He believed he could ignore all that anyone else had ever said about Scripture, learn on his own the truth of the matter, and produce that discovery as the last word on God’s revelation. That is a pride that makes any child of God cringe.
This does not mean that Servetus did not read anything else that had been written. As a matter of fact, he became a sort of expert on the ancient church fathers and on the declarations of the councils of Nicea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon, all of which had addressed themselves to the doctrine of God. And it was precisely at that fundamental point of the Christian faith that Servetus launched his attack. He attacked the doctrine of the Trinity and ofthe divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. He criticized the church fathers and the councils that laid down the early creeds. He claimed to be the sole spokesman of original and primitive Christianity of the apostolic age. He claimed to be the reformer, rejecting by this claim all the work of the many reformers who were his contemporaries.
It was not enough that Servetus took exception to these doctrines of the Trinity and of Christ; he also had to write a book about it, a book that he entitled, Errors of the Trinity. And in this book he not only attacked the doctrines that were his main concern, but he mocked them in such blasphemous language that one shrinks from reproducing his blasphemies in print.
The book was read by many, including some of the reformers. Without exception, they not only criticized the book, but deplored it as the ravings of a religious fanatic. In fact, there was no one, either Protestant or Roman Catholic, who could be found to agree with Servetus’ writings. This seems to have sobered him a bit, and he decided, at least temporarily, to embark on another career. He took up the study of medicine. Because Servetus was a man of unusual abilities, he was successful also in this field—uncommonly so. The record of this period in his life seems to indicate, however, that his main motive was fear for his life. It was an age when both Protestants and Roman Catholics killed men for heresy. When the storm of objections against his book seemed to threaten him, he abandoned his theological aspirations to take up the work of a physician; and, as if to ensure his safety, he went under a new name: Michel de Villeneuve.
Servetus’ accomplishments were many, as he moved about France, living in different places. He became a geographer of note and wrote books on the subject; he was a scientist and astrologer; and as one skilled in medicine, he discovered the circulatory system of the human body, explaining how blood passed between the heart and the lungs and to the extremities of the body. His reputation as a physician and scientist spread throughout France.
Finally settling in Vienne, south and a bit east of Paris, he went back to his first interest: theology. Some of the events of importance are quickly described.
He challenged Calvin, who was still in France shortly after his conversion to Protestantism, to a public debate in Paris. When Calvin showed up at the designated meeting place, prepared for the debate, Servetus failed to appear.
Soon afterwards he began a long period of correspondence with Calvin, in which Servetus not only attempted to defend his views on the Trinity and the doctrine of Christ, but also began to question other articles of the Christian faith, such as justification by faith alone, the baptism of infants (showing strong leanings towards Anabap-tism), and other doctrines concerning God’s work of salvation. All this was done under his new name. Apparently he hoped to evade detection. But Calvin soon guessed who was the real man.
At first Calvin answered his letters and attempted to refute his errors and persuade him of the truth, but finally the Genevan reformer wearied of it all. Servetus would consider nothing Calvin wrote. He went his own way, railing against, openly mocking, and arrogantly blaspheming all the sacred doctrines of the church that the faithful had believed since the Council of Nicea had drawn up the Nicene Creed. In disgust and with a sense of futility Calvin refused to answer any more letters, even though he continued to be bombarded with them. Calvin did write Farel, his colleague, that if ever Servetus should show himself in Geneva, Calvin personally would see to it that he did not leave alive.
Servetus wrote another book, though anonymously, called Restitutio. It was an attempt to demonstrate that the primitive apostolic church’s views had been corrupted by the councils, and that he, Servetus, had been especially called by God to return the church to its true doctrine.
One more important event took place at this time. Servetus was arrested and imprisoned by the Roman Catholic inquisition while he was in Vienne. Servetus first of all denied that he was Servetus, claiming to be an innocent physician, Michel de Villeneuve by name. When that lie failed, he offered to retract what he had written, for he feared for his life. Some scholars claim that this trial took place at the instigation of Calvin himself, who knew that Servetus was in Vienne and knew that the Romish Church considered him as much a heretic as Protestants did. There is little evidence for this, however. Servetus’ views were as much a criticism of Roman Catholic orthodoxy as they were of Protestant teachings, but Calvin never showed any interest in letting others do what he thought ought to be done, especially not the Romish Church.
Servetus escaped from prison in Vienne, after his trial had gone on for some time. After his escape, Servetus was tried and condemned in absentia, and an effigy of him was burned, along with his books.
Servetus, after escaping, decided to flee to Italy. For some strange reason, he chose to pass through Geneva on his way to Italy. That was a decision which sealed his doom.