Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
The Reformation in general, and John Calvin in particular, had to wage war not only against Rome and the errors of Rome that had plagued the church of Christ for centuries; it had also to wage war against many who left the Romish Church to join the Reformation, but who themselves proved to be heretics spouting heresies worse than anything Rome had ever taught. Calvin was constantly summoned to defend the truth of God’s Word against heretics. The worst of them all was Michael Servetus. In his almost unbelievable arrogance, he had chosen to deny that God is triune, that is, three in person and one in essence. And, in doing so, he had also denied the divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. He repudiated the ancient creeds of Nicea-Constantinople and Chalcedon, and chose to set up his own views as the primitive truth of the apostolic church.
So heretical were his views that he was arrested in Vienne, France by Roman Catholic authorities. He escaped from their clutches, and was on his way to Italy, when he decided to stop in Geneva! This was strange. It was almost a death wish, for Calvin himself had been so bothered and harassed by Servetus that he had written Farel that, should Servetus come to Geneva, Calvin would see to it that he did not leave alive. Yet, Servetus went to Geneva when there was absolutely no necessity of doing this.
Before we enter a discussion of the arrest, trial, and execution of Servetus in Geneva, it might be helpful to have some idea of his character, which at least in some respects explains his strange conduct.
We already mentioned the towering pride of Servetus. This more than anything else was his undoing. Every man who knows and loves the creedal heritage of the church knows too that the creeds are not on a par with Scripture. They are made by men, frequently in consultation with each other at synods, and they are formulated with the greatest care only after long and extensive discussion and frequently after controversy. But they are man-made.
To say that they are man-made, however, does not rob them of all their authority. Christ promised the Spirit of truth to the church, who would guide the church into all truth. This guidance of the Spirit is a work that is carried out through searching the Scriptures, discussing Scripture’s truths, defending these truths against enemies, and formulating these truths into precise theological propositions. Although the church which follows the formation of these creeds must of necessity compare them anew in every succeeding generation, the church nevertheless recognizes that they are prized possessions, special gifts of Christ’s Spirit, the fruit of intense work by great men, and born out of the thunder of the spiritual battlefield. Servetus had no interest in all this.
Schaff has an interesting description of Servetus:
Servetus … was one of the most remarkable men in the history of heresy. He was of medium size, thin and pale, like Calvin, his eyes beaming with intelligence, and an expression of melancholy and fanaticism….
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 knew Latin, Hebrew, and Greek … as well as Spanish, French, and Italian, and was well read in the Bible, the early fathers, and the schoolmen. He had an original, speculative, and acute mind, a tenacious memory, ready wit, a fiery imagination, ardent love of learning, and untiring industry…. He had much uncommon sense, but little practical common sense. He lacked balance and soundness. There was a streak of fanaticism in his brain. His eccentric genius bordered closely on the line of insanity. For “Great wits are sure to madness near allied,/ And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”
His style is frequently obscure, inelegant, abrupt, diffuse, and repetitious. 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; and sixty signs of the apocalyptic beast and the reign of Antichrist.
In thought and style he was the opposite of the clear-headed, well-balanced, methodical, logical, and thoroughly sound Calvin, who never leaves the reader in doubt as to his meaning….
He labored under the fanatical delusion that he was called by Providence to reform the Church and restore the Christian religion. He deemed himself wiser than all the fathers, schoolmen, and reformers. He supported his delusion by a fanciful interpretation of the last and darkest book of the Bible.
When it became known that Servetus was in Geneva—Servetus made no effort to keep his presence a secret—the Council ordered his arrest on the ground of public heresy and blasphemy. He was imprisoned and preparations were made for his trial.
The trial of Servetus took almost a month and a half. There were reasons for this. The Council proceeded slowly, determined to prove beyond doubt that he was guilty of the charges. During the course of the trial Servetus, in an attempt to take the offensive, charged Calvin with false doctrine and many other serious charges. Schaff gives these “specimens”:
He calls Calvin again and again a liar, an imposter, a miserable wretch, a hypocrite, a disciple of Simon Magnus, etc. Take these specimens: “Do you deny that you are a man-slayer? I will prove it by your acts. You dare not deny that you are Simon Magnus. As for me, I am firm in so good a cause, and do not fear death…. You deal with sophistic 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 your magic were still in the belly of your mother…. I wish I were free to make a catalogue of your errors. Whoever is not a Simon Magnus is considered a Pelagian by Calvin. All, therefore, who have been in Christendom are damned by Calvin; even the apostles, their disciples, the ancient doctors of the Church and all the rest. For no one ever entirely abolish free-will except that Simon Magnus. Thou liest, thou liest, thou liest, thou liest, thou miserable wretch.”
Because Servetus attacked Calvin’s teachings, Calvin himself was brought to the trial to debate with Servetus in public. This took time, and Servetus used the opportunity to load additional curses on Calvin’s head. The Council decided to write Vienne for further information. When the authorities in Vienne heard that Servetus was imprisoned in Geneva, they requested the Genevan authorities to extradite Servetus so that he could be tried there. The Council in Geneva gave Servetus a choice between being tried in Vienne by the Roman Catholics, or in Geneva by the Protestants. He chose the latter. It is difficult to know why, although it seems he thought he had a better chance of gaining his freedom from Protestant authorities than from Roman Catholic inquisitors. In addition, Calvin was at this time embroiled in controversy with the Libertines in the city of Geneva. These Libertines were ancient families in Geneva who had long ruled the city and who resented the influx of refugees from all over Europe and the change to Protestantism. They were desperately fighting for control of the city and were literally persecuting Calvin. Servetus was friendly with these Libertines and hoped that they might gain control of the rule of the city and secure his freedom.
In any case, the Council also decided to consult four other cantons in Switzerland, much as they had done in the case of Jerome Bolsec (see earlier articles). They contacted Bern, Zurich, Basel, and Schaffhausen, all of which, unanimously and without hesitation, condemned him.
It was at this point that Servetus filed formal charges of heresy against Calvin in the hopes that his countersuit would delay his sentence yet longer. But the Council would have none of it, and Servetus was found guilty of heresy, blasphemy, and public dissemination of dangerous denials of Scripture. He was sentenced to be burned at the stake.
Calvin tried to get the Council to execute Servetus by beheading, a less painful and less cruel death; but the Council refused. Both Calvin and Farel pleaded with Servetus to retract his heresies and sins, but to no avail. He was adamant, although he begged for mercy.
The heresy of Servetus ended in a conflagration.
Servetus’ heresies were many. He, for example, tended strongly to a mystical pantheism, a heresy which deifies the creation and identifies it with God. He denied infant baptism and mocked the practice. But his chief heresies struck at the very foundation of all the Christian faith: the doctrines of the Trinity and the absolute divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ. He taught a vague Sabellianism, in which he made the three persons of the divine Trinity three different manifestations of one divine being. In doing so, he also had to repudiate the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, true God of true God—to use the well-chosen words of Nicea. That the heresies had been taught early in the history of the church and strongly repudiated by the church meant nothing to him. He brushed it all aside with a wave of the hand.
Not only did Servetus fiercely attack these doctrines, but he was guilty also of the terrible sin of blasphemy. He defined the doctrine of the Trinity as confessed by the orthodox in such terrible terms and with such blasphemous language that I cannot bring myself to print his words.
His heresies were recognized as such by all Christendom. Roman Catholics and Protestants, professors in Europe’s universities and common folk on the street, old and young, without dissenters, condemned his views and viewed him as a heretic and blasphemer of the worst sort. But nothing deterred him. He is the father of all post-Reformation Unitarianism and liberal denials of the divinity of our Lord.
Though Calvin did not play a decisive role in the burning of Servetus, nevertheless Calvin’s name will always be associated with that funeral pyre outside Geneva. Even Schaff calls it a dark blot on Calvin’s name. All condemn Calvin for his part in the drama that ended so tragically. Enemies of Calvin gleefully latch onto this event as proof of Calvin’s innate cruelty, and some even are so bold as to trace this condemnation and burning of Servetus to Calvin’s theology. Sometimes, when one reads the stories, one gets the impression that Calvin was almost exclusively responsible for the execution of this heretic. A statue of Servetus has been set up in Geneva as a kind of confession of guilt on the part of Protestantism.
The suppression of heresy by fire and sword is always wrong. This is true when the church executes heretics; but even the State may not engage in such activities. The power of salvation lies not in the sword, but in the work of the Holy Spirit, who works where and how He wills through the preaching of the gospel. The sword cannot do what the gospel does. Those who rely on the sword to promote truth err. Rome did that for centuries, and would do it again if given the chance. The Reformed have come to understand that they who fight with the sword perish with the sword—also in efforts to suppress heresy.
Nevertheless, the burning of Servetus must be understood in its context. Though the act cannot be excused or condoned, it can be properly understood.
Some accuse Calvin of being no better than Roman Catholics in this regard. But let it be noted that Calvin once, only once, gave approval for the burning of a heretic—although he did not publicly object when, in other parts of Switzerland, a few Anabaptists were being imprisoned and drowned. Rome’s murders are legion. The blood that was shed by the Inquisition over nearly 500 years is a river engulfing all Europe. Insofar as Protestantism has been guilty of similar crimes, though on a far lesser scale, Protestantism has abandoned the policy and seen the wrong of it. Rome would once again kill “heretics,” if the opportunities were there and the “climate” right.
It must not be forgotten that Servetus’ heresies were dreadful. He directly corrupted the truth of God Himself in His own person and being. And he did this not only by denials of the truth, but by blasphemies too terrible to print and by public dissemination of his views in an effort to persuade the multitudes of his views. Let no one use the crime of the burning of Servetus to soften the horror of his heresies.
All Europe agreed with Geneva’s sentence. There was no dissenting voice. Roman Catholics and Protestants, Reformers and laity, kings and rulers, professors and pupils—all agreed that Servetus justly received what he deserved.
That there was unanimity on this question is, of course, due to the fact that all Europe agreed that it was the solemn duty of the civil magistrate to “promote the true religion” by the suppression of heresy as well as by positive policies. The Council in Geneva was doing what the church and the states in Europe had done for hundreds of years. The dawn of a new day had not come. It was not far off, but it would be some time before the church as well as the state saw that each man must himself answer to God for the things he holds to be truth. The church must exercise the keys of the kingdom; but these keys are spiritual. The state must use the sword, but not to kill heretics. Policies that were painfully learned were slow in being put into practice. And yet today the lessons are not learned. The state, piously proclaiming the separation between church and state, promotes its own agenda, proclaiming evolutionism and favoring abortion and homosexuality. Liberal theologians, most gleeful in pointing to this error of the Genevan Reformer, will be the very ones who turn in fury against the true church and against those who confess the faith. They will be the first to wield the sword once again, but this time against the people of God. The “tolerant” are the most intolerant on questions of the truth. The “peaceniks” are the most warlike against those who oppose them. The opponents of forceful promotion of the true religion are the most violent against the truth. These days are near.
But let us never allow Calvin’s mistake to obscure the evil of Servetus’ blasphemy.