S. D. V. of Grand Rapids, Mich., sent me the following communication.
In The Standard Bearer for Feb. 1, 1939, the Rev. Ophoff writes, “Think finally of Calvin himself who approved of the death of Servetus.”
In Calvin’s Calvinism, p. 15, I read, “It was a false report that Calvin was the adviser that Servetus should be put to death.” It was most solemnly denied. On p. 20 we find the same statement. Will you please be so kind as to explain.
Explanation. I take it that what the brother asks me to do is to explain how that there can be this conflict between my report and that of the above-named work concerning Calvin’s attitude toward the infliction of the death penalty upon the heretic Servetus. There is but one explanation: either the source from which I drew or the source from which the author of Calvin’s Calvinism drew is corrupt. Now my source was Calvin’s own letters which he wrote to his friends and which I possess in Schaff’s “History of the Christian Church.” I consider my source therefore as coming pretty close to being absolutely reliable. It is thus a conundrum to me how the author of Calvin’s Calvinism could have informed his readers that the report to the effect that Servetus was put to death on the advice of Calvin has turned out to be a false rumor. If this is true Calvin’s letters are fictitious. Though it is, of course, possible that they are this, it is not very likely. Though I wrote not that Calvin advised but that he approved of Servetus’ death, there is not that difference in meaning between these two words that will allow us to say that there is no conflict here.
Let me now quote from Calvin’s letter to Farel on the 26th of October, in which Calvin gives a brief summary of the result of Servetus’ trial, “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. (Mark the statement, “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, Schaff) after feigning illness for three days, at length went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch [Servetus] (mark the expression, “in order to free the wretch”) from punishment. Nor was he ashamed to ask that the case be referred to the Council of the 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 finally the sentence, “we (namely Calvin) endeavored to alter the mode of his death, but in vain.” Thus it was not the death of Servetus that Calvin tried to avert, but simply the mode of his death. Servetus was sentenced to die by fire. Calvin wished to substitute the sword for the fire; but the wish was overruled.
The expressions in Calvin’s letter which I marked are certainly conclusive evidence that Calvin approved (approved was the word I used) Servetus’ death. Whether Calvin literally advised Servetus’ death, this letter of his does not shew. But this was not my contention. But even though Calvin had not in the literal sense advised, it shall have to be admitted that through his approving he did advise. There is, to be sure, little actual difference between approving of the death of a tried one, and advising that death.
Not only dissenters and personal enemies, writes Schaff, but also, as Beza admits, some orthodox and pious people and friends of Calvin were dissatisfied with the severity of the punishment, and feared, not without reason, that it would justify and encourage the Romanists in their cruel persecution of 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. In this work we come upon 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. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for the Church. It is not in vain that He 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 be almost obliterated from our memories.”
It is to be considered that in the above excerpt Calvin is writing in justification of the death of Servetus. The above-cited language is a defense of this death. Now defense, certainly, is approval, and to approve is essentially to advise.
Calvin’s defense did not altogether satisfy even some of his best friends, writes Schaff. Zurkinden, the state secretary of Bern, wrote Calvin Feb. 10, 1554: “I wish the former part of your book, respecting the right which the magistrates may have to use the sword in coercing heretics had not appeared in your name, but in that of your council, which might have been left to defend its own act. I do not see how you can find any favor with men of sedate mind in being the first formally to treat this subject, which is a hateful one to almost all.”
So wrote this friend to Calvin. He seemed to have been unmindful of the fact that Calvin was a God-intoxicated man, and that such a man cannot be deterred from doing what he conceives to be a duty toward God by the circumstance that this duty is hateful to men.
Also Bullinger wrote his objections, “I only fear that your book will not be so acceptable to many of the more simple-minded persons, who, nevertheless, are attached both to yourself and to the truth, by reason of its brevity and consequent obscurity, and the weightiness of the subject. And, indeed, your style appears somewhat perplexed, especially in this work.” This friend, too, feared the reaction of men.
Calvin’s reply reads (April 29, 1554): “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 master in cruelty and atrocity, for attacking with my pen not only a dead man, but one who perished by my hands. Some, even not self-disposed toward me, wish that I had never entered on 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.”
Who was this man Servetus?
Calvin repeatedly acknowledges that he was responsible for Servetus’ arrest. “Servetus,” he wrote to a friend in Basel, “escaped from prison in some way or other. . . . At length, in an evil hour, he came to this place, when, at my instigation, one of the Syndics ordered him to be conducted to prison; for I do not disguise it that I considered it my duty to put a check, so far as I could, upon this most obstinate and ungovernable man, that his contagion might not spread further. We see with what wantonness unpiety is making progress everywhere, . . . .we see how very inactive those are whom God has armed with the sword for the vindication of His name.”
But Calvin denies that he uttered a word about Servetus’ punishment. I quote, “I have not uttered a word about his punishment, as all honest men will bear witness, and I challenge even the malignant to deny it if they can.”
Of course, this testimony of Calvin we accept as true. But the fact of the matter is that, according to his own statements, he had Servetus apprehended by the civil magistrate at Geneva. This magistracy, aware of Calvin’s view to the effect that it is the solemn duty of the state (and not of the church. The duty of the church, according to Calvin, is to convict and denounce the heretic theologically) to condemn and to punish heretics, tried, condemned, and punished with death.
Servetus and, as was shown, Calvin approved and through his approving advised.
He 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 theologian, philosopher, geographer, physician, scientist, and astrologer. His discoveries, writes Schaff, have immortalized his name in the history of science. He knew Latin, Hebrew, Greek as well as Spanish, French, and 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.
Servetus was a heretic and a blasphemer. He desired and railed against the Trinity. Thus he was a Socinian and Unitarian with leanings toward Pantheism.
In his notes to the Council on the 18th of Sept., 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 a desert. You lie, you lie, you lie, you ignorant calumniator. Madness is in you when you persecute to death. I wish that all your madness 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 abolished free-will except that Simon Magnus. Thou liest, thou liest, thou liest, thou miserable wretch.”
In setting forth his view of the Divine Being, 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 “tritheists” and “atheist.” They have not one absolute God but a three-parted, collective, composite God—that an unthinkable, impossible God, which is no God at all. They worship three idols of the demons,—a three-headed monster.
Let us now raise the question whether Calvin did right. His action is universally condemned by the men of this age and by many of his own. But we observe that it is a question whether Calvin did wrong. Why should not the blasphemer be punished as well as the thief and the murderer?
A final remark. It may be that in saying that the report to the effect that Calvin advised the death of Servetus has turned out to be a false rumor, the author of this statement had reference to Calvin’s assertion that he had not uttered a word about Servetus’ punishment. However, in the light of our findings, this statement of Calvin has little meaning. It certainly cannot be quoted to prove that the report to the effect that Calvin approved, and made it known through various acts of his (such as his instigating the magistracy of Geneva to apprehend Servetus, and further his request that only the mode of putting Servetus to death be changed) that he approved and thus virtually advised Servetus’ death, has turned out to be false.