Humble Calvinism – Part 7

Posted: November 20, 2010 in calvinism, humility, theology

See Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, and Part 6.

The Execution of Michael Servetus

Before concluding, it would be beneficial to comment on a specific charge of arrogance often leveled at Calvin in relation to the case of the heretic Michael Servetus.  As is commonly known (and often pointed out), Calvin supported the execution of Servetus in Geneva in 1553.

At first glance, some might consider his involvement in the Servetus affair as support for the widely accepted view that Calvin was arrogant, divisive, domineering, and radical.  However, what is often left out of the story is that Calvin’s opinions were shared by most others at the time.  Before Servetus’ arrival in Geneva, he was already considered as good as dead.   The Spanish humanist had previously been condemned as a heretic in his home country by the Roman Catholic Church on the basis his unorthodox denial of the doctrine of the Trinity among other things.[1] His public comments regarding the Trinity – such as saying that it made God into a three-headed monster – made Servetus an enemy of almost all Christians, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike.[2] All could agreed that Servetus was a heretic and, as such, deserved the full punishment of the law.  At that time, serious heresy was punishable by death; there was no separation of church and state.  Servetus’s rejection of the foundational doctrine of the Trinity, ratified by the Council of Nicaea in 325, was seen as an assault on Christianity itself, and thus on the empire as well.  As Herman Selderhuis notes, “This meant that Servetus could just as well have been burned in Cologne, Strasburg, or Antwerp.”[3]

Soon after Servetus arrived in Geneva, he was noticed and reported to Calvin, who promptly reported him to the civil authorities.[4] Selderhuis notes that,

“Nothing would ever have been made of this had the event not been interpreted later as evidence that Calvin was a basket-case heretic hunter, who maniacally tried to get rid of anyone who did not agree with him.  At the time, in any case, no one thought anything of it.”[5]

During his imprisonment, Calvin spent many hours with the heretic, trying to convince him to recant; he was ultimately unsuccessful.  Therefore, after seeking advice from many of the neighboring cities, the Genevan authorities condemned Servetus to death by burning at the stake.[6] Calvin asked that he be given a more lenient sentence, suggesting beheading instead, but the city rulers denied his request.  Thus, Servetus was put to death, with Farel, and not Calvin, overseeing the whole event.

In light of all this, it would be unfair to accuse Calvin of bearing primary responsibility for the death of Servetus.  He did not act alone in his condemnation of the notorious heretic, and certainly did not have the final say over his punishment.  Additionally, we must remember the large gap that separates our world from Calvin’s, and the many differences therein.  These differences include, but are not limited to, conceptions regarding: the role of the state and its relation to the church[7]; the serious consequences of heresy left unchecked, along with the appropriate response of the church toward false doctrine; and the appropriate punishment for those who are deemed enemies of the state.  Parker provides modern day readers with a good reminder when he writes:

On the toleration or the punishment there will be a difference of opinion between the consensus of opinion in the twentieth century and the consensus of opinion in the sixteenth century.  Our imaginations shudder at the terror and agony of the wretched victim.  Their sense of order was horrified by the thought of souls destroyed by false doctrine, of churches torn asunder into parties, of the vengeance of God displayed upon them in war, pestilence, famine.[8]

While we certainly can (and should) condemn the notion that Christians should protect the church from the dangers of heresy through violence, it is simply bad history to paint Calvin as a “basket case heretic-hunter.”  Rather, he was a man of his age, at times blind to the failings of that age.  Carter Lindberg notes that, “Calvin and Geneva received congratulations and applause from all quarters for execution of the arch-heretic.”[9] Later he writes,

“Since the 1520s and at the very time Servetus was executed so were Calvin’s followers in France.  And in the decades after Servetus, the streets and fields of France would be soaked with Calvinist blood.  The modern toleration of religious pluralism is anachronistic for the sixteenth century.”[10]

It is therefore unfair to cite this unfortunate event as evidence that Calvin was especially arrogant and harsh.

In 1903 a “monument of atonement” was built by Calvin’s heirs on the spot where Servetus was burned.  The inscription reads,

“We, devout and grateful sons of Calvin, our great reformer, yet condemning an error which was the error of his century, and firmly devoted to the freedom of conscience according to the true principles of the Reformation and the Gospel, have erected this monument of atonement on October 27th 1903.”[11]

Part 8

[1] Herman Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, 204.  Selderhuis notes that the Roman Catholic Church publicly burned an effigy of Servetus in Spain, which was “intended to burn into the mind of the perpetrator the message that he was as good as dead even if he had not yet actually been executed.”
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Selderhuis notes that Calvin was merely doing his “civil duty by reporting this man, a known threat to the state, to the authorities.”
[5] Ibid., 205.
[6] The Genevan authorities corresponded with the cities of Zurich, Basel, Bern, and Schaffhausen, all of which “condemned Servetus’ opinions as heretical, blasphemous, [and] a pestilence.”  T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 152.
[7] See T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 152-153, where Parker has an excellent section regarding Calvin’s understanding of civil government and its relation to the church.  He sums up Calvin’s opinion as such: “Thus it is the duty of the state to establish true religion and to maintain that religion once it is established.”  Thus, if one has a problem with how Calvin dealt with the Servetus affair, he should look to his Institutes and Defensio orthodaxae fidei, where he outlines his conception of the proper role and duty of the state.  As with most everything else in his life, Calvin’s support of the condemnation of Servetus grew out of his doctrine, and was not simply the ravings of a bull-headed and religiously intolerant zealot, hell-bent on destroying all who opposed him.  If this is how we characterize Calvin, we do not do so honestly nor with integrity.
[8] T.H.L. Parker, John Calvin, 153.
[9] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 1996), 269.
[10] Ibid., 270.
[11] Ibid.


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