T.H.L. Parker calls 1553–1554 Calvin’s “fateful years.” According to Parker, this was when “two large storms blew from different quarters and raged simultaneously.” One was Calvin’s battle with the libertines; the other was the infamous Servetus affair.
The Genevan air was charged in the Fall of 1553. It was September 3 when the confrontation with the libertines reached its climax, and it was October 26-27 when Michael Servetus was condemned and burned at the stake.
First, the libertines.
A pack of unregenerate Genevans—also members of the church in Calvin’s magisterial (and non-credobaptist) context—stirred up the trouble. Despite their love of license and open embrace of immorality, they desired good standing in the church and to eat from the Lord’s Table.
Calvin, on the other hand, called for discipline and was emphatic that they may not share in communion without repentance from their sinful patterns. However, the city council sided with the libertines and ordered the church to serve them the supper. But Calvin wouldn’t budge.
The showdown came on September 3: Calvin and the church vs. the libertines and the city. The lead libertine was supposed to be in attendance. Calvin fenced the table and held his ground. Stories vary as to precisely when and how he uttered the memorable line, “These hands you may crush; these arms you may lop off; my life you may take; my blood is yours, you may shed it. But you shall never force me to give holy things to the profaned, and dishonor the table of my God.”
Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva and first biographer, notes, “After this the sacred ordinance was celebrated with a profound silence, and under solemn awe in all present, as if the Deity himself had been visible among them.”
It turns out the libertines weren’t in attendance. Direct confrontation was avoided, and Calvin proved the victor. The libertine head was severed, but the body would continue to convulse—and would be given strength by the Servetus affair to follow.
Michael Servetus was a Spaniard. Quite the Renaissance man, he was a medical doctor, lawyer, and theologian (though he was least gifted theologically). Thus the trouble. Parker comments about Servetus, “He should have been born three hundred years later. He would have been happy and quite safe in the free-thinking circles of England in the middle of the nineteenth century.”
The problem was that his doctrine of the Trinity (or lack thereof) was heretical, and he was influential. He had written to Calvin as early as 1545, because of Calvin’s international reputation as a theologian, presumably seeking help. Calvin corresponded with Servetus and even risked his life to meet with him in Paris, but Servetus skipped out on the appointment.
By 1553, Servetus was in prison in Spain, awaiting his execution by the Catholics for his denial of the Trinity, when he escaped and eventually appeared in Geneva. When he was recognized, the city arrested him and tried him for heresy. They called Calvin, the expert theologian, to serve as the prosecutor, since at issue in the trial was Christian doctrine.
Servetus was condemned on October 26, 1553, and burned at the stake the following day. The details are sketchy, but some historians recount that Calvin took great pity on Servetus, visited him in prison, and pled with him to renege on his beliefs and embrace the Triune God. Calvin also seems to have asked for a lighter penalty for him in some form—whether it was no death penalty or to grant mercy by strangling him before the burning is not fully clear. It was likely the latter.
Calvin’s opponents in Geneva, the libertines chief among them, played up the Servetus affair against him, and it remains the major blight on his character today. And to great extent for good reason. Yes, his role and the depths of depravity he manifested in the affair have likely been exaggerated by his detractors, but we Calvin-admirers should be honest enough to say that he messed up. (After all, shouldn’t we of all people believe in depravity?)
In going along with the ecclesiastical and judicial procedures and the seeming inevitability of Servetus’ fate, Calvin didn’t attempt to stop the state from wielding its sword for the church in the convoluted relationship between the two. He sinned—as have all our heroes, but one.
Calvin failed us. And so like Luther and Edwards and Spurgeon, his virtue lies in pointing us beyond himself to the one who never failed, and took our failures on himself.
No matter his level and depth of involvement, Calvin would no doubt be eager for our Servetus story to end here: Calvin was a great sinner in a need a great Savior.