The Servetus Affair

The Story of Calvin and His Critics

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Professor, Wheaton College

This article appears as an appendix in With Calvin in the Theater of God: The Glory of Christ and Everyday Life. The following excludes extensive footnotes and citations found in the appendix.

“For many,” Bruce Gordon opens his chapter on Calvin and Servetus, “the execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva has defined John Calvin’s posthumous reputation. From the sixteenth century to this day detractors have seized this moment as confirmation of his tyrannical, intolerant character” (Bruce Gordon, Calvin [Yale University Press, 2009], 217).

As I noted near the beginning of my message, John Piper asked that my contribution deal with “some of Calvin’s own imperfections, notably the Servetus affair,” because he wants our treatment of Calvin to be realistic and not a whitewash or cheap hagiography. I have postponed my treatment of this topic until now in part because the more I have read about Calvin’s part in Servetus’s execution the less attention it seems to merit.

The facts leading up to Servetus’s burning at the stake at Champel outside Geneva on October 27, 1553, are these: Michael Servetus, a Spaniard, had been in contact with Calvin for over twenty years. Their theological disagreements began before the publication of Calvin’s first theological work, the Psychopannychia, since that work “was at least in part,” Gordon reports, “directed against views attributed to Servetus and his circle in Paris” (Ibid., 217).

In 1531, Servetus published On the Errors of the Trinity, which, Roland Bainton observes, “contains both an assault upon the traditional view and a reconstruction of his own position. The former necessitated his withdrawal from Catholic lands; the latter was to make his residence untenable also on Protestant soil” (Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus 1511–1553 [Blackstone Editions, 2005], 13).

Three years later, Calvin took the considerable risk of returning to Paris to meet with Servetus, either — depending on which account we credit — to “gain him for our Savior” or to silence him, but Servetus was a no-show. In 1545, Servetus contacted Calvin again, luring him into correspondence by asking for help in understanding three difficult theological points. Calvin explained them; Servetus disputed Calvin’s explanations; Calvin replied again and sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes as giving fuller answers. Servetus returned the copy scribbled up with his criticisms, along with part of his yet unfinished Restoration of Christianity and some other writings and suggested that he come to Geneva.

By this time, Calvin had concluded that Servetus would abandon his heresies only if God changed his heart, and so he warned Servetus not to come. Servetus published his Restoration at the beginning of 1553 and sent a copy to Calvin. Its Latin title, Christianismi Restitutio, was, Parker writes, “a deliberate hit at [Calvin’s] Institutio” (Ibid.). Calvin found the Restoration to be full of errors and “prodigious blasphemies against God” — indeed, “a rhapsody patched up from the impious ravings of all ages.” On August 13 of that year, Servetus came to a Sunday service at Calvin’s church. When some recognized him, they told Calvin, who took steps to have the civil magistrate arrest him.

By the time Servetus appeared in Geneva, he was already a fugitive from justice, who had been tried and condemned as a heretic to be burned at the stake by the Catholic Inquisition. But in Geneva, the determination of Servetus’s fate was entirely in the hands of the civil magistrates. As Gordon notes, “Although Servetus’ quarrel was clearly with Calvin, the Frenchman’s role in the process was limited” (Gordon, Calvin, 219).

In Servetus’s trial before the civil magistrates, Calvin was, as Alister McGrath puts it, a “technical advisor or expert witness, rather than prosecutor” (McGrath, Life, 119). Claude Rigot, the actual prosecutor, was, as Bainton notes, of Geneva’s Libertine party — in other words, he was of the party that was made up of “the chief enemies of Calvin” (Bainton, Hunted Heretic, 101) — and, in prosecuting Servetus he “acted in entire independence of Calvin” (Ibid., 122).

What the civil magistrates and Calvin shared was the belief that heresy had to be confronted and punished. Their reasons for holding this belief were probably somewhat different. For Calvin, opposition to heresy was primarily a matter of upholding God’s honor: both heresy and blasphemy were affronts to God, and the purpose of confronting and punishing both heretic and blasphemer was “to vindicate the honor of God by silencing those who sully His holy name” (Ibid., 116). On the issue of whether mercy should be shown to a heretic like Servetus, Calvin thought Christians had no choice, as some of his commentary on Deuteronomy 13 makes clear:

Those who would spare heretics and blasphemers are themselves blasphemers. Here we follow not the authority of men but we hear God speaking as in no obscure terms He commands His church forever. Not in vain does He extinguish all those affections by which our hearts are softened: the love of parents, brothers, neighbors and friends. He . . . practically denudes men of their nature lest any obstacle impede their holy zeal. Why is such implacable zeal demanded unless that devotion to God’s honor should be preferred to all human concerns and as often as His glory is at stake we should expunge from memory our mutual humanity.

For the civil magistrates, the main reason to punish heretics was that their doctrines subverted social order. For instance, Bainton notes that Servetus maintained during his trial that “God would not regard as mortal those sins which are committed before the age of twenty” (Ibid., 128) and that Rigot took this teaching as “a license to the young to commit adultery, theft, and murder with impunity” (Ibid., 129).

When Servetus maintained that there had been no criminal prosecution for doctrinal disagreement in the early church and that during Constantine’s days heresy deserved no more than banishment, Rigot “replied that Servetus was wrong about the early Church. It was the pagan judges who ‘cared for none of these things.’ The Christians executed heretics from Constantine to Justinian” (Ibid.). Indeed, Servetus’s very plea for religious liberty “was interpreted as a political menace, on the ground that it would take the sword of justice from the magistrate” (Ibid.).

What the civil and religious authorities probably shared was a belief that tolerating views as aberrant as Servetus’s would bring down God’s wrath and judgment on those who did so (See Calvin’s Sermons on Deuteronomy 13). And what they surely shared was a belief that not to execute Servetus, if he did not repent and retract his views, would make the Protestant territories seem dangerously soft both religiously and politically.

This was the common sentiment of all of the Swiss cities when the civil magistrates of Geneva polled them on how they should treat Servetus. For instance, Zurich responded that Geneva “should work against him with great faith and diligence especially as our churches have an ill repute abroad as heretics and patrons of heretics. God’s holy providence has now indeed provided this occasion whereby you may at once purge yourselves and us from this fearful suspicion of evil” (Ibid., 138).

A careful consideration of Calvin’s part in Servetus’s arrest, trial, and execution makes it clear, then, that Servetus’s fate is not “confirmation of [Calvin’s] tyrannical, intolerant character.” Gordon, whom we have already seen to be more than willing to highlight Calvin’s faults, stresses that while Calvin took heresy to be a capital offense, he wanted “Servetus to recant, not die” (Gordon, Calvin, 223). And, indeed, when the sentence was passed that Servetus would be burned at the stake, Calvin tried to get the mode of execution changed to either beheading by sword or hanging because either would be less painful and thus more humane.

Servetus’s fate, then, should not be attributed to an imperfection unique to Calvin. In measure we may chastise Calvin along with his century with the advantage of our five hundred-year hindsight, but insofar as we recoil against what happened to Servetus, we must recoil against what was primarily an imperfection of Calvin’s century. As McGrath summarizes it:

Sadly, every major Christian body which traces its history back to the sixteenth century has blood liberally scattered over its credentials. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Anglican: all have condemned and executed their Servetuses. . . . It is fair to suggest that it is improper to single out Calvin as if he were somehow the initiator of this vicious trend, or a particularly vigorous and detestable supporter of the practice, where the majority of his enlightened contemporaries wished it to be abolished. The case of Etienne Le Court, who was publicly degraded, strangled and burned by the Inquisition at Rouen on 11 December 1533, for suggesting that, among other things, ‘women will preach the gospel,’ would seem considerably more disturbing.

“Perhaps historians,” McGrath concludes, “like everyone else, have their axes to grind” (McGrath, Life, 120). To target Calvin the way that he has been targeted for his part in the Servetus affair should, McGrath observes, raise “difficult questions concerning the precommitments of his critics.” For “Servetus was the only individual put to death for his religious opinions in Geneva during Calvin’s lifetime, at a time when executions of this nature were a commonplace elsewhere” (Ibid., 116). In other words, Servetus’s execution in Geneva is less attributable to Calvin as a particularly bad actor than to Europe’s sixteenth-century culture as a temporal manifestation of our world’s broken stage.

Calvin had many faults, but to deny that his part in the Servetus affair is to be taken as a particularly egregious example of some of them is not to involve ourselves in a whitewash or some sort of cheap hagiography. Pastor Piper is, indeed, right that this is an issue that I, with my topic, needed to address, even if ultimately it is one that we can lay to rest.

Messages from Desiring God 2009 National Conference

is associate professor of philosophy at Wheaton College, where he has taught since 1992. He earned his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. His areas of academic expertise include philosophical theology, philosophical psychology, David Hume, Augustine, and Jonathan Edwards. Mark has published many book reviews, magazine articles, and chapters in collaborative volumes, including Suffering and the Sovereignty of God. Mark and his wife, Cindy, have one daughter and three grandchildren.