CS Lewis, John Calvin and Michael Servetus

Collage of Calvin and Servetus

Collage of Calvin and Servetus

While the debate about Calvin’s culpability in connection with the death of the 16th century heretic Servetus continues to stir emotions, everyone is agreed that, heretic or not, he didn’t deserve to die.

Inevitably, those who affirm Calvin’s theological views express sympathy with his unenviable position, while those who dislike his doctrines seem almost eager to retell the story as compelling evidence to reject his teachings once and for all.

CS Lewis was not at all comfortable with what he called Calvin’s ‘dark answers’ in connection with predestination but he was at least an objective historian.

As he outlines some of the changes in belief that influenced the literature, he also discusses some of the consequences for departing from the accepted views – often persecution, even execution. The modern reader is appalled, but Lewis helps us understand the context of such brutality.

‘We must…take care not to assume that a sixteenth-century man who lived through these changes had necessarily felt himself, at any stage, confronted with the clear issue which would face a modern in the same circumstances.

A modern, ordered to profess or recant a religious belief under pain of death, knows that he is being tempted and that the government which so tempts him is a government of villains. But this background was lacking when the period of religious revolution began. No man claimed for himself or allowed to another the right of believing as he chose. All parties inherited from the Middle Ages the assumption that Christian man could live only in a theocratic polity which had both the right and the duty of enforcing true religion by persecution.

Those who resisted its authority did so not because they thought it had no right to impose doctrines but because they thought it was imposing the wrong ones. Those who were burned as heretics were often (and, on their premises, logically) eager to burn others on the same charge. When Calvin led the attack on Servetus which ended in his being burnt at Geneva, he was acting on accepted medieval principles.’[i]

More next time…

For the first post in this series on CS Lewis and his observations of 16th Century Christianity click here

©2013 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog


[i] CS Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1954), p.39

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8 thoughts on “CS Lewis, John Calvin and Michael Servetus

  1. I like your angle on this. I’m very interested in what you have to say next on the issue. when you say “When Calvin led the attack on Servetus which ended in his being burnt at Geneva, he was acting on accepted medieval principles” I wonder what we do in these days that is just acting on ‘modern principles’ and may violate biblical christian principles just like this example of Calvin.

  2. Very helpful. Thank you. I have always wondered how he could have supported such a move. Now, this gives some insight. though it doesn’t make it right our justifiable, it does help to know that he wasn’t compromising his integrity. His conscience was clear because he thought he was doing the right thing! Hmmmm. A lesson for leaders today.

  3. Lewis is only partly correct when he asserts that, “All parties inherited from the Middle Ages the assumption that Christian man could live only in a theocratic polity which had both the right and the duty of enforcing true religion by persecution.”

    This mindset was not present among the “third stream” groups such as the Waldensians, Anabaptists, Hutterites, etc. They rejected the idea of a state church altogether. Some of these groups of course pre-dated Calvin.

  4. Very interesting information and documents from the archives, on Servetus’s life and work can be found here http://www.michaelservetusresearch.com, by the researcher who discovered his Jewish Converso Heritage in 1999, his true identity, and his 10 new works, hidden from 1538, because of the death sentence he got by the University of Paris the same year.

  5. The real culpable person on all of this is Jesus himself. Who apparently sat by and did nothing while this and many other atrocities have been committed “in his name”

    Apparently it was no big deal for angels to appear all over the place in the old testament and new testament but Jesus could not be bothered to send one or himself to take a few min and stop something like this from happening,

    It is Christianity itself that is the evil in all of this and not one or two men and their beliefs about it. If Jesus exists he is the most sinful and guilty being in existence and the one most deserving of eternal torment but you are all to blind to see it. If he does not exist then Christianity is one of the greatest evils to ever be foisted on the human race.

    That is the truth.

  6. I love anything that C.S. Lewis wrote. As a matter of fact his writings were practically the only thing that helped me when my son who was bi-polar, committed suicide in 1999; in Chapter 4 of Mere Christianity. The profound statement to me in such mourning, “it doesn’t need repentance, it needs a cure”. And though my son was saved at 11, many insensitive people insinuated he did not go to Heaven, but Lewis’s one little statement as deep as that chapter was, set me at peace. I love history, and am glad I found this with Christian history.

  7. “Those who resisted its authority did so not because they thought it had no right to impose doctrines but because they thought it was imposing the wrong ones. Those who were burned as heretics were often (and, on their premises, logically) eager to burn others on the same charge. When Calvin led the attack on Servetus which ended in his being burnt at Geneva, he was acting on accepted medieval principles.”

    Though I love Lewis, here he appears to be far more biased than scholarly. I have not read the full work by Lewis, and we have only some very brief clips here to go by. So it may be possible that the blog author has selectively quoted Lewis in a way that distorts his view. Either way, this is at best only a partial truth which is extremely misleading.

    First, while Calvin’s view of capital punishment for heresy may have been shared by the many at the time, it was not the universal view of the Reformation. As another commenter has pointed out, there was another whole branch of the reformation that opposed state interference in matters of faith. Nor was the trial conducted according to the law of Geneva at the time. If the Servetus affair had been business as usual, no one would have thought it strange at the time, but there was no lack of voices of protest. A lot of people wanted Servetus dead, but the trial was a scandal at the time and remained so for years to come.

    Second, we are led to believe that had the roles been reversed, Servetus would have just been as “eager to burn” Calvin. However if Servetus was basically Anabaptist (apart from his view of the Trinity) it is extremely unlikely that this would have been the case.

    Third, it ignores the fact that Servetus had committed no crime according to the law concerning heresy in Geneva. (He was known to hold “heretical” views, but had not apparently done anything to promulgate them while in Geneva.) They might have extradited him to Spain which would at least have had jurisdiction in the matter. But Calvin was too eager to be the one to “nail him” to let someone else do the dirty work, even if it meant bending the law.

    Fourth, Calvin threatened to kill Servetus if he ever came to Geneva, and bragged about it as a great achievement when it was over. Not a picture of someone “just doing his duty under the law”.

    It is good for us today to be reminded of exactly what heresy he was guilty of. We mostly hear that Servetus didn’t believe in the Trinity. Today that implies that he denied the deity of Christ. But this is far from the case. Servetus fully believed that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were divine. What he had a problem with was the orthodox formula which described them as “three distinct persons”, which he felt amounted to polytheism. He was wrong in this interpretation of the orthodox definition, and also in error in his own way of thinking of the Trinity. But this is a very difficult doctrine to grasp. It is perhaps even more difficult to put what we do understand into words that are adequate to the task. There might be a case for cutting him some slack here. Banishment or destruction of his work would have been sufficient, and was all the law at the time allowed. Most today do not even know that the other equally important heresy he was found guilty of was his objection to infant baptism. He would have been burned on this charge alone.

    Finally and most important of all, the very basis of the Reformation was the insistence of the reformers that “the medieval principles” reformed by a study of what the Bible really teaches. Many had already concluded that the principle of burning people we don’t agree with as unbiblical, even by Old Testament law.

  8. David, thanks for your comments.
    The quotes are not misrepresentative of Lewis’s argument. Lewis is at pains throughout his work on 16th century literature to give us as clear an understanding of the accepted ideas of the time as he possibly can. I think he is trying to be a good scholar, in that sense and I’d recommend that you read the book, which is very good indeed.
    In terms of Calvin’s attitude towards Servetus there is more specifically on that here:

    https://lexloiz.wordpress.com/2009/02/03/calvin-and-servetus/

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