The Controversial Calvin
Calvin’s main contribution to the Reformation and to succeeding generations is his incredible ability to honestly and simply interpret Scripture. His works continue to inspire and instruct teachers and preachers even today.
The question of Calvin’s role in the death of Servetus is hotly debated by those who oppose his theology. Because Calvin is singled out, it is a question we should consider.
In 1553 a Spanish teacher and unorthodox theologian, called Michael Servetus was arrested, interrogated and found guilty of heresy by the French Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, Southern France. He had been teaching, writing and troubling the churches, both Catholic and Reformed, with heresy for many years. His objections centred on the deity of Christ and the reality of the Trinity.
Servetus had been writing to Calvin about his ideas and had become increasingly hostile to Calvin’s replies. Some of Calvin’s responses to Servetus’ heresies were actually used as evidence against him. He escaped from his imprisonment in Vienne, Southern France, and in his absence a sentence of death by burning was pronounced by the Court.
Although he was first condemned to death by the French magistrates, Calvin is sometimes seen as the man who orchestrated the judgement. Although not responsible for the courts’ decision, it appears from a private letter that he agreed with the sentence.
When Servetus was identified and re-arrested in Geneva, a further examination by the Genevan Courts took place. Calvin was aware of the gravity of the situation. After the original sentence was upheld, Calvin asked for leniency in the manner of the execution.
It’s an easy thing from our 21st Century standpoint to accuse Calvin, and indeed, to go from theological debate to being burned at the stake was exactly the kind of scenario that the Reformers were struggling against! Servetus’ horrible death was a fate that surely too many friends of the Reformation had suffered.
THL Parker, Calvin’s biographer, writing of the pastoral council in Geneva, of which Calvin was a part, says ‘there can be no doubt at all that Servetus’ books were…grossly heretical. Their difficulty was that the Romanists had already condemned Servetus to death and their own conduct was being observed.’ (THL Parker, John Calvin, Lion p.144)
Andrew Johnston adds, ‘The [Genevan] Consistory had no civil jurisdiction and could not impose criminal sentences…The notorious anti-trinitarian Michael Servetus, condemned to death for heresy and blasphemy in 1554, was convicted and sentenced by the magistrates, not by the Consistory.’ (Andrew Johnston, The Protestant Reformation in Europe. Longman. P.64)
By now, the judgement of the court was beyond Calvin’s influence and Servetus was sentenced to death by burning just outside Geneva. Could Calvin have intervened? Should he have done more than merely ask for lenience? Would his intervention have made any difference on the rulings of the courts? We do know that Calvin visited him in jail and prayed with him in the days leading up to his execution.
While we cannot lay blame for Servetus’ death at Calvin’s feet, while he was not behaving out of step with his generation, it is precisely because he is so right in so many areas of understanding, and speaks to us with such clarity, that even his acquiescence in this sad incident is difficult to stomach.
Some Additional Comments on Calvin and Servetus, by Andy Johnston
I don’t think we should be too hard on Calvin on the Servetus question. Execution for heresy was par for the course in the 16th C – eg The Mass executions in Germmany after the Peasants’ War, Executions in Marian & Elizabethan England (Catholic & Protestant alike). In France – after the Edict of Chateaubriand (1551) it was no longer necessary for parlement to try heresy cases & they could be tried by lower courts making the death sentence much more likely
Calvin was not the driving force behind the execution – why then should he be singled out for particular criticism? The execution occured in 1553 when Calvin’s political opponents controlled the council & they were the driving force behind Servetus’s execution. The Council deliberately by-passed the Consistory as an attempt to marginalize Caslvin’s role in the affair. However, because of Calvin’s status he became an expert theological witness.
Servetus had the opportunity to return and face charges in Vienne but chose to stay in Geneva.
The city of Geneva had only 2 options (it had no prison) – execution or banishment. The magistrates consulted the authorities of Berne, Zurcih, Schaffhausen & Basle & they all recommended execution.
Calvin argued for the sword rather than burning but he was ignored. People have argued that even the burning was deliberately intended to make Servetus suffer but, even here, this is not the case. Geneva had no executioner.
Andy Johnston leads Christ Church Hailsham, England
He is also leading a seminar, titled ‘Our Great Debt to Calvin’ at the Newfrontiers International Leadership Conference later this year.
© 2009 Lex Loizides