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Heretic Michael ServetusOne of the frequent arguments against Calvinism is John Calvin’s handling of the heretic Michael Servetus. The theology shouldn’t be looked down upon based on the actions whom it is named after though. (Calvin’s theology is not unique or original to Calvin, but rather he summed it up well.) Instead it should be weighed against the Bible. However, few seem to understand Calvin’s role regarding the heretic Servetus, or understand exactly why Servetus was executed.

I’ve had this note sitting in my computer for some time, though I didn’t write it I think it is valuable to share.


Short Version: 1. Calvin was not a citizen of Geneva, so did not have
the authority to kill or order the execution of Servetus 2. Calvin
risked his life to press Servetus to recant of his heresy, and press
for a milder death That (2b) did not happen, proves (1).

Long Version: Servetus was a heretic. He wrote a book in 1530 titled
“On the Errors of the Trinity.” To provide one quote, Servetus called
the Trinity “a three-headed Cerberus, a dream of Augustine, and an
invention of the devil.” One of the most famous church historians
Schaff, called Servetus “the most audacious and even blasphemous
heretic of the sixteenth century.”

Calvin responded in detail to many letters from Servetus, where
Servetus was trying to convince Calvin that the Trinity is unbiblical.
Calvin stopped replying as Servetus became insulting. Servetus then
went to Geneva with the intention of overthrowing Protestantism with
heresy. Servetus was arrested, given a 2 month trial, and found guilty
of blasphemy. The civil court found Servetus guilty, sentancing him
“to be burned alive, at a slow fire, till his body he reduced to a
cinder.”

Calvin pressed for a milder death; “I hope that Servetus will be
condemned to death, but I desire that he should be spared the cruelty
of the punishment” – John Calvin (a letter to Farel, 20.8.1553 &
“Tomorrow Servetus will be led out to execution. We have done our best
to change the kind of death, but in vain. I shall tell thee when we
meet why we had no success.” – John Calvin (a letter to Farel,
26.10.1553). Moreover, Calvin pleased with him to repent (risking his
own life to do so): “Would that we could have obtained a retractation
from Servetus” – Calvin & “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do
I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold
you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.” – John Calvin.

It was not a case of “Calvin thought the Mormon who lives down the
street should be killed”. It was “Calvin believed that an arroagant
heretic who despite warnings, came to Geneva to cause chaos in soceity
and overthrow and drive out the established religion and replace it
with damnable heresy, should be given a fair trial and pleaded with to
repent. If he came to Geneva to carry out his agenda, and did not
repent after a 2 month trial, then and only then, should he be put to
death in as less pain as possible.” Calvin supported ‘a’ death
Servetus, but Calvin himself did not give or carry out the punishment.


Here is what Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the
History of the Church at Oxford University, says about Calvin and
Servetus:

“Calvin was as clear as the Roman Catholic inquisitors in Lyon or the
papal Antichrist in Rome that Servetus must die. The Genevan city
authorities determined that the heretic’s fate should be the
traditional one of burning at the stake, and although Calvin would
have preferred a more mercifully summary method of execution, he did
not oppose the burning on October 27, 1553. Quite apart from his own
feeling that Christendom was under threat, there was a political
consideration: To show mercy would be to show weakness, and that would
encourage his enemies in Geneva just at a moment when they hoped to
triumph. He had ensured that there had been careful international
soundings among Protestants about the sentence: after all, the
legality of Geneva burning someone who had merely been passing through
the city was not immediately obvious.” — “The Reformation,” (Viking,
2004), p.238.

If this testimony by a leading historian of the Reformation is
dismissed because MacCulloch is an agnostic (which he is), then
perhaps the following testimony by Carl Trueman will be more
acceptable:

“That John Calvin burned Michael Servetus in Geneva is certainly true
but hardly the whole truth. Attention to the life and times of
Servetus reveals that he was wanted by Catholics as much as
Protestants, and that Calvin tried to have his mode of execution
changed to beheading as a small act of mercy. Without pardoning Calvin
or lessening the nastiness of what happened, Calvin’s actions were
simply not exceptional by the standards of the time, a point that
should temper our judgment of him.” — Ligonier Ministries on-line
article, “Fallacious History” by Carl Trueman at
http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/fallacious-history/

Or perhaps Carl Trueman’s bold statement in his “History and
fallacies” (Crossway, 2010) p. 189:

“That Calvin was buried in an unmarked grave tells us much about how
he viewed his own significance in the grand scheme of things; and that
he was chief prosecutor of Michael Servetus tells us all we need to
know about how much Calvin himself valued original and unique
contributions to theology in his day.”

Fallacious History by Carl Trueman

Credits to Jonathan Williams for the first part and George S. Whitten for the second.