John Calvin has always been a controversial figure. Even in our own day he has champions and critics. Calvin’s work and life are often misunderstood and distorted. The problem as I see it is that so often neither champion nor critic have taken the time to read what Calvin has written or the history of Calvin for themselves. Instead they have formed their view of him based on what others have said. They then simply parrot what they have heard.
This is no where more apparent than in discussions of Calvin’s involvement with the case of Michael Servetus. If that is not a familiar name let me fill you in. Servetus was executed in 1553 while Calvin served as pastor in Geneva. Servetus was put to death for his heretical views of the Trinity. You read that right. He was executed.
Critics of Calvin seize on his execution and lay the blame at Calvin’s feet. Calvin defenders admit his involvment but attempt to minimize it. My purpose here is neither to blame nor defend Calvin. Rather, I will do my best to succinctly tell the whole story of what happened.
The Gathering Storm
By the time Servetus was put on trial and executed Calvin had known him for 19 years. Servetus came to know Calvin in 1534. In that year Calvin had boldly voiced his support for the Protestant movement in an address at the University of Paris. As a result he was forced to flee for his life. At the time of Calvin’s speech Servetus had already been branded a heretic by both Protestants and Catholics for his anti-trinitarian views. Servetus, having heard of Calvin’s boldness and independent thinking, thought he had found in Calvin a similarly free-thinking kindred spirit. So, after the situation had calmed down, he asked Calvin to return to Paris and meet.
At great personal risk Calvin agreed. He and Servetus met and discussed their views. Not long afterward, in 1542, Calvin published his first work of theology. A book titled Psychopannychia. I know, a catchy title. In that treatise Calvin addresses Servetus’ views of the doctrine of soul sleep, which he found to be inconsistent with scripture. In case you are unfamiliar with the idea, soul sleep is the belief that once a person dies their soul is asleep until the resurrection. The idea is still around today among Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists.
Let me also remind you that in the days before FaceBook, Blogs, e-mail, and theological journals. The way theologians debated ideas was by publishing books or shorter works such as treatise. So, it was normal for Servetus and Calvin to debate through published works and private letters.
In 1546 Servetus sent a copy of his newest theological work to Calvin. It was called On the Restoration of Christianity. This started a correspondence between them in which Servetus opposed the doctrines of original sin, the deity of Christ, and again, the Trinity. Servetus wanted to keep the dialog with Calvin going so he proposed they meet again, this time in Calvin’s adopted home, Geneva. Calvin replied with a warning. He told Servetus that due to his unorthodox views, it would be unsafe for him to come.
Servetus continued to publish his heretical views. In 1553 he went so far as to send his works to the municipal leaders in Geneva bundled with the letters he had sent to Calvin. Calvin was alarmed by Servetus’ boldness. Fearing that Servetus was about to disregard his warning and come to Geneva, and perhaps thinking that Servetus would get more lenient treatment at home, Calvin let the leaders in Servetus’ home town know of what he had done. They arrest Servetus, put him on trial, but he escaped.
Servetus Goes to Geneva
Despite Calvin’s warning Servetus arrived in Geneva. His arrival was attention grabbing. He seemed to be set on provoking a confrontation with the authorities. Upon arrival he showed up in at the church where Calvin preached and made a scene during one of Calvin’s sermons.
Servetus was arrested. At his hearing before the magistrates he tried to say that he was quietly passing through Geneva to Naples. Yet witnesses testified of his shouting during the sermon. They were also quick to point out that Naples via Geneva was hardly the main road.
Historians have commented on Servetus’ strange behavior at this point. They point out that he might have been motivated by some very odd end times ideas. Among other things he thought it was his duty to confront Calvin for having turned the reformation into a “new Rome”.
Servetus on Trial
Having arrested Servetus, just as Calvin had warned, the Geneva authorities put him on trial. In view of Calvin’s relationship with Servetus and their correspondence, the city magistrates asked Calvin to give them a written summary of Servetus’ teaching. Calvin complied and gave them a list of 39 errors. The magistrates looked at Calvin’s list then read Servetus’ works for themselves. In their investigation they also found that not only had Servetus been arrested and escaped from Basel, but also from Strasbourg.
Servetus’ trial occurred during a time when the city magistrates were at odds with Calvin concerning his influence in the city. The specific issue was whether the pastors of Geneva or the Geneva magistrates had the right to excommunicate a person from the church. Remember, this was long before the time of a separation between church and state. The magistrates asserted their authority to excommunicate and took control of Servetus’ trial and sentencing. So they did not allow Calvin to take a lead role in the trial.
During the course of the trial, city officials in Vienne heard that Servetus had been jailed in Geneva. They contacted the Geneva magistrates and asked that Servetus be sent there to be tried for heresy. Servetus learned of this request and pled with the magistrates to remain in Geneva. A plea which was granted. At this point Calvin reentered the picture. He was asked by the council of magistrates to represent Geneva’s pastors at the trial. So Calvin, with the pastors, compiled a list of questions that were put to Servetus.
Servetus responded by claiming his teaching was nothing more than what the church fathers themselves had taught. He then brought a countercharge against Calvin himself mostly concerning his views about predestination and baptism. In response Calvin wrote a treatise entitled A Brief Refutation. Since his views on these subjects were neither unique to Calvin nor to other reformed pastors, it was signed by all the pastors in Geneva.
Having concluded the trial and now needing to determine the verdict and sentence, the Geneva magistrates did not want to act independently but rather first sought the opinion of magistrates in other reformed cities. After reviewing the records of the trial Berne, Zurich, and Basel all agreed that Servetus was guilty of heresy. Concurring, the Geneva council found Servetus guilty of heresy. Next was the sentencing. Again Geneva sought the council of others. This time however the other cities replied that sentencing was something that Geneva alone had to decide.
Verdict and Sentence
The Geneva council unanimously decided that Servetus’ denial of the Trinity and practice of infant baptism meant that he was guilty of heresy. Without input from Calvin or any of the other Geneva pastors they also unanimously sentenced Servetus to death.
Calvin, writing to his friend William Farel, said he agreed the Servetus deserved death yet hoped for leniency. He wrote, “I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon him; but I desire that the severity of the punishment might be mitigated.”
Calvin then intervened and asked that Servetus not be burned but rather be more humanely executed by the sword. His request was denied. Servetus’s last request was to see Calvin. Servetus was burned at the stake on October 27, 1553.
One of Calvin’s biographers, Bruce Gordon, summarized Calvin’s role saying,
[Calvin] certainly played an important role in the process, urging his Swiss colleagues to support a severe sentence. His visceral hatred of Servetus was all too clear. He was determined to triumph over this man, and in debate he demolished him. He wanted Servetus convicted and probably, by the end, dead. The trial only escalated their mutual hostility. But Calvin could not have Servetus executed. That was the decision of a council not well disposed towards the Frenchman and with which he was locked in battle over excommunication. Servetus provided an opportunity for the magistrates to demonstrate their authority over Calvin.
Another Calvin scholar, R. Michael Allen noted that,
Ironically enough, the one episode that has been viewed as Calvin’s tyrannical decision to execute a heretic is actually just the opposite. The heretic was one viewed as outside the bounds by every city engaged in conversation with him, Roman and Protestant. The heretic fled to Geneva and to Calvin and asked as his last act that Calvin visit him in prison, and Calvin at that time was engaged in debate with the city council over the very authority to exercise discipline, and at that time he didn’t even have the power to bar people from Holy Communion, much less to imprison or to execute them.
Ironically enough, though Calvin viewed Servetus as outside the bounds, as worthy of the death penalty, he had no authority whatsoever to enforce any of that. And though he called for great leniency of a variety of types in different stages, he lost in every such plea.1
What the history of this sad event shows was that Calvin was a man of his times. Both Protestant and Roman Catholic cities condemned Servetus and wanted him dead, as did Calvin. Yet, Servetus’ sentence was not evidence Calvin’s blood-lust nor an example of his tyrannical authority but rather was an occasion for the Geneva council to demonstrate their authority over John Calvin. So, while Calvin was involved with Servetus’ trial, he did not play a key role in his sentencing and death.
1 R. Michael Allen, CH321 History and Theology of John Calvin, Logos Mobile Education (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2019).