John Calvin and Michael Servetus

18 February 2014 by Wes Bredenhof

Today I’ll share another excerpt from my Reformation Church History course that I recently taught in the Philippines and, before that, in Brazil.


Now we come to the most controversial event in Calvin’s life – the case of Michael Servetus.  Because it’s so controversial, I want to spend a little more time on this one.  Through the years, scholar after scholar has castigated Calvin for the trial and execution of Servetus – usually without any consideration of the context.

Servetus was approximately the same age as Calvin and was a native of the Spanish region of Aragon.  Not much is known about his early life.  In 1531, he made a name for himself by publishing a book which denounced the doctrine of the Trinity.  The book was widely condemned.  Like Bolsec, Servetus was also a medical doctor and as such he was the first to discover and correctly describe pulmonary circulation.  However, the thing for which he is most remembered is a book he published in 1553, Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity).  This book proposed to fix all the errors in Christianity which were preventing Christ from establishing his millennial kingdom on earth.[1]

While working on this book, he began to correspond with John Calvin.  The two had written back and forth before, so they already knew one another.  Calvin was not impressed with Servetus.  They argued especially about the doctrine of the Trinity and the pantheistic tendencies of the theology of Servetus.  Calvin sent Servetus a copy of the Institutes, which Servetus promptly returned with “critical, dissenting and contemptuous annotations.”[2]  Calvin had little patience with this Spaniard.  He wrote a letter to Farel stating that if Servetus were ever to come to Geneva, he would not allow him to leave alive.

In the meantime, Servetus was arrested in France and tried in Roman Catholic ecclesiastical courts.  He was found guilty of heresy and sentenced to be burned to death at the stake.  However, somehow Servetus managed to escape from prison and so he was merely burned in effigy.  He was now a fugitive, wanted by both Roman Catholics and Protestants.  There was no safe place for Servetus in Europe.

His only hope was to disguise himself, use pseudonyms, and wander from place to place.  He spent some time in southern France, and from there decided to make his way to Naples in Italy.  Geneva happened to be on the way and he stopped there for a rest.  He was only there a few days when he was recognized and arrested.  He seemed to be looking for a confrontation.  He showed up at Calvin’s church on the afternoon of Sunday August 13, 1553.  Someone recognized him and pointed him out to Calvin.  Calvin then reported him to the city authorities and they took him into custody.  He was given the opportunity to be sent back to France, but he begged to be tried in Geneva instead.  The city granted his request.  Be careful what you ask for…

The charges against him were mostly theological in nature, but yet he was going to be tried by the civil government.  Servetus had a defense lawyer, none other than Philibert Berthelier.  Berthelier continued to harbour resentment against Calvin and would do anything to oppose him, even if it meant defending an obvious heretic.

The trial was held before the Little Council of Geneva.  The views of Servetus regarding the Trinity and his pantheism were all discussed in detail, as was his denial of infant baptism.  Servetus was adamant and obnoxious in his defense.  The Council struggled with what to do with him.  They sought the advice of other Swiss cities such as Bern, Zurich and Basel.  Their advice was unanimous:  Servetus must be executed.

On October 26, 1553 the Little Council reached its verdict:  Servetus was guilty and he was to be burnt at the stake.  Calvin pleaded with the magistrates to give Servetus an easier death by beheading, but the Council persisted in wanting to have him burnt.  Calvin went to visit with him in prison to try and convince him to recant, but Servetus stubbornly refused.  The next day, October 27, 1553, Servetus was brought to a hill top in Geneva and suffered a horrific and painful death.  The executioner was an amateur and had problems getting the fire going.  Eventually, however, Servetus succumbed and left this world.  He reportedly died saying, “Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me.”  It was the end of Servetus.

But it was not the end of the controversy.  Sebastien Castellio and others condemned Calvin and the rest of Geneva for the way this affair was handled.  It is worth noting that many of the arguments of Castellio are still around today, and they have even been used by some Reformed critics of Calvin’s actions, including Abraham Kuyper.[3]  Castellio thought it absurd and deplorable to execute someone for having differing views in matters of religion, and many modern critics have agreed.

As we look at the situation from where we stand today, there are a few important things we need to remember:

First of all, just because we are Reformed does not necessarily mean that we are bound to follow and believe everything that Calvin did.  We are not bound to Calvin, but to the Word of God.  Calvin was a fallible human being and we should be open to the possibility that he was wrong on some points.

Next, what happened in Geneva is exactly what would have happened in any other place, whether Roman Catholic or Protestant.  The consensus across Europe was that blasphemy and heresy were the worst possible crimes and had to be dealt with accordingly.  Correct doctrine was a matter of life and death.  As we’ll see further in a few minutes, in Geneva, Calvin argued that the penalties in the Mosaic laws required contemporary magistrates to punish blasphemy and heresy with death.[4]  Castellio understood this to be Calvin’s teaching and he then tried to argue that Calvin’s beliefs (and Geneva with him) compelled one to undertake a colossal massacre of Roman Catholic countries.  What this argument failed to account for was some further qualification on Calvin’s part.  Calvin argued that magistrates had this responsibility with regard to heretics, but only in their own jurisdiction.  Calvin maintained that God’s command did not bind Genevan magistrates to go on a crusade to slaughter Muslims or Jews, or Roman Catholic apostates.  It applied only to those who “having received the law become apostate.”[5]

Another important thing to note about the Servetus affair would be the political implications of what Servetus was promoting.  By attacking the doctrine of the Trinity, he was also attacking the foundations of civil society in Geneva and elsewhere.  He was perceived as attempting to disintegrate the whole notion of a political covenant.  It was a frontal attack on established political power.[6]  As historian W. Stanford Reid once wrote, the views of Servetus “were not merely erroneous religiously, but also subversive politically, which meant that the state had the right to intervene.”[7]  And not only the right, but also the duty.  Politically, sixteenth-century Geneva was a much different world than we know today, one in which theology played a crucial role in providing stable foundations.  Undermining those foundations was considered to be treasonous and definitely a matter for the civil government.  It was a totally different context and when we comment on it, we need to keep that in mind.

With that context in mind, we can note that Calvin did argue for the eternal validity of laws prescribing punishment for those promoting heresy and for those who blaspheme.  In 1554 he wrote a book defending Geneva’s punishment of Servetus and in this book he constantly refers to the Old Testament punishments for these crimes.  Calvin wrote, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.  This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his church.”[8]  But there is some tension there, because what is a perpetual rule for his church really ends up being an action carried out by the civil magistrate.  Did Calvin really envision that the consistory would put heretics to death?  There is no evidence of that.

And there are more tensions in Calvin’s thinking and speaking about this affair.  Later on Calvin tried to distance himself from the death of Servetus.  He said, “I never moved to have him punished with death.”[9]  It might be literally true, but Calvin carried a considerable amount of influence in Geneva by this point in time.  That was the reality.  Calvin never disapproved; moreover, much of his teaching and writing certainly supported what the city of Geneva did with Servetus.  Did he actually kill Servetus?  No, no one can say that and do the situation justice.  It was far more complicated.  Calvin was part of an ecclesiastical and political system where this was a common response to heresy.  For him to object to this kind of response in this era would have placed him more as a political revolutionary than a Reformer.

[1] Williston Walker, John Calvin: The Organiser of Reformed Protestantism, 328.

[2] Walker, John Calvin, 329.

[3] Kuyper wrote, “…I not only deplore that one stake, but I unconditionally disapprove of it; yet not as if it were the expression of a special characteristic of Calvinism, but on the contrary as the fatal after-effect of a system, grey with age, which Calvinism found in existence, under which it had grown up, and from it had not yet been able entirely to liberate itself.”  Lectures on Calvinism (Eerdmans, 1931), 100.

[4] La pensée politique de Calvin, Marc-Edouard Cheneviere (Geneva: Slatkine Reprints, 1938), 289.

[5] J. W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London: Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1928), 87.

[6] Selderhuis, John Calvin, 204.

[7] W. Stanford Reid, “Calvin and the Political Order,” in J. T. Hoogstra (ed.), John Calvin: Contemporary Prophet (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1959), 252.

[8] As quoted by Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church (Vol. 8), 791.

[9] As quoted by John T. McNeill, History and Character of Calvinism (New York: Oxford UP, 1954), 175.