TODAY 1553: John Calvin & Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus was a thinker who seems to have been the first to describe the “pulmonary transit” of blood through the lung from the heart’s right ventricle to the left auricle.  He didn’t, however, stick to anatomical studies, he ventured into theology.  By doing so, he embraced a heretical view by rejecting the Trinity and by advancing theories that seemed to many theologians to entail pantheism.  He published these ideas in his book The Restitution of Christianity.

In 1540 Servetus commenced a correspondence with John Calvin denying the Trinity and the divine sonship of Christ.  After authorities condemned Servetus to death for heresy, he showed up in Geneva, where he was soon recognized and imprisoned.  John Calvin visited him in prison many times, laboring with him to change his views, embrace orthodoxy, and avoid death but Servetus clung to his unorthodox views.

Today, October 26, 1553, Geneva’s city council condemned Servetus to death with the words, “Let him be condemned to be led to Champel, and there burned alive, and let him be executed tomorrow, and his books consumed.”  Calvin asked that the heretic be given a more humane death than burning.  The council refused.

J.I. Packer describes it like this:

The anti-Trinitarian campaigner Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553, and this is often seen as a blot on Calvin’s reputation. But weigh these facts:

  1. The belief that denial of the Trinity and/or Incarnation should be viewed as a capital crime in a Christian state was part of Calvin’s and Geneva’s medieval inheritance; Calvin did not invent it.
  2. Anti-Trinitarian heretics were burned in other places beside Geneva in Calvin’s time, and indeed later–two in England, for instance, as late as 1612.
  3. The Roman Inquisition had already set a price on Servetus’ head.
  4. The decision to burn Servetus as a heretic was taken not only by Calvin personally but by Geneva’s Little Council of twenty-five, acting on unanimous advice from the pastors of several neighboring Reformed churches whom they had consulted.
  5. Calvin, whose role in Servetus’ trial had been that of expert witness managing the prosecution, wanted Servetus not to die but to recant, and spent hours with him during and after the trial seeking to change his views.
  6. When Servetus was sentenced to be burned alive, Calvin asked for beheading as a less painful alternative, but his request was denied.
  7. The chief Reformers outside Geneva, including Bucer and the gentle Melanchthon, fully approved the execution.

The burning should thus be seen as the fault of a culture and an age rather than of one particular child of that culture and age. Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode. As regards the rights and wrongs of what was done, the root question concerns the propriety of political paternalism in Christianity (that is, whether the Christian state, as distinct from the Christian church, should outlaw heresy or tolerate it), and it was Calvin’s insistence that God alone is Lord of the conscience that was to begin displacing the medieval by the modern mind-set on this question soon after Servetus’ death.

What do you think?  Is this episode a detriment to Reformed Theology?  Or is this episode defensible?  I’m afraid that the answer isn’t quite clear.  I say that because Calvin’s Geneva existed in a vastly different time than we do now, and operated by vastly different laws/worldviews.  There was no separation of church/state, so someone could be imprisoned for theological offense as well as civil offense.  This was the norm.

It is not our norm.

Many people who reject Reformed Theology today use this episode as fuel for their fire, further prompting them toward a hatred of all things Calvinistic.  Some even go so far as saying Calvin killed Servetus himself.  Others, like myself, who hold the Reformed/Calvinistic worldview think of this episode, not as a blemish, but a historical lesson on the importance of love and theology.

Right theology is a life and death issue.  Love was displayed in Calvin’s repeated attempts to persuade Servetus of the truth.  Regardless of what cultural milieu we find ourselves in we must never forget these two important things: theology and love.

John Piper has a caution for us all:

So the times were harsh and immoral and barbaric, and had a contaminating effect on everyone, just as we are all contaminated today by the evils of our time. Their blind spots and evils may be different from ours. And it may be that the very things they saw clearly are the things we are blind to. It would be foolhardy to say that we would have never done what they did under their circumstances, and thus draw the conclusion that they have nothing to teach us. In fact, what we probably need to say is that some of our evils are such that we are blind to them, just as they were blind to many of theirs, and the virtues they manifested in those times are the very ones that we probably need in ours. There was in the life and ministry of John Calvin a grand God-centeredness, Bible-allegiance and iron constancy. Under the banner of God’s mercy to miserable sinners we would do well to listen and learn.

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