In August of 1553, Michael Servetus was arrested for the crime of heresy in Geneva, Switzerland, home of the reformer John Calvin. Two months later he was executed. To read many internet articles, Calvin systematically stalked and slaughtered any person who dared oppose him. This picture of Calvin painted by his critics is a caricature greatly distorting the truth.
Before harshly judging Calvin a heartless tyrant, let us first hear the facts of the case. Here are a few things to consider:
- Heresy was a capital crime in Geneva. Unlike the modern, Western separation of church and state, the world Calvin inhabited was one in which no such division existed. To be guilty of theological error was to be guilty of criminal offense. This political system existed as the norm for the vast majority of the world. Indeed, all the Protestants and Roman Catholics who were consulted at the time agreed with the execution.
- Calvin was not the ultimate authority in Geneva. He certainly was no dictator as he is often portrayed by the misinformed. The magisterial council (who formally decided the case) opposed Calvin (who was not a citizen of Geneva) and used the trial to demonstrate their authority over him. Calvin did not have final power to condemn or save Servetus.
- Servetus was not condemned for Arminianism, but for Pelagianism (the denial of original sin), Modalism (an anti-Trinitarian heresy), Pantheism (a rejection of the fundamental distinction between Creator and creation) and other serious theological errors. To read most internet sensationalism, Calvin opposed anyone who opposed Calvinism. In truth, he opposed anyone who opposed the gospel.
- Nearly two decades earlier, Servetus asked Calvin to leave the safety of Geneva to discuss their differences. Though Calvin was wanted by the authorities in the area in which they were to meet, he went at the risk of his own life to reconcile Servetus to the truth of the gospel. Servetus never showed.
- Calvin corresponded with Servetus before and during his imprisonment, imploring him to recant. One letter read, “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.” Reflecting later, Calvin wrote, “I reminded him gently how I had risked my life more than sixteen years before to gain him for our saviour. I would faithfully do my best to reconcile him to all good servants of God. Although he had avoided the contest I had never ceased to remonstrate kindly with him in letters. In a word, I had used all humanity to the very end, until he being embittered by my good advice hurled all manner of rage and anger against me.”
- Calvin visited Servetus in prison and prayed with and for him. J.I. Packer stated, “Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode.”
- As Bruce Gordon wrote, “Heresy was a capital offense, but Calvin did not want Servetus to die.” When the council ordered execution by burning at the stake, Calvin alone intervened to appeal for a more merciful beheading. The council refused.
Of Calvin’s role in the Servetus affair, the historian Paul Henry writes:
…a nearer consideration of the proceeding, examined from the point of view furnished by the age in which he lived, will completely exonerate him from all blame. His conduct was not determined by personal feeling; it was the consequence of a struggle which this great man had carried on for years against tendencies to a corruption of doctrine which threatened the church with ruin. Every age must be judged according to its prevailing laws; and Calvin cannot be fairly accused of any greater offence than that with which we may be charged for punishing certain crimes with death.
While we might disagree that Calvin is completely exonerated from all criticism in the case, the actual circumstances should greatly temper the rabid accusations which are often leveled at him.
Calvin and the leading reformers of his day approved the death of a heretic. But does this blemish invalidate the whole of their teaching? Do David’s actions regarding Bathsheba and Uriah nullify the Psalms? Does Peter’s cowardice and prejudice negate his epistles? There is only One Who has ever perfectly passed the litmus test of character. Such unfortunate failures and flaws in His people highlight all the more the grace God lavishes on such dreadful sinners as us.
Years later, on the verge of death, Calvin wrote, "With my whole soul I embrace the mercy which [God] has exercised towards me through Jesus Christ, atoning for my sins with the merits of his death and passion, that in this way he might satisfy for all my crimes and faults, and blot them from his remembrance…I confess I have failed innumerable times to execute my office properly, and had not He, of His boundless goodness, assisted me, all that zeal had been fleeting and vain…For all these reasons, I testify and declare that I trust to no other security for my salvation than this, and this only, viz., that as God is the Father of mercy, he will show himself such a Father to me, who acknowledge myself to be a miserable sinner."