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Calvin and Servetus

Category Articles
Date October 14, 2003

by William Wileman


A calm and impartial view of this sad subject has been reserved for thisplace, and for a chapter of its own. The immense advantage of having been ableto consult and to weigh the evidence of the principal writers certainly notfewer than forty – about the case of Servetus, besides several biographies ofthe man himself, will greatly aid the writer.

It is very common to hear the remark, "What about Servetus?" or,"Who burned Servetus?" There are three kinds of persons who thusflippantly ask a question of this nature. First, the Roman Catholics, who mayjudge it to be an unanswerable taunt to a Protestant. Second, those who are notin accord with the great doctrines of grace, as taught by Paul and Calvin, andembraced and loved by thousands still. Then there is a third kind of personswho can only be described as ill-informed. It is always desirable, and oftenuseful, to really know something of what one professes to know.

I shall narrow the inquiry at the outset by saying that all Roman Catholics are"out of court." They burn heretics on principle, avowedly. This isopenly taught by them; it is in the margin of their Bible; and it is even theirboast that they do so. And, moreover, they condemned Servetus to be burned.

Those who misunderstand or misrepresent the doctrines of grace call for pitymore than blame when they charge the death of Servetus upon those views ofdivine truth known as Calvinistic. Perhaps a little instruction would be ofgreat value to such. It is very desirable to have clear ideas of what it is weare trying to understand. In most disputes this would make a clear pathway forthought and argument. Most controversies are more about terms than principles.

The third sort of persons are plainly incompetent to take up this case, for thesimple reason that they know nothing whatever about it. Pressed for theirreasons, they have to confess that they never at any time read a line about thematter.

The duty of the historian is not to plead, but to narrate facts. I shall dothis as impartially as possible. One writer need not be imitated (W. H.Drummond, D.D.), who is not ashamed to disfigure his title-page: "Life ofMichael Servetus, who was entrapped, imprisoned, and burned by John Calvin."Less scurrilous, but equally prejudiced, is Dr. R. Willis. It is a weak casethat needs the aid of ink mixed with abusive gall.

The simplest method of arranging my material will be to ask and to answer threequestions. First, why was Servetus burned? Second, who burned him? Third, whatpart in the matter was taken by John Calvin?

Michael Servetus was born at Villanueva, in 1509. After a liberal education, hestudied medicine; and anticipated Harvey in the discovery of the circulation ofthe blood. It appears that he had a lively genius, but was unstable, erratic,and weak. In 1530 he published a book "On the Errors of the Trinity."His views need not be given here; one specimen will suffice to give an idea ofthem. He said that the doctrine of the Trinity was "a three-headedCerberus, a dream of Augustine, and an invention of the devil." The book,however, on which his trial was based was his "RestitutioChristianismi." Only two copies of this are known to exist; and both areout of England. I have seen a copy of the reprint of 1790. Servetus sent themanuscript of this to Calvin for his perusal; and a lengthy correspondence tookplace between them, extending from 1546 to 1548. Of this Calvin says:"When he was at Lyons he sent me three questions to answer. He thought toentrap me. That my answer did not satisfy him lam not surprised." ToServetus himself he wrote: "I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do Iwish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold youinsulting sound doctrine with so great audacity."

And now occurs what foundation there is on which is built the accusationagainst Calvin. It occurs in his well-known letter to Farel, dated February13th, 1546. "Servetus wrote to me a short time ago, and sent a huge volumeof his dreamings and pompous triflings with his letter. I was to find amongthem wonderful things, and such as I had never before seen; and if I wished, hewould himself come. But I am by no means inclined to be responsible for him;and if he come, I will never allow him, supposing my influence worth anything,to depart alive."

There lived at Geneva at this time a Frenchman of Lyons named William Trie; andhe had a relative at Lyons named Arneys, a Roman Catholic. After thepublication of this book by Servetus, Trie wrote to his friend Arneys a letterin which he said that it was base for Protestants to be burned who reallybelieved in Christ while such a man as Servetus should be permitted to live topublish his vile errors. Arneys placed this letter before the Inquisition atLyons, and cardinal Tournon arrested Servetus at once. Without giving the massof details, it will be sufficient to say that Servetus escaped from prison onenight by a pretext. His trial, however, proceeded in his absence; and on June17th, 1552, the sentence of death, namely, "to be burned alive, at a slowfire, till his body he reduced to a cinder, " was passed upon him by theInquisition. On the same day, his effigy was burned, with five bales of hisbooks.

After wandering for a time, he suddenly turned up in Geneva in July; and wasarrested by the Council, which, as we have seen, was at this time opposed toCalvin. What Calvin desired from Servetus was his recantation: "Would thatwe could have obtained a retractation from Servetus, as we did from Gentilis’."The thirty-eight articles of accusation were drawn up by Calvin. Twoexaminations took place. At the second of these, Servetus persisted in one ofhis errors, namely, that all things, "even this footstool," are thesubstance of God. After further examinations, these articles, with the repliesof the accused man, were sent to the churches of Zurich, Berne, Basle, andSchaffhausen, with a request for their opinion. Farel’s reply is worthy ofrecord: "It will be a wonder if that man, suffering death, should at thetime turn to the Lord, dying only one death, whereas he has deserved to die athousand times." In another letter, written from Neuchatel, September 8th,1553, Farel says: "Your desire to mitigate the rigour of punishment is theservice of a friend to one who is your mortal enemy. But I beseech you so toact as that no one shall hereafter seek with impunity to publish noveldoctrines, and to embroil us all as Servetus has done."

All these circumstances prove that his trial was lengthy, deliberate, andcareful; and quite in harmony with the requirements of the age. All theReformers who were consulted approved of the sentence that was pronounced. Atthe last stage of the trial, the discussion lasted for three days. The"lesser Council" were unanimous; and the majority of the GreatCouncil were in favour of capital punishment, and so decided on the last day.Sentence of death by fire was given on October 26th, to be carried into effecton the following day.

And now one man alone stands forth to plead for a mitigation of the sentence,namely, that another form of death be substituted for the stake. That one manwas John Calvin. He interceded most earnestly with the judges for this, but invain. Both Farel, who came to Geneva for the purpose, and Calvin, prayed withthe unhappy man, and expressed themselves tenderly towards him. Both of thempleaded with the Council for the substitution of a milder mode of death; butthe syndics were inflexible. The historian Paul Henry writes of this matter: "Calvinhere appears in his real character; and a nearer consideration of theproceeding, examined from the point of view furnished by the age in which helived, will completely exonerate him from all blame. His conduct was notdetermined by personal feeling; it was the consequence of a struggle which thisgreat man had carried on for years against tendencies to a corruption ofdoctrine which threatened the church with ruin. Every age must be judgedaccording to its prevailing laws; and Calvin cannot be fairly accused of anygreater offence than that with which we may be charged for punishing certaincrimes with death."

The main facts therefore may now be summarized thus:

1. That Servetus was guilty of blasphemy, of a kind and degree which is stillpunishable here in England by imprisonment.

2. That his sentence was in accordance with the spirit of the age.

3. That he had been sentenced to the same punishment by the Inquisitionat Vienne.

4. That the sentence was pronounced by the Councils of Geneva, Calvinhaving no power either to condemn or to save him.

5. That Calvin and others visited the unhappy man in his last hours,treated him with much kindness, and did all they could to have the sentencemitigated.

Three hundred and fifty years after the death of Servetus, a "monument ofexpiation" was erected on the spot where he suffered death at Champel,near Geneva. It bears the date of October 27th, 1903; but the unveilingceremony was postponed until November 1st. On one side of this monument arerecorded the birth and death of Servetus. On the front is this inscription:

"Dutiful and grateful followers of Calvin our great Reformer, yetcondemning an error which was that of his age, and strongly attached to libertyof conscience, according to the true principles of the Reformation and of theGospel, we have erected this expiatory monument. October 27th, 1903."

Should the Roman Catholic Church desire to follow this example, and erect’monuments of expiation," let her first build one in Paris, and unveil iton August 24th (the date of the Bartholomew Massacre of the Huguenots. Ed.) Anddoubtless sites would gladly be given for the same purpose in Oxford, Coventry,Maidstone, Lewes, and other places in England. And should Romanists desire thealteration or abrogation of any oath, instead of tampering with the CoronationOath of Great Britain, let them first annul the oath taken by every bishop athis consecration that he will pursue heretics to the death. All persecution onaccount of religion and conscience is a violation of the spirit of the gospel,and repugnant to the principles of true liberty.

Peace and Truth 2003:3

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