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The Servetus Problem

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John Calvin is a man loved and respected by some, despised and reviled by others. Those who dislike Calvin and his theology are likely to protest on many grounds, but the most common are his view of predestination and an understanding of Calvin as something of a dictator over the town of Geneva. It is not unusual to find people who villify Calvin as nothing short of tyrannical – a despot who let no one and nothing stand in his way. Calvin is most notorious for the situation regarding Servetus, a man who was found guilty of heresy and executed for this belief. Here are a few quotes I found regarding Servetus:

  • “On October 27, 1553 John Calvin, the founder of Calvinism, had Michael Servetus, the Spanish physician, burned at the stake just outside of Geneva for his doctrinal heresies!”
  • “He was seized the day after his arrival, condemned as a heretic when he refused to recant, and burned in 1553 with the apparent tacit approval of Calvin.” [Do note that this is taken from the same article as the first quote. I’m not sure how the author reconciles his assertion that Calvin had Servetus burned at the stake with his second assertion that Calvin merely gave tacit approval!]
  • “Calvin had him [Servetus] arrested as a heretic. Convicted and burned to death.”
  • “Calvin killed Servetus because he disagreed with him.”

In speaking to people about the doctrines of grace I have often had to address their assertions, usually made without any real understanding of the situation, that John Calvin was a heartless dictator. So today I would like to address the Servetus problem.

Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus was a Spanish theologian and physician who lived from 1511-1553. In his early years he came into contact with many leading Reformers and while he broke with the Roman Catholic Church and became at least nominally Protestant, he adopted a particularly heretical belief, denying that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. He also denied paedo-baptism, a belief which further alienated him from Protestant and Catholic alike. His books on Christian doctrine were read and examined by the Catholic Church and he was condemned as a heretic. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to death, but managed to escape from his captors. He fled towards Italy, but for an unknown reason decided to pass through Geneva.

Geneva, of course, was the home of John Calvin and the very center of Reformed doctrine. Servetus’ decision to stop in Geneva was in no way innocent. Some have suggested that he arrived in Geneva almost by accident, but this is not true. He was clearly hoping to exert influence over Calvin and to convert him to his errant understanding of the Trinity. It seems that Servetus was a strange combination of genius and lunatic.

Servetus’ reputation preceded him and Calvin and the other Reformers knew of his heresies. Calvin had earlier written a now infamous letter to Farel, dated February 13th, 1546, where he said, “Servetus wrote to me a short time ago, and sent a huge volume of his dreamings and pompous triflings with his letter. I was to find among them wonderful things, and such as I had never before seen; and if I wished, he would 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.” When Servetus, at last, arrived in the city, Calvin was left with the unenviable position of having to decide whether to allow the heretic to continue his teaching in Geneva, which would inevitably lead people to believe that the Reformed church was lenient towards heresy (softer even that the Roman Catholic Church that had already condemned this man to death), or to attempt to take action.

Calvin found that he had little choice but to ask the civil authorities to intervene. Historian Francis Higman correctly says “there was a sort of horrid inevitability about the whole thing.” Calvin had no political authority whatsoever, and was not even a citizen of Geneva until six years later. Calvin did what he could, which was to ask the civil authorities to investigate the matter and to take action. They consulted churches in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland and found that this was a matter worthy of trial. The trial was lengthy and deliberate. Servetus was eventually found guilty and was condemned to be burned at the stake, despite Calvin’s request that he be executed painlessly by being beheaded. Michael Servetus was put to death on October 27, 1553. Several months later the Catholic Inquisition in France executed him once more, this time in effigy.

Answering the Critics

Here are several pointers you may wish to consider when answering critics.

Motives – Some non-Reformed Christians hail Servetus almost as a hero, for no other reason than he casts a shadow over John Calvin. They would do well to remember, though, that Servetus was a heretic who denied a doctrine of absolute foundational importance. There can be no salvation for one who denies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. We must ensure that people are researching Servetus out of pure motives and not merely in an attempt to villify Calvin.

Historical Context – Do remember that we are not dealing here with modern day Western nations where there was a clear separation between church and state. Religion was inseperable from politics. Church and state were mingled and both rulers and the common man felt that a common religion was absolutely critical to the maintenance of order. In the sixteenth century heresy was a common charge and heresy of the magnitude expressed by Michael Servetus was almost always punishable by death. It may be helpful to draw people’s attention to the Old Testament where God not only approved of, but commanded, the destruction of entire nations. Surely this would seem atrocious to modern readers, and surely God would no longer command it today, yet at the time it happened it was common practice. The times change. We see evidence of this as well in the New and Old Testaments where believers owned slaves, another practice we would consider abominable and unfitting for Christians.

Paul Henry, a notable historian, writes: “Calvin here appears in his real character; and 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.” Calvin was right to take action. The horrid inevitability was that in this time and place heresy was a civil offense and one punishable by death.

Calvin’s Authority – Critics of John Calvin like to suggest that John Calvin ordered the execution and that he murdered Servetus. Remember the quotes from the beginning of this article. It is important to note that John Calvin had no authority in the town of Geneva. He was not even a citizen until six years after this happened! Those who would have us believe that Calvin had the authority to have this man murdered would do well to note that he did not have the power to lessen the sentence. Calvin requested action and testified at Servertus’ trial, but it was the civil courts that sentenced the man to death.

Calvin’s Compassion – Calvin’s critics have often suggested that Calvin delighted in the death of Servetus. This is difficult, and likely impossible, to prove. It should be noted that Calvin was the only person who suggested a lighter sentence, asking the court to allow Servetus to die painlessly by beheading. Calvin prayed with and for Servetus and earlier in his life had sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes. Interestingly, Servetus returned the book with many abusive and insulting comments written in the margins. Despite this offense, Calvin showed clear pastoral concern for this man’s soul. But Servetus died clinging to his heretical beliefs.

Expiation – Three hundred and fifty years after the death of Servetus, a monument of expiation was erected at the place where Servetus was executed. On one side of this monument are recorded the dates of the birth and death of Servetus. On the opposite side is this inscription:

“Dutiful and grateful followers of Calvin our great Reformer, yet condemning an error which was that of his age, and strongly attached to liberty of conscience, according to the true principles of the Reformation and of the Gospel, we have erected this expiatory monument. October 27th, 1903.”

While such a monument can hardly atone for the death of a man, it does express a post-Reformation understanding that such an act was unacceptable and an unfortunate product of the times.


Perhaps it is also helpful to note that while Calvinists are called after John Calvin, they identify more with his theology than with the man himself. Many, and no doubt most Calvinists have never read a word of John Calvin. Instead they reluctantly call themselves Calvinists because they feel John Calvin was gifted by God to understand and interpret the Scriptures and that he restored to the church doctrine that had been lost for hundreds of years. His gift to the church was not himself, but the doctrines of grace illumined to him by the Holy Spirit. The death of Servetus, and the role played by John Calvin, stand as proof that he was in no way perfect and was as much in need of grace as any of us.

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