Did Calvin murder Servetus?

Question
I've read your extensive theological notes on Calvinism and how it works within the Scriptures. Thank you for these explanations. I really enjoyed them. While Calvin’s work all seems to be a valid interpretation of the Bible, I just can’t get past the death of Servetus and Calvin’s role in it. Did he murder Servetus? And why should I trust his teachings, specifically, the “five points” of Calvinism?
Answer
First, let me start with a little history regarding the five points of Calvinism. John Calvin died in 1564, and in 1610 the Arminians the followers of Jacob Arminius, who had died a year before, drew up a disagreement with the interpretations of Calvin. These were called the five articles of the Remonstrance. The Synod of Dordt (1618-1619) was held to consider these and was where Calvinists gave an official response to these five articles. From this emerged the so-called “five points of Calvinism.”

So, John Calvin didn't invent what is commonly call Calvinism today. Several of his doctrines go at least as far back as St. Augustine, and numerous contemporaries of Calvin (Bucer, Zwingli, Viret, Vermigli, Musculus, etc.) furthered his teachings and even added to them. So, if one's interpretation is correct, then it stands no matter what it is called.

Second, John Calvin did not murder Michael Servetus. The government of Geneva executed Servetus in 1553 for what it considered capital crimes. Here are some facts to consider:

(1) Michael Servetus was a heretic. Heresy was considered tantamount to treason in Geneva, Switzerland. It was a capital crime there and many other parts of Europe during that era. The penalty for heresy was death per the law of the land (cf. Rom. 13:1-7).

(2) However unjust we may consider this law today, there is a long history of people burned at the stake after being deemed heretics. Some examples: In 1327, Cecco d'Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned for having calculated the date of Jesus' birth using the stars. In 1525, Thomas Munzer was burned at the stake. In 1527, Michael Sattler's tongue was cut out, he was mutilated by red-hot pincers, and was finally burned alive. Jan Hus, the Rector of Prague University, was burned on the 6th July 1415. Of the recorded thousands burned at the stake there were at least fourteen recorded in the 1500s alone:

Year
Name
Location
1540 Robert Barnes Smithfield, London England
1540 Thomas Gerrard Smithfield, England
1546 Anne Askew Smithfield, England
1546 John Lascelles Smithfield, England
1546 John Adams Smithfield, England
1550 Joan Bocher Smithfield, England
1551 George van Parris Smithfield, England
1553 Michael Servetus Geneva, Switzerland
1558 Stephen Cotton Brentford, England
1559 Nicola Koehler Smithfield, England
1579 Matthew Hamont Norwich, England
1589 Francis Kett Norwich, England
1612 Bartholomew Legate Smithfield, England
1612 Edward Wightman Lichfield, England

(3) On February 16, 1553, Servetus was denounced as a heretic while in Vienne, France. He was arrested by Roman Catholic authorities on April 4, 1553, but escaped three days later. He was tried in absentia and convicted of heresy on June 17, 1553. En route to Italy, he stopped by Geneva where he was re-arrested by the magisterial council in Geneva on August 13, 1553. An extradition request from France was denied. He was tried in Geneva and was convicted on forty counts of heresy [1]. On October 27, 1553 he was burned at the stake.

(4) Calvin had warned Servetus not to come to Geneva because he would be punished.

(5) Calvin was not the final authority in Geneva; he wasn't even a citizen of the city until six years later. During the proceedings Calvin was simply a witness. The magisterial council, which was a civil authority, decided such cases, and many of the men sentencing Servetus were actually Calvin's enemies. Calvin did not have authority to condemn or save Servetus.

(6) In that era most of Christianity mistakenly believed that heretics should be put to death based upon Deuteronomy 13:1-18. Calvin believed this too. This grievous error in thinking led to social injustices; however, the council was concerned not only about religious matters, but also the moral social order of Geneva.

True and false doctrines influence culture. In the case of Servetus, he believed and taught that God didn't regard that individuals under the age of twenty could commit a moral sin. Thus, the council was fearful that his teaching would give license to the young to commit things such as murder and adultery without fear of punishment (i.e. antinomianism). In addition, though not considered by the council, it was well known that Servetus defended the Koran, the doctrines of which could also erode the social structure of Geneva.

(7) Some accuse Calvin of lighting the match at Servetus' burning because he was an Arminian. But nothing could be further from the truth as Arminianism's founder hadn't even been born yet. It was not listed in the forty-count indictment [1]. But among what was listed is his denial of original sin, his anti-Trinitarian heresy (i.e. see his 1531 book, On the Errors of the Trinity and his 1553 work The Restitution of Christianity) and the denial of the divinity of Christ, pantheism, and the belief that Old Testament saints weren't saved.

(8) Calvin had conversed by letter with Servetus instructing him in the truth from at least 1546 forward. In one letter he wrote, "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." He even sent him a copy of his Institutes, which Servetus returned with his own insulting criticisms written therein.

On one occasion, Calvin even put his own life at risk to speak to Servetus in Paris. Earlier in life, Calvin had lived in Paris and he too was familiar with prisons, having been in and out of them for short stays because of his evangelistic efforts. While there previously, Nicholas Cop, the rector of the University of Paris, on All Souls’ Day 1533, delivered a sermon actually drafted by Calvin, which accused his fellow Catholic theologians of some rather serious errors. One of the lines reads:

They teach nothing of faith, nothing of the love of God, nothing of the remission of grace, nothing of justification, or if they do so, they pervert and undermine it all by their laws and sophistries. I beg of you, who are here present, not to tolerate any longer these heresies and abuses. [2]

This of course didn’t sit well with the Sorbonne, Parliament or the Catholic Church. When word got out that Calvin had drafted the sermon, similar to what had happened to Luther, the hunt was on. He had to escape from College of Fortret, Paris, by tying bed-sheets together and being lowered out a widow. He escaped, hid out for some time, but finally made his way to Geneva in 1541. Thus, to return to Paris was dangerous, yet he did go to meet with Servetus. But Servetus didn’t show up.

In addition, during Servetus’s imprisonment at Geneva, Calvin again talked and prayed with him. As J.I. Packer has commented: "Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode." Even after the conviction, Calvin requested a lighter sentence, asking the court to allow Servetus to die painlessly by beheading. His request wasn't granted.

None of the above justifies burning at the stake as a just punishment for heresy. Excommunication is the just punishment. Doctrinal error concerning Deuteronomy 13:1-18 within many denominations of that era led to this tragedy.

My third and last point asks a question: Does anyone argue that we should not read the Pentateuch, Psalms, or the Pauline Epistles because Moses, David, and Paul all killed people? Or should we not pay attention to the General Epistles because Peter denied the Lord three times? Calvin consented to the death of lost Servetus, and Paul consented to the death of saved Stephen (Acts 8:1; cf. Acts 7:54-8:3).

As the Westminster Confession of Faith states: "The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture ..." (1.6). So, no matter what we call it or what name it goes by, the truth remains the truth. The writings of Calvin (and others) are not Scripture, but valid interpretation of the Bible are just that — the valid interpretation of Scripture.

I hope this will be of some help.

References:

[1] The Complaint of Nicholas de la Fontaine Against Servetus, 14 August, 1553. Merrick Whitcomb, ed., Period of the later reformation in Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources of European History, 6 vols., (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania History Department, 1898-1912), vol. 3, no. 3, pp.

Process of 14 August, 1553, before the Lesser Council of Geneva. Calvin : Opera. Vol. XIII, pp.727-731. French.

Nicholas de la Fontaine asserts that he has instituted proceedings against Michael Servetus and on this account he has allowed himself to be held prisoner in criminal process.

I. In the first place that about twenty-four years ago the defendant commenced to annoy the churches of Germany with his errors and heresies, and was condemned and took to flight in order to escape the punishment prepared for him.

II. Item, that on or about this time he printed a wretched book, which has infected many people.

III. Item, that since that time he has not ceased by all means in his power to scatter his poison, as much by his construction of biblical text, as by certain annotations which he has made upon Ptolemy.

IV. Item, that since that time he has printed in secrecy another book containing endless blasphemies.

V. Item, that while detained in prison in the city of Vienne, when he saw that they were willing to pardon him on condition of his recanting, he found means to escape from prison .

VI. Said Nicholas demands that said Servetus be examined on all these points.

VII. And since he is able to evade the question by pretending that his blasphemies and heresies are nought else than good doctrine, said Nicholas proposes certain articles on which he demands said heretic be examined.

VIII. To wit, whether he has not written and falsely taught and published that to believe in a single essence of God there are three distinct persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, is to create four phantoms, which cannot and ought not to be imagined.

IX. Item, that to put such distinctions into the essence of God is to cause God to be divided into three parts, and that this is a three-headed devil, like to Cerberus, whom the ancient poets have called the dog of hell, a monster, and things equally injurious.

X. Item, whether he has not maintained such blasphemies most injuriously, as much as against the ancient doctors, such as St. Ambrose, St. Augustin, Chrysostom, Athanasius and the like as against all those who sought in our times to elevate Christianity, even calling to Melancthon a man without faith, son of the Devil, Belial, and Satan.

XI. Item, whether he does not say that our Lord Jesus Christ is not the Son of God, except in so much as he was conceived of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the virgin Mary.

XII. Item, that those who believe Jesus Christ to have been the word of God the Father, engendered through all eternity, have a scheme of redemption which is fanciful and of the nature of sorcery.

XIII. Item, that Jesus Christ is God, insomuch as God has caused him to be such.

XIV. Item, that the flesh of Jesus Christ came from heaven and from the substance of God.

XV. Item, that divinity was imparted to Jesus Christ only when he was made man, and afterwards spiritually communicated to the apostles on the day of Pentecost.

XVI. Item, that when it is said that Jesus Christ is of the same essence as his Father, it is the same as saying that in this man Jesus Christ there is the same Trinity, power and will as God, and not that the word of God dwells and subsists in his essence.

XVII. Item, whether he does not condemn those who seek in the essence of God His holy spirit, saying that all those who believe in the Trinity are atheists.

XVIII. Item, that those who believe in any distinction of property in the essence of God dissipate His nature and reduce it to fragments.

XIX. Item, that the word of God is no other thing than the flesh of Jesus Christ.

XX. Item, that the flesh of Jesus Christ was engendered, out of the substance of God by a word which he calls "seminal."

XXI. That the essence of the flesh and of the soul of Jesus Christ is the divinity of this word and of the breath which God has breathed forth.

XXII. Item, that if Jesus Christ were the Son of God otherwise than on account of his humanity, because that is engendered out of the substance of God, then he would not be really dead. For if he is dead he is no longer the Son of God.

XXIII. Item, that when St. John says that the word was in God, it is the same as saying that the man Jesus Christ was there.

XXV. Item, that the substance of Jesus Christ is that which was in the skies, and that this is the same substance whence proceed the angels and our souls.

XXVI. Item, instead of conferring three persons in the essence of God, or three hypostases which have each His property, he says that God is a single entity, containing one hundred thousand essences, so that He is a portion of us, and that we are a portion of His spirit.

XXVII. Item, in consequence whereof not alone the models of all creatures are in God, but also the material forms, so that our souls are of the substantial seed of the word of God.

XXVIII. Item, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God because he has the elements of the substance of the Father, to wit: fire, air and water.

XXIX. Item, that the soul of man is mortal, and that the only thing which is immortal is an elementary breath, which is the substance that Jesus Christ now possesses in heaven and which is also the elementary and divine and incorruptible substance of the Holy Ghost.

XXX. Item, that the Fathers under the Law have never received the spirit of regeneration.

XXXI. Item, that by the sin of Adam the soul of man as well as the body was made mortal.

XXXII. Item, that little children are sinless, and moreover are incapable of redemption until they come of age.

XXXIII. Item, that they do not commit mortal sin up to the age of twenty.

XXXIV. Item, that the baptism of little children is an invention of the Devil, an infernal falsehood tending to the destruction of all Christianity.

XXXV. Item, that the word of God is no longer that which it was before the incarnation of Jesus Christ, because its substance was the clearness of the skies and is now made flesh.

XXXVI. Item, that however much he confesses that the philosophers have erred in saying that the word was God Himself, he says that Jesus Christ, insomuch as he is a man, was always in God and that from Him is the divinity of the world.

XXXVII. Item, that the air is the Spirit of God and that God is called Spirit, because He breathes life in all things by His spirit of air.

XXXVIII. Item, the soul of man insomuch as it possesses many divine properties is full of an infinity of Gods.

XXXIX. Item, that in the person of Msr. Calvin, minister of the word of God in the Church of Geneva, he has defamed with printed book the doctrine which he preached, uttering all the injurious and blasphemous things which it is possible to invent.

XL. And because he knows well that his said book could not be tolerated even among Papists, insomuch as it destroyed all the foundations of Christianity, therefore he hid himself at the house of William Guerou, at that time proof corrector, as said Guerou has testified.

[2] Stevenson, Taylor. John Calvin, the Statesman (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1907), p. 24.

General Bibliography

Bainton, Roland H. Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (1511¬-1553). (Boston : Beacon Press, 1953).

Beeke, Joel; Williams, Garry. Calvin: Theologian and Reformer. (Reformation Heritage Books, 2010).

Friedman, Jerome. Michael Servetus: A Case Study in Total Heresy. (Geneva: Droz, 1978).

Fulton, John F. Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr. (New York: Herbert Reichner, 1953).

Goldstone, Lawrence and Nancy. Out of the Flames. (New York : Broadway Books, 2002).

Gordon, F. Bruce. Calvin. (Yale University Press, 2011).

Hillar, Marian. The Case of Michael Servetus (1511-¬1553): The Turning Point in the Struggle for Freedom of Conscience. (Lewisburg: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997).

_____. Michael Servetus Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr. (Lanham: University Press of America, 2002).

Kayayan, Eric. "The Case of Michel Servetus." Mid¬America Journal of Theology 8, no. 2 (1992), p. 117-1¬46.

Kingdon, Robert. "Social Control and Political Control in Calvin's Geneva." In Die Reformation in Deutschland und Europa:Interpretationen und Debatten, edited by Hans R. Guggisberg. (Gutersloh: Gutersloher Verlagshaus, 1993).

Pettegree, Andrew. "Michael Servetus and the Limits of Tolerance." History Today 40 (1990), p. 40¬-45.

Reymond, Robert L. John Calvin: His Life and Influence. (Christian Focus, 2004).

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, 8 vols. (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910).

Servetus, Michael. Apology Regarding the Mystery of the Trinity and the Teaching of the Ancients to Philip Melanchthon and His Colleagues. (Edwin Mellen, 2010).

_____. Christianismi Restitutio and Other Writings . (Birmingham: The Classics of Medicine Library, 1989).

_____. De trinitate divina, ... libri septem. (Latin Edition) (Gale ECCO, 2010).

_____. Michaelis Villanovani, Serveti: In Quendam Medicum Apologetica Disceptatio Pro Astrologia (1880). (Kessinger Publishing, 2010). _____. The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity. (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1932).

_____. Treatise on Faith and Justice of Christ's Kingdom. (Edwin Mellen Press, 2010).

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Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).