John Calvin and the Servetus Affair

John Calvin (1509-1564)

For some people, when they think of John Calvin, they think of predestination. Specifically, it would be the doctrine of double predestination, popularized by later followers of Calvin, whereby God elects some for salvation, and others for damnation. But in many quarters, Calvin is remembered differently, some negatively and to others, most positively (Listen to John Piper’s poem extolling “The Calvinist”).

John Calvin’s Disputes with Critics

In his attempt to reform the church of 16th century Geneva, Switzerland, John Calvin was concerned the most in upholding the Scriptural teaching on the sovereignty of God. Mere sinful humans can not please God, by their own efforts. Instead, it is by the mercy and grace of God, whereby God elects those destined to glory. Furthermore, by His sovereignty, God accomplishes what he elects to do, predestinating those undeserving sinners to be brought into the eternal presence of God, to be forever with Him (Romans 8:29-30).

What about the others? Why not elect all, instead of just some? For Calvin, he saw no clear definitive answer to this in Scripture. Therefore, he preferred to leave this to the mysterious purposes of God, a reality that we as humans should never try to de-mystify, as such speculation might shipwreck our souls in the process.

Yet such speculation is exactly what Jerome Bolsec, a former French Carmelite, entertained, when he challenged Calvin on the subject of predestination, in 1551, in the Genevan church. Bolsec thought that Calvin’s doctrine of predestination led to the logical absurdity that made God the author of evil. If God, by his sovereign and hidden degree, before the foundation of the world, creates the other humans, only to be discarded and thrown into hell, afterwards, what other horrid conclusion could be drawn? It was a debate that would prefigure the later, and much more well known controversy, with the late 16th and early 17th century Dutch reformer Jacob Arminius, a controversy that still plagues and haunts evangelical Christians on into the 21st century.

Calvin’s response to Bolsec, however, was one of restrained argument. Calvin was first and foremost a pastor, seeking to exposit the Scriptures to a people in Geneva who had grown confused as to the truth of the Gospel. He would have preferred to handle Bolsec’s objections discretely. For Calvin, the doctrine of predestination was meant to provide comfort for the distressed believer… not to generate distress! God predestines the believer, as a sign that one can truly have assurance for one’s salvation. But the public dispute, inflamed by Bolsec, was disturbing the general peace of Geneva. In this late medieval city, where church and state were linked together, such trouble-making became a civil matter, and Bolsec was banished from the city.

The Michael Servetus affair went much beyond Bolsec’s controversial banishment, and it serves to mark Calvin’s contemporary notoriety. One may have questions about how the doctrine of election works, as such questions were understandable to Calvin. But challenging the doctrine of the Trinity was something different altogether.

Michael Servetus (1509? – 1553). Was he a haughty, self-righteous, blasphemer of God, or a hapless victim of religious intolerance, for which we should have pity? Or something else?

Servetus came from Spain, where in the not too distant past, Jews, Muslims, and Christians were able to coexist together in the Iberian Peninsula. But Spanish Roman Catholicism could not tolerate the situation, by forcing Jews and Muslims to either convert to Christianity, or be expelled from the land. Servetus viewed the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity as being the primary stumbling block to maintaining some form of religious harmony in the region.

Furthermore, his understanding of the Protestant principle of sola scriptura led him to conclude that the Trinity was not to be found within the Bible. Servetus went onto call the Trinity a “Cerebrus,” a demonic dog from Greek mythology, a monster from hell, with three heads. So, Servetus’ mind was set to try to persuade both Roman Catholics and Protestants that Trinitarianism, dogmatically defined at the Council of Nicea, hundreds of years earlier, was a theological innovation and an abomination. To Protestants and Roman Catholics alike, including John Calvin, such charges were both blasphemous and ludicrous.

As a medical doctor, Servetus was able to travel around Europe spreading his views, but he had few takers, so he was constantly on the move. He had sought to converse with John Calvin, since 1534, to try to debate the topic. For years, Calvin was reticent. In a 1547 letter to his friend William Farel, Calvin wrote with frustration:

“Servetus recently sent me with his letters a new volume of his ravings… He would come here if I agreed. But I will not give him my word; for if he came, as far as my authority goes, I would not let him leave alive.”

Servetus believed the end of the world was near, and wished to meet with Calvin soon. The papacy, the cardinals, the Dominicans, and other mendicant orders represented the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Servetus had calculated that 1260 years would pass after the crowning of Constantine as emperor, in 305, or after the supposedly “dreadful” Council of Nicea, in 325, and then the end would come. That would place the Second Coming of Christ at either 1565 or 1585, just a few years away. Servetus saw himself as the servant to Michael, the archangel. Time was running out. He would go to Geneva anyway, in person, to make his case, even if it meant his life.

Calvin would have nothing of this.

Jerome Bolsec (died 1584), a French Carmelite theologian-turned-Protestant, who first publicly challenged John Calvin, on the doctrine of predestination. Unable to persuade Calvin, Bolsec eventually returned to Roman Catholicism.

Servetus had become public enemy number one in all of Christendom. Once in Geneva, Servetus was arrested. Calvin did his best to encourage the heretic to recant, pleading with him to reconsider, but Servetus would not budge. Calvin reiterated that he had no personal animosity towards the heretic. He simply wanted him to come to a knowledge of the truth. Calvin even interceded before the city council, that Servetus might be given a more quick, and less painful execution. But the decision had been made.

Michael Servetus was burned alive by the Genevan civil authority, on October 27, 1553. He had denied that Jesus was “the eternal son of God,” and suffered the punishment. In his last moments, Servetus cried out, in non-Trinitarian fashion, with a misplaced adjective, “O Jesus, son of the eternal God, have pity on me.”

Even though John Calvin had made his mark on the Protestant Reformation, with publishing his Institutes on the Christian Religion, more than a few historians cite this episode, with the burning of Servetus, as the moment that cemented Calvin’s role as the “number two” man of the Reformation, just behind Martin Luther. Most of his Reformer colleagues applauded Calvin’s efforts to stamp out heresy, and looked upon him with the deepest of admiration. Even many Roman Catholics respected him, despite other theological differences. By silencing Servetus, Calvin was making a bold stand, that would overshadow any debates over predestination.

There were critics, like Sebastian Castellio, a former Genevan colleague, who publicly criticized Calvin’s intolerance, and called for the end of the death penalty for heresy. The moralist Castellio had collided with Calvin in Geneva before, insisting that the Song of Solomon, a book within the Old Testament, should be removed from the Scriptural canon, because of the sensual and sexually explicit language found in the text. Yet Calvin insisted that we must accept all of Scripture as Scripture, and that we have no right to place judgment over the content of God’s Word. Regarding Calvin as a tyrant, Castellio left Geneva rebuffed, while maintaining his right to toleration for his rather idiosyncratic views. But Castellio’s call for such tolerance was surely a minority one, in his day and age. Few listened to Castellio, and so Calvin won the day.

It seems shocking to 21st century Christians to think that a man could be burned alive for expressing a heretical view on a point of doctrine. Public disagreement? Yes. But horrifying execution? That seems way, way, way, over the top.

Sebastian Castellio (1515-1563), at one-time a colleague of Calvin in Geneva, fell out of favor with the great Genevan pastor, due to his aberrant theological views. Out of step with historic orthodoxy, Castellio nevertheless championed a view of religious toleration, that anticipates contemporary principles of religious freedom.

It would be several more centuries before the contemporary principle of religious freedom, anticipated by Sebastian Castellio, would take full shape among Western societies. Evangelical Christians still draw boundaries today, but are more generous in the civic sphere. One may “agree to disagree” when it comes to particular questions about predestination, at least within the mainstream of the 21st century evangelical movement. But the line is drawn regarding the acceptance of the Trinity. However, the drawing of this line simply means that non-Trinitarians might attend something like a Unitarian-Univeralist church fellowship today, as opposed to literally pulling out the firebrands and the pitchforks.

In many ways, the whole Servetus affair wrongly overshadows John Calvin’s legacy. After all, he was a man of his time, applauded by many within his generation. We could say the same about 21st century people: Are we not products of our own time and place, just as Calvin was in his?

It would be more appropriate to fault generations and generations of Bible readers, including Calvin, who took Jesus’ statement, “compel them to come in” (Luke 14:23), from the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:12-24), much too literally, and out of context. Encouraging scattered wanderers, of those of a lower social status, through the pleading efforts of a single servant, to join in with the fellowship of the master class, is an appropriate reading of the parable. To confuse this with trying to force someone to alter their conscience, even a misguided one, through government-sanctioned, violent force or torture, is unwarranted. The text of Luke gives no indication that this single servant was wielding instruments of torture and violence to “compel” supposedly obstinate wanderers, along the highways, to come to the banquet. Calvin was a fine exegete of Scripture, but along with many others, he regrettably failed here.

Dutch Reformer Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), never met Calvin, being much younger, but his name is forever attached with the controversy over “Calvinism.” Like Sebastian Castellio, Arminius argued against using the death penalty to combat heresy.

Within the large scale of things, Calvin was simply trying to reform the church, helping Christians to rediscover the joy, the comfort, and the truth of knowing God’s Word. For Calvin, the Servetus affair was yet a momentary setback for the Reformation. What he would want to emphasize would be the thousands of sermons he delivered, week after week, expositing the Word of God to people, who understood very little as to the meaning of the Scriptures, clouded by years of neglect and superstition. Calvin was not infallible, but he did direct the people to follow the infallible authority: the Holy Scriptures. The likes of Jerome Bolsec, Michael Servetus, and Sebastian Castellio, were viewed with disdain by Calvin, because they threatened to further confuse a people, who had already been misguided by a medieval church, that had lost their moorings to the anchor of the Bible, as God’s Word.

Upon John Calvin’s death, at his request, his body was placed in an unmarked grave, so that no one in future generations might come along and venerate him, and neglect the Word of God. Above all, it was the truth of God as revealed in the Bible that should be remembered and celebrated, for Calvin. It should not be the memory of Calvin himself, with whatever faults he might have had. This is the legacy that we all might consider and keep in perspective today.

This blog post was inspired by reading the fascinating Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret. Cottret’s work is filled with great insights into Calvin, and his contemporary critics, who might otherwise might remain unknown. For a modern, evangelical commentary on Luke’s telling of the parable of the Great Banquet, see Leon Morris’ Tyndale commentary on Luke, p. 257. See Calvin’s commentary, in contrast, on Luke 14:23 here.

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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