Calvin and Servetus

  • Posted on: 29 October 2017
  • By: Chris Strevel

Calvin and Servetus


            In this year’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, few will want to draw attention to the interaction of John Calvin and Michael Servetus, except by way of apology for the Genevan reformer’s part in his condemnation and execution for heresy. The Reformers, however, were unstinting in their defense of the civil government’s responsibility toward God and his word. If we are to honor our fathers, we should at least give Calvin a fair hearing.

            On Sunday, August 13, 1553, in the midst of the fierce controversy between Calvin and the Geneva city government, Michael Servetus entered Geneva. In the afternoon, he went to St. Pierre’s to hear Calvin preach. He was recognized, and at Calvin’s suggestion, arrested and imprisoned. Servetus was already a condemned heretic throughout Europe, by Roman Catholic and Protestant governments alike. He characterized Calvin’s traditional Trinitarianism as a “three-headed Cerberus,” a pejorative reference to the hounds of hell.  He rejected the essential deity of Christ, instead affirming that the Son is the ideal emanation of the Father’s Word.

            Calvin had prior dealings with Servetus. In 1537, Calvin arranged to meet Servetus in Paris in order to “gain him for the Lord.” Servetus did not show up. The two began correspondence in 1545. Servetus wrote Calvin and asked him some questions concerning the person and work of Christ, the kingdom of God, and baptism. Calvin answered his questions. Servetus did not accept his answer and wrote back disputing him. Calvin wrote a lengthy response to Servetus and sent it along with a copy of his Institutes. Servetus ridiculed many portions, especially blasting Calvin’s “triad of impossible monstrosities.” Servetus’ tone was rude and insolent. Calvin refused to have further dealings with him.

            Servetus published his The Restoration of Christianity, a take-off on Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was filled with heretical notions and fierce invective against the reformers. Servetus was arrested in Vienna. Upon being questioned by city officials, he told several lies. (1) He denied being the author of the book. (2) He gave a false name. (3) He affirmed agreement with the orthodox statements of Christian faith. (4) He said that Servetus was a man he had met in Germany 25 years before.

            To demonstrate his innocence, Servetus escaped from custody the next morning. The Viennese government condemned him as a heretic and burned him in effigy. Incredible as it may seem, Servetus’ next step was to go to Geneva. Once he was captured there, he was brought to trial. His trial concluded the following: (1) Servetus’ writings were heretical. All parties were in agreement on this point. (2) Servetus was the author of the book in question. (3) The writings were intended for public consumption; therefore, they were for profit and would cause considerable error to be propagated among the people. (4) Servetus had verbally espoused heretical opinions to other persons, most notably, Calvin and Viret. (5) There was also much discussion concerning whether heresy was a capital offense. On August 21, the Little Council wrote to Vienna and other involved Swiss cities and churches to obtain their opinion on Servetus. All wrote back condemning him and his opinions as “heretical, blasphemous, and a pestilence.” On October 26, the Council condemned Servetus to be burned at the stake. Calvin and other ministers begged the Council to allow Servetus to be beheaded instead. Their request was denied.

            Calvin’s defense of Servetus condemnation and execution is ably summarized in his Defensio Orthodoxae Fidei de Sacra Trinitate:


Whoever shall contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for His Church. It is not in vain that He banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that He commands paternal life and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that He almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of His honor, unless the piety that is due to Him be preferred to all human duties, and that when His glory is to be asserted, humanity must almost be obliterated from our memories.


            Calvin regularly defended God’s revealed will that publicly condemned heretics and blasphemers should be executed by the civil magistrate. In his sermon on Deuteronomy 4:6-9, in which the Lord declares that the laws he gave to Israel are superior to all the laws of men, Calvin preached these words:


And for proof thereof, what is the cause that the heathen are so hardened in their own dotages? It is for that they never knew God’s Law, and therefore they never compared the truth with the untruth. But when God’s law comes in place, then doth it appear that all the rest is but smoke insomuch that they which took themselves to be marvelous witty, are found to have been no better than besotted in their own beastliness. This is apparent. Wherefore let us mark well, that to discern that there is nothing but vanity in all worldly devices, we must know the Laws and ordinances of God. But if we rest upon men’s laws, surely it is not possible for us to judge rightly. Then must we need to first go to God’s school, and that will show us that when we have once profited under Him, it will be enough. That is all our perfection. And on the other side, we may despise all that is ever invented by man, seeing there is nothing but fondness [lack of judgment] and uncertainty in them. And that is the cause why Moses terms them rightful ordinances. As if he should say, it is true indeed that other people have store of Laws: but there is no right at all in them, all is awry, all is crooked.


            In response to the objection that these laws were intended solely for the Jews and that modern governments need give no attention to them, Calvin objected in his sermon on Deuteronomy 13:5:


Then let us not think that this Law is a special Law for the Jews; but let us understand that God intended to deliver us a general rule, to which we must yield ourselves… Since, it is so, it is to be concluded, not only that it is lawful for all kings and magistrates, to punish heretics and such as have perverted the pure truth; but also that they be bound to do it, and that they misbehave themselves towards God, if they suffer errors to rest without redress, and employ not their whole power to shew greater zeal in that behalf than in all other things.


            Calvin’s believed that both kingdoms – the church and the state – while separate in terms of their government, function, and sanctions, must nonetheless be united in their allegiance to God ad his word. The state upholds God’s honor and word in its particular sphere; the church proclaims the whole counsel of God. The state is to be a nursing father and mother to the church; the church is to provide necessary prophetic direction to the state in terms of declaring God’s will in Scripture. The state is not the church; the church is not the state. Each must be dedicated to the glory of God. In his “Prefatory Address to King Francis I,” he penned these moving words:


It will then be for you, most serene King, not to close your ears or your mind to such just defense, especially when a very question is at stake: how God’s glory may be kept safe on earth, how God’s truth may retain its place of honor, how Christ’s kingdom may be kept in good repair among us. Worthy indeed is this matter of your hearing, worthy of your cognizance, worthy of your royal throne. Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom. Now, that king who in ruling over his real does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage. Furthermore, he is deceived who looks for enduring prosperity in his kingdom when it is not ruled by God’s scepter, that is, his holy word.


            Calvin was not a political pluralist, and he was not guilty of political polytheism. Calvin’s position did not depend upon the support of the Genevan government, which was early opposed to Calvin and once expelled him from the city. He arrived at his views because of his belief that kings should chiefly be concerned with the glory of God by upholding his word and governing in terms of his law. Whether or not one agrees with Calvin is beside the point. His views deserve a hearing in today’s secularist shambles. A true is known by its fruit, and the tree of Enlightenment secularist, spiritualistic retreat, and political polytheism has proven to bear such deadly fruit in terms of the proliferation of evil, false religions that consign men to everlasting hell, bloody, needless wars, and unspeakable perversion. If we desire justice in our land and every land, the church must proclaim the responsibility of kings and all in authority to kiss the Son by upholding his law, properly applied. We do not see this today, admittedly, and the recovery a more biblical view of the civil government’s responsibility to uphold the crown rights of Jesus Christ will greatly contribute to his honor and the recovery of peace through righteousness. To encourage us in our difficult and dangerous times, we should hear Calvin’s comments on Isaiah 49:23.


When we see that matters are now very different, and that “kings” are not the “nursing fathers,” but the executioners of the Church; when, in consequence of taking away the doctrine of piety and banishing its true ministers, idle bellies, insatiable whirlpools, and messengers of Satan, are fattened, (for such are the persons to whom the princes cheerfully distribute their wealth, that is, the moisture and blood which they have sucked out of the people); when even princes otherwise godly have less strength and firmness for defending the Word and upholding the Church; let us acknowledge that this is the reward due to our sins, and let us confess that we do not deserve to have good “nursing fathers.” But yet, after this frightfully ruinous condition, we ought to hope for a restoration of the Church, and such a conversion of kings that they shall shew themselves to be “nursing fathers” and protectors of believers, and shall bravely defend the doctrine of the Word.


            The day is upon us when godly men must take up these old truths again. “Draining the swamp” of the city of man is a fool’s errand. The city of man – all his governments, philosophies, and institutions – is a swamp of unbelief. God has given us many bright lights calling us to turn to his word in our darkness. We have only ourselves to blame if we do not proclaim his whole counsel, as the Reformers did. Kings and those in authority and the peoples under them must be chiefly concerned with the glory of God and the upholding of his word in all areas of life. When this does not happen, prosperity cannot last. God is a righteous judge. He will defend his honor and the kingdom of his Son. May we not be found on the wrong side of the Reformation, of history, and of the Word of God on this point, but instead humble ourselves under his deserved chastisements, then rise up to be taught humbly by his word. All will continue to go to wreck and ruin unless we proclaim the crown rights of Jesus Christ, proclaim his word, and obey it.

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