He was a master theologian. He was a shepherd who cared for his flock. He was a husband and friend to his wife. And he was a murderer…wait…what? In conversations about Reformed theology and Calvinism, the name Servetus arises rather quickly when one begins to extol the goodness that Calvin taught. “Yea he believed this and he also was responsible for the death of Servetus!” Some go as far as dismissing John Calvin and all he taught because of this supposed stain on his record. Calvin is usually painted as a bloody-thirsty tyrant instead of a humble pastor because of Michael Servetus. The man appears over twenty times within Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin had no problem with noting and refuting false teaching during his day; he did it by name. Who was this man that is referred to as “a restless fanatic, a pantheistic pseudo-reformer, and the most audacious and even blasphemous heretic of the sixteenth century?” Michael Servetus was a 16th century lawyer, theologian and doctor who denied and taught extensively against core doctrines such as the Trinity, Christology, and salvation. He was also a man that the Genevan council tried formally for heresy and burned at the stake
Did Calvin kill Servetus? I wish that the truth was “No! Of course not! He loved the Gospel and sinners made in the image of God! He took no part in the whole affair…so on and so forth.” But, that is not the case. History rarely is black and white. The answer to the question is actually yes and no. Yes, Calvin played a role in the trying of Servetus. But, he was not the voice of determinative action in the heretic’s trial. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs noted:
It has been often asserted, that Calvin possessed so much influence with the magistrates of Geneva that he might have obtained the release of Servetus, had he not been desirous of his destruction. This however, is not true. So far from it, that Calvin was himself once banished from Geneva, by these very magistrates, and often opposed their arbitrary measures in vain. So little desirous was Calvin of procuring the death of Servetus that he warned him of his danger, and suffered him to remain several weeks at Geneva, before he was arrested. But his language, which was then accounted blasphemous, was the cause of his imprisonment. When in prison, Calvin visited him, and used every argument to persuade him to retract his horrible blasphemies, without reference to his peculiar sentiments. This was the extent of Calvin’s agency in this unhappy affair.
Calvin went out of his way to try to woo the man with the gospel in view of his impending death at the hands of the state. But Calvin is still responsible in some sense. Phillip Schaff, the Protestant theologian and a Church historian, said in The History of the Christian Church:
Impartial history must condemn alike the intolerance of the victor and the error of the victim, but honor in both the strength of conviction. Calvin should have contented himself with banishing his fugitive rival from the territory of Geneva, or allowing him quietly to proceed on his contemplated journey to Italy, where he might have resumed his practice of medicine in which he excelled. But he sacrificed his future reputation to a mistaken sense of duty to the truth and the cause of the Reformation in Switzerland and his beloved France, where his followers were denounced and persecuted as heretics. He is responsible, on his own frank confession, for the arrest and trial of Servetus, and he fully assented to his condemnation and death “for heresy and blasphemy,” except that he counselled the magistrate, though in vain, to mitigate the legal penalty by substituting the sword for the fire.
Calvin was a product of his time though and his time endorsed and functioned within the paradigm where the state and the Church were wed in an unholy alliance. The state served the will of the Church and vice versa. J. I. Packer tries to set the Servetus affair in the light of its time. “The anti-Trinitarian campaigner Servetus was burned at Geneva in 1553, and this is often seen as a blot on Calvin’s reputation. But weigh these facts:
1) The belief that denial of the Trinity and/or Incarnation should be viewed as a capital crime in a Christian state was part of Calvin’s and Geneva’s medieval inheritance; Calvin did not invent it.
2) Anti-Trinitarian heretics were burned in other places besides Geneva in Calvin’s time, and indeed later—two in England, for instance, as late as 1612.
3)The Roman Inquisition had already set a price on Servetus’ head.
4)The decision to burn Servetus as a heretic was taken not only by Calvin personally but by Geneva’s Little Council of twenty-five, acting on unanimous advice from the pastors of several neighboring Reformed churches whom they had consulted.
5) Calvin, whose role in Servetus’ trial had been that of expert witness managing the prosecution, wanted Servetus not to die but to recant, and spent hours with him during and after the trial seeking to change his views.
6)When Servetus was sentenced to be burned alive, Calvin asked for beheading as a less painful alternative, but his request was denied.
7) The chief Reformers outside Geneva, including Bucer, Farel, Bullinger and the gentle Melanchthon, fully approved the execution. In a letter addressed to Bullinger, Melanchthon said, “I have read your statement respecting the blasphemy of Servetus, and praise your piety and judgment; and am persuaded that the Council of Geneva has done right in putting to death this obstinate man, who would never have ceased his blasphemies. I am astonished that anyone can be found to disapprove of this proceeding.” Farel expressly wrote, that “Servetus deserved a capital punishment.” Bucer did not hesitate also to declare, that “Servetus deserved something worse than death.”
“The burning should thus be seen as the fault of a culture and an age rather than of one particular child of that culture and age. Calvin, for the record, showed more pastoral concern for Servetus than anyone else connected with the episode. As regards the rights and wrongs of what was done, the root question concerns the propriety of political paternalism in Christianity (that is, whether the Christian state, as distinct from the Christian church, should outlaw heresy or tolerate it), and it was Calvin’s insistence that God alone is Lord of the conscience that was to begin displacing the medieval by the modern mind-set on this question soon after Servetus’s death.” So, yes Calvin had a role in the death of Servetus. But it is important to be clear that Calvin did not kill the man himself. Calvin, like so many of the admired theological heroes of old, has feet that are made of clay like the rest of us. As one man recently said, “God really does use crooked sticks to make straight lines.”