Calvin's Life: The Servetus Affair

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Aaron Blumer's picture

He had it coming. Wink

 

David R. Brumbelow's picture

To those Calvinists who say they have never seen a Calvinist attempt to justify or minimize John Calvin’s part in brutally killing Servetus – here is one of many examples.  He also conveniently leaves out information.  

Instead of defending the indefensible, why not just say John Calvin was dead wrong on this issue.  

David R. Brumbelow

Ron Bean's picture

Dr. Panosian was my Church History professor at BJU. Along with being a knowledgeable teacher he has an aspect of ministry in which he portrays great men of the past (Luther, Huss, Buntan, Tyndale, etc.) in the first person. They're all on sermonaudio.com

Here's his presentation on John Calvin with what I believe is an adequate explanation of the Servetus incident at about 45 minutes. It settled the matter for me the first time I heard it.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqGgjFS5UL0

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bert Perry's picture

David, upon re-reading your screed about Servetus, it would seem that the source here does not leave out information at all, but rather he is working from sources which flat out contradict your rendition of Verduin's work.  Sounds like a time of going back to primary sources.  

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Verduin quote for this thread:  

“The burning of Servetus – let it be said with utmost clarity – was a deed for which Calvin must be held largely responsible.  It was not done in spite of Calvin, as some over-ardent admirers of his are wont to say.  He planned it beforehand and maneuvered it from start to finish.  It occurred because of him and not in spite of him.  After it had taken place Calvin defended it, with every possible and impossible argument.  There is every reason to believe that if it had not been for the fact that public opinion was beginning to run against this kind of thing there would have been many more such burnings.  The event was the direct result of the sacralism to which Calvin remained committed, a sacralism which he never discarded.” 

-Leonard Verduin (AD 1897-1999), a graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, and the University of Michigan.  Verduin knew Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, French, Dutch, English.  On the subject of Calvin, it is noteworthy that Verduin is of the Reformed tradition. 

The above quote is from “The Reformers and Their Stepchildren”, by Leonard Verduin, Eerdmans; 1964.  Reprinted by The Baptist Standard Bearer,Inc., Paris, Arkansas. 

http://gulfcoastpastor.blogspot.com/2016/09/john-calvin-killing-servetus...

David R. Brumbelow

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“When we remember that Calvin, in consistency with his theocratic ideas, was intolerant on principle, and take into account the pertinacity with which Servetus had for years pressed upon him his erratic views and denounced him as a hypocrite, a disciple of antichrist, and a propagator of the most dangerous errors, it is not much to be wondered at that when he received a complimentary copy of the ‘Christianismi Restitution’ he should have felt prompted to put even the Roman Catholic authorities in the way of seizing the abominated author, or that when Servetus, which an infatuation hard to be explained, came to Geneva, Calvin should have used his influence to secure his arrest, condemnation, and execution.”

 

“On October 24, 1553, having with rare courage refused to withdraw his objectionable teachings, he was burned at the stake along with his books.  After writhing in the flames for half an hour, he cried aloud, ‘Jesus, thou Son of the eternal God, have compassion upon me!’ and gave up the ghost.  The leading Reformers of Germany and Switzerland heartily commended Calvin and the Genevan Council for ridding the world of one who was regarded as an arch-enemy of the truth.” 

-Albert Henry Newman, D.D., LL.D., “A Manuel of Church History,” Volume II Modern Church History (A.D. 1517-1932), American Baptist Publication Society; 1902, 1931, 1953.  Dr. Newman was a professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Reprinted by SWBTS in 2008. 

 

Notice John Calvin reported Servetus to the Roman Catholic authorities hoping they would do the job for him.

Notice that Calvin “used his influence to secure his [Servetus] arrest, condemnation, and execution.”

Notice “the leading Reformers of Germany and Switzerland heartily commended Calvin and the Genevan Council for ridding the world of one who was regarded as an arch-enemy of the truth.” 

David R. Brumbelow

Bert Perry's picture

....is that in most of Western Europe and the United States, general liberty of conscience in church membership and worship occurred at the earliest in the 18th century, two centuries after this deal.  As I noted in the other thread, had Arminius (1560-1609) been in a non-Reformed Geneva and received the same documents as had Calvin, he would have done exactly the same thing with exactly the same result.  If you doubt this, "google" "Bloody Mary", "St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre", "Scots Covenanters", "Thirty Years War", and the like.  State churches in this country persisted past the signing of the Constitution as well.  For that matter, consider that Catholic Vienne also handed down a sentence for blasphemy against him.  

Or, for that matter, just bring the matter up to any educated Jew, and you might hear the phrase "cry me a river" when you complain about the treatment of Christian religious minorities.  So to castigate Calvin for things pretty much the rest of Europe was doing at the time is simply to prove that one has no clue about the course of history.  The idea that society can abide without a state church is really pretty new, and the idea that a society can abide vocal heretics in its midst is new as well. 

I repeat, by the way, the challenge to use sources which are closer to primary sources than those here, or those David has linked.  The wikipedia page for Servetus appears to have some good links.  

So yes, Calvin, and the rest of Europe, had a blind spot to the Baptistic doctrine of individual soul liberty in the same way that Albert Newman appears to have had a blind spot to the Jim Crow policies of his employer.  And so...?

Paul Henebury's picture

There is a Letter from Calvin to Melancthon where he frankly says that he had Servetus done to death.  This is a black mark against him (as per the Verduin quote above) and he ought not to be excused for it.  Interestingly, and I think germane to the subject; Herman Hoeksema wrote a pamphlet in which he castigated Calvin and others for their intemperate rhetoric.  I agree, there is a contempt in Calvin's writing against Pighius for example.  

Calvin was a great theologian and commentator and preacher, but he was a many-faceted man, and not every facet was laudable.

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

JohnBrian's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

There is a Letter from Calvin to Melancthon where he frankly says that he had Servetus done to death. 

Can you provide a link?

 

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Bert Perry's picture

Here's an online, searchable source.  I do not find the letter Paul refers to.  

Calvin says quite a bit that we might term intemperate today, some of it regarding wolves like Servetus (is there any better term for those who twist the Trinity?).  It was a rough & tumble age--keep in mind that the 30 Years War was yet ~65 years in the future, and that war is said to have killed 25% of the population of Germany.  Keep in mind as well that the Turks had only fairly recently (1529) been repelled from the walls of Vienna, and Hungary, Romania, Ukraine, Serbia, Croatia, and Greece were yet under Ottoman rule.  

It was therefore not a time when people felt that religious turmoil would be acceptable in a principality or republic--including Luther, Melanchthon, and a lot of others.  It was also a time when a small city like Geneva could hardly afford to be seen by neighboring powers like Austria and France as one which was willing not only to offend against the Council of Trent, but also against a core Christian doctrine like the Trinity. 

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“The only advocates of toleration in the sixteenth century were Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians, who were themselves sufferers from persecution. Let us give them credit for their humanity.”

-Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

"David Brumbelow is the quotation ninja - always ready with an appropriate excerpt from somebody! Bravo!" Smile

-Tyler Robbins, ordinary Christian

Just kidding, David. You clearly read a lot.

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Ron Bean's picture

Maybe I missed the intention of te quote but I thought toleration of false doctrine was bad.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Bert Perry's picture

Those who argue that religious minorities--heretics and Anabaptists--were uniformly peaceful need to read up on the  Zwickau Prophets and German Peasant's War.  There might certainly be those who early on embraced peaceful coexistence, but it's simultaneously arguable that for many, it was simply an admission that they had, or would have, gotten their clocks cleaned in strife, and they didn't want a repeat of the same.

Not that religious toleration is a bad thing, but all too often, the "toleration" practiced by the Anabaptists is used as a club to avoid discussion of real theological issues.  No, thank you.

Steve Davis's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

“The only advocates of toleration in the sixteenth century were Anabaptists and Antitrinitarians, who were themselves sufferers from persecution. Let us give them credit for their humanity.”

-Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church

David R. Brumbelow

 

Schaff must've forgotten about Huguenots in 16th France  century before the 1598 Edict of Nantes granting toleration (until its Revocation in 1685 by Louis XIV). 

Paul Henebury's picture

As most folks who read SI know, I normally provide my sources.  I am away from my library right now so I shall try to correct the deficiency asap.  

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

Tyler,

Always loved quotes, so I notice them and use them often. 

Sorry for the delay, we’ve been working with flood recovery along the San Bernard River.  Overwhelming, but it is amazing to see the great things God is doing, how He is providing. 

Ron,

Toleration is a good thing when it comes to national religious liberty and free speech.  It is a bad thing when you tolerate false doctrine in your church, denomination, seminary, mission board. May we always stand for the fundamental doctrines of Christianity.   

David R. Brumbelow

Ron Bean's picture

I apologize for being a little cynical in my comment. I'm recovering from a background where the use of words like balance and tolerance were considered signs of leaning in a neo-evangelical direction. Looking back, one of the amusing things was that some of them were Baptists who were intolerant of  anything not Baptist. I think they would have separated from Roger Williams. One of them even said that Williams wasn't a "real Baptist" because he was reformed. SIGH

 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“Honour, glory, and riches shall be the reward of your pains; but above all, do not fail to rid the country of those scoundrels, who stir up the people to revolt against us. Such monsters should be exterminated, as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.” 

-John Calvin, September 30, AD 1561 letter to Marquis Paet, high chamberlain to the King of Navarre. 

Notice Calvin himself says, “as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.”

 

Ron, Your cynicism is noted :-).  

David R. Brumbelow

TylerR's picture

I'm not sure how anyone could nuance the "exterminated" bit! But, I do think his ecclesiology, and the context of the times, should be taken into consideration.

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

JohnBrian's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

“Honour, glory, and riches shall be the reward of your pains; but above all, do not fail to rid the country of those scoundrels, who stir up the people to revolt against us. Such monsters should be exterminated, as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.” 

-John Calvin, September 30, AD 1561 letter to Marquis Paet, high chamberlain to the King of Navarre. 

Notice Calvin himself says, “as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.”

David R. Brumbelow

Not sure what your point of bringing Servetus up constantly is, but can you provide a link for this quote?

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David R. Brumbelow's picture

My point is not that you can’t be a Calvinist once it is established that John Calvin was very much in favor of killing Servetus.  My point is simply that whether an individual is a Calvinist or not, don’t deny or minimize Calvin’s complicity in this.  And, whatever else someone believes about Calvin, this is certainly a black mark on his life.  

Yes, Calvin was a man of his times, but he was also dead wrong on killing Servetus.  

David R. Brumbelow

AndyE's picture

JohnBrian wrote:

“Honour, glory, and riches shall be the reward of your pains; but above all, do not fail to rid the country of those scoundrels, who stir up the people to revolt against us. Such monsters should be exterminated, as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.” 

-John Calvin, September 30, AD 1561 letter to Marquis Paet, high chamberlain to the King of Navarre. 

Notice Calvin himself says, “as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.”

Not sure what your point of bringing Servetus up constantly is, but can you provide a link for this quote?

  According to this link, it is possible that the quote was made up by Voltaire. 

I'm not all that familiar with the Servetus incident.  Is the following a fair summary (per TGC)?

In the 1500s, denying the Trinity was a blasphemy that was considered worthy of death throughout Europe. Because he had written books denying the Trinity and denouncing paedobaptism, Servetus was condemned to death by the French Catholic Inquisition. Servetus escaped from prison in Vienne and fled to Italy, but stopped on the way in Geneva. After he attended a sermon by Calvin, Servetus was arrested by the city authorities. French Inquisitors asked that he be extradited to them for execution, but the officials in Geneva refused and brought him before their own heresy trial. Although Calvin believed Servetus deserving of death on account of what he termed as his “execrable blasphemies”, he wanted the Spaniard to be executed by decapitation as a traitor rather than by fire as a heretic. The Geneva council refused his request and burned Servetus at the stake with what was believed to be the last copy of his book chained to his leg.

Bert Perry's picture

David R. Brumbelow wrote:

My point is not that you can’t be a Calvinist once it is established that John Calvin was very much in favor of killing Servetus.  My point is simply that whether an individual is a Calvinist or not, don’t deny or minimize Calvin’s complicity in this.  And, whatever else someone believes about Calvin, this is certainly a black mark on his life.  

Yes, Calvin was a man of his times, but he was also dead wrong on killing Servetus.  

David R. Brumbelow

 

Oops; didn't see the "not" there.  That noted, shall we bring up the very real crimes of the Southern Baptists (described in short below) whenever David quotes a Southern Baptist divine?  Wanna play that game, David?

This establishes very clearly what David's motivation is; he thinks that because Calvin provided the evidence that resulted in the execution of Servetus, that therefore no one can be a Calvinist.   If we want to go with this kind of logic, may I remind the forum about why the Southern Baptists split from their northern brothers?  If killing a single heretic damns Calvinism, than what do we say about the enslavement of four million men, women, and children, accompanied by murders of those who tried to escape, systematic rapes of attractive women among their number, and splitting family units in direct contradiction to Jesus' command "let no man put asunder"? What do we say about voicing support to laws that preserved the subjugation of our black brothers and sisters for a century, and even harboring, knowingly, KKK leaders and members in their churches, thus granting them respectability and aiding and abetting the murders of 3400 blacks by lynching?

If you want to play the genetic fallacy game, David, you're welcome to try, but I for one will keep on reminding you that the crimes of your church make the most damning descriptions of Calvin look positively benign in comparison.  Whether the doctrines of grace and other articles of Calvin's theology are true or false depends solely on their congruence with Scripture, not Calvin's conduct.

Besides, Calvin's own words are that Servetus sought to "stir up the people to revolt against us".  Back in the 1500s, that did not generally refer to pushing an adverse resolution in the congregational meeting, but to very real rebellions like those of the Hussites, the Peasants' Revolt, and the like.  Calvin's own move to execute him as a traitor by beheading rather than as a heretic by burning speaks to this possibility. 

Paul Henebury's picture

Since I don't have access to my library and I wish to move on, I shall provide a quote from Schaff with the link and leave it there.

"Calvin never changed his views or regretted his conduct towards Servetus. Nine years after his execution he justified it in self-defence against the reproaches of Baudouin (1562), saying: "Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will?  Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies?  Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster."

I said there was a letter from Calvin to Melancthon, but it may have been the other way round.  Memory fails.

 

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

“I am wholly of your opinion, and declare also that your magistrates acted quite justly in condemning the blasphemer to death.” 

-Melanchthon, in a letter to John Calvin concerning Servetus.  Quoted in “Calvin in His Letters by Henry F. Henderson; 1909, 1996. 

 

John Piper affirms this Melanchthon quote and says,

“Yet, in this execution his [Calvin’s] hands were as stained with Servetus’ blood as David’s were with Uriah’s.” 

-John Piper in “The Legacy of Sovereign Joy.”

David R. Brumbelow

Ron Bean's picture

Some of this reminds me of the preacher I knew in Florida who despised the Reformers and would list their sins as a way of discrediting reformed theology. They stayed in the Roman Catholic Church instead of separating, they drank beer and danced, their services "looked like the mass", Luther's antisemitism, they didn't believe in separation of church and state, they didn't believe in religious liberty (of course he didn't either), they were crude in their language............

He admired J. Frank Norris, though.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

JohnBrian's picture

Quote:

“Honour, glory, and riches shall be the reward of your pains; but above all, do not fail to rid the country of those scoundrels, who stir up the people to revolt against us. Such monsters should be exterminated, as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.” 

-John Calvin, September 30, AD 1561 letter to Marquis Paet, high chamberlain to the King of Navarre. 

Notice Calvin himself says, “as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.”

James Swan from the Beggars All blog presents evidence that this letter may be a forgery. He writes:

The alleged letter gives someone a title he did not hold until twenty years later... that is indeed a problem, and it's enough then to pull the letter from historical evidence until further notice. 

In a later post Swan writes about a book titled, Did Calvin Murder Servetus? written by Standford Rives.

He notes that Rives does not quote primary sources, and that his name may in fact be a pseudonym:

More troubling though is the documentation. Rives quotes Benedict, who is quoting Robinson, who is allegedly quoting Calvin! First, it's in vol. 1 of Benedict (his footnote left that out). Second, when one goes to look at Robinson, one discovers that author is citing Voltaire who is citing Calvin. So Standford Rives never actually quoted Calvin directly. He quoted someone quoting someone who quoted someone quoting Calvin!

A reviewer on Amazon also mentions "Standford Rives" is a pseudonym...

All that to say that the quote should not be used as evidence against Calvin, since it cannot be shown that it actually came from Calvin.

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JohnBrian's picture

Banner of Truth has an article by William Wileman titled Calvin and Servetus.

It was posted twice - October 14, 2003 and August 11, 2009

From the article:

It is very common to hear the remark, "What about Servetus?" or, "Who burned Servetus?" There are three kinds of persons who thus flippantly ask a question of this nature. First, the Roman Catholics, who may judge it to be an unanswerable taunt to a Protestant. Second, those who are not in accord with the great doctrines of grace, as taught by Paul and Calvin, and embraced and loved by thousands still. Then there is a third kind of persons who can only be described as ill-informed. It is always desirable, and often useful, to really know something of what one professes to know.

and

The simplest method of arranging my material will be to ask and to answer three questions. First, why was Servetus burned? Second, who burned him? Third, what part in the matter was taken by John Calvin?

and

All these circumstances prove that his trial was lengthy, deliberate, and careful; and quite in harmony with the requirements of the age. All the Reformers who were consulted approved of the sentence that was pronounced.

and

And now one man alone stands forth to plead for a mitigation of the sentence, namely, that another form of death be substituted for the stake. That one man was John Calvin. He interceded most earnestly with the judges for this, but in vain. Both Farel, who came to Geneva for the purpose, and Calvin, prayed with the unhappy man, and expressed themselves tenderly towards him. Both of them pleaded with the Council for the substitution of a milder mode of death; but the syndics were inflexible.

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pvawter's picture

In a footnote on p.52 of The Reformers and their Stepchildren, Verduin writes:

In the sacral pattern heresy is automatically sedition. The Codes of Justinian decreed that "Heresy shall be construed to be an offence against the civil order" (XVI, 5:40). It has been said that Calvin sought, late in the trial, to have sentence commuted to the effect that some mode of execution other than by fire would be Servetus' lot. The reason for this suggestion was that Calvin wanted Servetus eliminated as an offender against the civil order. Death by fire was for offenders in the area of religion. Hence Calvin's concern in the matter. It was the same sensitivity that made Margaret of Parma, in 1567, specify death by hanging for Guido de Brès. It would look better to have de Brès destroyed as a seditionist than as a heretic; hence death by the noose rather than by the flame. So also in the case of Servetus.