“Mine enemies reproach me all the day; and they that are mad against me are sworn against me.” Psalm 102 verse 8
Readers of a certain age may well remember Norman St John Stevas, a Conservative MP who, during the middle and late 1960’s seemed to be the political establishment’s “Favourite Roman Catholic”. Smooth and smarmy, oozing self-satisfaction, he resembled an over fed, pampered feline! Like any cat, however, he had sharp claws and his behaviour could change in a flash. Such an occasion came during one of the late night BBC TV “chat” shows of this period upon which he was a frequent guest. The name of John Calvin was mentioned, and St John Stevas instantly radiated malice, “Calvin” the MP hissed, “he burned people”! As one might expect on BBC TV no one saw fit to point to St John Stevas that he himself was a devout communicant member of a Church that had burned tens of thousands of people!
Far more recently, and indeed far more disturbingly, I heard a quasi-defence of Michael Servetus on a Christian TV channel, alleging that he had been burned “merely” for denying the Trinity, and this from a spokesman for a Pentecostal body that uses the King James Bible and is highly critical of the Church of Rome. As usual Calvin was blamed. In a qualified and, I am sure, wholly inadequate defence of God’s faithful servant and chosen instrument John (Jean) Calvin, I would wish to make the following points –
1) John Calvin did not “burn people”. He was involved in the arrest, trial and conviction of one person, Michael Servetus, for blasphemy, heresy and sedition which led to his subsequent execution by burning.
2) Servetus was prosecuted, tried, found guilty, sentenced and put to death by the Council of Geneva which in 1553 was controlled by Calvin’s enemies, the Libertine faction. The actual prosecution being taken over and conducted by Claude Rigot, the Attorney-General and himself a Libertine and, as such, an opponent of Calvin.
3) After the sentencing Calvin asked that the method of execution be changed to decapitation. The Council refused.
4) Prior to his arriving in Geneva, Servetus had been arrested, tried and sentenced to death by the “Holy Office” of the Church of Rome at Vienne in France where he had been living under a false name. He escaped and apparently inexplicably came to Geneva, almost certainly hoping to ally himself to the Libertines against Calvin and the Reformed Church, overthrow them, and replace Protestantism with his own brand of Pantheism.
5) During Servetus’ trial the Council of Geneva sent messengers to both the magistrates and Reformed Churches in four other Swiss Cantons, Bern, Zurich, Schaffhausen and Basle seeking both their advice and their reaction to the attached writings of Servetus, including his book “Christianismi Restitutio” (Christianity Restored). The reaction was one of unanimous condemnation; Henry (Heinrich) Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor in Zurich, describing Servetus as “a Demon from Hell” and adding that the Church in Geneva had been given a glorious opportunity to strike against heresy.
6) In his book “Relation of the Proceedings at Geneva in 1553 against Michael Servet(us) drawn from the original documents” (1844) Albert Rilliet draws the following conclusions – “If Calvin alone had been concerned in the affair of Servetus, all his efforts would have been unavailing to secure the condemnation of his adversary”. He continues, “Servetus was tried and, as we shall mention below, condemned by the majority of his judges, not at all as the opponent of Calvin- scarcely as a heretic- but essentially as seditious. Politics acted a much more important part than theology, towards the close of this trial- they came on stage with the Attorney-General”. This from an author who had made an exhaustive, detailed study of the original documents of the trial!
Efforts have been made in more recent times to portray Michael Servetus as a Martyr for “Liberty of Conscience”! I would condemn the actual prosecution of Servetus and particularly his cruel, barbaric death as strongly as anyone, but I would also point out that this does not make him “an injured innocent”, he was indeed, most certainly, a heretic and a blasphemer. Moreover he expressed his ideas in the most aggressive and offensive manner possible, describing the Holy Trinity, the Godhead, as “a Three Headed Cerberus, a Hell Hound”. He also stated, in direct contradiction of Holy Scripture, that Our Lord Jesus Christ had no existence prior to his incarnation, and was thus a form adopted by God (The Father) to become man. Indeed Servetus claimed a unique, divine commission to “Restore” Christianity, if, in his view, it had ever been truly put forward at all! It is clear that if Servetus was a “Martyr” for anything, it was surely for his own delusions of grandeur, his egomania and his duplicity!
After the death sentence had been passed on Servetus, William (Guillaume) Farel who had come to Geneva from Neuchatel to support Calvin, pleaded with Servetus, “To repent of his sins and confess the God who had thrice revealed himself”. Servetus, in turn, demanded that Farel produce a single passage from Holy Scripture where Christ was called the Son of God prior to his coming in the flesh, the Reformer immediately quoted several such passages, something Servetus could not answer.
Servetus also propounded another heresy, essentially anti-Semitic in character- namely that the promises of God in the Old Testament had only carnal fulfilment for the Children of Israel “who obtained the land of Canaan and were satisfied with milk and honey” (“De Justitia regni Christi”). Elsewhere he claimed, “In the Law remission of sins was carnal and earthly” (“Christianismi Restitutio”).
Servetus also attacked paedobaptism and denied original sin. Many saw in his writings strong similarities to the teachings of revolutionary, radical Anabaptist sects and their leaders, notably the notorious Thomas Munzer, who had caused untold suffering across Germany. Like many heretics before him, and the leaders of various modern-day heretical cults, Servetus prophesied that the end of the world was imminent, stating this would occur towards the end of the Sixteenth century when Archangel Michael brought final deliverance.
It certainly seems that many of the comments made about the circumstances surrounding the death of Servetus are rooted in prejudice and ignorance. Prejudice against John Calvin in particular, and the Reformed Faith in general, and ignorance, much of it wilful, concerning the role other participants and parties played in the affair. If nothing else, it is surely unjust to single out one man, John Calvin, and blame him entirely for the death of Servetus, and indeed for viewing the matter and acting as a man of his time.
To conclude I feel it is fitting to close with the following quote from Dr John Wylie in his “History of Protestantism”. “To Calvin, above all men, we owe it that we are able to rise above the error that misled his age, and when we think, with profound regret, of this one stake planted by Protestant hands, we are surely bound to reflect with a gratitude not less profound on the thousands of stakes which the teaching of Calvin has prevented ever being set up”. AMEN!.