John Calvin and Michael Servetus

In a biography of Calvin by William Wileman, after describing the details of Michael Servetus’ heresy and his escape from the fires of the Inquisition in Lyons because of his gross heresies, he tells us that Servetus came to Geneva indirectly where he was arrested by the Council which was at this time opposed to Calvin.  Calvin did not want Servetus’ death, only the retraction of his heresies.  Subsequently he drew up thirty eight articles of examination.  After examinations of Servetus, the articles, with Servetus’ replies, “were sent to the churches of Zurich, Berne, Basle, and Schaffhausen, with a request for their opinion…..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” (Kindle page 72).  Both the Geneva Councils were in favour of capital punishment, and he was sentenced to death by burning the following day.  Calvin’s biographer tells us that Calvin pleaded with the judges for a more humane judgment, but in vain.  Then Farel came to Geneva so that both he and Calvin could pray with Servetus, “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” (Kindle page 72). 

Wileman then summarises his discussion of the events surrounding Calvin and Servetus: “The main facts therefore may now be summarized thus: 1. That Servetus was guilty of blasphemy, of a kind and degree which is still punishable here in England by imprisonment.  2. That his sentence was in accordance with the spirit of the age.  3. That he had been sentenced to the same punishment by the Inquisition at Vienne.  4. That the sentence was pronounced by the Councils of Geneva, Calvin having no power either to condemn or to save him.  5. That Calvin and others visited the unhappy man in his last hours, treated him with much kindness, and did all they could to have the sentence mitigated” (Kindle page 73).

I don’t excuse Calvin, Augustine, or any Christian for executing people for heretical views.  The apostle Paul and New Testament means of punishment for them was “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5).  But the claim that Augustine used coercion against the Donatists in the sense that Dave Hunt suggest is a complete lie. Go to: Augustine of Hippo – Wikipedia.

It’s sad to say, but if we rejected every Christian and every Christian church or organisation because of their behaviour, we would reject most of them.  We should rather reject their bad behaviour but accept their doctrine when it is in accordance with scripture.  Jesus himself gave this instruction to the crowds and to his disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat: All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not” (Matt 23:1-3).

“John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching, And His Influence”, by William Wileman, pub E4 Group, 2020.  Original publication details: William Wileman’s (1848-1944) John Calvin: His Life, His Teaching and His Influence (London: Robert Banks & Son, ca. 1909)