Calvin and Servetus

In a recent question and answer panel Steve Lawson had this to say about Calvin’s role in the burning of Servetus. Nothing new here really, but it is helpful to have all the information in one place and stated so succinctly. Next time someone blames Calvin for burning Servetus, send this info on to them.

In 1553, the city fathers burned Servetus – Calvin did not. Calvin did not prosecute him, and had no powers of execution. Calvin wasn’t even a citizen of Geneva at the time. Calvin was only an expert witness, and argued for a more humane death. The RCC had already condemned Servetus to death, and Servetus begged not to be sent back to their hands. Servetus was given the option to leave Geneva, and refused. Servetus was executed by civil authorities, not elders or pastors or teachers. The civil authorities were Calvin’s enemies, not his supporters. They consulted other cities’ leaders, and they agreed to put him to death. Servetus would have been executed, regardless. Servetus defiantly ignored a warning not to come to Geneva. He was the only heretic to be executed for blasphemy, as opposed to the hundreds of thousands martyred by Rome during the Inquisition.

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3 Responses to “Calvin and Servetus”

  1. James Dolezal Says:

    Nicely summarized. In private correspondence Calvin pleaded with Servetus not to seek sanctuary in Geneva. It almost seems like Servetus had a death wish. But how convenient for anti-Calvinists to lay the blame on Calvin in the end!

  2. Nick Cowan Says:

    This attempt to “whitewash” Calvin over his willing participation in the appalling and unChristian martyrdom of Michael Servetus is not only extremely unconvincing but it raises more questions than answers. Did the “city fathers” actually do the vile act themselves or was it delegated? If so then how is Calvin less guilty than they? Was Servetus given the humane option to leave Geneva AFTER the verdict ie. leave or go to the stake? I suspect not. Which other cities were consulted? Zurich – with its equally unChristian treatment of the Anabaptist saints – for example?

    No, in these shameful episodes the Reformers stand side-by-side with the murderous RC inquisitors. I pray that Calvin repented before his faith became completely shipwrecked: Clark’s attempts to deflect the blame hark back to Eden, but he does at least acknowledge that Calvin’s followers did later apologise on his behalf. We should follow their lead.

  3. luehrmann Says:

    Nick,
    If you are implying the burning was delegated to Calvin you don’t have an historical leg to stand on. The reality of Calvin not being a citizen of the city cannot be ignored. I’m currently in the UK on a visa, I doubt I’ll have any governmental responsibilities delegated to me. When is the last time a witness in a court case was blamed for the actual sentence or death (assuming death penalty)? Should Calvin have asked not merely for a more human death, but no death at all? Of course. As far as Calvin shipwrecking, we have the testimony and historical account of his life that that was not the case. One thing we are reminded of by Calvin and all those used of God, both in the scriptures and in history, is that they are sinful and marred people. But in God’s grace he uses them greatly, and will even use us. That’s truly incredible and humbling.

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