John Calvin was a highly influential leader in the Protestant Reformation. Born in France and educated in civil law, Calvin eventually fled Catholic France and moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where he instituted many reforms. Under Calvin’s leadership, the city of Geneva became a haven for other Reformers who fled persecution in their own countries; also, by 1540 the city began moving toward a theocracy—moral law and civil law were one and the same. In 1553 came a confrontation with a heretic named Michael Servetus, who was eventually executed in Geneva for his heresy; this incident has been a source of controversy ever since.
Michael Servetus was a Spanish physician and theologian who rejected orthodox Trinitarian doctrine. According to Servetus, God is one single person. He contended that the persons of the Trinity are actually “forms” in which God has chosen to manifest Himself. According to Servetus, Christ was made a man by God, and His human nature prevents Him from being God. Servetus concluded God is eternal, but Jesus Christ is not. In his denial of the Trinity, Servetus was seen as a heretic by Catholics and Protestants alike. John Calvin briefly corresponded with Servetus, but broke off all communication after the first few letters, as it was apparent that Servetus was unyielding in his denial of the Trinity.
In 1552 the Spanish Inquisition took action against Servetus, but he escaped their hands. Later, the French Inquisition declared Servetus worthy of death but had to burn him in effigy, due to his escape. In August 1553, Servetus traveled to Geneva where he was recognized and at Calvin’s request was imprisoned by the city magistrates. The trial of Michael Servetus lasted through October, at which time the Council of Geneva condemned him to death. Servetus was burned at the stake on October 27, 1553. The Calvinists and the Catholics both wanted him dead, but the Calvinists got to him first.
The condemnation and death of Michael Servetus has been a black mark on John Calvin’s record for centuries. Was the burning of Servetus justified, or was it cold-blooded murder? God will judge. In contemplating the history of Calvin and Servetus, it is good to remember the following facts:
– The laws in Switzerland made heresy punishable by death; Servetus’ death was thus justified in the eyes of the Geneva Council. Plus, the councils of Berne, Zurich, Basle, and Schaffhausen were consulted, and they all encouraged the verdict and punishment.
– Calvin agreed with the sentence of death passed on Servetus; however, he urged that in mercy Servetus be executed by the sword, not by burning. The council rejected his suggestion.
– Michael Servetus was the only heretic ever executed in Geneva in Calvin’s lifetime. In comparison, between 3,000 and 10,000 people were executed by Catholics in Spain alone during the Inquisition. As tragic as Servetus’ death was, it should be kept in perspective.
The wretched matter of Calvin and Servetus should teach us at least two things: 1) the Reformers were not perfect—even great men such as John Calvin can make serious mistakes; and 2) the New Testament church was never designed to double as a civil government.