Much is made of the case of Servetus, especially by people seeking to denigrate Calvin
Bruce Gordon, in his work Calvin (and at times he is very hard on Calvin) shows some interesting things that are often ignored by people who are eager to assault Calvin’s character.
The first take home lesson is that the situation is complex, there is a rich interplay of factors and actors that take part in this.
A. In Regard to Servetus the man:
First, we need to understand what sort of man Servetus was. Besides being a heretic according to all major mainstream religious traditions of that time and place (an offence which almost all states at the time agreed was punishable by death), Servetus seemed to be obsessive and wanting to get punishment. As Douglas Wilson once said something to the effect of: Servetus was the kind of guy who would join a church just so he could get under church discipline and blog about it. Bruce Gordon’s research seems to confirm this. Servetus was warned not to go to Geneva.
And, as Gordon puts it, his attempts to make contact with Calvin “bordered on an obsession”. In fact, he wrote 30 unanswered letters to Calvin. So there is something out of the ordinary here. He did not seem to be at all sane. And to further led credence to this, even after he had been arrested and convicted elsewhere and escaped, when his trip as a fugitive led him through Geneva, he didn’t bother making a small alteration that would have allowed him to bypass Geneva. And, not only did he not bypass Geneva, he went to Calvin’s church!
And then when Servetus had a golden opportunity to be transferred away from Geneva’s jurisdiction (the Genevan officials offered this), he turned it down.
Second, Servetus specifically believed his arrival to Geneva had apocalyptic dimensions, making it especially provocative, back in a day when they took those sort of things far more seriously than they do now.
Third, Servetus was out of control in the trial in a way that would not be tolerated even nowadays. Gordon recounts about how when Calvin was brought into the trial to question Servetus for his views, Servetus not only called Calvin the “agent of the devil” but maintained that Calvin should be put to death, not him.
B. About the case against Servetus and his arrest:
First, Servetus was arrested in accordance with Geneva’s laws, which Calvin did not establish.
Second, the desire to punish Servetus was not unique. As was mentioned, he had been arrested and tried elsewhere. When rest of the Swiss churches was consulted, it was agreed by all that “the form of punishment should be left to the Genevan council”. There is reason to believe most other Protestant and Catholics, rightly or wrongly, wanted to see him punished too. And out of those that didn’t, many did so out of a grudge against people involved (ie. many of the ones that were opposed to Calvin wanted Servetus released, not because they were against punishing heretics, but because he was Calvin’s enemy).
Third, the Genevan officials wanted to transfer Servetus to another jurisdiction, but Servetus pleaded to remain in Geneva and face what was coming to him.
C. About Calvin’s specific role
First, Calvin’s role in the process was limited. In fact, given the power of the Genevan rulers, Calvin didn’t even have the power to excommunicate people and those same rulers would certainly not let Calvin determine the course of the trial–they saw it as a power struggle. Gordon says “Calvin could not have Servetus executed. That was the decision of a council not well disposed toward [Calvin] and with which he was locked in battle over excommunication. Servetus provided an opportunity for the magistrates to demonstrate their authority over Calvin…[the] magistrates understood clearly that harbouring or exonerating a heretic would blacken Geneva’s name across Europe.”.
Second, Calvin agreed that heresy was a capital office, but did not want Servetus to die.
Third, even though Servetus called him a devil, Calvin argued that Servetus should be given a less painful form of execution.
Fourth, Calvin’s request for a less painful execution was rejected by the authorities–he didn’t not have the power to do that.
As a side note, many of the historical accounts that people depend on to vilify Calvin in this are known to be distortions spread by people who had an interest in vilifying Calvin’s character. We must also, I might add, be careful about superimposing our historical and political situations on previous eras, Geneva during Calvin’s time was a very different scene than we do now in typical 21st century Western culture.
I hope (naively) that everyone who appeals to Servetus to denigrate Calvin will read this. At the very least so that Calvin will not be blamed for something he didn’t do. Anyone who knows me knows I am vigorously opposed to the state punishment of heretics (even if it is less extreme that capital punishment).
If they still have a critique about Calvin’s involvement and view of the relation of the state to heretics after they’ve read this (and I do too), at least they will have many relevant facts that will focus on the issues correctly. It’s very unnerving the way people who don’t like Calvin drag his name through the mud based on false (or misleading) information.
[Most of this can be sourced to: Calvin by Bruce Gordon – Ch. 13]