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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 137. Calvin and Servetus.


We now come to the dark chapter in the history of Calvin which has cast a gloom over his fair name, and exposed him, not unjustly, to the charge of intolerance and persecution, which he shares with his whole age.

The burning of Servetus and the decretum horribile are sufficient in the judgment of a large part of the Christian world to condemn him and his theology, but cannot destroy the rocky foundation of his rare virtues and lasting merits. History knows only of one spotless being—the Saviour of sinners. Human greatness and purity are spotted by marks of infirmity, which forbid idolatry. Large bodies cast large shadows, and great virtues are often coupled with great vices.

Calvin and Servetus—what a contrast! The best abused men of the sixteenth century, and yet direct antipodes of each other in spirit, doctrine, and aim: the reformer and the deformer; the champion of orthodoxy and the archheretic; the master architect of construction and the master architect of ruin, brought together in deadly conflict for rule or ruin. Both were men of brilliant genius and learning; both deadly foes of the Roman Antichrist; both enthusiasts for a restoration of primitive Christianity, but with opposite views of what Christianity is.

They were of the same age, equally precocious, equally bold and independent, and relied on purely intellectual and spiritual forces. The one, while a youth of twenty-seven, wrote one of the best systems of theology and vindications of the Christian faith; the other, when scarcely above the age of twenty, ventured on the attempt to uproot the fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christendom. Both died in the prime of manhood, the one a natural, the other a violent, death.

Calvin’s works are in every theological library; the books of Servetus are among the greatest rareties. Calvin left behind him flourishing churches, and his influence is felt to this day in the whole Protestant world; Servetus passed away like a meteor, without a sect, without a pupil; yet he still eloquently denounces from his funeral pile the crime and folly of religious persecution, and has recently been idealized by a Protestant divine as a prophetic forerunner of modern christo-centric theology.

Calvin felt himself called by Divine Providence to purify the Church of all corruptions, and to bring her back to the Christianity of Christ, and regarded Servetus as a servant of Antichrist, who aimed at the destruction of Christianity. Servetus was equally confident of a divine call, and even identified himself with the archangel Michael in his apocalyptic fight against the dragon of Rome and "the Simon Magus of Geneva."

A mysterious force of attraction and repulsion brought these intellectual giants together in the drama of the Reformation. Servetus, as if inspired by a demoniac force, urged himself upon the attention of Calvin, regarding him as the pope of orthodox Protestantism, whom he was determined to convert or to dethrone. He challenged Calvin in Paris to a disputation on the Trinity when the latter had scarcely left the Roman Church, but failed to appear at the appointed place and hour.987987    See above, p. 324. Beza thus reports this incident: "Not long after Calvin returned [from Angoulême, in 1534] to Paris, as if called there by the hand of God himself; for the impious Servetus was even then disseminating his heretical poison against the sacred Trinity in that city. He professed to desire nothing more earnestly than to have an opportunity for entering into discussion with Calvin, who waited long for Servetus, the time and place for an interview having been appointed, with great danger to his own life, since he was at that time under the necessity of being concealed on account of the incensed rage of his adversaries. Calvin was disappointed in his expectations of meeting Servetus, who wanted courage to endure even the sight of his opponent." He bombarded him with letters from Vienne; and at last he heedlessly rushed into his power at Geneva, and into the flames which have immortalized his name.988988    "If ever a poor fanatic thrust himself into the fire, it was Michael Servetus." Coleridge in his Table-Talk.

The judgment of historians on these remarkable men has undergone a great change. Calvin’s course in the tragedy of Servetus was fully approved by the best men in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.989989    See the judgments below in § 139. It is as fully condemned in the nineteenth century. Bishop Bossuet was able to affirm that all Christians were happily agreed in maintaining the rightfulness of the death penalty for obstinate heretics, as murderers of souls. A hundred years later the great historian Gibbon echoed the opposite public sentiment when he said: "I am more deeply scandalized at the single execution of Servetus than at the hecatombs which have blazed at auto-da-fés of Spain and Portugal."990990    In a footnote in ch. LIV. of his work on the Decline and Fall of the R. E. (Smith’s ed. V. 552). He assigns three reasons for this judgment: (1) the zeal of Calvin was envenomed by personal malice and perhaps envy [?]; (2) the deed of cruelty was not varnished by the pretence of danger to the Church or State; (3) Calvin violated the golden rule of doing as he would be done by. Gibbon’s prejudice against Calvinism is expressed in the sentence (p. 551) that "many a sober Christian would rather admit that a wafer is God than that God is a cruel and capricious tyrant."

It would be preposterous to compare Calvin with Torquemada.991991    James Martineau states that "in his eighteen years of office, Cardinal Thomas de Torquemada had burned alive, it is computed, eighty-eight hundred victims, and punished ninety thousand in various ways, not for offences against the moral law, or crimes against society, but for thoughts of their own about religion, which only God, and not the pope, had allowed; or for being Jews that would not be apostates; or for refusing on the rack to confess what they had never done." The Seat of Authority in Religion, 1890, p. 156; comp. Llorente’s Histoire Critique de l’Inquisition, IV. 251 sq. But it must be admitted that the burning of Servetus is a typical case of Protestant persecution, and makes Calvin responsible for a principle which may be made to justify an indefinite number of applications. Persecution deserves much severer condemnation in a Protestant than in a Roman Catholic, because it is inconsistent. Protestantism must stand or fall with freedom of conscience and freedom of worship.

From the standpoint of modern Christianity and civilization, the burning of Servetus admits of no justification. Even the most admiring biographers of Calvin lament and disapprove his conduct in this tragedy, which has spotted his fame and given to Servetus the glory of martyrdom.

But if we consider Calvin’s course in the light of the sixteenth century, we must come to the conclusion that he acted his part from a strict sense of duty and in harmony with the public law and dominant sentiment of his age, which justified the death penalty for heresy and blasphemy, and abhorred toleration as involving indifference to truth  Even Servetus admitted the principle under which he suffered; for he said, that incorrigible obstinacy and malice deserved death before God and men.992992    "Hoc crimen est morte simpliciter dignum, et apud Deum et apud homines." In the twenty-seventh letter to Calvin (Christianismi Restitutio, p. 656). He speaks there of the punishment of Ananias and Sapphira, who were "incorrigibiles, in malitia obstinati." Calvin refers to this admission of Servetus, and charges him with inconsistency. Opera, VIII. 462.

Calvin’s prominence for intolerance was his misfortune. It was an error of judgment, but not of the heart, and must be excused, though it cannot be justified, by the spirit of his age.993993    This is admitted now by all impartial historians. Michelet (XI. 96) calls this blot in Calvin’s life "crime du temps plus que de l’homme même.’

Calvin never changed his views or regretted his conduct towards Servetus. Nine years after his execution he justified it in self-defence against the reproaches of Baudouin (1562), saying: "Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster."994994    Responsio ad Balduini Convicia, Opera, IX. 575: "Iustas quidem ille poenas dedit: sed an meo arbitrio? Certe arrogantia non minus quam impietas perdidit hominem. Sed quodnam meum crimen, si Senatus noster mea hortatu, ex plurium tamen ecclesiarum sententia, exsecrabiles blasphemias ultus est? Vituperet me sane hac in parte Franciscus Balduinus, modo Philippi Melanchthonis iudicio posteritas mihi gratitudinem debeat, quia tam exitiali monstro ecclesiam purgaverim. Senatum etiam nostrum, sub cuius ditione aliquando vixit, perstringat ingratus hospes: modo idem Philippus scripto publice edito testetur dignum esse exemplum quod imitentur omnes christiani principes."

In one respect he was in advance of his times, by recommending to the Council of Geneva, though in vain, a mitigation of punishment and the substitution of the sword for the stake.

Let us give him credit for this comparative moderation in a semi-barbarous age when not only hosts of heretics, but even innocent women, as witches, were cruelly tortured and roasted to death. Let us remember also that it was not simply a case of fundamental heresy, but of horrid blasphemy, with which he had to deal. If he was mistaken, if he misunderstood the real opinions of Servetus, that was an error of judgment, and an error which all the Catholics and Protestants of that age shared. Nor should it be overlooked that Servetus was convicted of falsehood, that he overwhelmed Calvin with abuse,995995    He called him at the trial Simon Magus, impostor, sycophanta, nebulo, perfidus, impudens, ridiculus mus, cacodaemon, homicida, etc. and that he made common cause with the Libertines, the bitter enemies of Calvin, who had a controlling influence in the Council of Geneva at that time, and hoped to overthrow him.

It is objected that there was no law in Geneva to justify the punishment of Servetus, since the canon law had been abolished by the Reformation in 1535; but the Mosaic law was not abolished, it was even more strictly enforced; and it is from the Mosaic law against blasphemy that Calvin drew his chief argument.

On the other hand, however, we must frankly admit that there were some aggravating circumstances which make it difficult to reconcile Calvin’s conduct with the principles of justice and humanity. Seven years before the death of Servetus he had expressed his determination not to spare his life if he should come to Geneva. He wrote to Farel (Feb. 13, 1546): "Servetus lately wrote to me, and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies, with the Thrasonic boast, that I should see something astonishing and unheard of. He offers to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety; for if he does come, and my authority be of any avail, I shall never suffer him to depart alive."996996    Servetus nuper ad me scripsit ac litteris adjunxit longum volumen suorum deliriorum, cum Thrasonica jactantia, me stupenda et hactemus inaudita visurum. Si mihi placeat, huc se venturum recipit. Sed nolo fidem meam interponere. Namsi venerit, modo valeat mea auctoritas, vivum exire nunquam patiar." Opera, VIII. 283; Henry, III. Beil. 65-67; Bonnet-Constable, II. 17. Grotius discovered this damaging letter in Paris, which was controverted, but is now generally admitted as genuine. There is an exact copy of it in Geneva. It was not inconsistent with this design, if he aided, as it would seem, in bringing the book of Servetus to the notice of the Roman inquisition in Lyons. He procured his arrest on his arrival in Geneva. He showed personal bitterness towards him during the trial. Servetus was a stranger in Geneva, and had committed no offence in that city. Calvin should have permitted him quietly to depart, or simply caused his expulsion from the territory of Geneva, as in the case of Bolsec. This would have been sufficient punishment. If he had recommended expulsion instead of decapitation, he would have saved himself the reproaches of posterity, which will never forget and never forgive the burning of Servetus.

In the interest of impartial history we must condemn the intolerance of the victor as well as the error of the victim, and admire in both the loyalty to conscientious conviction. Heresy is an error; intolerance, a sin; persecution, a crime.



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