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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 152. The Second Act of the Trial at Geneva.


The original prosecution being discharged, the case was handed over to the attorney-general, Claude Rigot, in compliance with the criminal ordinance of 1543. Thus the second act of the trial began. The prisoner was examined again, and a new indictment of thirty articles was prepared, which bore less on the actual heresies of the accused than on their dangerous practical tendency and his persistency in spreading them.11791179    Articles du procureur-général in Opera, VIII. 763-766.

The Council wrote also to the judges of Vienne to procure particulars of the charges which had been brought against him there.

Servetus defended himself before the Council on the 23d of August, with ingenuity and apparent frankness against the new charges of quarrelsomeness and immorality. As to the latter, he pleaded his physical infirmity which protected him against the temptation of licentiousness. He had always studied the Scripture and tried to lead a Christian life. He did not think that his book would disturb the peace of Christendom, but would promote the truth. He denied that he had come to Geneva for any sinister purpose; he merely wished to pass through on his way to Zürich and Naples.

At the same time he prepared a written petition to the Council, which was received on the 24th of August. He demanded his release from the criminal charge for several reasons, which ought to have had considerable weight: that it was unknown in the Christian Church before the time of Constantine to try cases of heresy before a civil tribunal; that he had not offended against the laws either in Geneva or elsewhere; that he was not seditious nor turbulent; that his books treated of abstruse questions, and were addressed to the learned; that he had not spoken of these subjects to anybody but Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Capito; that he had ever refuted the Anabaptists, who rebelled against the magistrates and wished to have all things in common. In case he was not released, he demanded the aid of an advocate acquainted with the laws and customs of the country. Certainly a very reasonable request.11801180    Opera, VIII. 797.

The attorney-general prepared a second indictment in refutation of the arguments of Servetus, who had studied law at Toulouse. He showed that the first Christian emperors claimed for themselves the cognizance and trial of heresies, and that their laws and constitutions condemned antitrinitarian heretics and blasphemers to death. He charged him with falsehood in declaring that he had written against the Anabaptists, and that he had not communicated his doctrine to any person during the last thirty years. The counsel asked for was refused because it was forbidden by the criminal statutes (1543), and because there was "not one jot of apparent innocence which requires an attorney." The very thing to be proved!

A new examination followed which elicited some points of interest. Servetus stated his belief that the Reformation would progress much further than Luther and Calvin intended, and that new things were always first rejected, but afterwards received. To the absurd charge of making use of the Koran, he replied that he had quoted it for the glory of Christ, that the Koran abounds in what is good, and that even in a wicked book one may find some good things.

On the last day of August the Little Council received answer from Vienne. The commandant of the royal palace in that city arrived in Geneva, communicated to them a copy of the sentence of death pronounced against Villeneuve, and begged them to send him back to France that the sentence might be executed on the living man as it had been already executed on his effigy and books. The Council refused to surrender Servetus, in accordance with analogous cases, but promised to do full justice. The prisoner himself, who could see only a burning funeral pile for him in Vienne, preferred to be tried in Geneva, where he had some chance of acquittal or lighter punishment. He incidentally justified his habit of attending mass at Vienne by the example of Paul, who went to the temple, like the Jews; yet he confessed that in doing so he had sinned through fear of death.11811181    Opera, VIII. 789:, Et puys après a confesséquil avait pechéen ce, mais que cestoit par crainte de la mort."

The communication from Vienne had probably the influence of stimulating the zeal of the Council for orthodoxy. They wished not to be behind the Roman Church in that respect. But the issue was still uncertain.

The Council again confronted Servetus with Calvin on the first day of September. On the same day it granted, in spite of the strong protest of Calvin, permission to Philibert Berthelier to approach the communion table. It thus annulled the act of excommunication by the Consistory, and arrogated to itself the power of ecclesiastical discipline.

A few hours afterwards the investigation was resumed in the prison. Perrin and Berthelier were present as judges, and came to the aid of Servetus in the oral debate with Calvin, but, it seems, without success; for they resorted to a written discussion in which Servetus could better defend himself, and in which Calvin might complicate his already critical position. They wished, moreover, to refer the affair to the Churches of Switzerland which, in the case of Bolsec, had shown themselves much more tolerant than Calvin. Servetus demanded such reference. Calvin did not like it, but did not openly oppose it.

The Council, without entering on the discussion, decided that Calvin should extract in Latin, from the books of Servetus, the objectionable articles, word for word, contained therein; that Servetus should write his answers and vindications, also in Latin; that Calvin should in his turn furnish his replies; and that these documents be forwarded to the Swiss Churches as a basis of judgment. All this was fair and impartial.11821182    Opera, VIII. 796. The Latin text of the three documents is embodied in Calvin’s Refutatio Errorum, ibid. 501-553.

On the same day Calvin extracted thirty-eight propositions from the books of Servetus with references, but without comments.

Then, turning with astonishing energy from one enemy to the other, he appeared before the Little Council on the 2d of September to protest most earnestly against their protection of Berthelier, who intended to present himself on the following day as a guest at the Lord’s table, and by the strength of the civil power to force Calvin to give him the tokens of the body and blood of Christ. He declared before the Council that he would rather die than act against his conscience. The Council did not yield, but resolved secretly to advise Berthelier to abstain from receiving the sacrament for the present. Calvin, ignorant of this secret advice, and resolved to conquer or to die, thundered from the pulpit of St. Peter on the 3d of September his determination to refuse, at the risk of his life, the sacred elements to an excommunicated person. Berthelier did not dare to approach the table. Calvin had achieved a moral victory over the Council.11831183    See above, § 109, p. 513 sq.

In the mean time Servetus had, within the space of twenty-four hours, prepared a written defence, as directed by the Council, against the thirty-eight articles of Calvin. It was both apologetic and boldly aggressive, clear, keen, violent, and bitter. He contemptuously repelled Calvin’s interference in the trial, and charged him with presumption in framing articles of faith after the fashion of the doctors of the Sorbonne, without Scripture proof.11841184    VIII. 607: Eam sibi jam autoritatem arrogat Calvinus, ut instar magistrorum Sorbonicorum articulos scribat, et quidvis pro sua libidine damnet, nullam penitus ex sacris [de l’écriture sainte]adducens rationem." He affirmed that he either misunderstood him or craftily perverted his meaning. He quotes from Tertullian, Irenaeus, and pseudo-Clement in support of his views. He calls him a disciple of Simon Magus, a criminal accuser, and a homicide.11851185    VIII. 515: "Simonis Magi discipulus ... acctuator criminalis, et homicida." He ridiculed the idea that such a man should call himself an orthodox minister of the Church.

Calvin replied within two days in a document of twenty-three folio pages, which were signed by all the fourteen ministers of Geneva.11861186    Calvinus, Poupinus, Gallasius, Bernardus, Bourgoinus, Malisianus, Calvetus, Pyrerius, Copus, Baldinus, J. a Sancto Andrea, Faber, Macarius, Colladonus. He meets the patristic quotations of Servetus with counter-quotations, with Scripture passages and solid arguments, and charges him in conclusion with the intention "to subvert all religion."11871187    "Ut luce sanae doctrinae, exstincta totam religionem everteret."

These three documents, which contained the essence of the doctrinal discussion, were presented to the Little Council on Tuesday the 5th of September.

On the 15th of September Servetus addressed a petition to the Council in which he attacked Calvin as his persecutor, complained of his miserable condition in prison and want of the necessary clothing, and demanded an advocate and the transfer of his trial to the Large Council of Two Hundred, where he had reason to expect a majority in his favor.11881188    Opera, VIII. 797, and Rilliet-Tweedie, p. 182. This course had probably been suggested to him (as Rilliet conjectures) by Perrin and Berthelier through the jailer, Claude de Genève, who was a member of the Libertine party.

On the same day the Little Council ordered an improvement of the prisoner’s wardrobe (which, however, was delayed by culpable neglect), and sent him the three documents, with permission to make a last reply to Calvin, but took no action on his appeal to the Large Council, having no disposition to renounce its own authority.

Servetus at once prepared a reply by way of explanatory annotations on the margin and between the lines of the memorial of Calvin and the ministers. These annotations are full of the coarsest abuse, and read like the production of a madman. He calls Calvin again and again a liar,11891189    "Mentiris" occurs in almost every sentence. He naively apologizes for writing on Calvin’s own paper, because there were many little words, such as "mentiris," which would not be otherwise understood; and he hopes that Calvin would not be offended, as there would have been inextricable confusion had he not adopted this method. an impostor, a miserable wretch (nebulo pessimus), a hypocrite, a disciple of Simon Magus, etc. Take these specimens: "Do you deny that you are a man-slayer? I will prove it by your acts. You dare not deny that you are Simon Magus. As for me, I am firm in so good a cause, and do not fear death … . You deal with sophistical arguments without Scripture … . You do not understand what you say. You howl like a blind man in the desert .... You lie, you lie, you lie, you ignorant calumniator .... Madness is in you when you persecute to death … . I wish that all your magic were still in the belly of your mother … . I wish I were free to make a catalogue of your errors. Whoever is not a Simon Magus is considered a Pelagian by Calvin. All, therefore, who have been in Christendom are damned by Calvin; even the apostles, their disciples, the ancient doctors of the Church and all the rest. For no one ever entirely abolished free-will except that Simon Magus. Thou liest, thou liest, thou liest, thou liest, thou miserable wretch."

He concludes with the remark that, his doctrine was met merely by clamors, not by argument or any authority," and he subscribed his name as one who had Christ for his certain protector.11901190    "Michael Servetus subscribit solus hic quidem, sed qui Christum habet protectorem certissimum." From the MS., in Opera, VIII. 553, note.

He sent these notes to the Council on the 18th of September. It was shown to Calvin, but he did not deem it expedient to make a reply. Silence in this case was better than speech.

The debate, therefore, between the two divines was closed, and the trial became an affair of Protestant Switzerland, which should act as a jury.



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