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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 157. Calvin’s Defence of the Death Penalty for Heretics.


The public sentiment, Catholic and Protestant, as we have seen, approved of the traditional doctrine, that obstinate heretics should be made harmless by death, and continued unchanged down to the close of the seventeenth century.

But there were exceptions. As in the case of the execution of the Spanish Priscillianists in the fourth century, the genuine spirit of Christianity and humanity raised a cry of indignation and horror through the mouths of St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Martin of Tours; so there were not a few in the sixteenth century who protested against the burning of Servetus. Most of these—Lelio Socino, Renato, Curio, Biandrata, Alciati, Gribaldo, Gentile, Ochino, and Castellio—were Italian refugees and free-thinkers who sympathized more or less with his heretical opinions. It was especially three professors in the University of Basel Borrhaus (Cellarius), Curio, and Castellio—who were suspected at Geneva of being followers of Servetus. For the same reason some Anabaptists, like David Joris, who lived at that time in Basel under the assumed name of John von Bruck, took his part. Anonymous libels in prose and verse appeared against Calvin. He was denounced as a new pope and inquisitor, and Geneva, heretofore an asylum of religious liberty, as a new Rome,12041204    The Sicilian, Camillo Renato wrote a long poem, De injusto Serveti incendio, which is copied by Trechsel, I. 321-28, from the Simler collection in Zürich. Several poems came from Italian refugees in the Grisons. A hundred Servetuses seemed to arise from the ashes at Champel; but they were all inferior men, and did not understand the speculative views of Servetus, who had exhausted the productive powers of antitrinitarianism.12051205    On these later Antitrinitarians, see the preceding chapter. They were deistic; Servetus pantheistic. Trechsel says (I. 269): "In Servet schien sich die produktive Kraft des Antitrinitarianismus erschoepft zu haben. Von der Hoehe der Genialitaet und speculativer Weltbetrachtung sank er zu der Stufe des trivialen ohnmaechtigen Zweifels hinunter, und die jugendliche Frische und Fülle, die sich in den Ideen des spanischen Arztes offenbarte, wich einem altklugen, verstaendelnden, halbaufgeklaerten Wesen, das sich in einer Fluth von subjektiven Meinungen ohne Halt und innere Bedeutung zu erkennen gab. Nicht wenig wurde der kirchlichen Parthei und Calvin an ihrer Spitze durch die geistige Bedeutungslosigkeit ihrer Gegner der Kampf und Widerstand erleichtert, und doch dauerte er noch dreizehn Jahre und endigte mit einer aehnlichen gewaltsamen Katastrophe, wie diejenige, mit welcher er begonnen hatte." He means the execution of Gentile at Bern, 1566.

Not only dissenters and personal enemies, but also, as Beza admits, some orthodox and pious people and friends of Calvin were dissatisfied with the severity of the punishment, and feared, not without reason, that it would justify and encourage the Romanists in their cruel persecution of Protestants in France and elsewhere.

Under these circumstances Calvin felt it to be his disagreeable duty to defend his conduct, and to refute the errors of Servetus. He was urged by Bullinger to do it. He completed the work in a few months and published it in Latin and French in the beginning of 1554.12061206    Zurkinden in Bern received a copy Feb. 10, 1564; Sulzer in Basel, Feb. 26. It had an official character and was signed by all the fifteen ministers of Geneva.12071207    Defensio orthodoxae fidei de sacra Trinitate, contra prodigiosos errores Michaelis Serveti Hispani: ubi ostenditur haereticos jure gladii coërcendos esse, et nominatim de homine hoc tam impio juste et merito sumptum Genevae fuisse supplicium. Per Johannem Calvinum. Oliva Roberti Stephani (261 pages). It is also quoted under the subtitle: Fidelis Expositio errorurm Mich. Serveti et brevis eorundem Refutatio, etc., or simply as Refutatio Errorum M. S. The French version is entitled: Declaration pour maintenir la vraye foy que tiennent tous Chréstiens de la Trinitédes personnes en un seul Dieu. Par Jean Calvin. Contre les erreurs détestables de Michel Servet, Espaignol. Oùil est aussi monstré, qu’il est licite de punir les heretiques; et qu’àbon droict ce meschant a estéexecutépar justice en la ville de Genève (356 pages). The work is accordingly cited under different titles—Defensio, Refutatio, Declaration. See the bibliographical notices in Calvin’s Opera, VIII. Proleg. xxix-xxxiii.

Beza aided him in this controversy and undertook to refute the pamphlet of Bellius, and did so with great ability and eloquence.12081208    See succeeding section.

Calvin’s work against Servetus gave complete satisfaction to Melanchthon. It is the strongest refutation of the errors of his opponent which his age produced, but it is not free from bitterness against one who, at last, had humbly asked his pardon, and who had been sent to the judgment seat of God by a violent death. It is impossible to read without pain the following passage: "Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honor, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories?"

Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel. But his arguments from the New Testament are failures. He agrees with Augustin in the interpretation of the parabolic words: "Constrain them to come in" (Luke 14:23).12091209    In his commentary on that passage (Harm. Evang., Pars. II. 43, Tholuck’s edition), Calvin says: "Non improbo, quod Augustinus hoc testimonio saepius contra Donatistas usus est, ut probaret, piorum principum edictis ad veri Dei cultum et fidei unitatem licite cogi praefractos et rebelles: quia, etsi voluntaria est fides, videmus tamen, iis mediis utiliter domari eorum pervicaciam, qui non nisi coacti parent." But this can only refer to moral and not to physical force, and would imply a forcible salvation, not destruction. The same parable was afterwards abused by the French bishops to justify the abominable dragoonades of Louis XIV. against the Huguenots. Calvin quotes the passages on the duty of the civil magistrate to use the sword against evil-doers (Rom. 13:4); the expulsion of the profane traffickers from the temple (Matt. 21:12); the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1 sqq.); the striking of Elymas with blindness (13:11); and the delivery of Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan (1 Tim. 1:20). He answers the objections from the parables of the tares and of the net (Matt. 13:30, 49), and from the wise counsel of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34). But he cannot get over those passages which contradict his theory, as Christ’s rebuke to John and James for wishing to call down fire from heaven (Luke 9:54), and to Peter for drawing the sword (Matt. 26:52), his declaration that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36), and his whole spirit and aim, which is to save and not to destroy.

In his juvenile work on Seneca and in earlier editions of his Institutes, Calvin had expressed noble sentiments on toleration;12101210    See Henry, II. 121-124; III. 224. even as Augustin did in his writings against the Manichaeans, among whom he himself had lived for nine years; but both changed their views for the worse in their zeal for orthodoxy.

Calvin’s "Defence" did not altogether satisfy even some of his best friends. Zurkinden, the State Secretary of Bern, wrote him Feb. 10, 1554: "I wish the former part of your book, respecting the right which the magistrates may have to use the sword in coercing heretics, had not appeared in your name, but in that of your council, which might have been left to defend its own act. I do not see how you can find any favor with men of sedate mind in being the first formally to treat this subject, which is a hateful one to almost all."12111211    "Ego non video gratiam aliquam te inire posse apud sedati animi homines, quod primus omnium ex professo fere hoc argumentum tractandum susceperis, omnibus ferme invisum." Bibl. Gen. Cod. 114. Trechsel, I. 269; Opera, XV. 22. Bullinger intimated his objections more mildly in a letter of March 26, 1554, in which he says: "I only fear that your book will not be so acceptable to many of the more simple-minded persons, who, nevertheless, are attached both to yourself and to the truth, by reason of its brevity and consequent obscurity, and the weightiness of the subject. And, indeed, your style appears somewhat perplexed, especially in this work." Calvin wrote in reply, April 29, 1554: "I am aware that I have been more concise than usual in this treatise. However, if I should appear to have faithfully and honestly defended the true doctrine, it will more than recompense me for my trouble. But though the candor and justice which are natural to you, as well as your love towards me, lead you to judge of me favorably, there are others who assail me harshly as a master in cruelty and atrocity, for attacking with my pen not only a dead man, but one who perished by my hands. Some, even not self-disposed towards me, wish that I had never entered on the subject of the punishment of heretics, and say that others in the like situation have held their tongues as the best way of avoiding hatred. It is well, however, that I have you to share my fault, if fault it be; for you it was who advised and persuaded me to it. Prepare yourself, therefore, for the combat."12121212    "Alii me durius exagitant, quod saevitiae et atrocitatis sim magister, quod mortum hominem, qui manibus meis periit, calamo proscindam. Sunt etiam quidam non malevoli, qui argumentum illud nunquam me attigisse cuperent, de haereticis puniendis. Dicunt enim alios omnes, ut invidiam fugerent, data opera tacuisse. Sed bene se habet, quod te habes culpae socium, si quae tamen culpa est, quia mihi auctor et hortator fuisti. Vide igitur, ut te ad certamen compares." Henry, III. 236 and Beilage, p. 87; Opera, XV. 124.



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