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John Calvin and Servetus

July 22, 2009

Desiring God blog asked the participants of the 2009 Desiring God National Conference on John Calvin What’s One Thing You’d Change About Calvin? Two out of the four (John Piper and Marvin Olasky) answered that they would change Calvin’s involvement in Servetus’ execution.  This is a disappointing response, mainly, because so many Calvinists simply assume what non-Calvinists (or anti-Calvinists) say about the historical account of Calvin and Servetus.  Here are some points as to why Calvinists should rest easier about Calvin’s involvement in the death of Servetus:

  • Calvin was not the judge in Servetus’ heresy trial, but simply a theological witness to Servetus’ writings and claims.  Calvin’s authority within the trial was minimal.  His poor health actually prohibited him from having much involvement even as a witness.
  • Calvin had little or no authority(probably none) in the actual sentence of death of Servetus by the city of Geneva.  The sentence of Servetus was in 1553.  Calvin was not even allowed to become a citizen of Geneva until 1559 – five years before his death.  The actual person responsible for much the accusations and sentencing was Nicholas de la Fontaine.
  • Many do not mention the fact that Calvin spent many nights in prison with Servetus reasoning with him about the Scripture and pleading with him to repent.
  • Everyone wanted Servetus dead.  The reason he was in Geneva was because he was on the run, and since he knew the Genevians were not sympathetic to Calvin, he thought he would find sanctuary there.  Catholics and Protestants alike across Europe were eager to burn Servetus as a heretic.  When Geneva had Servetus in custody, nobody in Europe was pleading for his innocence.  Even if Calvin pleaded to release or not sentence Servetus to death, he would have been an anomaly.  There simply were no categories of doing anything different with Servetus at that time than what was done.  You cannot take Servetus, Geneva, Europe, or Calvin out of their times.
  • While Calvin agreed with the sentence of death after Servetus refused to repent, he disagreed with the sentence of being burned as a heretic.  He pleaded that he should be be-headed quickly.  Yet, again, Calvin’s authority was minimal.

For a complete presentation on this topic see Frank James’ talk The Calvin I Never Knew – Great resource on Calvin on missions, church planting, and other topics.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 9, 2013 11:35 am

    All of this is simply bending over backwards to make excuses for murder. There is a religion in which its followers are told to kill heretics, but it is not Christianity. There is no place for Sharia-type law in Christianity. Calvin’s own words are proof that he was proud of his involvement in the murder of Servetus. Calvin took full credit for the death of Servetus. He did not write that he was a minor player, he wrote that it was he that “exterminated” him. Not only did Calvin boast of exterminating Servetus, he encouraged others to do likewise. Where in the Scriptures does Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc… command execution for false teachers? I couldn’t care less what the law of the land was. Do we support abortion simply because it is the law of the land, because the Supreme Court approves of it?
    What happened to being long-suffering? Who were the Council to decide what the time-frame was for Servetus to believe? There are Christians today that struggled with the Trinity for many years before embracing it. They would have never got to that point if they were killed while they didn’t accept it. The bottom line is that Calvin hid behind man’s law to get rid of a pain in his side. Killing heretics is not something that Jesus advocated. You can spin it any way you want, but Calvin took the credit for the murder of Servetus, and advocated for more of the same.

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