Contend Earnestly: Calvin vs Servetus

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Calvin vs Servetus

Thought this was a good small article on the execution of a heretic named Servetus, which has caused many to hate Calvin and to believe him to also be at fault as an heretic.

by J. Steven Wilkins

In the year 1553 an event occurred which would forever blacken the reputation of Calvin in the eyes of an ungodly world. In that year a heretic named Michael Servetus entered Geneva after fleeing from France after being condemned for his heresy there and escaping from prison in Vienna. He was seen in the streets of Geneva and arrested on August 13. This trouble he had brought upon himself by his book which denied the existence of the Trinity as well as the practice of infant baptism. Though the former is clearly a more serious error than the latter, the latter position identified Servetus with the hated Anabaptists who had spread the revolutionary ideas of socialism and communism. Why Servetus came to Geneva is not clear though the Reformer Wolfgang Musculus wrote that he apparently thought that Geneva might be favorable to him since there was so much opposition to Calvin.

On August 21, the authorities in Geneva wrote to Vienna asking further information on Servetus. The authorities in Vienna immediately demanded his extradition to face charges there. At this the Genevan city council offered Servetus a choice: he could either be returned to Vienna or stay in Geneva and face the charges against him. Servetus, significantly, chose to remain in Geneva.

The trial began and as it progressed, it became evident that the authorities had two choices: banish Servetus or execute him. They sent to their sister cities Berne, Zurich, Schaffhausen and Basle for their counsel. The counsel from each city was the same: execute the heretic. The method of burning alive was chosen. Calvin intervened to appeal for the more quick and merciful beheading as the method of execution but the council refused and on October 26, 1553, Michael Servetus was executed.

It is strange that this incident should bring such odium upon Calvin and another example of the hatred of orthodox Christianity that it has. The facts are that mass executions were carried out in other places throughout this time. After the Peasants' War in Germany, after the siege of Munster, during the ruthless period of Roman Catholic dominance in Elizabethan England. Even as late as 1612 the authorities in England burned two men who held views like those of Servetus at the behest of the bishops of London and Lichfield. Thirty-nine people were burned at the stake for heresy between May of 1547 and March of 1550. The 16th century was not a time of great tolerance of heresy in any place in Europe.

If one contends that Calvin was in error in agreeing with the execution of heretics then why is there not equal indignation against all the other leaders who supported and carried out and supported these measures elsewhere. None less than the honored Thomas Aquinas explicitly supported the burning of heretics saying, "If the heretic still remains pertinacious the church, despairing of his conversion, provides for the salvation of others by separating him from the church by the sentence of excommunication and then leaves him to the secular judge to be exterminated from the world by death." (Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae q. 11 a. 3)

Furthermore, Servetus was the only individual put to death for heresy in Geneva during Calvin's lifetime. Strange indignation it is that men focus upon this one and virtually ignore the hundreds executed in other parts of the world.

Further still, it must be remembered that Calvin's role in this entire matter was only that of expert witness at the trial. The idea that Calvin was "the dictator of Geneva" is utterly unfounded in fact. Calvin was never allowed to become a citizen of Geneva. He was technically among the habitants — resident legal aliens who had no right to vote, no right to carry weapons, and no right to hold public office. A habitant might be a pastor or teacher if there was no Genevan citizen who was qualified for the position. This is why Calvin was allowed to be pastor of the church there. But he was always denied access to the decision-making machinery.

The only place where Calvin could have exerted significant influence was in the Consistory. But the Consistory was completely bypassed in this entire matter by the council apparently in an effort to demonstrate that they were far more concerned for holiness and purity than Calvin (and some of the people) had thought. They sought thus to shut Calvin out of this matter as much as possible.

Why then all the outrage at Calvin? Simply because of who he was and what he taught. The world can live with Romanism and Arminianism, it cannot abide the truth of the Reformed faith. For this reason Calvin and Calvinism have been the enemies of the world and will be till the world ends.

Copyright 1998, J. Steven Wilkins


Anonymous said...

Great Post, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Very good post, while I don't agree with burning heretics (and I mean actual heretics not just anyone who believes something wrong) according to Deut. 13 they should be executed.

gracevet said...

Daniel: "according to Deut. 13 they should be executed."

So what are you saying Dan? That it is ok to execute heretics?

Anonymous said...

Yes that is exactly what I am saying.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. I had not delved into the circumstances and Calvin's actual role.

Justin Evans said...

Daniel, do you condone the stoning of rebellious children (Deut 21)?

Anonymous said...

Justin, it depends on what you mean by rebellious. If a child disobeys their parents once, then no, you don't execute them. But if a child grows up with a spirit of disobedience and rebellion and demonstrates an unwillingness to honor his parents (the 5th Commandment) then captial punishment is the Scriptural punishment for such behavior.

Paul equates disobedient children with homosexuals, and other heinous sins in Romans 1. I think we take too lightly a childs responsibilies to keep the 5th Cmnd and our responsiblity to render obedeince to rightful authority.

Seth McBee said...

I am not saying that capital punishment is wrong, but we must also correctly interpret eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth as Christ speaks in Matthew 5:48...also Jesus told the Pharisees when coming to stone the prostitute: He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

I think these make us "re-define" some of these old testament regulations...if we follow your advice we should then go and stone Benny Hinn as well and many other false prophets...

I am guessing the reason you don't actively do this yourself is because of the submission to governing authorities...but would this not be obeying men rather than God? (Acts 5:29)

Anonymous said...

As in previous threads, we must again remember that we are a part of the New Covenant. The laws in the Deuteronomy passages that have been mentioned were part of the Mosaic Covenant, which we are not under any longer, in fact we are dead to it (Rom. 7)!

So we don't stone heretics, or disobedient children, or the adulteress (Mat. 5) because that behavior is not commanded of us, it was commanded of Israel under the Mosaic covenant.

Anonymous said...


Yes incorrigible children, one's who will not receive correction, are to be put to death.


Jesus was correcting the Pharisees misinterpretation of an 'eye for an eye' which they had used as a pretext for personal vengeance. As for the refernce you make to the woman taken in adultery, first of all this is a textual variant, so I would be careful about putting too much weight on it. Secondly, even if you accept this passage as genuine, Christ does advocate setting aside the law, as the law required that BOTH parties caught in adultery were to be put to death, whereas the Pharisees just wanted the woman stoned. The reason I don't execute Benny Hinn and other heretics is that I am not a civil magistrate, it is their job to uphold social justice (Rom 13) not the job of private individuals.


The Old Testament civil laws have not been set aside therefore they remain binding in the new covenant (Matt: 5:17-19). Moreover, they are further proved to be binding on all nations for the following reasons:

1. they were an example to the pagan nations of civil justice Deut. 4:6-8.

2. Christ held them on a par with the Decalogue Matt.15

3. Paul believed they were still in force 1 Tim. 1:8-10

4. If they are abolished then what replaces the OT judicial laws as the Biblical standard for socio-political justice?

5. The civil laws were not ceremonial in nature.

6. God gave them, so they must be holy, righteous, just and good.

See the post on Theonomy on my blog for more information.

Lance Roberts said...

Seth, Daniel,

Christ did not set aside the law, he fulfilled it exactly. The law says that you can't kill someone without 2 or 3 witnesses. Since everyone left, there were no witnesses, so no legal case could be made.

I also agree that the OT laws are binding (unless specifically abrogated). They, like all the Bible, are the revelation of Jesus Christ.

gracevet said...

Lance said: "Since everyone left, there were no witnesses, so no legal case could be made."

What on earth are you driving at?

Anonymous said...

I think what he means is that in order for someone to be put to death the case had to be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses.

Moreover, I would add that according to the author of Hebrews, those who were executed under the judicial law received a 'just punishment' (Heb 2:1-2 NIV), and consequently, if we are to instruct the state to punish crime justly we must tell them to implememt the civil laws of the Bible.

Anonymous said...

In regards to Deut 13, all Theonomists agree that this
passage is universally binding and to be enforced by the civil magistrate. Such civil enforcement would be against false prophets (v.1-3, 5) and attempts at seduction to public idolatry (v.6-10). But the passages does not teach civil enforcement against "heresy" or "heretics".

Dr. Bahnsen comments on this topic:

"My own conviction at this point (I am teachable and may change my mind with correction that comes) is that
the civil society has a right to protect its fundamental authority. When someone comes and
proselytizes for another god or another final authority (and by the way, that god may be man) – when
some one tries to undermine the commitment to Jehovah which is fundamental to the civil order of a godly state – then that person needs to be restrained by the
magistrate. However, this does not mean that individuals should be punished for holding heretical
views, the views that Baptists think are heretical or Lutherans think are heretical and so forth. It simply means that those who will not acknowledge Jehovah as the ultimate authority behind the civil law code which the magistrate is enforcing would be punished and repressed. You would, therefore, be open, I believe, to hold Muslim views or Hindu views in the privacy of your home, provided it was not a Christian home that you’ve now come into to subvert and draw away from
Jehovah. You would be able to hold these views as a private conviction. But you would not be allowed to proselytize and undermine the order of the state."

"Every civil order has some such final point beyond which you cannot push. What we are saying as
Christians is, that point ought to be that you don’t dispute the authority of Jehovah publicly and call people to follow other gods."
--"Interview with Bahnsen" [1993]

"Theonomy does not hold that the civil magistrate has the prerogative to judge fine matters of doctrine and punish heretics who stray from the truth, and it does
not do so because it does not read the Old Testament law as granting this power to civil rulers." [p.63]
--"No Other Standard"

"theonomic ethics does not believe that the Old Testament law calls for the punishment of unbelievers or false teachers," [p.183]

"Note well that punishing public idolatry or blasphemy is not to punish unbelief *as such*-- any more than punishing a rapist
is to punish the person for being
an unbeliever (as indicated by his wicked deed).
Furthermore, the Old Testament
law did not punish with civil sanctions the making of a theological mistake, but
rather false presumption to prophecy (inspiration)."

"About the law of God, it should have been noticed
that what the civil magistrate is called to punish is
blasphemy (public cursing of God), not errors in doctrine. In the Old Testament the task of kings was not the same as priests (e.g., 2 Chron.
26) who were responsible for orthodoxy (cf. Mal. 2:7-8), even as in the New Testament the "keys" of the kingdom are separated from the coercive "sword" of the state (Matt. 16:19; 2 Cor. 10:4, Rom.13:4). There is no Biblical warrant for thinking that the civil magistrate has either the competence or the divinely-given authority to judge heretics or resolve theological disputes between different Christian
schools of thought."
--No Other Standard [p.184]

"theonomists do not believe the state has the right or
duty to punish heresy in the first place."

--"House Divided" [p.78]

Rushdoony has made similar statements in his two books
on the "Institutes of Biblical Law". He writes:

"It should be noted that Deuteronomy 13:5-18 does not
call for the death penalty for unbelief or heresy. It condemns false prophets (vv. 1-5) who seek to lead the people, with signs and wonders, into idolatry. It does
condemn individuals who secretly try to start a movement into idolatry (vv. 6-11). It does condemn cities which establish another religion and subvert
the law-order of the nation (vv. 13-18), and this condemnation must be enforced by man to turn away the
judgment of God (v. 17)."

--Institutes of Biblical Law [p. 38-39]

"Deuteronomy 13 is not a popular chapter of Scripture.
Several ministers have expressed to me their hostility to Biblical law by citing Deuteronomy 13; or 17:2-7
(or, Ex. 22:20); going back to Biblical law, they declare, means going back to burning heretics. Do I want that?....It is important to face this issue squarely. Either the whole of Scripture is defensible, or it is not....[I]t is important to note that it is
not heresy which is condemned but idolatry. There is an important difference. Heresy is wrong thinking about the Word of God, but it is not idolatry....

The Bible requires us to separate ourselves from a heretic (Titus 3:10; cf. Acts 24:14; I Cor. 11:19; Gal. 5:20; II Peter 2:1), but it does not go beyond that....All
who are content with a humanistic law system and do not strive to replace it with Biblical law are guilty of idolatry. They have forsaken the covenant of their
God, and they are asking us to serve other gods. They are thus idolaters, and are, in our generation, when our world is idolatrous and our states also, to be objects of missionary activity....Only as God's law is
made the practice of men can it become the practice of nations....Scripture emphatically requires us to reject both the earlier and the present law systems in favor of a rigorously Biblical, covenantal law structure."

--"Law and Society" (Vol 2 of IBL) [p. 466-469]

gracevet said...

This is heading way off topic at hand but is there anyone on this list with a good website rebutting this theonomy rubbish?

Seth McBee said...

I think it all comes down to how one view's the law handed down to the Jews. I could be wrong but this could be another difference between covenant theology and dispensational theologyl.

Lane.Daniel.David.Larry...correct me if I am wrong.

I do need to study further on this subject...anyone got a good book or article on the subject?

Anonymous said...


I think your right, though not everyone who accepts covenant theology is a theonomist.


If theonomy is 'rubbish' how then could David say 'the statutes of the LORD are right' (that includes statutes calling for the death penalty for adulteres, idolaters etc). Moreover, please show me from Scripture what the Biblical alternative to theonomy is? You can't beat something with nothing.

Anonymous said...

I think it is important to note that there was agreement among Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists as to the execution of Michael Servetus. In fact the death sentence had previously been passed on Servetus by Catholic judges in Vienne, France. During Servetus' two month trial in Geneva, correspondence was received from the French court that contained a copy of the death sentence handed down and a request that he be sent back for execution by being "burned alive, at a slow fire." He had avoided that fate in France only by escaping from his prison cell. Calvin was against execution by burning and favored instead a more humane death, that of death by the sword. Additionally, the leader of the Lutherans, Philip Melanchthon concurred in the punishment taken at Geneva. In a letter to Calvin, he said that the "magistrates did right in punishing, after regular trial, this blasphemous man."

Seth McBee said...

Thanks for the comment and yes, those are all good points and for a quick read on the subject check out John Calvin: His Life and Influence. I have a review of this book on my blog Contend Earnestly Books

This book also states that the Calvinist community put up a statue of Servetus up to commemorate the unruly death of the heretic; asking for forgiveness. Pretty interesting read.

Anonymous said...

Interestingly, Scotland had a law against blasphemy that remained into the 18th century. And on January 8, 1697, Thomas Aikenhead was executed by hanging after a civil jury found him guilty of blasphemy.

Seth McBee said...

that is interesting and what is amazing is how much has been put on the Servetus debate when the Romans Catholics were busy doing this sort of thing all over Europe with really no reaction as a reason to denounce their views. Although I know many renounce the RC view, as do I, few call upon their burnings and hangings as reasons why. But, with Calvin people know very little about
Calvin's theology but know him as "that guy who burned that other guy" When that is far from the truth and shoudln't negate his biblical writings even if all those "tall tales" are true.

Paul Cohen said...

Aside from the question of whether it is the place of true Christians, like the apostle Paul, to kill heretics (notice that Paul never killed anyone except in unbelief when persecuting the Lord), Servetus was not a heretic. Has anyone here actually red his book, the one that was burned with him at the stake? I have, and I did not find anything heretical in it. Neither did Calvin. He simply could not answer Servetus regarding the heathen origin and false doctrine of the trinity, which is nowhere to be found in Scripture. Therefore he tried to silence Servetus by murdering him and burning his books. But the truth is never silenced, except in the ears of the deaf for a time.


The Fruit of Cain Multiplied: The Murderer John Calvin

Show me whom you follow, and I will know what manner of person you are or will become. If you do not know whom you are following, don’t you think it is time to find out how and where you are being led? Do you think you will altogether escape the consequences because ignorant? Think again. You already suffer them.

John Calvin was one of the most vicious of wolves ever to pose as a lamb of God. His supremely self-righteous spirit lives on in those who lionize and follow him, even unbeknownst to themselves. Truly, “that which is highly esteemed among men is abomination in the sight of God.”

Seth McBee said...

Paul Cohen.

By your admission that you do not believe in the Trinity, you have shown your ignorance in the truth of Scripture.

If you believe that Calvin was a heretic because of his belief in the Trinity or because he "gave orders" (highly debated) to burn a heretic then both of those claims will find faulty logic.

To debate the Trinity in combox, is not fruitful as it is just too complicated to give only time in a combox.

Based on Calvin "killing" a heretic, your logic would also damn King David in the Old Testament as well. Your logic would quickly fall short.

Thanks for trying to fill up my combox with your heresy, but we just aren't interested.

Paul Cohen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Paul Cohen said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Seth McBee said...

Victor and Paul.
I am not interested in allowing you to put forth your heresy on my site.

I don't need to refute what was refuted in the 4th century. You, like your Arian brothers, have been refuted many times over many centuries.

Have fun spouting your lies elsewhere.

When I get some time I will post on why the Trinity is biblical, orthodox and why it must be believed in or else one is damned.

Til then...get on your soap box elsewhere.

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