Did Calvin Kill Servetus?
The last two blogs have generated a bit of a stir. Good! If what I’m saying about the centrality of Calvary-looking love is right, we need a major paradigm shift on how we view orthodoxy – which in turn should effect who we see as the “heroes” of orthodoxy.
My contention is that, while we can and should continue to appreciate the theological insights of people who were involved in torturing and killing people, we should not regard them as heroes of orthodoxy – for they were guilty of the worst heresy imaginable. If we continue to esteem killers as heroes, we can’t help but have our vision of the beautiful Kingdom polluted. Of course, none of our heroes are perfect. But I would think, at the very least, they should not be guilty of the worst heresy imaginable. If we wouldn’t make a person who denied the Trinity a hero of orthodoxy, we shouldn’t make anyone who kills in Jesus’ name a hero either.
A few have questioned my claim that Calvin was responsible for Michael Servetus’ murder. One person argued that Calvin actually tried to stop his execution.
It’s true that Calvin didn’t want Servetus burned alive. He advocated for him to be beheaded. But there’s no reputable Calvin scholar I know of who denies Calvin wanted him executed.
Calvin himself had told his colleague Farel that if Servetus ever returned to Geneva, he’d “never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” After the burning, Calvin said, “Many people have accused me of such ferocious cruelty that (they allege) I would like to kill again the man I have destroyed. Not only am I indifferent to their comments, but I rejoice in the fact that they spit in my face.” Elsewhere Calvin said, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt.”
Even Calvin’s staunchest defenders (such as B. B. Warfield) grant that Calvin was ultimately responsible for Servetus’ death. They simply minimize his culpability by saying he was “a man of his times.”
I regard this response to be very weak. Jesus and the early Christians lived in very violent times yet refused to conform to them. And there were many Christians during Calvin’s time (the 16th century) who argued that the use of violence is inconsistent with the teachings of the New Testament – including Calvin’s former friend Sebastian Castellio and all the early Anabaptists. Not only this, but by most accounts, Calvin’s enthusiasm for the use of force to uphold what he regarded as right doctrine and behavior went far beyond most other religious leaders of his time – including, very often, his own Geneva council.
For those who are interested in doing further reading on this topic, here’s a few works I’ve read that I’d recommend:
* Roland Bainton, The Hunted Heretic. I was fascinated with Servetus when I was at Yale and had a number of talks with the elderly Bainton on his book during this time. This man was a walking encyclopedia on the Reformation. (As a side note, he was close to 90 when I met him, yet was sharp as a whip and rode a bike all around town!)
*John Fulton, Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr. An excellent overview of Servetus’ life, thought and death (which Fulton sees as a martyrdom)
*Perez Zagorin, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. A very scholarly work that includes a good section on how public outrage toward Calvin’s murder of Servetus contributed to Christianity finally become a religion that tolerated religious differences. Sebastian Castellio played a major role in creating this outrage.
*Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography. Argues that Calvin was directly responsible for 38 executions in Geneva (other scholars argue he was at least indirectly responsible for as many as 58).
*Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva. Kingdon is one of the foremost scholars in the world on Geneva under Calvin. This book, published by Harvard Press, relies entirely on original sources and presents an incredibly harsh picture of Geneva under Calvin’s rule. For example, a number of children were imprisoned, tortured and even executed for being disrespectful to parents (though I’m not certain I got this information from this work).
My point in all this is not to pick on Calvin. His defenders are right in at least one respect: Almost all segments of Christianity were killing enemies at this time, and Christianity had been engaged in this sort of barbarism for a thousand years by the time Calvin came on the scene. Tragically, Calvin’s murder is not at all unique in the history of this religion. My point is rather that we need to clearly distinguish the Kingdom of God from all such barbarism. And to do this, we must stop making heroes of Christians who killed enemies rather than loving and serving them, as Jesus taught.
Be a peacemaker,