The Evangelical Universalist Forum

Calvin and Servetus

I remember reading an excerpt from *The Inescapable Love of God *in which the blame for Michael Servetus’ execution was laid at the feet of John Calvin. I’ve researched the affair a little just now and I’m wondering why this was Calvin’s fault. According to Wikipedia (the source of all truth), a council in Geneva sentenced Servetus to burn at the stake for heresy (he denied the doctrine of the Trinity). Calvin himself was not in control of the council but tried to get Servetus’ sentence reduced to beheading once the verdict was decided.

I must admit that my bias was initially against Calvin but I want to be fair in regards to the historical facts. Is there any reason to think that Calvin was responsible for what happened to Servetus?

After Servetus (who seems to have been a modalist who, oddly, rejected the modalism of Sabellianism) and Calvin engaged in an increasingly hot round of correspondence over several years, Calvin (very famously, or infamously) wrote to his friend William Farel: “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.”

That is, Calvin knew that Servetus would come into his power if Calvin invited him, but Calvin (somewhat honestly, to be fair) refused to promise Servetus his safety in coming for a meeting: because Calvin pre-meditated using his own authority to imprison or kill him.

Sure enough, after escaping imprisonment and fleeing the Catholic Inquisition in Italy (which had already declared its intention to burn him at the stake, and which had already done so in effigy–largely on the evidence of 17 letters of John Calvin!!), Servetus went to Geneva, Switzerland and actually attended a service where John Calvin was preaching. It can hardly be supposed that Servetus couldn’t have avoided this; and if he had sought martyrdom, the RCC was already going to give him that! Perhaps he thought he would be martyred more gently by Calvin’s Protestants. More likely, from the circumstances, he thought Calvin would offer him a place to safely (if hotly :wink: ) debate the issues in public.

Calvin’s confidence to Farel can be interpreted from Servetus’ actions, thus, to mean that Servetus had offered, or more likely arrogantly dared, Calvin to invite him in for public debate; which Calvin, furious at Servetus’ “ravings”, was considering replying to in such a way as to mislead Servetus into thinking his safety would be assured–while carefully phrasing the reply so that if Servetus complained about being misled afterward, Calvin could point to the letter of the text and (on the face of it) reply that he had promised no such thing.

Having instigated Servetus’ arrest, once the man arrived at Geneva (fleeing the Holy Office), Calvin was instrumental in having him brought up on capital charges; and while he did hope to mitigate Servetus’ death, he also did intend to see the man dead. (Probably Calvin’s distaste for burning at the stake was founded on the fact that at that very time, Calvinists were being burnt at the stake by Catholics.) Calvin regarded this as being “bitter and bold about their superstitions”. Burning someone at the stake could have looked the height of hypocrisy right that moment. It must certainly have looked very “Catholic”. :wink: )

The short point is that Calvin himself takes positive responsibility for what happened to Servetus, including hoping for his death; and the evidence, taken in total, suggests that his responsibility goes beyond Servetus just sorta accidentally showing up in Geneva at Calvin’s church to be conveniently arrested (after going through rigorous adventures escaping imprisonment and death among the Italian Catholics!)

(All hyperlinks are to internet archives of the Letters of Calvin.)

Dang, that’s quite intense. Not only is Calvin implicated in Servetus’ execution but he plainly stated that he wanted him dead and wrote openly in support of execution. Calvin was not like the muderer who denies responsibility for his actions but like bin Laden who not only takes responsibility for his deeds but thinks them righteous. Morally speaking, Calvin would be more understandable and better if he tried to distance himself from what happened rather then justify what he did by Christian doctrine.

Now to say that Calvin’s teachings are false because of what this affair says about his character would be to commit the ad hominem fallacy. However, since the area of knowledge is not secular but spiritual, the character of a man matters greatly in perceiving the ethical truths of Scripture. If you think burning a fellow Christian for heresy, even if it is a legit heresy, at the stake is justifiable either through natural law or biblical revelation, you’ve got to seriously rethink your position to say the least.

Sorry I can’t appreciate your humor here since I vicariously experienced Servetus’ ordeal some years ago while reading the details of it. Green wood and all. Thanks for pointing out the clear guilt of Calvin in the matter though. Interesting to me is the anti-christic behavior of the other top reformers in this very barbaric time in history. Especially Luther.

Seems with all their intellectual knowledge of scripture they still had not even the slightest clue who Jesus really is.

Ow! My condolences; a terrible mystical experience.

For what it’s worth, I actually wasn’t thinking of “hotly” in the sense of ironic foreshadowing, when I wrote that; I was thinking of Servetus expecting to continue what I had previously called “an increasingly hot round of correspondence” that had been slowly developing over several years. (Starting with an exchange of their principle books for commentary.)

However, I do have to say that I’m the kind of writer who, had I thought of it, would have most likely intended it as a double-entendre, too. :wink:

It is my thorough opinion that anyone who, by dint of study, puts themselves into the cultural position occupied by the Sadducees, Pharisees, priests, scribes and sages of Jesus’ day, ought to instantly start reading themselves self-critically into those portions of scripture. (I do so myself on a routine basis.)

Still: I will say, in fairness to the opposition (as I consider such Christians)–did they have no excuse? No, they had some excuse. But less so in proportion to the level of knowledge they claimed for themselves as having attained.

(Who does that sound like? Oh, yeah, Satan… :mrgreen: I can’t wait to get back to that thread, this autumn. whew… :laughing: )

Heck, Calvin was more than a little annoyed that the head religious leaders of other large towns wanted to have a say in judging and condemning Servetus, because he knew from previous experience that those particular people trended toward more leniency. (I ran across that in one of the letters, too; I don’t recall if it was one that I linked to, though.)

Although, of course, Calvin didn’t consider Servetus to be a fellow Christian. Not even remotely. (Nor was he much inclined to consider anyone who didn’t agree with his theological interpretations to be a ‘fellow Christian’ either. Much to my not-surprise, I find this attitude to be far more endemic among Calvs than Arms.)

The principles in play here were more like: is killing (whether burning at the stake or otherwise) a non-Christian for trying to lead others into non-Christianity, justifiable either through natural law or biblical revelation?

On the face of it, biblical revelation would seem to say ‘yes’, and there could be good arguments for it from ‘natural law’, too. Even if I reply (which I would) that the true expert in biblical revelation ought to go deeper in understanding the teaching of biblical revelation on this topic, I would still have to admit that such a process and result isn’t the easiest ‘prima facie’ way of understanding the scriptures (especially when picked at piece-meal).

There is a scene in the excellent movie Gods and Generals, mostly focusing on the career of General “Stonewall” Jackson from just before the secession of the South until his death; where this kind, pious, chivalrous, Biblically literate man, is meeting with his new cavalry officer JEB Stewart for the first time. Jackson notes that Stewart has a high reputation for success during his service in the recent wars against the Apache. Stewart replies that he has a lot of respect for the Apache, despite their utter ruthlessness, because they were only defending their homes. “Exactly,” Jackson replies (which I’m paraphrasing for report.) “And we must do the same. Our political leaders do not have the will to do what must be done in order to end this conflict as quickly as possible. We must show the black flag, Colonel Stewart. No quarter must be given to the enemy. None at all. Our leaders would do better to read this book [holds up his portable Bible] and learn its teachings. There are many wars in it, with no quarter given to the enemy. No quarter, Colonel Stewart. [wave Bible, thump].”

I wish Stewart had said something to the effect of, “yeah, and in most cases those wars you’re talking about involved the Hebrews invading someone else’s home, showing them no quarter. Or involved some other culture invading the Hebrews’ home, showing them no quarter, which the Hebrews complained about as showing how evil and depraved the other cultures were.” (Instead, as he’s walking off says something admittedly very cool in a macho sort of way but avoiding the issue.)

Jason said:
“On the face of it, biblical revelation would seem to say ‘yes’, and there could be good arguments for it from ‘natural law’, too. Even if I reply (which I would) that the true expert in biblical revelation ought to go deeper in understanding the teaching of biblical revelation on this topic, I would still have to admit that such a process and result isn’t the easiest ‘prima facie’ way of understanding the scriptures (especially when picked at piece-meal).”

Are you serious? From the NT teachings you find justification for executing heretics? Are you just saying that it can be misinterpreted that way from a cursory glance

No; but Calvin and his contemporaries didn’t consider “the Bible” to only consist of the NT. (And neither do I. :wink: )

It might be argued that they ought to have considered teachings of the NT to (for whatever reason) utterly supercede teachings to this effect in the OT–that would be one way of (as I put it, and as you quoted me putting it) “going deeper in understanding the teaching of biblical revelation on this topic”.

But obviously they didn’t do that, for whatever reason.

And I would be willing to bet that they picked up and read some NT portions along that line, too. I wouldn’t interpret those portions that way; but we aren’t talking about me, we’re talking about Calvin and the various exegetical authorities of late medieval Europe (and earlier). And I know enough about the data, and about Christian history, to understand how and why people could easily get to that kind of mindset from the testimony of “biblical revelation” (including, yes, from the NT, even though not as prevalently, and even though it might seem perverse to us to interpret the data that way.)

:laughing: Yep - I assumed, and ya’ know what they say :wink:
Out here in the country we burn piles of brush and stuff quite a bit, I’ve been singed a few times and I’ve got that dang empathy ‘gift’ going… :cry:

I understand that it was a different culture so it wasn’t (in one way) quite as monstrous as it seems to us today. Yet, it does show a horrible callousness toward fellow creatures. That’s why I just generally say “They had no clue”.

You mean the Lucifer thread? That would be great Jason (as if I hadn’t been beat up enough over there :open_mouth: :mrgreen: ).

Actually I do think it is an important conversation and I have learned a lot and will learn even more after you dive in. :slight_smile:

please to not excuse Calvin

He that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the just, even they both are abomination to the LORD.
Proverbs 17:15 … calvin.htm

I’m a fair man, Sven. We all stand condemned, and we all have contextual circumstances. If I’m not willing to fairly acknowledge whatever excuses there may be, neither will I be in any position to fairly judge against what he did.

(Or, put another way, if I am not willing to be merciful to Calvin, neither will God be merciful to me. Not until I’m willing to be merciful to Calvin anyway. Not that Calvin would have agreed with that principle in all circumstances; but still…)

Something to fairly consider, pro or con, is the question of improvement. Let us suppose a Calvinist agrees that we ought not to do as Calvin did. What would be the rationale for why not? Merely because circumstances are different at the moment? Or is there a rationale for improvement on Calvinistic principles (per se) compared to what Calvin actually did? (i.e., can he be judged as having not lived up sufficiently to his own standard? If so, then that would be a mitigating factor in favor of the system of belief anyway.)

Hyper Calvinism is the greatest (conceptual) evil I have ever encountered in my 52 years. The idea that God created humans for the express purpose of showing His righteousness by damning the non-elect as well as (of course) saving the elect few.

I had a man tell me that even if his wife and children were non-elect that he would laugh and rejoice (with God) at their fate and it would not bother him in the least to observe their eternal burning, in fact - it would be an occasion for celebration. :open_mouth: :open_mouth: :open_mouth:

In our more civil modern culture very few Christians make this claim, in fact most say God will be eternally grieved over those in eternal ‘hell’ but my response is that IF it is good and right and just etc etc, why NOT be happy about it? :bulb:

You can be merciful to Calvin and yet condemn his actions, no?

I had a woman who (with her husband) had recently ‘converted’ to Calvinism, tell me that she dealt with the idea of the non-elect by considering them ‘cigarette people’ of no value whatsoever.

She was such a good woman that she kept trying to reassure me that of course she didn’t really think that. Not for a minute. It was just her way of feeling better about the doctrine. Her husband (who had brought her to this) stood off in a corner silently looking down at the ground in kind-of-amused embarrassment for 30 or 45 minutes. (I have no doubt that converting to Calvinism helped the husband deal with some personal issues he had been having. There are some excellent points to Calvinism that are well worth emphasizing. But still. It was painful to watch his wife, whom I have no doubt was totally sincere about not believing such people were really utterly worthless, trying to come to terms with what she was smart enough to realize were the real implications of the doctrine she was trying to accept and believe. A classic case of ‘cognitive dissonance’.)

This was at about the time my church lost its main Arminian authority figure (who helped keep things balanced) and made an initial push (thank God not continued with much afterward) at yanking the small groups into line by having us study Grudem’s (Calvinistic) Systematic Theology. I lapsed my formal membership shortly afterward.

(I still attend the church most Sundays; I even greet people at the back door, where most of the parking happens to be and so where most people come in. I try to make sure I’m there to welcome them in after the service starts, too. Seems appropriate. :smiley: )

That’s the positive-action way of putting my quoted statement, yes.

Very much relatedly: God can be merciful to me while yet condemning my actions and (even more importantly) my attitudes.

Lewis once wrote (and I much agree) that God doesn’t judge according to external appearances but according to the heart. When someone conditionally shaped in a merciless environment by merciless ideas manages to show a modicum of mercy to an enemy, simply because he accepts enough of the Spirit in his heart to know (perhaps without even knowing why he knows) it’s the right thing to do, that man may be showing more courage and compassion than another man would for being tortured to death for a friend. I don’t know for sure how much of Calvin’s behavior was due to difficulties in his environment, and how much was due to him succumbing to uncharity for his own personal pleasure. But I do know (because the data is there on the page) that Calvin was one of the few people who tried to have Servetus executed in a less horrible manner–including the guy he was writing to at the time, who was entirely of the ‘burn the bleeper!’ party. (And wanted to be the one to lead Serv to the stake. And got his wish, barely on time, if I recall correctly.)

To us, that miniscule amount of mercy may seem worthless. But God may cherish it like a diamond buried in mountains of rotting coal.

And I had better be ready and willing to appreciate and rejoice over that. Or guess who is the one in line for some brisk eonian zorching? :wink: :laughing:

“And I had better be ready and willing to appreciate and rejoice over that. Or guess who is the one in line for some brisk eonian zorching? :wink: :laughing:

This matter of seeing hell as not final is tricky. It seems to me that in the NT hell is presented in a very dark tone with a rather hopeless feel. Universalists seem to evade that tone and replace it with the “ultimate hope response”. It is a severe matter in the NT. Some universalists seem to by pass the “unceasing anguish” and go right to the joy.

Heh. Believe me when I say, I wish with all my heart I could… :slight_smile: I am so tired of the unceasing anguish part.

Purgation starts early for some of us; and rightly so. Then also, the only use of the word {adialeipton} to describe pain in the NT, comes from St. Paul–in regard to himself and his great sorrow for the Israel he loves. The joy of the promise of Israel’s salvation, at the end of chapter 11, is his answer to the “unintermittent pain” he currently experiences for Israel’s sake back at the beginning of chp 9. I can totally sympathize with that, too. :neutral_face: :frowning: :slight_smile:

(The other few uses of the term in the NT are also by St. Paul, and uniformly involve prayer of some sort, whether remembrance of other people and their problems, or gratitude to God.)

That being said, punishment is always taken seriously and severely in the NT–even when the punishment is agreed by all interpreters to be hopeful (such as in Heb 12). If I am humorous about it in a remark, it’s as an ironic counterpoint to expectation: in this case, if I am not merciful to Calvin, then (ironic reversal!) I am the one who will receive chastisement.

Besides, people in uninterrupted pain can either transcend it or be crushed. I am very grateful to be able to transcend it for a while.

Jason, one thing I’ve been confused about regarding this afterlife punishments thing is the lack thereof in the OT. Granted, punishment in the OT by God was often severe, but it was always in this life. I’m a bit confused by the apparent switching of gears in the NT.

Much of this can be explained by the fitful development (over centuries if not millennia) of a belief in an afterlife at all–much of which development seems to come from considering the promises of God to Israel. Sometimes characters in the story get glimpses of the notion of a resurrection and restoration (of Israel at least) in the day of the YHWH to come. Other times, everyone goes to sheol, the end (though God continues on).

By the time of the Judaism represented in the NT, several hundred more years had passed, and many religious experts firmly believed in the resurrection to come (or possibly survival as bodiless spirits, although there’s more evidence of the former.) A major belief in survival and (even more importantly) restoration after death is clearly indicated both by Jesus (in Gospel report) and by the NT authors.

This brings up the problem of what happens to the wicked, of course–not least because (and the NT keeps this idea, sort of) the wicked and the righteous share principly the same fate: going down into the pit/sheol/hades. One of the really interesting things (and mainstream Judaism had its adherents of this belief as well) is that this parallel fate (not in the classical Greek sense of ‘fate’ of course, but the popular sense we’d speak of nowadays) continues at least through the resurrection: the good and evil are resurrected to judgment, with the good being resurrected to life eonian and the wicked being resurrected to eonian crisis (or brisk-cleaning or chastisement or alloy-testing or several other words of this effect. Of equal interest is that the terms themselves are not intrinsically hopeless.)

Anyway, it isn’t unusual that as the notion of life after death becomes more clear, the notion of what happens to the unrighteous after death becomes more important–and rather choppy. (The fate of the righteous was a big DUHHH!!! But the unrighteous obviously share the same fate in some key ways at least up to a point, so there isn’t some total ditch separating them. Even in the GosLuke parable featuring a big ditch in hades. :wink: )

There are however numerous bits of testimony in the OT to the effect that God intends to save and restore the pagan nations around Israel, too. But the main focus is on Israel. And not only on believing righteous Israel, but on the restoration of traitorous unrighteous Israel. So we find things like chp 31 of Jeremiah, where it is not only a righteous remnant who will be restored by God–although that too–but the children whom “Rachel” is weeping over “for they are not” (a euphamism for death, as the author of GosMatt also uses it). And not only the righteous dead shall be restored; but at least half (maybe more) of this particular prophecy is directed toward “Ephraim”, the rebellious son–also considered as a daughter in the poetic language of the prophecy, but the reference as a son is especially important because it points back to King David’s slain rebel son over whom he grieved when Absalom was slain in his rebellion in the forests of Ephraim. (The prophecy ends with a riddle: “How long will you go here and there, O faithless daughter?! For the Lord has created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall encompass a man.” In some way, a woman encompassing a man in a “new way” is to help Israel the faithless child, Ephraim slain by God, return to God.)

There are things of this sort all over the OT, once one knows what to look for. It isn’t spelled out in any systematic way, and it’s hard to derive a systematic theology from it, too. A reader of Jeremiah 31, for example, could very reasonably say that God (or the prophet) is only being poetic about the reference to Ephraim. Poetic implications, by their nature, can often have wide possible interpretations. (This is a main reason not to push the theological lessons of parables too far, too.)

In any case, NT authors (and Jesus) are quite clear (if not always clear in intention) about there being afterlife punishments of various sorts. OT authors sometimes see Israel being restored, every once in a while see her rebel sisters being restored, talk about the utter destruction of the wicked a lot (but include in this the people who are going to be restored by God someday, chiefly rebel Israel, whatever this ‘restoration’ is supposed to mean, but also ‘Sodom’ and ‘Leviathan’ for example, even the latter of whom is slated to be tamed by God and recovenanted, just like Israel!)–but rarely if ever talk about punishment after or concurrent with restoration. (Jer 32, btw, could be said to hint about this: after restoration, a person will no longer have to suffer punishment for unrighteous deeds done by ancestors or peers, but only the one who eats sour grapes will have his teeth set on edge.) This is why some commentators (both Jewish and Christian) claim there is no doctrine of ‘hell’ in the OT, in the sense of hopelessly ongoing conscious torment. Christian commentors (and some Jewish ones, especially from the days collected in the Talmud) may say that this revelation is hinted at here and there but is only fully given later. (In the NT for Christians; in rabbinic commentary for Jews.) Other Judeo/Christian commentors may conclude the OT teaches annihilation; and so therefore the NT must also (per these Christians.) Even if God resurrects the wicked first before annihilation.

(“I like to play with things a while!–before annihilation…” – Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless, finishing the voice-over prelude to the 1980s version of Flash Gordon. “HA HA HA HA HA HA HA Ha ha ha ha ha…” :mrgreen: Sorry, I grew up listening to Queen’s soundtrack from that movie, so every time I hear or write ‘before annihilation’ that line from the movie kicks in. Yes, I know the annihilationist concept of God is very different from that, in theory. Why God would bother resurrecting the wicked and then annihilating them, though, is fortunately not my problem. :slight_smile: )

“(The prophecy ends with a riddle: “How long will you go here and there, O faithless daughter?! For the Lord has created a new thing in the earth: a woman shall encompass a man.” In some way, a woman encompassing a man in a “new way” is to help Israel the faithless child, Ephraim slain by God, return to God.)”

I had a thought about this as I was reading your post. IIRC, the ekklesia is often referred to as a woman, so perhaps the “woman encompassing a man” is man becoming part of the ekklesia, which will eventually help faithless Israel return to God. We know that part of all of Israel being saved has to do with waiting until after the fullness of the Gentiles comes in…

Hi Byron, I agree that it’s always been unfathomable to me that some people teach that many humans have been created for no other purpose than total depravity and eternal damnation.