Saturday, September 9, 2017


Reformation 500 WEEK 37    Calvin and Servetus

     The same year King Edward VI died in England (1553), Michael Servetus was burned to death as a heretic in Geneva. Ever since, Calvin’s Geneva has been stigmatized as a symbol of religious dogmatism, intolerance and cruelty. What people don’t know is that Calvin’s world agreed with the execution of Servetus, and that “there was no occasion for another capital punishment of heresy in the Church of Geneva after the burning of Servetus” (Schaff, 8:798).

     Servetus was a Spanish scholar, physician, and Anabaptist who published a book attacking the doctrine of the Trinity, even “comparing the Trinity to Cerebus, the three-headed dog of Greek mythology. He denounced Trinitarians as heretics” (DeMar, Reformation, 208). He also denounced infant baptism as a diabolical invention and destructive of Christianity. A rejection of the Trinity and infant baptism were capital crimes. Europe was a Christian society, where every citizen was born and baptized as a member of both church and state. Therefore, to reject the Trinity was to reject Christianity and to reject infant baptism was to reject citizenship. Both Catholics and Protestants viewed the Anabaptists as revolutionary and dangerous to society.

     The Roman Catholic Inquisition in Vienne, France condemned Servetus to die by burning. But he “escaped and made his way to Geneva where he arrived on Sunday, August 13, 1553. He was promptly arrested” (DeMar, 209). “When Roman Catholic authorities learned that the escaped Servetus was in Geneva, they demanded that he be returned to their jurisdiction. The Genevan City Council then offered Servetus a choice: he could either return to Vienne or remain in Geneva. Servetus chose to remain in Geneva and take his chances with Genevan justice [he probably hoped to benefit from the hostility the city council had towards Calvin]” (DeMar, 210). “Calvin’s opponents had done all they could to hinder the trial of Servetus. Because they had tried to protect a man whom everybody condemned as a great heretic, they were now thoroughly discredited. Their power of opposition was broken” (Kuiper, Church in History, 198). On October 27th, Servetus was sentenced to burn to death.

     Calvin agreed that Servetus should be put to death, but he disagreed with the Roman Catholic idea that the church “possessed both a religious and a secular sword” (RCUS pastor Mark Larson, Calvin’s doctrine of the State, p.3). Calvin argued that it was the job of the state, not the church, to execute heretics. 

     Both Farel and Calvin pleaded with Servetus to cry “for mercy to God whom you have blasphemed” (Schaff, 8:784). “Calvin had asked that Servetus be spared the agony of being burned to death, urging the Small Council to use the more humane method of beheading. The government refused this request” (Larson, 85-86). If Servetus died without repentance, then (like all others who have died without repentance) he is suffering in “the fire that shall never be quenched” (Mark 9:43).

     “Calvin was certainly at fault…in accepting the widely-held belief of the age that heretics should be put to death. We are all prone to judge men of former days by the standards of the age in which we ourselves live…. Perhaps God allows blemishes in his own children, while on earth, in order that men should not idolize them and put them, as it were, on pedestals” (S.M. Houghton, Sketches from Church History, 109).
NOTE: These Posts were written and  designed as bulletin inserts by Pastor David Fagrey of the Grace Reformed Church of Rapid City, SD .  

Link to this blog entry as a bulletin insert:  Reformation 500 Calvin and Servetus

For a double-sided PDF for easy printing: Reformation 500 Week 37

Official Seal of  the RCUS
This is the seal of the Reformed Church of the United States (RCUS).  As you can see its history goes back to 1748, when the RCUS began.  We celebrate with the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation we praise God for what is probably the most amazing spiritual revival in the history of the world.

Page on Omaha Reformed Church's Website: Links to all Bulletin Inserts. 

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