Calvin and Servetus -- By: G. Coleman Luck
BSac 104:414 (Apr 47) p. 236
Calvin and Servetus
John Calvin, in addition to being the pre-eminent theologian of the Reformation, probably more than any other great reformer exemplified in his own life the doctrine which he taught. His pious and holy walk with the Lord is indeed notable considering the age in which he lived. Luther, though a mighty man of God, was nevertheless guilty of many intemperances. Zwingli’s moral life was certainly not up to the Scriptural standard for a Christian, nor even to generally held modern views. Calvin, on the contrary, was a true example of piety, and the demonstration of a life empowered by God and lived in accordance with the true principles of grace.
In fact the only blot upon the record of Calvin is his connection with the burning of the Spanish physician, Michael Servetus. From his own day down to the present, enemies of Calvin have taken delight in pointing to his part in this affair in an effort to discredit him. Roman Catholic writers (who it seems are very conveniently able to forget the Inquisition and the countless murders performed by the Roman hierarchy) have pounced upon this incident, and have branded Calvin as an executioner. Even such Protestant writers as Frederic W. Farrar1 and Mark Pattison2 have baldly stated that “Calvin burned Servetus.” A recent issue of Time magazine revives this old canard by characterizing the great reformer as “ascetic, heretic-burning John Calvin.”3 Thus on the basis of this incident, Calvin is pictured as an inhuman and cruel monster.
BSac 104:414 (Apr 47) p. 237
Therefore it behooves us to examine the case of Servetus very carefully in order to ascertain the true facts. Of course all agree today that the execution of Servetus (or of any other man) simply because of his religious views was wrong, and contrary to the teaching of the New Testament. But it is important to view Calvin’s relation to the case both in the light of the actual facts and of the spirit and understanding of the age in which he lived. At the time of the great awakening of the sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic theory that it is justifiable to kill the body to save the soul, or to execute a heretic to preserve peace and order in the Church, was generally accepted by all. So even though Calvin were wholly responsible, yet he would only have acted on a principle shared by both Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians of the day, and could be blamed chiefly because he was not in advance of the age in which he lived.
It should be noted first of all that Servetus was not considered simply as a heretic. Calvin’s ...
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