A Recipe For Intolerance: A Study Of The Reasons Behind John Calvin’s Approval Of Punishment For Heresy -- By: Timothy H. Wadkins

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 26:4 (Dec 1983)
Article: A Recipe For Intolerance: A Study Of The Reasons Behind John Calvin’s Approval Of Punishment For Heresy
Author: Timothy H. Wadkins


A Recipe For Intolerance:
A Study Of The Reasons
Behind John Calvin’s Approval
Of Punishment For Heresy

Timothy H. Wadkins*

If nothing else, Michael Servetus was certainly bold. Improperly timed, his Errors of the Trinity was published in 1531 from Spain, his home and—more importantly—the very citadel of Roman Catholic intolerance. This particular work was destined to render him, in the words of Bainton, “a hunted heretic” and a man on the run.1 After adopting the pseudonym Villeneuve, Servetus was first to flee to Paris and later to Lyons, where he became recognized as a brilliant physician noted for his work regarding the circulatory system. It is difficult, however, for a resolute spirit to keep silent, and by 1546 Villeneuve, alias Serve-tus, had become engaged through a third party in a heated theological dispute with none other than John Calvin. Servetus flatly denied both the concept of the trinity and infant baptism, doctrines dear to the heart of historic Catholic dogma. But aside from the fact that the Catholics pursued him, these heretical principles also caused Calvin much consternation, which dissolved into outright anger and a death wish for the heretic when his real identity was discovered. In a letter to Farel, dated February 13, 1546, Calvin made clear his intent concerning the fate of Servetus:

He takes it upon him to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.2

Again through a third party the authorities in Lyons were informed that Villeneuve was in actuality Servetus, and the heretic was off and running again. Unfortunately by some “fatal fascination” Servetus was drawn to Geneva, and there, at the hands of Calvin and the town council, he was tried, found guilty of heresy and burned at the stake on October 27, 1553.3

Notwithstanding other brutalities inflicted by both Catholics and Protestants against heresy, the Genevan incident has historically become the great foundation for questions regarding the propriety of intolerance and, particularly, ques-

*Timothy Wadkins is a doctoral candidate in Church history at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.

tions about Calvin’s character and dogma. Aside from the immediate objections, most notably those writings of Sebastian Castellio, the Servetus episode still alarms us enough to question the reasons why Calvin co...

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