Written by. David Qaoud
Church history question: Did John Calvin murder people? More specifically, did he have Michael Servetus burned at the stake?
What Really Happened Between John Calvin and Michael Servetus
When I first told a pastor friend of mine that I started a twitter account dedicated to the Reformer’s words, the first thing he said was, “You mean the guy who burned people at the stake?”
This was coming from an elder.
How much more would the average Christian layperson accuse Calvin unjustly?
When people think about Calvin burning people at the stake, the person that usually comes to mind is Michael Servetus. I won’t go into full details (If you want, watch this video from the 2009 National Desiring God conference where they discuss this issue in full detail). But I’ll give you the gist here.
So, this Michael Servetus guy. He was born the same year as Calvin. Born of Spanish notability, he was utterly brilliant, and had experience in astronomy, medicine, mathematics, and theology. Had he not gone Cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs, he probably would shine in our minds as a prominent figure of the renaissance era.
Instead, we’ll forever remember him as a heretic.
Where things started to go wrong was in 1531, when Servetus released a book called, On the Errors of The Trinity, in which he maligns traditional, orthodox Christianity for having embraced the Trinitarian understanding of God – that is, One God in three distinct persons; equal in divinity, but distinct in ministry. Servetus did not hold the traditional Christian position. A few years later, Servetus began to write Calvin letters. Again: Michael Servetus is the one who started this whole thing.
Servetus wrote to Calvin. And Calvin wrote back. This happened repeatedly for many years as they debated and discussed various theological matters. At first, Servetus’ tone was respectable, as if he wrote general inquiries. He seemed interested in learning from Calvin. Over time, however, Servetus became accusatory, cutting, and dismissive of Calvin. And at some point, Calvin stopped writing back.
In 1553, Servetus published another work. This book had two purposes: to further attack the doctrine of the Trinity, and personally slander the character of John Calvin. Problem is, Servetus is in France, and France is a catholic country. And at that time, open heresy was against the law (both in Geneva, Protestant communities, in Catholic communities, and all over). When authorities found out about the book, Servetus was charged and arrested for open heresy. Hersey was a crime, and if you break the law, you pay the price – burning at the stake, the standard punishment at the time.
They tried Servetus and eventually sentenced him to be burned at the stake. So now Servetus is in jail, waiting to be burned. The governing authorities were so mad at him that they demanded he should be burned slowly. There he was in jail, with no lively prospect of escape. John Calvin actually opposed people being burned at the stake. In fact, he even wrote a letter to the city council begging them not to burn Servetus.
Let me be clear: Calvin wasn’t opposing that Servetus be executed (as the law says) but was opposing that he wouldn’t be burned at the stake. What did the city council say to Calvin? The city council said no, and they burned Servetus at the sake. Calvin did not burn Michael Servetus at the stake. It was not Calvin’s fault at all.
So, that’s it. That’s what happened.
Sure, Calvin had many faults. You can say he was an arrogant man. You can say he was short with his critics. You can also make fun of him for being shy and awkward. All of these things are true. But you can’t say that Calvin had Michael Servetus burned at the stake, because that simply didn’t happen.
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