7. The Trial of Michael Servet

The dispute over Michael Servet is the most significant dispute of Calvin’s in Geneva. Occasionally it is portrayed to the effect that Calvin got rid of an unpleasant enemy with the help of the council and that in this way his cruelty and severity became apparent. That is too simple, however. Therefore, the dispute will be represented here somewhat more fully.
Michael Servet was born in 1511 near Aragon and in 1531 got into a dispute in Strasbourg and Basel with the Reformers, over the question of whether the Word of God became completely human. There were also conflicts in respect of the persecution of heretics. At the same time, he published two papers against the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, in which he acknowledged ultimately only God the Creator as God, and the Son and Spirit only as divine modes of action, but not as God himself (Monarchianism). Both papers aroused opposition and the Strasbourg council forbade the sale of them. Then Servet went to Paris, studied medicine there and caught Calvin’s attention. Then for a while he was a proof-reader in Lyon and in 1540 he was the doctor of the archbishop in Vienna in the Dauphine. Possibly, Servet also discovered the circulation of the blood, a discovery which in any case has made his name famous in medical history.
However, he also worked on theology and wrote a greater work in which he calls upon Christendom to return to its pure roots. The church fathers, the Roman church and even the Reformers have falsified the gospel. Creatures are outflow, emanations of the divine. There are sins first from the age of 20 and one can erase them by definite means (baptism, the Lord’s supper, good works). Now no-one in Vienna wanted to print this work. So he turned to a Protestant printer in Lyon, who was willing to print it however, only after a report from Calvin. This was sought by Servet. Calvin refuted him and advised him to read certain passages from the Institutes. However, Servet did not want to be instructed. He replied to Calvin and sent him back a reviewed copy of Calvin’s Institutes, with an offensive covering letter. Several years passed by. In 1553, Servet finally succeeded in having his book printed. It reached the hands of Calvin and a few of his friends, among them Guillaume de Trie. The latter had joined the Reformation, but a large number of his relatives, who lived in Lyon, bore a grudge against him on account of his conversion to the Reformation. Guillaume de Trie now wrote to his relatives to say that they had no right to accuse him of heresy when in their walls a heretic of the enormity of Servet was tolerated. It was then discovered that Servet was the doctor of the archbishop. He was reported, arrested and proceedings against him were started. Evidence was lacking, however. Consequently, Guillaume de Trie sent several documents to his relations, amongst which were several letters from the correspondence between Servet and Calvin, which the latter had handed over. He thereby indirectly supported the trial. Servet fled however, and so was destroyed in his absence, as it were – that is, his books were burnt. Servet intended to set up business in Naples. Foolishly he travelled there through Geneva. Scarcely had he arrived when he was arrested at the request of Calvin on 13th August 1555. The magistrate immediately took sides against Servet, which Calvin had not at all expected. And still more, the town council adopted the prosecution themselves. Consequently, the opinion of the other cantons was sought. However, before they arrived, the town council put together its own accusation. In Vienna it was demanded that Servet should be handed over. However, the Geneva judges were of the opinion that they themselves should judge Servet and not hand him over.
Servet was not aware of the seriousness of his situation. He hoped for the intervention of the political dissidents. Calvin, on the other hand, insisted on the death of Servet. He was, however, against his being burnt at the stake, the death penalty for heretics, having preference for something less spectacular and painful. Incidentally, the interrogations show that Servet quite provoked the hatred of his opponents. He accused Calvin of patent heresy and asked for all that belonged to Calvin to be handed over to him as compensation for his suffering.
The reports from Basel, Bern, Schaffhausen and Zurich arrived and expressed unanimously that Servet should be disposed with. And this then happened. On 26th October 1555, he was sentenced to death by burning and this was carried out on the following day, although Calvin and the other pastors had requested a less cruel kind of execution.

Calvin indirectly collaborated in Servet’s death. Hence to exonerate him from guilt would be to condone something unjust. Calvin had desired the death of Servet. He had also collaborated in the trial by passing on the letters. He did not attempt to stop the council, although this was something he in any case scarcely could have done. He has a clear share in the guilt of Servet’s death, not more.
One cannot say, however, that it was simply a matter of Calvin’s proceedings against Servet. No other town would have acted otherwise. Before and after Servet, hundreds of heretics were executed, at the hands of both Protestant and Catholic powers. Melanchthon, incidentally, congratulated Calvin for his actions. “Calvin was convinced, as all other Reformers, that it is the obligation of the Christian authorities, to punish with death blasphemers of God, who murder the soul, in the same way as murderers, who kill the body.”
One can condemn Calvin today – that is easy. But one cannot simply apply our current modern standards to Calvin’s behaviour. For it reflects, to some extent, the spirit of the 16th Century.