Servetus and Calvin

Michael Servetus
Servetus' work penned in 1553, Restoration of Christianity (Christianismi Restitutio) was translated into English in 2007. All unbound copies of this work went up in smoke with him when he was burned at the stake on October 27, 1553. Today only the National Library of Austria in Vienna, Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, and the University of Edinburgh possess the only surviving copies of the original publication. 

In this work Servetus refutes some of the basic dogmas of the Church (Roman Catholic) at the time. It is also a rebuttal to Calvin's Institutes. He refuted the concept of the Trinity, denied the legitimacy of baptizing children, and wrote about the absuses in the Roman Catholic church which he called the "Antichrist". The theology of Servetus is thoroughly Christo-centric but at the same time it shook European Christianity or as Bruce Gordon notes "Europe-wide scandal."(Gordon, pg 43) He emphatically and creatively denied the idea that the Word is a second person distinct from the Father. There is some debate over his views but in Book One "Regarding Jesus Christ the Human Being and His False Representations" Servetus states:

"Jesus himself, the human being, is the gate and the path, from which I shall with good reason take my starting point since the case will be presented concerning him and in order that I may refute the Sophists [Trinitarians], who, by making their approach towards an understanding of the Word without this sort of basis, are diverted towards some other son and thereby abandon the true son of God to oblivion. I shall endeavor to restore to their memory who that true son was. Starting with the fact that the personal pronoun when taken in context shows that he was a human being who was wounded with blows and whipped, I will candidly accept the following three propositions as being true, in and of themselves: first, he is Jesus Christ; second, he is the son of God; third, he is God."(Servetus, pg 5)

Anyone wanting to understand another reformer of the the Reformation era should make the purchase and buy the translation of Restoration of Christianity. There are companion works as well that are also available. We should seek to know this man and his writings. I am not writing a review of Servetus' beliefs or Restoration of Christianity or to endorse Servetus wholesale. Those issues will be addressed later. 

Calvinism has grown and developed, much like the Trinity itself, over the course of time. Calvinism has developed from the writings of John Calvin, the rightful heretic in this situation, and primarily his work Institutes of the Christian Religion. This post is to introduce you to Servetus and his connection with John Calvin, the "other" notorious reformer. Servetus and Calvin had disagreed fiercely. Servetus felt as if Calvin had turned the Reformation into a new Rome. Note these comments by the following Church historians about Servetus and Calvin:

Kenneth S. Latourette:

"More serious was the test given by Michael Servetus (1511-1553)...a Spaniard, a scholar, a physician and scientist......radical reformer...He and Calvin had already violently disgreed...arrested, certainly at Calvin's instance...had he been acquitted, Calvin's power in Geneva would have been threatened...the condemnation of Servetus was a major defeat for Calvin's opponents. Henceforward his position in Geneva was not to be seriously contested."

Justo L. Gonzales:

"argued that the union of church and state after Constantine's conversion was in truth a great apostasy, and that the Council of Nicea, in promulgating the doctrine of the Trinity, had offended God...was arrested, and Calvin prepared a list of thirty-eight accusations against him. Some in Geneva who opposed Calvin took up Servetus' cause, arguing...he should be an ally...Servetus was burned to death--although Calvin had argued in favor of a less cruel death by beheading."

"Servetus' death was severely criticized, especially by Sebastian Castello, whom Calvin had earlier expelled from Geneva for having interpreted the Song of Songs as a poem of erotic love...the burning of Servetus, a noted physician, has become a symbol of the rigid dogmatism of Calvin's Geneva. Undoubtedly, there are grounds for harsh judgment...particularly on Calvin's role in them...Protestant and Catholics were acting in similar fashion against those whom they considered heretics...After Servetus' execution, Calvin's authority in Geneva had no rival."

Williston Walker:

"Calvin was holding his power with difficulty, when in February, 1553, the elections, which for some years has been fairly balanced, turned decidedly in favor of his opponents. His fall seemed inevitabl, when he was rescued and put on the path to ultimate victory by the arrival in Geneva of Miguel Servetus...almost the same age as Calvin, and undoubtedly a man of great, though erratic, genius..To his thinking, the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity, the Chalcedonian Christology, and infant baptism were the chief sources of the corruption of the church...begun an exasperating correspondence with Calvin, whose Institutes he contemptuously criticised (sic)...However odious the trial and its tragic end may seem in retrospect, for Calvin it was a great victory.

Roger E. Olson:

"Calvin's Geneva wast to be a "godly city"--a theocratic republic that modeled on earth God's kingdom in heaven. At least that was Calvin's ideal and goal for Geneva. Many individuals and factions within the city resisted his authoritarian discipline, but Calvin repeatedly won in confrontations with them and managed to get his way by threatening to leave if the city did not support him...A strict lifestyle based on biblical law was imposed on the city, and offenders were severely punished and sometimes banished for loud partying or for openly criticizing Calvin. At least one heretic was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553. Michael Servetus had been warned to stay away from the city by Calvin himself, but he had dared to come and sit in the church, listening to Calvin preach. Calvin wanted him beheaded as a more merciful punishment for his blatant denial of the Trinity, but the city council chose to burn him instead." 

Bruce L. Shelley:

"During one low point in Calvin’s influence, in 1553, the brilliant but erratic Spanish physician Michael Servetus sought refuge in Geneva. Servetus was fleeing Catholic persecution for his heresy of denying the doctrine of the Trinity. He arrived in Geneva just as Calvin’s enemies were challenging his authority. While Calvin wanted a more merciful death than burning for the heretic, he did support the silencing of the ill-balanced thinker. Servetus was burned at the stake and many in later generations remembered Calvin primarily as “the man who burned Servetus.”

Another good text about the Calvin and Servetus affair is Calvin by Bruce Gordon published by Yale University Press. Gordon notes that Servetus' execution was a "defining confrontation" about Calvin's "handling of excommunication." (Gordon, pg. 212) Gordon goes on to say, "Calvin could be cruel to opponents, and he did not hesitate to persecute them, but there is nothing to suggest that he actively sought to kill them. Heresy, however, was the gravest of dangers..." (Gordon, pg. 217) Servetus was in Geneva and was being tried as a heretic.

We should note that the era of 1548 and 1555 contains some of the most severe struggles for Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion which Servetus highly criticized. Servetus was quite the scholar and reformer. He was also the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation. Calvin knew that Servetus had already avoided the Inquisition once but would not be able to do so again. Although Calvin did not have control over Servetus' punishment directly he directly contributed to it in a number of ways. He was certainly cognizant of the punishment typically prescribed for this punishment. Indeed Servetus and others had been railing against putting heretics to death. He would be punished, and under the Justinian Code, burned at the stake. This was done on October 27, 1553.

When he showed up in Geneva Calvin alerted the authorities. Calvin would later contribute much to his death if not by ink alone and writing what he knew would mean certain death for Servetus. With his poor French Servetus would undergo a trial being tried as a heretic. Gordon notes here that "Calvin must have felt stalked by the Spaniard, who ranted against the Frenchman’s teaching on the Trinity, calling it three Gods and the work of antichrist. This time Calvin took action." (Gordon, pg. 218) There are many things in his writings that have not been touched by the "Reformation" so called or even Calvin himself. In fact, along with Restoration of Christianity Servetus had also sent thirty letters to Calvin without reply. Given the pre-history if Servetus was not killed it is likely that John Calvin would have lost power and influence in Geneva for good.

One does well to distinguish between the Reformation and Calvinism here since Calvin and Martin Luther did not agree. Luther was the very one who had begun the initial Reform with his 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Church door. Calvin would present his own "rigid dogmatism". Geneva and the Reformation era would have been a lot different if Calvin had not been able to retain power in these critical moments. Historians note that Servetus demanded Calvin be driven out of town. Calvin, although seen as being merciful, requested Servetus a merciful punishment or as some suggested, beheading. These were probably just feigned attempts of mercy since Calvin knew the laws better than anyone.

The early Christian writer Tertullian once said, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church." That takes on a strange irony in the case of Michael Servetus. Calvin had purged his "godly city" and humanity of a scholar, scientist, and reformer that was brutally killed by the flames of the Inquisition and Calvin's brand of Reform.


1. Gordon, Bruce. Calvin. Copyright (c) 2009 by Bruce Gordon. Yale University Press

2. Servetus, Michael Restoration of Christianity : An English Translation of Chistianismi restitutio. (c) 2007 by Christopher A. Hoffman and Marian Hillar (translators) Edwin Mellen Press, Ltd.

3. Latourette, S. Kenneth. A History of Christianity Volume 2: Reformation to The Present Copyright 1975 by Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. Prince Press. pg. 759

4. Gonzalez, L. Justo. The Story of Christianity Copyright 1984, 1985 by Justo L. Gonzalez. Prince Press. pg. 67

5. (Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church, (c) 1959 Charles Scribner's Sons. pg. 355, 356

6. Olson. E. Roger. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. (c) 1999 by Roger E. Olson. Printed by InterVarsity Press. pg. 409, 410

7. Shelley, B. L. (1995). Church history in plain language (Updated 2nd ed.) (260). Dallas, Tex.: Word Pub.

For more info see article by Matthew Shaw M.A. on Michael Servetus: Heretic or Hero?

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Adversus Trinitas

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