Was John Calvin a Brutal Persecutor Against Freedom? The Pighius and Servetus Controversies

John Calvin can come across as a severe person because of his austere lifestyle and his zeal in defending doctrine and promoting discipline and godliness in church. Calvin literally worked himself to death. Calvin with his serious demeanor could never match the charms of Luther with his wit and gaiety. However, it is slanderous when his adversaries portrayed him as the cold, calculating and brutal tyrant of Geneva. It is hoped that the following cameos taken from Calvin’s life would dispel the mischievous charges of his adversaries.

1) In reality Calvin was a meek and shy person who only wanted to live as a quiet and obscure scholar. He reluctantly joined the Reformation only after he was ‘blackmailed’ by William Farel who threatened him with a curse. When Farel found out that Calvin was planning to go to Strasbourg to study in privacy in some obscure place,

[Farel] instantly put forth all his efforts to detain me. And after having heard that I had several particular studies for which I wished to keep myself free, when he saw that he was gaining nothing by entreaties, he went so far as an Imprecation, that it might please God to curse the rest and quietness I was seeking, if in so great a necessity I withdrew and refused aid and succor. Which word so horrified and shook me that I desisted from the journey I had undertaken: in such a way, however, that, feeling my shame and timidity, I did not want to commit myself to discharge any particular duty.

However, Calvin was forced to leave Geneva by his opponents who objected to the disciplinary measures introduced to the church. He was in no mood to return when the Genevans later invited him back, but relented when he was confronted by a similar threat from Martin Bucer,

I had decided “to live in peace without taking any public office, until that excellent servant of Christ, Martin Bucer, by means of a remonstrance and protestation like that which Farel had pronounced before him, recalled me to another place. Being then appalled at the example of Jonah which he quoted against me, I went on again with the burden of teaching.” /1/

2) Calvin’s avoided disputes in private matters and hesitated to jump into public controversy. He was meek in bearing personal attacks and slanders hurled at him. However, he would fearlessly defend the truth of the Gospel when it comes under attack, even though he rarely thought that he was equal to the difficult task, finding strength only in Christ. His humility and self-effacing diffidence becomes evident when he was forced to reply to Albert Pighius who wrote a public tract in order to “finish off” Calvin.

[Pighius] frankly declare that he is doing this with the specific intention of (as it were) driving his spear through my side into Luther and the rest of the party. But he issues the challenge to me alone in particular and joins in battle with me because he thinks that I have dealt with the full extent of this subject more carefully and arranged everything in a more orderly and methodical way than others have done. For myself I should not have dared to take up the defense of the common cause if he had attacked all of us together, for fear that I would appear to have wanted to put myself before others who are agreed to be far more competent, and so would seem to be motivated more by my own rashness and foolish self-confidence than by right judgement. Were it not for this fear, I should perhaps have made a response to that earlier book which I mentioned. But now I am glad that, for whatever reason, I held myself back, when I see that Bucer, who was able to give the better and more brilliant treatment it deserved, has taken this task upon himself. But in the present case I think that nobody will find fault with me for responding, when no others can be expected to do so and when Pighius would scoff at God so publicly if I were not to intervene in the defence of wholesome doctrine. /2/

3) Critics eagerly wag their fingers at Calvin for his role in the trial and execution of Michael Servetus. However, this dark episode should be read carefully in context, according to the laws of public order of the times. Perhaps, setting the trial in context would mitigate (exonerate?) Calvin’s role.

Calvin had Servetus arrested for heresy (publishing materials against the doctrine of Trinity) when he visited Geneva in 1553. As the prominent historian Phillip Schaff observes, Calvin’s initiated the arrest of Servetus out of “a strict sense of duty and in harmony with the public law and dominant sentiment of his age, which justified the death penalty for heresy and blasphemy, and abhorred toleration as involving indifference to the truth.” We should not miss the courage of Calvin in risking his life as he could well find himself put to death if his charge against Servetus was found to be false. However, Servetus’ arrogance offended the judges and caused the Geneva Magistracy to take the case from Calvin’s hand by making the prosecution and punishment in its own name.

The Council decided to prosecute the case in its own name…Soon the political partisans and enemies of Calvin were outbidding one another at the expense of Servetus…As for Calvin, he did not conceal his hope that Servetus would be put to death, but otherwise than by fire, the usual punishment for blasphemers. Servetus, by his own attitude especially in the course of his disputes with Calvin, seemed purposely to stir up the animosity of his accusers, as though for pleasure. If we can believe the official report, his behaviour was in the last degree arrogant and unmannerly. On September 22nd he went to the length of demanding action against Calvin, whom he in turn accused of manifest heresy, even demanding that the reformer should be expelled from Geneva and his goods awarded to him, Servetus, in compensation for his wrongs. This gesture naturally made the worst possibly impression. Everyone was already convinced of the necessity of getting rid of this heretic, when the replies came from Basle, Bern, Schafffaausen and Zurich. The Swiss Churches showed themselves unanimous In denouncing Servetus, in congratulating the Genevans upon their zeal, and in urging the Magistracy to prevent the accused from doing further mischief….on October 26th Servetus was condemned to punishment by fire, and burnt alive on the day after, in spite of the intervention of Calvin and some pastors who pleaded for a less barbarous method of execution.

Tolerance, in the sixteenth century, was not, and could not be, anything but a sign of religious opposition or apathy. Calvin had received the fullest support from the Magistracy throughout this painful affair. Furthermore, it was the political power which had taken over the conduct of the prosecution, in which the reformer figured as hardly more than a technical adviser./3/

Servetus was sentenced to death for blasphemy in accordance to the times. Although Calvin was rebuffed when he personally appealed to Servetus to abandon his anti-Trinitarian teaching, he petitioned the authorities to carry out a less barbaric form of execution. His petition was ignored. Indeed, Calvin’s influence was limited as he was not even made a citizen of Geneva until 1559, six years after this tragic event.

4) Arrogant men build tombs and monuments to magnify and perpetuate their fame. In contrast, Calvin asked to be buried in an unmarked grave in a secret location. I shall give further details in my fourth and final post. Nevertheless it is hoped that these few cameos would give pause, if not put to rest the slanderous charge that Calvin was a cold, calculating and brutal man. Perhaps we should emulate the meekness and humility that shines through Calvin’s poignant dying words:

I have had many infirmities which you have been obliged to bear with, and what is more, all I have done is worthless. The ungodly will seize upon that, but I repeat that all I have done has been worthless and that I am a miserable creature. But certainly I may say this, that I have meant for the best, that my vices have always displeased me, and that the root of the fear of the Lord has always been in my heart. You may say ‘he meant well’ and I pray that my evil may be forgiven and that if there was anything good you may confirm yourselves by it and have it as an example. /4/

ENDNOTES

  1. Francios Wendel, Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought (Collins, 1963), pp. 48-49, 58.
  2. John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will: A Defence of the Orthodox Doctrine of Human Choice against Pighius (Baker, 2002), p. 8.
  3. Francois Wendel, Calvin, pp. 95-99.
  4. G.R. Porter and M. Greengrass, John Calvin: Documents of Modern History (Edward Arnold, 1983), pp. 172-173.