Verduin on Calvin’s burning of Servetus

There’s a lot of spew all over the interweb about John Calvin, and indeed in particular about Calvin and Michael Servetus, a “heretic” who was burned at the stake on October 27th, 1553, in some way under the watchful eye of Calvin. “In some way,” I say, because it has been argued the extent to which Calvin was otherwise involved or culpable for the ultimate extermination of Servetus. Ardent Calvinists who recognise the danger of espousing a pro-extermination viewpoint have been at pains to disprove Calvin’s ultimate involvement, excusing him by saying that he would have preferred other means of execution, perhaps, or less severe punishments.

We will begin here, with the nature of his punishment, but not before I have referenced my source: I have been reading The Reformers and Their Stepchildren by Leonard Verduin, published by Eerdman’s. It was recommended a little while back when I was (briefly) studying church history. It is to the first chapter of this that I primarily refer.

Servetus was as I said, burned at the stake. The manner in which he died, and the ‘alternatives’ sought apparently by Calvin, indicate the nature of his involvement. Burning at the stake was a heretic’s punishment, as Verduin explains in a footnote on p.52, adding that late in the trial Calvin had attempted to divert the method of execution from fire to some other means by which Servetus’ crime would appear a civil disorder, not a religious one. In such a case Calvin would of course instantly appear less culpable. Was this his intention?

Verduin – sponsored as he is by the John Calvin Foundation, and as a child of the Reformers too – takes the line that ‘The burning of Servetus – let it be said with utmost clarity – was a deed for which Calvin must be held largely responsible.’ (p.51) He goes on to state just how clear the case is, and then lays the case out. A number of times he takes his case specifically against over-ardent admirers of Calvin with statements like: ‘Contrary to the legend that is kept alive by [such people], the spirit of the age was already relegating such inhumanity to the limbo of the past’ – not mincing his words either in describing this atrocity. The ‘legend’ to which he refers is the idea that, put plainly, it was a perfectly normal practice in Calvin’s day to put heretics to death by such means, and he would have had no grounds for his conscience to be troubled by it.

On the contrary, his conscience, and that of several contemporary supporters, seems to have been greatly troubled. Verduin covers the various ways in which we see this, including a troubled letter to a friend, and his unceasing attempts to defend his actions (not always well-received). What was to me most insightful, was the interesting comment on Calvin’s response, and that of a supporter called Beza, to an anonymous tract entitled ‘whether heretics are to be liquidated’. On p.54 Verduin highlights on the one hand the even-handedness of the anonymous tract, saying that it kept itself ‘from railing and invective in a surprising way’. Contrast that with Calvin and Beza’s bitter complaints and ‘violent tones’ about such a tract, and as Verduin says,

‘One must agree with a recent Dutch scholar as he says that “It is likely that future generations as they judge the matter, will ascribe the violent tone of Calvin and Beza’s reply to it a conscious or unconscious sense of weakness rather than a well-grounded conviction that their position was right.”

Most scathingly of course, we are then left with thoughts like that which occur in a passage from the confident anonymous tract-writer (though they suspected it was a man called Martin Bellius), who writes:

‘Who would not mistake the Christ for a moloch or some such god if indeed he delights in human sacrifice…? Imagine him to be present, in the capacity of constable, to announce the sentence and light the fire…! “Oh Christ, thou creator and king of all the earth, dost thou not see these things? Art thou so changed completely, become thus cruel and contrary to thine own proper self…? Dost thou command that those who do not understand thy commandments and institutions as yet, are to be choked in water, struck until the bowels gush forth, then then strewn with salt, to be struck with the sword or made to roast over small fire, with every torment martyred…? Ah Christ, dost thou indeed command such things and dost thou approve of them when they are done? …Dost thou allow thyself to be seen at the scene of such butchery? …If thou doest such things forsooth, or orderest them done, then what, pray what, hast thou left for the devil to do?”’ (quoted in Verduin, p.55)

People would be offended to read such words, yet what in them doesn’t hit the mark? I find it interesting to note here one observation shared between myself and the writer concerning Calvinism in general (though I don’t think he would have thought of it as Calvinism, only the attitude held by Calvin and his supporters) – that whether theologically or practically, very little seems left ascribed to the devil, in that God is held accountable (and somehow rightly!) for evil, as well as good! (See my blog post ‘Calvinism debate’.)

Another observation shared this time between myself (on Calvinism in general) and Verduin (on this matter concerning Calvin in particular) is that much justification seems to be found by using Old Testament proof-texts, and when they are sought in the New, the attempts are embarrassing at best (pp.54-55).

These thoughts of mine are of course based primarily on one text (which itself does of course draw on a host of others) and my knowledge of the facts is not complete. However given the fog of opinions and, it seems, the many attempts to cover up Calvin and justify him in this manner, I am constantly surprised that his ideas (or what people say are his ideas) are still taken so seriously in such a great portion of the church today. Either keep the ideas and lose his name; else look at the man and see what you really think of him.

Either way, from what I have read in this book so far, I am much in favour of the ‘step-children’ about whom Verduin ultimately writes, who sought (radically, delinquently, immaturely) to model the New Testament church, not the post-Constantinian church-state, nor indeed the Reformers who failed to separate from the latter idea.

2 thoughts on “Verduin on Calvin’s burning of Servetus

  1. You turn these debates into your Gospel. Be careful not to forget the eternal things – if you wish to divide opinion with a blase sarcasm towards a particular belief system in the church (of which you cannot prove nor disprove) then don’t let it compromise the Good News or makes enemies of, whom were once, your brothers.

    1. Thanks for your concern, anon. I don’t believe I used sarcasm. Neither do these things make up the core of my convictions or lifestyle; I simply use my little corner of the web to put forth my occasional marginal thoughts on these things as you can’t brush over them completely and write them off as unimportant. Jesus is still my cornerstone. I’ve had these debates with those I call and still call my brothers. It’s not about making enemies, it’s just about not being afraid about being provocative and challenging belief systems – something which, incidentally, my Master did a lot.

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