Friday, October 16, 2020

Calvin's Shame

Uncounted numbers of people were victims of religious persecution in Europe during the Protestant Reformation, dying either by execution or in a war of religion. And yet, one man's death burning at the stake casts outsized shadow over the legacy of John Calvin.

"To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine. It is simply to kill a man."Sebastian Castellio

Miguel Serveto (hereafter 'Michael Servetus') was born in the early 1500s in Spain, not long after the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. After he left his homeland in 1529 he never returned, spending the remainder of his life in different regions of Europe. He was evidently a very intelligent man, even documenting blood flow in the lungs for the first time, and was able to read Greek, Hebrew, and Latin from a relatively young age. For a long time I've question his practical intelligence (aka 'street smarts') because while on the run for heresy he stopped over in Geneva and went to church. In so doing he got himself caught, and ultimately was executed for his beliefs. Based on what I've read in 'For Faith and Freedom,' perhaps he deserves more credit than I've given him.

There has been much speculation as to why Servetus went to Geneva in the first place. Perhaps he wished to make common cause with the Libertines, a political group that strongly opposed Calvin's iron-hand rule of the city and that was struggling to gain control. Perhaps it was to seek his own death as part of an apocalyptic vision that the end of the age was at hand. More likely it was for the reason that he gave later at his trial: that he was simply passing through on his way to Naples, where he planned to study medicine. (Howe, 1997)

Servetus had a history of skipping town when things got too hot where he was, and so it makes sense to me that he'd be passing through Geneva on his way to Naples when he was caught. As for why he attended church in Geneva, of all places, can also be explained. 

August 13 was a Sunday, and Servetus was in church as part of his plan 'to keep himself hid as much as he could,' for not being in church would have brought suspicion on anyone in Geneva in those days. But 'certain brothers from Lyons' spotted him in the congregation and reported him to Calvin. He was arrested and imprisoned at once, never to see freedom again. (Howe, 1997)

In the early 1500s Geneva had over 10,000 residents and was continuing to grow rapidly with the arrival of Protestants seeking refuge. For comparison, London in 1500 had 50,000 inhabitants. For that era, these were large cities. I would have thought that if Servetus was just passing through, he could have laid low while there and continued on as quickly as possible. Given the number of people in the city, how noteworthy could it have been if a traveler missed church? That isn't to victim blame, by any means. Servetus' trial was a miscarriage of justice, and his execution a disgrace for Reformed Christianity.

What got Servetus in hot water in the first place was his outspoken opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity. As a younger man he had discovered that the Bible doesn't contain much of the theological language of the later creeds that defined what would become 'orthodox' Christianity. In my opinion, he fell into the common mistake of expecting more developed theology in the Bible than it has available. While the New Testament doesn't contain the word 'trinity,' and the related technical language of later centuries, many parts of it give rise to questions that were answered by trinitarian theology. The absence of certain words does not necessarily mean the absence of a particular doctrine. 

There is a certain sense in which Servetus was a trinitarian, in that he advocated what works out to be a form of Modalism. This view, which was present in parts of the church during the first centuries of the common era, held that there is only one God, and that 'he' is revealed in three modes: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These aren't three persons, but rather three manifestations of one God. 

Now, there are three divine dispositions, but not by some distinction of beings in God, Rather, that God might bring about our salvation, there are various aspects of deity. (McKanan, 2017)

Having redefined the trinity, Servetus' Christology would of necessity depart from the norm as well. While he affirmed that Jesus was fully God and fully human, he departed from Nicene Christianity in how he described that working in practice. He saw God extending his divine nature to believers as a key part of the Christian life, and interpreted scripture to understand that the presence of God was uniquely powerful in Jesus.

God is able to share the fullness of deity with a human being, and to give him a name which is above every name. If, indeed, we grant that Moses was made a god to Pharaoh, then, in a far more powerful and superior way, Christ became the God, Lord, and Teacher of Thomas and of us all. Because God was in him in a unique way, and because through him we have access to a merciful God, he is expressly called Emmanuel, that is, God with us. (McKanan, 2017)

To his credit, 2 Peter 1:3-4 at least seems to support his idea. Notice in particular the final words of verse 4:

His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature." (NRSV)

Unfortunately, Servetus also has some unfortunate habits and blind spots in making his case. Calvin complained that he cited Tertullian almost entirely to the exclusion of all the other early church fathers. That's not a great look for an alleged heretic, given that although Tertullian was an early apologist for Christianity, later in his life he became an adherent of the New Prophecy. This was a variety of Christianity that affirmed the continued gifts of the Holy Spirit, including prophecy, and which also practiced a form of asceticism. When orthodoxy was defined, it was labeled as heresy under the name 'Montanism.' This is something that a theologian like John Calvin would most certainly know and have in mind as Servetus argued his case.

Another flaw was that Servetus cited Muslims and Jews in his writing, saying that trinitarianism would be foolish to them, and a stumbling block for the conversion of the Jewish people. Even mentioning those two groups, given fears of a Muslim invasion of Europe and the anti-semitism prevalent at the time, could put him in the enemy's camp people's minds. To be clear, he never supported their beliefs, disavowed association with any Jewish people, and referred to the Qur'an as 'an evil book.' This is more about how he was perceived because of what he said and how he said it.

What strikes me as I read Servetus is that he was arguing for the restoration of original Christianity. While this was arguable the aim of the entire Reformation, it was at variance with the Lutherans who were more concerned reforming existing Catholic Christianity in a positive way. At the same time, both Calvin and Zwingli called for a return to apostolic Christianity, but like Luther they accepted the conclusions of the early church councils about the nature of God and Christ. Servetus was questioning what others were unwilling to re-examine. This call for a return to simpler, 'New Testament' Christianity has been made by many Protestant traditions. Interestingly, it's also part of the theological history of Unitarianism in the United States. Consider the words of William Ellery Channing in his sermon on 'Unitarian Christianity.'

If you remember the darkness which hung over the Gospel for ages; if you consider the impure union, which still subsists in almost every Christian country, between the church and state, and which enlists men’s selfishness and ambition on the side of established error; if you recollect in what degree the spirit of intolerance has checked free inquiry, not only before, but since the Reformation; you will see that Christianity cannot have freed itself from all the human inventions, which disfigured it under the Papal tyranny. No. Much stubble is yet to be burned; much rubbish to be removed; many gaudy decorations, which a false taste has hung around Christianity, must be swept away; and the earth-born fogs, which have long shrouded it, must be scattered, before this divine fabric will rise before us in its native and awful majesty, in its harmonious proportions, in its mild and celestial splendors. (Klein, 2010)

Although strange religious ideas were suspect in the early days of the United States, they also weren't terribly uncommon. People could be terribly harassed if their beliefs departed too far from the norms of the community, but for the most part could at least live their lives. The era Servetus was in was too upheaved and dangerous for people to stand out. At least, not without an army. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli had something Servetus never attained: political power. Luther had princes, and Calvin and Zwingli had city council to back them and give them authority. Servetus had no patron, benefactor, or protector. Perhaps he lacked personal charisma to win such support, or else maybe he was just really unlucky. 

After his arrest, Michael Servetus was refused legal counsel, held in a lice-infested jail, and only allowed to change his clothes occasionally. He was in miserable circumstances, and yet he held firm to his convictions. From the description of his execution, he was clearly terrified. That's hard to think about. It's said that he was most afraid that the pain of his death would cause him to recant, but history records that he did not. 

Very shortly after his death, Matteo Gribaldi published an 'Apology for Michael Servetus.' This glorious paragraph is part of it:

Look at what you have done, you evangelicals! You have basely and disgracefully slandered and horribly and savagely killed this harmless man, this stranger and sojourner who trusted in your evangelical profession and Christian charity. Although he trusted you, did not stir up any trouble or sedition, and caused you no harm, you have accused him of crime, detained him by treachery, tossed him into prison, prosecuted him, and finally, totally casting aside all humanity and mercy, burned him alive on a blazing pyre. What a noble crime, whose memory ought never to be obliterated! (McKanan, 2017)

Theologically, Calvin should have had nothing to fear from Servetus. In Calvin's theology, nothing could perturb the salvation of the elect. So, either Calvin was being inconsistent, which is possible, or else he had something else in mind. I can't help wondering if the larger political situation was at issue. The Catholic states were a perpetual threat, the Libertine faction in Geneva was an internal risk to political stability and control, and there were looming fears that Muslims would invade Europe. Had Servetus only had some strange ideas that didn't elicit fears of losing political control he likely wouldn't have been executed, in my opinion. His beliefs were quite possibly perceived as a threat to the tenuous status quo.


Howe, C. A. (1997). For Faith and Freedom: A Short History of Unitarianism in Europe. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Klein, J. (2010, August 25). Unitarian Christianity by William Ellery Channing. Retrieved  October 16, 2020, from 

McKanan, D. (2017). A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism (Vol. 1). Boston, MA:  Skinner House Books.

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of  the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.