In a debate with Dan Barker a couple weeks ago, he brought up his view that anyone who thinks John Calvin was a good guy has to be morally bankrupt. And since I maintained that Calvin was a good guy, and a faithful servant of Christ, that made me morally bankrupt. But the politics of 16th century Geneva were not the subject of our debate that evening, so I decided not to spend three quarters of my time that evening trying to contextualize what happened to Michael Servetus. The subject of our debate was whether religion ought to be radically separated from civic matters, and not whether one particular city in Europe had screwed up four hundred and fifty years ago. In 1553, Servetus was burned at the stake for Trinitarian heresies after a trial in Geneva, at which trial Calvin appeared as an expert witness.
But the question raised by Barker is still an interesting one, and so our college ministry decided to hold a forum at the UI and address the question straight on. Was Calvin an Intolerista? An audio tape of that talk is available at Canon Press at 1-800-488-2034.
Before getting into some of the more interesting political details, let me start at the bottom line. In my view, the execution of Servetus was both a sin and a blunder. I agree with the instincts of those Reformed believers who, in 1903, erected an expiatory monument to Servetus in Geneva. At the same time, it is still important to sort out what actually happened. What kind of sin was it? Whose sin was it? What kind of blunder was it?
The popular conception is that Calvin was an out-of-control ayatollah with a long beard, ordering the hapless people in Geneva about. If you crossed the Theocrat, all you needed to do then was slowly draw your forefinger across your throat, turn yourself into the authorities, and that was it for you. But this is caricature, not history.
For many reasons, Calvin is a force to be reckoned with, and not simply the founder of “a denomination.” Other religious leaders have formed churches and movements, but of Calvin it can be accurately said that he was (and is) the father of a civilization. Whatever we do with Calvin, it will not suffice to pat him on the head. Karl Barth’s characterization of Calvin is more to the point — “a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from the Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological . . .”
So this view of Calvin as tinpot ayatollah is wildly inaccurate. Now in explaining the situation, I am not trying to “explain away” Calvin’s support for the execution of Servetus. He did support it, although at the request of Servetus he tried to get the Little Council at Geneva to have Servetus executed by sword instead of fire (a more merciful way to go). But the council rebuffed Calvin’s request.
So, back to the situation. Some years before, an unstable man named Caroli had accused Calvin of a Trinitarian heresy, Arianism. Caroli was the kind of man who bounced back and forth between the Reformed faith and the Roman church, and died in the fold of Rome. Calvin was exonerated on the charge, but was still tender on the point. His Trinitarian credentials had once been “credibly” challenged, and this set the stage for the showdown with Servetus, who not only denied the Trinity, but who did so blasphemously and provocatively. For just one example, he called the doctrine of the Trinity “a three-headed Cerberus.” In one of his confrontations with Caroli, Calvin lost his temper rather badly, and later acknowledged his grievous sin in it. So whether Geneva was orthodox on the Trinity had huge political and social ramifications.
When Calvin was called to be a minister in Geneva, his position there was by no means secure. After a few years of ministry, he was kicked out in 1538, and spent some time in Strasbourg. When he was called back to Geneva the second time, his position was still perilous, and remained such for a number of years. At the time of the trial of Servetus, he was emphatically not in control of the city government — a number of his enemies (and there were a number) were on the council. When Servetus showed up in Geneva, he was recognized by Calvin and reported. He was arrested and put on trial before the Little Council. A significant faction on that council (a group called the Perrinists) opposed Calvin’s influence and ministry in Geneva. One of them, a man named Berthelier, had been excommunicated by Calvin for his notorious lifestyle. Political tension existed between the council (civil government) and the consistory (church government) over who had the basic authority over excommunication. Calvin was striving to separate the church from the state in this, and the council wanted to keep control of excommunications. So please note the irony — in the middle of the trial of Servetus, Calvin was simultaneously fighting for the independence of church and state. This was not being done with the modern secularist notion of church/state separation, but it was the groundwork for the later Calvinistic development of what is now called sphere sovereignty. But whatever it was, it was new.
So in condemning the sin of burning Servetus (which I would do), it is important not to condemn it in an anachronistic way. The idea of religious toleration and liberty of conscience was an alien concept at that time, and prior to this point in history it had always been an alien concept. The idea of liberty of conscience was developed in the century following Calvin, and was developed by Calvinists from materials bequeathed to them by Calvin. For example, in the next century the Westmister Confession has an entire chapter on Christian liberty and liberty of conscience (Chapter XX).
So, Servetus was Calvin’s theological enemy, and he was put on trial in front of Calvin’s political enemies. The whole thing was an amazing high wire act. If the council were lenient with Servetus, this would help them in their battle with Calvin locally, but hurt them across Europe in both Roman and Protestant countries — because Servetus was considered by virtually everyone to be a major pest. The Roman church had already tried him and burnt him in effigy (he had been in one of their prisons, but had escaped). But if the council was hard on Servetus, then it would help Calvin locally, which they did not want to do at all. Calvin’s position in Geneva was extraordinarily dicey during the course of the trial.
Then, right in the middle of the trial, Berthelier blind-sided Calvin by persuading the Little Council to lift the sentence of excommunication against him. The civil authority claimed ecclesiastical jurisdiction, crossing the line of separation that had been tenuously established by Calvin. Calvin said that he would rather die than serve communion to Berthelier, but the council did not back down. The following Sunday, Calvin preached what he thought was going to be a farewell sermon, and was prepared to refuse Berthelier if he presented himself. But apparently, wiser heads on the council realized that Calvin wouldn’t bend and counseled Berthelier to not present himself, even though the sentence had been lifted. Calvin won that round, but it was touch and go for a few days. All this was happening in the middle of the Servetus episode. So, was Calvin snapping his fingers and getting the magistrate to do whatever he wanted done? Not a chance.
I began by saying this treatment of Servetus was a sin and a blunder. But I do not believe it was a sin because Calvin wanted to have the first table of the law enforced by the civil magistrate (the first table being the part of the ten commandments that have to do with our duties toward God). All societies are theocratic, and all theocratic societies defend themselves against blasphemers. All societies have a god; they merely differ on which god they have. We enforce blasphemy laws today, just as the magistrates of Geneva did it then. We don’t call them blasphemy laws, but rather things like “hate speech,” but they remain blasphemy laws. The problem in Geneva was not the civil magistrate dealing with Servetus (which they had to do), the problem was the draconian penalty. And until we learn the inescapability of this theocratic principle, we will have an impossible time dealing with fundamentalist Muslims, who at least know that law is inescapably religious. Insipid secularism cannot withstand dogmatic fanaticism, as France is currently discovering.
And this relates to the second point. How was it a blunder? One of the obvious techniques that was used against Calvin (and it is a standard technique) was to have his opponents come to Geneva, position themselves, and then flop in front of the ref. Calvin, unfortunately, fell for it.
One last comment, one that came up in the Q & A at the talk last night. I was asked about comments like “going back to Geneva,” and whether we had an interest in trying to reestablish Geneva in our day, as though it were a pristine Christian republic, and all we have to do is get back to that. And I said, with as much admiration for Calvin as a man can have, that with regard to 16th century Geneva, you couldn’t pay me to live there. I say this because I am one beneficiary (among millions) of the civilization that Calvin bequeathed to us. But that precious gift, at that time, had not yet been formed. If I were in France then, persecuted by the king, I would have hot-footed over the mountains to Geneva. I would have gone there from England during the reign of Bloody Mary. But would I want to go there now? Not a chance. I owe too much to Calvinism to want to live in Calvin’s town.