Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Did John Calvin really put Servedus to death for denying the Trinity?

I'm not the type that is really keen on following men. Furthermore, i'm not too big on defining my Scriptural positions by identifying myself with a man. However, I think we can all benefit from what men of old have researched, regardless of how good or bad they were as people. I would consider John Calvin to be one of these men. It would be difficult to imagine how, given any theological position, one could not learn from such works as the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Nonetheless, for years it has been argued that not only was Calvin a sorry excuse for a human being, but we shouldn't seek to learn from such a man. All of this for the fact that he had the Trinity-denying Michael Servedus burned at the stake.

In the vast, vast majority of instances in which Servedus is brought up (as if this would ever have any bearing on whether my theological position is true or false), you only hear one part of the story: Calvin killed Servedus. And that's it.

Say what you will about John Calvin. Think of him as the worst human being in history. Honestly, I could care less what one thinks about Calvin. But please consider all of the facts before coming to the conclusion that every Christian should throw the Institutes in the fireplace.

In THIS CLIP, James White provides the facts that are often left out.

(ht: James Swan)


PatrickNavas said...

In answer to the posted question: Did John Calvin really put Servetus to death for denying the Trinity?

John Calvin did not personally or directly put Michael Servetus to death for denying the Trinity. But Calvin was Servetus’ primary prosecutor in the imprisonment and associated trial that took place and Calvin did seek to have Servetus put to death, only, not by burning, but by having Servetus’ head severed from his body.
The two main charges against Servetus were (1) denial of doctrine of the Trinity, and (2) denial of the validity of infant baptism. These were the grounds on which the Protestant Council of Geneva condemned Servetus to death and ordered his execution by fire. The execution of Servetus was, as Dr. White correctly indicates, approved by the Catholic/Protestant governments and ecclesiastical institutions of 16th century Europe.

PatrickNavas said...

As is widely recognized, Calvin himself played a prominent role in Servetus’ trial and execution, and was, in fact, largely responsible for Servetus’ imprisonment and following death. In fact, in response to coming under criticism by Sebastian Castellio and others because of the Servetus affair, in 1554 Calvin published his Defensio Orthodoxae Fidei (‘Defense of the Orthodox Faith’) in which he defended the rightfulness of killing ‘heretics’ like Michael Servetus. That is to say, Calvin never regretted the execution of Servetus and, evidently stood consciously by his belief in the rightness of it until the day he died. Yet James White says, “You’ve got to give Calvin his props; He was consistent. The reason that he opposed prosecuted Servetus, the reason he prosecuted Servetus, is because he truly believed that his viewpoints were a cancer.”
How someone recognized by many a Christian elder/leader today can suggest that we should give Calvin “his props” in association with Calvin’s involvement in the cruel killing of a man over a doctrinal disagreement is, truly, difficult to comprehend, as if Calvin’s belief that Servetus’ doctrine was a “cancer” somehow mitigates or justifies the cruelty, intolerance, and unchristian nature of what took place. It is evident that the religious leaders of Jesus’ own day felt the same way about Jesus whom they sought to have crucified or impaled on a tree. Hitler also believed that the Jews and other “undesirable” persons in Germany were like a “cancer” on German society as well. Does this justify the evil that took place? Dr. White also tries to suggest that since the “united voice of all the governments of Europe” approved of Servetus’ execution, that this somehow makes the execution of Servetus correct, justifiable, or Calvin’s attitudes and actions less cruel and unchristian. In fact, White’s observation only confirms how incredibly corrupt the existing religious establishments (Catholic and Protestant) were during the sixteenth century in Europe, and how far they had deviated from the true spirit of Christian teaching. White does not mention that not everyone in Europe approved of the execution of Servetus, and that, in fact, “opposition to the death of Servetus extended from Switzerland to Lithuania and from Germany to Italy.’ (See: Hillar, Michael Servetus, p. 207). In other words, even in that age of religious intolerance, there were people humane and enlightened enough to recognize the wrongness and the evil of killing people over doctrinal differences—a judgment that, in addition to conscience, any careful reading of the New Testament could help one to recognize. In spite of White’s appeal to the age in which Calvin lived, there were plenty of men who were able to transcend the narrow-mindedness, intolerance, and persecuting cruelty of the Protestant and Catholic clergy. Why could Calvin not transcend this mentality, given that he was so well-versed and familiar with the Christian scriptures?

PatrickNavas said...

I agree, as you state, that “It would be difficult to imagine how, given any theological position, one could not learn from such works as the Institutes of the Christian Religion” (since there are a multitude of positive and accurate scriptural insights not only in Calvin’s Institutes but in his Biblical Commentaries), but I’d also call your attention to the following quote:

“For many years and in many places one can notice an excessive tendency to glorify the reformers of the 16th century, to present them as models of wisdom and pious morals. Here is our reply: ‘We know and appreciate the good sides of these historical personages, but due to the intellectual work done over the centuries, we arrived at learning about the dark sides of their individualities: the defects of their education, the crudity of their theology, the naïveté of their philosophy and their superstitions—and above all—their cruelty.” (Frederic de Thudichum)

The tragedy is seen in that not only did Calvin and the Protestants of Geneva put Servetus to death for his religious beliefs (with Calvin requesting to have Servetus decapitated yet the council deciding to have Servetus literally slowly-roasted alive), they did so in the name of Christ and Christianity, defending their actions until the very end. Yet—as I believe we all can easily recognize—nothing could be further from the true spirit of Christianity and no greater misrepresentation of Christian principles and doctrine could be cited—as M. Hillar points out in her book Michael Servetus: “The idea of punishing ‘heretics’ was so pervasive in the society that it did not occur even to the most thinking Protestants that the whole concept of repression of thought was evil and against the spirit and the letter, of the Gospels.” She also points out: “The highest flaw in the judgment of the tribunal and Calvin himself was that they arrogated themselves the right to burn the ‘heretics.’ It cannot be justified by the ‘error of the time’ since it can never be justified on any moral ground—in any epoch, by any institution or in any culture…Calvin and the rest of the religious leaders of the Reformation, by persecuting Servetus, betrayed the spirit of the Reformation and demonstrated that as soon as they gained power and independence their behavior was no different from that of the church they condemned” (pages 188-191).

Just some food for thought….

Best wishes,

Patrick Navas

Mike Felker said...

Patrick, what you've done here is exactly what I recommended in the blog post. That is, think what you will about Calvin, but please take into consideration all of the details involved. I agree that Calvin's behavior was inexcusable and more importantly, un-Christlike. And as long as you are aware of the full historical context, I don't have a problem with anyone as viewing Calvin and many of the other reformers as cruel and unChristlike.

The hard and most challenging aspect of this whole thing for me is, what would I have been like had I lived at that time? When everyone around me was approving of such cruel actions, would I have given in as well? By God's grace, I can only pray that I would not given in.

I think even in today's world, we have to make decisions against the majority in obedience to Christ. So i'm right with you in concluding that there is no excuse.

PatrickNavas said...

Excellent comments Mike. But don't you think that White is basically trying to "excuse" Calvin and soften the horror of Servetus' execution?


Mike Felker said...

Yeah, aside from the fact that White does gives us a pretty good summary of the historical context, I agree that he softens it up too much since "everyone was like that" back then.

PatrickNavas said...

Not only does White try to "soften" the Servetus affair, he almost seems to commend Calvin for his role in Servetus' execution when he says that we have to give Calvin his "props" for being "consistent."