Bruce Gordon


On his book Calvin

Cover Interview of April 20, 2010

A close-up

There is no more controversial aspect of Calvin’s life than the execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva in the fall of 1553, an event I treat on pages 217-228, in chapter 13 of the book.  This is a subject on which most people have long made up their minds—though rarely on the basis of knowledge. The image of Servetus burning at the stake has sealed Calvin’s posthumous reputation as a monster.

Servetus was a multi-talented Spaniard credited with important discoveries about the circulatory system.  But he was also a heretic.  His denial of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity was blasphemy to Catholics and Protestants alike.  Servetus and Calvin had a long history, dating back twenty years to when both men lived in France.  Over the years, Servetus had corresponded with Calvin, sending him his controversial works. Calvin was appalled and sought to end the relationship, confessing to a friend that should Servetus show up in Geneva he would never escape with his life.  In August 1553 Servetus did just that, for reasons no one quite understands.  Calvin participated in his arrest and, as leading theologian in the city, prepared the case against him.

If Calvin is in turn to be judged for his actions, this case must not be treated in isolation, but rather be determined within its historical context. It is rarely understood that Calvin himself was in a precarious position in Geneva when Servetus arrived.  He was locked in a power struggle with the ruling authorities and was losing.  He thought he would have to leave the city.  The magistrates were not prepared to grant the church independent authority—a position which was a clear defeat for Calvin. Many among his opponents used the Servetus case to embarrass the reformer.  Calvin was adamant that Servetus was a heretic and the animosity between the two men was unmistakable.  In the end, however, it was the civic council’s decision to have the Spaniard executed.  It did so on the advice of the other Swiss cities. Heresy was not regarded as a matter of opinion. It held to be a poison that would kill the community.  Calvin’s call for a more humane form of execution was ignored as Servetus went to the stake to be burned with his books.  Did Calvin think Servetus should be executed?  Yes.  Did he want the execution?  Probably.  Did he have the authority to condemn Servetus to death?  No.

The execution of Servetus, however, was quickly attributed to Calvin by a number of opponents closely connected with the printing business.  His name was rapidly traduced across Europe and his defensive responses proved impotent.  Calvin became associated with intolerance and doctrinal fetishism while Servetus was turned into a martyr for freedom of the conscience.  Neither man suited the role granted him.  It mattered little that executions for religious convictions were widespread across Europe in the sixteenth century—here was decisive proof that the Protestant reformation was no better than the medieval Catholic church against which it had rebelled.