We’ve all heard it before, “Calvin killed Servetus!,” “Calvin forced the death of Servetus!,” “Calvin wanted Servetus dead and had him killed!” These cries that are still echoed today are nothing new. Calvin himself had to address the rumors and slander of his name while he was alive.
To be sure Calvin was no friend of Servetus. He did not tolerate the heresy and perversion of Christ’s name from the man. Of course Calvin was patient and personally kind to Servetus, going so far as to visit him in prison and trying to convince the man to repent of his errors; even warning him not to come to Geneva where he was wanted.
Of course all that goes unmentioned by those that lay blame of Servetus’s death not with himself but on Calvin.
Calvin’s dealing with Servetus is a great example of being gentle with opponents (attempting to meet with Servetus, visiting him in prison, warning him) “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will” (2 Ti. 2:24-26) and being poignant and severe in proportion to the false teaching, “Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh” (Phil. 3:2); “Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:4-5).
Here are Calvin’s own words in response to the false teaching of Servetus and the accusation that he wanted him put to death. Calvin does not mention Servetus by name, as he does others in his refutation of other men, but as I was reading I wondered if he was indeed referring to Servetus and so I searched the footnotes which say that it is. I underlined the portion I wish to emphasize.
The Pastors of the Church of Christ, at Geneva, pray, that God would grant to those most excellent Men, their supreme Lords, and to the Syndics, and Senate of Geneva, a just and holy administration of the State; and all happy prosperity and success.
THE same motive which impelled us to write this Book, most excellent SIRS, constrained us also to DEDICATE it to YOU; that it might go forth under your name and auspices.—THE FREE ELECTION OF GOD, by which He adopts unto himself whom He will, out of the lost generation of men, has been hitherto publicly declared by us, in this city, with all reverence, sobriety, and sincerity; and has been peacefully received by the people. But now, Satan, the father of all strifes, has subtlely introduced by means of a certain worthless person, a wide spreading error; and has attempted to root out our doctrine, which is drawn from the pure Word of God, and to shake the faith of the people. But since this hungry hunter after vain glory wishes to gain notoriety out of the very flames of the temple of God;—lest he should catch that reward of his unholy audacity, for which he has laid his nets; let his name be buried under our silence; while we leave it purposely unmentioned.
But since the trouble which this vain mortal endeavoured to cause us, reaches unto you also, it is but just that you should partake the blessed fruit which God brings out of it. And as we have ever found you strenuous and hearty defenders of our holy cause, we have felt it to be our duty to testify, with all our ability, our gratitude. The performance of this our duty will also plainly shew, what that doctrine is, which you have protected by your favour and authority. And although it becomes neither the rulers of the State, nor the ministers of Christ, to be too anxious about rumours and tumults; and though all insidious revilings (which are generally lost, by degrees, in the noise which they make) should be despised, both by rulers and ministers of Christ, with fortitude and an exalted mind; yet, it is of the utmost importance, that the great reality of the matter concerned, should ever be kept in the hands, and (as engraven on public tablets) before the eyes, of all; that the plain statement of it may condemn and stop the false tongues of the foolish, the vain, or the wicked; and may, at the same time, repress the frivolous whispers of the people in general.
There was spread abroad, in many places, a rumour, that this vain person was severely bound in prison: whereas, he was perfectly free, and flying about the city openly, every day. And with what malignity some virulent ones imagined and stated, that we wished him to be put to death, you are yourselves our best witnesses.* To refute such calumnies, until they shall have vanished, by contempt and tranquil magnanimity, is the becoming duty of gravity and prudence.
On the other hand, however, lest some unstable ones should be moved; of whom serious care must be taken;—to set forth plainly, before all, the real state of the case and cause at issue, is no less expedient, than a solemn duty, on our part. For iniquity, unless it be resolutely met, makes its creeping way (as saith Paul) “like a canker.” (2 Tim. 2:17.) Now, this DEFENCE, which we offer to all the godly, will, we hope, be a strong and effectual remedy, to those who are healable; and will serve also as a wholesome antidote to the sound and the whole. And the subject itself is one to which the children of God should devote their most studious attention; that they become not ignorant of their heavenly birth and origin. For some fools, because the Gospel is called “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth,” would blot out, under this pretext, the election of God; whereas, it ought to have entered into the minds of such, to think, from whence faith comes! Now, the Scripture everywhere proclaimeth aloud, that God giveth to his Son those, who were ever his; that He calleth those whom He hath chosen; and that those whom He hath adopted for sons, He begetteth by his Spirit; and finally, that the men whom He hath taught within, and to whom his “arm is revealed,” believe! Wherefore, whosoever shall hold faith to be the earnest and pledge of adoption, will assuredly confess, that it flows from Divine election, as its eternal source. And yet, the knowledge of salvation is not to be sought, from the secret counsel of God.—Life is set before us, in Christ: who not only makes himself known, but presents himself to our enjoyment, in the Gospel. Into this mirror, let the eye of our faith ever fixedly look. Nor let it ever desire to penetrate where access to its sight is not given.
Since this is the right way, let the children of God walk therein, lest by winging their flight higher than is lawful, they plunge themselves into a labyrinth deeper than they would wish to find themselves in. But as there is none other gate of the kingdom of heaven than faith in Christ, as contained in the promises of the Gospel openly set before us; so it must be the greatest ignorance not to acknowledge that the eyes of our minds are opened of God Himself, for He chose us unto faith in Christ before we were conceived in the womb. And yet, that the object of this impure and abandoned one was not only to blot out all knowledge of God’s election from the minds of men, but to overturn His power also, is clearly manifest from those mad dreams of his, which ye possess in your public records, written with his own hand; wherein he asserts that faith does not depend on election, but that rather election stands in faith, and that none remain in blindness on account of the in-born corruption of nature, seeing that all men are rightly enlightened of God; and that we do a great injustice to God when we declare that those are passed by of Him whom He deigns not to illumine by His Spirit.
This worthless being also maintains that all men, generally and equally, are “drawn” of God; and that there is no difference, except where resistance begins it; and that when God promises that He will make “hearts of flesh” out of “hearts of stone,” nothing else is meant than the making us capable of receiving the grace of God; and that this capability, or the being made capable, extends without distinction to the whole human race, whereas the Scripture most clearly affirms that this is the peculiar privilege of the Church of God.
As to the Providence of God, by which the world is ruled, this ought ever to be confessed and held fast by all the godly: that there is no reason why men should make God a sharer in their sins, or in any way involve Him with themselves in a participation of their fault. But since the Scripture teaches that the reprobate are also instruments of the wrath of God, by some of whom He instructs the faithful unto patience, and on others of whom, as His enemies, He inflicts the punishments they deserve; this profane trifler contends that no act of God is just, but that for which there lies a plain reason before our eyes. Thus, doing away with all difference between remote and proximate and immediate causes, he will not allow the severe afflictions laid on Job to be considered the work of God, lest He should be made equally guilty with the devil, and the Chaldean and Sabean plunderers (emphasis mine).*
Soli Deo Gloria!
*Calvin, J., & Cole, H. H. (2009). Calvin’s Calvinism: A Treatise on the Eternal Predestination of God (1–5). Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.