Did Calvin Murder Servetus?
by Standford Rives
BookSurge Publishers, 2008
by Barbara Buzzard
In 2008 Standford Rives, a California attorney, re-opened the case against Calvin — a charge of judicial murder (a false witness obtaining a capital conviction without true evidence). The victim was Michael Servetus, a Spanish medical doctor and well-known scholar and writer who was burned alive in 1553 in Geneva, Switzerland. His crime? I would answer naively — no other crime but questions about theology. One of the charges Calvin brought against him involved his views on infant baptism, but now Servetus’ views on that subject have become widely accepted by major denominations.
Another outrageous charge (and this is part of the genius of this book — the unearthing of the lies and deception in order to secure the death penalty) is that a notation in a copy of Ptolemy’s Geographica (the Geography of the day) was blasphemous. It was very easily shown that Servetus had not written the notation and that Calvin knew it. This is some of the stuff used as evidence for burning a man at the stake! “There was no conceivable blasphemy in anything Servetus wrote.” Surely this is one of the most fascinating stories you will ever have the privilege of investigating — not a “Who done it?” but a why and how “he done it” with point and purpose.
“The controversy at the beginning of the trial was over the ‘Eternal Word’ vs. the ‘Eternal Son.’” But Calvin used Servetus’ stance on the Trinity in the middle of the trial as a pretext to get Servetus killed. Servetus said that the “Trinity is a holdover from Catholicism that needs revision.” He felt that the “Trinity ran up against the shema” and attempted to prevent Christianity from being mocked by both Jews and Muslims as endorsing polytheism. Servetus charged the church with dividing the oneness of God into three and exchanging the oneness of God for a pagan concept. Trinitarians themselves recognized in 538 AD that the Trinity contradicted Scripture, and even banned the Shema as a denial of the Trinity. Please note that “Calvin always was in firm accord with Servetus’ views that Christians should eschew the use of Trinity verbiage. Calvin held this view both before and after the trial of Servetus.”
Please note also that the murder charge against Calvin was brought not by a supporter of Servetus but by Castellio, a one-time supporter of Calvin’s school of thought and one who did not agree with Servetus. “Castellio regarded what Calvin had done to Servetus as ‘a blatant murder’ committed by Calvin’s own hands ‘dripping with the blood of Servetus.’” Castellio’s summation of the event has become famous and should serve as a guiding light for believers: “To kill a man is to kill a man. It is not to defend a doctrine. It is to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine. They killed a man...What has the sword to do with doctrine?”
Castellio vowed, “I shall so expose the false doctrines of Calvin that everyone shall see as plain as noonday that he thirsted for blood.” “Castellio likens [Calvin] to the wicked Haman in the Biblical book of Esther, for just as the latter would have killed the whole Jewish people, Calvin makes heretics of all who don’t think as he does, and would have been killed for differing from him.”
Let us remember that that is all heresy is — a different viewpoint from that of the accuser. The scriptural way to proceed would be persuasion, not burning. Rives concludes that “Calvin demonstrates a moral shortcoming and cowardice for preferring killing rather than gently persuading Servetus of his error.”
The famous historian Edward Gibbons stated that he was “more deeply scandalized by the execution of Servetus than at the hecatombs (sacrificial slaughter)...The zeal of Calvin seems to be envenomed by personal malice, and perhaps envy.”
We have to look no further than Calvin’s own words — “Posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster” — to judge Calvin’s guilt in the matter. Also in 1561 Calvin wrote to a friend: “I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.” Calvin wished to be viewed as God’s servant for having Servetus murdered.
However, Calvin’s actions were totally inconsistent with his words. He had written earlier: “It is criminal to put heretics to death. To make an end of them by fire and sword is opposed to every principle of humanity.” Gibbons said that this discrepancy between his stated views and his actions proved Calvin’s culpability for a hateful killing. And this was Calvin’s treatment of Servetus, a man whose work was described by Earl Morse Wilbur, a doctor of divinity, as “suffused with a love for Christ.”
Obviously we are not kept in suspense as to the question of murder in the title of the book (the back cover reveals that). The intrigue and revelation is in the examination of facts that even New Testament scholars have been unaware of. This book had to be written by a lawyer; the examination of the modus operandus of Calvin who was himself a trained lawyer required special expertise. One has only to note the bibliography of 14 pages to appreciate the vast amount of work and dedication that have gone into the making of such a treasure of a book. As one reviewer noted, “It is the best book on the Reformation that I have ever read.” I would add that it points to a most desperate need for a “21st-Century Reformation”! The Reformation was never completed. In many cases the reformers feared for their lives and orthodoxy won out by brute force.