This is Part 2 of a paper I wrote last year on John Calvin's role in the burning of Michael Servetus at the stake. Part 1 may be found here.
[My apologies on the footnotes-their numbering starts again at the beginning of each installment of the article. Also, they frequently have shortened references to works previously cited in prior installments, or an "ibid" to refer to the fact that I am continuing to reference the last work I just cited. I know this is inconvenient, but I don't particularly want to go through and redo all this for convenience of reading in blog posts...hopefully its not too annoying this way.]
When Servetus showed up in Geneva shortly after his escape, everyone took it seriously. But why Geneva? Servetus knew Calvin was there and knew the material evidence for his conviction in Lyons had ultimately come from Calvin. Servetus’s claim that “he was travelling to Naples and stopped in the city for one night, hoping to remain unrecognized” seems suspect, as he attended church for Calvin’s Sunday sermon. Calvin thought Servetus “intended perhaps passing through this city”, but no one knew. Someone recognized him after the service and alerted Calvin, who then reported Servetus to the civil authorities and initiated charges of heresy against him. The town council imprisoned Servetus and a trial lasting from mid-August to late October began.
In the sixteenth-century, civil and church authorities agreed that heresy was dangerous. But it threatened more than souls – civic order and public morality were at stake. Twenty-first century lenses view religion as a private, personal matter. But in early-modern thinking, heresy constituted not merely irregular personal piety or unusual religious opinion but potentially destabilizing and destructive ideas for society as a whole. “Heresy was not simply a matter of doctrinal error; it carried the stigma of moral corruption. It poisoned the community….”
In continuity with medieval Christendom, Calvin saw “an indissoluble link between religious faith and public order.” Thus, “civil government does indeed have ‘spiritual’ responsibilities.” The civil authority’s sphere was to guard freedom for and outward practice of orderly religion; the church's sphere was to ensure and defend true piety and pure doctrine. “Both magistrates and ministers were agents and servants of…God, committed to the same cause, differing only in their spheres and means of action.” Their “responsibilities were complementary rather than competitive.”
Servetus was tried in civil court, consisting of city councillors. The Genevan council, “perennially jealous of its authority,” had previously banished Calvin for his insistence on the church’s authority to excommunicate. A foreigner, Calvin did not hold Genevan citizenship, and was “excluded from the dispensation of civil and criminal justice.” Calvin’s role in the trial was not one of judge therefore, but of expert theological witness for the prosecution. Having refuted him for years, Calvin knew Servetus’s theology better than anyone. When Geneva requested evidence from the earlier trial in France, the French authorities demanded Servetus be returned to them for execution. The council put the choice to Servetus, who preferred to try his chances in Geneva.
After years of attempting to “gain him for our Savior,” Calvin came to “hope…the sentence of death will…be passed.” In a letter to Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575), Beza states that Calvin “pleaded the cause of the Church against [Servetus] in the Council,” yet Servetus “continued in his impiety.” The outcome was uncertain: “What will come of it I know not. Let us pray the Lord to purge His Church of these monsters.” Beza was a colleague of Calvin's writing to a mutual friend, with no reason to be anything but honest to Bullinger. This is not the unguarded confidence of the right-hand-man to an all-powerful dictator but genuine uncertainty in a situation which could go either way due to the enmity between Geneva’s council and Calvin.
The Servetus trial came in the midst of a long battle between consistory and the majority Libertines on city council, led by Ami Perrin. A colleague of Calvin “assumed that Servetus had come to the city to take advantage of the council's dissatisfaction with Calvin.” While Calvin had the considerable moral authority of his pulpit and pen, he was not liked by all. “Tensions between church and state were reaching a critical point.” A member of city council, Philibert Berthelier, had been excommunicated by consistory but “refused to recognize that authority” appealing to council to lift “the ecclesiastical ban.” Council “granted him permission to attend the Lord's Supper” but Calvin warned them “he would resist.” On Sunday, September 3, 1553, “Calvin declared from the pulpit” that he would not serve the elements to any whom the church had barred from the table. Sensing a showdown, council had already secretly urged Berthelier not to partake. Calvin was unaware of this, however, and preaching from Acts 20, he quoted Paul's words of farewell to the congregation, thinking this was possibly his last sermon in Geneva.
Along with Perrin, Berthelier was among the council members appointed to try Servetus. Both may have been sympathetic toward Servetus; neither one liked Calvin. This conflict was playing out as Servetus sat in a prison cell in Geneva, the written discussion with Calvin over heresy charges taking place from September 2-5. The council-consistory conflict was only resolved much later. This was not a city or circumstance over which Calvin presided as an unchallenged dictator.