John Calvin and The Servetus Affair

One thing that often comes up in debates about Calvinism is the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553. Those opposed to Calvinism try to make Calvin out to be a murderer of Servetus and therefore someone that should not be listened to in the realm of theology. But there are a few problems with this argument.

The first problem with this argument is that Calvinists follow Scripture, not John Calvin. Even without Calvin, the doctrines that we hold to still apply because they are found in Scripture. They were not invented by John Calvin, they were not invented by Augustine of Hippo either. They are found in every book of Scripture.

The second problem with trying to say that the Servetus affair should dismiss Calvin is that it means there are other authors this principle would apply to as well. Should we dismiss all of Paul’s writings for his persecution of the church? Should we dismiss the Psalms of David because of his sin with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah? I do not think you will find one person who uses the Servetus affair as an argument that would agree to dismissing those authors as well. This is an inconsistency in their philosophy.

The third and final problem that will be discussed about the Servetus affair is that the argument has no basis in historical accuracy. Unfortunately, for those who use this argument, facts matter. So what are the facts? Did John Calvin murder Michael Servetus? Did he order his execution? Did he light the flames? The answer to all of these questions is no, he did not. So what did happen?

Michael Servetus was a man who denied the doctrine of the Trinity. He was wanted on charges of heresy by both the Roman Catholic Church and Protestants alike. Unlike today, heresy in the 16th Century carried the penalty of death. He had been warned by John Calvin not to come to Geneva but Servetus ignored the warning and came anyway under a disguise. However, he was found out and tried as a heretic.

John Calvin did supply the evidence against Servetus in the trial. However, he was not the one that tried Servetus, nor did he sentence Servetus to death. In fact, after Servetus was sentenced to death, Calvin lobbied to have his execution be that of beheading rather than burning at the stake so that it would be quicker with less suffering.

Now, did Calvin believe Servetus should be executed? Yes. But we need to remember the time period in which Calvin lived. It was not John Calvin who held this view and to somehow make him the villain in all of this in order to discredit other beliefs that he held is absurd.

When someone uses the Servetus Affair in arguments against Calvinism, it means they have run out of arguments and are not able to focus on the actual theology and the doctrines that Calvinists hold to in the light of Scripture.

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