John Calvin was born July 10, 1509, at Noyon, France, an ancient cathedral city about seventy miles northeast of Paris. His father, a man of rather hard and severe character, held the position as apostolic secretary to the bishop of Noyon, and was intimate with the best families of the neighborhood. His mother was noted for her beauty and piety, but died in his early youth.
He received the best education which France at that time could give, studying successively at the three leading universities of Orleans, Bourges, and Paris, from 1528 to 1533. His father intended to prepare him for the legal profession since that commonly raised those who followed it to positions of wealth and influence. But not feeling any particular calling to that field, young Calvin turned to the study of Theology and there found the sphere of labor for which he was particularly fitted by natural endowment and personal choice. He is described as having been of a shy and retiring nature, very studious and punctual in his work, animated by a strict sense of duty, and exceedingly religious. He early showed himself possessed of an intellect capable of clear, convincing argument and logical analysis. Through excessive industry he stored his mind with valuable information, but undermined his health. He advanced so rapidly that he was occasionally asked to take the place of the professors, and was considered by the other students as a doctor rather than an auditor. He was, at this time, a devout Cathode of unblemished character. A brilliant career as a humanist, or lawyer, or churchman, was opening before him when he was suddenly converted to Protestantism, and cast in his lot with the poor persecuted sect.
Without any intention on his part, and even against his own desire, Calvin became the head of the evangelical party in Paris in less than a year after his conversion. His depth of knowledge and earnestness of speech were such that no one could hear him without being forcibly impressed. For the present he remained in the Catholic Church, hoping to reform it from within rather than from without. Schaff reminds us that ‘all the Reformers were born, baptized, confirmed, and educated in the historic Catholic Church, which cast them out; as the Apostles were circumcised and trained in the Synagogue, which cast them out.’1
The zeal and earnestness of the new Reformer did not long go unchallenged and it soon became necessary for Calvin to escape for his life. The following account of his flight from Pads is given by the Church historian, Philip Schaff: ‘Nicholas Cop, the son of a distinguished royal physician (William Cop of Basel), and a friend of Calvin was elected Rector of the University, Oct. 10, 1533, and delivered the usual inaugural oration on All Saints’ Day, Nov. 1, before a large assembly in the Church of the Mathurins. This oration, at the request of the new Rector, had been prepared by Calvin. It was a plea for a reformation on the basis of the New Testament, and a bold attack on the scholastic theologians of the day, who were represented as a set of sophists, ignorant of the Gospel …. The Sorbonne and the Parliament regarded this academic oration as a manifesto of war upon the Catholic Church, and condemned it to the flames. Cop was warned and fled to his relatives in Basel. (Three hundred crowns were offered for his capture, dead or alive.) Calvin, the real author of the mischief, is said to have descended from a window by means of sheets, and escaped from Paris in the garb of a vine-dresser with a hoe upon his shoulder. His rooms were searched and his books and papers were seized by the police …. Twenty-four innocent Protestants were burned alive in public places of the city from Nov. 10, 1534, till May 5, 1535….Many more were fined, imprisoned, and tortured, and a considerable number, among them Calvin and Du Tillet, fled to Strassburg . . . For nearly three years Calvin wandered as a fugitive evangelist under assumed names from place to place in southern France, Switzerland, and Italy, till he reached Geneva as his final destination.’2
Shortly after, if not before, the first edition of his Institutes appeared, in March, 1536, Calvin and Louis Du Tillet crossed the Alps into Italy where the literary and artistic Renaissance had its or/gin. There he labored as an evangelist until the Inquisition began its work of crushing out both the Renaissance and the Reformation as two kindred serpents. He then bent his way, probably through Asota and over the Great St. Bernard, to Switzerland. From Basel he made a last visit to his native town of Noyon in order to make a final settlement of certain family affairs. Then, with his younger brother Antoine and his sister Marie, he left France forever, hoping to settle in Basel or Strassburg and to lead there the quiet life of a scholar and author. Owing to the fact that a state of war existed between Charles V. and Francis I., the direct route through Lorraine was closed, so he made a circuitous journey through Geneva.
Calvin intended to stop only a night in Geneva, but Providence had decreed otherwise. His presence was made known to Farel, the Genevan reformer, who instinctively felt that Calvin was the man to complete and save the Reformation in Geneva. A fine description of this meeting of Calvin and Farel is given by Schaff. Says he: ‘Farel at once called on Calvin and held him fast, as by divine command. Calvin protested, pleading his youth, his inexperience, his need of further study, his natural timidity and bashfulness, which unfitted him for public action. But all in vain. Farel, ‘who burned of a marvelous zeal to advance the Gospel,’ threatened him with the curse of Almighty God if he preferred his studies to the work of the Lord, and his own interest to the cause of Christ. Calvin was terrified and shaken by these words of the fearless evangelist, and felt ‘as if God from on high had stretched out His hand.’ He submitted, and accepted the call to the ministry, as teacher and pastor of the evangelical Church of Geneva.’3
Calvin was twenty-five years younger than Luther and Zwingli, and had the great advantage of building on the foundation which they had laid. The first ten years of Calvin’s public career were contemporary with the last ten of Luther’s although the two never met personally. Calvin was intimate with Melanchthon, however, and kept up a correspondence with him until his death.
At the time Calvin came upon the scene it had not yet been determined whether Luther was to be the hero of a great success or the victim of a great failure. Luther had produced new ideas; Calvin’s work was to construct them into a system, to preserve and develop what had been so nobly begun. The Protestant movement lacked unity and was in danger of being sunk in the quicksand of doctrinal dispute, but was saved from that fate chiefly by the new :impulse which was given to it by the Reformer in Geneva. The Catholic Church worked as one mighty unit and was seeking to stamp out, by fair means or foul, the different Protestant groups which had arisen in the North. Zwingli had seen this danger and had tried to unite the Protestants against their common foe. At Marburg, after pleadings and with tears in his eyes, he extended to Luther the hand of fellowship regardless of their difference of opinion as to the mode of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper; but Luther refused it under the restraint of a narrow dogmatic conscience. Calvin also, working in Switzerland with abundant opportunity to realize the closeness of the Italian Church, saw the need for union and labored to keep Protestantism together. To Cranmer, in England, he wrote, ‘I long for one holy communion of the members of Christ. As for me, if I can be of service, I would gladly cross ten seas in order to bring about this unity.’ His influence as exerted through his books, letters, and students, was powerfully felt throughout the various countries, and the statement that he saved the Protestant movement from destruction seems to be no exaggeration.
For thirty years Calvin’s one absorbing interest was the advancement of the Reformation. Reed says, ‘He toiled for it to the utmost limit of his strength, fought for it with a courage that never quailed, suffered for it with a fortitude that never wavered, and was ready at any moment to die for it. He literally poured every drop of his life into it, unhesitatingly, unsparingly. History will be searched in vain to find a man who gave himself to one definite purpose with more unalterable persistence, and with more lavish serf-abandon than Calvin gave himself to the Reformation of the 16th century.’4
Probably no servant of Christ since the days of the Apostles has been at the same time so much loved and hated, admired and abhorred, praised and blamed, blessed and cursed, as the faithful, fearless, and immortal Calvin. Living in a fiercely polemic age, and standing on the watchtower of the reform movement in Western Europe, he was the observed of all observers, and was exposed to attacks from every quarter. Religious and sectarian passions are the deepest and strongest, and in view of the good and the bad which is known to exist in human nature in this world we need not be surprised at the reception given Calvin’s teachings and writings.
When only twenty-six years of age Calvin published in Latin his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion.’ The first edition contained in brief outline all the essential elements of his system, and, considering the youthfulness of the author, was a marvel of intellectual precocity. It was later enlarged to five times the size of the original and published in French, but never did he make any radical departure from any of the doctrines set forth in the first edition. Almost immediately the Institutes took first place as the best exhibition and defense of the Protestant cause. Other writings bad dealt with certain phases of the movement but here was one that treated it as a unit. ‘The value of such a gift to the Reformation,’ says Reed, ‘cannot easily be exaggerated. Protestants and Romanists bore equal testimony to its worth. The one hailed it as the greatest boon; the other execrated it with the bitterest curses. It was burnt by order of the Sorbonne at Paris and other places, and everywhere it called forth the fiercest assaults of tongue and pen. Florimond de Raemond, a Roman Catholic theologian, calls it ‘the Koran, the Talmud of heresy, the foremost cause of our downfall.’ Kampachulte, another Roman Catholic, testifies that ‘it was the common arsenal from which the opponents of the Old Church borrowed their keenest weapons,’ and that ‘no writing of the Reformation era was more feared by Roman Catholics, more zealously fought against, and more bitterly pursued than Calvin’s Institutes.’ Its popularity was evidenced by the fact that edition followed edition in quick succession; it was translated into most of the languages of western Europe; it became the common text-book in the schools of the Reformed Churches, and furnished the material out of which their creeds were made.’5
‘Of all the services which Calvin rendered to humanity,’ says Dr. Warfield, ‘ — and they were neither few nor small — the greatest was undoubtedly his gift to it afresh of this system of religious thought, quickened into new life by the forces of his genius.’6
The Institutes were at once greeted by the Protestants with enthusiastic praise as the clearest, strongest, most logical. and most convincing defense of Christian doctrines since the days of the Apostles. Schaff characterizes them well when he says that in them ‘Calvin gave a systematic exposition of the Christian religion in general, and a vindication of the evangelical faith in particular, with the apologetic and practical aim of defending the Protestant believers against calumny and persecution to which they were then exposed, especially in France.’7 The work is pervaded by an intense earnestness and by fearless and severe argumentation which properly subordinates reason and tradition to the supreme authority of the Scriptures. It is admittedly the greatest book of the century, and through it the Calvinistic principles were propagated on an immense scale. Albrecht Ritschl calls it ‘the masterpiece of Protestant theology.’ Dr. Warfield tells us that ‘after three centuries and a half it retains its unquestioned preeminence as the greatest and most influential of all dogmatic treatises.’ And again he says, ‘Even from the point of mere literature, it holds a position so supreme in its class that every one who would fain know the world’s best books, must make himself familiar with it. What Thucydides is among Greek, or Gibbon among eighteenth-century English historians, what Plato is among philosophers, or the Iliad among epics, or Shakespeare among dramatists, that Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ is among theological treatises.’8 It threw consternation into the Roman Church and was a powerful unifying force among Protestants. It showed Calvin to be the ablest controversialist in Protestantism and as the most formidable antagonist with which the Romanists had to contend. In England the Institutes enjoyed an almost unrivaled popularity, and was used as a text book in the universities. It was soon translated into nine different European languages; and it is simply due to a serious lack in the majority of historical accounts that its importance has not been appreciated in recent years.
A few weeks after the publication of the Institutes, Bucer, who ranks third among the Reformers in Germany, wrote to Calvin: ‘It is evident that the Lord had elected you as His organ for the bestowment of the richest fulness of blessing to His Church.’ Luther wrote no systematic theology. Although his writings were voluminous, they were on scattered subjects and many of them deal with the practical problems of his day. It was thus left to Calvin to give a systematic exhibition of the evangelical faith.
Calvin was, first of all, a theologian. He and Augustine easily rank as the two outstanding systematic expounders of the Christian system since St. Paul. Melanchthon, who was himself the prince of Lutheran theologians, and who, after the death of Luther, was recognized as the ‘Preceptor of Germany,’ called Calvin preeminently ‘the theologian.’
If the language of the Institutes seems harsh in places we should remember that this was the mark and weakness of theological controversy in that age. The times in which Calvin lived were polemic. The Protestants were engaged in a life and death struggle with Rome and the provocations to impatience were numerous and grievous. Calvin, however, was surpassed by Luther in the use of harsh language as will readily be seen by an examination of the latter’s work, The Bondage of the Will which was a polemic written against the free-will ideas of Erasmus. And furthermore, none of the Protestant writings of the period were so harsh and abusive as were the Roman Catholic decrees of excommunication, anathemas, etc., which were directed against the Protestants.
In addition to the Institutes, Calvin wrote commentaries on nearly all of the books of both the Old and New Testaments. These commentaries in the English translation comprise fifty-five large volumes, and, taken in connection with his other works, are nothing less than marvelous. The quality of these writings was such that they soon took first place among exegetical works on the Scriptures; and among all the older commentators no one is more frequently quoted by the best modern scholars than is Calvin. He was beyond all question the greatest exegete of the Reformation period. As Luther was the prince of translators, so Calvin was the prince of commentators.*
Furthermore, in order to estimate the true value of Calvin’s commentaries, it must be borne in mind that they were based on principles of exegesis which were rare in his day. ‘He led the way,’ says R. C. Reed, ‘in discarding the custom of allegorizing the Scriptures, a custom which had come down from the earliest centuries of Christianity and which had been sanctioned by the greatest names of the Church, from Origen to Luther, a custom which converts the Bible into a nose of wax, and makes a lively fancy the prime qualification of an exegete.’9 Calvin adhered strictly to the spirit and letter of the author and assumed that the writer had one definite thought which was expressed in natural everyday language. He mercilessly exposed the corrupt doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. His writings inspired the friends of reform and furnished them with most of their deadly ammunition. We can hardly overestimate the influence of Calvin in furthering and safeguarding the Reformation.
Calvin was a master of patristic and scholastic learning. Having been educated in the leading universities of his time, he possessed a thorough knowledge of Latin and French, and a good knowledge of Greek and Hebrew. His principal commentaries appeared in both French and Latin versions and are works of great thoroughness. They are eminently fair and frank, and show the author to have been possessed of a singular balance and moderation in judgment. Calvin’s works had a further effect in giving form and permanence to the then unstablized French language in much the same way that Luther’s translation of the Bible moulded the German language.
One other testimony which we should not omit is that of Arminius, the originator of the rival system. Certainly here we have testimony from an unbiased source. ‘Next to the study of the Scriptures,’ he says, ‘I exhort my pupils to pursue Calvin’s commentaries, which I extol in loftier terms than Helmick himself (Helmick was a Dutch theologian); for I affirm that he excels beyond comparison in the interpretation of Scripture, and that his commentaries ought to be more highly valued than all that is handed down to us by the library of the fathers; so that I acknowledge him to have possessed above most others, as rather above all other men, what may be called an eminent gift of prophecy.’10
The influence of Calvin was further spread through a voluminous correspondence which he carried on with church leaders, princes, and nobles throughout Protestant Christendom. More than 300 of these letters are still preserved today, and as a rule they are not brief friendship exchanges but lengthy and carefully prepared treatises setting forth in a masterly way his views of perplexing ecclesiastical and theological questions. In this manner also his influence in guiding the Reformation throughout Europe was profound.
Due to an attempt of Calvin and Farel to enforce a too severe system of discipline in Geneva, it became necessary for them to leave the city temporarily. This was two years after Calvin’s coming. Calvin went to Strassburg, in southwestern Germany, where he was warmly received by Bucer and the leading men of the German Reformation. There he spent the next three years in quiet and useful labors as professor, pastor, and author, and came into contact with Lutheranism at first hand. He had a great appreciation for the Luthern leaders and felt closely allied to the Lutheran Church, although he was unfavorably impressed with the lack of discipline and with the dependence of the clergy upon the secular rulers. He later followed the progress of the Reformation in Germany step by step with the warmest interest, as is shown in his correspondence and various writings. During his absence from Geneva affairs reached such a crisis that it seemed that the fruits of the Reformation would be lost and he was urgently requested to return. After repeated urgings from various sources he did so and took up the work where he had left off before.
The city of Geneva, located on the shores of a lake which bears the same name, was Calvin’s home. There, among the snow-capped Alps, he spent most of his adult life, and from there the Reformed Church has spread out through Europe and America. In the affairs of the Church, as well as in the affairs of the State, the little country of Switzerland has exerted an influence far out of proportion to its size.
Calvin’s influence in Geneva gives us a fair sample of the transforming power of his system. ‘The Genevese,’ says the eminent church historian, Philip Schaff, ‘were a light-hearted, joyous people, fond of public amusements, dancing, singing, masquerades, and revelries. Recklessness, gambling, drunkenness, adultery, blasphemy, and all sorts of vice abounded. Prostitution was sanctioned by the authority of the State, and superintended by a woman called the Reine de bordel. The people were ignorant. The priest had taken no pains to instruct them, and had set them a bad example.’ From a study of contemporary history we find that shortly before Calvin went to Geneva the monks and even the bishop were guilty of crimes which today are punishable with the death penalty. The result of Calvin’s work in Geneva was that the city became more famed for the quiet, orderly lives of its citizens than it had previously been for their wickedness. John Knox, like thousands of others who came to sit as admiring students at Calvin’s feet, found there what he termed ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on the earth since the days of the Apostles.’
Through Calvin’s work Geneva became an asylum for the persecuted, and a training school for the Reformed Faith. Refugees from all the countries of Europe fled to this retreat, and from it they carried back with them the clearly taught principles of the Reformation. It thus acted as a center emanating spiritual power and educational forces which guided and moulded the Reformation in the surrounding countries. Says Bancroft, ‘More truly benevolent to the human race than Solon, more self-denying than Lycurgus, the genius of Calvin infused enduring elements into the institutions of Geneva and made it for the modern world the impregnable fortress of popular liberty, the fertile seed-plot of democracy.’11
Witness as to the effectiveness of the influences which emanated from Geneva is found in one of the letters of the Roman Catholic Francis de Sales to the duke of Savoy, urging the suppression of Geneva as the capital of what the Romish Church calls heresy. ‘All the heretics,’ said he, ‘respect Geneva as the asylum of their religion…. There is not a city in Europe which offers more facilities for the encouragement of heresy, for it is the gate of France, of Italy, and of Germany, so that one finds there people of all nations — Italians, French, Germans, Poles, Spaniards, English, and of countries still more remote. Besides, every one knows the great number of ministers bred there. Last year it furnished twenty to France. Even England obtains ministers from Geneva. What shall I say of its magnificent printing establishments, by means of which the city floods the world with its wicked books, and even goes the length of distributing them at the public expense? ….All the enterprises undertaken against the Holy See and the Catholic princes have their beginnings at Geneva. No city in Europe receives more apostates of all grades, secular and regular. From thence I conclude that Geneva being destroyed would naturally lead to the dissipation of heresy.’12
Another testimony is that of one of the most bitter foes of Protestantism, Philip II of Spain. He wrote to the king of France: ‘This city is the source of all mischief for France, the most formidable enemy of Rome. At any time, I am ready to assist with all the power of my realm in its overthrow.’ And when the Duke of Alva was expected to pass near Geneva with his army, Pope Pius V asked him to turn aside and ‘destroy that nest of devils and apostates.’
The famous academy of Geneva was opened in 1558. With Calvin there were associated ten able and experienced professors who gave instruction in grammar, logic, mathematics, physics, music, and the ancient languages. The school was remarkably successful. During the first year more than nine hundred students, mostly refugees from the various European countries, were enrolled, and almost as many more attended his theological lectures preparing themselves to be evangelists and teachers in their native countries and to establish churches after the model which they had seen in Geneva. For more than two hundred years it remained the principal school of Reformed Theology and literary culture.
Calvin was the first of the Reformers to demand complete separation between Church and State, and thus he advanced another principle which has been of inestimable value. The German Reformation was decided by the will of the princes; the Swiss Reformation, by the will of the people; although in each case there was a sympathy between the rulers and the majority of the population. The Swiss Reformers, however, living in the republic at Geneva, developed a free Church in a free State, while Luther and Melanchthon, with their native reverence for monarchial institutions and the German Empire, taught passive obedience in politics and brought the Church under bondage to the civil authority.
Calvin died in the year 1564, at the early age of fifty-five. Beza, his close friend and successor, describes his death as having come quietly as sleep, and then adds: ‘Thus withdrew into heaven, at the same time with the setting sun, that most brilliant luminary, which was the lamp of the Church. On the following night and day there was intense grief and lamentation in the whole city; for the Republic had lost its wisest citizen, the Church its faithful shepherd, and the Academy an incomparable teacher.’
In a comparatively recent book Professor Harkness has written: ‘Calvin lived, and died, a poor man. His house was scantily furnished, and he dressed plainly. He gave freely to those in need, but he spent little upon himself. The Council at one time gave him an overcoat as an expression of their esteem, and as a needed protection against the winter’s cold. This he accepted gratefully, but on other occasions he refused proffered financial assistance and declined to accept anything in addition to his modest salary. During his last illness the Council wished to pay for the medicines used but Calvin declined the gift, saying that he felt scruples about receiving even his ordinary salary when he could not serve. When he died, he left a spiritual inheritance of unestimated value and a material estate of from fifteen hundred to two thousand dollars.’13
Schaff describes Calvin as ‘one of those characters that command respect and admiration rather than affection, and forbid familiar approach, but gain upon closer acquaintance. The better he is known, the more he is admired and esteemed.’ And concerning his death Schaff says: ‘Calvin had expressly forbidden all pomp at his funeral and the erection of any monument over his grave. He wished to be buried, like Moses, out of reach of idolatry. This was consistent, with his theology, which humbles man and exalts God.’14 Even the spot of his grave in the cemetery at Geneva is unknown. A plain stone, with the initials ‘J. C.,’ is pointed out to strangers as marking his resting-place, but it is not known on what authority. He himself requested that no monument should mark his grave. His real monument, however, says S. L. Morris, is ‘every republican government on earth, the public school system of all nations, and ‘The Reformed Churches throughout the world holding the Presbyterian System.”
And again Harkness, although not always a friendly writer, says this: ‘Those who see in Calvin only unfeeling sternness overlook the almost feminine gentleness which he displayed in many of his parish relationships. He grieved with his people in their sorrows and rejoiced in their joys. Some of his letters to those who had suffered domestic losses are masterpieces of tender sympathy. When a wedding occurred or a baby came to grace a home, he took a warm personal interest in the event. It was not unusual for him to stop on the street in the midst of weighty matters to give a school-boy a friendly pat and an encouraging word. His enemies might call him pope or king or caliph; his friends thought of him only as their brother and beloved leader.’15 In one of his letters to a friend he wrote: ‘I shall soon come to visit you, and then we can have a good laugh together.’
We must now consider an event in the life of Calvin which to a certain extent has cast a shadow over his fair name and which has exposed him to the charge of intolerance and persecution. We refer to the death of Servetus which occurred in Geneva during the period of Calvin’s work there. That it was a mistake is admitted by all. History knows only one spotless being — the Savior of sinners. All others have marks of infirmity written which forbid idolatry.
Calvin has, however, often been criticized with undue severity as though the responsibility rested upon him alone, when as a matter of fact Servetus was given a court trial lasting over two months and was sentenced by the full session of the civil Council, and that in accordance with the laws which were then recognized throughout Christendom. And, far from urging that the sentence be made more severe, Calvin urged that the sword be substituted for the fire, but was overruled. Calvin and the men of his time are not to be judged strictly and solely by the advanced standards of our twentieth century, but must to a certain extent be considered in the light of their own sixteenth century. We have seen great developments in regard to civil and religious toleration, prison reform, abolition of slavery and the slave trade, feudalism, witch burning, improvement of the conditions of the poor, etc., which are the late but genuine results of Christian teachings. The error of those who advocated and practiced what would be considered intolerance today, was the general error of the age. It should not, in fairness, be permitted to give an unfavorable impression of their character and motives, and much less should it be allowed to prejudice us against their doctrines on other and more important subjects.
The Protestants had just thrown off the yoke of Rome and in their struggle to defend themselves they were often forced to fight intolerance with intolerance. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries public opinion in all European countries justified the right and duty of civil governments to protect and support orthodoxy and to punish heresy, holding that obstinate heretics and blasphemers should be made harmless by death if necessary. Protestants differed from Romanists mainly in their definition of heresy, and by greater moderation in its punishment. Heresy was considered a sin against society, and in some cases as worse than murder; for while murder only destroyed the body, heresy destroyed the soul. Today we have swung to the other extreme and public opinion manifests a latitudinarian indifference toward truth or error. During the eighteenth century the reign of intolerance was gradually undermined. Protestant England and Holland took the lead in extending civil and religious liberty, and the Constitution of the United States completed the theory by putting all Christian denominations on a parity before the law and guaranteeing them the full enjoyment of equal rights.
Calvin’s course in regard to Servetus was fully approved by all the leading Reformers of the time. Melanchthon, the theological head of the Lutheran Church, fully and repeatedly justified the course of Calvin and the Council of Geneva, and even held them up as models for imitation. Nearly a year after the death of Servetus he wrote to Calvin: ‘I have read your book, in which you dearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus …. To you the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your. magistrates did right in punishing, after regular trial, this blasphemous man.’ Bucer, who ranks third among the Reformers in Germany, Bullinger, the close friend and worthy successor of Zwingli, as well as Farel and Beza in Switzerland, supported Calvin. Luther and Zwingli were dead at this time and it may be questioned whether they would have approved this execution or not, although Luther and the theologians of Wittenberg had approved of death sentences for some Anabaptists in Germany whom they considered dangerous heretics, — adding that it was cruel to punish them, but more cruel to allow them to damn the ministry of the Word and destroy the kingdom of the world; and Zwingli had not objected to a death sentence against a group of six Anabaptists in Switzerland. Public opinion has undergone a great change in regard to this event, and the execution of Servetus which was fully approved by the best men in the sixteenth century is entirely out of harmony with our twentieth century ideas.
As stated before, the Roman Catholic Church in this period was desperately intolerant toward Protestants; and the Protestants, to a certain extent and in self-defense, were forced to follow their example. In regard to Catholic persecutions Philip Schaff writes as follows: ‘We need only refer to crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, which were sanctioned by Innocent III, one of the best and greatest of popes; the tortures and autos-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition, which were celebrated with religious festivities; and fifty thousand or more Protestants who were executed during the reign of the Duke of Alva in the Netherlands (1567-1573); the several hundred martyrs who were burned in Smithfield under the reign of bloody Mary; and the repeated wholesale persecutions of the innocent Waldenses in France and Piedmont, which cried to heaven for vengeance. It is vain to shift the responsibility upon the civil government. Pope Gregory XIII commemorated the massacre of St. Bartholomew not only by a Te Deum in the churches of Rome, but more deliberately and permanently by a medal which represents ‘The Slaughter of the Huguenots’ by an angel of wrath.’16
And then Dr. Schaff continues: ‘The Roman Church has lost the power, and to a large extent also the disposition, to persecute by fire and sword. Some of her highest dignitaries frankly disown the principle of persecution, especially in America, where they enjoy the full benefits of religious freedom. But the Roman curia has never officially disowned the theory on which the practice of persecution is based. On the contrary, several popes since the Reformation have indorsed it …. Pope Pius IX., in the Syllabus of 1864, expressly condemned, among the errors of this age, the doctrine of religious toleration and liberty. And this pope has been declared to be officially infallible by the Vatican decree of 1870, which embraces all of his predecessors (notwithstanding the stubborn case of Honorius I) and all his successors in the chair of St. Peter,’ (p. 669). And in another place Dr. Schaff adds, ‘If Romanists condemned Calvin, they did it from hatred of the man, and condemned him for following their own example even in this particular case.’
Servetus was a Spaniard and opposed Christianity, whether in its Roman Catholic or Protestant form. Schaff refers to him as ‘a restless fanatic, a pantheistic pseudo-reformer, and the most audacious and even blasphemous heretic of the sixteenth century.’17 And in another instance Schaff declares that Servetus was ‘proud, defiant, quarrelsome, revengeful, irreverent in the use of language, deceitful, and mendacious’; and adds that he abused popery and the Reformers alike with unreasonable language.18 Bullinger declares that if Satan himself should come out of hell, he could use no more blasphemous language against the Trinity than this Spaniard. The Roman Catholic Bolsec, in his work on Calvin, calls Servetus ‘a very arrogant and insolent man,’ ‘a monstrous heretic,’ who deserved to be exterminated.
Servetus had fled to Geneva from Vienne, France; and while the trial at Geneva was in progress the Council received a message from the Catholic judges in Vienne together with a copy of the sentence of death which had been passed against him there, asking that he be sent back in order that the sentence might be executed on him as it had already been executed on his effigy and books. This request the Council refused but promised to do full justice. Servetus himself preferred to be tried in Geneva, since he could see only a burning funeral pyre for himself in Vienne. The communication from Vienne probably made the Council in Geneva more zealous for orthodoxy since they did not wish to be behind the Roman Church in that respect.
Before going to Geneva Servetus had urged himself upon the attention of Calvin through a long series of letters. For a time Calvin replied to these in considerable detail, but finding no satisfactory results were being accomplished he ceased. Servetus, however, continued writing and his letters took on a more arrogant and even insulting tone. He regarded Calvin as the pope of orthodox Protestantism, whom he was determined to convert or overthrow. At the time Servetus came to Geneva the Libertine party, which was in opposition to Calvin, was in control of the city Council. Servetus apparently planned to join this party and thus drive Calvin out. Calvin apparently sensed this danger and was in no mood to permit Servetus to propagate his errors in Geneva. Hence he considered it his duty to make so dangerous a man harmless, and determined to bring him either to recantation or to deserved punishment. Servetus was promptly arrested and brought to trial. Calvin conducted the theological part of the trial and Servetus was convicted of fundamental heresy, falsehood and blasphemy. During the long trial Servetus became emboldened and attempted to overwhelm Calvin by pouring upon him the coarsest kind of abuse.19 The outcome of the trial was left to the civil court, which pronounced the sentence of death by fire. Calvin made an ineffectual plea that the sword be substituted for the fire; hence the final responsibility for the burning rests with the Council.
Dr. Emilé Doumergue, the author of Jean Calvin, which is beyond comparison the most exhaustive and authoritative work ever published on Calvin, has the following to say about the death of Servetus: ‘Calvin had Servetus arrested when he came to Geneva, and appeared as his accuser. He wanted him to be condemned to death, but not to death by burning. On August 20, 1553, Calvin wrote to Farel: ‘I hope that Servetus will be condemned to death, but I desire that he should be spared the cruelty of the punishment’ — he means that of fire. Farel replied to him on September 8th: ‘I do not greatly approve that tenderness of heart,’ and he goes on to warn him to be careful that ‘in wishing that the cruelty of the punishment of Servetus be mitigated, thou art acting as a friend towards a man who is thy greatest enemy. But I pray thee to conduct thyself in such a manner that, in future, no one will have the boldness to publish such doctrines, and to give trouble with impunity for so long a time as this man has done.’
‘Calvin did not, on this account, modify his own opinion, but he could not make it prevail. On October 26th he wrote again to Farel: ‘Tomorrow Servetus will be led out to execution. We have done our best to change the kind of death, but in vain. I shall tell thee when we meet why we had no success.’ (Opera, XIV, pp. 590, 613-657).
‘Thus, what Calvin is most of all reproached with — the burning of Servetus — Calvin was quite opposed to. He is not responsible for it. He did what he could to save Servetus from mounting the pyre. But, what reprimands, more or less eloquent, has this pyre with its flames and smoke given rise to, made room for! The fact is that without the pyre the death of Servetus would have passed almost unnoticed.’
Doumérgue goes on to tell us that the death of Servetus was ‘the error of the time, an error for which Calvin was not particularly responsible. The sentence of condemnation to death was pronounced only after consultation with the Swiss Churches, several of which were far from being on good terms with Calvin (but all of which gave their consent) …. Besides, the judgment was pronounced by a Council in which the inveterate enemies of Calvin, the free thinkers, were in the majority.’20
That Calvin himself rejected the responsibility is clear from his later writings. ‘From the time that Servetus was convicted of his heresy,’ said he, ‘I have not uttered a word about his punishment, as all honest men will bear witness.’21 And in one of his later replies to an attack which had been made upon him, he says: ‘For what particular act of mine you accuse me of cruelty I am anxious to know. I myself know not that act, unless it be with reference to the death of your great master, Servetus. But that I myself earnestly entreated that he might not be put to death his judges themselves are witnesses, in the number of whom at that time two were his staunch favorites and defenders.’22
Before the arrest of Servetus and during the earlier stages of the trial Calvin advocated the death penalty, basing his argument mainly on the Mosaic law, which was, ‘He that blasphemeth the name of Jehovah, he shall surely be put to death,’ Lev. 24:16 — a law which Calvin considered as binding as the decalogue and applicable to heresy as well. Yet he left the passing of sentence wholly to the civil council. tie considered Servetus the greatest enemy of the Reformation and honestly believed it to be the right and duty of the State to punish those who offended against the Church. He also felt himself providentially called to purify the Church of all corruptions, and to his dying day he never changed his views nor regretted his conduct toward Servetus.
Dr. Abraham Kuyper, the statesman-theologian from Holland, in speaking to an American audience not many years ago expressed some thoughts in this connection which are worth repeating. Said he: ‘The duty of the government to extirpate every form of false religion and idolatry was not a find of Calvinism, but dates from Constantine the Great and was the reaction against the horrible persecutions which his pagan predecessors on the Imperial throne had inflicted upon the sect of the Nazarene. Since that day this system had been defended by all Romish theologians and applied by all Christian princes. In the time of Luther and Calvin, it was a universal conviction that that system was the true one. Every famous theologian of the period, Melanchton first of all, approved of the death by fire of Servetus; and the scaffold, which was erected by the Lutherans, at Leipzig for Kreel, the thorough Calvinist, was infinitely more reprehensible when looked at from a Protestant standpoint.
‘But whilst the Calvinists, in the age of the Reformation, yielded up themselves as martyrs, by tens of thousands, to the scaffold and the stake (those of the Lutherans and Roman Catholics being hardly worth counting), history has been guilty of the great and far-reaching unfairness of ever casting in their teeth this one execution by fire of Servetus as a crimen nefandum.
‘Notwithstanding all this I not only deplore that one stake, but I unconditionally disapprove of it; yet not as if it were the expression of a special characteristic of Calvinism, but on the contrary as the fatal after-effect of a system, grey with age, which Calvinism found in existence, under which it had grown up, and from which it had not yet been able entirely to liberate itself.’23
Hence when we view this affair in the light of the sixteenth century and consider these different aspects of the case, — namely, the approval of the other reformers, a public opinion which abhorred toleration as involving indifference to truth and which justified the death penalty for obstinate heresy and blasphemy, the sentence also passed on Servetus by the Roman Catholic authorities, the character of Servetus and his attitude toward Calvin, his going to Geneva for the purpose of causing trouble, the passing of sentence by a civil court not under Calvin’s control, and Calvin’s appeal for a lighter form of punishment, — we come to the conclusion that there were numerous extenuating circumstances, and that whatever else may be said Calvin himself acted from a strict sense of duty. View him from any angle you please; paint him as Cromwell asked himself to be painted — ‘warts and all’ — and, as Schaff has said, ‘He improves upon acquaintance.’ He was, beyond all question, a man sent from God, a world shaker, such as appears only a few times in the history of the world.
1 The Swiss Reformation, p. 312.
2 Schaff, The Swiss Reformation, p. 322.
3 The Swiss Reformation, p. 348
4 Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 34.
5 Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 20.
6 Article, The Theology of Calvin, p. 1.
7 The Swiss Reformation, p. 330.
8 Calvin and Calvinism, pp. 8, 374.
9 Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 22.
10 Quoted by James Orr, Calvin Memorial Addresses, p. 92.
11 Miscellanies, p. 406.
12 Vie de ste. Francois de Sales, par son neveu, p. 20.
13 John Calvin, The Man and His Ethics, p. 54.
14 The Swiss Reformation, p. 826.
15 John Calvin, The Man and His Ethics, p. 55.
16 History of the Swiss Reformation, II., p. 698.
17 The Creeds of Christendom, I., p. 464.
18 The Swiss Reformation, II., p. 787.
19 See Schaff, The Swiss Reformation, II., p. 778.
20 Doumergue, Article, What Ought to be Known About Calvin, in the Evangelical Quarterly, Jan. 1929.
21 Opera, VIII., p. 461.
22 Calvin’s Calvinism, p. 346.
23 Lectures on Calvinism, p. 129.
*A new edition of Calvin’s Commentaries in English has recently been published (1948) by the Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids.