July 11, 2009

John Calvin and the Servetus incident

Yesterday, July 10, was the 500th anniversary of the birth of the great Protestant reformer, John Calvin. I blogged about his early life and ministry. Today, I continue with the latter part of his life. In subsequent installments, I'll discuss Calvin's theology, and his legacy.

Calvin had been banished from Geneva in 1538, after he defied an order, issued by the adversarial civil government, not to preach on Easter Sunday. After two years, the Genevans decided they were worse off without him, and entreated him to return, which he did in September 1541. Calvin's invitation to return to Geneva was a clear mandate to reform the church and the community. His previous conflict in Geneva had shown that he lacked pastoral experience, but after three years ministering to French evangelicals in Strasbourg, he was a more seasoned churchman.

This second Genevan period has been mischaracterized by many historians as a virtual reign of terror, with John Calvin as the dictator of the city. In fact, even though they begged him back, the civil authorities in Geneva were no happier to have him in the city. He was not a citizen, but a legal resident alien - a habitant - and tolerated as pastor only because no native Genevans were qualified. His political influence extended only as far as his powers of persuasion would carry it. In fact, the next 13 years were marked by constant conflict between Calvin and the city council. They attempted to interfere with the operation of the church, and Calvin opposed their encroachment on what he argued was his rightful sphere of authority.

In 1549, Calvin's wife Idolette died after an illness, leaving him to raise his two stepsons alone. Calvin and Idolette had had only one child together, a son who died in infancy.

The continouous conflict between the civil and ecclesiastical authorities in Geneva is best exemplified by the controversy over the arrest and execution of Miguel Servetus. Servetus was a Spanish physician, credited with first describing the operation of pulmonary circulation. But his scientific accomplishments were overshadowed by his theological innovations. Servetus was a heretic: in 1531 and 1532, he had published three works denouncing the doctrine of the Trinity. He had also developed an interest in the young John Calvin. In 1534, he had arranged to meet with Calvin in Paris. Calvin, thinking perhaps he could be of assistance to Servetus, returned in secret to Paris, but Servetus did not meet him.

In 1553, Servetus was arrested, imprisoned and condemned to death in France for his anti-Trinitarian theology. He escaped and fled to Geneva. However, when he attended church while Calvin was preaching, he was recognized and arrested. He was tried, convicted, and again sentenced to death by burning at the stake.

Though Calvin is commonly assumed to have been responsible for Servetus' execution, in reality he simply did not have that authority. The civil government enforced the civil law, which included laws against heresy. Calvin was a pastor, so his authority was limited to exercising church discipline, which might involve withholding of communion or baptism to children, or at the most excommunication from the church. It was his civic duty to denounce Servetus to the authorities and, as the city pastor, to be an "expert witness" in theology at the trial. In fact, in his capacity as pastor, Calvin tried as far as he was able, to assist Servetus. He visited him in prison and attempted unsuccessfully to persuade him to recant his heresy. He also pled with the city council to have Servetus beheaded, a faster and more humane form of execution than burning. Predictably, they refused, and Servetus was executed at the stake on October 27, 1553.

We must judge Calvin's consent to Michael Servetus' death according to the prevailing wisdom of the day, rather than by today's more progressive standards of religious liberty. In the 16th century, heresy was considered both an ecclesiastical and a serious civil offense that threatened public peace. Servetus had already been convicted and condemned in a Roman Catholic country. The opinions of other governments and reformers were sought - incuding Bucer, Farel, Philip Melancthon, and Theodore Beza - and they unanimously agreed that Servetus must die. In hindsight, nearly everyone now agrees that the burning of Michael Servetus was a serious error. However, John Calvin was not the one responsible for his death. He is vilified for it by those who despise his person and his theology, not because he bore any more responsibility for Servetus' death than any other religious or civil authority in that day. Conveniently for Calvin's detractors, he could be blamed because the incident occurred in Geneva during his service as pastor, and because he seemingly lacked the foresight to see that his theology would lead to the idea of religious tolerance a few centuries later.

But the political situation in Geneva was changing. Over the years, the number of French-born bourgeoisie had increased. These were resident aliens who had bought the right to vote. In 1555 (two years after Servetus' execution), they had sufficient numbers to elect a city council sympathetic to Calvin and his reforms. Finally, John Calvin was able to do his pastoral work without the distraction of government interference. He also turned his attention to foreign missionary work, particularly in his homeland, France. Between 1555 and 1562, hundreds of missionaries were sent from Geneva into France, where they established 1200 evangelical churches, as well as many others all over Europe.

In 1564, Calvin's health began to deteriorate. On April 24, he wrote out his last will and testament, in which he wrote:

First, I give thanks to God, that taking compassion on me whom he had created and placed in this world, he not only delivered me by his power out of the deep darkness of idolatry, into which I was plunged, that he might bring me into the light of his gospel, and make me a partaker of the doctrine of salvation, of which I was most unworthy; that with the same goodness and mercy he has graciously and kindly borne with my multiplied transgressions and sins, for which I deserved to be rejected and cut off by him; and has also exercised towards me such great compassion and clemency, that he has condescended to use my labor in preaching and publishing the truth of his gospel. I also testify and declare, that it is my full intention to pass the remainder of my life in the same faith and religion, which he has delivered to me by his gospel; having no other defense or refuge of salvation than his gratuitous adoption, on which alone my safety depends. I also embrace with my whole heart the mercy which he exercises towards me for the sake of Jesus Christ, atoning for my crimes by the merits of his death and passion, that in this way satisfaction may be made for all my transgressions and offenses, and the remembrance of them blotted out. I further testify and declare that, as a suppliant, I humbly implore of him to grant me to be so washed and purified by the blood of that sovereign Redeemer, sited for the sins of the human race, that I may be permitted to stand before his tribunal in the image of the Redeemer himself. I likewise declare, that according to the measure of grace and mercy which God has vouchsafed me, I have diligently made it my endeavor, both in my sermons, writings, and commentaries, purely and uncorruptly to preach his word, and faithfully to interpret his sacred Scriptures. I testify and declare that in all the controversies and disputes, which I have conducted with the enemies of the gospel, I have made use of no craftiness, nor corrupt and sophistical arts, but have been engaged in defending the truth with candor and sincerity.

On May 27, 1564, John Calvin died at the age of 54.

In tomorrow's installment, I'll discuss the salient points of Calvin's theology.