Review of Jonathan Moorhead, The Trial of the 16th Century: Calvin and Servetus, Fearn: Christian Focus, 2021

People who know little about Calvin often know marginally more about the burning of Servetus in Geneva in 1553. It was a dark blot on Calvin’s curriculum vitae, no doubt, and led, for example, to Christopher Hitchens calling Calvin ‘a sadist and torturer and killer’. During the Reformation period, perhaps 3,000 were executed for heresy – mostly by Catholics. In Zurich Zwingli had four Anabaptists drowned, while Elizabeth I of England used drawing, hanging, and quartering to kill those guilty of heresy or treason (the two charges tended to blend into one for the Catholics).

Servetus was a provocative character who was quite possibly insane. In 1531 he wrote On the Errors of the Trinity, and also came to uphold baptismal regeneration, reject justification by faith, and utterly despise infant baptism. As some kind of doctor, he practised medicine, and authored an Apology for Astrology. In 1546-48 he wrote 30 rather abusive and condescending letters to Calvin, saying ‘This shows that your knowledge is ridiculous, nay, a magical enchantment and a lying justification.’ Calvin was determined not to let Servetus’ heresies pass, but did say that if he repented, ‘I shall have occasion for joy.’

After being condemned by the Roman Catholic authorities in Vienne in south-eastern France, Servetus escaped on 7 April 1553, and landed in Geneva. There were three classes of people in Geneva: citoyens (those who born and bred in Geneva); bourgeois (those who could not serve on the Small Council); and habitants (legal aliens). In 1553 Calvin was a habitant, who had no vote.

Furthermore, Calvin was under pressure from many sides. The magistrates had warned Calvin about his preaching on 21 May 1548; 10 July 1548; and 28 February 1552. His life was threatened. In 1547 he had lamented to Pierre Viret: ‘My influence is gone, believe me, unless God stretch forth his hand.’ French refugees were regarded with suspicion. Even after Servetus’ condemnation, Calvin was still expecting to be exiled.

As mentioned before, on the way from Vienne to Naples, on 13 August 1553, Servetus made a detour, and attended a Sunday afternoon church service in Geneva. It appears that he did so in order to provoke Calvin. It was too much for the Reformer who reported Servetus to the authorities. Calvin was to draw up 38 theological accusations, but he also provided books from his library for Servetus to use to mount his defence.

There is a madness to Servetus’ character. He racked his thesaurus to call Calvin everything, including a ‘ridiculous mouse’ and Simon Magus. He even demanded that Calvin be exterminated and his property to be given over to himself. When Servetus was found guilty, Calvin wanted the death penalty but not by burning. He commented: ‘Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety.’ Calvin also pleaded with the heretic to seek pardon from God.

Calvin was no dictator enforcing his will on Geneva. Nor was his stance unprecedented. The sixth-century Code of Justinian prescribed the death penalty for denying the Trinity and for rebaptism. John Jewel (1522-72) was to boast that it was the Protestants who purged Christianity of Servetus. Other Reformers held similar views, and supported the execution of Servetus – notably Beza, Bullinger, Melanchthon, Bucer, and John Knox. Anachronism is a factor to be faced and analysed, but cannot be made an excuse.

Moorhead helpfully sets out 22 points to examine in coming to an understanding of Calvin and his role in this unhappy episode. Moorhead makes some errors, as when he says that Augustine favoured execution for heresy – he did not interpret ‘compel them to come in’ to mean death for the Donatists. This is not an easy subject to work through, but Moorhead is a guide and a help.

– Peter Barnes