Calvin’s Life: The Servetus Affair

To lay the death of Servetus at Calvin’s feet is simply to read the evidence of history through an anti-Calvinistic lens and that is not good history.

What also seems to emerge from a study of his life and character is an obsession with John Calvin. Sometime after 1540 Servetus wrote Calvin at least thirty letters. He was apparently seeking to engage Calvin in a Trinitarian debate.  He even asked Calvin if he wanted him to come to Geneva. Calvin ignored the letters but he did write to tell Servetus that he did not want him to come to Geneva.  Servetus must have felt rejected once again.  No one seemed willing to engage his extreme views.To lay the death of Servetus at Calvin’s feet is simply to read the evidence of history through an anti-Calvinistic lens and that is not good history.

 

My first pastorate was a small rural congregational church. Her only doctrinal statement was the Apostle’s Creed. The ol’ timers said it was because doctrine didn’t matter out in the country. I served that congregation while in my last year of college and almost all three years of my seminary career.  The summer I received a call to that church I became persuaded that Calvinism was simply a shorthand way of describing the Bible’s message of salvation.  Not everyone in my new congregation was thrilled about my turn toward Reformed soteriology (i.e. the doctrine of salvation).  So, it should have come as little surprise when I received a packet in the mail one day.  It was filled with polemics against Calvinism.  It was plain nasty. So much for theology not mattering in the country! But there was one item in that packet that I have to this very day. It’s a cartoon about the circumstances surrounding Calvin and Servetus. A cartoon of the event seems almost callous.  Let me tell you the story.[1]

Michael Servetus believed that reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Bucer, Farel, and others were not reformed and reforming enough and he saw it as his calling to correct that error.  So, at twenty one years of age he published De Trinitatis Erroribus in which he attacked and denied the doctrine of the Trinity calling it a deception of the devil.  Servetus believed that he might draw some notable reformed theologians into debate and thus create the radical reform for which he aimed. However, all he felt was pressure to retract his position, which he did in a second edition.  However, his retraction did not appear to be truthful.

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