AFTER DEATH, THE JUDGMENT: CALVIN ON THE DEFENSIVE
THE BURNING OF SERVETUS settled only one of the questions raised by his appearance on the stage at Geneva. He himself was indeed now removed from the stage, and could no longer spread his ideas in person. But the burning of the man, as Calvin and other champions of the faith soon discovered, by no means put an end to his ideas; while it did bring to the front a much broader, more important and more vital question, that of religious toleration. Calvin’s critics, in centering their attention on his responsibility for this tragedy, have largely overlooked the fact that in this case he was but the conspicuous embodiment of a policy toward heretics that was at the time universally accepted in principle by Protestants no less than by Catholics. It ought therefore to cause no surprise that from the most influential leaders of the Reformation this shocking occurrence called forth an all but unanimous response of approval. All this, however, was solely on an ex parte presentation of the case by Calvin, who had drawn the terms of the indictment of Servetus which formed the basis of the prosecution and sentence, and had taken the pains to prepare their minds for it. This approval was given by men not one of whom had had a fair opportunity to read and judge the book on which his conviction had been founded, if indeed they had even seen it, but who nevertheless endorsed all that vas done, without apparent hesitation or further inquiry.1
Bullinger not only had approved of the death of Servetus in advance, but two years later he wrote that he was persuaded that if Satan were to return from hell and preach to the world as he pleased, he would employ many of Servetus’s expressions. 2 Years afterwards he still firmly held that the Geneva Council had done its duty in this case.3 Peter Martyr Wrote in 1556, ‘I have nothing to say of the Spaniard Servetus except chat he was a veritable son of the Devil, whose poisonous and detestable doctrine should everywhere be hunted down; and the magistrate that condemned him to death should not be blamed, seeing that there was no hope of his amendment, and that his blasphemies were quite intolerable.’ 4 Gallicius at Chur commended the deed; 5 Walther at Zurich saw the hand of God in it; 6 Musculus at Bern broke into verse over it; 7 Dr. Gratarolo at Basel, though doubtful as to the death by fire, believed that Servetus deserved two deaths rather than only one; 8 while Suizer at Basel, Hailer at Bern, and Farel at Neuchâtel had all spoken unmistakably in the course of the trial.
At a greater distance, despite theological di1 between Calvinists and Lutherans, the approval of Melanchthon was no less pronounced. He wrote to Calvin, ‘I maintain that your magistrates did right in putting a blasphemer to death by regular judicial process.’9 A year later he expressed the formal opinion that the Geneva council did right in putting Servetus to death for reviving the heresy of Paul of Samosata and denying the deity of Christ and the worship of the Son of God. 10 At almost the same time and in the same tone he wrote to Bullinger, expressing surprise that any disapproved so severe a punishment. 11 Yet two years later, in an admonition about the case of Thamer, who was disturbing the peace of the church at Minden, he held up the course pursued at Geneva in the treatment of incorrigible blasphemy as a good example, and one deserving to be remembered to all posterity. 12 In short, down to the end of the sixteenth century the chief spokesmen of Lutheranism in Germany expressly approved of Servetus’s death. 13
Even at the time, however, and even among those whose orthodoxy was not under suspicion, the sentence pronounced against Servetus was not unanimously approved. It has already been noted that Vergerio was opposed to a capital sentence. 14 Also, while the case was under consideration by the churches, David Joris, then living in the full odor of sanctity at Basel, addressed to the magistrates of the Swiss cities an anonymous epistle containing an earnest plea for Servetus, urging them that as disciples of Christ they should not put one to death for his teaching, but rather give him kindly warning, and at most only banish him. 15 Basel, indeed, as the chief centre of liberal thought and tolerant sentiment in Switzerland, was naturally the focus of reaction against the measures that Calvin had taken at Geneva. The influence of Erasmus still survived here; Borrhiius (Cellarius), Castellio and Curioni were professors at the University, and Ochino, Laelius Socinus, Joris, and later Acontius were sojourners. Borrhŕus had been a secret correspondent of Servetus, 16 and it was reported that he had not favored his death, and that he and some of the lesser ministers of the city who agreed with him had therefore not been invited to join in the reply that the rest sent to Geneva. 17 Within a month of Servetus’s death Vergerio, Gallicius, Dr. Gratarolo and Calvin all wrote Bullinger from different quarters complaining of this sympathy with Servetus, or at least of this tolerant attitude, in high quarters, 18 and Bullinger begged Calvin not to mention in his projected defence the attitude of these Basileans. Calvin complied with the request. 19
To stem this apparently rising tide of discontent, which might fall in all too well with any designs the Libertines at Geneva might still have on foot, it seemed important that Calvin should issue some convincing defence of what had been done, by submitting to the judgment of the world all the facts, of which they had hitherto had only scattered fragments or distorted rumors. Something of this sort had been authorized by the Council at the close of the trial; and as requests had come from the ‘German cities,’ (i.e., those in German Switzerland) for information as to Servetus’s opinions, Calvin was voted leave to print a book on the subject. 20 He took up the project with due zeal, having already written Bullinger that as soon as he was somewhat rested he would show in a short book what a monster Servetus was, in order to stop the mouths of slanderers like those at Basel, as well as the complaints of the uninformed. 21 Bullinger gave his hearty encouragement, saying that a history of the whole affair would be highly useful, not to say necessary, and reminding him to point out that blasphemers like Servetus were justly put to death, and to give a full description of Servetus and his end, that all men might abhor the beast. 22 Viret at Lausanne and Musculus at Bern also anxiously awaited it. 23
The work appeared about the beginning of February, 1554, 24 and a French version late in the same month. 25 Calvin thought that though it was hurriedly written it was better than nothing. 26 It was, he admitted, perhaps too condensed in style for clearness, for almost his sole purpose was to show all men the detestable irreverence of Servetus, so that even the plain man might without much trouble find the involved subtleties of Servetus straightened out and made clear. But if it were seen that he had sincerely defended sound doctrine, he was content. 27 Copies were at once despatched to the leading reformers. 28
The Defensio is not a literary unity. Upon a brief and very loose thread of narrative, in which however are found various interesting data not elsewhere reported, there are strung: a closely-knit argument de fending the rightfulness of putting heretics to death (pp. 461—479); a discussion of three questions proposed to Calvin by Servetus in his Vienne period 29 (pp. 482—495); the propositions drawn up by Calvin as a basis for the written discussion in the course of the trial, together with Servetus’s replies, the refutation of the ministers, and Servetus’s brief rejoinders (pp. 501—553); the response of the Zurich ministers (pp. 555—558); a fuller exposition by Calvin of the errors of Servetus (pp. 559—588); and a refutation in the name of the Geneva ministers of the calumnies that he had heaped upon Calvin in the written discussion (pp. 587—644). The whole therefore offered both a general and a specific defence of the execution of Servetus.
Calvin, though otherwise disinclined to treat of this matter, felt called upon to do so, he said, since the teachings of Servetus were spreading, and many were in danger of being misled unless put on their guard against so serious a danger. Moreover, since the death of Servetus, new discussions had been stirred up which required answer. He would be untrue to his faith if he kept silent while souls were being lost. He first refutes some current objections to the use of the sword in religious matters, and the argument that kindness should be used rather than force, and says it would be no kindness to expose the sheep to attack while sparing the wolves.30 Coming to the positive side of the argument he shows by ample scripture instances that punishment of false teaching is divinely sanctioned; and that while minor errors may be patiently dealt with, and moderate ones may have moderate punishment, blasphemous attempts to overthrow the very foundations of religion deserve the extreme penalty. The milder policy had long been used with Servetus and had failed. Every chance had been given him to escape death; but as he had shown himself invincibly stubborn and intolerably irreverent, there was no other way. Finally, evidence of Calvin’s patient treatment, and of Servetus’s shocking language, was offered in detail. Calvin nowhere expresses the least regret at what has been done, and throughout shows the utmost loathing and contempt for Servetus as a very monster of iniquity, applying to him the foulest epithets. Seldom if ever in religious history has posthumous insult been more violent or odious, or more self-righteously used as in the service of God. 31
Sulzer approved the work as holy and accurate, and strongly calculated to profit the churches and confound and refute those that oppose the punishment of heretics. 32 Musculus, in answer to Blaurer, who had withheld his own opinion, spoke with more reserve. While not disapproving the death of Servetus, he thought that if the charge had been blasphemy instead of heresy, less offence would have been given to those that had disagreed about the burning of heretics, and less occasion would have been given to the Papists to continue their cruel treatment of heretics. 33 For at this very period Protestants were being burned by the scores in France, and the Catholic reaction under ‘bloody Mary’ was beginning in England. The statement of the Catholic Varillas, that Calvin’s defence of exterminating heretics was not well received by the Calvinists in France, is credible enough.34 Dr. Gratarolo praised the excellent and powerful book, and wondered that any could have disapproved the death of such a sink and sewer of all heresies, or could even adhere to his doctrine, though in secret. 35 Farel was enraptured with the work, and exhausted his vocabulary of adjectives in reproach of Servetus, who was now exposed as the prince of heretics, and whose power to harm was at length destroyed. All good Christians would be Calvin’s debtors. 36 Bullinger thought the treatment too brief for clearness, and the argument too heavy for the common mind to grasp, yet all good men would be very grateful for it, most of all the more learned. Viret was of the same mind. 37 Melanchthon wrote Calvin that the Church would be forever grateful to him, and Calvin was greatly pleased at this ‘splendid testimonial.’ 38 In the Lutheran world the outstanding confutation of the Restitutio of Servetus was by Professor Alexander Alesius of Leipzig in four academic disputations. 39
Even among Calvin’s followers, however, there was division of judgment, though those that dissented from him were naturally not too outspoken, lest they be set down as sympathizing with the views of Servetus. The carefully guarded criticism of Vergerio and Musculus has been noted above; and even before the death of Servetus was known at Basel, Gratarolo wrote to Bullinger that there were some there, especially those that would be deemed the most learned and distinguished (referring to academic circles), who sympathized with Servetus, and who stigmatized Calvin as an executioner.40 Nicholas Zurkinden also, Secretary of State and one of the most honored and cultivated citizens of Bern, as well as a broad-minded friend of Calvin, had seen and heard too much of the cruelty of the sword as used against Anabaptists, and freely confessed that he would have it very rarely used in defence of faith. Better results had been obtained by milder treatment, so Musculus had reported to him. While he did not disapprove the death of wicked blasphemers like Servetus, the onus of which must in any case lie upon the Council, yet he did not approve such punishment for heretics and dissidents in general.’ 41 Calvin complained that some censured him harshly as a master of cruelty and atrocity in attacking with his pen a dead man whose death he himself had caused;42 while others though well-disposed to him wished he had never taken up the subject of the punishment of heretics. So Bullinger assured him. 43 Frecht of Ulm questioned whether life imprisonment would not have been better, and desired to know what Negelin and Suizer thought about it.’ 44 Toussain of Montbeliard confessed that as he was by nature disposed to mildness he should have preferred to have Servetus given longer time for repentance.’45
Above the undertone of these guarded murmurs, however, there now rose a loud and clear voice squarely protesting against the principle advocated and defended in Calvin’s apologetical work. Not much more than a month after the Defensio there appeared at Basel a secretly printed anonymous book on the punishment of heretics which, as almost the earliest46 and one of the most eloquent pamphlets against intolerance in matters of religion, marked the rise of a new spirit in Protestantism. 47 The body of the work consisted of extracts on toleration taken from some twenty-five Christian writers ancient and modern, including Calvin himself and Luther; but the most significant parts of the work were a dedication to Duke Christoph of Wurttemberg by ‘Martin Bellius’ (preceded in the French edition by ‘the translator’s’ dedication to Duke Christoph’s son-in-law, Count Wilhelm of Hesse), and a refutation of the reasons usually given for persecution, by ‘Basil Montfort.’ Beza, who was then teaching at Lausanne, and was daily growing more devoted to Calvin and his cause, early took note of the new work, and at once saw in the ‘Magdeburg’ of the title-page only a cover for Basel. He also strongly suspected that Castellio lay concealed under the assumed name of Bellius, and that Laelius Socinus and Coelius Secundus Curioni (Lat., Curio)48 had a share in the authorship. 49 Calvin entertained a similar suspicion. Curioni strenuously denied having had any hand in it, 50 and nothing was ever proved of Socinus; enough that the group of liberal spirits then living or sojourning at Basel (Borrhăus, Castellio, Curioni, Joris, Ochino, Laelius Socinus) may all in some measure have collaborated in the work. But it is now conclusively demonstrated that Castellio disguised himself under the names of Bellius and Montfort, and possibly also under that of Georg Kleinberg, and that he was the responsible guiding spirit of the whole. 51
Sebastian Castellio 52 was born in 1515 at Saint-Martin-du-Fresne, a village of Bresse, about thirty-five miles west of Geneva. He was educated at Lyon, where he established a reputation as a classical scholar and teacher. Having adopted the views of the Reformation, he went to Strassburg at the time of Calvin’s exile there from Geneva. Calvin gave him friendship, and after his recall to Geneva he invited Castellio thither in 1541 to be Rector of the reorganized college. Finding after a year or two that his salary here was quite inadequate, he sought admission to the company of the city’s pastors. But though he was admitted to be otherwise admirably fitted for such an office, yet he showed a mind too independent and a spirit too little docile to fit well into Calvin’s regime; for upon examination it transpired that he could not with good conscience accept the Song of Solomon as a sacred book worthy to be included in the Bible, and that he did not accept the article of the creed about Christ’s descent into hel1. 53 He was therefore refused admission to the ministry, and not long afterwards resigning his office he left Geneva disappointed and resentful against the pastors and especially against Calvin, and sought employment elsewhere. 54 Calvin was at first disposed to treat him kindly, but relations between them soon became strained, and thenceforth to the end of his days Calvin treated him with that bitter and implacable hatred which he displayed toward those that opposed or disagreed with him. Castellio, embittered in turn by Calvin’s persistent attacks, received them in anything but a spirit of Christian meekness. From Geneva he went to Basel, and here for eight long years he dragged out a miserable existence in extreme poverty, earning for himself and his numerous family a precarious living by correcting proof, a little teaching, fishing, and manual labor of the most menial sort. Meantime every spare hour was given to what had become the great project of his life, a new and improved translation of the whole Bible from the original tongues. He hoped thus to make it more acceptable to the educated by rendering it into correct and simple Latin in place of the debased Latin of the current Vulgate; and also to the common people by dressing it in vivid current French. By this he designed to do for France what Luther’s Bible had done for Germany; and his work reminds one of recent attempts to render the Bible into modern colloquial English. At length, in the very year of Servetus’s death, he was made Professor of Greek at the University of Basel. Here he was greatly beloved by his students, while on the other hand Calvin and Beza for years kept urging the Basel authorities to prosecute him as a dangerous enemy of religion as they conceived it. In I561 their attacks almost drove him to leave Basel and seek refuge in Poland. 55 It was while such a prosecution was on hand that, worn out by all that he had long suffered in body and mind, he at last weakened and died in 1563 at the early age of forty-eight. Beza and Bullinger rejoiced at his death. 56
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
This page was last modified
Sunday 12 November 2006.