A recent letter asks:
Do you know if Calvin really wanted Servetus put to death? I know he wrote he wouldn’t stop it, if he were put to death. I know the two often corresponded, until Calvin lost patience. But a Reformed guy told me, last summer, that when Servetus wrote he wanted to come to Geneva, Calvin tried to discourage him? And that when he did get arrested, and sentenced to burn alive at the stake, Calvin tried to get the sentence mitigated to the quicker and more humane decapitation?
A few months back Dr. White provided a very helpful overview on this issue on the Dividing Line. I extracted the 20 minute section on Calvin and Servetus as an MP3 clip. If you’re engaging in dialogue with someone bringing up Servetus, simply link them to this MP3 clip and ask them to at least listen to it before further exchanges.
If you’re in discussion on this, also take a look at the Banner of Truth’s short concise article on Calvin and Servetus. The article outlines three different approaches taken by those who use Servetus as an argument against Calvin and Calvinism. I find this useful as a means of formulating a response. The article states:
It is very common to hear the remark, “What about Servetus?” or, “Who burned Servetus?” There are three kinds of persons who thus flippantly ask a question of this nature. First, the Roman Catholics, who may judge it to be an unanswerable taunt to a Protestant. Second, those who are not in accord with the great doctrines of grace, as taught by Paul and Calvin, and embraced and loved by thousands still. Then there is a third kind of persons who can only be described as ill-informed. It is always desirable, and often useful, to really know something of what one professes to know.
I shall narrow the inquiry at the outset by saying that all Roman Catholics are “out of court.” They burn heretics on principle, avowedly. This is openly taught by them; it is in the margin of their Bible; and it is even their boast that they do so. And, moreover, they condemned Servetus to be burned.
Those who misunderstand or misrepresent the doctrines of grace call for pity more than blame when they charge the death of Servetus upon those views of divine truth known as Calvinistic. Perhaps a little instruction would be of great value to such. It is very desirable to have clear ideas of what it is we are trying to understand. In most disputes this would make a clear pathway for thought and argument. Most controversies are more about terms than principles.
The third sort of persons are plainly incompetent to take up this case, for the simple reason that they know nothing whatever about it. Pressed for their reasons, they have to confess that they never at any time read a line about the matter.
I’ve had my own encounters with those using the Servetus burning as a means of either discrediting the Reformation or Calvinism from all three above mentioned groups. A few years back I came across someone highlighting this old quote from freethinker Robert G. Ingersoll:
“Calvin was of a pallid, bloodless complexion, thin, sickly, irritable, gloomy, impatient, egotistic, tyrannical, heartless, and infamous. He was a strange compound of revengeful morality, malicious forgiveness, ferocious charity, egotistic humility, and a kind of hellish justice. In other words, he was as near like the “Sovereign God” of the “Institutes of the Christian Religion” as his health permitted.”
There is of course, a much different John Calvin that one finds from historical research. Chris Arnzen’s Iron Sharpens Iron has done a few interesting interviews (all available as free MP3 downloads) presenting quite a different image of John Calvin: