You are hereThe Right to Heresy

The Right to Heresy

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By Virgil - Posted on 05 April 2006

by Virgil Vaduva
He killed fifty-seven people; banished seventy-six. Confiscated property of political and theological enemies; took power by public revolt and despotism; he ruled with an iron fist. Iste Gallusthat Frenchman – was the first reference to him in official books and records of Geneva, but his name was Jehan Calvin; an incredible attorney, stellar theologian, a tyrant and a murderer.

The Context

Dieu m’a fait la grace de declarer ce qu’est bon et mauvais – God has been gracious enough to reveal unto me good and evil.” – John Calvin

Without a doubt, our detractors will accuse of us being mean-spirited and unnecessarily rough in our treatment of Calvin, but what needs to be well outlined first is the context in which this conversation takes place. While I have many very good friends who openly subscribe to the doctrine of Calvinism, it has been my personal experience that many Calvin-ists display a very disturbing sense of self-righteousness and characteristics ranging from lone defender of the Elect, truth and the very essence of the Gospel of Christ to acknowledgement of a unique and lonely existence as God’s sheep in the midst of wolves and enemies. While these are not necessarily bad characteristics, they appear to take an overly negative and proprietary tone when Calvinists take them on.

The issue becomes even more disturbing in many instances when conversations and theological disagreements stray from theology and venture into the territory of deep personal attacks, obsessive behavior, stalking and public outbursts and wishes of personal destruction for those who disagree with them. Like their Maitre, many Calvinists view themselves proudly as the one and only defenders of Truth; and as they do so, they not only bear the name of their master by proudly calling themselves Calvin-ists but follow him in action too by actively rooting for the physical and spiritual harm of those who choose to differ in doctrinal matters.

By no means is this a Calvinist-only manifestation for sin permeates all men; however this does seem to be in my opinion – and the opinions of many I have consulted – a more common characteristic of Calvinists. Indeed, it seems as if many Calvinists wish to mirror their Maitre not just in doctrine but in all other actions, just as the tyrant himself forced his doctrine on the whole of Geneva, too often under the threat of excommunication and death. Is was quite normal for Calvin to get violently sick when he encountered theological dissent, with his stomach becoming severely and nervously affected by opposition, so much so that he would not sleep and eat and would often vomit bile. Such was the way Calvin handled disagreements, often dispatching threats of eternal fire with his warning letters to detractors.

And without a doubt, this will be perceived as a personal attack by our Calvinist friends who will likely take this honest and truthful criticism of their master as criticism of Christ himself, but I am not the one carrying the name of a man such as Calvin, nor am I afraid as Calvin’s contemporaries were, because God has blessed us with life in a country where we can freely speak our minds regarding both political and theological matters, and thankfully, no Calvinistic tyrant can climb the ladder of power and like Servetus, burn me at the stake, slowly, over matters of doctrine.

May it be as it will, I pray that however this message is perceived, it is perceived as coming from my heart, and may the outcome be on the heads of those choosing to ignore history, and those who choose to hide it because they shamefully equate “doctrine” with “Gospel” and because they seemingly choose to put the name of Calvin above that of Christ, perhaps not openly, but certainly in their action.

So the purpose of this article is not to insult or cause harm to any of my brothers, but rather to evoke the power of facts and history in regards to a man they hold in high esteem, and perhaps rightly so since Calvin was an illustrious theologian, attorney and politician, having had a great effect on the Reformation and the Christian world since his own time. But if illustriousness, political power and legal skill brings a man in accord with God’s will and brings justification for evil actions, then many men, including Nero, Hitler and Lenin would have been justified before God for their evil. And indeed, evil is what Calvin has done while reigning in Geneva. Evidently, killing heretics was so insidious that it came naturally at the time of Calvin; rarely was the death penalty opposed, and it never occurred to Christians as far as we can see that suppression of thought should be viewed as immoral and un-Christian. However, justifying the many executions and killings in Geneva with a Biblical framework is inexcusable regardless of the year and social context in which they take place, especially if we are to believe the Scripture to be the timeless, unchanging and inerrant Word of God.

So since the purpose of this article is to reveal history as it was, I ask you the reader to patiently read this not-too-lengthy analysis of Calvin and his actions in Geneva. There are many things covered, many names mentioned, so your patience may be required.

That Frenchman

In the 1500s, Luther’s Reformation swept Europe quickly and brought about not just religious change, but a thirst for political freedom and independence. Many people recognized that just as the Catholic Church has little power and sway over the individual’s freedom, neither did the noblemen and un-elected princes of Europe. In Germany, the peasants revolted against the rich landowners out of sheer poverty and desperation, and they were slaughtered by the thousands. Ironically, Luther wanted no part of the political changes that came about as a result of his actions. Regarding the peasants Luther wrote: "They should be knocked to pieces, strangled and stabbed, secretly and openly, by everybody who can do it, just as one must kill a mad dog!" [1]

Tumult and excitement spread across the known world, and Geneva, a city state at the time, was no exception. After a few years of Catholic killing and bashing, the Catholic faith has been completely and utterly eliminated from public life in Geneva, thus on a spring Sunday in 1536, on May 21, all men, women and children of the burghers of Geneva gathered in the town square and raised their hands declaring that from this day forward they would all live exclusively “selon l’evangile et la parole de Dieu.” – By the gospel and the word of God.

This was the environment in which Calvin rose to power and notoriety, and because the Reformation was often brought to fruition through violence and destruction, the post-Reformation years were often confusing and seeped in despair for the commoners like the citizens of Geneva. The authority of the Catholic Church was missing, and the theological and political void was so strong that many local governments and states were desperate to prevent a total collapse of order and justice. And in this environment Calvin happened to visit Geneva at the age of twenty-seven. Having already written his famous Institutio, Calvin was a well-known theologian and was well-received by Farel the preacher, a man who was credited for driving the Catholics out of Geneva.

Farel talked Calvin into staying in Geneva, and on September 5, 1536, the city officially allowed “iste Gallus” – that Frenchman (Gaul) – to take on the responsibilities of a preacher of the gospel. So minor and normal was this action that the secretary taking minutes did not even bother to find out the name of Calvin; he was only known as that Frenchman. [2] Having been trained in the best seminaries and law schools of Europe, Calvin was one of the most educated men of his time. He was a brilliant and calculated attorney, a careful and impassionate theologian and truly put the whole of his heart into whatever work he was involved in; we are told that he would often sleep three or four hours each night, with his light burning among the Genovese homes hours before the city would wake up for its daily work.

Within three months, Calvin has created a detailed Catechism or Creed for the city of Geneva, and he submitted it to the City Council with the insistence that there could be no separation between spiritual and political matters, and that the city should immediately adopt it as law, down to the letter.[3] Calvin and Farel’s proposed creed did not only outline matters of faith, but they were in essence State laws, and the City Council, while not educated on matters of theology, initially agreed to the demands but later recognized this as an attempt to usurp the democracy of Geneva and refused to continue their support for Calvin and Farel over many complaints from the citizens.[4] Furthermore, because of continuous political pressure coming from Calvin’s faction, in 1538 the city retracted Calvin and Farel’s powers to excommunicate. As retaliation, at the Easter service, Calvin refused to distribute the Lord’s Supper to the entire city of Geneva, so the Council banned Calvin from the pulpit. The confrontation came to the two factions, sword in hand, facing each other in the middle of the St. Pierre Cathedral on Easter Sunday, where Calvin and his supporters forced their way against the wishes of the City Council. Bloodshed was barely averted, and eventually both Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva.

It was not until three years later when Calvin’s supporters gained a majority in the City Council and decided to invite Calvin back as their preacher that Calvin accepted supreme power in Geneva under some very strict conditions; he was to put forth an interpretation of the Gospel after which political, social and judicial structure would be defined. This manifested later through the creation of the Consistory, which was essentially a judicial court in which men appointed by Calvin, and Calvin himself would handle various offenses brought before them. These offenses could range from daily matters of morality such as dancing and singing, to doctrinal and theological matters which often resulted in banishment, confiscation of property and even death. It was rare that the Consistory opposed Calvin; in fact doctrinal matters were almost always deferred to Calvin and were left up to his own judgment. While Calvin was adamant to explain that Consistory decisions involved the entire group, it is now historically evident that he had a large amount of political sway over the members of the Consistory. There is in fact only one recorded instance I was able to discover in which the Consistory disagreed with Calvin over punishment, and that is in the case of a man named Troillet who refused to accept the doctrine of Predestination and refused to punish the man despite Calvin’s vociferous recommendations.[5]

Calvin’s Rule

“…bete indomptable et feroce…une ordure…- wild and ferocious beast…a refuse…” – John Calvin describing mankind in Institutio.

With Calvin back in charge, Geneva was now on its way to infamy. Willingly subjecting itself to the worst kind of theocratic ruling, the citizens of Geneva were about to learn the value of freedom the hard way. The Elders in the Consistory were becoming very busy enforcing Calvin’s draconian regulations, so much so that well-established Church holidays like Christmas were banished. Incense, statues, paintings, music, the organ and even the church bells were destroyed or banished from use. In fact, the Elders of Geneva were allowed to randomly inspect all citizens at will. Grown men were tested on the memorization of prayers and women’s dresses were felt by the fingers of the Elders – if they had dangerous slits and frills, if they were too short and too long. They measured the hairdos of women to see if it was too high or too low, counted the rings on their fingers, and the pairs of shoes in their closets. They enforced dietary regulations to prevent one from indulging with too much meat, and to ensure that jams and sweets were not hidden in the kitchen; bookshelves were searched for any books not approved by the Consistory, and servants were questioned apart from the masters to ensure that truth was being told. No one was allowed to “make music” or enjoy anything that remotely resembled pleasure, and when Calvin was preaching, house visitations were made “where some slothful wretch was lying in bed instead of seeking edification from Master Calvin’s sermon.” [6]

But to be true to history, we should cover all of the actions of Calvin’s minions should there be enough paper and space allowing us to do so. Church informers would carefully watch the service to make sure that no citizen arrived or left late. They prowled the banks of Rhone to prevent late-night caressing and ransacked visitor’s luggage in inns and hotels for anything that would corrupt Geneva. Every letter that entered or left the city was opened. But perhaps the worst of the offence against freedom was that many citizens took on the unofficial role of “spy” that if a Genovese traveled to Paris or Lyons, he was just as much subject to the Elders’ enforcement as if he was still in Geneva. Truly, this sends shivers down my spine, because it rings true the Communist years spent in Romania where five out of every ten people were Communist informers and would turn in anyone and everyone would dare speak against the government.

But why stop there? Tailors were forbidden to create garments considered too extravagant by Calvin. Girls were not allowed to wear silk until they were fifteen, and women were never allowed to wear velvet clothing. Gold, silver, lace, golden hair, visible buttons, ornaments, curled hair, lace, gloves, carriages, meals with twenty or more people, parties, sweets, candied fruits, game, pastries, present giving, entering an inn, serving a meal without a prayer, printing books, sculptures, psalm-singing, naming children with non-Biblical names, and lastly, criticism of Calvin or his writings, were all strictly prohibited and severely punishable by the Consistory.

Death in Calvin’s Geneva

Il est criminel pour mettre des hérétiques à la mort. Faire une extrémité de eux par le feu et l'épée est opposée à chaque principe de l'humanité. – It is criminal to put heretics to death. To make an end of them by fire and sword is opposed to every principle of humanity.” – John Calvin, Institutio [7]

While Calvin’s ascension to power in Geneva is both fascinating and deeply disturbing, the moral policing of Geneva is in fact not where Calvin’s enforcement power stopped. Thanks to the detailed record-keeping, we know the outcome of many of the practical aspects of Calvin’s theology and the methods of punishment, death often being not overlooked in the process. Let us take a look at just a few of the incidents listed in the minute-book:

  • A man smiled while attending a baptism: three days in prison.
  • A man slept during Calvin’s sermon: prison.
  • Some men ate pastries for breakfast: three days on bread and water.
  • Two men played skittles: prison.
  • Two men played dice for a quarter-bottle of wine: prison.
  • Man refused the name Abraham for his son: prison.
  • Blind fiddler played a dance: expulsion.
  • Man praised Castellio’s Bible translation: expulsion.
  • A girl went skating; a widow threw herself on her husband’s grave: ordered to penance.
  • Some youngsters stuck a bean into the cake: 24 hours bread and water.
  • A citizen said “Monsieur Calvin – Mister Calvin” rather than “Maitre Calvin – Master Calvin”: prison.
  • Two peasants discussing business matters coming out of church: prison.
  • Man singing “riotously” in the street: expulsion.
  • Two boatmen brawling: execution for both.
  • Two boys behaving indelicately: burning at the stake, sentence commuted.
  • Some men laughing while Calvin was preaching: three days in prison.
  • Young girl insulted her mother: bread and water.
  • Young boy called his mother a devil and threw a stone at her: public whipping and suspended by his arms to a gallows as a sign that he deserved death.
  • Sixteen year old boy threatened to hit his mother and was condemned to death. Because of his youth, his punishment was changed to banishment after public whipping.

It seemed that with every sentence handed out, the Consistory was becoming more and more violent until death became an acceptable punishment for those who personally criticized Maitre Calvin. A man named Jacques Gruet was racked and executed for simply calling Calvin a hypocrite and for atheism.[8] As adultery was punishable by imprisonment before Calvin’s arrival to Geneva, it was now punishable by death. A woman by the name of Anne Le Moine who supposedly committed adultery with Antoine Cossonez faced death together with her partner in crime. After both being severely tortured, they admitted to the charges of adultery and they were both executed; she was drowned in the Rhone and he was decapitated.[9] Two other citizens of the best families in Geneva, Heinrich Philip and Jacques le Nevue were also beheaded at the orders of the Consistory for adultery.[10]

While these punishments may seem in line with the contemporary lifestyle and the judicial systems of the day, there was no harsher punishment than of those who publicly criticized Calvin and challenged his social and theological positions. Thus a man who challenged predestination was severely flogged and expelled and a book printer who railed at Calvin had his tongue perforated with a red-hot iron and kicked out of Geneva. A woman named Copa de Ferrara was banished from Geneva within twenty four hours “or she will lose her head.” This was because she “uttered heretical expressions against Calvin and the Consistory.” In the two years of 1558 and 1559 alone, there were four hundred and fourteen such trials regarding heresies against Calvin and the Consistory.[11]

As in any dictatorial and tyrannical society, those running the affairs of the government often exclude themselves from the requirements, responsibilities and the laws to which the citizens are bound. In 1542 and 1545, the plague struck the city of Geneva. But under these dire circumstances in which the citizens were dying by the thousands, Calvin’s strict rules went straight out the window. The same Consistory that insisted that “under pain of punishment every sick person must within three days summon a divine to his bedside” was now nowhere to be found. Calvin himself and his minions strictly refused to see any of the sick and were careful to stay out of danger. Not one single volunteer except Sebastian Castellio who was the school’s rector offered to be at the bedside of the dying and Calvin instructed his servants to declare him “indispensable” saying that “it would not do to weaken the whole Church in order to help a part of it.”[12]

Ironically, many Catholic priests during these very same times gladly risked and even gave their lives in order to console the dying citizens of other cities like Marseilles and Vienna. The same preachers who have been demanding the highest sacrifice from the Genovese were now carefully staying away from those truly in need; thus due to the discontent of the people, the Consistory put on quite a spectacle: “Some destitute fellows were seized and tortured until they admitted having brought plague into the town by smearing the door-latches with an ointment prepared from devil’s dung.”[13] Calvin fully endorsed these false charges and claimed from his pulpit that the “sowers of the plague” did a very good job and that as a punishment the Devil himself dragged an atheist Genovese out of his bed and tossed him into Rhone, all in broad daylight.

No better description of Calvin’s reign in Geneva can be used than that of Audin’s who writes: “There is but one word heard or read: Death. Death to every one guilty of high treason against God; death to every one guilty of high treason against the State; death to the son that strikes or curses his father; death to the adulterer; death to heretics. During the space of twenty years, commencing from the date of Calvin’s recall, the history of Geneva is a bloody drama, in which pity, dread, terror, indignation, and tears, by turns, appear to seize upon the soul. At each step we encounter chains, thongs, a stake, pincers, melted pitch, fire, and sulphur. And throughout the whole there is blood. One imagines himself in Dante’s Hell, where sighs, groans, and lamentations continually resound.” [14]

But while we may all marvel at the severity of punishment in relation to the crime, nothing comes close to the killing of Michael Servetus, a Spanish doctor, a refugee from the Spanish and French inquisitions and the hunting and persecution to the death of Sebastian Castellio, a friend and pupil of Calvin.

Sebastian Castellio and the Freedom of Conscience

If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope, but one who burns men alive, while the pope at Rome at least strangles them first.” – Sebastian Castellio in his response to Calvin’s Defense of the Christian Faith

About two hundred years after Calvin, when discussing the life and events surrounding Castellio and Calvin, Voltaire wrote: “We can measure the virulence of this tyranny by the persecution to which Castellio was exposed at Calvin’s instance – although Castellio was a far greater scholar than Calvin, whose jealousy drove him out of Geneva.”[15] Indeed, Voltaire seems to have understood the matters at hand very well, and if there ever was a spiritual hero to hold up, especially for us Preterists, Sebastian Castellio is certainly someone to behold and admire.

Born in 1515, Castellio was educated at the University of Lyons in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Having been educated also in German and Italian, he quickly became one of the most learned men of his time, speaking a large number of languages, and having vast knowledge of theology and astronomy. Having experienced the Catholic Inquisition in Lyons and being forever changed after seeing heretics being burned alive, he adopted the ideas of the Reformation and found himself soon attracted to Strasbourg where Calvin was exiled at the time. Castellio made a very strong impression on Calvin after only one meeting; therefore after Calvin’s return to Geneva, he was offered the position of rector at the newly created school in Geneva and the position of preacher in Vandoeuvres.

All was well for Castellio and Calvin in Geneva until Castellio decided to do a full translation of the Bible into his native language, French. While an extremely noble goal, Castellio in his innocence failed to anticipate the opposition he would receive from Calvin in this simple task. Because Calvin required all books printed in Geneva to be approved by him, Castellio had to meet with Calvin in order to secure permission to print his Bible and seek his endorsement. Sadly, Calvin already endorsed a French translation done by a relative so Castellio’s Bible was inconveniently interfering with his publishing enterprise, and Calvin was quite irritated with his pupil’s endeavor. In a letter to Viret, Calvin wrote: “Just listen to Sebastian’s preposterous scheme, which makes me smile, and at the same time angers me. Three days ago he called on me, to ask permission for the publication of his translation of the New Testament.” [16]

Calvin issued a blanket denial to Castellio’s request; he would only grant permission with the provision that Calvin would be the first to read the translation and have veto power to make any changes he considered necessary. This was in line with Calvin’s view of himself as inerrant and perhaps even divinely inspired. In a dramatic contrast to Calvin’s attitude, later on Castellio would humbly admit in the preface to his Bible translation that he did not fully understand the Bible, that he viewed it as a hard-to-understand book and that he could only offer his own interpretation of the text, not a certainty and inerrant commentary on it.

Sebastian Castellio

Castellio attempted to compromise and offered Calvin the most he could offer without offending him: he offered to read the manuscript aloud at any time that was best for Calvin and take all the advice from Calvin regarding the translation, but again, his offer was rejected without any explanation. It was after this disappointing meeting that Sebastian was appointed by the City Council unanimously on December 15, 1543 to the office of preacher. But since the appointment was done without Calvin’s approval, it was soon reversed at Calvin’s opposition. In a letter to Farel, Calvin wrote: “There are important reasons against this appointment. To the Council I merely hinted at these reasons, without expressing them openly. At the same time, to avert erroneous suspicion, I was careful to make no attack on his reputation, being desirous to protect him.”[17]

Ambiguous words coming from Calvin, ambiguous enough that nobody on the Council could make any sense of, so much so that Castellio challenged Calvin to appear before the Council and explain what the “important reasons” again his appointment as preacher were. It turns out that these important reasons consisted of two disagreements over vague theology. Castellio declared that the Song of Solomon was insulting through the presentation of breasts who are “like two fawns that are twins of a roe” thus was not a sacred, but a profane poem; secondly he explained the descent of Jesus into hell slightly different than Calvin. Those two points of disagreement were quoted by Calvin as disqualifying Sebastian from the office of minister of the Gospel. Yet again, this confirms the absolute tyranny Calvin perpetrated upon the citizens of Geneva, considering his own interpretation of the Scripture as ultimate and inerrant truth, therefore demonizing anyone even slightly disagreeing with him.

Calvin and Castellio’s disagreements widened even more when during a public meeting, Castellio rose to his feet and proclaimed that clergy should no longer hide behind the Scripture and be held to the same standards they demand of others: “Paul was patient, but we are extremely impatient. Paul suffered injustice at the hands of others, but we persecute the innocent.” [18] How often have we Preterists heard this very same argument being made in our own defense, and how often have we also been attacked under the pretenses of “Paul condemned Hymenaeus therefore we also condemn you?” Castellio himself recognized the difference between Paul and Calvin and did not hesitate to point out that Calvin was not Paul, was not inerrant, and lacked the authority to make decisions and judgment calls as Paul did.

Calvin was finally fed up with him and charged Castellio with the crime of “undermining the prestige of the clergy.” Castellio’s profession was over. He asked the Council to relieve him of his duties and asked for the following dismissal letter: “That no one may form a false idea of the reasons for the departure of Sebastian Castellio, we all declare that he has voluntarily resigned his position as rector at the College, and up till now performed his duties in such a way that we regarded him worthy to become one of our preachers. If, in the end, the affair was not thus arranged, this is not because ay fault has been found in Castellio’s conduct, but merely for the reasons previously indicated.” [19]

After Castellio left Geneva, he lived in abject poverty, barely being able to provide even the most basic needs for himself and his family. He found himself often tutoring and proofreading for little money, and often did physical labor by digging ditches for food. Indeed, being one of the most learned and intelligent men of his time, an equal to Calvin, he was unable to find a job to match his qualifications, mostly because no one would hire someone that was on Calvin’s bad side and in order to avoid upsetting Geneva. But soon enough, Castellio would settle in Basle with a job at the local university. He would be quiet for a few years, until something atrocious upset him to no end. And nothing upset Castellio more than the heartless execution and outright murder of Michael Servetus.

The Murder of Michael Servetus

"He declares himself ready to come hither if I wish him to; but I will not pledge my faith to him; for if he did come here, I would see to it, in so far as I have authority in this city, that he should not leave it alive." – John Calvin in a letter to Farel, seven years before the execution of Servetus.

There are very few inequities in the world that equal that of the early Reformed church spilling the blood of tens of thousands of heretics and sinners, and if one of these individuals should be identified above the others – should we be forced to choose – Miguel Servetus is perhaps the most striking of them all. Servetus was a Spanish man having one important thing in common with Calvin: he was also on the run from the Inquisition. While his education certainly did not match that of Calvin and Castellio, Servetus was also a very educated man in the historical context of the Reformation. In what Stefan Zweig describes a “Don Quixotic” style, Servetus was a man to challenge all things established; Luther, Zwingli and Calvin were certainly not revolutionary enough for him. So Don Quixotic was Servetus in his approach to theology that at the ripe age of twenty, he proudly declared that the Council of Nicea made the wrong decision regarding the doctrine of Trinity; and so zealous was Servetus about his ideas that he traveled to Strasbourg and Basle to meet with several of the leaders of the Reformation, like Martin Bucer, Capito and Johannes Oecolampadius to convince them that the Reformation needs to get its doctrine on Trinity “right.”

Michael Servetus

Of course, Servetus in his innocence greatly miscalculated. The Reformed preachers were furious with him. Bucer denounced Servetus from his pulpit as “a child of the devil.” Zwingli wrote about the “criminal Spaniard, whose false and evil doctrine would, if it could, sweep away our whole Christian religion” and Oecolampadius kicked him out calling him a “blasphemer and a man possessed.” [20] But while this would discourage and rightly warn any person from further pursuing this line of action, Servetus became even more motivated to spread his ideas.

When he was twenty two years old, he published his first book De Trinitatis erroribus libri septera declaring both Protestants and Catholics mistaken in their doctrine; as a result, calls for his death on both sides became louder and louder. Bucer wrote that he deserved “to have the guts torn out of his living body” and the Catholic Inquisition actively started to hunt him down. Eventually, Servetus ended up assuming aliases under which he taught medicine (in Paris) and eventually became the personal doctor of the Archbishop of Vienne, taking on the name Michel de Villeneuve.

Having a hard time keeping himself from espousing “heresies,” Servetus found a way to contact Calvin in Geneva. The two of them started to exchange a large number of letters, Servetus being always on the offensive, trying to convince Calvin of the error of Trinity. While at first Calvin patiently pointed out the theological errors, he grew more and more annoyed and angry with Servetus’ insistence and correspondence. The last straw was then Servetus sent Calvin a copy of Institutio with corrections written in the margins. In a letter to Farel, Calvin describes his contempt for Servetus: “Servetus seizes my books and defiles them with abusive remarks much as a dog bites a stone and gnaws it… I care as little for this fellow's words as I care for the hee-haw of a donkey.” [21]

Rather than realizing the deadly danger he was in, Servetus continued to send Calvin letters, culminating with a copy of his not-yet-printed manuscript Christianismi Restitutio (Restoration of Christianity or The Payback of Christianity) a play on words off Calvin’s book Institutio. Finally, this seems to have been the time when Calvin decided that Servetus will die, and this is when he wrote to Farel that if Servetus even comes to Geneva, he will not walk out alive.[22]

The next several years were marked by silence from both Calvin and Servetus, until Geneva’s spies in Vienne discovered the true identity of the Archbishop’s doctor. As I learned of Calvin’s next course of action, I was blown away by the outright attempt to assassinate Servetus. Since Servetus was out of Calvin’s reach, Calvin decided to throw his opponent to the jaws of the Inquisition. At his request, one of Calvin’s subjects in Geneva wrote a letter to his fanatic Catholic cousin in Lyons. On February 26, 1553 the letter dispatched to Antoine Arneys reveals the true name of the Archbishop of Vienna’s doctor, even including fragments from his newly published books. This was a calculated move, and rightly so, Calvin counted on Antoine to immediately take the letter to the Catholic authorities, which is what happened exactly. But perhaps to Calvin’s disappointment, Servetus had friends in high places; by the time the inquisitors made it to Vienna, his printing press, copies of his books and any incriminating documents were all gone, and the Archbishop vowed for his own doctor, that he was a man to be trusted.

This enraged Calvin even more. He directed his Genovese friend to write yet another letter to his Catholic cousin, this time showing surprise at the fact that the first was turned over to the authorities, but also including incriminating letters from Servetus to Calvin, written in his own handwriting. Ironically, Calvin even lied later when denying that he had anything to do with the letters sent out to the Inquisitors. But as Zweig rightly asks, how did a citizen of Geneva get his hands on Calvin’s personal letters, and at last, why did this man, named Trie write: “I was so importunate as to declare that if Monsieur Calvin would not help me, the reproach of bringing an unwarrantable charge would attach to me, unless he handed over to me the confirmatory material I enclose.” [23]

Trie’s own letter proves Calvin to be not just a liar, but a man bent on the physical destruction of his theological detractors. How I tremble thinking of the cold-blooded, calculated steps taken by Calvin to ensure the death of Servetus; but disappointment was again to come soon to Geneva. After Servetus was arrested based on his letters to Calvin, good fortune smiled on him again – he soon escaped from prison and for whatever reason he found necessary, in August 1553 he entered Geneva and got a room at “The Rose.” And if coming to Geneva was not bad enough, he immediately went to St. Pierre’s Sunday morning service where Calvin immediately recognized him and had him arrested after the service.

Proudly and wishfully writing to a friend before the trial and before any evidence was brought to light Calvin said “I hope that the verdict will call for the death penalty.” [24] But if the spectacle involving Servetus could even be called a trial, Calvin refused Servetus even the most basic human requirements. Servetus was chained into a dark room at the mercy of devouring fleas and was left to sleep in his own filth without any change of clothing. Treated worse than a petty criminal, he petitioned the City Council for better conditions: “Fleas are devouring me; my shoes are torn to pieces; I have nothing clean to wear…I beg of you, for the love of Christ, not to refuse me what you would give to a Turk or a criminal. Nothing has been done for to fulfill your orders that I should be kept clean. I am in more pitiful condition than ever. It is abominably cruel I should be given no chance of attending to my bodily needs.[25]

It is apparent that even when the City Council tried to intervene and better the condition in which Servetus was imprisoned, someone intervened and ensured that the orders of the Council were ignored. What possible cruel conscience would allow for such horrible punishment and imprisonment of a man over matters of theology?

Furthermore, the conditions in which Servetus was imprisoned also affected his temperament, so much so that during the trial, he would let his temper get the best of him rather than deal with the questions at hand, although many of the questions were related to his private affairs, such as his sexual life and had little to do with the charges of heresy.

Eventually, on October 27, 1553, at eleven in the morning, Servetus was brought out of his prison cell and was taken to Champel, “there to be burned alive, together with the manuscript of his book.” Falling of his knees, Servetus begged the City Council to execute him instead by the sword, admitting that under the agony of the fire he “may repudiate the convictions of a lifetime.” This last request was refused, and purposefully, the pieces of wood setup for burning were chosen to be half-green rather than dry, so they would burn slower and cause more agony. The manuscript of his book which he mailed to Calvin seven years earlier was tied around his neck, and a crown of leaves soaked in sulfur was placed on his head.

After the executioner lit the fire, Servetus screamed “Jesus, Son of everlasting God, have pity on me!” Farel, who accompanied him every step, mockingly noted that should Servetus have called on “Jesus, the Eternal Son” he would have been saved, but the wording of his last cry proved his theological error and eternal damnation.

It is without a doubt that the execution of Servetus was one of the darkest moments in the history of Christianity. I have read every excuse on Calvin’s behalf, from blaming the City Council alone, to blaming Servetus himself for his own death; not once did Calvin take responsibility for arresting and killing a man who committed no crime in Geneva, and history itself shows that most likely, the killing of Servetus was a premeditated and cold-blooded affair.

And this is where Sebastian Castellio becomes enraged at Calvin’s outrageous and murderous actions. Responding to Calvin’s vain attempts to defend his actions and shift blame to the City Council, Castellio started writing under the name Martinus Bellius. In his Manifesto on Behalf of Toleration, Castellio appealed to a host of Church Fathers, and contemporary theologians. Rather than using masterful words to convince the audience, Castellio used opinions of theologians regarding tolerance. From St. Augustine, St. Jerome and St. Chrysostom to Luther, Franck and Erasmus all opinions quoted were against death and torture of heretics. Calvin’s own words from Institutio were quoted: “It is unchristian to use arms against those who have been expelled from the Church, and to deny them rights common to all mankind.” [26]

Castellio masterfully demonstrated how the word “heretic” is subjective to each group of people; to the Catholics, a Protestant was a heretic, and to Protestants, a Catholic was a heretic. He plainly concludes: “When I reflect on what a heretic really is, I can find no other criterion than that we are all heretics in the eyes of those who do not share our views.” If there is a man to admire for his cunning logic and theological common sense in the 1500s, Castellio meets and surpasses my expectations. Demonstrating that peaceful living can only take place when we control our intolerance of other opinions, Castellio put forth the very first thesis for a world in which various theological, political and social opinions can peacefully coexist.

Often Calvin is credited by some Calvinists with the very invention of democracy and freedom. Far be it from me to believe such a claim. If anything, we have seen that Calvin was a tyrant and a dictator. Rather Castellio and even Servetus should be the ones credited with the ideas of religious tolerance and freedom; and if anything, we can observe from the behavior and outright hatred coming from Calvin’s followers that Calvin-ism encourages anything but love and tolerance of those who believe and think differently.

Dedicated and with endless energy, Castellio continued his quest to demonstrate Calvin’s guilt in regards to Servetus. He set forth to write Contra libellum Calvini. Being well acquainted with Calvin, he took a line of reasoning from which Calvin could not escape. Using Geneva’s own minutes as evidence, he showed that the only charge of which Servetus was guilty was that “the Spaniard interpreted the Bible independently and arbitrarily, leading him to other conclusions than those of Calvin’s ecclesiastical doctrine.”

Castellio writes: “Calvin, however, taking for granted his own infallibility, regards his views as right and the views of anyone who may differ from his as wrong…who appointed Calvin judge concerning what is true and what is untrue? Of course, Calvin tells us that every writer who does not say aye to his aye, and no to his no, is an evilly disposed person. He therefore demands that those who differ from him shall be prevented, not only from writing, but also from speaking, the implications being that he alone is entitled to expound what he regards as right.” [27]

Sadly, because of Calvin’s power and Geneva’s influence, Castellio’s magnificent book was never published for another fifty years; there seems to be no English translation of the work. I will see to it that through my effort, or that of a translator, Castellio’s Contra libellum Calvini will soon become available in English, so that others may benefit from the work of this obscure but most excellent theologian. Being one of the first to espouse freedom of the conscience, toleration, mercy and understanding among believers, Castellio is often ignored in Christian circles dominated by Calvin’s theology; perhaps this is due to the fact that generally speaking, with a few exceptions, Calvin’s way of handling discord appeals well to certain individuals who mostly label themselves as Calvinists. This is true especially within Preterism, where Calvinist Preterists seem to be utterly unable to tolerate anything different or at odds with their own theological notions; furthermore they go above and beyond simple disagreement, actively rooting for the physical and spiritual destruction of their opponents.

Just as Calvin allowed only one opinion in Geneva, his opinion, such are those carrying his name still today. They hate, scorn, mock, destroy, kick, scream and attack anyone and everyone who chooses to think independently from them, be it on small theological matters, or drastic differences such as Trinity, Universalism and Predestination. Should we all be back in the 1500s Geneva, without a doubt they would be standing at Calvin’s side, warming their hands by our burning bodies; ironically, they do all this while actively professing Preterism, something Calvin would consider an outrageous heresy worthy of the most abominable torturous death in his Geneva. While it is not surprising, it is ironic and sad that of all critics, Preterists would take the unilateral attitude of Calvin and be so ready to condemn others over their differences. It is in accordance to history and the freedom of conscience first professed by Castellio and Servetus that I also profess my right to heresy.

I dedicate my work and research for this article to Miguel Servetus, Sebastian Castellio, Socrates, Galileo, Jesus and all the other “heretics” who lost their lives in their quests to reveal and unfold Truth before the world.


[1] Martin Luther, Against the Thievish and Murderous Hordes of Peasants, 1524

[2] The Geneva Council kept detailed minutes of all their meetings. They can all be found in the city archives and on various Internet websites.

[3] Calvin and Farel’s Creed was to be read at St. Pierre’s Cathedral every Sunday “until the people understood it.” As Calvin wrote, “We easily succeeded in obtaining that the citizens should be summoned by tens, and swear to adopt the confession, which was done with much satisfaction.” Those who refused to adopt the confession lost their citizenship rights.

[4] Complaints from the citizens of Geneva intensified when Farel refused to use unleavened bread for the Lord’s Supper, and refused to observe Christmas, New Year, Annunciation and Ascension. The city of Berne was consulted on this matter and ruled against Farel.

[5] The Troillet case in 1552 came about after strong public reaction to the banishment of Jerome Bolsec, who also spoke against predestination. The negative public reaction motivated the Consistory to refuse punishment when predestination was publicly criticized – William Gilbert, Renaissance and Reformation, Lawrence, KS: Carrie, 1998, Ch. 14.

[6] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 57.

[7] This phrase appeared only in the first edition of Institutio and was later erased by Calvin in subsequent editions.

[8] Phillip Schaaf, History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII, Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.

[9] Robert N. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1995, pp. 123.

[10] Paul Henry, D.D., The Life and Times of John Calvin, The Great Reformer, Vol. I, pp. 360.

[11] Ibid. pp. 448.

[12] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 70.

[13] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 71.

[14] Vincent Audin, Life of Calvin, ch. XXXVI. 354, Am. ed.

[15] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 89.

[16] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 79.

[17] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 82.

[18] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 86.

[19] When Castellio asked to be dismissed as a preacher in Vandoeuvres over his differences with Calvin, he asked for a letter from the City Council to prevent Calvin from manufacturing charges later on. The letter can be found today in the Basle Library.

[20] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 104.

[21] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 102.

[22] The entire paragraph in question from Calvin’s letter to Farel is: “Servetus wrote to me lately, and besides his letter sent me a great volume full of his ravings, maintaining with incredible presumption in the letter that I shall there find things stupendous and unheard of till now. He declares himself ready to come hither if I wish him to; but I will not pledge my faith to him; for if he did come here, I would see to it, in so far as I have authority in this city, that he should not leave it alive.”

[23] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 112.

[24] Walter Nigg, The Heretics, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1962, pp. 328.

[25] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 124.

[26] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 152.

[27] Stefan Zweig, The Right to Heresy: Castellio against Calvin, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1951, pp. 175.

Other Related Articles:

  • Preterism and Calvinism: The Philosophical Argument, Part 1
  • Preterism and Calvinism: The Historical Argument, Part 2
  • Preterism and Calvinism: The Scriptural Argument, Part 3
  • kendo451's picture

    I am a "calvinist" so far as the 5 points go, but don't subscribe to everything the man taught, and particularly oppose his justification of usury that became the foundation for the modern banking system.

    Your article is illuminating to me because I was not aware of the degree of micro-management attempted by the Genevan government under Calvin's influence.

    It seems to me the primary error here is Calvin's failure to recognize the Biblical limits to the jurisdiction of civil government.

    There is indeed a spirit of schism widespread in calvinist circles, however I don't think this is an artifact of the theology of Calvin so much as a bad tradition that may indeed have had some roots in the personalities of the reformers themselves. Being willing to fight to the death over such things may be as much of a Gaelic character trait as anything else - as the feistiest calvinists are the Presbyterians (Scotch & Scotch Irish), and the feistiest Roman Catholics are the Irish - first cousins of the Gaelic blood.

    We can find excesses and sin in all past Christian leaders, excepting Christ himself, and Robert E. Lee. Such is the totally depraved nature of men that when given autocratic power, our worst traits exhibit themselves.

    Virgil's picture

    Civil government and Calvinism do have a lot in common, you have a good point there. Those of us having a strong libertarian bent on our approach to government (if any) take note of it and perhaps even like to point it out as another shortcoming of Calvinist theology.

    As far as "totally depraved nature of men" goes, I believe there is no such thing. :)

    Referist80's picture

    Being a "Calvinist" doesn't mean that you agree with all that Calvin stood for. It isn't about what Calvin did but whether or not what he wrote about the Doctrines of Grace is Biblical or not. Just as it is not about what the people who made Preterism popular did in their lives but whether Preterism is Biblical.
    My Mennonite forefathers were persecuted from all sides but that doesn't mean they were right on every issue and that their persecutors were 100% wrong on every issue.
    Thankfully we are not like Catholics who believe in the infallibility of the Popes and must answer for and defend every evil deed they committed. Calvin was not infallible. However he was right on occasion.

    extremestan's picture

    Papal infallibilty does not imply personal impeccability. It is a formal term, and your colloquial distortion strawmans.

    I tell you the truth; if it were not so, I would have told you.

    Virgil's picture

    Calvin was not infallible. However he was right on occasion.

    I could not agree more; however history is what it is, and the character of a man should be discussed in light of his own theology. This is not to rile up or upset my calvinist friends, but to point out that killing in the name of religion is evil no matter who does it.

    Lest we forget.

    bishoprudd's picture

    Interesting, Virgil. Clearly you spent a lot of time on this. My guess is that most "true Calvinists" are aware of the somewhat sad inconsistencies that were clearly evident in Calvin's life.

    I think in light of this, it would be appropriate to examine other historical figures in the faith who had similar and worse character defects...

    I've decided that based on his murderous, deceitful, power-hungry, adulterous, rebellious ways, i'm going to disavow any connection i have with David or any of his descendents...

    watton's picture

    You might want to put Moses on your list - he was a murderer as well. Paul doesn't make the cut though since he was holding some coats when the opportunity presented itself.

    Virgil's picture

    Let me get this straight. You are comparing Moses, the author of the Pentateuch, the man who received the Law from God himself, with John Calvin?

    JL's picture

    Moses was a righteous judge of both Israel and Egypt. He killed a "manstealer," just as God's righteous law demands.


    JL Vaughn
    Beyond Creation Science

    Life14all's picture


    Is this the action of a righteous judge or a vigilante murderer?

    "So he looked this way and that way, and when he saw no one, he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand." Ex 2:12

    Did righteousness force moses from Egypt or was it an act of violence that led him to flee his home only to encounter his maker in the burning bush?

    It wasn't the law that made Moses righteous but the grace God found in him to execute His sovereign Will.

    Moses was indeed a murderer in the manner in which he acted but grace still used him despite his own self.


    JL's picture

    Moses was a cautious judge rendering an unpopular judgment.

    Righteous actions often provoke the wrath of the unrighteous. Protecting an illegally obtained slave from his taskmaster has always been frowned upon. The original Cassius Clay killed over 200 slave owners in Kentucky. (Ironic, the boxer was named after a fighting abolitionist. He renounce what he called his "slave" name and took the name of one of the most notorious muslim slavers in history.)

    Show me where Scripture makes Moses a murderer.


    JL Vaughn
    Beyond Creation Science

    Life14all's picture


    Show me in Scripture where it says King David was a murderer?

    Yet we know he was more than that by his own testimony and actions concerning Bathsheba.

    "And he wrote in the letter, saying, "Set Uriah in the forefront of the hottest battle, and retreat from him, that he may be struck down and die." 2 Sam 11:15

    Are you saying Moses was a "cautious judge" because he looked both ways before he murdered and hid a Egyptian?

    To me, his actions speak louder than words. Moses was still human. The main point of my last response was solely about grace through which we operate in Christ.


    JL's picture

    2 Sam. 12, David was condemn for his killing of Uriah. You still can't find anything in Scripture that condemns Moses for killing the Egyptian.


    JL Vaughn
    Beyond Creation Science

    Life14all's picture

    David was not condemned for murdering Uriah. He was judged rightly by God through the words of Nathan the prophet.

    You are right in saying you can't find anything in Scripture that condemns Moses for killing the Egyptian but you always find judgment. This same judgment applied to Moses in his exile from his people.

    "And she bore him a son. He called his name Gershom, for he said, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land." Ex 2:22

    Condemnation isn't what we find in Scripture. Judgment is the righteous grace of God in the lives of these patriarchs.


    Life14all's picture

    David was not condemned for murdering Uriah. He was judged rightly by God through the words of Nathan the prophet.

    You are right in saying you can't find anything in Scripture that condemns Moses for killing the Egyptian but you always find judgment. This same judgment applied to Moses in his exile from his people.

    "And she bore him a son. He called his name Gershom, for he said, "I have been a stranger in a foreign land." Ex 2:22

    Condemnation isn't what we find in Scripture. Judgment is the righteous grace of God in the lives of these patriarchs.


    Virgil's picture


    Thanks for the comment. Actually I have quite a bit of admiration for Calvin and his intellect; what I object to is the stuff Calvinists are letting him get away with: it's the mentality of swallowing the whole camel.

    Denying other folks their "right to heresy" is what generally speaking Calvinists excel at. Not all - but most.

    Oh, and comparing Calvin with David is probably quite justified since Calvin had the delusion that he was inspired and guided by God to do the things he's done :)

    mazuur's picture

    "disavow any connection i have with David or any of his descendents..."

    Even Christ? Who was not "murderous, deceitful, power-hungry, adulterous...", or had "...rebellious ways", which is the only person we as Christians should be following anyway...right?



    bishoprudd's picture

    Oh... how could Christ have been a descendant of David?

    nothing good could possibly have come from anyone as vile as David... right?

    mazuur's picture

    From David, or what God did through bring Christ?

    I get what you are saying. I am sure there is at least one good thing that came from Calvin :) heh heh heh



    Erick's picture

    by Matthew Gross
    from Third Millennium Ministries

    "...In considering these executions, is important to note that Calvin never held any formal power outside the Church during his time in Geneva. The government of the church in Geneva was Presbyterian ­– it had a pastor and a consistory, or board of ruling elders. Contrary to popular portrayal, the government of the church was not the government of the city. The government of the city was called “the Council”. The consistory handled moral matters, and the maximum penalty it could impose was excommunication. However, for many years they could not even excommunicate someone without the prior approval of the Council. The maximum penalty that the Council could impose was death, however, even the Council’s decisions could be appealed to another body called “The Council of Two Hundred”, so named because it consisted of two hundred citizens of Geneva. Calvin himself was not a citizen of Geneva during the upheaval in Geneva, and thus was disqualified from voting, holding public office, or even serving on the Council of Two Hundred until very late in his life, and at least four years after he achieved “the height of his power” to which so many Calvin detractors refer. Thus, it is with this understanding, the understanding that Calvin held no formal secular power, and that any power he did have was subject to the review of two different citizen’s councils that we turn to the discussion of the executions in Geneva.

    Of the 38 executions accounted for in Calvin: A Biography, by Bernard Cottret, Calvin himself writes about 23, and the justification given is that they spread the plague by witchcraft. This is often given as mocking proof that Calvin really must have been an ignorant tyrant – after all, we know that witchcraft isn’t real, etc. But if you read the primary source, the actual letter to Myconius of Basel (March 27, 1545), you see that witchcraft, if it was a charge, was in addition to the charge of committing other malicious acts:

    "A conspiracy of men and women has lately been discovered, who, for the space of three years, had spread the plague through the city by what mischievous device I know not. After fifteen women have been burnt, some men have even been punished more severely, some have committed suicide in prison, and while twenty-five are still kept prisoners,—the conspirators do not cease, notwithstanding, to smear the door-locks of the dwelling-houses with their poisonous ointment. You see in the midst of what perils we are tossed about. The Lord hath hitherto preserved our dwelling, though it has more than once been attempted. It is well that we know ourselves to be under His care."

    When you read this quote, you see that these people were accused of actually trying to spread the plague, not by casting spells, but by smearing “the door-locks of the dwelling-houses with their poisonous ointment”. Once again this seems innocuous, but it is possible that their “ointment” was spreading the disease if it contained blood or bodily fluid from someone infected with the disease. Even if it didn’t work, the people putting the ointment on the door handles apparently thought it would. Thus, at the very least these inept bioterrorists would be guilty of what we call “conspiracy to commit murder”. This is in addition to the charge of witchcraft, itself a capital crime in the Old Testament, which Calvin thought was directly applicable in Geneva.

    Of the other executions, several are named to be executions for serial adultery, also a capital crime in the Old Testament. Contrary to what is commonly implied, this was not a group of all women or all poor people who were executed. Among the executed was a prominent Genevese banker who went to his death proclaiming the justice of the judgment – Geneva did not discriminate on the basis of sex or class, as it often implied. It is debatable whether or not adultery should ever be or have been a capital offense. Many people who think that it should not be one today think that it should not have been a capital offense in ancient Israel either. Thus, they reject the Old Testament law as unjust even when it was originally given. This is an error we should be careful to avoid as we debate whether or not these executions were just.

    So the bulk of the executions were for conspiracy to commit murder and for adultery. In addition to these, there was one girl who was executed for striking her mother – another capital crime in the Old Testament which could be, at least in ancient Israel, justly enforced by the penalty of death in certain instances. We are not told by history whether Calvin approved of this execution, but if he did, it was because he believed that it was the proper application of Old Testament law. Of the other executions, history has only given us details of two – the beheading of Jacques Gruet and the burning of Michael Servetus. Gruet was executed for heresy and sedition. He attached an anonymous note to Calvin’s pulpit threatening to kill Calvin and overthrow the government of Geneva if they did not flee the city. He was arrested, tortured for 30 days, and, upon confession, beheaded. History does not tell us whether Calvin approved of the torture; if he did he was wrong to do so. The execution, for conspiring to overthrow the government, may have been justified given the danger to the citizenry that such a conspiracy entailed. Either way, Calvin did not have the authority in Geneva to arrest, torture, or execute anyone. Those were the decisions, not of Calvin or the church Consistory, but of the Council and of the Council of 200.

    This brings us to Servetus. He was arrested for heresy, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by the Council. After escaping from prison when he was on trial for heresy in Lyons, Servetus traveled to Geneva on his way to Italy. According to Schaff’s Church History, Servetus stayed at Geneva for about a month, taking few pains to conceal his identity. After attending services in Calvin’s church one Sunday, Servetus was arrested on charges of heresy. Calvin believed that it was just and right for heretics to be put to death. In this regard, he was not different from Servetus who also believed that heretics, specifically the heretic John Calvin, should be put to death by the Genevese Council.

    During the trial it was Calvin’s job as expert witness to prove that Servetus was a heretic. Calvin’s expert reason and clear thinking triumphed when Servetus chose to hurl insults at Calvin rather than offer a defense. It is important to note that at this time the Council was not controlled by friends of Calvin but by his enemies, the patriots and libertines. This is probably why Servetus felt that he did not have to offer a substantive defense against charges of heresy. We have a written record of the debate because each was required to write their statements and responses for review by the churches of four other prominent protestant cities.

    During the time that the other cities were reviewing the debate Lyons requested extradition, but Servetus pleaded to stay in Geneva and protested that he would accept the judgment of the Genevese Council rather than be sent back to Lyons. He had reason to believe that the libertines on the council were on his side, given their intense hatred of Calvin. However, in the end, after receiving recommendations of guilt from the four cities, and in light of the publicity the trial had generated throughout Europe, the libertines and the patriots on the Council decided that Servetus was not worth saving. In a show of bravado intended to send a message that they could be just as “tough on crime” as John Calvin was, they sentenced Servetus to death by burning. When Servetus heard, he could not believe it. Despite Calvin’s intercession on behalf of Servetus that he be put to death humanely, the Council refused and Servetus was burned on October 27, 1553.

    Calvin went to his deathbed believing that the execution was just because Servetus was a blasphemer and a heretic – a murderer of souls. I stand with Calvin in believing that the state is charged to uphold the law of God, however, I differ with him as to the best way that the state can do this. I believe that Constantine proved once and for all the negative consequences inherent whenever the state enforces orthodoxy – all you get is fake believers scared to air their dissent openly. Calvin was wrong to suppose that heresy should be punished by the state and by death. Even if Calvin was right that heresy was “spiritual murder”, the proper solution would have been excommunication and no more."

    Here are some additional resources, both positive and negative – this link is from Schaff’s Church History. If you want the background and the big picture, this is good. this is Schaff’s chapter on Servetus. this link is basically a compilation of history-text quotations that put Calvin in a bad light.

    Virgil's picture

    Erick, good and fair submission...I appreciate it. There is an excellent book I just received in mail (too bad I didn't get it before I finished this article) titled "Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus."

    It contains copies of all the court proceedings, letters, and correspondence regarding these issues. Extremely helpful in understanding what happened.

    I will never buy the idea that Calvin had no involvement or little involvement in this case. The killing of Servetus was clearly a premeditated matter orchestrated by Calvin himself and executed by his henchmen. Of course, that's just my opinion, and until someone proves me wrong, I can't help but abide by my convictions.

    Erick's picture

    Calvin was definitely involved in the case. But as you said we will all have varying opinions about the his actions, and by all means we should abide by our convictions until proven wrong.

    A fool for Christ,

    MiddleKnowledge's picture


    This material confirms some prior study I have done on the issue. Thanks for posting it here. It is well-written and points out the problems of the common approach to government of the time.

    Planet Preterist is the best site on the web because of the full spectrum of material that inevitably comes to light here.


    Tim Martin

    Erick's picture

    No problem Tim, 3rd Millennium Ministries has a lot of great articles and topics. Have a great week remembering the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. He is worthy of our praise. Glory to God!

    Virgil's picture

    Tim, I know we are good, but the best? That would make us "leaders" in the Preterist world, and we can't have that :)

    You are too kind brother...thanks!

    MiddleKnowledge's picture


    Unfortunately, Randall turned off the recording on the podcast too early, or someone edited out my comments. I had lots to say. Ask Randall.

    You can tell who the leaders are by their service to others. I have long believed that. It's always been true. When you are a positive influence on the lives of others the respect that returns is natural. It's true even in our self-centered world. I make a decent living by putting that truth into action evening and morning.

    One author who I've read a great deal of material from put it this way. "Leadership flows to those who take responsibility." Your work on PP has taken responsibility. Things have flowed. Keep up the good work. Don't get stuck in the moment, because we've all got plenty more work to do.


    Tim Martin

    KingNeb's picture

    Am I the only one bothered by the fact that almost half of the footnotes were quotes from the same book, a book written by a jewish pacifist who basically used the story of Calvin and Castellio as a shot at Hitler and Germany? It’s akin to the baloney in the movie “V for Vendetta” where the ‘conservative christians’ are portrayed as the new hitlers and terrorists. And knowing the recent history of Virgil and some ‘calvinists’, it certainly appears to be the same scenario here. This is far from being any objective piece of historical research. This is the same ole’ crap dressed up in a different story, unfortunately now dragging in people and theological systems that have nothing to do with it.

    By the way, I’m certainly not condoning the actions of some of these ‘calvinists’, in fact, I have went round and round with a few myself and have stopped altogether visiting one of the sites. But the whole Rod vs Virgil thing has absolutely nothing to do with Calvin and certainly nothing to do with the precious doctrines of Grace that I unexpectedly learned as a southern Baptist simply reading my Bible having never heard of Calvin or of any teaching about it. In fact, my first introduction to Calvin was from the pastor of my home church who called me a ‘calvinist’ after I explained MY interpretation of Romans 9 to him. I did not have a clue what he meant or who in the heck he was talking about. All I wanted was for him to explain to me how he was avoiding the ‘election’ of Romans 9. I was also asked to never set foot on the church grounds again and I received two phone calls that week from “free-will” ministers threatening to beat me up. In fact, “most” of my ‘free-willer’ friends turned into complete jackasses overnight.

    Hmmm…so much for linking up theological systems with people’s retarded actions, unless of course the system flat out teaches hatred, murder and the like, and is essential to it, which ‘calvinism’ nor ‘arminianism’ does.

    This is a pathetic attempt Virgil and I hope that both you and those retarded Calvinists will grow out of this petty and childish fighting.

    I would also admonish you and your readers to take some courses in logic and learn about the problems with inductive reasoning and stereotyping.

    What I would like to see are more articles on the Bible’s articulation of the concept of the reign of the grace thru Jesus Christ, you know, that little thing you, myself, Rod, and Calvin are under and apparently was not understood by Stefan Zweig, the man you quote and named the article from, who ended his life in despair and without hope in a double suicide with his wife.

    Parker's picture

    Said this multiple times so no one wastes too much time trying to find me. I've said all I have to say on the matter. Time to move on.


    Kyle Peterson's picture

    I hope I didn't come across as too condescending as Vento recently pointed out. I think you did a better job than myself at remaining calm in your arguments. Thanks for the past few days of brain exercises. I'd be interested in continuing the discussion via e-mail if you aren't already burned out. I feel like a few things haven't been answered, or perhaps I missed something along the way.

    Parker's picture

    Hi Kyle.

    Feel free to contact my email to ask me any further questions you may want to address.

    The email option at takes you to my email.


    Barry's picture

    Take care bro!

    we are all in this together

    KingNeb's picture

    im not going round and round with you people. plain and simply Virgil, this was not historical research. and get this, i never said i denied or affirmed any of it. I'm just not so naive to think that a non-believing jewish pacifist (do some more research) could write any thing about the reformers without inserting his own philosophical biases. lord forbid anyone here check other resources...oh my....and im certainly not going to take that and attack an entire system of thought held by thousands today who would not hurt a fly.

    yeah, so 'most' calvinists you have met are buttheads...yeah...SO WHAT?!? that has NOTHING to do with Paul and predestination just as me getting threats from some free-willies at my home church has nothing to do with Southern Baptist roots.

    all im saying is Virgil, let the thing with Rod GO! it's consuming you and now your dragging others in the mud with you.

    Virgil's picture

    Jason, come on are again diverging from the subject. Of course it was historical research...were Calvin's own letters and words made up by Dan Rather? :) You are attempting to excuse Calvin's behavior by saying Stefan Zweig was a pacifist. I wish we were all pacifists...the world would be a much better place.

    And about most Calvinists being "buttheats" - doesn't that bother you? It bothers me, and I am not even a Calvinist. Is it ok to treat people badly because your theology supposedly allows you to do so? It has been evident to me for a while now that Calvinism appeals to only a certain kind of personality - that has been confirmed throughout the past few years by my own experiences and the experiences of others, so you can't tell me that I am making that up since I've experienced it firsthand.

    We are all messed up by question about it, but why are Calvinists especially mean and ruthless when it comes to disagreements? You and Sam are exceptions to what I've observed - so whatever happened to "love God and love your neighbor as yourself?" in most Calvinist circles? :)

    I appreciate you Jason, and I appreciate your input here; I am certainly glad that you say you are not justifying Calvin's actions, but it just seemed that you were doing that. Pointing out the wrongs on all sides is a great place to start something new and turn a new page.

    Parker's picture

    Virgil, why should we be sympathetic to the political agenda and writings of a jewish pacifist on matters of Christian involvement in government?

    Virgil's picture

    Why should I be sympathetic to the agenda of the Catholic church which killed many more innocent people than Calvin ever did?

    Parker's picture

    The Catholic Church killed no one. It holds no state-government posts. It has no law-enforcement duties. Even if the Church would have wanted to murder everyone, it would have had no state power or authority to do it.

    Virgil, your problem is with the idea that state governments can create laws that preserve and protect Christianity. You say that you don't mind Christians holding office, but you seem to get irritated at the notion that a nation might create laws that offer protection of Christianity. Perhaps some evangelicals feel more comfortable with Marx's and Stalin's position on this matter?

    Kyle Peterson's picture

    Killing other Christians because they deny a Trinity is what you call laws that offer protection of Christianity? Amazing.

    Parker's picture


    Say that the courts are called upon to help define what "protecting the free expression of Christianity means." And lets say they conclude that it includes the belief in the deity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. That then becomes law, for the courts ruled on it.

    Therefore, if some Buddhist-owned media company begins to introduce the idea on American television that Jesus was merely man, that company has broken the law and is subject to fines, imprisonment, exile, and in worst extremes death. For that company to be tried and a court for this violation and sentenced is not in any way unjust. Agree?

    Paige's picture

    Well Parker,

    If your scenario became reality, we would no longer be living in America. Rather...Amerikka.

    Oh my freakin' goodness!

    Parker's picture

    You won't have to worry about that, Paige. If you do nothing, you (or at least your grandkids) won't be able to even speak the name of Jesus in America. To assume that our right to the free expression of Christianity will always be there for us is foolhardy. Go ahead, do nothing. Watch your current government-protected rights to your religion waste away even more.

    Actually, Paige, how do like the burka look? I bet you and your daughters will like it just fine when you are forced to wear them.

    Virgil's picture

    If you do nothing, you (or at least your grandkids) won't be able to even speak the name of Jesus in America.

    Again, putting words in Paige's mouth - when did she say that we should do nothing? Paige was speaking against killing Buddhists for their religion, you are now making her sound like she wants to do nothing for Christ.

    Our rights will go away whether Communists, or people like you come to power - there is virtually no difference between someone forcing a political ideology on others, and someone forcing a particular theological on others. They are both tyrants that will eventually have no hesitation to kill someone for disagreeing with them...just like you are advocating. That's Parker's Amerika comrades.

    Parker's picture

    Again, putting words in Paige's mouth - when did she say that we should do nothing?

    But doing something means protecting Christianity in law, which you all seem to oppose vehemently because you think that's unfair. If we do not protect Christianity in law, atheists, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists will see to it that our free exercise of our religion is eradicated.

    Our rights will go away whether Communists, or people like you come to power

    That's illogical. If Communists come to power you will lose your rights to the free expression of Christianity. If Christians come to power you won't. It's that simple. Make your choice, Virgil.

    That's Parker's Amerika comrades

    In "Parker's Amerika", friend, you and your kids will be free to worship Christ. In anyone else's "Amerika," your kids will be imprisoned for speaking the name of Jesus. Take your pick, Virgil.

    Virgil's picture

    In "Parker's Amerika", friend, you and your kids will be free to worship Christ. In anyone else's "Amerika," your kids will be imprisoned for speaking the name of Jesus. Take your pick, Virgil.

    That's nice, but it doesn't explain why you were putting words in Paige's mouth.

    Forgive me if I have reservations your Amerika it sounds to me like one can worship Christ whether he wants it or not. I want no part of that.

    You really seem to believe that you can legislate people into heaven Parker. That's some horrible disrespect not only for other people, but for the freedom this country stands for.

    Parker's picture

    Forgive me if I have reservations your Amerika it sounds to me like one can worship Christ whether he wants it or not. I want no part of that.

    No one has ever here advocated forced worship of Christ. Never.

    You really seem to believe that you can legislate people into heaven Parker.

    I have never advocated any such thing. I have advocated that Christianity must receive legal protection for it to have free expression and that only Christians are capable of creating and enforcing these legal protections. You may not like it, but atheists, Muslims, Jews, and others seek to remove your right to speak the name of Jesus. If they get control of government, say goodbye to PlanetPreterist.

    I've said everything I can say on this matter. Over and out, Virgil.

    vento's picture

    Dear Parker,

    It may not feel like it, but some folks think you've made great arguments throughout. You've made them with a cool head, as well. Very admirable. I have NOT arrived at the conclusion you are advocating "theocracy" and killing everybody that disagrees with you???

    Will you be speaking at the next conference? ;)

    God bless,


    Parker's picture

    Hi Scott.

    Thanks for your comment.

    I think I've said everything I could possibly say on this matter, so I need to wrap up.

    Needless to say, I hope Virgil and others will seriously consider that the religious freedoms they enjoy are only granted to them so long as the law recognizes and protects that freedom. When atheists, Muslims, or Jews get control of the country, Christians will be under severe persecution once again. It seems that perhaps some evangelicals long for those good old days.

    Virgil's picture

    the religious freedoms they enjoy are only granted to them so long as the law recognizes and protects that freedom

    That's what you just don't get government or country or Catholic Church can grant me the rights that God already gave me. They don't come from you! Read the Declaration of Independence:

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

    These are self-evident rights, given by God, secured by the consent of the people. I don't need you or anyone else to give me these rights. The moment you give them to me, that is the moment when you can take them away; and it works the same way the other way around - the moment you with your self-righteousness decide to take a Budhist's right to preach Budhism, that moment you can also take my right away to criticize the Pope and say that he is errant...and that just aint' going to happen.

    Take care my was good chatting with you and tearing down the gianormous strawman you have constructed over the period of this past week.

    Kyle Peterson's picture

    Gee, Vento, I wonder what Parker means when he says we shouldn't care about the rights of other peoples (athiests, buddhists, muslims, etc); just be concerned about preserving Christian principles by passing them into state/fed laws?

    Perhaps you can brush up by looking up the terms theocracy or ecclesiocracy on

    vento's picture


    Sorry, I don't recall Parker saying that?

    I'm sure your condescending attitude was just meant as a joke. If not, I accept your apology!!

    Take care,


    Kyle Peterson's picture

    I didn't mean to sound condescending. My only suggestion I guess is to fully read all of the threads in entirety. Lines such as:

    "I don't care about the fears non-Christians have."
    "To worry about their feelings is crazy"
    "If Christians do not create laws to protect our religion, atheists and others will strip us of that right freely worship."

    Leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. However since then Parker has - I believe - clarified a few things and perhaps he is now only advocating us defending or protecting our right to practice Christianity and not necessarily forcing others to believe as we do.

    However, this seems to bring us back to square one in regards to Calvin's form of justice.

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