Vol. 8, Chapter XVI (Cont’d). The Second Act of the Trial at Geneva

The original prosecution being discharged, the case was handed over to the attorney-general, Claude Rigot, in compliance with the criminal ordinance of 1543. Thus the second act of the trial began. The prisoner was examined again, and a new indictment of thirty articles was prepared, which bore less on the actual heresies of the accused than on their dangerous practical tendency and his persistency in spreading them.

The Council wrote also to the judges of Vienne to procure particulars of the charges which had been brought against him there.

Servetus defended himself before the Council on the 23d of August, with ingenuity and apparent frankness against the new charges of quarrelsomeness and immorality. As to the latter, he pleaded his physical infirmity which protected him against the temptation of licentiousness. He had always studied the Scripture and tried to lead a Christian life. He did not think that his book would disturb the peace of Christendom, but would promote the truth. He denied that he had come to Geneva for any sinister purpose; he merely wished to pass through on his way to Zürich and Naples.

At the same time he prepared a written petition to the Council, which was received on the 24th of August. He demanded his release from the criminal charge for several reasons, which ought to have had considerable weight: that it was unknown in the Christian Church before the time of Constantine to try cases of heresy before a civil tribunal; that he had not offended against the laws either in Geneva or elsewhere; that he was not seditious nor turbulent; that his books treated of abstruse questions, and were addressed to the learned; that he had not spoken of these subjects to anybody but Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Capito; that he had ever refuted the Anabaptists, who rebelled against the magistrates and wished to have all things in common. In case he was not released, he demanded the aid of an advocate acquainted with the laws and customs of the country. Certainly a very reasonable request.

The attorney-general prepared a second indictment in refutation of the arguments of Servetus, who had studied law at Toulouse. He showed that the first Christian emperors claimed for themselves the cognizance and trial of heresies, and that their laws and constitutions condemned antitrinitarian heretics and blasphemers to death. He charged him with falsehood in declaring that he had written against the Anabaptists, and that he had not communicated his doctrine to any person during the last thirty years. The counsel asked for was refused because it was forbidden by the criminal statutes (1543), and because there was “not one jot of apparent innocence which requires an attorney.” The very thing to be proved!

A new examination followed which elicited some points of interest. Servetus stated his belief that the Reformation would progress much further than Luther and Calvin intended, and that new things were always first rejected, but afterwards received. To the absurd charge of making use of the Koran, he replied that he had quoted it for the glory of Christ, that the Koran abounds in what is good, and that even in a wicked book one may find some good things.

On the last day of August the Little Council received answer from Vienne. The commandant of the royal palace in that city arrived in Geneva, communicated to them a copy of the sentence of death pronounced against Villeneuve, and begged them to send him back to France that the sentence might be executed on the living man as it had been already executed on his effigy and books. The Council refused to surrender Servetus, in accordance with analogous cases, but promised to do full justice. The prisoner himself, who could see only a burning funeral pile for him in Vienne, preferred to be tried in Geneva, where he had some chance of acquittal or lighter punishment. He incidentally justified his habit of attending mass at Vienne by the example of Paul, who went to the temple, like the Jews; yet he confessed that in doing so he had sinned through fear of death.

The communication from Vienne had probably the influence of stimulating the zeal of the Council for orthodoxy. They wished not to be behind the Roman Church in that respect. But the issue was still uncertain.

The Council again confronted Servetus with Calvin on the first day of September. On the same day it granted, in spite of the strong protest of Calvin, permission to Philibert Berthelier to approach the communion table. It thus annulled the act of excommunication by the Consistory, and arrogated to itself the power of ecclesiastical discipline.

A few hours afterwards the investigation was resumed in the prison. Perrin and Berthelier were present as judges, and came to the aid of Servetus in the oral debate with Calvin, but, it seems, without success; for they resorted to a written discussion in which Servetus could better defend himself, and in which Calvin might complicate his already critical position. They wished, moreover, to refer the affair to the Churches of Switzerland which, in the case of Bolsec, had shown themselves much more tolerant than Calvin. Servetus demanded such reference. Calvin did not like it, but did not openly oppose it.

The Council, without entering on the discussion, decided that Calvin should extract in Latin, from the books of Servetus, the objectionable articles, word for word, contained therein; that Servetus should write his answers and vindications, also in Latin; that Calvin should in his turn furnish his replies; and that these documents be forwarded to the Swiss Churches as a basis of judgment. All this was fair and impartial.

On the same day Calvin extracted thirty-eight propositions from the books of Servetus with references, but without comments.

Then, turning with astonishing energy from one enemy to the other, he appeared before the Little Council on the 2d of September to protest most earnestly against their protection of Berthelier, who intended to present himself on the following day as a guest at the Lord’s table, and by the strength of the civil power to force Calvin to give him the tokens of the body and blood of Christ. He declared before the Council that he would rather die than act against his conscience. The Council did not yield, but resolved secretly to advise Berthelier to abstain from receiving the sacrament for the present. Calvin, ignorant of this secret advice, and resolved to conquer or to die, thundered from the pulpit of St. Peter on the 3d of September his determination to refuse, at the risk of his life, the sacred elements to an excommunicated person. Berthelier did not dare to approach the table. Calvin had achieved a moral victory over the Council.

In the mean time Servetus had, within the space of twenty-four hours, prepared a written defence, as directed by the Council, against the thirty-eight articles of Calvin. It was both apologetic and boldly aggressive, clear, keen, violent, and bitter. He contemptuously repelled Calvin’s interference in the trial, and charged him with presumption in framing articles of faith after the fashion of the doctors of the Sorbonne, without Scripture proof. He affirmed that he either misunderstood him or craftily perverted his meaning. He quotes from Tertullian, Irenaeus, and pseudo-Clement in support of his views. He calls him a disciple of Simon Magus, a criminal accuser, and a homicide. He ridiculed the idea that such a man should call himself an orthodox minister of the Church.

Calvin replied within two days in a document of twenty-three folio pages, which were signed by all the fourteen ministers of Geneva. He meets the patristic quotations of Servetus with counter-quotations, with Scripture passages and solid arguments, and charges him in conclusion with the intention “to subvert all religion.”

These three documents, which contained the essence of the doctrinal discussion, were presented to the Little Council on Tuesday the 5th of September.

On the 15th of September Servetus addressed a petition to the Council in which he attacked Calvin as his persecutor, complained of his miserable condition in prison and want of the necessary clothing, and demanded an advocate and the transfer of his trial to the Large Council of Two Hundred, where he had reason to expect a majority in his favor. This course had probably been suggested to him (as Rilliet conjectures) by Perrin and Berthelier through the jailer, Claude de Genève, who was a member of the Libertine party.

On the same day the Little Council ordered an improvement of the prisoner’s wardrobe (which, however, was delayed by culpable neglect), and sent him the three documents, with permission to make a last reply to Calvin, but took no action on his appeal to the Large Council, having no disposition to renounce its own authority.

Servetus at once prepared a reply by way of explanatory annotations on the margin and between the lines of the memorial of Calvin and the ministers. These annotations are full of the coarsest abuse, and read like the production of a madman. He calls Calvin again and again a liar, an impostor, a miserable wretch (nebulo pessimus), a hypocrite, a disciple of Simon Magus, etc. Take these specimens: “Do you deny that you are a man-slayer? I will prove it by your acts. You dare not deny that you are Simon Magus. As for me, I am firm in so good a cause, and do not fear death …. You deal with sophistical arguments without Scripture …. You do not understand what you say. You howl like a blind man in the desert …. You lie, you lie, you lie, you ignorant calumniator …. Madness is in you when you persecute to death …. I wish that all your magic were still in the belly of your mother …. I wish I were free to make a catalogue of your errors. Whoever is not a Simon Magus is considered a Pelagian by Calvin. All, therefore, who have been in Christendom are damned by Calvin; even the apostles, their disciples, the ancient doctors of the Church and all the rest. For no one ever entirely abolished free-will except that Simon Magus. Thou liest, thou liest, thou liest, thou liest, thou miserable wretch.”

He concludes with the remark that, “his doctrine was met merely by clamors, not by argument or any authority,” and he subscribed his name as one who had Christ for his certain protector.

He sent these notes to the Council on the 18th of September. It was shown to Calvin, but he did not deem it expedient to make a reply. Silence in this case was better than speech.

The debate, therefore, between the two divines was closed, and the trial became an affair of Protestant Switzerland, which should act as a jury.


153. Consultation of the Swiss Churches. The Defiant Attitude of Servetus

On the 19th of September the Little Council, in accordance with a resolution adopted on the 4th, referred the case of Servetus to the magistrates and pastors of the Reformed Churches of Bern, Zürich, Schaffhausen, and Basel for their judgment.

Two days afterwards Jaquemoz Jernoz, as the official messenger, was despatched on his mission with a circular letter and the documents, — namely the theological debate between Calvin and Servetus, — a copy of the “Restitution of Christianity,” and the works of Tertullian and Irenaeus, who were the chief patristic authorities quoted by both parties.

On the result of this mission the case of Servetus was made to depend. Servetus himself had expressed a wish that this course should be adopted, hoping, it seems, to gain a victory, or at least an escape from capital punishment. On the 22d of August he was willing to be banished from Geneva; but on the 22d of September he asked the Council to put Calvin on trial, and handed in a list of articles on which he should be interrogated. He thus admitted the civil jurisdiction in matters of religious opinions which he had formerly denied, and was willing to stake his life on the decision, provided that his antagonist should be exposed to the same fate. Among the four “great and infallible” reasons why Calvin should be condemned, he assigned the fact that he wished to “repress the truth of Jesus Christ, and follow the doctrines of Simon Magus, against all the doctors that ever were in the Church.” He declared in his petition that Calvin, like a magician, ought to be exterminated, and his goods be confiscated and given to Servetus, in compensation for the loss he had sustained through Calvin.

To dislodge Calvin from his position,” says Rilliet, “to expel him from Geneva, to satisfy a just vengeance — these were the objects toward which Servetus rushed.”

But the Council took no notice of his petition.

On the 10th of October he sent another letter to the Council, imploring them, for the love of Christ, to grant him such justice as they would not refuse to a Turk, and complaining that nothing had been done for his comfort as promised, but that he was more wretched than ever. The petition had some effect. The Lord Syndic, Darlod, and the Secretary of State, Claude Roset, were directed to visit his prison and to provide some articles of dress for his relief.

On the 18th of October the messenger of the State returned with the answers from the four foreign churches. They were forthwith translated into French, and examined by the magistrates. We already know the contents. The churches were unanimous in condemning the theological doctrines of Servetus, and in the testimony of respect and affection for Calvin and his colleagues. Even Bern, which was not on good terms with Calvin, and had two years earlier counselled toleration in the case of Bolsec, regarded Servetus a much more dangerous heretic and advised to remove this “pest.” Yet none of the Churches consulted expressly suggested the death penalty. They left the mode of punishment with the discretion of a sovereign State. Haller, the pastor of Bern, however, wrote to Bullinger of Zürich that, if Servetus had fallen into the hands of Bernese justice, he would undoubtedly have been condemned to the flames.


154. Condemnation of Servetus

On the 23d of October the Council met for a careful examination of the replies of the churches, but could not come to a decision on account of the absence of several members, especially Perrin, the Chief Syndic, who feigned sickness. Servetus had failed to excite any sympathy among the people, and had injured his cause by his obstinate and defiant conduct. The Libertines, who wished to use him as a tool for political purposes, were discouraged and intimidated by the counsel of Bern, to which they looked for protection against the hated régime of Calvin.

The full session of the Council on the 26th, to which all counsellors were summoned on the faith of their oath, decided the fate of the unfortunate prisoner, but not without a stormy discussion. Amy Perrin presided and made a last effort in favor of Servetus. He at first insisted upon his acquittal, which would have been equivalent to the expulsion of Calvin and a permanent triumph of the party opposed to him. Being baffled, he proposed, as another alternative, that Servetus, in accordance with his own wishes, be transferred to the Council of the Two Hundred. But this proposal was also rejected. He was influenced by political passion rather than by sympathy with heresy or love of toleration, which had very few advocates at that time. When he perceived that the majority of the Council was inclined to a sentence of death, he quitted the Senate House with a few others.

The Council had no doubt of its jurisdiction in the case; it had to respect the unanimous judgment of the Churches, the public horror of heresy and blasphemy, and the imperial laws of Christendom, which were appealed to by the attorney-general. The decision was unanimous. Even the wish of Calvin to substitute the sword for the fire was overruled, and the papal practice of the auto-da-fé followed, though without the solemn mockery of a religious festival.

The judges, after enumerating the crimes of Servetus, in calling the holy Trinity a monster with three heads, blaspheming the Son of God, denying infant-baptism as an invention of the devil and of witchcraft, assailing the Christian faith, and after mentioning that he had been condemned and burned in effigy at Vienne, and had during his residence in Geneva persisted in his vile and detestable errors, and called all true Christians tritheists, atheists, sorcerers, putting aside all remonstrances and corrections with a malicious and perverse obstinacy, pronounced the fearful sentence: — 

“We condemn thee, Michael Servetus, to be bound, and led to the place of Champel, there to be fastened to a stake and burnt alive, together with thy book, as well the one written by thy hand as the printed one, even till thy body be reduced to ashes; and thus shalt thou finish thy days to furnish an example to others who might wish to commit the like.

“And we command our Lieutenant to see that this our present sentence be executed.”

Rilliet, who published the official report of the trial in the interest of history, without special sympathy with Calvin, says that the sentence of condemnation is “odious before our consciences, but was just according to the law.” Let us thank God that those unchristian and barbarous laws are abolished forever.

Calvin communicated to Farel on the 26th of October a brief summary of the result, in which he says: “The messenger has returned from the Swiss Churches. They are unanimous in pronouncing that Servetus has now renewed those impious errors with which Satan formerly disturbed the Church, and that he is a monster not to be borne. Those of Basel are judicious. The Zürichers are the most vehement of all … They of Schaffhausen agree. To an appropriate letter from the Bernese is added one from the Senate in which they stimulate ours not a little. Caesar, the comedian [so he sarcastically called Perrin], after feigning illness for three days, at length went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch [Servetus] from punishment. Nor was he ashamed to ask that the case be referred to the Council of the Two Hundred. However, Servetus was without dissent condemned. He will be led forth to punishment to-morrow. We endeavored to alter the mode of his death, but in vain. Why we did not succeed, I defer for narration until I see you.”

This letter reached Farel on his way to Geneva, where he arrived on the same day, in time to hear the sentence of condemnation. He had come at the request of Calvin, to perform the last pastoral duties to the prisoner, which could not so well be done by any of the pastors of Geneva.


155. Execution of Servetus. Oct. 27, 1553

Farel, in a letter to Ambrosius Blaarer, December, 1553, preserved in the library of St. Gall, and copied in the Thesaurus Hottingerianus of the city library of Zürich, gives an account of the last moments and execution of Servetus. See Henry, vol. III. Beilage, pp. 72-75. Calvin, at the beginning of his “Defence,” Opera, VIII. 460, relates his own last interview with Servetus in prison on the day of his death.

When Servetus, on the following morning, heard of the unexpected sentence of death, he was horror-struck and behaved like a madman. He uttered groans, and cried aloud in Spanish, “Mercy, mercy!”

The venerable old Farel visited him in the prison at seven in the morning, and remained with him till the hour of his death. He tried to convince him of his error. Servetus asked him to quote a single Scripture passage where Christ was called “Son of God” before his incarnation. Farel could not satisfy him. He brought about an interview with Calvin, of which the latter gives us an account. Servetus, proud as he was, humbly asked his pardon. Calvin protested that be had never pursued any personal quarrel against him. “Sixteen years ago,” he said, “I spared no pains at Paris to gain you to our Lord. You then shunned the light. I did not cease to exhort you by letters, but all in vain. You have heaped upon me I know not how much fury rather than anger. But as to the rest, I pass by what concerns myself. Think rather of crying for mercy to God whom you have blasphemed.” This address had no more effect than the exhortation of Farel, and Calvin left the room in obedience, as he says, to St. Paul’s order (Tit_3:10, Tit_3:11), to withdraw from a self-condemned heretic. Servetus appeared as mild and humble as he had been bold and arrogant, but did not change his conviction.

At eleven o’clock on the 27th of October, Servetus was led from the prison to the gates of the City Hall, to hear the sentence read from the balcony by the Lord Syndic Darlod. When he heard the last words, he fell on his knees and exclaimed: “The sword! in mercy! and not fire! Or I may lose my soul in despair.” He protested that if he had sinned, it was through ignorance. Farel raised him up and said: “Confess thy crime, and God will have mercy on your soul.” Servetus replied:, I am not guilty; I have not merited death.” Then he smote his breast, invoked God for pardon, confessed Christ as his Saviour, and besought God to pardon his accusers.

On the short journey to the place of execution, Farel again attempted to obtain a confession, but Servetus was silent. He showed the courage and consistency of a martyr in these last awful moments.

Champel is a little hill south of Geneva with a fine view on one of the loveliest paradises of nature. There was prepared a funeral pile hidden in part by the autumnal leaves of the oak trees. The Lord Lieutenant and the herald on horseback, both arrayed in the insignia of their office, arrive with the doomed man and the old pastor, followed by a small procession of spectators. Farel invites Servetus to solicit the prayers of the people and to unite his prayers with theirs. Servetus obeys in silence. The executioner fastens him by iron chains to the stake amidst the fagots, puts a crown of leaves covered with sulphur on his head, and binds his book by his side. The sight of the flaming torch extorts from him a piercing shriek of “misericordias” in his native tongue. The spectators fall back with a shudder. The flames soon reach him and consume his mortal frame in the forty-fourth year of his fitful life. In the last moment he is heard to pray, in smoke and agony, with a loud voice: “Jesus Christ, thou Son of the eternal God, have mercy upon me!”

This was at once a confession of his faith and of his error. He could not be induced, says Farel, to confess that Christ was the eternal Son of God.

The tragedy ended when the clock of St. Peter’s struck twelve. The people quietly dispersed to their homes. Farel returned at once to Neuchâtel, even without calling on Calvin. The subject was too painful to be discussed.

The conscience and piety of that age approved of the execution, and left little room for the emotions of compassion. But two hundred years afterwards a distinguished scholar and minister of Geneva echoed the sentiments of his fellow-citizens when he said: “Would to God that we could extinguish this funeral pile with our tears.” Dr. Henry, the admiring biographer of Calvin, imagines an impartial Christian jury of the nineteenth century assembled on Champel, which would pronounce the judgment on Calvin, “Not guilty”; on Servetus, “Guilty, with extenuating circumstances.”

The flames of Champel have consumed the intolerance of Calvin as well as the heresy of Servetus.


156. The Character of Servetus

Servetus — theologian, philosopher, geographer, physician, scientist, and astrologer — was one of the most remarkable men in the history of heresy. He was of medium size, thin and pale, like Calvin, his eyes beaming with intelligence, and an expression of melancholy and fanaticism. Owing to a physical rupture he was never married. He seems never to have had any particular friends, and stood isolated and alone.

His mental endowments and acquirements were of a high order, and placed him far above the heretics of his age and almost on an equality with the Reformers. His discoveries have immortalized his name in the history of science. He knew Latin, Hebrew, and Greek (though Calvin depreciates his knowledge of Greek), as well as Spanish, French, and Italian, and was well read in the Bible, the early fathers, and the schoolmen. He had an original, speculative, and acute mind, a tenacious memory, ready wit, a fiery imagination, ardent love of learning, and untiring industry. He anticipated the leading doctrines of Socinianism and Unitarianism, but in connection with mystic and pantheistic speculations, which his contemporaries did not understand. He had much uncommon sense, but little practical common sense. He lacked balance and soundness. There was a streak of fanaticism in his brain. His eccentric genius bordered closely on the line of insanity. For

“Great wits are sure to madness near allied,

And thin partitions do their bounds divide.”

His style is frequently obscure, inelegant, abrupt, diffuse, and repetitious. He accumulates arguments to an extent that destroys their effect. He gives eight arguments to prove that the saints in heaven pray for us; ten arguments to show that Melanchthon and his friends were sorcerers, blinded by the devil; twenty arguments against infant baptism; twenty-five reasons for the necessity of faith before baptism; and sixty signs of the apocalyptic beast and the reign of Antichrist.

In thought and style he was the opposite of the clear-headed, well-balanced, methodical, logical, and thoroughly sound Calvin, who never leaves the reader in doubt as to his meaning.

The moral character of Servetus was free from immorality of which his enemies at first suspected him in the common opinion of the close connection of heresy with vice. But he was vain, proud, defiant, quarrelsome, revengeful, irreverent in the use of language, deceitful, and mendacious. He abused popery and the Reformers with unreasonable violence. He conformed for years to the Catholic ritual which he despised as idolatrous. He defended his attendance upon mass by Paul’s example in visiting the temple (Act_21:26), but afterwards confessed at Geneva that he had acted under compulsion and sinned from fear of death. He concealed or denied on oath facts which he had afterwards to admit. At Vienne he tried to lie himself out of danger, and escaped; in Geneva he defied his antagonist and did his best, with the aid of the Libertines in the Council, to ruin him.

The severest charge against him is blasphemy. Bullinger remarked to a Pole that if Satan himself should come out of hell, he could use no more blasphemous language against the Trinity than this Spaniard; and Peter Martyr, who was present, assented and said that such a living son of the devil ought not to be tolerated anywhere. We cannot even now read some of his sentences against the doctrine of the Trinity without a shudder. Servetus lacked reverence and a decent regard for the most sacred feelings and convictions of those who differed from him. But there was a misunderstanding on both sides. He did not mean to blaspheme the true God in whom he believed himself, but only the three false and imaginary gods, as he wrongly conceived them to be, while to all orthodox Christians they were the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of the one true, eternal, blessed Godhead.

He labored under the fanatical delusion that he was called by Providence to reform the Church and to restore the Christian religion. He deemed himself wiser than all the fathers, schoolmen, and reformers. He supported his delusion by a fanciful interpretation of the last and darkest book of the Bible.

Calvin and Farel saw, in his refusal to recant, only the obstinacy of an incorrigible heretic and blasphemer. We must recognize in it the strength of his conviction. He forgave his enemies; he asked the pardon even of Calvin. Why should we not forgive him? He had a deeply religious nature. We must honor his enthusiastic devotion to the Scriptures and to the person of Christ. From the prayers and ejaculations inserted in his book, and from his dying cry for mercy, it is evident that he worshipped Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.


157. Calvin’s Defence of the Death Penalty for Heretics

The public sentiment, Catholic and Protestant, as we have seen, approved of the traditional doctrine, that obstinate heretics should be made harmless by death, and continued unchanged down to the close of the seventeenth century.

But there were exceptions. As in the case of the execution of the Spanish Priscillianists in the fourth century, the genuine spirit of Christianity and humanity raised a cry of indignation and horror through the mouths of St. Ambrose of Milan, and St. Martin of Tours; so there were not a few in the sixteenth century who protested against the burning of Servetus. Most of these — Lelio Socino, Renato, Curio, Biandrata, Alciati, Gribaldo, Gentile, Ochino, and Castellio — were Italian refugees and free-thinkers who sympathized more or less with his heretical opinions. It was especially three professors in the University of Basel Borrhaus (Cellarius), Curio, and Castellio — who were suspected at Geneva of being followers of Servetus. For the same reason some Anabaptists, like David Joris, who lived at that time in Basel under the assumed name of John von Bruck, took his part. Anonymous libels in prose and verse appeared against Calvin. He was denounced as a new pope and inquisitor, and Geneva, heretofore an asylum of religious liberty, as a new Rome, A hundred Servetuses seemed to arise from the ashes at Champel; but they were all inferior men, and did not understand the speculative views of Servetus, who had exhausted the productive powers of antitrinitarianism.

Not only dissenters and personal enemies, but also, as Beza admits, some orthodox and pious people and friends of Calvin were dissatisfied with the severity of the punishment, and feared, not without reason, that it would justify and encourage the Romanists in their cruel persecution of Protestants in France and elsewhere.

Under these circumstances Calvin felt it to be his disagreeable duty to defend his conduct, and to refute the errors of Servetus. He was urged by Bullinger to do it. He completed the work in a few months and published it in Latin and French in the beginning of 1554. It had an official character and was signed by all the fifteen ministers of Geneva.

Beza aided him in this controversy and undertook to refute the pamphlet of Bellius, and did so with great ability and eloquence.

Calvin’s work against Servetus gave complete satisfaction to Melanchthon. It is the strongest refutation of the errors of his opponent which his age produced, but it is not free from bitterness against one who, at last, had humbly asked his pardon, and who had been sent to the judgment seat of God by a violent death. It is impossible to read without pain the following passage: “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church. It is not in vain that he banishes all those human affections which soften our hearts; that he commands paternal love and all the benevolent feelings between brothers, relations, and friends to cease; in a word, that he almost deprives men of their nature in order that nothing may hinder their holy zeal. Why is so implacable a severity exacted but that we may know that God is defrauded of his honor, unless the piety that is due to him be preferred to all human duties, and that when his glory is to be asserted, humanity must be almost obliterated from our memories?”

Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel. But his arguments from the New Testament are failures. He agrees with Augustin in the interpretation of the parabolic words: “Constrain them to come in” (Luk_14:23). But this can only refer to moral and not to physical force, and would imply a forcible salvation, not destruction. The same parable was afterwards abused by the French bishops to justify the abominable dragoonades of Louis XIV. against the Huguenots. Calvin quotes the passages on the duty of the civil magistrate to use the sword against evil-doers (Rom_13:4); the expulsion of the profane traffickers from the temple (Mat_21:12); the judgment on Ananias and Sapphira (Act_5:1 sqq.); the striking of Elymas with blindness (Act_13:11); and the delivery of Hymenaeus and Alexander to Satan (1Ti_1:20). He answers the objections from the parables of the tares and of the net (Mat_13:30, Mat_13:49), and from the wise counsel of Gamaliel (Act_5:34). But he cannot get over those passages which contradict his theory, as Christ’s rebuke to John and James for wishing to call down fire from heaven (Luk_9:54), and to Peter for drawing the sword (Mat_26:52), his declaration that his kingdom is not of this world (Joh_18:36), and his whole spirit and aim, which is to save and not to destroy.

In his juvenile work on Seneca and in earlier editions of his Institutes, Calvin had expressed noble sentiments on toleration; even as Augustin did in his writings against the Manichaeans, among whom he himself had lived for nine years; but both changed their views for the worse in their zeal for orthodoxy.

Calvin’s “Defence” did not altogether satisfy even some of his best friends. Zurkinden, the State Secretary of Bern, wrote him Feb. 10, 1554: “I wish the former part of your book, respecting the right which the magistrates may have to use the sword in coercing heretics, had not appeared in your name, but in that of your council, which might have been left to defend its own act. I do not see how you can find any favor with men of sedate mind in being the first formally to treat this subject, which is a hateful one to almost all.” Bullinger intimated his objections more mildly in a letter of March 26, 1554, in which he says: “I only fear that your book will not be so acceptable to many of the more simple-minded persons, who, nevertheless, are attached both to yourself and to the truth, by reason of its brevity and consequent obscurity, and the weightiness of the subject. And, indeed, your style appears somewhat perplexed, especially in this work.” Calvin wrote in reply, April 29, 1554: “I am aware that I have been more concise than usual in this treatise. However, if I should appear to have faithfully and honestly defended the true doctrine, it will more than recompense me for my trouble. But though the candor and justice which are natural to you, as well as your love towards me, lead you to judge of me favorably, there are others who assail me harshly as a master in cruelty and atrocity, for attacking with my pen not only a dead man, but one who perished by my hands. Some, even not self-disposed towards me, wish that I had never entered on the subject of the punishment of heretics, and say that others in the like situation have held their tongues as the best way of avoiding hatred. It is well, however, that I have you to share my fault, if fault it be; for you it was who advised and persuaded me to it. Prepare yourself, therefore, for the combat.”


158. A Plea for Religious Liberty. Castellio and Beza

Cf. § 126, and especially Ferd. Buisson, Sébastien Castellion. Paris (Hachette et Cie), 1892. 2 vols. 8vo (I. 358-413; II. 1-28).

A month after Calvin’s defence of the death penalty of heretics, there appeared at Basel a pseudonymous book in defence of religious liberty, dedicated to Duke Christopher of Würtemberg. It was edited and prefaced professedly by Martinus Bellius, whose real name has never been discovered with certainty. Perhaps it was Martin Borrhaus of Stuttgart (1499-1564), professor of Hebrew learning in the University of Basel, and known under the name of “Cellarius,” in honor of his first protector, Simon Cellarius (not to be confounded with Michael Cellarius of Augsburg). He studied at Heidelberg and Wittenberg, appeared first among the Zwickau Prophets, and then in connection with Carlstadt (who ended his days likewise as a professor at Basel). The book was misdated from Magdeburg, the stronghold of the orthodox Lutherans, in opposition to the tyranny of the Imperial Interim. A French edition appeared, nominally at Rouen, but was probably printed at Lyons, where Castellio had a brother in the printing business.

Calvin at once suspected the true authors, and wrote to Bullinger, March 28, 1554: “A book has just been clandestinely printed at Basel under false names, in which Castellio and Curio pretend to prove that heretics should not be repressed by the sword. Would that the pastors of that church at length, though late, aroused themselves to prevent the evil from spreading wider.” A few days afterwards Beza wrote to Bullinger about the same book, and gave it as his opinion that the feigned Magdeburg was a city on the Rhine [Basel], and that Castellio was the real author, who treated the most important articles of faith as useless or indifferent, and put the Bible on a par with the Ethics of Aristotle.

Castellio wrote, however, only a part of the book. He adopted the pseudonym of Basilius (i.e. Sebastian) Montfortius (i.e. Castellio).

The body of this work consists of a collection of testimonies in favor of religious toleration, extracted from the writings of Luther (his book, Von weltlicher Obrigkeit, 1523), Brenz (who maintain that heresy as long as it keeps in the intellectual sphere should be punished only by the Word of God), Erasmus, Sebastian Frank, several Church Fathers (Lactantius, Chrysostom, Jerome, and Augustin, in his antiManichaean writings), Otto Brunsfeld (d. at Bern, 1534), Urbanus Rhegius (Lutheran theologian, d. 1541), Conrad Pellican (Hebrew professor at Zürich, d. 1556), Caspar Hedio, Christoph Hoffmann, Georg Kleinberg (a pseudonym) and even Calvin (in the first edition of his Institutes). This collection was probably made by Curio.

The epilogue is written by Castellio, and is the most important part of the book. He examines the different biblical and patristic passages quoted for and against intolerance. He argues against his opponents from the multiplicity of sects which disagree on the interpretation of Scripture, and concludes that, on their principles, they should all be exterminated except one. He justly charges St. Augustin with inconsistency in his treatment of the Donatists, for which, he says, he was punished by the invasion of the Arian Vandals. The lions turned against those who had unchained them. Persecution breeds Christian hypocrites in place of open heretics. It provokes counter-persecution, as was just then seen in England after the accession of Queen Mary, which caused the flight of English Protestants to Switzerland. In conclusion he gives an allegorical picture of a journey through the centuries showing the results of the two conflicting principles of force and liberty, of intolerance and charity, and leaves the reader to decide which of the two armies is the army of Jesus Christ.

Castellio anticipated Bayle and Voltaire, or rather the Baptists and Quakers. He was the champion of religious liberty in the sixteenth century. He claimed it in the name of the gospel and the Reformation. It was appropriate that this testimony should come from the Swiss city of Basel, the home of Erasmus.

But the leaders of the Swiss Reformation in Geneva and Zürich could see in this advocacy of religious freedom only a most dangerous heresy, which would open the door to all kinds of errors and throw the Church of Christ into inextricable confusion.

Theodore Beza, the faithful aid of Calvin, took up his pen against the anonymous sceptics of Basel, and defended the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy. His work appeared in September, 1554; that is, five months after the book of Martinus Bellius. It was Beza’s first published theological treatise (he was then thirty-five years of age).

The book has a polemic and an apologetic part. In the former, Beza tries to refute the principle of toleration; in the latter, to defend the conduct of Geneva. He contends that the toleration of error is indifference to truth, and that it destroys all order and discipline in the Church. Even the enforced unity of the papacy is much better than anarchy. Heresy is much worse than murder, because it destroys the soul. The spiritual power has nothing to do with temporal punishments; but it is the right and duty of the civil government, which is God’s servant, to see to it that he receives his full honor in the community. Beza appeals to the laws of Moses and the acts of kings Asa and Josiah against blasphemers and false prophets. All Christian rulers have punished obstinate heretics. The ecumenical synods (from 325 to 787) were called and confirmed by emperors who punished the offenders. Whoever denies to the civil authority the right to restrain and punish pernicious errors against public worship undermines the authority of the Bible. He cites in confirmation passages from Luther, Melanchthon, Urbanus Rhegius, Brenz, Bucer, Capito, Bullinger, Musculus, and the Church of Geneva. He closes the argument as follows: “The duty of the civil authority in this matter is hedged about by these three regulations: (1) It must strictly confine itself to its own sphere, and not presume to define heresy; that belongs to the Church alone. (2) It must not pass judgment with regard to persons, advantages, and circumstances, but with pure regard to the honor of God. (3) It must proceed after quiet, regular examination of the heresy and mature consideration of all the circumstances, and inflict such punishment as will best secure the honor due to the divine Majesty and the peace and unity of the Church.”

This theory, which differs little from the papal theory of intolerance, except in regard to the definition of heresy and the mode and degree of punishment, was accepted for a long time in the Reformed Churches with few dissenting voices; but, fortunately, there was no occasion for another capital punishment of heresy in the Church of Geneva after the burning of Servetus.

The evil which Calvin and Beza did was buried with their bones; the greater good which they did will live on forever. Dr. Willis, though a decided apologist of Servetus, makes the admission: “Calvin must nevertheless be thought of as the real herald of modern freedom. Holding ignorance to be incompatible with the existence of a people at once religious and free, Calvin had the schoolhouse built beside the Church, and brought education within the reach of all. Nor did he overlook the higher culture.”