Smackdown in the 16th Century: Servetus vs Calvin

Miguel Servet by Miguel de Villanueva (1511 – 1553) (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

I can see the posters now: Smackdown in the 16th Century: Michael “the Scientist” Servetus versus John “the Predestinator” Calvin. Wouldn’t it have been great if it was carried on pay-per-view?

Michael Servetus (1509/11-1553) was a Spanish theologian who was executed at the command of Protestant reformer John Calvin in Geneva. He was a very well-rounded man. Besides being a theologian he was the first European to correctly describe pulmonary circulation. He also studied math, astronomy, meteorology, geography, human anatomy, medicine, jurisprudence, foreign languages and poetry. In other words, he was a real over-achiever, the kind who got wedgies in school.

As a theologian he got himself into severe trouble with both Catholics and Protestants by denying the Trinity, a foundational Christian doctrine. In doing so Servetus made a major miscalculation which caused him his life. His denial of the Trinity got him in hot water with Rome so he reasoned that the enemy of my enemy is my friend and decided to go to Geneva where Calvin, also an enemy of Rome, would welcome him with open arms. In reality Calvin welcomed him with an even warmer greeting. He had him burned at the stake.

Fortunately Christians no longer handle theological disputes with executions but, in the 16th century, religion and politics were not separate matters. To reject a ruler’s religious beliefs was the equivalent of treason and was punished as such. Burning at the stake was the usual means.

Let’s back up a bit.

Servetus wrote to Calvin before moving to Geneva. In 1553 he wrote a book entitled The Restoration of Christianity which besides denying the Trinity, rejected predestination, Calvin’s favorite doctrine. He sent a copy to Calvin who responded with a copy of his own Institutes of the Christian Religion. It would have been nice if the discussion had continued at that level but that was not to be.

A portrait of John Calvin attributed to Hans Holbein (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Servetus, who lived in Vienne, sent Calvin’s book back with marginal notes. Calvin, who did not take correction easily, responded by writing back: “I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity.” Things escalated from there.

On 13 Feb 1546 Calvin wrote to  his friend, William Farel: “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.”

Meanwhile back in Vienne, Catholic authorities arrested Servetus for heresy but he managed to escape. So, of all the places he could have gone to, what city does Servetus pick? Uh, Geneva. OK, to quote Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York City, “When I make a mistake, it’s a beaut!” Not only that, but on 13 Aug 1553, he decides to attend a sermon by Calvin. He was immediately arrested, imprisoned and had his possessions confiscated.

French Inquisitors requested that Servetus be extradited to them for execution – apparently he couldn’t catch a break anywhere – but Calvin wanted to show himself as staunch a defender of Christianity as anyone else and pushed for Servetus’ execution with all of his substantial influence.

Servetus was given a “trial” and convicted of spreading his non-Trinitarian heresy and for calling infant baptism “an invention of the devil, an infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity.” To make things even weirder, the court questioned Servetus’ sexuality. He had never married and was asked why. Servetus said that a rupture, actually an inguinal hernia, had given him erectile dysfunction in those pre-Viagra days. When that tactic failed he was accused of favoring the Jews and Turks and of studying the Koran in order to undermine Christianity.

Servetus lost. Surprise! Who could have seen that coming?

Calvin requested that Servetus be decapitated rather than burned at the stake but his friend William Farel teased him for being “too lenient.” Apparently Farel was a bit of a disciplinarian. The Geneva Council must have felt the same way because they turned down Calvin’s request.

On 27 Oct 1553 Servetus was burned at the stake with what was believed to be the last remaining copy of his book.


© 2018 Gary J. Sibio. All rights reserved.

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Written by Gary J Sibio

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  1. It’s weird that he was that smart and denied the Trinity because the number three represents manifestation. The physical realm is three dimensions and is a direct reflection of the spiritual realm.

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