Friday, July 10, 2009

Calvin and Servetus

My interest in Servetus dates back to when I started to research the Pagnini Latin Bible of 1528. It was the first full translation from the Hebrew into Latin since Jerome's translation, and benefited from rabbinical commentary from the Middle Ages.

From the Cambridge History of the Bible, page 70,
    Pagnini was criticized by Luther and others for having leaned too much on Jewish scholarhsip, and for having followed the targums in his rendering of the Hebrew text. Perhaps this and its literalism made it the only Christian Latin version which the Jews seem to have respected. His interpretion of Job xix.25 at any rate is nearer to that of modern scholarship than to that of either the Vulgate or the English Authorized Version.

    Servetus revised Pagnini's version for the printer Hughes de la Porte of Lyons, 1542; it is possible that the emendations derive from those which Pagnini had made by hand in a copy of the edition of 1528. Because of the matter in some of the marginal notes which Servetus had added, this Bible was put on the Index and suppressed - Servetus had entered deeper into his covenant with death.
On October 27, 1553 John Calvin, had Michael Servetus, burned at the stake just outside of Geneva for his doctrinal heresies.

Here is an explanation of the interaction of Calvin and Servetus,
    Servetus remained outwardly a conforming Catholic while pursuing his private theological studies. He soon published at Lyon his most important work, Biblia sacra ex Santis Pagnini tra[ns]latione (1542), notable for its theory of prophecy.

    Servetus forwarded the manuscript of an enlarged revision of his ideas, the Christianismi Restitutio, to Calvin in 1546 and expressed a desire to meet him. After their first few letters, Calvin would have nothing more to do with him and kept the manuscript. He declared to his eloquent French preacher colleague Guillaume Farel that if Servetus ever came to Geneva he would not allow him to leave alive.

    A rewritten version of Servetus’ manuscript was secretly printed in 1,000 copies at Vienne in 1553. In discussing the relationship between the Spirit and regeneration in that book, Servetus almost incidentally made known his discovery of the pulmonary circulation of blood. In the book, Servetus argued that both God the Father and Christ his Son had been dishonoured by the Constantinian promulgation of the Nicene Creed, thus obscuring the redemptive role of Christ and bringing about the fall of the church; Servetus felt he could restore the church by separating it from the state and by using only those theological formulations that could be proved from Scripture and the pre-Constantinian fathers.

    When some of Servetus’ letters to Calvin fell into the hands of Guillaume de Trie, a former citizen of Lyon, he exposed Servetus to the inquisitor general at Lyon. Servetus and his printers were seized. During the trial, however, Servetus escaped, and the Catholic authorities had to be content with burning him in effigy. He quixotically appeared in Geneva and was recognized, arrested, and tried for heresy from Aug. 14 to Oct. 25, 1553. Calvin played a prominent part in the trial and pressed for execution, although by beheading rather than by fire.

    Despite his intense biblicism and his wholly Christocentric view of the universe, Servetus was found guilty of heresy, mainly on his views of the Trinity and Baptism. He was burned alive at Champel on October 27. His execution produced a Protestant controversy on imposing the death penalty for heresy, drew severe criticism upon John Calvin, and influenced Laelius Socinus, a founder of modern unitarian views.


Suzanne McCarthy said...

More on Servetus notes here page 20-21

and here

"Servetus added a preface and notes to the Pagnini Bible recommending in the prologue the study of the history of the Hebrews for a better under­stand­ing of the Bible. He accused biblical studies of not reaching for the literal and historical sense but searching in vain for the mystical meaning."

J. L. Watts said...

Ask and you will receive! Thanks Suzanne. I had not known about this bible before you brought it up. I will be spending some time on this.

Thanks again.

(I wonder what would have happened if Servetus would have convert Calvin?)

Lindon said...

There is so much rewritten history in the Reformed movement that ones needs to check many sources. The excuses made for Calvin in this episode are ridiculous.

Leonard Verduin, in his book, The Stepchildren of the Reformation, researched in Europe in the 1950 on grant from the Calvin Foundation, found in some documents made available after WW2 that Calvin ordered 'green wood' so that Servetus would burn slower.

This was after Servetus refused to recant to Calvin after several attempts.

After the burning, the tide started turning against Calvin and his power in the state church. Verduin quotes from a letter that Calvin wrote to a friend lamenting on the 'persecution' he was receiving from folks about Servetus.

Just another source to consider

Jane said...

This was a very interesting read Suzanne given the 500th anniversary events around Calvin's birth that I am attending here in Geneva at the moment.
I think almost everyone I have heard speak about the Servetus execution agree that it is an extremely serious stain on Calvin's reputation.
There seems to be much documentary evidence for Calvin having expressed the wish that Servet be beheaded not burnt.
The 16th century was a very different place to the 21st but we can only look at events of that time through our own eyes.
I think there is no excuse for Calvin on this issue but he should also not be blamed as the sole perpetrator or instigator of the execution.
Have you read Sebastian Castellion lettre à la France Désolée?
Servet was of course also condemned to death by the Catholic Church if he had been exiled from Geneva. The 16th century was anything but the age of tolerance.
Calvin did much that we understand as good and laudable.
This heinous act of intolerance we cannot understand and should not condone.

Lindon said...

Jane, I do not want to be contentious but I often wonder about the excuse for Calvin that he was just a product of his time. The reason I find that hard to understand is because in the same breath we are told he was a brilliant theologian.

Why did he not understand that church/state was not biblical for the NC but the Ana Baptists fleeing understood this perfectly? Why did he not understand believers baptism but the Ana Baptists were willing to be persecuted over it.

These are just a few reasons I do not think Calvin was so brilliant.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


I tend to agree with you to a certain extent. I am partly writing this about Servetus because the Pagnini Bible with notes interests me.

I am sure that my family benefitted from the literacy movement in and around Geneva.

Jane said...

Am about to leave for Lyon. I'm not trying to excuse Calvin at all the killing of Servet is not to be condoned - what I am discovering through the events I'm attending and learning from this year is that Calvin's legacy is much more nuanced than we who judge with the benefit of 20 20 hindsight.
I come from dissenting stock myself and have many problems with State churches - though if Cromwell had won out long term in Britain who knows how my own theology might have been influenced? We are all teh product of history as well as of indivcidual conscience and belief.