The rhetoric around the death of Michael Servetus is extraordinary. On one hand, it seems that John Calvin dragged a peaceable, intelligent, urbane scientist to the stake with his bare hands; forcibly tied the man of the world to the post and lit a fire using nothing more than burning hatred and malevolent intent. On the other hand are those, deny any relationship between the execution and the pastor. (The weight of popular opinion lying far more heavily in favor of Calvin being a murderous beast.)
If you think I overstate the case, an internet search will set you straight.
If anyone would actually be concerned with the facts rather than accusations of this matter, I have found no better resource than Jonathan Moorhead’s Trial of the 16th Century, Calvin & Servetus. Dr. Moorhead seeks to neither castigate nor defend the participants. Rather, he performs the far more useful historical task of seeking to understand the participants on their own terms.
Moorhead understands his task as follows:
Since the writing of history is an ethical responsibility, it is important to be cautious of anachronism. To judge another culture and time based upon one’s own is unfair, and is a violation of the golden rule to treat others as one wants to be treated. As such, anachronistic judgments are unethical. Each time period must be judged by the prevailing laws of the time, not those of the future. Primary evidence of this, as previously mentioned, is Scripture itself. Charity is thus needed to evaluate those with whom we agree theologically, and those with whom we do not. (Moorhead, Jonathan. The Trial of the 16th Century: Calvin & Servetus (pp. 91-92). Christian Focus Publications. Kindle Edition.)
I found Moorhouse to meet this test quite well. First, he cites to his evidence and does not go beyond his evidence. I never found him inflammatory nor did I see evidence of trying to excuse anyone. Second, he puts the primary “problem” for contemporary understanding of this execution front and center. We find the execution of someone for heresy disturbing, at least. However, in the 16th Century, execution for heresy was a common place throughout Europe and was approved by all governments and leading religious figures. Moorhead provides numerous quotations from Protestant leaders, so that no contemporary Protestant reader can try to foist this opinion onto some other group nor try to turn Calvin in a 21st Century figure.
Third, Moorheads spends considerable time placing Calvin and the Servetus into historical context. While I have general knowledge of the 16th Century and know some general trends, what I did not know was the immediate context for Calvin and Servetus on the days in question.
Calvin was in the midst of a conflict with the political leaders in Geneva when the events of Servetus took place. There was significant history between Calvin and Servetus. Servetus had his own context which intersected with Calvin resulting in an outcome that neither man could control.
The context and forces pressing upon the people involved extended beyond Calvin or Servetus. Geneva, and the Reformation, were faced with pressures and decisions which went beyond the immediate question of what this City was to do with this heretic. The decisions made in Geneva had effects throughout Europe.
This third element, the particular context for these particular people at this particular time, goes a long to help understanding why other heretics were simply banished, while Servetus was executed.
At the end of the book Moorhead add a helpful Appendix which summarizes the 22 steps in his analysis. For instance, point 1, “Imperial law stated that Anabaptism and denying the Trinity were heresies punishable by death.”
The book was well written and to the point. While one learns a great deal about Calvin, Servetus, as well the political and religious world of the 16th Century, the focus always remains upon the central issue(s), “Did Calvin want Servetus to be executed? Did he try to lure him to Geneva to be killed? Was Calvin the Pope of Geneva that dictated the direction of the trial? Did he murder Servetus?”
I have purposefully not disclosed the conclusions which Moorheard reaches in this book, because I want you to read it. I highly recommend this volume.
A short bio of Dr. Moorhead’s ministry can be found here.