The "Servetus Controversy" tells of a man named Michael Servetus who was burned at the stake for heresy -- not by Roman Catholic Inquisitors, but by Protestants in 16th century Geneva, France.

Here is a brief description of the event in a document at Calvin.edu, and here is a link to a Youtube video of a panel of Calvinist pastors discussing the topic at a conference.

Are there any authoritative historic documents that shed further light on what Calvin's involvement may have been?


2 Answers 2


Michael Servetus denied the deity of Christ and the Trinity doctrine, as well as many other points of orthodox Christian belief. But his challenge to the city Council of Geneva was handled horribly.

Prior to that, in May 1532 the Spanish Inquisition initially took action against Servetus because of his heretical views regarding the Trinity. Servetus persisted in his denunciation of the orthodox, Catholic view of the Trinity. In February 1553, a letter written by the Genevan Guillaume de Trie, a cousin to the printer in Lyon responsible for publishing Servetus’ work, exposed Servetus to the authorities, resulting in his interrogation and imprisonment on April 4 1553. However, Servetus escaped on April 7 1553.

June 17, he was condemned to death (in absentia) in Vienne by the French Catholic Inquisition. August 13, on his way to Italy Servetus stopped in Geneva and listened to Calvin preach in church. Yet Calvin had warned him not to come to Geneva. Servetus was imprisoned by the city magistrates. On October 26, he was condemned to death by Council of Geneva and burned at the stake 27 October 1553. On December 23 a posthumous condemnation of Servetus was issued by the ecclesiastical court and Archbishop of Vienne.

When Servetus was captured and tried, Calvin did not want him burned alive at the stake but beheaded instead. That would have been the lesser of two evils. However, the city Councillors ignored Calvin on this.

Back in those days, the Reformation had immense repercussions all over Europe, including the rise of anti-trinitarian rationalists, such as Sozini (in Poland) and Spanish Servetus. Their teachings emerged later in organised form in 18th Century England and New England. But, in the 1550s, all the residents of Geneva were required to sign a confession of faith, or leave the city. So when Servetus chose to enter the city in spite of Calvin having warned him not to, he was effectively signing his death warrant when he refused to recant.

A very sad fact about this is that his burning at the stake was but a logical outcome of the system that had been established there. The city had imposed upon it Calvin’s ideal of a State and Church organised largely on Old Testament patterns. The City Council had absolute power in matters religious as well as civil. Strict rules were imposed to regulate moral behaviour. The churches that had begun to grow up in obedience to New Testament teaching almost disappeared in the general organisation, for papal rule was replaced by that of the Reformer, and liberty of conscience was still withheld.

It could be reasonably speculated, however, that if the Protestants had not put Servetus to death, the Catholics most certainly would have, given half a chance.

The Pilgrim Church, E.H. Broadbent pp 224-5 (Penguin Classic, 1985 Ed.)


Calvin's involvement

Calvin's involvement and even leadership in having a man guilty of heresy put to death according to the civil laws of his day does not seem something that can be denied based on his personal letters.

Here is the one most often quoted as the strongest recorded statement from Calvin on the Servetus affair is a 1561 letter from Calvin to the Marquis Paet, high chamberlain to the King of Navarre, in which he says:

Honour, glory, and riches shall be the reward of your pains; but above all, do not fail to rid the country of those scoundrels, who stir up the people to revolt against us. Such monsters should be exterminated, as I have exterminated Michael Servetus the Spaniard.

This shows he openly admitted his involvement and direct leadership in the affair.

My opinion on Calvin's sinfulness

I think the question is not whether Calvin sinned or not, for he should have sought to remove the ability of the sate to punish heretics, but rather how big was his sin.

It is difficult for us to imagine a world where heretics were considered just like thieves and murderers liable to capital punishment as under the Old Testament. This does not excuse Calvin at all in my mind, but when we cast the first stone we are probably just as guilty ourselves in the unwarranted anger we have had against our neighbors.  

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, 'Raca,' is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, 'You fool!' will be in danger of the fire of hell. (NIV Matthew 5:22)

The sins of the world at that time appeared to have infected Calvin. I do not think we can defend him, or overly judge him. After all Calvin was just a man, and though pretty clever, I have never imagined him the most holy. I find him sometimes precocious and annoying on a personal level.  Even though I agree with much of what he wrote, I often feel as though I would not have liked him personally. Luther I feel I would have loved.

I say this a a long-term Calvinist who is not really surprised or bothered in finding out Calvin's guilt in this matter. We sometimes romanticize church leaders above the realm of sin, and clearly such views of men are ungodly. Furthermore at a time in history so different from our own, we need not fall into shock over their failings.  They would probably faint if they had a glimpse into the great sins of our generation.

I suppose some might not like my indifferent attitude but it comes from a man that believes in the total depravity of human nature, even more than Calvin. The sin of anyone does not surprise someone as skeptical as me, neither do I believe those who claim to be so much holier than Calvin and ready to 'cast the first stone.'

Let's keep in mind the greatest sin is rejecting the love of God in the gospel, either by our doctrine or by our actions. Servetus probably did it both ways, every day, but Calvin also failed terribly in some of his actions also, especially in this one.

Does it help to recall that King David was more guilty in his sin, as he first slept with the man's wife before 'arranging' his murder?

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    I agree 100% with your position. However, everything in this post after This shows he was guilty and unrepentant of his sinful involvement and direct leadership in the affair detracts from the quality of your answer by going off on a tangent. Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 18:40
  • @Mike: Thanks for the response. That's definitely not the first time I've heard that opinion. I didn't know that the topic was addressed in Calvin's letters; I think I'm going to do some reading there. For anyone interested, it looks like Google Books has multiple complete editions by various translators. Cheers. Commented Jul 30, 2012 at 19:58
  • @JBunyan - not sure if letters that he wrote that make him look bad will be in publications, you may have to dig a bit to find some good sources, but all the trouble in in different letters. Cheers.
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 1:50
  • @SanJacinto - You are right in a sense. I add the rest because those who seem to bring this up the most seem like they would be just as shocked that King David did even worse. I get the feeling that sometimes people infer the holy thoughts of men can be assaulted just because some that are famous for them are guilty of big sins, but that is 100% unbiblical. That' all my tangent was about. I do not suspect J Bunyan of this ulterior motive, but others might not be so mature who are not familiar with the Bible and the many failures of its saints - have big, big, sins.
    – Mike
    Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 2:09
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    @Mike Fair enough. It's pretty clear why you included it; it just seems to overpower the answer to the question. I hope if someone asks the question relating to what you spent most of your answer on that you answer it then, too. It's a good answer for that question, the clearest I've seen stated. Commented Jul 31, 2012 at 10:35

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