Geneva’s execution of the heretic Michael Servetus is often referred to as a point of shame for Reformed people today. But should it be? The modern Reformed insist that Reformed theology is not tainted by its history of religious intolerance, yet none-the-less consider it a blight on our history that we have moved past. But our Reformed forebearers did not think this way. We have lost our Reformed heritage and biblical understanding of the civil magistrate and the proper civil use of the Law. American Presbyterians in 1788 changed (among other things) the Westminster Confession’s chapter about the doctrine of the civil magistrate to make it more pluralistic and to be more consistent with the religious “liberty” of the upcoming US Constitution. The original Westminster Confession states that the Christian civil magistrate “has authority, and it is his duty, to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordainances of God duly settled, administrated, and observed” (WCF 23:3, cf. Isaiah 49:23, Psalm 122:9, Ezra 7:23-28, Leviticus 24:16, Deuteronomy 13:5-6&12, 2 Kings 18:4, 1 Chronicles 13:1-8, 2 Kings 24:1-25, 2 Chronicles 34:33, 2 Chronicles 15:12-13).
Let’s examine our modern embarrassment over Servetus’ execution in light of the following quotes from our Reformed forebearers:
“It was justice, not cruelty, yea mercy to the Church of God, to take away the life of Servetus, who used such spirituall and diabolick cruelty to many thousand soules, whom he did pervert, and by his Booke, does yet lead into perdition.”
—Samuel Rutherfurd, A Free Disputation Against Pretended Liberty of Conscience. (1649).
“For punishment was most deservedly inflicted on Servetus at Geneva, not because he was a sectary, but a monstrous compound of mere impiety and horrid blasphemy, with which he had for the whole period of thirty years, by word and writing, polluted both heaven and earth.”
-Theodore Beza, The Life of John Calvin.
“Ye will not easily admit that Servetus was convicted of blasphemy; for if so be, ye must be compelled to confess (except that ye will refuse God) that the sentence of death executed against him was not cruelty; neither yet that the judges who justly pronounced that sentence were murderers nor persecutors; but that this death was the execution of God’s judgment, and they the true and faithful servants of God, who, when no other remedy was found, did take away iniquity from amongst them. That God hath appointed death by his law, without mercy, to be executed upon the blasphemers, is evident by that which is written, Leviticus 24.”
“I know that many have wished that you had not defended this principle; but many also thank you, and among others our church. Urbanus Regius has long ago proved, in a work of his own, and all the ministers of Luneberg agree with him, that heretics, when they are blasphemers, ought to be punished. There are also many other pious men who think the same, and consider that such offenders ought not only to be silenced, but to be put to death. Do not repent therefore of what you have done: the Lord will uphold your righteous efforts. I know that your disposition is not cruel, and that you will favour no barbarity. Who knows not, that a boundary must be set to things of this kind? But how it could be possible to spare such a man as Servetus, that serpent of all heresies, that most obdurate of men, I see not.”
—Henry Bullinger, cited in Paul Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin, the Great Reformer: Volume II, trans. Henry Stebbing (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), 234.
“[Phillip Melanchthon] fully and repeatedly justified the course of Calvin and the Council of Geneva, and even held them up as models for imitation! In a letter to Calvin, dated Oct. 14, 1554, nearly one year after the burning of Servetus, he wrote:
“Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your book, in which you have clearly refuted the horrid blasphemies of Servetus; and I give thanks to the Son of God, who was … [the awarder of your crown of victory] in this your combat. To you also the Church owes gratitude at the present moment, and will owe it to the latest posterity. I perfectly assent to your opinion. I affirm also that your magistrates did right in punishing, after a regular trial, this blasphemous man.”
A year later, Melanchthon wrote to Bullinger, Aug. 20, 1555: —
“Reverend and dear Brother: I have read your answer to the blasphemies of Servetus, and I approve of your piety and opinions. I judge also that the Genevese Senate did perfectly right, to put an end to this obstinate man, who could never cease blaspheming. And I wonder at those who disapprove of this severity.”
Three years later, April 10, 1557, Melanchthon incidentally (in the admonition in the case of Theobald Thamer, who had returned to the Roman Church) adverted again to the execution of Servetus, and called it “a pious and memorable example to all posterity.”
-Philip Schaf, History of the Christian Church: Volume 7: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 706.
“I have nothing to say of him, except that he was the very son of the devil, whose pestilential and frightful doctrine should be everywhere hunted down; and that the magistrate who condemned him to death is not to be blamed, seeing that he gave no sign of improvement, and that his blasphemies were beyond endurance.”
-Peter Martyr Vermigli, cited in Paul Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin, the Great Reformer: Volume II, trans. Henry Stebbing (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), 234.
“A year before [Ulrich Zwingli’s] death, he said this to John Oecolampadius, who had complained about the dangerous Arian teachings of Servetus, which denied that Christ is the eternal God: “This must not be endured in the church of God, therefore do what you can to prevent the blasphemy from getting abroad, to the injury of Christianity.”
-Ulrich Zwingli, cited in Paul Henry, The Life and Times of John Calvin, the Great Reformer: Volume II, trans. Henry Stebbing (London: Whittaker and Co., 1849), 171.
“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?”
-John Calvin, cited in “Calvin’s Defence of the Death Penalty for Heretics” in Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church: Volume VII: Modern Christianity, the Swiss Reformation, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1907), 791.
Commenting on this quotation by Calvin, Schaff states, “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.”
“[Martin] Bucer, who stands third in rank among the Reformers of Germany, was of a gentle and conciliatory disposition, and abstained from persecuting the Anabaptists in Strassburg. He knew Servetus personally, and treated him at first with kindness, but after the publication of his work on the Trinity, be refuted it in his lectures as a “most pestilential book.” He even declared in the pulpit or in the lecture-room that Servetus deserved to be disembowelled and torn to pieces. From this we may infer how fully he would have approved his execution, had he lived till 1553.”
“Peter Martyr called [Servetus] “a genuine son of the devil,” whose “pestiferous and detestable doctrines” and “intolerable blasphemies” justified the severe sentence of the magistracy.”
“As regards the case of Servetus, the churches and magistrates of Zürich, Schaffhausen, Basel, and Bern, on being consulted during his trial, unanimously condemned his errors, and advised his punishment, but without committing themselves to the mode of punishment…The judgments of the magistrates and ministers of Zürich, Schaffhausen, Basel, and Bern are printed in Calvin’s Opera, VIII. 808-823 (in German and Latin). The judgment of the pastors of Zürich, dated Oct. 2, 1553, is also inserted in Calvin’s Defensio, ibid. fol. 555-558.”
“Bern, which had advised moderation in the affair of Bolsec two years earlier, judged more severely in the case of Servetus, because he “had reckoned himself free to call in question all the essential points of our religion,” and expressed the wish that the Council of Geneva might have prudence and strength to deliver the Churches from “this pest.” Thirteen years after the death of Servetus, the Council of Bern executed Valentino Gentile by the sword (Sept. 10, 1566) for an error similar to but less obnoxious than that of Servetus, and scarcely a voice was raised in disapproval of the sentence.”
“[William] Farel defended death by fire, and feared that Calvin in advising a milder punishment was guided by the feelings of a friend against his bitterest foe.”
“To this height of atheism and blasphemy had Satan wrought up the spirit of the man [Servetus]; so that I must say he is the only person in the world, that I ever read or heard of, that ever died upon the account of religion, in reference to whom the zeal of them that put him to death may be acquitted.”
-John Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae; Or, The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined, 41.
“They who traduce the punishment inflicted upon the most impure Servetus as unjust and cruel, that from it they may excite hatred against the distinguished magistracy of Geneva and especially against that great man of God, Calvin, have never sufficiently weighed the atrocity of the crime.
“(1) It was not a simple heresy lying concealed in the heart about one or another head of faith, but a complicated heresy, the basest of all, bursting forth with regard to the principal heads of Christianity and especially the adorable mystery of the Trinity, which that wicked man blasphemously did not blush to call (I shudder repeating it) “the three headed dog” with many other horrible blasphemies.
“(2) Not once and transistorily, but often and for a long time (namely for 30 years), he did not desist from disseminating this deadly poison; not in one place only, but in many parts of Europe; not only with abusive mouth, but also in most virulent writings against warnings and interdicts frequently repeated.
“(3) Calvin did not approach the matter except sorrowfully; and while all other means had been tried in vain to overcome his obstinacy and recall him to repentance, still he could have escaped the punishment, if he had wished. “No danger of a heavier punishment pressed,” says Calvin, “if in any way he had been curable. It would have been allowed him to escape punishment even by moderation alone” (Fidelis Expositio Errorum…Serveti [CR 36.480]).
“(4) Nothing was done here rashly and precipitately by the magistrate, but all the circumstances were maturely weighed in the fear of God and not without a consultation also with the most distinguished chiefs of Reformed Switzerland, who acknowledged the equity of the judgment and approved it by their votes.
“(5) Bucer judged that “he deserved to be torn asunder.” Melanchthon affirms that “the Genevan magistrates did right for killing this blasphemer after a regular trial.” When Grotius, however, endeavors to throw the whole blame of this punishment upon Calvin, calling him with scurrility “the burner of Servetus,” he boldly calumniates him against the faith of the whole history and the testimony of all writers, who assert that Calvin did what it was his duty to do, that he might be convinced of this unnatural and dreadful heresy and return from his pestiferous error to bring forth better fruit. But that he prompted the magistrate to burn him, neither do they anywhere say, nor is it confirmed by any proof. Nay, it is evident that with the college of pastors, he tried to dissuade them from this kind of punishment; but the magistrate was horrified at so many blasphemies and did not wish to deal with him mildly. But who wonders that the punishment of that devoted head, which is deservedly placed among the standard-bearers of an impious sect, displeased the Socinian?”
-Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, volume 3, pgs. 335-336.
Theodore Beza (as well as John Knox) wrote an entire book defending the execution, “Concerning the Punishment of Heretics by the Civil Magistrate.” At the time of this post it is currently being translated into English. If you would like to support the translation visit this link: