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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 19 — Servetus comes to Geneva and is arrested

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Toleration—Servetus's Birth—Genius—Studies—Commission to Reform all Religions—Malignant Attacks on Christianity—Publishes his Restitution of Christianity—Sends the Book to Calvin—Its Doctrine Pantheism—Servetus Condemned to Death at Vienne—Escapes—Comes to Geneva—Is Imprisoned—His Indictment drawn by Calvin— Haughtiness of his Defence—Servetus and Calvin face to face— Indecencies and Blasphemies against Christianity—The Question at Geneva, Shall it be a Pantheistic Republic ruled by Servetus, or a Theocracy ruled by Calvin?

WE now come within the shadow of a great tragedy. But the horror which the act we are about to narrate awakens is, in truth, a homage to Protestantism. If a deed which not only called forth no condemnation from the age in which it was done, a few personal enemies of Calvin excepted, but which, on the contrary, was pronounced by the best and most enlightened men then living to be just and necessary, awakens our abhorrence—that abhorrence is, in fact, the measure of our advance in toleration since the sixteenth century. But it is Protestantism that we have to thank for that advance.

It is the melancholy and tragic story of Servetus which we are now to record. Michael Servetus [1] was a Spaniard, born in the same year as Calvin, 1509. Nature had endowed him with a lively but fantastic genius, an active but illogical mind, an inordinate ambition, and a defective judgment. [2] He studied with characteristic versatility law, divinity, physic, and some have said astrology. After a short but distinguished career as a lecturer on the physical sciences in Paris, [3] he ultimately established himself at Vienne, in Dauphine, as a medical practitioner. [4] In this profession he discovered superior skill, and in his first work, On the Errors of the Trinity (1531), he anticipated the great discovery of our own Harvey of the circulation of the blood. [5] His mind, speculative, daring, lawless, of the scholastic rather than the Reformation type, followed its bent, which was ethical, not physical.

He spent fully twenty years of his life in wandering up and down in Christendom, visiting Germany, Italy, Switzerland, venting his fancies and reveries, unsettling the minds of men, and offending every one he came in contact with by his pride, self-sufficiency, and dissimulation. [6] He believed that he possessed the power, and had received a commission, to remodel all knowledge, and establish the world on a new basis. The more fundamental doctrines of Christianity became the object of his settled dislike, and his most virulent attack. But it was against the doctrine of the Trinity mainly that his shafts were levelled. Romanism he had renounced in his youth, but neither did the Reformation satisfy his grand ideal.

Christianity, he held, had been lost at an early age, if indeed it ever had been fully promulgated to the world. Servetus undertook to restore and re-institute it. [7] About the year 1546 he wrote to Calvin from Vienne,?to the effect that the Reformer had stopped too soon, that he had preached as yet only a half-Reformation; and modestly offered to initiate him into his new system, and assign him the post of leader in that great movement by which mankind were to be led into a grander domain of truth. He accompanied his letter with a volume in MS., in which Calvin should see, he said, "stupendous and unheard-of things." [8] The unhappy man had virtually arrived at pantheism, the final goal of all who in these high matters forsake the path of Divine revelation.

Calvin saw in the "stupendous things" of Servetus only stupendous follies. Writing to Farel, 13th February, 1546, the Reformer said: "Servetus lately wrote to me, and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies, with the thrasonic boast that I should see something astonishing and unheard-of. He takes it upon him to come hither, if it is agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I will never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail." [9]

The eye of Calvin saw that the creed of Servetus was essential pantheism. He knew too that such a creed struck at the whole settlement of Church and State in Geneva, and would sweep away the basis on which had been placed the republic. Further, the Reformer foresaw that if Servetus should come to Geneva, and attempt propagating his doctrine, he would be placed under the painful necessity of choosing between a pantheistic and a theocratic republic, between Servetus and the Reformation. Sharing in the universal opinion of his age, that heresy is to be punished with the sword of the magistrate, and deeming this heresy to be, as indeed it was, subversive not only of the religious belief, but also the civil order of Geneva, Calvin did not hesitate to avow his preference for the Protestant over the pantheistic republic, and declared that should Servetus come to Geneva, he would use his influence that he should "not depart alive."

These words from any pen would fill us with horror, but conting, as they do, from the pen of Calvin, they inspire us with a double horror. And yet the truth is that we know of no Reformer of that age, not even Melancthon himself, who would not, in Calvin's position, most probably have written them: [10] Again we must repeat, they caused no horror to the age in which they were written; nay, they were the verdict of that age on the case of Servetus; and if it is impossible that ours could utter such a verdict, or the Protestant world of our day repeat the crime of the Protestant world of the sixteenth century, we see in this one of the proudest of the triumphs of that Protestantism which was then struggling into existence against the mighty opposing forces of Romanism on the one hand and of pantheism on the other.

In 1552, Servetus

published clandestinely at Vienne the MS. volume which he had sent to Calvin in 1546. It bore the title of Restitutio Christianismi, or "Christianity Restored." This led to his apprehension by the authorities of Vienne, where he was tried by the Inquisition. He managed to give his judges the slip, however, and was condemned in absence to be "burned alive, at a slow fire, till his body be reduced to a cinder." The award of the court was carried out by the substitution of the effigy of Servetus for Servetus himself. [11] Escaping from Vienne he came, of all places, to Geneva! "If ever poor fanatic thrust himself into the flames," says Coleridge, "it was Servetus."

"I know not what to say of him," exclaimed Calvin in astonishment, "except that he must have been seized with a fatal madness to precipitate himself upon destruction." He arrived in the middle of July, and took up his abode at the "Auberge de la Rose," near the lake.

Calvin had not induced Servetus to come to Geneva; he had in fact, by refusing him a safe-conduct, warned him off the territory of the republic; nevertheless, now that he was come, he did what the constitutional laws of Geneva required of him;—he reported his presence in the city to the Council, and demanded his apprehension. [12] Servetus was committed to prison on the 13th of August. The law required the accuser to go to prison with the accused till the charge should be so far substantiated as to warrant its being taken up by the public prosecutor. Nicholas de la Fontaine, a young student, and secretary to the Reformer, entered himself as accuser. [13] The articles of accusation, extracted from the writings of Servetus, were drawn up by Calvin, and presented next day to the tribunal.

Fontaine was unequal to the task of confronting so subtle and eloquent an opponent as Servetus. The Council saw this, and at its second meeting all the ministers were requested to appear. Calvin now at length stood face to face with his adversary. The Reformer's severe logic soon unmasked the real opinions of the man, and forced him to admit the frightful conclusions to which they led; but if he put forth all his power in arguing with Servetus, it was not to procure a conviction, but a recantation, and save the unhappy man from the flames. "No great danger hung over him," he declared, "if he could possibly have been brought to his senses." [14] "Would," he sorrowfully exclaimed at a later period—"Would that we could have obtained a recantation from Servetus, as we did from Gentilis!" [15]

It must be acknowledged that Servetus on his trial, both at Vienne and Geneva, showed neither courage nor truthfulness. At the former place he behaved badly indeed. He disowned his books, denied his handwriting, uttered repeatedly falsehoods on oath, and professed himself a son of his "holy mother the Church." Swollen with insolence and venting defiance while at liberty, he proved a very craven before the Inquisition. How different from the noble sincerity and courage of the martyrs of Protestantism, who at that very time were expiring amid the flames at Lyons! His behavior before the Council at Geneva was characterised by alternate insolence and cowardice. When confronted only with Nicholas de la Fontaine, he professed that he had not intended to blaspheme, and that he was ready to recant. [16] When Calvin was introduced, he broke into a tempest of rage, denounced the Reformer as his personal enemy, again and again called him a liar, and styled him a corrupter of the Word of God, a foe to Christ, a sorcerer, "Simon Magus." This coming after twenty years' vituperation and abuse, to which Calvin's reply had been a dignified silence, was more than the Reformer could bear, and he became heated in his turn and, as he himself said to Farel, "answered him as he deserved."

The scene revealed the man to his judges. The blasphemies which he avowed, and not less the haughtiness with which he defended himself, shocked and revolted them. The Trinity he styled "a three-headed Cerberus," [17] a hell-hound." Some of the suppositions he made to discredit the Incarnation were simply indecent, and we pass them by. "If the angels," he said, "were to take the body of asses, you must allow they would be asses, and would die in their asses' skins. So too you must allow that, on your supposition being right, God himself might become an ass, and the Holy Spirit a mule. Can we be surprised if the Turks think us more ridiculous than mules and asses?" Calvin truly divined the deeper error beneath these—the denial of a personal God—that is, of God. "His frenzy was such," says the Reformer, writing to Farel, [18] "that he did not hesitate to say that the Divinity dwells even in devils. The Godhead is essentially communicated to them as it is to wood and to stones." "What, unhappy man," replied Calvin, "if any one treading upon this floor should say to you that he was treading your God under his feet, would you not be scandalised at such an assertion?" He answered, "I, on the contrary, do not doubt but that this footstool, or anything else which you may point out, is the substance of God." When it was again objected to him, "Then will the devil actually be God," he answered with a peal of laughter, "And can you doubt it?"

We have narrated in former chapters the war now waging between Calvin and the Council of Geneva. The First Syndic, Perrin, was the Reformer's mortal enemy. Other members of the Council, less influential, were equally the determined opponents of the Reformer, and were laboring for his overthrow. It was, in a word, the crisis of Calvin's power in Geneva—that is, of all the Reformed laws and institutions of the republic. M. Rilliet of

Geneva, in his Life and Trial of Servetus, [19] has conjectured that what tempted Servetus to enter Geneva at that time was his knowledge of the state of Parties there, and the hope of replacing Calvin, then in daily danger of banishment from the city. Be this as it may, the fact is undoubted that the Libertines perceived the advantage they might derive by playing Servetus off against the Reformer; and Servetus, on the other hand, was aware of the advantage that might accrue to him from strengthening the Libertines against Calvin. As the battle went with Calvin, as the Libertines seemed now to prevail against him, and now to fall before him, Servetus was contemptuous and defiant, or timid and craven. But the tacit union of the two helped to bring on the ruin of both.

The patronage of the pantheist by the Libertines wrought ill for Servetus in the end, by opening the eyes of the Council to the real iussues at stake in the trial. The acquittal of Servetus, they saw, meant the expulsion of Calvin, and the triumph of the Libertines. This put the personal interference of the Reformer in the matter out of court, even if his influence had not at that moment been at zero. The magistrates felt that it was a question of life and death for the republic, and that they must decide it irrespective altogether of the wishes of Calvin, and on the high grounds of the interests of the State. [20]


Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, September 20th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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