“Stranger than fiction,” the old saying goes about the truth. The tales of history and the events of today prove this to be true, practically on a daily basis. This is the brief story of a man unique in all history: burned in effigy1 for heresy by the Catholics and burned in reality by the Protestants!
The sentence in the Catholic city of Vienne, France, that “he should be burned at a slow fire until his body was reduced to ashes” was carried out by the Protestant city of Geneva, Switzerland.2 And burned at the stake for what? The Protestant historian Roland Bainton would write in his book, “Travails of Religious Liberty” that “He put the adjective in the wrong place.”3
Truly, the imaginations of men cannot compare with the incredible deeds, good and bad, that men and women do when strong or violent passions and unforeseen circumstances cross paths. Yet it is at those very intersections that the innermost thoughts and intentions of a person’s heart are revealed for all to see. In fact, such times reveal what men live by.
Paul the apostle wrote in Romans 1 that; “The just will live by faith.”
In the hands of Martin Luther these words became the battle cry of the Protestant Reformation. Men like he and John Calvin shook the powers that be of the European world with their revolutionary doctrines of grace and faith. The world has never been the same since. In more ways than we realize these men shaped the world we live in, even to this day. Their words yet have the power to shape our thoughts and actions from thousands upon thousands of pulpits across the width and breadth of the world. What these men said can still make us comfortable or uncomfortable in our place in the world and in our faith before God.
One such fateful meeting of passions and circumstances took place in the “City of Refuge” over three hundred and fifty years ago. This was Geneva, the beautiful Swiss city in which many French Protestants found safety from persecution for cause of conscience in the first half of the 1500’s. They had fled there because there was no room for reform or protest in France, only obedience to the King and the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. It was worth a man’s life to disagree with them. The infamous Inquisition of the Roman Church was still very much alive and active in those days, still inquiring into the private beliefs of men, still confiscating all one’s possessions, still torturing, imprisoning, and still burning at the stake. Geneva was a place for dissenters to flee to from the ungodly terror of the persecution for cause of conscience. [See the box, Geneva – City of Refuge?]
Far off days now, to be sure, are August 13 to October 27, 1553... However, the aftermath of the three men who met at the trial and execution of a Spanish theologian and medical doctor for heresy endures. In ways obvious and not so obvious has left a legacy among us. What is God like? Why did he create man? What is the nature of the relationship between the church and the state? How does our religious belief affect our ideas of human guilt or innocence? Deep questions that we should all think about. These men did. If we don’t, all we may unwittingly be left with are their ideas. Maybe, on closer inspection, we would not want them.
Farel, John Calvin, and Michael Servetus were all well schooled and highly intelligent. Of the three, Servetus had the widest interests. He was the first to publish an accurate description of the pulmonary circulatory system. In addition, he also published a translation of Ptolemy’s ancient Greek text, Geography and a new Latin translation of the Bible.4
Yet instead of being a happy meeting of prodigious minds, the encounter of these three in Geneva became a brief, violent, and one-sided contest. On one side was the power of the state and of thousand year old laws against heresy. On the other side a lone man who could not surrender the truth as he saw it in his conscience. The only possible outcome was bloodshed, or in this case, ashes.
For the restless and inquisitive mind of Michael Servetus had done what thousands of others across Europe had done. He questioned the unquestionable. He questioned what it was literally a death sentence to oppose: the practice of infant baptism and the doctrine of the Trinity.5 Like the Anabaptists (those who baptize adults who had been baptized as infants), he simply could not see how an infant could have saving faith:
“To give baptism then to these children who have not experienced the mystery of regeneration is an abomination, a desolation of the Kingdom of Christ.”6
Because of such beliefs he was a hunted man most of his life, forced to live under an assumed name on a Continent where there was no freedom of religion anywhere. And among his many other beliefs, some would be unusual in any age. He held, for instance, that no one could commit serious [mortal] sin before the twentieth year, and that baptism, in imitation of the example of Christ, should be deferred until the thirtieth year!7 He was misguided about the profound doctrine of the Trinity, believing that the eternal Word of God dwelt just temporarily in the Savior and that one day only the Father would “exist.” This was his understanding of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15:28, “that God may be all in all.” [See box on the Trinity.]
There is no doubt that Michael Servetus had the wrong doctrine, yet he sought to do violence to no man. In fact, he devoted his life to relieving the suffering of others.
Of all the things Servetus knew, he did not know that Calvin had dreamed of the day when he would come to Geneva. He did not know that his prior correspondence with John Calvin had inflamed him with a “righteous” anger for his opinions and his condescending way of addressing him. He wrote William Farel about the letters and manuscripts he had received from Servetus:
Servetus has just sent me, together with his letters, a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word, for should he come, if my authority is of any avail I will not suffer him to get out alive.8
The question must be asked here: Why was the man with the good doctrine contemplating the death in advance (premeditation) of the man with the bad doctrine? Isn’t there something profoundly amiss about the countless stories of the heretics being put to death by the orthodox – the men with the “correct doctrine”? Should not incorrect doctrine make you a bad person, and not the other way around?
Even though Servetus was the personal physician of the Archbishop of Vienne, and therefore his exposure for heresy would be highly embarrassing to the Catholic authorities, Calvin did not then reveal his identity to the Inquisition. Seven years later he thought differently… What were the circumstances that changed his mind?
A friend of his had written to his Catholic cousin on February 26, 1553, mocking the Catholic authorities for letting such a heretic as Servetus live in their city. Somehow he was able to give them both the real and assumed names of Servetus. He was even able to give them the names of his publishers. Now he had to provide the proof.
Calvin was the only who had the evidence the Inquisition would need to connect Michel de Villeneuve, the name under which Servetus had been practicing medicine in Vienne for many years, to the infamous author of heresy, Michael Servetus. It was all there in the letters they had exchanged years before, as Servetus lectured Calvin about such things as infant baptism.
The heretic had just published the Restitution of Christianity in January of 1553. But the sheriff, on going to arrest the doctor, found him attending to the sickness of the French lieutenant governor, Maugiron. Could the esteemed doctor, known and honored for his care and compassion, be also the heretic?9
The Genevan friends of the Inquisition came through with the proof, as the Protestant Guillaume Trie wrote to his Catholic cousin, Antoine Arneys, in France, explaining how he done it:
All the rest is here right enough, the big book and the other writings of the same author, but I can tell you I had no little trouble to get from Calvin what I am sending… But I remonstrated with him and pointed out the embarrassing position in which I should be placed if he did not help me, so that in the end he gave me what you see.10
Saving one man from embarrassment handed another man over to the stake...
Yet Calvin was not so easily to be rid of his enemy as he thought, using this intermediary to do his dirty work. His very personal animosity was to be displayed before the world by some quirk of fate or justice (take your pick) by an utterly unexpected event. Michael Servetus escaped from the Inquisition in France and ended up, in all places, listening to John Calvin preach one Sunday morning in Geneva!
The reasons for such an unlikely move may never be known. Perhaps he hoped against hope that Geneva would be a “City of Refuge” for him too. Immediately, it was proven otherwise. “Certain brothers from France” identified him to Calvin, who caused him to be arrested by the magistrates.
It was the end of the line for Michael Servetus. Facing many charges and questioning by both civil and religious authorities (Calvin himself), he was convicted of only two offenses, both capital: denying infant baptism and the Trinity.
For writing about the things he deeply believed in, the judges of Geneva had the confidence to condemn him in the name of their god to be “bound and taken to Champel and there attached to a stake and burned with your book to ashes. And so you shall finish your days and give an example to others who would commit the like.”11
They wrote he deserved to die for dividing the church of God and thereby ruining many souls. This, of course, was exactly the charge the Catholic Inquisition made in their death sentences against Protestants and Anabaptists. For both, such spiritual ruin was tantamount to murder. The fact that both could not be right at the same time did not bother either the Protestants or the Catholics. The possibility that maybe neither were didn’t even occur to them. The endless possibilities of interpreting theological truths did not give them pause that perhaps, they shouldn’t enforce their way on others. [See box on Persecution for Cause of Conscience.]
The end was neither merciful nor swift. What was exacted of him “for setting yourself against the divine majesty” calls into profound question how those who could do such things know in any way, shape, or form the Prince of Peace.
“A crown of straw and leaves sprinkled with sulphur was placed upon his head. His body was attached to the stake with an iron chain. His book was tied to his arm. A stout rope was wound four or five times about his neck. He asked that it should not be further twisted. When the executioner brought the fire before his face he gave such a shriek that all the people were horror-stricken. As he lingered, some threw on wood. In a fearful waft he cried, "0 Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!” At the end of half an hour he died.”12
And now William Farel steps into our brief story. He accompanied Servetus to the stake, pleading with him “openly to admit his errors and confess that Christ is the eternal Son of God."
Do you see why Michael Servetus died?
The historian leaves us with a disquieting thought as he closes the book on the life and death of Michael Servetus.
The severity of Calvin was born of zeal for truth and even concern for the victim. Death itself seemed to him not too harsh a penalty for perversion of the truth of God. Today any of us would be the first to cast a stone against Calvin’s intolerance; and seldom do we reflect that we who are aghast at the burning of one man to ashes for religion do not hesitate for the preservation of our culture to reduce whole cities to cinders.13
He wrote those words four hundred years after Servetus was burned at the stake and eight years after the last of the firebombing (and atomic bombing) of civilians had ended in World War II. Dresden, Hamburg, Hiroshima, Tokyo – the deeds (except for Hiroshima and Nagasaki) are largely forgotten. The incineration of hundreds of thousands of non-combatants is written off as justice for the Holocaust, for China, for Korea. The uncomfortable facts of history, like the fact that Auschwitz was not bombed when German cities were, tell us nothing about our own motivations or that of our leaders.
It was all somehow, for the advancement of righteousness and even the glory of God. It is easier to see how Calvin and Farel’s misplaced confidence in defending “the majesty of God” obscured for them and their followers all the moral issues of hurt pride, anger and even murder. It is not so easy to see how such basic moral issues are obscured in our own day. One has to have a willingness to dissent from “the way things are” or at least the way we are told them to be, in order to step back and see.