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I had occassion to come across some strange beliefs about John Calvin and Michael Servetus earlier this year. At one point when discussing Reformation theology with this group, I rather stupidly or naievly used the term “True Religion” which set some fires raging. For anyone who witnessed that discussion who didn’t not understand why I used that term, I suggest this quote of Thomas Watson’s gives a clear, concise explanation. But they sure did see Michael Servetus through rose-coloured spectacles while choosing to believe ill-founded propaganda about John Calvin. In this post I am setting a few things straight. The facts of which can easily be varified by various historical sources.
Isn’t that what most people are taught or hear? Isn’t that what the ill-informed or those who are strictly against Reformation Principles are happy to embrace as the truth as it often aids there anti-reformation beliefs? Didn’t John Calvin murder Michael Servetus, isn’t that another string to the bow of anti-Calvin-anti-Reformation lines of beliefs and thought?
Yet, what is the truth of these matters?
John Calvin himself far from having any power in Geneva was banished from it, by the authorties (the council in this case) for adhereing to strict church discipline and when he wasn’t able to enforce that, because the authorities denied him being able to do so he withdrew from adminstering the Lord’s Supper along with William Farrel and they were both banished. Both seen as spies for the French who had been bough in to Geneva to infiltrate and eventually over-throw it.
When after years in exile after his banishment the authorities in Geneva begged Calvin to return because of the moral decline it had taken, Calvin wrote in a letter to William Farrel with his former experiences in Geneva in mind, which had included his house being stoned, harassment and persecution: “Whenever I call to mind the wretchedness of my life in Geneva, how can it not be that my very soul must shudder at any proposals for my return?” Calvin endured his house being stoned and harassment etc, while suffering chronic ill health. The last thing anyone needs with his various maladies is external stress that can be avoided. These included but is not an exhaustive list: Gout, kidney stones, Tuberculosis, lying in bed was painful for him, eating was distasteful to him, wine was bitter to him.
But Calvin the powerful megalomaniac tyrant and dictator of Geneva, is what we often hear bandied about. Yet despite the charges that he had great wealth, Calvin wrote that he did not possess one foot of land and had not enough money to buy one acre, and said he was still using someone else’s furniture. “Neither the table at which we eat, nor the bed on which we sleep is my own” and neither did he own the house he lived in.
Michael Servetus though he had a brilliant mind and was the first man to map out the arterial system of the body being a medical doctor, was a heretic and a dangerous one. He was an anti-trinitarian who also translated in part his own edition of the Bible in which he stripped out from the Old Testament all prophecies of Christ. Calvin tried unsuccessfully to witness to Servetus throughout his life. If Michael Servetus had have had his way, he would not have just overthrown the Reformation before it even began he would have also done away with Roman Catholicism, and left a city and ultimately a fire to spread that left a world bereft of all faith. Eventually Servetus was arrested and tried and found guilty and sentenced to be executed by burning. Calvin pleaded and entreated the authorities to choose a more humane way of executing him than by fire. But Calvin had so little influence in the running of Geneva or sway with the authorities that even this plea went unanswered. If the man had have had the power to arrest and ultimately execute Servetus he would have had no problem in stating the form of execution to take place. But he had no power with them at all. He never held public office of any kind, he couldn’t arrest or sentence anyone.
So, the dictator of Geneva as many like to bandy about willy nilly about John Calvin is unfounded and frankly quite an ignorant and ill-informed, maybe in some cases willfully blind because to believe he was suits anti-reformation principles with Calvin at the helm of their antagonism cos Reformation faith bears his name.