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Question and Answer

John Calvin and Michael Servetus

Question:

I read that John Calvin was involved in the murder of Michael Servetus who rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Calvin lived in a different age and was a man for his time and a great theologian who studied the Scriptures. But why did he even consider the death penalty for Servetus?

Answer:

Thank you for this question. The way you have phrased it in large part contains its answer.

As you recognize, Calvin lived in different times than ours. That does not excuse his assent to the execution of Servetus but does help to explain how he could and yet be the godly man and the profound and edifying teacher and preacher of Scripture that he undeniably was, so that he continues to the present, nearly 500 years later, to be a great blessing to the church. Like all human beings, regardless of their time and place in history, he was, however deeply he was sanctified by God's Spirit, also a sinner and with sinful limitations, in this instance determined by the outlook of the culture of his day.

We should not accuse Calvin or, more accurately, the city government of Geneva at the time of "murder." Calvin was not directly involved with the execution; that was the decision of the government, with which he was sometimes, though not on this issue, in disagreement. The execution was not an act of personal vengeance but a lawful act, however unjust we would consider that law today. Serious heresy was deemed a capital crime, akin to how we would view treason in time of war. We should not lose sight of the fact that Servetus's denial of the Trinity was a serious heresy, deeply dishonoring to the Triune God and in its tendency destructive of the gospel and the salvation of sinners. The mistake of that time, which Calvin shared, was to view civil/state punishment as necessary for exercising discipline for serious spiritual error, a mistake that has subsequently been repudiated in Western societies (though still present today in many Islamic countries) by the separation of church and state.

I hope this will be of some help.


About Q&A

"Questions and Answers" is a weekly feature of the OPC website. At least one new question is posted each week, so there should always be something new here for you to read. (For those who would like to look at previous questions and answers, they will continue to be available as well.)

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The answers come from individual ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church expressing their own convictions and do not necessarily represent an "official" position of the Church, especially in areas where the Standards of the Church (the Scriptures and the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms) are silent.

Note that the "Questions and Answers" posted on the site have been edited—all personal references are removed, Scripture references may be added, and sometimes portions are expanded—to make the questions and answers more useful to a larger audience.

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