September 16, 2012 Q & A

John Calvin and Michael Servetus


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?


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.



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