*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 27th of October 2021. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org, I’m Dan van Voorhis.
It was on this day in 1553 that Michael Servetus, a condemned heretic, was burned at the stake by the Genevan city council. You may be familiar with this event if you are familiar with the life of Reformer John Calvin.
Imagine this: a group of young people studying theology and debating predestination. Someone mentions Calvin as the reformer par excellance and Geneva as a model for a godly city. “Ha!” says one of the young people, “I read that he murdered a guy”. And really, I think we might agree that a murderous Reformer is not a good reformer.
And if the misleading statement that “Calvin killed a dude” is your guide, you might want to make Servetus a hero and a martyr for religious liberty. This happens.
Now imagine a conference of very committed Calvinists and someone asks about the Servetus affair and the speaker assures the crowd that this is what they did back then and Servetus deserved it (this actually happened btw).
A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Let’s try to give some nuance to this, often silly, debate.
Servetus was born in Spain in 1511 and was noted as both very intelligent and very precocious. He went to University at 13 and studied medicine and law. He was apparently impressive as he was invited to join the entourage of Emperor Charles V as a page. And then something happened. The eccentric Servetus went to Geneva and met with the Reformers Johannes Oecolampadius and Martin Bucer. This encouraged Servetus to study theology. And he was willing to believe, with the other Reformers, that the church had erred. And as this opened pandora’s box across Europe it lead Servetus to read the Bible and assert that the church had also erred on its teaching regarding the Trinity. After all, the word trinity is not in the Bible.
It seems just as with our fictional account of college students debating, a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing.
Servetus publishes these ideas and others and becomes a wanted man across Europe. He is imprisoned in Vienna and manages to escape. One day as Calvin is preaching at his Genevan church, Servetus takes a seat in the front row. Calvin and Servetus had gone to school together and had exchanged letters. But the exchange became acrimonious after Calvin stopped responding to Servetus’s letters. Servetus sent some 20 more letters to Calvin. On top of this erratic behavior, Servetus would have known that Geneva of all places wasn’t safe for him. It has been suggested by at least one biographer of Servetus that he had a radical apocalyptic death wish. And denying the Trinity openly anywhere in the 16th century was asking for a death sentence.
Remember: heresy wasn’t just being wrong. It was being obstinate in your defiance of church doctrine and authority. And the civil magistrates saw this as a grave moral danger possibly able to undermine society. The penalty was in Geneva what it was elsewhere: death.
In 1553 it is important to remember that Calvin didn’t have a hold on Geneva the way he would in a few years. The Genevan city council did not want Calvin to decide the fate of Servetus as Calvin and Servetus were known to have bad blood between them. Secondly, the council was trying to curb Calvin’s power and influence and giving him the authority to punish citizens by death would not exactly curb his power.
Calvin seemed ambiguous as to what he wanted to happen. Calvin had a temper and we can read his writings, especially personal letters, and feel the wrath he had for theologians he perceived leading his flock astray. But he also commented that he wished that Servetus might just be imprisoned for life. But it wasn’t his call. Calvin suggested that Servetus be mercifully beheaded instead of painfully burned at the stake. But it wasn’t his call. Michael Servetus, the eccentric and seemingly unstable provocateur was burned to death on the 27th of October in 1553.
Servetus has become something of a mascot for religious pluralism. The Servetus Affair provoked writings within the decade suggesting that killing heretics should be abandoned. Servetus was a strange guy, Calvin could be bullheaded and a bit of a bully but the story is one of the slow transitions from the Medieval world to modernity and different approaches to questions of heresy and pluralism.
The reading comes from Romans 14:
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. 2 Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3 Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 27th of October 2021 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who was just camping. In October. In Wisconsin. He is Christoper Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who when the temperature hits 65 starts putting on layers. I am Dan van Voorhis
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.