The Magisterial Reformation: Part 10

  1. The Execution of Servetus
  2. Reaction to the Execution
  3. Victory over Political Opponents
  4. Summary and Conclusion

In the midst of the controversy between Calvin and the magistrates regarding who had the right to decide on the issue of excommunication, an unexpected and significant event occurred. It was the affair relating to Michael Servetus. I wrote about the execution of Servetus in Chapter 3, but now we will look at this matter in greater detail.

Servetus had written works challenging the doctrine of the Trinity, which were considered heretical by both Catholics and Protestants. Servetus tried to influence the reformers in both Basle and Strasbourg, but was met with opposition to his views, and the Catholic Church had actually issued orders for his arrest. He therefore changed his name (to Michael Villeneuve) to avoid detection, and went to study medicine in Paris, where he excelled as a student of medicine. Servetus then entered into correspondence with Calvin, which bore no fruit at all. In fact, he had earlier invited Calvin to Paris for them to meet there, but then he himself did not show up. Calvin wrote to Farel about this character on 13th February 1546, stating: “Servetus lately wrote to me, and coupled with his letter a long volume of his delirious fancies, with the Thrasonic boast, that I should see something astonishing and unheard of. He takes it upon him to come hither, if it be agreeable to me. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he shall come, I shall never permit him to depart alive, provided my authority be of any avail.” (Italics mine.)

As early as 1546, Calvin had already had enough of Servetus and his false teachings, and he plainly says he would be willing to ensure his death were he to venture into Geneva. This was written to his close friend Farel, with whom he could be honest and open. There’s nothing here to suggest he was using the language of exaggeration, although others have offered that interpretation, but the events that follow give us no reason to believe that he did not mean what he said to Farel in that letter.

What is certain, is that it was Calvin who had him immediately arrested upon his arrival; it was Calvin’s friend and brother who both represented surety at the initial stages of the trial; it was Calvin who drew up the theological case against him; Calvin did nothing to try and prevent his execution, except to have it changed from burning to beheading; and it was Calvin who after Servetus’ death wrote a book defending the execution of heretics. All these facts show that his words to Farel about Servetus were no idle threat or innocent exaggeration on Calvin’s part.

But let us continue with the story. Servetus had to keep his true identity hidden and was working as a medical doctor in the French city of Vienne, which was under Catholic control. While in Vienne, he again sent correspondence to Calvin, troubling him with his teachings regarding the Trinity. This was in 1553. However, at that time it was made known to the Catholic authorities that they had a heretic in their midst, but they needed evidence to that effect. As it turned out, Calvin was one of the people who could verify that the man going under a different name was actually the heretic, Servetus. Calvin was approached, and he let himself be persuaded to give such evidence and thus expose Servetus to the Catholic authorities and to the certain punishment of death by being burnt at the stake. Upon receiving the evidence from Calvin, the Catholic authorities immediately arrested Servetus, but he managed to escape from prison while still under investigation. In his absence, the Catholics sentenced him to be burned alive in a slow fire. This was in June 1553. Some have argued that this incident, in which Calvin exposed Servetus to the Catholic authorities, also showed that Calvin did not mind seeing Servetus killed for his continual heresies.

After his escape, Servetus was on his route to Italy when he decided to visit Geneva. Why did he stop over in Geneva when it was not the most direct route? He claimed that he was only going to stay for one night and had already booked his transport by boat to leave the next day. Perhaps his curiosity and desire to meet and spar with the great Calvin had got the better of him.

In Geneva, Servetus attended the church where Calvin was preaching. Calvin recognised him, and it was Calvin who then had him immediately arrested; and it was Calvin’s secretary, Nicolas la Fontaine, and his brother Antoine, who were, in turn, placed in prison in the initial stages of the trial as surety in case the charges should prove false. This was the requirement of the legal procedure in Geneva. It was also Calvin who drew up a list of accusations on theological points for the case against Servetus. The trial proper began in the middle of August.

The prosecutor for the council was Pierre Tissot, but after two days, a substitute, Philibert Berthelier, stood in for him. However, Berthelier was among those who opposed Calvin’s austere measures in Geneva. The next day Calvin complained to the council that Berthelier was being too lenient on Servetus, and so Tissot resumed as prosecutor. This was politics at play. The uncle of Calvin’s secretary acted as prosecuting counsel against Servetus. At every stage, we see that Calvin was the instigator and a prime mover in this process to incriminate Servetus with the charge of heresy. Without Calvin’s intervention, Servetus could have left Geneva unharmed – if had genuinely intended on leaving the next day.

The thrust of the argument of the prosecution was to show that the teachings of Servetus were heretical. This was a critical point, as according to Roman Law contained in the Justinian Code, to teach rebaptism, or against the Trinity, the punishment was death – heresy was a capital crime. (The Justinian Code was formulated in the 6th century AD during Emperor Justinian’s rule.) It was the Justinian Code that the leading Protestant reformer in Germany, Melanchton, made reference to (as well as Leviticus 24:16) to press his case for the execution of heretics. (Corpus Reformatorum, pp.198,199).

Servetus himself had complained to the council (September 15) that Calvin was using the Justinian code against him. He complained: “You see that Calvin is at the end of his rope, not knowing what to say and for his pleasure wishes to make me rot in prison. The lice eat me alive, my clothes are all torn, and I have nothing for change, neither jacket or shirt, but a bad one. I have addressed you another petition which was according to God, and to impede it Calvin sites Justinian. He is in a bad way to quote against me what he does not himself credit…” (Cited Bainton, Hunted Heretics, p. 197.) There could be only one reason for citing the Justinian Code – and that was to secure a death penalty.

This is part of Calvin’s letter to Farel, written on 20th August: “…We have now new business in hand with Servetus. He intended perhaps passing through this city; for it is not yet known with what design he came. But after he had been recognized, I thought that he should be detained. My friend Nicolas summoned him on a capital charge, offering himself as security according to the lex talionis. On the following day he adduced against him forty written charges. He at first sought to evade them. Accordingly we were summoned…At length the Senate pronounced all the charges proven. Nicolas was released from prison on the third day, having given up my brother as his surety…I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed upon him; but I desire that the severity of the punishment may be mitigated.” (Italics mine).

Calvin again expresses his hope that Servetus will be put to death. He even admits that it was a capital charge that was brought against Servetus, that is, one that incurred the death penalty. In practice, the last words of Calvin in the quote meant that Calvin would request that Severtus was beheaded instead of being burnt – and that was exactly what Calvin did petition for before the execution. Calvin at no time asked the council to commute the death penalty. Farel, in replying to this letter, took the last sentence to mean that Calvin wanted to spare Servetus the death penalty, and rebuked Calvin for suggesting anything less than death for Servetus. (8th Sept. 1553. Calvin Opera, tom. ix. p. 71. ) As we have already seen, all the well-known leading Protestant reformers of the 16th Century were men of murderous intent.  

The trial proved to be long and wearisome. Part of the problem for it dragging on was the political tensions and infighting that was going on between Calvin and the civic authorities, the latter always seeking to assert their authority over Calvin, and to his disadvantage.

Regarding the actual legal proceedings against Servetus, Calvin took no part. But as we have seen, his interventions and involvement played a crucial and integral part in Servetus’s arrest and the charges brought against him. Politics and the continuing power struggle between the councils and Calving were at play in these matters. According to T. H. L. Parker, the Libertines were wanting to keep Calvin at arm’s length concerning the proceedings to minimize his say; and they also encouraged Servetus to stand up to Calvin, which Servetus gladly did, taking advantage of the rivalry between the council and Calvin. (Parker, John Calvin, p. 151, 152).

As the case of Servetus as a heretic was well-known to the Catholics, there was no way the council wanted to see Servetus let off the hook, for this would have made them subject to the accusation that the Protestants habour heretics. But neither was the council keen to let Calvin have his way in the matter. They realised that Calvin was out to brand Servetus as a heretic and that he would seek a severe punishment.

Calvin was involved in exchanges and discussions with Servetus while in prison, as a result of which Calvin and the ministers submitted articles accusing Servetus of heresy. It is clear that Calvin was playing a definite and determined part in the conviction of Servetus as a heretic. Servetus then made accusations against Calvin, to which Calvin made a vehement defence. As the case dragged on, a certain impasse was reached. The council was not going to depend on Calvin’s direction in making a decision about any appropriate punishment. As they had done in the case of Bolsec, so now the council decided to seek the advice of other Reformed Swiss cities. One reason for this was that Servetus had claimed that reformers in those cities agreed with him.

The Council made the following statement on the 21st of August: “Inasmuch as the case of heresy of M. Servetus vitally affects the welfare of Christendom, it is resolved to proceed with his trial; and also to write to Vienne to know why he was imprisoned, and how he escaped; and after that, when all is ascertained, to write to the magistrates of Berne, of Basle, of Zurich, of Schaffhausen, and other Churches of the Swiss, to acquaint them with the whole.” (Rilliet, Albert, Calvin and Servetus, 1846; pp. 122,133)

As in the case with Bolsec, the Genevan council was side-stepping Calvin and requesting the advice of other leading reformers. We saw how this resulted in a judgement that was very mild for Bolsec but that was to Calvin’s great disadvantage. Calvin could only be frustrated by another such move on the part of the Genevan council.

Indeed, Calvin was fiercely against this decision, and complained to Bullinger in Zurich, saying: “Our Council will, on an early day, send the opinions of Servetus to your city, to obtain your judgment regarding them. Indeed they cause you this trouble, despite our remonstrances; but they have reached such a pitch of folly and madness, that they regard with suspicion whatever we say to them. So much so, that were I to allege that it is clear at mid-day, they would forthwith begin to doubt of it.” (Calvin to Bullinger, 7 Sept. 1553. Italics mine)

Calvin reveals a number of very significant things in this letter. He clearly says that he actually protested to the council about seeking outside advice regarding the guilt of Servetus and an appropriate punishment. He states that this step of asking advice from the Swiss cities is simply to do with the council’s ongoing animosity to him personally. Calvin was highly annoyed at this decision and took it as an action of defiance against him. One thing this clearly shows is that Calvin was not some kind of neutral, passive bystander in the Servetus affair, as some would mistakenly suggest. He had a particular interest in an outcome that vindicated him against Servetus, and that suitably punished the latter. But the crucial question is, why should Calvin balk and feel thwarted by this action of the council? The answer is that he realised that the council, in using this strategy, may be seeking an outcome that did not align itself with his wishes or expectations.

We need to recall the case of Bolsec to understand this. Bolsec had attacked Calvin’s teaching on predestination in no uncertain terms, and was immediately arrested. During the investigation of Bolsec, Geneva consulted the other Swiss cities – just as it was now doing in the case of Servetus – and this had brought an answer from them that was not particularly condemning of Bolsec. Calvin was annoyed and exasperated at the leniency of the Swiss cities towards Bolsec; he was simply ousted from Geneva, but could carry on criticising Calvin from Bern! This caused Calvin a great deal of frustration and also tension between him and Bullinger at that time.

Now, in this situation with Servetus, Calvin’s feared a similar scenario, where there would be a ‘soft’ response to Geneva’s request from the other Swiss cities. At every stage, we see Calvin intervening and exhorting others so that Servetus did not get let off except with a severe, if not the severest of penalties.

The next day after writing to Bullinger complaining about the council’s request for advice, Calvin writes to Simon Sulzer, the leading reformer in Basle to try to influence him as to the guilt of Servetus. He writes:

“It was he whom that faithful minister of Christ, Master Bucer of holy memory, in other respects of a mild disposition, declared from the pulpit to be worthy of having his bowels pulled out, and torn to pieces…”. (Italics mine.)

Calvin is at pains to highlight what a heretical scoundrel Servetus is by stating that even the mild-mannered reformer, Bucer, wanted Servetus ripped apart – and he even said so publicly from the pulpit! Calvin continues:

“He at length, in an evil hour, came to this place, when, at my instigation, one of the Syndics ordered him to be conducted to prison…we see how very inactive those are whom God has armed with the sword, for the vindication of the glory of his name.” (Italics mine.)

Again, Calvin is here remonstrating to the reformer in Basle that Christian magistrates are not being vigorous enough in punishing heresy – all this in the context of complaining about Servetus. He goes on to say:

“Seeing that the defenders of the Papacy are so bitter and bold on behalf of their superstitions, that in their atrocious fury they shed the blood of the innocent, it should shame Christian magistrates, that in the protection of certain truth, they are entirely destitute of spirit. I certainly confess that nothing would be less becoming, than for us to imitate their furious intemperance. But there is some ground for restraining the impious from uttering whatever blasphemies they please with impunity.” (Calvin to Sulzer, 8th September 1553. Italics mine.)

Geneva had sought advice from the Swiss cities, and Calvin followed this up by writing to them himself as well, in an attempt to prevent an insipid response from them and to stir them and push for a severe sentence against Servetus. In fact, Calvin sets out very clearly in the letter what an evil influence Servetus has had on others, and uses scripture to virtually implore Sulzer to advocate strong action against Servetus. Calvin is zealously attempting to influence the ‘jury’! There is no language of mitigation or moderation here. Servetus is to be condemned as a heretic – and punished accordingly.

Some have suggested that Calvin really took no part in the process and that things were decided by the council of Geneva and the other Swiss cities; they maintain that Calvin essentially had no influence on the proceedings against Servetus. However, given his writings and actions related above, it is certainly untrue that Calvin just sat back and passively let things take their course. By his participation and actions in a number of different ways, Calvin sought to keep up the momentum for a severe punishment against Servetus; and in the end, we have Calvin’s own statements of murderous intent. The idea that Calvin was outside the process and detached is belied by the facts. The fact that the council continued to try and thwart Calvin, as it had been doing for years, does not alter the fact that Calvin was pursuing the severest of punishments for Servetus, and we see him in a state of almost desperation and frustration when he felt the council was trying to side-step him.

When the responses came back to the Genevan council, the verdict was clear. Servetus was guilty of heresy. And the punishment? The Swiss cities would not commit themselves to specifying the kind of punishment Servetus should receive, and left that decision to Geneva. However, Bern suggested that if things could not be resolved with Servetus, then he should be put in prison so that his influence could be neutralised. Why did Calvin not pick up on this and request that the death penalty be commuted to indefinite imprisonment? But there is no record of him having done so. On the other hand, the condemnation of the Swiss churches against Servetus as a heretic was very emphatic, saying that it was an opportunity to give a blow against heresy, and to rid the church of such a rogue. 

Calvin expressed his satisfaction about the verdict of the Swiss cities to Farel: “The messenger has returned from the Swiss Churches. They are unanimous in pronouncing that Servetus has now renewed those impious errors with which Satan formerly disturbed the Church, and that he is a monster not to be borne. Those of Basel were judicious. The Zurichers were the most vehement of all; for they not only censure in severe terms on the atrocity of his impieties, but also exhorted our Senate to severity. They of Schaffhausen will agree…Caesar the comedian [Ami Perrin]…went up to the assembly in order to free that wretch from punishment. Nor was he ashamed to ask that inquiry might be made at the [Council of the] Two Hundred. However, he was without doubt condemned. He will be led forth to punishment tomorrow. We endeavoured to alter the mode of his death, but in vain.” (Calvin to Farel 26th Oct. 1553. Italics mine.)

Let us first notice that Calvin states that he and the clerics endeavoured to change only the ‘mode of death’ for Servetus – not to have it commuted to something less. The outcome of the death penalty for Servetus is consistent with all that Calvin wrote and did during this whole process. It is also clear that in this letter there is an element of glee and delight at the response of the Swiss churches in that they advised a severe punishment. Similarly, there is a note of triumph as he relates how Ami Perrin’s attempt to commute the death penalty and even ‘free the wretch from punishment’ was totally thwarted. Calvin would have been furious if that ‘wretch’ had been freed. Like the Catholics of his time, Calvin did not understand the scripture that says, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). Calvin believed it was right and just that the ‘Church’ punish heretics and put them to death.

Perrin had tried to intervene to stop the case or thwart the process, and asked the matter be referred to the Council of the Two Hundred for a decision, but his attempt failed, much to the obvious satisfaction of Calvin. However, Perrin might have also been motivated by a desire to spite Calvin in his attempts to free Servetus. The council gave its verdict that Servetus was to be burnt at the stake, stating that the strong responses from the Swiss churches really left no other option in view of Servetus’s heretical teachings. Calvin and the ministers asked that this should be changed to death by beheading, but the request was refused. Perhaps this is another instance of the council asserting its authority over Calvin. But at no stage did Calvin make an intervention that Servetus should not be punished with death. And whether the reason Calvin wanted the penalty changed to beheading was one of compassion, or whether it was because of an instinct that the actual burning of person might not be good PR for the Reformation, is a matter of debate.

Upon Servetus’s request, Calvin went to visit him in prison before the execution. But the encounter proved fruitless. Calvin gave his version of the visit, and it ends with these words: “So, following the rule of Paul, I withdrew from the heretic who was self-condemned.” (Cited Roland Bainton, Hunted Hertics, p. 210). Calvin was quoting from Titus 3:9,10, and shows the spiritual condition of his own heart when he misuses the Scriptures that speak about a man being self-condemned, while he knows that Servetus is going to be condemned to death as the result of a process that Calvin himself had started. Like a Spanish inquisitor, Calvin left a man to be condemned to death because he refused to recant his beliefs. But the apostle Paul did not envisage that believers would put heretics to death when he was writing to Titus.


The burning of Servetus caused an immediate backlash against Calvin, particularly in Basle. Humanist and Christian voices were raised against him and books written, saying that no one should be punished for their beliefs, and that Calvin was returning to the atrocities of the Catholics. Calvin wrote to Bullinger at that time: “You at least… judge me with equity. Others attack me savagely, reproaching me with (professing) cruelty, with pursuing with my pen a man who died at my hands.” (OC 15, col. 124, to Bullinger, Feb. 1554).

In response to these attacks on him, Calvin hastily wrote a work entitled, Defence of the Orthodox Faith against the Errors of Michel Servetus. In this book he defended the death penalty for heresy in no uncertain terms. With all the records available, it is clear that the idea, voiced by Calvin’s apologists, that he was not directly responsible or even wished the death of Severtus, is shown to be completely untrue. Their attempted defence of Calvin becomes redundant in view of the fact that Calvin staunchly and even fanatically defended the death penalty for heretics in this work.  It is a strange logic to say that Calvin did not wish the death of Servetus when he writes a book defending his execution and justifying the death of heretics.

Let us remind ourselves of what Calvin wrote in his Defence of the Orthodox faith.

That humanity, that is advocated by those who are in favour of a pardon for heretics, is greater cruelty because in order to save the wolves they expose the poor sheep. I ask you, is it reasonable that heretics should be allowed to murder souls and to poison them with their false doctrine, and that we should prevent the sword, contrary to God’s commandment, from touching their bodies, and that the whole Body of Jesus Christ be lacerated that the stench of one rotten member may remain undisturbed?” And again, “Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church.”(Italics mine)

It is chilling stuff. Calvin uses the same arguments as were used by Augustine and others down the centuries. Calvin also sought to justify the killing of heretics by making reference to the death of Ananias and Saphira for lying (Acts chapter 5) and Jesus using force to cleanse the temple of greedy traders. How can you trust the theology of someone who can so abuse and corrupt the meaning of the Scriptures? There must have been a solid veil over his spiritual eyes and understanding to be so blind to the obvious. This also holds true for the other leading Protestant reformers, Bullinger, Melanchthon and Beza, who wrote in defence Servetus’s death penalty, and variously congratulated and encouraged Calvin on securing his death, and for his book defending the death penalty for heretics. You can read what these reformers wrote in praise of Calvin’s book in Chapter 3 of these studies.

Philip Schaff, commenting on Calvin’s Defence of the Orthodox Faith, states:

“Calvin’s plea for the right and duty of the Christian magistrate to punish heresy by death, stands or falls with his theocratic theory and the binding authority of the Mosaic code. His arguments are chiefly drawn from the Jewish laws against idolatry and blasphemy, and from the examples of the pious kings of Israel. But his arguments from the New Testament are failures. (Schaff, p. 546)

There is no escaping the clear impression that Calvin wanted to set up a kind of ‘theocracy’, where God’s law was imposed on all who lived within the jurisdiction of the republic of Geneva. And this was chiefly based on the model of Israel in the Old Testament, on which the execution of heretics was also to be based, as well as the punishment of all evil doers. Priest and magistrate were to work together in establishing God’s Kingdom on earth. In their outlook, and in the language used by the Protestant Reformers, there is nothing to separate them from those of the Catholic inquisition. They are all of one kind.

Philip Schaff maintains that “Calvin never changed his views or regretted his conduct towards Servetus.” Even nine years after the execution of Servetus, Calvin defended his actions against him, when replying to one of his critics, named, Baudouin:

“Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster.” (Cited in Schaff, Ch. 16, § 137, Calvin and Servetus. Italics mine. Responsio ad Balduini Convicia, Opera, IX. 575)

In his commentary writings also, Calvin continues to uphold the notion that it is right and proper for the secular authority to use the ‘sword’ to punish heretics. Commenting on Matthew 13:39, Calvin states:

“This passage has been most improperly abused by the Anabaptists, and by others like them, to take from the Church the power of the sword. But it is easy to refute them; for since they approve of excommunication, which cuts off, at least for a time, the bad and reprobate, why may not godly magistrates, when necessity calls for it, use the sword against wicked men?”

Calvin argues that only banishing a wicked person from the company of believers (as the Anabaptists taught), and taking no punitive and physical action against them, deprives the Church of its use of the sword through the magistrates. As noted elsewhere, if is a fundamental aspect of Calvin’s teaching that the magistrates represent an arm of the Church in the use of the sword. Again he writes:

“Christ, indeed as He is meek, would also, I confess, have us to be imitators of His gentleness, but that does not prevent pious magistrates from providing for the tranquillity and safety of the Church by their defense of godliness; since to neglect this part of their duty, would be the greatest perfidy and cruelty…But, if under this pretext the superstitious have dared to shed innocent blood, I reply that what God has once commanded must not be brought to nought on account of any abuse or corruption of men…the Papal executioners will not bring it to pass by their unjust cruelty that the zeal of pious magistrates in punishing false and noxious teachers should be otherwise than pleasing to God. (Harmony of the Law, Vol. 2, Commentary on Deuteronomy 13:5; written in 1563. Italics mine)

Calvin is not here just talking about the right of the magistrates to punish criminals. He is specifically writing about the secular authority defending godliness, securing the peace and safety of the Church, and inflicting physical punishment on ‘false teachers’. He claims that the ‘meekness of Christ’ does not forbid any of these things. Furthermore, he also uses the same argument as Luther, namely, that just because the Catholic Church wrongly uses these draconian powers to kill the innocent, this does not invalidate the proper use of such powers in punishing heretics, which Calvin claims, is well pleasing to God.

Concerning Calvin’s attitude and actions, Schaff maintains,

“Calvin’s prominence for intolerance was his misfortune. It was an error of judgment, but not of the heart, and must be excused, though it cannot be justified, by the spirit of his age.” (Schaff, Ibid, Ch. 16, § 137)

What I can say about Schaff’s comment is that I agree with the part of it that says that Calvin was of the spirit of his age. The kingdom that Calvin was in was of this world. He certainly did not exemplify the Spirit of Christ, or the character of a Christian in this matter, or in many other matters. Furthermore, are we to say that the crimes and sins we commit are to be excused because of the spirit of the age we live in? This is a strange theology indeed. Paul did things in ignorance, but he repented and was saved by the mercy of God. That salvation changed his heart and turned his life around completely (1 Timothy 1:13-16).

Schaff says that it was ‘an error of judgment, but not of the heart’. It is far more the truth that because his heart was wrong and unchanged, he would necessarily make errors of judgement. He acted according to nature. By their arguments in defence of him, the apologists of Calvin only tend to confirm the point I am making. By the way they conducted themselves in these matters, Calvin and the other leading reformers of the 16th century did not seem to know or experience a Gospel that changed them, that changed their hearts. Yes, they had a change of doctrinal convictions, intellectual enlightenment even, but manifestly not an inward change that took them ‘out’ of the ‘spirit of their age’, and ‘translated’ them into a totally new Kingdom (Colossians 1:13), with a totally new way of thinking. They still behaved like Catholic despots – they live according to the spirit of their age.

Another writer stated that what Calvin did, he did with a clear conscience. I do not disagree. Calvin believed that it is better for the sake of the whole flock that individual heretics should be put to death, rather than let them infect others with their teachings and cause them to depart from the faith and perish eternally. The reformers believed this was their sacred duty and responsibility before God – just like the Catholics had for centuries. Yes, their conscience certainly did not seem to trouble them at all from the quotes that we have seen.

But again, this is precisely my point. Nothing in the scriptures justifies this kind of outlook, or these kinds of actions. What applies in this context to the reformers is what Jesus said in John 16:2, “…yea, the time comes, that whosoever kills you will think that he does God service.” This aptly fits the reformers and their actions. In all good conscience towards God, the sect of the Pharisees had Jesus crucified and persecuted His followers. Likewise, the reformers promoted and oversaw the persecution, imprisonment, torture and execution of Anabaptists, when the latter simply testified to a conversion experience and to a baptism on the basis of that change-around in their lives. Yes, the reformers thought they were doing God a service by persecuting and executing them, but ‘a good conscience’ in itself does not justify us or our actions (1 Cor. 4:4)

A Reversal Of Fortunes

Although Calvin faced a backlash from certain quarters because of what was done to Servetus, his standing grew within the Reformation movement as a defender of the truth. It was now apparent, particularly to the Catholics, that the Reformation would not tolerate heretics in its midst, and this was a consideration that was very important to the reformers, namely, that they should not be seen to harbour, or be soft on heretics. Bullinger wrote to Calvin at the time expressing his delight that, “God has given you an opportunity to wash us all clean from the suspicion of being heretics or of favouring heresy if you show yourselves vigilant and ready to prevent this poison from spreading further.” (Opera Calvini, 8, col. 558).

However, during the trial of Servetus, the war of words was continuing between Calvin and the council concerning who had the authority to determine things regarding the Lord’s Supper and excommunication. A huge wrangle developed around the person of one Philibert Bethelier, who was a notable citizen of Geneva and a Perrinist, whom the clerics refused to admit to the Lord’s Supper despite the council pronouncing that he could (summer 1553). It ended up being a bitter tug of war that went on until a special commission that was set up ruled in favour of Calvin and the ministers in January 1555. However, the council still kept up its harassment of Calvin in other ways so that he wrote to Farel the following words:

“Here at home everything is in fearful confusion… On the inner discords our city I am afraid that you will soon be getting bad news.” (Opera Calvini, 15, 617-18; ET 3, 182.)  

Among the youth of Geneva, there was also animosity against the imposition of religion. Farel had spoken against the youth, and was forced to apologize. In January, a group of youths marched through the streets with torches and deriding religion. The following Sunday, Calvin lamented and complained about the Genevan youth in his sermon: “Alas Our Lord has indeed given occasion to weep and moan, both to you, children of Geneva, and to me with you, for it is needful that a pastor, when there is some scandal in the church, should be the first to cry out to ask pardon of God, so that all the people may follow Him.” (Opera Calvini, 53, col. 405. 33rd sermon on 1 Timothy).  

In this sermon again we see clearly that Calvin views the whole community of the city as being encompassed by the church – even the worldly anti-religious youth! This is Christendom at work.

Calvin’s exasperation and frustration is vented in another sermon on the next Sunday, when he stated: “I would like to be far from Geneva. And might it please God that I should never have to approach within a hundred leagues to please them, provided there were people who desired their salvation.” (Opera Calvini, 53, col. 36th sermon on 1 Timothy).

However, it was then that things changed dramatically – politically, at least, if not in other respects. Geneva had been attracting a large number of Protestant refugees, particularly from France. The February (1555) elections returned supporters of Calvin to the most important positions on the council, and the Perrinists were ousted. Following this, the council now decreed that a large number of French refugees could be given citizenship, which meant they could be voted onto the council in elections, and of course, these would naturally be in favour of Calvin. The political tide was moving in Calvin’s favour, which eventually would give him unprecedented influence and authority in Geneva.

This move to strengthen the position of the French refugees caused discontent among some of the citizens of Geneva, and resulted in a kind of confused demonstration or riot in May (1555), which was interpreted as a revolt or insurrection. During this incident Ami Perrin had taken the baton, which was the symbol of authority of the chief magistrate (syndic) out of the magistrate’s hand, thus giving the impression of an insurrection – and that is how it was interpreted. Ami Perrin had to flee for his life along with Philibert Berthelier because of their involvement in the ‘riot’. Calvin demanded justice after this incident, proclaiming in one of his sermons:

“There are those who will complain, as soon as one talks of doing justice, that one is bloodthirsty, that there is nothing but cruelty…And not only will the birds of the gallows talk – I speak of those who sins and crimes are manifest – but their henchmen in the taverns, who imitate the preachers. Oh, they know how to invoke humanity and mercy, and it seems to them that I spare blood no more than they do wine….” (Opera Calvini, 26, col. 501, 51st sermon on Deut.)

From these words we see that Calvin was well aware that he was being accused of vengeful brutality, and mocked in the drinking houses. He had called for justice, that is, punishment, related to those who had been among his chief opponents. Calvin was getting involved in politics here and stirring up a backlash against those who had opposed and thwarted him for years. But, of course, for him, the little republic of Geneva was the Lord’s Church, God’s domain, and he viewed it at his spiritual duty to safeguard the community from political insurrection. However, none of this accords with anything in the New Testament.

Well, punishment was handed out. Those who were involved in the riot were tortured and executed for their involvement. They were beheaded and quartered, and their body parts were hung up in the four quarters of Geneva. (Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 608.)

Calvin was not backward in supporting the severity of the punishment imposed by the council, stating:

“Those who do not correct evil when they can do so and their office requires it, are guilty of it. Just as, if a preacher conceals the reigning vices, it is certain that he is a traitor and disloyal… If I then support evil…by indifference, I shall be the first to be condemned. Similarly, if those who have the sword of justice do not employ the severity they should to correct faults, it is certain that the anger of God fall on them forever.” (Opera Calvini, 27, col. 271.)

There is something unpleasantly ruthless about Calvin’s words.

Victory over political opponents. Calvin now has a free hand in imposing religion.

These events of 1555 brought to an end the concerted and organised opposition to Calvin in Geneva on the political front, and the emergence of councils that were favourable to (his version of) the Reformation. So, how did things proceed in Geneva after this? Well, we do not really know much. What I found significant, as well as very surprising, was that in reading several modern biographies on Calvin (two written in the 20th century and one in the 21st century), they all fall virtually silent regarding the activities of Calvin in the city of Geneva after his political opponents were vanquished. It is quite remarkable. Parker states in his biography of John Calvin (p. 124) that it would not be right to see Calvin’s career in Geneva mainly in the context of the opposition to him. However, as soon as the political opposition to Calvin has been overcome, Parker falls almost silent on the activities of Calvin in the remaining nine years that Calvin had in Geneva before his death in 1564. After the events of 1555, he and other biographers (Bruce Gordon and Bernard Cottret), just focus on the writings of Calvin, on his international correspondence and influence, on the type of man he was, as well as mentioning the setting up of a college in Geneva. Concerning his activities in Geneva over this nine-year period they say very little.

This seems to be because there is nothing much to relate. Having gained this freedom from political opposition, Calvin just carried on in fulfilling his aim to regulate the conduct of the Genevan citizens. Magistrates, with together with religious ministers, could now supervise and control every facet of life. With the backing of a supportive council, Calvin could now advance his version of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Calvin did not use this new-found liberty to start a programme of evangelisation in the city in order to convert sinners to the Lord, because, as we have already seen, he did not view the people in the city like that. They were already regarded as a community of God’s people whose worldly ways and godless behaviour needed to be held in check by legal restrictions and punishments, and by enforcing morality from the pulpit; those who opposed, faced various kinds of punishments, including imprisonment and banishment, or for more serious offences, execution.

One biographer (B. Cottret, Calvin, A Biography) does pick up a little on how things progressed immediately after the fall of the Perrinists. Measures had to be taken against people practising the crossbow and children playing in the street during the preaching; and skittles on the Sabbath was to be banned as it would give the Protestants a bad name among the Catholics. Advice was also given concerning the need for men and women to avoid mixing in certain public places for appearance sake, and to limit temptation. Some people complained about the extreme punishments for sexual immorality. One person objected that people were being condemned to death for adultery when, on the other hand, they were being taught they were a Christian society under the law of grace. He complained that this amounted to judaizing the people. He was imprisoned for daring to make such a judgement. (Annales Calviniani, OC 21, col. 657).

However, from what we have read above, this man’s perception that the reformers were involved in nothing but ‘judaizing’ the community would seem to hit the nail on the head. The reformers were ignorant as to the true nature of the Lord’s church, and believed in following the Old Testament by legalistically imposing morality on the community and by punishing sinners and heretics.

What is lacking from Calvin’s time in Geneva, whether before or after the fall of the political opposition to him, is the following:

There is no narration about people in Geneva being ‘convicted of sin’ through the preaching, and ‘turning to the Lord’ for salvation as a result of such preaching; or of testimonies of those who had been ‘converted’ and their lives being changed in a way that made them leave their sinful ways, and abandon drunkenness, swearing and the like. These are the kind of testimonies and records we have from among the Anabaptists. But it was because of this kind of testimony that the reformers banished the Anabaptists from their lands and even had them executed. The reformers in Geneva may have ticked the box regarding ‘justification by faith’, but what it actually meant to them, and how they conveyed this truth in their preaching did not seem to result in the in type of conversions that we read about in the New Testament or in spiritual awakenings and revivals.

What we do read is that, during this period, thousands of refugees who were already of a reformed persuasion came to Geneva – particularly from France – and found it a haven from persecution. These also expressed their gratefulness and even joy at finding a place where what they already believed was freely being preached and applied. 

The nature of the Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was historically of monumental significance – because it changed the balance of power in Europe, both in the political and the religious sphere. This does not mean that the Magisterial Reformation was a spiritual phenomenon or movement. It showed no signs of being such. It was certainly religious in nature, and it was very human, but it showed no signs of that divine element that have characterised the revivals and ‘awakenings’ of past centuries, such as in the 18th and 19th centuries – or even of the conversion of many thousands of ordinary folk who turned to Jesus Christ for salvation through the ministry of Anabaptist preachers.

The importance of the Reformation relates to how it changed the political and religious landscape of Europe, not how it changed and transformed the lives of people spiritually. The idea that the Protestant Reformation of the 16th started to bring in a time of religious freedom and toleration is a myth. It did not do so to any extent – except for those who agreed with, or just accepted and submitted to its regime and dogma.

There are no records that I have come across that show that the Protestant Reformers led a spiritual awakening in their communities. Being of Christendom, they continued to perpetuate all the horrors and falsehoods of Christendom. They were part of that same collusion with the secular authorities as the Catholic Church had been for over a thousand years, and engaged in the persecution, imprisonment, torture and execution of religious dissenters. They adopted the nature of a cruel, intolerant religious dictatorship. It matters little what doctrines they taught. Their doctrines did not seem to change their lives inwardly, nor bring about the conversion of their listeners. They might have spoken with the ‘tongues of angels’; they might have been able to expound ‘all mysteries’ and displayed ‘all knowledge’ through their doctrinal system. It makes no difference. If we do not have love – His love – it does not profit us anything. If He says on that day, “I never knew you; I never saw My nature in you;” What use then saying, “But we taught justification by faith”?

A romantic, or fabled notion of the Reformation has come down to us. We hear of a man that stood up to the Catholic Church, who preached justification by faith, and immediately and unwittingly we impute to that person and his movement our present understanding of Christian behaviour and teaching, without really knowing what kind of man he was or what he really taught. I can no more praise the work of the reformers than I could the religious zeal of the Pharisees who persecuted the disciples of the Lord.

Had you lived in the territory of a Protestant state at that time; and if you had heard the message of the Gospel preached to you by someone that led you to repentance and faith in Christ; and if as a result of that experience you believed you should be baptised, and indeed, were therefore baptised; then you would have been in great danger! If any of the Protestant Reformers heard you testify to these things, you would have been arrested, and perhaps tortured to get information out of you about other of your fellow believers, or to get you to recant. If you were an ardent believer, then execution would have been your fate. If you had been banished or managed to escape, the Catholic authorities in neighbouring countries would have persecuted you with even greater rigour. It would not matter at all what you called yourself – Anabaptist, Swiss Brethren or just a Christian. If you testified to a personal conversion and to a believer’s baptism, each and every one of these Protestant Reformers – be it in Germany or Switzerland – would have hounded, imprisoned, and perhaps tortured you, before either banishing you or executing you. This is the nature of the Protestant Reformation.

On the ‘Library of Congress’ website, it states the following concerning religious persecution in Europe:

“The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept…meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.” (Italics mine.) (


For over a thousand years, there had been one Christendom. But now there were two! The Magisterial Reformers were responsible for the creation of a ‘second Christendom’. The result would inevitably have to be wars and conflict!

The reformers had bought into the state church system. As such, regions and countries became ‘Protestant’. Now you had two separate entities – the Catholic and the Protestant – who not only persecuted dissenters within them, but also were at loggerheads with each other. The division of Europe into Catholic and Protestant heralded a period of atrocious religious wars in Europe that lasted from about 1550 to 1650. These wars may indeed have been linked to the ongoing power struggles within Europe, but there is no getting away from the fact that it was the state church system that provided the context for new alliances and the pretexts for wars. It was the Protestant Kindgom against the Catholic Kingdom. The nature of these two Kingdoms was the same. In one sense, what they taught mattered little. To the genuine believer, they both represented persecution.

The thirty years’ war, from 1618 to 1648, fought between Catholic and Protestant regions, was considered to be one of the most destructive wars in European history. Between four to eight million people were said to have died and it utterly devastated areas of Germany, where it is estimated that at least one third of the population may have died.

What is clearly shown from history is that the Protestant Reformation continued the same dictatorial, repressive and oppressive system that had been the feature of Roman Catholic reign down the centuries, which had its beginning under the rule of the Emperors Constantine and Theodosius 1 in the 4th century and carried on by the Holy Roman Empire. They held fast to the marriage of state and church, where the church expected and exhorted the state to punish and even kill religious dissenters. The Church and State worked in tandem to impose on all of society under their control the ‘law of God’, or the ‘law of the Gospel’. There was no religious toleration.

The Protestant Reformation did not bring any relief to dissenters or genuine evangelical believers. Quite the contrary.

The Protestant Reformers showed no understanding of what the Church of Jesus Christ is. Their hearts and minds were blinded and hardened to the truth and nature of the Gospel and of the Church. You can preach justification by faith, but Jesus said that it is by their fruit that you shall know them (Mtt. 7:16), not by their doctrines. We saw how even Martin Luther thought the reformers were on shaky ground when it came to conduct, and he advised his fellow reformers to attack the Anabaptists not on their conduct, but on their teachings.

And what were the teachings of the Anabaptists that the reformers objected to and rejected? Among them were these: that the church and state are separate entities, which, by nature, do not belong together; that the church should not use secular power to punish and persecute those who hold different religious views; that the church consisted of converted, committed believers and as such should meet in gatherings that distinguished them from the rest of the worldly and godless community; that a person could personally respond to the Gospel message and know personal repentance and conversion; that a person should then be baptised on the basis of his or her faith. The Protestant Reformers vehemently taught against all of these truths and tried to hound the Anabaptists out of existence because of them.

It is not only that the reformers had no understanding of the church as a company of converted people, but they showed no understanding that a person could know a personal conversion that, among other things, gave them an assurance of sins forgiven. If the reformers themselves had experienced a true conversion, they would, at least to some extent, have been able to understand and sympathise with the experience of the Anabaptists. But the testimony of many Anabaptists was simply mind-boggling to the reformers. They could not identify with it, they could not understand it. From the testimonies that we have, it seems clear that many Anabaptists did know God’s salvation, and they were persecuted and killed because of it.

This is what Jesus forecast, “…yea, the time is coming, that whosoever kills you will think that he is doing God a service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me.” (John 16:2-3). Do these words apply to the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century? I would say, how can you argue otherwise? Putting someone to death simply because he wanted to be baptised following his conversion is an example of the ‘the ones born of the flesh persecuting those born of the Spirit’ (Galatians 4:29). In this verse, the apostle Paul is talking about the Judaizers who were trying to enforce an outward observance of the Law. He makes plain that such Judaizers preached something that was not the Gospel and that only brought people into bondage. This is a fitting example for the Protestant Reformation. It was a judaizing endeavour that imposed an outward morality on society and that persecuted and killed those who had had a genuine conversion experience and wanted to live accordingly. It was an instance of the flesh persecuting the Spirit.

Did the Reformation bring some kind of ‘light’ to the scene of 16th century Europe? Hardly. The reformers continued the process of the Christianisation of society. They perpetuated cultural or nominal Christianity. Just because they emphasized ‘justification by faith’ does not mean that multitudes or many were brought into the Kingdom of God by them or their teaching. And that is what we have seen in these studies. The Pharisees also believed the scriptures were the word of God, and believed many things contained therein, but their heart was so far from living in the truth of it, that they had no true understanding of it, and were simply blind leaders of the blind. This is the story of the 16th century Reformation.

The illusion, or delusion of the Reformation was that it purported to be the breaking out or breaking forth of the true Gospel, and many looking back in retrospect today and fixing on the fact that the reformers preached justification by faith, have a romantic but wholly false idea of what it was like. Spiritual darkness continued under the reformers of the 16th century just as it had done under the Catholics.

That the Reformation was not a movement of spiritual awakening and conversions seems to be confirmed by the writer Bruce Gordon in his book, The Swiss Reformation, where he writes:

“The Swiss Reformation did not operate by mass movement or through political alliance. Its success was first and foremost due to a network of churchmen, scholars, and laity who passionately shared their evangelical ideas. These networks were always a minority in their communities, but through the sharing of information, talents, and writings they emerged as a formidable force for change.” (Bruce Gordon, The Swiss Reformation, p. 348).

I would have to disagree with Gordon about the word ‘evangelical’ that he uses regarding the reformers, but nevertheless his comments are supported by the historical accounts, namely, that the Reformation was in that sense not a ‘mass movement’, but rather the reformers played the state church system to their own advantage.  Exploiting the complaints and disgruntlements of people against the abuses, exploitation and corruption of the Catholic Church, the leading reformers managed to get the princes and magistrates on their side and then to impose their own religious dogma on people.

In his book called, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe, the historian, Benjamin Kaplan, argues that religious intolerance continued well into the 1700s. Religious toleration slowly came about as society and Western Culture itself made religious intolerance unfashionable.

The apostle Paul had been a Pharisee. In his zeal for God, he thought it was right to persecute and kill heretics. He believed he was doing God a service. The Protestant reformers were no different. They killed believers in Christ, thinking they were pleasing God by ridding Christendom of heretics.

As I have said, the greatest judgement or condemnation of the Protestant Reformers comes from those Protestant apologists who say that they were men of their times, and suggest that it might not be quite fair to judge them according to the standards of modern times. Do such apologists not believe in the life-transforming power of the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ? Do they not believe that regeneration from above can lift you out of, and deliver you from the murderous disposition of the generation and times you were born in? And not only that, but it makes you a totally new and different person. Have they not read about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus? He testified to the following change in his life:

“I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has enabled me… putting me into the ministry; who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and insolent…This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. But for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for an example to them who should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” (1 Timothy 1:12-16).

Paul, who had been a persecutor, was now transformed by the mercy and grace of God, and he became an example of longsuffering to all other believers who after him should believe – this ought to have included the reformers, but it seems they missed it. Paul, who had once tried to dominate the faith of others by force – as the reformers continued to do – now writes to the Corinthians that he and the other apostles have no dominion over their faith ( 2 Cor. 1:24). Apart from teaching and persuasion, as well as necessary admonition, the apostles did not impose themselves on believers by force; they did not persecute, torture or kill the disobedient or false teachers. With all their scriptural knowledge and learning, how did the Protestant reformers of the 16th century miss this? As a Christian, Paul’s actions and outlook were not determined by the religious culture of his times. His conversion had utterly changed him. With the reformers it was different; it was not so. They were men of their times, they were of this world, and their kingdom was of this world. Their actions and outlooks were determined by the culture they had grown up in and which they had never left. That is the nature of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century.

One of the main reasons for giving a historical overview of the Reformation in the 16th century is to provide a background to their teaching. The lives of the reformers, I believe, give us a clue regarding the nature of their theology, which I hope to show, lacked an understanding of the Gospel, of why Jesus died on the cross.

Copyright  Ⓒ  David Stamen 2021