Why Accurately Handling History Matters – Part II

Rising Tensions
Tyler Vela
Freedthinkerpodcast.blogspot.com
INTRODUCTION
It is common in anti-Calvinistic rhetoric to attempt to malign the person of John Calvin so as to cast
aspersion on the so-called Calvinistic theological system itself. In a recent online conversation I had,
Calvin was described to me as “Jihad Jean” who ran the “Christian Taliban in Geneva,” and that he was
an evil dictator like those of the 20th century such as Stalin, Mussolini, and Castro. These attacks are not
limited to merely hostile rhetoric but also are expressed through statements misrepresenting history
and presenting heavily biased “statistics,” such as those we observed in Part I of this series and how
Leighton Flowers contributed to this overall tactic with his article referenced there.1 In addition to this,
we find that, likely due to lack of actual research, fake citations are passed down through the ranks. In
Frank Viola’s blog post “Shocking Beliefs of John Calvin,”2 which Flowers cites and parrots in his article,
an apparent citation from The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (ODCC) states that, “Calvin was
the cruel and unopposed dictator of Geneva.” The problem is that neither Flowers nor Viola have done
any research or found this quote for themselves nor give a specific citation. To anyone who has done
any research using theological or historical dictionaries, the emotive and evaluative nature of the
language found in that “quote” should have been a red flag that something was afoot and caused them
to look further. Searching on Google, one can find countless references to the same quote (although
often worded slightly different each time) but never with an actual citation to the article or page within
the ODCC. After some research I could find no such quote in any edition of ODCC dating back to 1997.
While Viola has no relevant credentials that would lead one to believe he has been trained on proper
research methodology, Flowers possesses a PhD and so should be held to higher expectations. This
manner of carelessness in research where any Google hit will do is ubiquitous in anti-Calvinist literature.
Why let facts interfere when one is busily grinding away at their axe?
This manner of ad hominem is a misguided attempt to try and undermine the confidence that
Reformed Christians have in their theological convictions, and/or to try and vilify Calvinism and
Calvinists in order to steer non-Calvinists away from accepting or even honestly exploring its tenets.
Flowers explicitly admits in his article that his argument is an ad hominem and thus concedes the point
that it is his goal to make such an argument. The problem for him is that this rhetorical strategy fails for
numerous reasons, three of which we will explore here. The first is a simple point of logic. An ad
hominem is a fallacy. If one attempts to build their argument on a logical fallacy, they are doomed from
1

Vela, Tyler. “Why History Matters - Part I,”
http://www.academia.edu/27573758/Why_Accurately_Handling_History_Matters_Part_I, accessed 12/15/2016.
2
Viola, Frank. “Shocking Beliefs of John Calvin,”
http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/shockingbeliefsofjohncalvin/, accessed 12/15/2016.

1

the beginning because they are starting with logically fallacious principles. The instant Flowers admits
that this fallacy just is the structure of his argument, one should set his article aside as the absurdity that
it is.
The second problem is that attempting to criticize “Calvinism” by degrading Calvin assumes that the
historical Calvin has any bearing on the Biblical nature or truth of Calvinism. This assumption
misunderstands the designation of Calvinism to the system. No Calvinist accepts Calvinism because of
some allegiance to the historical Calvin. That is, they are not aligning themselves with the man Calvin as
some kind of leader – this is not an “I follow Paul; I follow Apollos” sort of issue. Rather, Calvinism came
to be so called as a description of the historical debates between various protestant reformers
concerning their views – primarily those that agreed with the theology as systematized by Calvin
(Calvinists), with Luther (Lutherans), and with Arminius (Arminians). When someone holds to Calvinism,
it is simply because they agree with Calvin’s understanding of the Scriptures,3 specifically on
soteriological issues, though we often will have disagreements with him on other issues. Most are
perfectly content to call themselves “Reformed” or label the five major doctrines of the system as “The
Doctrines of Grace” to avoid the confusion over the name as related to Calvin.4 This means that Calvin,
like many theologians and church leaders throughout history, could have had numerous theological and
problems, ethical failings, and been quite the erasable person and yet still have systematized the
doctrines found in Scripture in a manner that is enormously accurate to the Bible with great aid to the
church at large. More importantly, I do not think Calvin to be a sinless man that never committed grave
sins precisely because I am a Calvinist. That is, it is specifically because of my acceptance of the
Doctrines of Grace, with their starting point in the total depravity of man, that I am absolutely certain
that Calvin was just as fallen as the rest of us. What follows in this article should not be viewed as an
apologetic for the man Calvin in toto, but rather only a refutation of false accusations and rather
misleading revisionist history surrounding his role in the Servetus affair.
This leads naturally to the third reason that this ad hominem strategy fails and will be examined
through the bulk of this paper. The most common incident that the anti-Calvinist strategy seizes on to is
the trial and execution of Michael Servetus in Geneva in 1553. Anyone who has been involved in
theological debates with ideologically driven anti-Calvinists such as Flowers and Viola, will not need to
wait long before Servetus is trotted out as an ostensibly clear example of just what a wicked scoundrel
Calvin really was. It seems that every attempt to discredit Calvinism by “exposing” Calvin will almost
always center on denunciations of Calvin’s supposed role in this event. The problem is that the retelling
of the trial and execution of Servetus is more often than not entirely ideologically driven and therefore
leads the protestor into the worst manner of rank revisionist history that even the most cursory study of
the academic literature concerning the episode would render entirely erroneous. Therefore, while I
have no desire or intention to create in a kind of hagiography of John Calvin, I will present a defense of
Calvin in this singular event against the unhistorical and misleading representations of his contribution
to it. In order to do this, over the next two articles, we will look at several different aspects of the clash
between Calvin and Servetus, focusing on the historical setting leading up to the event, Calvin’s exact
role in the proceedings, as well as the fallout after Servetus’ death.
3

These views come to us today largely synthesized and systematized by theologians and Reformers after Calvin,
specifically in the Canons of the Counsel of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith.
4
This is my chosen label, though often for short hand and clarity, “Calvinism” can still be helpful. See,
https://www.academia.edu/12982736/The_Doctrines_of_Grace.

2

RISING TENSIONS (1511 - 1553)
Often in the polemics against Calvin, Servetus is depicted as being a great, free thinking, morally
upright, and an only slightly theologically aberrant victim who fell under the iron fisted oppressive ire of
Calvin who loathed dissent, and was punished by the machinations of his brutal and puritanical regime
in Geneva. Flowers’ would not even call Servetus a “heretic” but rather presented him with the
exceedingly banal description as a man who was one of “those who disagreed theologically” with Calvin,
and who was “killed under Calvin’s rule in Geneva for disagreement over doctrinal matters.”5 For
Flowers, Servetus was merely a “dissenter” who was ruthlessly murdered by Calvin, the brutal dictator
of Geneva who could not stand anyone “disagreeing” with him on theological matters. Such blackwashed history would be laughable if it were not so tragically misleading to his audience. So why is this
caricature an inaccurate presentation of what transpired in Geneva, and what really occurred?
From what we know of Servetus, he was born sometime around 1511 in the Spanish providence of
Villanova. He was by all accounts a very intelligent but also a very prideful and belligerent man with a
near compulsive need to “win” in debates.6 We find his first known major correspondence with any
prominent Reformer sometime around 1531 while living in Basil. Servetus began corresponding with the
Swiss Reformer Oecolampadius in which he, a 20 year old, began belittling and reprimanding the elderly
reformer for being ignorant, blind, and obtuse. This is the same year that Servetus published his first
book, De Trinitate Erroribus, “On the Errors of the Trinity” followed up in 1532 with Dialogorum de
Trinitate, “Dialogues on the Trinity.” In these works, Servetus mocked the Biblical doctrine of the Trinity,
saying that God did not have to become man but rather a man had to become the Son of God and that
while Christ should be worshipped, he is neither eternal nor God incarnate. He went so far as to say that
the doctrine of the Trinity rendered its adherents to be functional atheists and polytheists. These books
present a kind of gospel for the gnostic pantheist and was immediately rejected by nearly every
orthodox theologian in Christendom, Reformed, Catholic, or otherwise. In Basil, Oecolampadius rejected
it as rank heresy; Rome attempted to censure and suppress it as a banned book; Bucer did not permit
Servetus to flee Basil and come to Strasbourg, even saying from the pulpit, “Servetus deserves to be torn
to pieces after having his entrails ripped out,”7 and Zwingli warned that “The false and perverse doctrine
of the perverse and detestable Spaniard would upset all our Christian religion. If Christ were not truly
Eternal God, He could not be our Savior.” In 1539, Melanchthon and Luther also rebuked and
condemned the theology represented in De Trinitate. After being brought up on charges of heresy in
Basil, Servetus wrote a cleaver retraction of the book to avoid a prison stay and trial. Of the book he
wrote, “I retract it all, not because it was false, but only because it was imperfect, and written as by a
child for children.” The effect of this clearly disingenuous retraction was enough to keep him out of
prison, but Servetus likely saw the writing on the wall and knew that it would not assuage the
5

Flowers, Leighton. “Why Servetus is a Valid Argument Against Calvinism,”
https://soteriology101.wordpress.com/2016/07/25/why-servetus-is-a-valid-argument-against-calvinism/.
Accessed 12/21/2016.
6
Many scholars have noted that Servetus’ own pride and failure to read the political climate leading up to and
during his trial is likely the single largest factor that lead to his execution and had he simply moderated his tone
and played his situation better, he would have likely lived a long and healthy life as many heretics of the time did.
7
It should be noted that this manner of rhetoric was more emotive than prescriptive during this period in history.
For a paper on the use of violence and insult in rhetoric, with specific comparison of Calvin and Servetus’ tit for tat
insults, see Tausiet, Maria, “Magus versus Falsarius: A Duel of Insults between Calvin and Servetus,” Reformation &
Renaissance Review, 10.1 (2008), 59-87.

3

authorities in Basil and around Christendom for long, and so he disappeared from the world stage for
nearly two decades.
Servetus took on the name Michel de Villenueve, and pretended to be a faithful and orthodox child
of Rome. He studied medicine as a proofreader at a printing house in Lyon. In a rather stunning piece of
irony, in 1536 a protestant named Fuchs published a book attacking Champier, the man who introduced
Servetus to medicine, while also defending the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone. His
book was burned by a Roman executioner in Paris (a symbolic gesture of what would happen to the
author if caught by Roman authorities). Servetus, still posing as Villenueve, wrote a defense of Champier
in which he denounced Fuchs as a heretic, affirmed the threat of punishment for defending justification
by faith, and became at least regionally known as a staunch advocate for Roman orthodoxy against the
“heresy” of the protestants.
At this point, Servetus, still under the pseudonym Villenueve, took a position teaching mathematics
at the Collège des Lombards. He published numerous volumes during this time on geography and
medicine. His passionate belief in the fusion of astrology and medicine however landed him in the hot
seat again with the authorities in 1538. He vehemently attacked physicians who criticized his reliance on
astrology to the point that they brought suit against him and even requested he be put to death. Similar
to his previous troubles, he escaped a conviction by issuing a retraction and leaving the city, heading
now toward Vienne where he would soon be installed as the private physician for the Viennese
archbishop Pierre Palmier. This is yet another ironic turn of events as Palmier was one of the leading
archbishops tasked with handling the “heretics” (i.e. the Protestants), specifically in Geneva. Servetus
even dedicated his book on Ptolemaeus’ geography to Palmier and attended mass regularly, though he
appears to have loathed it.
During this time, an interesting interaction occurred between Calvin and Servetus that helps to set
the stage for later events after his arrival in Geneva. During Servetus’ time in Paris, he and Calvin
arranged a secret meeting with each other. Calvin still lived in France at this point and he had not yet
accepted the call to the pastorate in Geneva. Paris however was still a dangerous place for him given
that it was a hub of Roman Catholic power and he was already known for his defense of the Protestant
view of justification since publishing Institutio Christianae, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion.” The
Reformer decided to meet with Servetus in Paris on the rue Saint Antoine despite the grave risk entering
Paris would mean for him, however Servetus did not show. The interactions between Calvin and
Servetus then progressed on a very rocky path. We can observe this in the letters written back and forth
between the two.
In addition to Oecolampadius, Servetus engaged in rather antagonistic letter writing campaigns
with Bucer, Capiton, Melancthon, Viret and Calvin. While he had ire for the former reformers, his
interactions with Calvin were some of the most frenzied. Scholars have noted that Servetus appeared to
view Calvin as something of a trophy that he wanted win – almost like a game hunter out for the big kill.
In 1546 Servetus wrote to Calvin, still posing as Villeneuve, to ask him several questions regarding the
eternal generation of Christ as the son, regeneration, and infant baptism.8 Calvin appeared to know that
Villeneuve was in fact Servetus, but he still sent a well thought out six page response. Servetus then sent
Calvin a letter asking him five additional questions to which Calvin responded, apparently frustrated
8

Next to the Trinity, Servetus reviled the doctrine of infant baptism more than all else.

4

with the insolent tone of Servetus’ letter, with a more sternly worded nineteen page response. At that
point, Servetus began a letter writing campaign to Calvin consisting of dozens of letters that were full of
belligerence and insults against both Calvin and Calvin’s Trinitarian God which he called a “monstrosity”
and “satanic.” Calvin responses continued to become more severe and harsh, trying to teach Servetus
humility; a tone that scholars, even those hostile to Calvin, have noted was not characteristic for Calvin.
Once Servetus began to not only flood Calvin with letters but also started sending Calvin copies of his
own books with “edits” and insulting remarks in the margins, Calvin put his pen away and determined
that he had better ways to use his time and stopped even reading what Servetus sent to him. Calvin was
not the only one to take this tact when dealing with Servetus. Oecolampadius, having exhausted himself
trying to reason with Servetus as well, wrote to Zwingli concerning his dialogues with the Spaniard,
saying that he was “so proud, presumptuous and quarrelsome that it is all to no purpose.”9
The harsh tone from Calvin, was not the normal way that he engaged people, even with heretics. It
needs to be noted that Calvin had befriended Socinus, the father of modern Unitarianism during the
Reformation era, because Calvin believed that he noticed an honest mind that operated with integrity,
and that there was a genuine seeking after truth within him. Calvin hoped that through friendly and
ongoing dialogue with Socinus that he could be convinced of his error and brought over to the truth. It
was in this context that the oft quoted comment by Calvin to Farel is nestled. In 1546 he mentions that
Servetus had sent him another round of letters and a “long volume of his frenzy” (apparently a lengthy
text, much longer than the letters he had already been sending) along with a request to come to Calvin
in Geneva to instruct him on “astounding things unheard of until [then].” It is here that Calvin wrote,
“But I do not want to give my word. For if he comes and if my authority is worth anything, I will never
bear that he go out of here alive.” Much ink has been spilt over this statement; probably too much.
Considering that Calvin had been banished from Geneva and had only been welcomed back a few years
prior, his question about the worth of his authority seems pertinent and, as we will see shortly, accurate
considering his conflict with the Libertines. It is not just that Calvin did not want to offer safe haven to
Servetus, though he clearly did not, but it is also that he had no power to do so.10 Even scholars not
typically in favor of Calvin recognize that the fiery rhetoric is more telling about the hyperbolic and
imagery driven polemics of the 16th century, rather than a statement of actual prescriptive desires.11
Emerton writes,
Much has been made of this letter as showing the animus with which Calvin entered
upon the fateful trial of 1553, but I hardly think too much weight should be laid upon it.
Such an expression was quite in the natural order of sixteenth century controversy, and
probably reflected nothing more than Calvin’s natural horror at opinions that seemed to
him nothing short of blasphemous.12

9

C.H. Irwin, John Calvin: The Man and His Work, (Religious Tract Association; 1909) 161.
Naphy notes that most scholars recognize all the struggles that Calvin had in Geneva and do not place Calvin
gaining any real political influence in Geneva until 1555 after the Libertines finally lose the election. This means
that over two-thirds of Calvin’s time in Geneva was marked by banishments, opposition by the ruling party, and
very little influence. Naphy, William G. Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevean Reformation. (New York:
Manchester University Press, 2003) 208.
11
See Emerton, Ephraim. “Calvin and Servetus,” Harvard Theological Review, 2.2 (2011)
12
Emerton, “Calvin and Servetus,” 152.
10

5

One piece of data that should also cause moderation in our view of Calvin’s rhetoric is that once
Servetus was executed, he was the first person to be executed for heresy during Calvin’s time in Geneva.
In fact, in the same year as the Servetus affair (1553) two other heretics stood trial – Robert le Moline
for defending prostitution and fornication as acceptable for Christians to engage in, and Jean Baudin for
saying that Jesus was a phantom and that the Bible was just a human book like any other man made
book – and neither were executed. Both were judged by the Petit Conseil and banished from Geneva.
This may be used to say that Calvin had a unique distaste for Servetus that led him to more aggressively
go after him. While that is doubtful, what this does show, at bare minimum, is that it was not simply that
Calvin was a dictator out to suppress anyone who disagreed with him.
At this point, it will be beneficial to present a brief sketch of what Calvin’s situation in Geneva was
like at the time of Servetus’ arrival. While there may be some profit to laying out a fuller biography to
understand Calvin’s own thought leading up to the events of 1553, the value would be overshadowed by
the length needed, and has been capably done by others. The immediate context is of much more value
for our purposes here.13 The most vital aspect to understanding his position in Geneva at the time of the
trial is the election of 1552, in which the Libertine Party gained control of the city government. The
Libertines were a group that was extremely hostile to Calvin and opposed many of his moral reforms
and his views of church discipline, specifically that someone who had been ex communicated from the
church should be barred from receiving communion on the Lord’s Day without the prior approval of the
Petit Conseil, (a twenty-five member ruling body). The most notable of the Libertines to gain power was
Ami Perrin, the principle head of the party at the time of the election. The Libertines gained an
overwhelming majority in the so-called Petit Conseil, as well as a notable standing in the general
assembly of two-hundred. This was, by all accounts, a period of great trouble for Calvin, who had major
difficulties pastoring under such an antagonistic city government.14 In fact, we know that in short order
the Petit Conseil gave Calvin such a difficult time, that by July of 1553, just before Servetus arrived in
Geneva, Calvin wrote that he was seriously considering resigning his pastorate due to the severe and
almost insufferable tensions placed him on by the Conseil to even perform his duties as a minister.15
There were two other factors that hindered Calvin’s ability to minister freely in Geneva. As I
mentioned in Part 1 of this series,16 Calvin was not a citizen of Geneva at this point. He would not
become part of the bourgeoisie until 1559, six years after the Servetus affair and only five years before
his death. This means that he was not able to serve in any official capacity within the city and could not
vote in any elections or proceedings for most of his time in Geneva. As far as policies, laws, trials, and
other civil proceedings, Calvin could only plead his case but could not affect any direct change. In
addition, at this time Geneva was a under the guardianship of their neighboring city Bern due to a treaty
signed several decades before. Not only had Bern been unfavorable to Calvin through his time in

13

For a fuller treatment of Calvin’s entire biography, see Gordon, F. Bruce. Calvin. (New Haven, CA; Yale University
Press, 2009); McGrath, Alister. A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture. (Hoboken, NJ;
Wiley-Blackwell, 1993).
14
Operandi Calvini, XXI, 145-148.
15
Registers of the Council, July 24, 1553.
16
Vela, “Why History Matters - Part I.”

6

Geneva, but they had been instrumental in helping the Libertines gain power in the 1552 election and
overall endorsed the party’s opposition to Calvin.17
Another important aspect of life at this point in the Reformation must be kept in mind. Protestants
were under substantial persecution around the continent in Catholic controlled territories. Specifically in
neighboring France, French Protestants were heavily oppressed and many were put to death as heretics
by burning at the stake. In addition, Protestants were viewed with suspicion as being soft on heresy.
Rome thought that they had thrown open the theological gates to any and every one to come through
since they took interpretation out of the hands of the bishops and placed it in the hands of the laity. The
fact that the Reformation spawned, or at least paved the way for the Anabaptists was a detail that
loomed large in the minds of many Catholics and Reformers alike. This overall religious milieu will play a
major role in our understanding of why Servetus was sentenced the way that he was in Geneva, which
we will explore in the next installment.
During his time in Paris and Vienne, it is thought that Servetus was developing his theological views
that he would later publish early in 1553 within the Christianismi Restitutio, “The Restoration of
Christianity,” a clear response to Calvin’s Institutio Christianae, “The Institutes of the Christianity”. We
will now briefly sketch Servetus major heresies to give a flavor of just why the Restitutio caused such a
stir around the continent, or as best as possible given that space is limited and even critics who are
disposed toward Servetus admit the work is rather jumbled and unclear.
Servetus appears to have developed a kind of Pantheistic Sabellianism in which he viewed creation
to be eternal and every creature to be, in some way, an incarnation of God, with Christ being a superior
or more special example of that incarnation. However, Servetus rejected the divinity of Christ and
seemed to have lost none of his disdain for Trinitarianism over his years in hiding posing as a Catholic.
Whereas before he said that it led to atheism and polytheism, in the Restitutio Servetus ramped up his
scorn for the doctrine of the Trinity by comparing it to the mythical three headed hell hound Cerberus.
He called the doctrine a devilish phantom, a poetic monster, and even an illusion of Satan himself.18 He
then turned his sights on the divinity of Christ and argued that Christ was not eternally begotten of the
Father, nor was he divine by nature. Rather, it was by grace that God granted him sanctification,
anointing and exaltation because Jesus the man perfectly humbled himself to God. Because of this,
Servetus saw Christ as an example to Christians who, by likewise humbling themselves, could attain
moral divinity like Jesus had. This is where Servetus becomes rather hard to follow. After insisting that
Jesus was a man who was granted godness after humbling himself, he then argues that Christ was
neither God nor man and that his body was not a human body; that after his exaltation, his flesh was
divine and this was accomplished by the process of “begetting” – the mixing of three primary elements:
water, air, and fire – with the final 4th element, earth, coming through his mother (for Servetus nothing
earthly or carnal could come from a father). This manner of spiritual alchemy won no friends among the
Reformers or the Catholics, but did make some headway among the Anabaptists – a fact that would not
help him during the trial.
A point about the publication of the Restitutio may also shed some light on the impending conflict
in Geneva. Though Servetus was living in Vienne in the service of the archbishop there, because his
17

Kayayan, Erin. “The Case of Michael Servitus: The Background and the Unfolding of the Case,” Mid-America
Journal of Theology; 8/2 (1992), 118.
18
Restitutio, 119.

7

views that were going to be published directly conflicted with Catholic orthodoxy, he worked with two
Protestant printers – Guérout and Arnoullet. Arnoullet was an evangelical who was sympathetic toward
Calvin. After a short time of publication, he had a falling out with Guérout because he accused Guérout
of misleading him on the theological contents of the book. Guérout however printed in full knowledge
of the contents. What makes Guérout interesting is that he belonged to the Libertine party in Geneva
and was adamantly hostile to Calvin. This simple fact shows that Servetus was not only aware of the
Libertines and their disdain for Calvin, but also that he had strong ties to them. This point will be very
relevant shortly as we discuss why Servetus may have been so brazen as to enter Geneva and openly
attend a church service where Calvin was preaching; likely thinking he would have far more political
support than he actually received.
In 1553 after the publication of the Restitutio, Servetus was arrested in Vienne after his true
identity had been revealed to the authorities. He appeared to have suspected Calvin of his arrest and
during his trial blamed Calvin for it. This allegation is parroted by many anti-Calvin writers but it seems
wildly implausible for several reasons. First, Calvin denied it noting that he would not have hatched such
a plot with the Catholics in Vienne, who ardently opposed him and were actively burning Protestants. He
wrote, “It is hardly believable that we [Calvin and Rome] would communicate by way of letters, and that
those who get along with me as well as Belial with Jesus Christ, would plot with such a deadly enemy as
if he were a companion.” He continues that he has no problem agreeing that he was the one who
identified Servetus in Geneva and so would have no reason to lie if he had been the one to identify him
to the Viennese authorities.
Another major problem with this accusation is that Calvin had in his possession nearly two decades
worth of letters from Servetus that espoused many of the same heretical views. He knew that Villeneuve
was Servetus and had all the documentary evidence to prove it. Had Calvin wanted to simply see
Servetus done away with, he could have easily done so years before. In fact, nothing was gained by
Calvin by the timing of Servetus’ arrest in Vienne. This is telling because the previous year Calvin had
met with Tournon, the cardinal of Lyon, in order to intercede for five Reformed students that had been
arrested and held captive there. Servetus would have been an ideal bargaining chip and he could have
killed two birds with one stone, had turning in Servetus been his intention. If we think back to the
opportunities that Calvin had to turn in Servetus previously, this also reveals that the quotes from Calvin
often used to try and demonstrate his malice for Servetus, are, in fact, simple examples of 16th century
polemics and not actual desires of violent intent as Emerton wrote above, or else it seems plausible that
Calvin would have availed himself of the opportunity at the first possible instant years before.
What appears to have happened was that a protestant French refugee and friend of Calvin in
Geneva, Guillaume de Trie, was writing to his Catholic cousin, Arneys, who lived in Lyon. Arneys was
attempting to convince de Trie to come back to his senses and rejoin the Catholic Church and was telling
him that Lyons’ prisons were full of Protestants just waiting to be burned. His point was that the
Protestants were trouble makers and criminals who were causing disorder throughout Catholic
provinces. In response, de Trie, who had spoken with Calvin and knew of the Servetus/Villeneuve
connection, ridiculed Viennese Catholic authorities for jailing faithful Christians while even the
archbishop was sheltering one of the most infamous heretics of their century and disclosed that
Villeneuve was Servetus, the author of the Restitutio, and he sent him a copy of the book.

8

Arneys then turned in Villeneuve to the authorities and the local inquisitor decided to simply
investigate him before he arrested him, Servetus denied that he was anyone other than Villeneuve and
both he and Guérout denied being involved in any way with the printing of the Restitutio. Guérout had
hidden everything related to the printing of the book. At this, it appeared that Servetus would get away
with his deception again and de Trie was viewed as offering a frivolous and baseless accusation. In order
to protect his dignity and honor, de Trie pleaded with Calvin to produce the original letters so they could
be matched to the handwriting of Villeneuve. It should be noted here that the letters to Calvin had been
published as an appendix in the back of the Restitutio so it is not as though it was a secret that Calvin
had been in debate with the author of the book. What was yet to be proven was if Villeneuve was
Servetus who wrote it. Calvin initially rejected de Trie’s request, again showing a lack of some cruel
malice against Servetus, and de Trie says that Calvin had originally refused because he thought his job
was to convince heretics with Scripture and reason and not the sword of justice, which he said he did
not and should not possess. Calvin believed that the magistrates, not the consistory, should wield that
sword. This initial response by Calvin also sheds a very different light on the later events than what is
usually presented, as we shall see shortly.
However, on continued pressure and due to his friendship with de Trie, he finally agreed and sent
several of the letters requested. Once the handwriting was matched, this was ironclad evidence of the
true identity of Villeneuve and the inquisitor had him arrested on April 4, 1553. It appears that Servetus
did not know of the letters that had been sent by Calvin because during his first round of questioning, he
swore on the Bible to be Villeneuve, denied writing the book, and claimed to be a devout and orthodox
Roman Catholic. When faced with the letters, he then concocted a story that he had borrowed the name
of the famed heretic Servetus, and then wrote to Calvin over twenty years prior in an attempt to trap
Calvin in overt heresy or if he could convince Calvin that he was wrong. The questioning could not
continue however, because one night Servetus was able to escape his cell and flee from Vienne. The
escape was more convenience than daring however. Due to his connections with the archbishop and
other Viennese officials that he had treated as a medical practitioner, the jailor was instructed to be
easy on Servetus. Some have speculated that “benevolent negligences” had been employed to help him
escape.19 After the escape, on June 17, 1553, Servetus was declared guilty in absentia and was
sentenced to be burned at the stake with his books the instant that he could be discovered and arrested
again. An effigy of him was burned at the stake as a clear message that should Servetus be found in
Vienne again or handed over to them, he would be burned immediately and no new trial would be
needed.
Servetus planned on traveling to Zürich after his flight from Vienne and then ultimately to Italy
where his writings had gained somewhat of a following, and he believed he may have found safe haven
there. But a funny thing happened on the way to Italy… on August 13th, 1553, Servetus inexplicably
attended service at La Madeleine to hear Calvin preach. This would set in motion the events that would
lead to his eventual execution and would launch centuries of unwarranted liable against Calvin.
In the next installment we will explore the events surrounding Servetus’ arrest, trial, and eventual
execution, as well as the fallout that began soon after and has steadily advanced until our own time in
the writings of anti-Calvinists such as Flowers, Viola, Hunt and countless bloggers hell bent on propping
up the revisionist myth of Calvin as “Jihad Jean,” the complete tyrant who ruled Geneva with an iron fist.
19

Kayayan, “The Case of Michael Servitus,” 130.

9