Haha, thanks. I was Reformed for a while and, believe me, I had to hear about Servetus quite a bit from people with opposing viewpoints. So I suppose it's become a bit of a pet peeve of mine. I hope I didn't sound like I was trying to vindicate everything that happened, though. It's just that it's important to consider these things in their historical context. Besides, I think a good case can be made against Calvinism without relying on any historical distortions.
I understand your frustrations with people resorting to ad hominem attacks on Calvin in order to discredit the doctrine which (predates him but) bears his name. I also agree that the doctrine falls apart easily enough on its own without recourse to such. That said, if we're calling for clarity about the Servetus incident (and other incidents in which Calvin might be criticized for egotism or brutality) we should indeed be accurate and not paint too rosy a picture or attempt to exonerate Calvin. One doesn't have to resort to historical distortions in order to discredit Calvinist theology or to demonstrate that Calvin wasn't a very nice guy and was culpable to one degree or another in the Servetus incident and other things. He certainly wasn't an individual to be admired or emulated.
A few things need to be cleared up. Servetus was a notorious teacher of heresy in a time where such was a serious civil offense. His arrest had been ordered by the Spanish Inquisition, and he was eventually arrested by the French Inquisition. He managed to escape and then traveled to Geneva, where he was arrested again. The French Inquisition sentenced him in absentia to death by burning, and petitioned to have him extradited so that they could execute him themselves. So this isn't solely an issue regarding Calvinists. Rome's involvement is generally left out of the account entirely for some reason.
Rome's involvement is perhaps left out by anti-Protestant polemicists in conversations on internet forums, but never by responsible historians, even those with a pro-Catholic bias such as Belloc. Yes, it's true that Servetus was considered a notorious heretic and was widely sought by the Roman Catholic inquisition. It's also true that such brutality was commonplace for Christians of all confessions in Western Europe at that time. Calvin and his cohorts should be considered within their historical context, but this is no way exonerates them of this or other incidents in which they displayed a hubris and brutality at least equal to the Catholics they so reviled.
It should further be noted that Calvin and Servetus were not unacquainted prior to Servetus’ entry into Geneva. Calvin bore a grudge against Servetus for (partly) personal reasons from the word go. The two had been corresponding about the nature of the Trinity, predestination and other issues over a period of years and Calvin didn't like it that Servetus had to gall to correct him (in a very snide way) on more than a few occasions, even critiquing Calvin’s “masterwork” Institutes of the Christian Religion
in a less than charitable way. It wasn't just theological, Calvin seemed to take personal offense. A full seven years before Servetus ever set foot in Geneva Calvin wrote to his buddy William Farel:
Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here (Geneva), but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive.
As to Servetus and the French Inquisition, it was Calvin’s front man, the rich merchant Guillaume de Trie who publically denounced the man while he was living and working as a physician in Vienne. De Trie deliberately put the French Inquisition onto Servetus’ trail. This demonstrates the depth of the grudge Calvin and his allies bore against Servetus and the lengths to which they would go to discomfort him, stirring up the Catholics they held in such “high esteem” against him. Thus, Servetus’ flight from the French Inquisition was in a way instigated by Calvin. This is not to say that Servetus didn’t hold to bizarre and heretical ideas by anyone’s standards, but if you read their back-and-forth, Calvin was extremely rankled by Servetus’ sharp and dismissive dissections of his corpus, and made this perfectly clear in writings to Servetus, Farel and others. Servetus’ colleagues, who failed to escape the French Inquisition, were convicted and burned, according to the Inquisition itself:
thanks to the 17 letters sent by John Calvin, preacher in Geneva
The Genevan council gave Servetus the choice to stay and be tried in Geneva or be handed over to France, and he chose to stay in Geneva. If he had chosen extradition, or if he had never escaped, he would have been executed by the Inquisition.
Sort of. The French wanted Servetus, but Calvin was loath to hand him over. Servetus did indeed think his chances for survival were better in Geneva, but this isn’t saying much, as his friends had recently been burned in France, and it would be inaccurate to give any impression other than that he found it to be the lesser of two evils. To say that he would have been executed had the French gotten a hold of him is speculation, but not entirely inaccurate. Nevertheless, to say, “Well, he would’ve been executed anyway” hardly lets Calvin & co. off the hook.
Would you then use this same criticism against Roman Catholics?
As a means of refuting their doctrine, it would be as disingenuous to do so as it would be to use personal criticisms of Calvin to attack his doctrine. If you mean as a means of establishing the brutality of the Medieval Roman Church, then this would be just as valid as using the Servetus incident – and other incidents – to establish the brutality of the Geneva Commune.
Do you think heretics have never been executed in Orthodox nations?
Not with the frequency with which Protestants and Catholics executed one another (and other “heretics”) in the West. In the Oriental Orthodox world (my Communion), for example, such instances would be few and far between if indeed they happened at all (care to cite some?). Nevertheless, just as I would not resort to utilizing such instances to discredit Protestant or Catholic theology, I would not think it wise to do so as regards the Orthodox either.
Also where do you get the idea that Calvin was involved in the torture of anyone? Calvin was not a member of the Genevan council that tried Servetus. In fact, he petitioned that Servetus be beheaded rather than burned at the stake, so that he would suffer less, and his request was denied.
It’s a little more complex than that. Calvin personally interrogated Servetus for a period and endeavored to compel him to recant when he was first apprehended in Geneva (on his way to Italy, fleeing the French Inquisition). The list of charges against Servetus was compiled by Calvin’s protégé Nicholas de la Fontaine, who also led the prosecution against him. Nevertheless, many regard de la Fontaine as Calvin’s proxy, and Calvin “pushed for the condemnation of Servetus with all the means at his command”. Calvin was in very poor health at the time, and one of the rules in Geneva was that when someone stood accused, his accuser was incarcerated (more like sequestered) as well pending the trial. It was generally assumed by those in his immediate circle that Calvin would not survive such, and so de la Fontaine acted as his surrogate. The trial later became a contest between Calvin and the libertines, but I don’t want to go into all that here, as it is quite involved and political. There are also those who doubt the sincerity of Calvin’s request to spare Servetus the fire –and how this played into the PR war with the libertines and his other adversaries – but that can hardly be proven either way so I’ll leave it alone.
There are indeed people who misrepresent and distort the Servetus incident to use it as an ad hominem attack against Calvinism, and it seems you've fallen victim to one of them. Research the issue yourself.
Yes, absolutely research the incident and Calvin’s Geneva in depth. There isn’t much to recommend the man, the society, or the doctrine, in my estimation, but others might reach different conclusions on all points. It is true there are those who utilize the incident as a proxy to attack the doctrine, but this is largely unnecessary. Man, incident, society, and doctrine are easily assailed on their own merits.
While I am not a Calvinist I find the appeal to the execution of Servetus to be a disingenuous.
Again, it depends upon what one is trying to establish when citing it. If one is using it as a cudgel with which to assail Calvinist theology, point taken, but if one is using it as a means of establishing the bizarre dysfunction of the society Calvin and company created in Geneva or of the pettiness and brutality of the man himself, I think it is perfectly valid.
To misrepresent the incident in order to discredit Calvinism as a belief system is less than intellectually honest, but to assert that Calvin is without significant blame in this instance because his hand didn't touch torch to kindling is equally fallacious.
Welcome to the boards!