In the year 1553 an event occurred which would forever blacken the reputation of Calvin in the eyes of an ungodly world. In that year a heretic named Michael Servetus entered Geneva after fleeing from France after being condemned for his heresy there and escaping from prison in Vienna. He was seen in the streets of Geneva and arrested on August 13. This trouble he had brought upon himself by his book which denied the existence of the Trinity as well as the practice of infant baptism. Though the former is clearly a more serious error than the latter, the latter position identified Servetus with the hated Anabaptists who had spread the revolutionary ideas of socialism and communism. Why Servetus came to Geneva is not clear though the Reformer Wolfgang Musculus wrote that he apparently thought that Geneva might be favorable to him since there was so much opposition to Calvin.
On August 21, the authorities in Geneva wrote to Vienna asking further information on Servetus. The authorities in Vienna immediately demanded his extradition to face charges there. At this the Genevan city council offered Servetus a choice: he could either be returned to Vienna or stay in Geneva and face the charges against him. Servetus, significantly, chose to remain in Geneva.
The trial began and as it progressed, it became evident that the authorities had two choices: banish Servetus or execute him. They sent to their sister cities Berne, Zurich, Schaffhausen and Basle for their counsel. The counsel from each city was the same: execute the heretic. The method of burning alive was chosen. Calvin intervened to appeal for the more quick and merciful beheading as the method of execution but the council refused and on October 26, 1553, Michael Servetus was executed.
It is strange that this incident should bring such odium upon Calvin and another example of the hatred of orthodox Christianity that it has. The facts are that mass executions were carried out in other places throughout this time. After the Peasants’ War in Germany, after the siege of Munster, during the ruthless period of Roman Catholic dominance in Elizabethan England. Even as late as 1612 the authorities in England burned two men who held views like those of Servetus at the behest of the bishops of London and Lichfield. Thirty-nine people were burned at the stake for heresy between May of 1547 and March of 1550. The 16th century was not a time of great tolerance of heresy in any place in Europe.
If one contends that Calvin was in error in agreeing with the execution of heretics then why is there not equal indignation against all the other leaders who supported and carried out and supported these measures elsewhere. None less than the honored Thomas Aquinas explicitly supported the burning of heretics saying, “If the heretic still remains pertinacious the church, despairing of his conversion, provides for the salvation of others by separating him from the church by the sentence of excommunication and then leaves him to the secular judge to be exterminated from the world by death.” (Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae q. 11 a. 3)
Furthermore, Servetus was the only individual put to death for heresy in Geneva during Calvin’s lifetime. Strange indignation it is that men focus upon this one and virtually ignore the hundreds executed in other parts of the world.
Further still, it must be remembered that Calvin’s role in this entire matter was only that of expert witness at the trial. The idea that Calvin was “the dictator of Geneva” is utterly unfounded in fact. Calvin was never allowed to become a citizen of Geneva. He was technically among the habitants — resident legal aliens who had no right to vote, no right to carry weapons, and no right to hold public office. A habitant might be a pastor or teacher if there was no Genevan citizen who was qualified for the position. This is why Calvin was allowed to be pastor of the church there. But he was always denied access to the decision-making machinery.
The only place where Calvin could have exerted significant influence was in the Consistory. But the Consistory was completely bypassed in this entire matter by the council apparently in an effort to demonstrate that they were far more concerned for holiness and purity than Calvin (and some of the people) had thought. They sought thus to shut Calvin out of this matter as much as possible.
Why then all the outrage at Calvin? Simply because of who he was and what he taught. The world can live with Romanism and Arminianism, it cannot abide the truth of the Reformed faith. For this reason Calvin and Calvinism have been the enemies of the world and will be till the world ends.