Defense of the Orthodox faith of the Trinity against the prodigious mistakes of Spanish Servetus. Calvin

The Bonfire of Servetus


While Calvin was writing his apology, which is summarized above, the group that has rightly been called the "circle of Basel", gathered under the direction of Sebastian Castellio a series of texts from their own as well as those of Lactantius, Augustine, Chrysostom and Jerome to those of Erasmus and a number of reformers (Brenz, Seb. Franck, Hedi, Schenk, Brunfels, Pellikaan, Curio and others) to show that very different should be the inquisitorial treatment to be given to the heretics.

It was printed a few months after that of the reformer of Geneva and it is the first anthology monument of the Renaissance of Christian freedom of conscience. It enjoyed wide dissemination in northern Europeans environments, though it does not contain a direct response to the arguments of the instituted churches for intolerance.

Such a response -specific and point by point to Calvin's apology- came from the pen of Castellio in the landmark discussion between them in a dialogue form which unfortunately was not published until 1612, long after the death of its author: Against Calvin libel which attempts to show that heretics should be exterminated according to law.

The vast theoretical richness of this important book can not be summarized in a few lines, or in a few pages. We will have to resign here to pick out a few points, the most significant to our purpose, to which the same Castellio, extracting them from the prospectus of Calvin, puts a number to give them a worthy response, that always heads under the ironic pseudonym of Vaticanus.

Calvin. Defense of the Orthodox faith of the Trinity against the prodigious mistakes of the Spanish Servetus.

Vaticanus. Calvin defines heresy in terms of error, as if to say: I will write against the errors of Servetus and show that those who err, or heretics, must be condemned to death, like Servetus, who erred and was sentenced to death. We will see that this is the mind of Calvin [...]. If such a thing were done, all who call themselves Christians would die, but Calvin himself.

Calvin. 17. What absurd humanity is this, I ask you, which quietly conceals the crime of a man and it prostitutes a thousand souls with its satanic traps?

Vat. If Servet errors are traps, then you prostitute a thousand souls with the wiles of the devil poking it [...]. See what happens when you pretend to be concerned about the health of souls to the point of burning the bodies.

Calvin. 21. Should Christian judges punish heretics?

Vat. Readers: I pray to put your attentive ear to what follows. What I am trying to show is that Calvin can not rely on one single reason, not one solid authority in this regard and the only reason to support what he is supporting is his desire to dominate, his unquenchable thirst for blood. If I do not try this with full evidence, I am willing to incur general condemnation.

Calvin. 27. Servet, a so good performer, prefers to destroy the faith in the hearts of men to punish those who transmute it.

Vat. He does not destroy the faith in the hearts who wants the punishment of heretics be different until the return of the Judge, unless you show me that it is Christ himself who accuses, when he himself commands to let the weeds until harvest time. Neither any idea of punishment is rejected by one who proposes that the heretics be punished by God when he decides and not prematurely by men.

Calvin. 28. What will happen to religion? What will be the signals to be recognized the true church? What will become of Christ himself if religious doctrine is uncertain and ambiguous?

Vat. Religion must be based on a surely believe in things that lie ahead, not in the ones that are known: as Abraham, who was called out and obeyed "not knowing where he was going" (Hebrews 11:8). But his faith was true, because God was faithful to his promises. The true Church must be recognized by the love that comes from that faith, whose teachings are true. "By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another". The religious doctrine is to love your enemies, bless those who curse you, hunger and thirst for righteousness and endure persecution because of it.

These and similar issues are clear, no matter how dark are those concerning the Trinity, predestination, election, etc., by which some are regarded as heretics. Many saints knew nothing of them [...]. And then, nothing is true? On the contrary, it is true all that is needed for salvation, for obedience, for duty. All Scripture is true. But we neglect to its commandments: to love God and the enemy, to be patient and other such duties. We dispute too much about issues which escape us, neglecting what is within our reach. This gives rise to endless disputes. And we shed the blood of the unfortunate and the weak who do not share our views.

One of the Castelli penetrating observations concerning the use of force in intellectual discussions is always a sign of weakness: "Aware of the weakness of the word, he resort to armed force". But there is one essential difference between the position of Calvin and that of the Catholic Church. Castellio attacks Calvin because this is convinced that only his opinion, his own interpretation of Scripture, always dark in itself, is clear and safe. The question arises, then, in an area of personal competition. In the Church it is not just question of personal opinion: it is backed by the passage of the tradition, by the Bible readings that -upon the prominence of all personality- are shared by the entire Christian society.

Calvin. 41. The fact that the sword has been used to prosecute does not prevent the godly magistrates use their power to defend the afflicted Church, nor the crosses of Martyrs help prevent the just laws for the faithful to worship God in peace.

Vat. If Servet had attacked you with weapons, you would have reason to be defended by the magistrates, but as he was opposed to you with his writings, why did you respond him with iron and fire? Is this what you call pious defense of judges? Do you still dare criticize the papists? Do mention one case in which the papists had dragged into a Lutheran or a Calvinist from the Mass to jail as you did with Servet taking him from a sermon.

Calvin. 44a. A true and legitimate servant of God will fight to defend his faith and as much as his vocation push him.

Vat. No doubt, a servant of God will fight, but with his arms: justice, faith, patience and other virtues that Paul attributes to the Christian. But the weapon of Calvin is the iron.

Calvin. 46 and b. If the untimely zeal is the vicious effect of ignorance, how is not going to be laudable the zeal that ignites the children of God in a desire to affirm and witness their faith?

Vat. To affirm your faith is not to burn a man, but to be burn in it. "Chasing? No: suffering. Such is the true affirmation of faith and Calvin does not know it.

Calvin. 63. Christ sent the apostles out like sheep among wolves and are not equipped with earthly powers. The Lord had not commanded them to punish thefts, robberies, adultery and poisoning. So these crimes should go unpunished?

Vat Theft, robbery, adultery and murder are punishable not to establish the kingdom of Christ, give justice or save the men, or spawn a new creature, but to protect the bodies and possession of property.


In response to Calvin's paragraph No. 77, "Now we see that the ministers of the gospel must be prepared to bear the cross and hatred and whatever the world wants and that God only has equipped them with the gift of patience. However, kings are commanded to protect religious doctrine with their support" Castellio carved the immortal phrase that has become the ultimate motto of the condemnation of all forms of intolerance and hence of any inquisitorial activity:" Killing a man is not defend a doctrine, but to kill a man. When the Genevan killed Servetus did not defend a doctrine, they killed a man. Defending a doctrine is not the role of the judge, but of the teacher. What has to do violence with the ideas? ".

Castelli invectives on the trail of Servet, perfectly reasonable in the purest theological and biblical sense, succeed throughout this work that should circulate in schools and churches as a manual for inter-religious coexistence. "Own the wolf is devouring raw meat. There are not the wolves, then, who are killed, but those who kill", which responds to Jesus' saying "I send you in the midst of wolves." Will it be broken the whole body of Christ so that a member may be intact?, Asks Calvin 94. And he insists again Castellio: "Killing a man is not amputate a limb. When you kill a man, he is not amputated of the body of Christ, but of the life of the body. Otherwise, if the death of the body were even amputation, all who die would be amputated of the Church".

One of the most interesting sequences contradicts the inquisitorial Thomist interpretation of the parable of the tares, that Castelli, of course, explains in Pauline sense: "Christ commands to leave them until the harvest, lest the good could pull up with them, because it is better that bad to live until the trial than just a good one could miss to destroy the evil ones." Is there anyone who believes that his religion is false? The Jews were wrong in the pursuit of Christ and the apostles. The Pope is wrong to persecute Lutherans and Zwinglians. Henry of England is wrong in persecuting Papists, Lutherans and Anabaptists Zwinglians. Luther is wrong in calling the Zwinglians devils and condemned to hell. Just the Zwinglians and calvinists will be free of error? "Only they are going to sit on the tribunal of Christ, judge and condemn heretics to death?

Castellio still insisted on its dialectical struggle against theology of intolerance in other unique book, which, because of the dominant repressive mentality even in the freed predestined Protestant countries, only recently has seen the light. Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor as head of the congregation of Geneva and Calvinism, was responsible for answering the anthology directed by Castellio haereticis, reaffirming the right of churches to violently suppress heresy. Castellio, undisputed champion of the intellectual struggle for the right to freedom of conscience, wrote a long and detailed reply, very systematic and clearly written: De haereticis a civili magistratu non puniendis, "About the heretics that should not be punished by the civil magistrate". On other incomprehensible nefarious whim of history it was lost until 1938. That year, the eminent researcher Bruno Becker, 1885-1968, found it in the library of the Remontrante Church in Amsterdam. He has being preparing it to print and gracing it with many scholarly notes.

It is comprehensive in all these works the reviewing that Castellio makes of the alleged theological and biblical reasons for intolerance with which, from the fourth century, all churches sought to justify the repressive activity. The samples of just one of those works that have been culled are already excessive and more than enough to easily verify the conclusions to which we could reach. As previously noted, not even the Reform dared to criticize them or to take the plunge to deal the death blow to the long-standing intolerance of the Christian hierarchy. It took the sacrifice of Servetus and the profound theological reflection that in his brilliant work called Williams "radical reform" -Anabaptist, anti-Trinitarians, spiritualists- for the initiation of the movement to defend the natural right to freedom of conscience that we enjoy today in democratic countries and that churches have finally accepted. If it is with total conviction or not, only the future history will tell.