Apologetics Thursday – Answering Calvin’s Apologists

A Calvinist claims that John Calvin claimed to have opposed killing Servetus. He quotes a book:

Calvin responded to one of his accusers by saying “For what particular act of mine you accuse me of cruelty I am anxious to know. I myself know not that act, unless it be with reference to the death of your great master, Servetus. But that I myself earnestly entreated that he might not be put to death his judges themselves are witnesses, in the number of whom at that time two were his staunch favorites and defenders” (Calvin’s Calvinism Pg. 346)

But this seems to be a mistranslation. From A History of Protestantism:

To Calvin, above all men, we owe it that we are able to rise above the error that misled his age. And when we think, with profound regret, of this one stake planted by Protestant hands, surely we are bound to reflect, with a gratitude not less profound, on the thousands of stakes which the teaching of Calvin has prevented ever being set up. 23We are precluded from hearing Calvin in his own defense, because the death of Servetus was not brought as a charge against him during his lifetime. Still he refers twice to this affair in rebutting general accusations, and it is only fair to hear what he has to say. In his Declaration upon the Errors of Servetus, published a few months after his execution, Calvin says: “I made no entrearies that he might be punished with death, and to what I say, not only will all good people bear witness, but I defy even the wicked to say the contrary.” In 1558 he published his Defence of the Secret Providence of God. The book was translated into English by the Reverend Henry Cole, D.D., of Clare Hall, Cambridge. In that work, pp. 128, 129 (English translation), is the following passage, in which Calvin is appealing to his opponents: – “For what particular act of mine you accuse me of cruelty I am anxious to know. I myself know not, unless it be with reference to the death of your great master, Servetus. But that I myself ernestly entreated that he might not be put to death his judges themselves are witnesses, in the number of whom at that time two were his staunch favorers and defenders.” This would be decisive, did the original fully bear out the English rendering. Calvin’s words are- “Saevitiam meam in quo accuses, audire cupio: nisi forte in magistri tui Serveti morte, pro quo tamen me fuisse deprecatum testes sunt ipsi judices, ex quorum numero tunc duo erant strenui ejus patroni.” (Opp. Calvini, vol. 8, p. 646.) The construction of the words, we think, requires that the important clause should be read thus-I myself know not that act, unless it be with reference to your master, Servetus, for whom I myself earnestly interceded, as his judges themselves are witnesses, etc. If Calvin had said that he earnestly entreated that Servetus should not be put to death, we should have been compelled to believe he had changed his mind at the last moment. But we do not think his words imply this. As we read them they perfectly agree wit all the facts. Now that M. Rilliet de Candolle has published the whole process, the following propositions are undeniable:-1. That Calvin wished for a capital sentence: he had intimated this as early as 1546 in his letter to Farel. 2. That when the time came the Council of Geneva had taken both the ecclesiastical and civil power into their own hands. 3. That the part Calvin acted was simply his statutory duty. 4. Thathe had no power either to condemn or save Servetus. 5. That the only party in Christendom that wished an acquittal were the Libertines. 6. That their object was the overthrow of the Reformation in Geneva. 7. That the sentence of the Council was grounded mainly on the political and social consequences of Servetus’’ teaching. 8. That Calvin labored to substitute decapitation for burning.

One comment

  1. Very interesting, I noticed that they also mistranslated a few words in the first pages of John Calvin’s commentary in which he, if I’m right, calls Michael Servetus an obscure (dark) dog (canis).

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