Below I've embedded the video entitled "Calvin and Servetus: Dan Barker Twists History" uploaded and posted by Alpha & Omega Ministries. Calvinist apologist, James White, makes a series of historical assertions concerning the circumstances surrounding John Calvin and Michael Servetus in response to atheist, Dan Barker, implicating Barker in twisting history. About 4 minutes and 10 seconds into the video, White begins his criticism mainly as a series of rhetorical questions raised against Barker's commentary on the legendary trial of Servetus at Geneva in 1553, commentary played from an audio clip at the beginning of the video. White concludes Barker, in essence, lied about history. However, from listening to James White's rebuttal to Dan Barker,1 it's clear that whatever facts Barker may have either overlooked or skewed, White's historical faux pas are far worse.
Hence, to illustrate the substance for my initial claim that James White himself engages in historical hooey (or, remaining consistent with White's moral phrasing, historical lies),2 observe White's assertions (emboldened) and my response immediately following the video:
It's a joke to suggest Servetus broke no laws in Geneva. Servetus was guilty of heresy which was against the law (4:28). Not so fast. At the time of Servetus' arrest, no laws in Geneva had been broken. We apparently have few, if any, records of Servetus' doing anything but renting a hotel room and attending church the next day. He'd broken no laws in Geneva. Was it a crime to have been convicted of heresy by Rome? If so, John Calvin and every Geneva pastor should also have been arrested as well. Thus at the time the authorities came and pulled Servetus from Calvin's church, Barker was correct; Servetus had broken no laws of Geneva. From all indication, Servetus was only passing through and already had a boat ticket to Naples (see below). Even so, at the time no law apparently existed in Geneva which called for Servetus' death even if he was a known heretic. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "No law, current in Geneva, has ever been adduced as enacting the capital sentence...but in 1535 all the old laws on the subject of religion had been set aside at Geneva; the only civil penalty for religion, retained by the edicts of 1543, was banishment" (Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 21, 1892, p.685, emphasis added). Hence the author concludes, "The extinct law seems to have been arbitrarily revived" for the specific purpose of putting Servetus to death. According to famed Reformation historian, William Naphy, Servetus "would probably become the first person to be executed for heresy in Geneva..."(William G. Naphy, Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation p.183).
Calvin risked his life to try to meet with Servetus many years earlier in Paris but Servetus stood him up (5:27). While James White is correct concerning a supposed meeting Calvin and Servetus had scheduled, a meeting which posed danger for them both, White conveniently leaves out the crucial fact that no one appears to know why Servetus was a no-show nor has any one apparently offered evidence explaining why the meeting did not take place. White leaves the impression that somehow Servetus was either callous or inconsiderate to Calvin. But to do so is only an assumption on White's behalf, and an unfair assumption at that. The truth is, while we know Servetus did not show up, we do not know why. So without sufficient warrant White accuses Barker of imbalance and therefore "lying" about history. But if Barker is guilty of imbalance and therefore lying as White claims, why is White's unproved assumption concerning Servetus not also imbalanced and hence lying as well?2
Calvin knew Servetus' identity when he was Michael Villaneuve, and Calvin had to be coerced because of the legal proceeding even to identify Servetus (5:33ff). Yes, Calvin knew Servetus' undercover identity to be Michael Villaneuve as Servetus knew Calvin's undercover name to be Charles D' Espeville. Even so, what does this have to do with Calvin purposely turning over private correspondence between himself and Servetus to official French inquisitors? This seems on the surface to be out and out betrayal. Furthermore, what does White mean that Calvin had to be "coerced" because of the "legal proceeding" to identify Servetus? What "legal proceeding"? The only legal proceedings applicable to Calvin's turning over the private letters he received from Servetus were the legal charges concerning Servetus brought by French authorities. But how could the French Inquisition coerce Calvin, a Protestant pastor in Protestant Geneva, to do anything? White's assertion is baldly absurd.
Servetus made a beeline for Geneva knowing that he would be arrested in Geneva (5:54). Well, no Servetus did not make a "beeline" for Geneva. It wasn't until August that Servetus showed up in Geneva, some four months after he'd been arrested for heresy in France (arrested because of Calvin's betrayal in needlessly turning over private correspondence to French authorities whom Calvin knew would put Servetus to death for heresy). And, while there's no certainty where Servetus was between April and August (some say Italy and others say even hiding in Geneva), most seem to think Servetus was passing through Geneva with no plans to stay. One historian writing in the same Encyclopedia Britannica article cited above indicates that after Servetus escaped certain death Lyons on April 7, 1553 by jumping from the wall of the prison, he headed toward Spain but turned back for fear of capture. Where he spent the next four months remains unknown. He showed up in a small village outside Geneva on Saturday August 12. After spending the night, Servetus walked into Geneva on Sunday morning, purchased a boat ticket to Naples and went to Calvin's church. In fact, Servetus was obeying the law not breaking the law by going to church! There, Servetus was arrested, ultimately convicted for heresy on October 26, and burned at the stake the following day never making it to Naples (Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 21, 1892, p.685). White appears dead wrong again.
Servetus tried to have Calvin imprisoned while he was in Geneva (6:05). And this is relevant in what way, exactly? Servetus thought Calvin was teaching heresy too! In addition, Servetus may have thought injustice was being served since he was in prison while his accuser was not. It was the law of Geneva that those accusing a person of particular crimes had to be detained in custody just like the accused (at least for a specific time period). Hence, the reason in part John Calvin did not accuse Servetus himself and instead solicited a servant to do so remains obvious: Calvin would have to be detained in prison. All knew Calvin was behind the charges of heresy not Calvin's cook who originally brought the charges. More importantly, Servetus raised the issue of Calvin's betrayal of him to the French authorities thus hoping to place in view Calvin's attempt to murder him via the Catholics. For White to leave all of this out by merely suggesting Servetus tried to have Calvin arrested seems far more "imbalanced" than White's charge of imbalance against Barker. If I am correct, then given White's charge that Barker's historical imbalance reduces to his "lying" about history makes James White's one-sided assertion that Servetus tried to have Calvin arrested also imbalanced and thus White "lying" about history.
Calvin was not a citizen of Geneva in 1553 and did not become a citizen until 1559 (6:08). While this is true, it remains completely irrelevant to Calvin's role in the Servetus affair. We're certain the townsfolk knew Calvin was not a citizen. But how Calvin's non-citizenship prohibited in the least his participatory influence in the trial James White does not say. The fact is, Calvin's non-citizenship is no more relevant than Farel's non-citizenship concerning the trial of Servetus. Both Calvin and Farel possessed an indisputable amount of influence and power in Geneva. What is more, less than a year earlier, Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion had been proclaimed by Geneva to be "God's doctrine" and hence no one could speak against whom later critics called "Protestant's Pope." Observe the horrifying power of a man James White cites as a non-citizen of Geneva:
“Wednesday, 9th November 1552.—Having heard in council the worshipful and learned ministers of the Word of God, Master William Farel, and Master Peter Viret, and after them worshipful Monsieur John Calvin, minister of this city of Geneva, and noble John Troillet, also of Geneva, in their depositions and replies, now often repeated, touching the Christian Institution of the said Monsieur Calvin, and having well considered the whole, the council has determined and concluded, that all things well heard and understood, it has pronounced and declared, and pronounces and declares the said book of the Institution of the said Calvin, to be well and holily done, and his holy doctrine to be God’s doctrine, and that he be held as good and true minister of this city, and that henceforward no person dare to speak against the said book, nor the said doctrine. We command both parties, and all concerned, to observe this.
“My said Lords Syndics and Council,”
--Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin-IV, vol. 2, p.354 (italics added)4
Less than a year before Servetus shows up in Geneva, Geneva had officially proclaimed Calvin's "holy doctrine" to be identical to "God's doctrine" with the ensuing legal order that "no person dare to speak against the said book, nor the said doctrine." Servetus was dead before he ever stepped foot in Geneva, dead not because he was a heretic but because he wasn't a Calvinist.
Many people in Geneva sided with Servetus against Calvin because they were his political enemies at the time and that for a period of time it was uncertain what was going to happen in that situation (6:22). What does it matter that some sided with Servetus? In addition, if many sided with Servetus as White claims, why were they not on trial for heresy with Servetus? Additionally, if many "sided with Servetus" not because they agreed with him theologically contra Calvin; rather because they thought Servetus unworthy of death, what does that say about White's subsequent claim (see below) that "everyone in that day including Michael Servetus believed that it was the state's duty to put Servetus to death for heresy"? Juggling James White's various claims continues to become impossible. Nor is it relevant that "it was uncertain" about the outcome. White appears to be pillaging as many irrelevant observations as he can to make Barker's understanding of the trial "imbalanced" and thus a "lie." However, many of James White's observations possess no corrective, balancing role at all but rather reveal basic historical ignorance on one hand and irreconcilable contradiction on the other.
Geneva sent letters to all the other Swiss cantons asking their advice as to what to do about Servetus. Every one of the Swiss cantons without exception said Servetus had to be burned (6:33). Frankly put, James White doesn't know what he's talking about, and it's highly doubtful White even took the time to read the correspondence between Geneva and the other Swiss cantons before making such vacuous claims. Not only did no Swiss canton so much as hint that Servetus had to be burned, no Swiss canton appears to have written that Servetus had to die but only that they agreed Servetus was guilty of heresy and should be punished. If I am mistaken, I beg correction from James White since he claims he's taught church history on the college level. So White needs to produce the evidence for his historical claim that "every one of the Swiss cantons without exception said Servetus had to be burned," a claim that should be easy to substantiate. If James White cannot produce the evidence to substantiate his claim, then he needs to come clean that he was uttering "historical lies" and must "publicly repent."2
Geneva wrote to Philipp Melanchthon, Luther's successor, and Melanchthon's response was Servetus must die by burning (6:44). Once again it seems James White does not know what he's historically talking about. While someone from Geneva did write to Melanchthon (Calvin?), it was after Servetus had been tried, convicted and executed. And, Melanchthon responded but almost an entire year later! Yet White makes out like Melanchthon was consulted along with the Swiss cantons before Servetus was convicted. As a pro-Calvin scholar notes, "Later regarding the execution, Melanchthon wrote to Calvin on October 14, 1554, that it was “justly done” (Bibliotheca Sacra 104, no. 414 (1947): 238). There's no excuse for someone who claims to teach church history on a college level to make these kinds of factual, irresponsible blunders. James White should get his facts straight before he makes bold but erroneous historical claims like this, erroneous claims which should make his loyal supporters wake up to the fact that White is not to be trusted as a serious historian. In fact, James White needs to publicly retract these statements. More problematic is James White's hasty moral condemnation of others as "liars" for offering an "imbalanced" understanding of history when he himself wallows in the same nasty mud-hole.
Everyone in that day including Michael Servetus believed that it was the state's duty to put Servetus to death for heresy (6:55). Not only is it dead wrong to assert "everyone in that day" believed it was the state's duty to kill Servetus, it's fantastic for James White to suggest Michael Servetus also believed it the state's duty to put him to death for heresy. As we showed above, Geneva was not under the Holy Roman Empire and consequently not under Rome's dictates concerning putting heretics to death. So, it's not true "everyone in that day" believed it was the state's duty to kill Servetus. As for Servetus, he apparently had written, "It seems to me a grave error to kill a man only because he might be in error interpreting some question of the Scripture when we know that even the most learned are not without error" (//link).
Not only so, but Calvin had earlier written that the death penalty for heresy was entirely unjust. In John Calvin the Statesman, Richard Stevenson writes: "In the earlier editions of his Institutes are passages which show that he had convictions that heretics should not be punished, at least with harshness" (source, 1907. p. 159). After quoting from Calvin's earlier version of the Institutes, Stevenson goes on "This and other passages are altered in later editions. What changed the man?" When Calvin's friend, Trie, was in communication with his cousin in France in sending, as evidence for the Inquisition to arrest and convict Servetus for heresy, the private letters Servetus had written to Calvin, Trie revealed Calvin's thoughts toward punishing heretics in one of his many letters to French authorities: "Not that he [Calvin] is unwilling that such execrable blasphemies should be punished; but that it seems to him to be his duty, as he does not wield the sword of justice, to refute heresy by his doctrines, rather than to pursue it by such methods" (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, William Cunningham, 1866, p.331). Michael Servetus is Calvin's first heretic to die under his watch in Geneva. But he would not be the last after Calvin apparently changed his mind. Hence, to suggest, as James White does, that "everyone in that day" embraced killing heretics remains grossly skewed and historically irresponsible.
Calvin did not have Servetus burned. (7:05). Clearly argumentative. Of course Calvin didn't have Servetus burned literally speaking. But Calvin nonetheless encouraged, pushed, prodded, and planned Servetus' execution at every level of the process. As Robert Willis notes: "Calvin's charge was therefore, as we see, to no halting or half-way conclusion. He proceeded from the first for a capital conviction—he hoped it would be nothing short of this; and being so, he knew the kind of death the man must die (R. Willis, Servetus and Calvin: A Study of An Important Epoch in the Early History of the Reformation. London. 1877, p.437). Calvin wanted Servetus dead. If he didn't, how do we explain the continued defense Calvin offered for his part in Servetus' death right up until the end of his life? Reflecting backward, Calvin appears elated for his role in encouraging the heretic's demise. Philip Schaff explains:
Calvin never changed his views or regretted his conduct towards Servetus. Nine years after his execution he justified it in self-defence against the reproaches of Baudouin (1562), saying: "Servetus suffered the penalty due to his heresies, but was it by my will? Certainly his arrogance destroyed him not less than his impiety. And what crime was it of mine if our Council, at my exhortation, indeed, but in conformity with the opinion of several Churches, took vengeance on his execrable blasphemies? Let Baudouin abuse me as long as he will, provided that, by the judgment of Melanchthon, posterity owes me a debt of gratitude for having purged the Church of so pernicious a monster (embolden added).
Calvin clearly recalls his role in the trial of Servetus as exhorting the Council to take vengeance upon Servetus' execrable blasphemies, the vengeance of which was capital punishment. Furthermore, contra Baudouin's criticisms, Calvin appeals to Melancthon's supposed congratulations to Calvin for having "purged the Church of so pernicious a monster" as Michael Servetus. Hence, for James White to simplistically claim "Calvin did not have Servetus burned" tortures the historical record and represents the kind of reductionist history so often found among internet apologists. Talk about imbalance!
The ministers led by Calvin asked for a more humane method of execution and were turned down by the secular government (7:12). So far as I know, no court record exists to demonstrate that Calvin officially appealed the mode of death for Servetus. If it does, we challenge James White to produce it. White apparently is thinking of a letter Calvin sent to his partner in crime (Farel) the day Servetus was convicted and condemned to die by burning. In the October 26, 1553 letter, Calvin reportedly wrote in part: "He [Servetus] will be led to punishment to-morrow. We endeavoured to commute the kind of death, but in vain. Why we could effect nothing in his favour I will inform you at our interview" (Elijah Waterman, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of John Calvin, 1813, pp.89-90). Perhaps Calvin did try to lessen the tortuous method of execution. But even granting Calvin pleaded for beheading rather than burning, what does this actually prove? It only proves Calvin instigated the certain death of a heretic in Geneva. Dead means dead does it not?
To fail to mention all these factors when speaking of the history surrounding Servetus is to "lie about history" (7.22). If we use James White's maxim about failing to mention key factors surrounding Servetus' death the way he used it against Dan Barker, then James White has publicly uttered some of the biggest whoppers imaginable!
And, were we to follow James White's strident self-style of harassing those who make mistakes in their public presentations by ridiculing, haranguing, condemning, and mocking them on radio, blogs, and even at times, in the local church through special "seminars" designed to make people out to be deceivers and frauds, one might have to conclude, after listening to White's miserable presentation, skewing the facts surrounding John Calvin and Michael Servetus, that he justly deserves some of his own medicine. No one—and I don't care how many degrees he or she has earned; how many books he or she has written; or, how many debates he or she has performed—I mean no one should stand before a class of men and women who've paid good money to get a decent education and claim he or she is a scholar who could publish the deplorable historical hooey James White has published in this video.3
1White's rebuttal takes the form of a series of questions--"Why doesn't he mention....?"--with commentary following showing, in White's mind at least, how the absence of the "fact" White supplies skews the historical reality and thus makes Barker a "liar"
2those who know me and follow this blog well understand I categorically deny making mistakes in what one says or writes necessarily reduces to committing deception. I've written on this and given my reasoning on several ocassions. In my view, if someone makes an historical gaffe or commits a "jump" in logic, it doesn't mean the person is either a liar or deceptive in any way. In other words, mistakes like this are not moral issues any more than wrongly adding in arithmetic is a moral issue. Therefore, one should not be accused of "lying" when he or she gets history wrong. Merely getting history wrong is based in ignorance not morality. Ignorance can and should be corrected by education not repentance. On the other hand, deception is a moral issue and thus can and should be morally remedied by confession and repentance. Men like James White blur this distinction and therefore end up calling people liars when lying is an entirely inappropriate category to consider. So, when I say, for example, James White uttered an "historical lie," it must be kept in mind that I do not actually believe he did based on my premises. On White's own premises, however, he most certainly did lie and needs therefore to repent.
3I stumbled across a critique of James White's video on Michael Servetus. As it turned out, it's a critique by Stanford Rives, author of Did Calvin Murder Servetus? Recall, this is the book White claimed was the "most biased" source I could have used. Rives is an accomplished attorney practicing in California, an evangelical Christian, having spiritual roots in the Presbyterian church. Rives never mentions James White by name but it's obvious in his critique since he linked to the same video I used for my critique and responded to White line-by-line. In fact, Rives critique is much better than mine. In addition, observe the amenable spirit throughout Rives' critique, always giving White the benefit of doubt, hardly a characteristic of James White's critical method. Rives' begins his critique of White about 1/3 of the way down the page. The section is entitled, "Examples of Modern Erroneous Defenses of John Calvin." From my perspective, Rives effectively decimates James White's historical understanding of Servetus and Calvin. The reader can be the judge.
4I'm indebted to Stanford Rives for pointing me in the direction of many of the sources I've scoured for this brief series on Calvin and Servetus