Shuck and Jive

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hug a UU for Calvin's Birthday

I did enjoy and will always be grateful for my theological education at Princeton Theological Seminary, the Presbyterian Behemoth, and the producer of countless Calvinistas.

But I missed the course on Michael Servetus. I don't remember such a course being taught. This guy was actually pretty cool. He is the patron saint of freedom of conscience. He is considered the first Unitarian martyr. His death is attributable to the spiritual ancestor of my Presbyterian tradition, John Calvin.

Servetus and Calvin at one point had a conversation going. Calvin sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes. Servetus sent it back with corrections. Servetus sent a number of letters criticizing Calvin's views. He wasn't bashful about being snarky. Servetus would have made a fine blogger.

For his heretical views and his persistent letters that got under Calvin's skin, our Presbyterian hero had him burned at the stake (although Calvin did advocate for a milder beheading). The last sermon Servetus heard in church was one preached by Calvin in Geneva whereupon Servetus promptly was arrested during the coffee hour.

Servetus was burned at the stake with what was believed to be the last copy of his theological work Christianisimi Restitutio, chained to his leg. However, three copies of his work survived. You can find a wealth of information on-line at the Michael Servetus Institute website.

You will find a concise biography of Servetus on the Unitarian Universalist Association's website. The biography points out that even though Servetus had no followers or disciples, and even though much of 16th century theological speculation is not embraced by UUs today, he is considered to be the first Unitarian martyr. You will find UU congregations with his name in their title, such as the Michael Servetus Unitarian Society. The article includes this interesting statement:
It is one of the ironies of history that all the modern Unitarian churches and movements hold the memory of Michael Servetus in special honour—for every one of them developed historically from the Reformed tradition of John Calvin.
On this weekend, as Presbyterians and other Reformed Christians celebrate the 500th anniversary of the birthday of John Calvin

complete with the irrepressible Calvin bobble head, it would be good for our souls to remember this part of our heritage.

Some may argue that Calvin should be excused because he was a product of his time, and beheadings and burnings at stake were part of the 16th century religious package. Well...maybe. Yet there were voices of opposition to killing heretics and Calvin was persistent in his defense of Servetus' execution:
Many Protestants approved the Genevan sentence. Others, especially in Basel, were not so sure that heretics ought to be put to death. In answer to critics, Calvin quickly put together and published, in 1554, a justification, Defensio orthodoxae fidei, contra prodigiosos errores Michaelis Serveti Hispani (Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus). He argued that to spare Servetus would have been to endanger the souls of many. In the same year Calvin was answered by Sebastian Castellio, in Contra libellum Calvini (Against Calvin's Booklet). Castellio declared that "to kill a man is not to protect a doctrine; it is but to kill a man. When the Genevans killed Servetus, they did not defend a doctrine; they but killed a man." He said that "if Servetus had wished to kill Calvin, the Magistrate would properly have defended Calvin. But when Servetus fought with reasons and writings, he should have been repulsed by reasons and writings."
I am pleased that my congregation has a productive relationship with our local UU congregation, the Holston Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. I am somewhat ambivalent about the efficacy of statements of apology for the sins of our ancestors, yet I do confess being a bit red-faced when I realize that my spiritual forefather was responsible for the execution of the spiritual forefather of my UU sisters and brothers.

Perhaps on this 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, and the upcoming 500th anniversary of Servetus' birth (September 29, 1511--although his birthdate is uncertain), the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations might draft a statement of reconciliation.

I am not talking about some maudlin thing nor am I interested in either defending Calvin or demonizing him.
But perhaps a shared statement that:

1) denounces religious violence
2) lifts up the importance of personal conscience, religious freedom, free inquiry, and the separation of church and state, and
3) celebrates shared ministries of social justice

would be in order.

In the meantime, as a Presbyterian and a son of Calvin, I thought I would honor Calvin's memory by purchasing some biographies of Servetus.

And I might even hug a UU.


  1. At one point, John Calvin went to the city fathers of Geneva and asked them to pass a law making it illegal to name one's dog John Calvin. He was so reviled by the citizens of Geneva that many of them had taken to naming their dogs "John Calvin."

  2. Yes Calvin had feet of clay (a reference to the Book of Daniel I'm sure we all remember) but then again, Calvin would be the first to say that we celebrate something that is bigger than both he and us. It seems to me that we are to celebrate the work (his writings) and not the man. The fact remains that the work was ahead of its time and there is still much we can learn from it. But, as we do regularly on this blog, we also have to celebrate and find the gifts in other traditions as well.

  3. Alan--too bad he didn't take it as a compliment as we do today! :)


  4. I'm about a year late on this conversation so I don't know if anyone will see this. Thank you, John, for an insightful understanding of the Servet/Calvin episode. As a Unitarian Universalist who is writing a feature screenplay about that episode as my MFA thesis, I'm always happy to hear from understanding Presbyterians. I visited Rev. Vincent Schmid, the current pastor of Calvin's Saint Peter's Cathedral and he has written a book about Servet and has similar thinking to John.

    BTW, Miguel Servet's 500th birthday is Sept. 29, 2011 so next year is a good time to hug every UU you know. :)

    Thanks again.