Thursday, March 25, 2010

John Calvin's Mocking of Michael Servetus's Initial Reaction to His Death Sentence (Burning at the Stake)

By Dave Armstrong (3-25-10)

John Calvin -- whatever his commendable qualities were -- seems to have had a bit of a cruel, sadistic streak. I have noted in another paper how he seemed to be quite pleased in 1555 that the sufferings of (wrongly) condemned men were prolonged by the ineptitude of an executioner ("it is not without the special will of God that, apart from any verdict of the judges, the criminals have endured protracted torment at the hands of the executioner"), and noted condescendingly (in the same situation) how rack torture would be productive of useful information.

It is a particularly outrageous touch that he connects and ascribes this extra torment to the "special will of God." He was at least consistent: this is the sort of horrific conclusion that the denial of human free will inexorably leads to.

In the famous case of the pantheist heretic Michael Servetus, we know that Calvin favored (and indeed actively sought) the man's execution for heresy (a common opinion of those times from Catholics and Protestants and Catholics alike). Calvin at least mercifully tried to have him beheaded rather than burned at the stake. But what I find chilling (and sadly revealing) is his callous account of how Servetus reacted to the announcement of his impending execution:

At first he was stunned and then sighed so as to be heard throughout the whole room; then he moaned like a madman and had no more composure than a demoniac. At length his cries so increased that he continually beat his breast and bellowed in Spanish, "Mercy! Mercy!"

(in Bruce Gordon, Calvin, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009, p. 223; cited from Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic; the Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 1511-1553, Boston: Beacon Press, 1960, p. 209)

But lest idle scoundrels should glory in the insane obstinacy of the man, as in a martyrdom, there appeared in his death a beastly stupidity; whence it might be concluded that, on the subject of religion, he never was in earnest. When the sentence of death had been passed upon him he stood fixed; now as one astounded, now he sighed deeply; and now he howled like a maniac, and at length he just gained strength enough to bellow out after the Spanish manner, misericordia! misericordia!
(William Hamilton Drummond, The Life of Michael Servetus, London: John Chapman, 1848, p. 144; primary source information and the original Latin rendering of the above are included in a footnote on the same page)


Elizabeth Mahlou said...

Amazing, the level of man's inhumanity to man!

Adomnan said...

Poor Michael Servetus blundered unknowingly into the web of a loathsome spider.

William Watson Birch said...

And I wonder how insanely Calvin would have reacted had he been condemned a heretic to be burned at the stake?

Dave Armstrong said...

Yes; we can see an application of the Golden Rule there, can't we?

scotju said...

Calvin was a psychopath. He got his jollies by controling people and destroying them when he coldn't bend them to his will. If some readers of this post think that I'm too eager to condemn ol' John, read Robert O. Hare's "Without Conscience" and look at the descriptions of typical psychopathic behavior given by Hare. Then look at our buddy Cal. You'll see that the man was a psychopath.

Dave Armstrong said...

I'm not willing to go that far, but something is not right there, to be sure. These sorts of manifestations are not in accordance with Christian charity, for sure, and I think they indicate deeper spiritual problems.

scotju said...

Dave, I can understand your reluctance to label Calvin a psychopath. It's such a damming thing to call someone. However, when you compare JC's reported behavior with the profile of psychopathic behavior and traits given in Hare's book, I don't think any one who is informed about psychopathy could deny he was a psychopath. You should get a copy of Without Conscience and compare what you know about Calvin's behavior with what Hare says about psychopathic behavior. I think by the time you are done, you would have to say, "Yes he was a psychopath".

Dave Armstrong said...

Perhaps; I don't know. But even before we get into psychological analyses, certainly this sort of chilling behavior falls short of the Christian standard of charity. It's not admirable behavior: not something we should or would want to emulate.