Ellen G. White Writings

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History of Protestantism, vol. 2, Page 339

he drew up the articles of indictment from the writings of Servetus, the first time at his own instance, and the second time at the Council’s order; and he maintained these when face to face with Servetus before the syndics. All this he could not decline to do without neglect of duty as president of the Consistory. All this he was bound to do by the law of the State. If we are to be discriminating in our censure, we must go farther back than the denunciation given in to the Council, and come to the order of things established at Geneva, which rendered this form of procedure in such cases imperative. It was a vicious jurisprudence; but it was the jurisprudence of former ages, and of that age, and the jurisprudence freely adopted by the citizens of Geneva. Those who condemn Calvin for conforming to it in a matter of public duty, are in reality condemning him for not being wiser in judicial matters than all previous ages, his own included, and for not doing what there is no proof he had power to do, namely, changing the law of the State, and the opinions of the age in which he lived. Beyond what we have stated Calvin had no influence, and tried to exert none.

We further grant that Calvin wished a conviction, and that he approved of the sentence as just-nay, expressed his satisfaction with it, having respect to the alternative of acquittal-namely, the expulsion of the Reformation from Geneva. We condemn him for these views; but that is to condemn him for living in the sixteenth and not in the nineteenth century, and we condemn not him alone, but his age, for all who lived with him shared these views, and believed it a duty to punish heresy with death; although even already Calvin, as appears from his book of the following year, had separated himself from the Romish idea that heresy is to be punished as heresy-is to be smitten by the sword, though it should exist only in the depth of one’s bosom. He would have the heretic punished only when he promulgates his opinions to the disturbance of society. This is to come very near-nearer perhaps than any other man of his day came-to the modern doctrine of toleration.

But further, it is only Protestants who are entitled to find fault with Calvin. No Romanist can utter a word of condemnation. No Romanist of Calvin’s own age did condemn him, 22Bolsec, the bitterest of all Calvin’s enemies, speaking of Servetus, says that he experienced “no regret at the death of so monstrous a heretic,” and adds that “he was unworthy to converse with men.” (Bungener, p. 239.) and no more can any Romanist of ours. The law of the Romish world to this day awards death by burning to heresy; and the Romanist who condemns the affair of Servetus, condemns what his Church then accounted, and still accounts, a righteous and holy deed; and so condemns his Church, and himself not less, as a member of it. He virtually declares that he ought to be a Protestant.

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.

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