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§ 151. The First Act of the Trial at Geneva.


Servetus was confined near the Church of St. Pierre, in the ancient residence of the bishops of Geneva, which had been turned into a prison. His personal property consisted of ninety-seven crowns, a chain of gold weighing about twenty crowns, and six gold rings (a large turquoise, a white sapphire, a diamond, a ruby, a large emerald of Peru, and a signet ring of coralline). These valuables were surrendered to Pierre Tissot, and after the process given to the hospital. The prisoner was allowed to have paper and ink, and such books as could be procured at Geneva or Lyons at his own expense. Calvin lent him Ignatius, Polycarp, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. But he was denied the benefit of counsel, according to the ordinances of 1543. This is contrary to the law of equity and is one of the worst features of the trial. He was not subjected to the usual torture.

The laws of Geneva demanded that the accuser should become a prisoner with the accused, in order that in the event of the charge proving false, the former might undergo punishment in the place of the accused. The person employed for this purpose was Nicolas de la Fontaine, a Frenchman, a theological student, and Calvin’s private secretary. The accused as well as the accuser were foreigners. Another law obliged the Little Council to examine every prisoner within twenty-four hours after his arrest. The advocate or "Speaker" of Nicolas de la Fontaine in the trial was Germain Colladon, likewise a Frenchman and an able lawyer, who had fled for his religion, and aided Calvin in framing a new constitution for Geneva.

The trial began on the 15th of August and continued, with interruptions, for more than two months. It was conducted in French and took place in the Bishop’s Palace, according to the forms prescribed by law, in the presence of the Little Council, the herald of the city, the Lord-Lieutenant, and several citizens, who had a right to sit in criminal processes, but did not take part in the judgment. Among these was Berthelier, the bitter enemy of Calvin.

Servetus answered the preliminary questions as to his name, age, and previous history more truthfully than he had done before the Catholic tribunal, and incidentally accused Calvin of having caused the prosecution at Vienne. It is not owing to Calvin, he said, that he was not burnt alive there.

The deed of accusation, as lodged by Nicholas de la Fontaine, consisted of thirty-eight articles which were drawn up by Calvin (as he himself informs us), and were fortified by references to the books of Servetus, which were produced in evidence, especially the "Restitution of Christianity," both the manuscript copy, which Servetus had sent to Calvin in advance, and a printed copy.11731173    The articles are given in full by Rilliet, and in Opera, VIII. 727-731. Calvin mentions forty articles in a letter to Farel (Aug. 20), but they are reduced to thirty-eight by the notation.

The principal charges were, that be had published heretical opinions and blasphemies concerning the Trinity, the person of Christ, and infant baptism. He gave evasive or orthodox-sounding answers. He confessed to believe in the trinity of persons, but understood the word "person" in a different sense from that used by modern writers, and appealed to the first teachers of the Church and the disciples of the apostles.11741174    Respond quil croit en lessence divine en troys personnes et quil na point dogmatise en celle sorte. Vray est quil prent le nom de personne aultrement que les modernes ne le prennent et quil le prent comment les premiers docteurs de leglise et disciples des apotres lont prys." Opera, VIII. 738. I retain the ancient spelling. He denied at first that he had called the Trinity three devils and Cerberus;11751175    "Interrogésil entend que la Trinitésoit troys diables et soit troys [un]Cerberus, respond que non, et quil ne la point dict en ceste sorte et quil ne le veult point maintenir." Comp. with this the passage in his letter to Poupin which was afterwards produced in evidence and acknowledged by him: "Pro uno Deo habetis tricipitem Cerberum." but he had done so repeatedly and confessed it afterwards. He professed to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God according to his divinity and humanity; that the flesh of Christ came from heaven and of the substance of God; but as to the matter it came from the Virgin Mary. He denied the view imputed to him that the soul was mortal. He admitted that he had called infant baptism "a diabolical invention and infernal falsehood destructive of Christianity." This was a dangerous admission; for the Anabaptists were suspected of seditious and revolutionary opinions.

He was also charged with having, "in the person of M. Calvin, defamed the doctrines of the gospel and of the Church of Geneva." To this he replied that in what he had formerly written against Calvin, in his own defence, he had not intended to injure him, but to show him his errors and faults, which he was ready to prove by Scripture and good reasons before a full congregation.

This was a bold challenge. Calvin was willing to accept it, but the Council declined, fearing to lose the control of the affair by submitting it to the tribunal of public opinion. The friends of Servetus would have run the risk of seeing him defeated in public debate. That charge, however, which seemed to betray personal ill-feeling of Calvin, was afterwards very properly omitted.

On the following day, the 16th of August, Berthelier, then smarting under the sentence of excommunication by the Consistory, openly came to the defence of Servetus, and had a stormy encounter with Colladon, which is omitted in the official record, but indicated by blanks and the abrupt termination: "Here they proceeded no further, but adjourned till to-morrow at mid-day."

On Thursday, the 17th of August, Calvin himself appeared before the Council as the real accuser, and again on the 21st of August.11761176    On this and the subsequent encounter we have also an account from Calvin in his "Defence," which is more minute than the official report. Opera, VIII. 743 sqq. He also conferred with his antagonist in writing. Servetus was not a match for Calvin either in learning or argument; but he showed great skill and some force.

He contemptuously repelled the frivolous charge that, in his Ptolemy, he had contradicted the authority of Moses, by describing Palestine as an unfruitful country (which it was then, and is now). He wiped his mouth and said, "Let us go on; there is nothing wrong there."

The charge of having, in his notes on the Latin Bible, explained the servant of God in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as meaning King Cyrus, instead of the Saviour, he disposed of by distinguishing two senses of prophecy—the literal and historical sense which referred to Cyrus, and the mystical and principal sense which referred to Christ. He quoted Nicolaus de Lyra; but Calvin showed him the error, and asserts that he audaciously quoted books which he had never examined.

As to his calling the Trinity "a Cerberus" and "a dream of Augustin," and the Trinitarians "atheists," he said that he did not mean the true Trinity, which he believed himself, but the false trinity of his opponents; and that the oldest teachers before the Council of Nicaea did not teach that trinity, and did not use the word. Among them he quoted Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. Calvin refuted his assertion by quotations from Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. On this occasion he charges him, unjustly, with total ignorance of Greek, because he was embarrassed by a Greek quotation from Justin Martyr, and called for a Latin version.11771177    "He could no more read Greek," says Calvin, in the Refutatio, "than a boy learning his A B C." Opera, VIII. 498.

In discussing the relation of the divine substance to that of the creatures, Servetus declared that "all creatures are of the substance of God, and that God is in all things." Calvin asked him: "How, unhappy man, if any one strike the pavement with his foot and say that he tramples on thy God, wouldst thou not be horrified at having the Majesty of heaven subjected to such indignity?" To this Servet replied: "I have no doubt that this bench, and this buffet, and all you can show me, are of the substance of God." When it was objected that in his view God must be substantially even in the devil, he burst out into a laugh, and rejoined: "Can you doubt this? I hold this for a general maxim, that all things are part and parcel of God, and that the nature of things is his substantial Spirit."11781178    Opera, VIII. 496: "ex traduce Dei orta (or, une partie et portion de Dieu) esse omnia, et rerum naturam esse substantialem Dei spiritum."

The result of this first act of the trial was unfavorable to the prisoner, but not decisive.

Calvin used the freedom of the pulpit to counteract the efforts of the Libertine party in favor of Servetus.



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