Servetus Trinitarian heresy conviction based on Justinian code?

Steven Avery

Servetus & Calvin
Was It Murder by Calvin?
by Standford Rives (not always reliable, however this looks pretty good)

See also

Did Calvin Murder Servetus? (2008)
By Stanford Rives

The initial accusatory complaint did not claim Servetus was an anti-trinitarian. However, during the trial, when Servetus served a legal brief that heresy did not deserve to be punished with death, Calvin countered by insinuating the death penalty was proper under the Justinian Codex of 534 A.D. for antitrinitarianism. This implied thereby that this defunct law should be followed by Geneva despite its own Civil Code's very different terms. The Civil Code of Geneva only provided expulsion/banishment for the only religious verbal crime -- blasphemy. Calvin then submitted a mid-trial brief of thirty five articles (quotes) proving Servetus was an antitrinitarian, as indeed Servetus was.[4]

[4] The quote of the thirty-five articles provided mid-trial by Calvin is rare in the Servetus’ literature, but they are crucial to see how the theory of the case was switched mid-trial. These articles can be found in Hodges, An impartial history of Michael Servetus, burnt alive at Geneva for heresie (London: printed for Aaron Ward, 1724) at 131-32. Calvin’s excerpts were from what Calvin called Servetus’ First Book of the Trinity (1531). Calvin’s quotes of Servetus included: “All those who believe in a trinity in the essence of God are Tritheists, true atheists....” (First Book of the Trinity at 30.) Calvin paraphrases a lot of sections to omit the Bible quotes that Servetus cites. Calvin wrote: “He asserts that the Hebrews being supported by so many authorities deservedly wonder at the tripartite deity that is introduced by us” citing page 36 of the same. Calvin likewise quoted: “To assert that the incorporeal deity is really distinct within itself has given the handle to Mahomet to deny Christ.” One can readily see Servetus is being faulted for being antitrinitarian (which incidentally was based upon the Bible verse that “God is one”), but not for blasphemy, i.e., he is never shown to have insulted the goodness of God.

The Trial of Michael Servetus

(Updated version of the article by Sergio Baches Opi“Miguel Serveto. Anotaciones actuales sobre un proceso ignominioso”, published in Diario del Alto Aragón, Sunday, 16 June 2002, and in Revista Serrablo, Year XXX, No. 118, December 2000).

On August 22, 1553, Servetus addressed a writ to the Minor Council of Geneva, the competent body to judge him, and asked the Council to dismiss the criminal accusation. Servetus argued in his defense that the doctrine which advocated the death penalty for interpreting the Scriptures incorrectly was not embedded in the doctrine of the Apostles and the disciples of the first Church. In the same writ, Servetus requested a lawyer to assist him. The General Prosecutor refused against both requests. The reason given by the public prosecutor for turning down Servetus’ request for legal assistance was that, since Servetus was able knew to lie so well, he was smart enough to defend himself.

The discussion relating to the origin of the criminal accusations lying in differences in the interpretation of Scriptures as less frivolous. Servetus argued that during the first centuries of the existence of Christianity, the Church tried to solve its internal differences by means of peaceful discussion. This situation began to change when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire as a result of the Constantinus Edict (313). Although the Council of Nicaea (325) had already condemned the antitrinitarian approach of Arrius. Religious heresy was not criminalized until the reign of Emperor Teodosius the Great (379-395).

The Code of Teodosius was completed by the Code of Justinianus (527-534). This latter Code, which was in force in the territories of the Sacred Roman Empire, prescribed in the chapter "Of summa catholica Trinitate et fide, hereticis, apostatis" the capital punishment for those negating the doctrine of the Trinity and the baptism of infants. The Code of Justinianus could have constituted the legal basis to issue the judgment against Servetus. In fact, the Genevan judges asked Servetus if he knew of the existence of this legal text. Servetus replied that he did know of the existence, but that, in any case, its existence did not invalidate his arguments, since Justinianus did not belong to the primitive Church, but rather to an era in which ‘the bishops commenced their tyranny, and criminal accusations have been introduced in the Church°. The Code of Justinianus, however, did not serve as the legal basis of the judgment against Servetus, since all Canon laws had been abolished by the Genevan reformers. Therefore, the question which arises still is: what was the legal basis which allowed the judges in Geneva to condemn Servetus?.

North American Review (1909)
John Calvin, Lawyer
Henry Collin Minton

The code of Justinian punished heretics and blasphemers as malefactors and in Scotland the same law existed, and as late as 1696 Thomas
Aikenhead was executed in Edinburgh for heresy. The English Common Law made blasphemy a capital crime. Until 1824 the English laws punished with death one hundred and sixty crimes and, in our own America, witchcraft was punished by death as late as 1692, a little more than two hundred years ago. All this shows nothing except that the horrors of Servetus’s death were not exceptional. a civil court for a crime with which he had been charged and that, being found guilty, he was punished according to the law that then existed.

From the Introduction to Michel Servetus“Thirty Letters to Calvin & Sixty Signs of the Antichrist”, translated by Marian Hillar, and Christopher A. Hoffman, from Christianismi restitutio of Michael Servetus (Lewiston, NY; Queenston, Ont., Canada; Lampeter, Wales,UK: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2010).

There was no legal basis for execution of Servetus. All previous Catholic laws were abolished in Geneva in 1535. The Justinian code mentioned by Calvin during the trial was never in effect in Geneva, and as matter of fact it was forgotten during the Middle Ages and only rediscovered in 1040. Calvin and Farel drafted in 1536 the Geneva Confession of Faith in which they abolished “all laws and regulations made binding on human conscience which oblige the faithful to things not commanded by God,” that is, by “the commandment of men.” There was no death penalty for any transgression, excommunication was the only possible punishment:

Therefore we believe that it is expedient according to the ordinance of God that all manifest idolaters, blasphemers, murderers, thieves, lewd persons, false witnesses, sedition-mongers, quarrelers, those guilty of defamation or assault, drunkards, dissolute livers, when they have been duly admonished and if they do not make amendment, be separated from the communion of the faithful until their repentance is known.117
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Steven Avery

Calvinism Fellowship, Debate, and Discussion

Wow. The interesting discussion about Calvin and Servetus seems to be gone. May I suggest simply closing the thread as more helpful as a mod action

Erica Anderson
"Fifty- eight people were executed during the first five years of Calvin’s rule, and seventy-six exiled."

This claim is unraveled by James Swan:

John Calvin Had 58 People Executed in Geneva? James Swan - June 19, 2019

Beyond that, I was studying whether the Justinian Code was the legal, or extra-legal basis for the convictions.