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The Execution of Servetus

Database

The Execution of Servetus

James Dodson

FOR BLASPHEMY, HERESY, 
& OBSTINATE ANABAPTISM, 
DEFENDED

By John Knox

Are ye [the Anabaptists] able to prove, [as ye have maliciously accused us], that we teach the people not to convert from their sins and wicked imaginations, to the last hour of their departure? do we promise to all thieves and murderers the same grace and favour that David, Peter, and this thief found? I trust thy own conscience knoweth the contrary. Permit or suffer we (be they never so high) manifest offenders to live amongst us, after their own appetites? And yet ashamest thou not impudently thus to write, "But such lips, such letuce, such disciples, such masters: for your chief Apollos be persecutors, on whom the blood of Servetus crieth a vengeance; so doth the blood of others more whom I could name. But forasmuch as God hath partly already revenged their blood, and served some of their persecutors with the same measure wherewith they measured to others, I will make no mention of them at this time."

  
Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who so revealeth the things that lie in secret, that hypocrites at length, howsoever they dissemble for a time, are compelled to notify and bewray themselves. Before, to some it might have appeared that the zeal of God's glory, the love of virtue, the hatred of vice, and the salvation of the people, whom, by us, ye judged to be blinded and deceived, had carried you headlong into such vehemency, (as ye be men zealous and fervent,) that no kind of accusation was thought by you sufficient to make us odious unto the people; lies against us imagined were not only tolerable, but also laudable and holy; scriptures by you willingly and wittingly corrupted, did serve to defend God's justice and his glory, what we by our doctrine oppugn and improve. But these your last words do bewray the matter, that in what soever faces you list transform yourselves, your grief will appear to proceed from another fountain than from any of these which ye pretend, and I before have rehearsed.

O the death of Servetus,[1] your dear brother, for whose deliverance your champion Castalio solemnly did pray, with whom, if once ye could have spoken, that kingdom, which ye hope for, had begun to be enlarged; his blood, I say, with the blood of others, I think ye mean of your prophetess Jone of Kent,[2] do cry a vengeance in your ears and hearts. That none other cause do you see of the shedding of the blood of those most constant martyrs of Christ Jesus, Thomas Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer, John Hooper, John Rogers, John Bradford, and of others more, but that God hath partly revenged their blood, that is of your great prophet and prophetess, upon their persecutors, and hath served them with the same measure with the which they served others, I appeal to the judgment of all those that fear God. What is thy judgment, and the judgment of thy faction, of that glorious gospel of Christ Jesus, which of late hath been suppressed in England; what is thy judgment of those most valiant soldiers and most happy martyrs of Christ Jesus, upon whom, O blasphemous mouth, thou sayest God hath taken vengeance, which is an horrible blasphemy in the ears of all the godly; I will not now so much labor to confute by thy pen, as that my full purpose is to lay the same to thy charge, if I shall apprehend thee in any commonwealth where justice against blasphemers may be ministered, as God's Word requireth. And hereof I give thee warning, lest that after thou shalt complain, that under the cloak of friendship I have deceived thee. Thy manifest defection from God, and this thy open blasphemy spoken against his eternal truth, and against such as most constantly did suffer for testimony of the same, have so broken and dissolved all familiarity which hath been betwixt us, that although thou were my natural brother, I durst not conceal thy iniquity in this case.

But now to the matter. I have before proved you malicious and venomous liars, and therefore unworthy to bear testimony against us. Now resteth to be proved, that ye are blasphemers of God, and persons defamed. Solomon affirmeth, "That he that justifieth the wicked, and he that condemneth the innocent, are alike abominable before God." [Prov. 17.] Which sentence is not to be understood of judges only, but is to be referred to every man; for of every one doth God require, that he hate, and in his heart and mouth condemn, that which God himself hath condemned; and also, that he allow and justify that which God pronounceth just, lawful, and holy. And if the contrary be found even in a multitude, God doth not only punish the chief offenders, but also upon their favorers, maintainers, and justifiers, doth he commonly pour the same plagues and vengeance. And hereof is that rare and fearful punishment taken upon Dathan and Abiram sufficient proof [Num. 16.]; for they joined with Corah were the authors of the conspiracy raised against Moses and Aaron. But did they alone sustain the vengeance? No; but their households, children, wives, tents, and substance in the same contained, did the earth in a moment devour and swallow up. And why? because they did justify the cause of those wicked, and insofar as in them lay, did maintain the same. No man, I trust, will deny, but that he who killeth an innocent man is a murderer, although it be under the cloak of justice. But that he who, having lawful authority to kill, and yet suffereth the murderer to live, is a murderer, in this perchance some men may doubt. But if the law of God be diligently searched, this doubt shall easily be resolved. For it will witness that no less ought the murderer, the blasphemer, and such other, to suffer the death, than that the meek and the fearer of God should be defended. And also, that such as maintain and defend the one, are no less criminal before God than those that oppress the others.

One example I will adduce for all. God gave into the hands of Ahab, Benhadad, king of Syria [1 Kings 20], who was great enemy to Israel; whom he upon certain conditions of amity sent home to his country. But what sentence was pronounced against Ahab? "Thus saith the Eternal, Because thou hast let go out of thy hands a man whom I appointed to die, thy soul (that is, thy life) shall be in the place of his life, and thy people in the place of his people." [verse 42.] Now to you justifiers of Servetus: Servetus was an abominable blasphemer against God; and you are justifiers of Servetus: therefore ye are blasphemers before God, like abominable as he was. The major I intend shortly to prove, so far as shall be sufficient at this time. The minor ye do not deny; for some by Apologies, some by books, and all by your tongues, do justify his cause. And the conclusion is infallibly gathered of the former words of the Holy Ghost.

Ye will not easily admit that Servetus was convicted of blasphemy; for if so be, ye must be compelled to confess (except that ye will refuse God) that the sentence of death executed against him was not cruelty; neither yet that the judges who justly pronounced that sentence were murderers nor persecutors; but that this death was the execution of God's judgment, and they the true and faithful servants of God, who, when no other remedy was found, did take away iniquity from amongst them. That God hath appointed death by his law, without mercy, to be executed upon the blasphemers, is evident by that which is written, Leviticus 24. But what blasphemy is, may some perchance doubt. If righteously we shall consider and weigh the Scriptures, we shall find that to speak blasphemy, or to blaspheme God, is not only to deny that there is a God, but that also it is lightly to esteem the power of the eternal God; to have, or to spread abroad, of his Majesty such opinions as may make his Godhead to be doubted of; to depart from the true honouring and religion of God to the imagination of man's inventions; obstinately to maintain and defend doctrine and diabolical opinions plainly repugnant to God's truth; to judge those things which God judgeth necessary for our salvation, not to be necessary; and finally, to persecute the truth of God, and the members of Christ's body.

Of the first and second sort both was Sennacherib and proud Rabshakeh; who, comparing God with the idols of the Gentiles, did not only lightly esteem his godly power, but also, so far as in them was, studied to take out of the hearts of the Israelites all right and perfect opinion of God. At whom the Prophet, in the person of God, demandeth this question, "Whom hast thou blasphemed?"

Of the third sort were both Israel and Judah, declining to idolatry against God's express commandment, whom the Prophets so often do affirm to blaspheme the Holy One of Israel. "Because (saith Isaiah) they have repudiated the law of the Lord of Hosts, and the word of the Holy One of Israel, contumeliously have they blasphemed." And Ezekiel [chap. 20], after that he hath most sharply rebuked the Israelites for their idolatry, he addeth, "Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed me, though they had before grievously transgressed against me; for when I had brought them into the land, for the which I lifted up my hand to give it them, they saw every high hill, and all the thick trees, and they offered there their sacrifices, and there they presented their offering," &c.

Of the fourth sort were Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom Paul gave to the Devil, that they should learn not to blaspheme. [1 Tim. 1.]

Of the fifth sort were the multitude of the Jews, who judged, and to this day do judge, the death of Christ Jesus, his blessed ordinance, the public preaching of his Evangel, and the administration of his Sacraments, to be nothing necessary to our salvation.

And of the last, doth not Paul deny himself to have been a blasphemer, and a persecutor, before his conversion [1 Cor. 15.]

Now, if I shall plainly prove the most part, yea, all these, (except, ye will say, he shed no man's blood,) to have been in your great prophet Servetus, yea, yet to be in you all of the Anabaptistical sort, have I not sufficiently proved both him and you blasphemers?

Albeit I be more near of his and your counsel than any of you doth know or suspect, yet will I not utter, at this present, all that I can, but will abide till such opportunity as God shall offer me, to notify his and your poison to the Church of God, that of the same the godly may beware.

For the present, I say, first, That Servetus, whom you justify, did maintain, and, by word and writing, dispersed abroad, wicked and most devilish opinions of God, which might not only make his Godhead to be despised, but also called in doubt and question. He judged those things nothing necessary to salvation which Christ hath commanded and ordained. And last, that impugning the true religion, he did most obstinately maintain his diabolical errors, and did resist the plain truth to the death. His erroneous opinions of God and of his eternal Godhead were these.

1. Whosoever believeth any Trinity in the essence of God, hath not the perfect God, but gods imagined, and illusion of Devils.

2. That Christ is the Son of God, only insofar as he is begotten of God in the womb of the Virgin, and that not only by the power of the Holy Spirit, but because that God begat him of his own substance.

3. That the Word of God descending from the heaven, is now the flesh of Christ, so that the flesh of Christ is from the heaven. Further, that the body of Christ is the body of the Godhead, the flesh of God, godly and heavenly, as it that is begotten of the substance of God.[3]

4. That the soul of Christ is God, and that the flesh of Christ is God, and that as ell the flesh as the soul were in the very substance of the Godhead from all eternity.

5. That God is the Father of the Holy Ghost.

6. That Christ having the participation of the Godhead or of God, and participation of man, may not be called a creature, but one that doth participate with creatures.

7. As the Word descended into the flesh of Christ, so did the Holy Ghost descend into the souls of the Apostles.[4]

8. That Christ, so long as he was conversant in the flesh, received not the new Spirit which he was to receive after his resurrection.

9. That in all men, from the beginning, is engrafted the Spirit of the Godhead, even by the breath of God, and yet may the Spirit, by the which we be illuminated, be extinguished.

10. That the substantial Godhead is in all creatures. That the soul of man, although it be not God, it is made God by the Spirit, which is God himself.[5]

11. That the soul is made mortal by sin, even as the flesh is mortal; not that the soul returneth to nothing, as neither doth the flesh, but that it dieth when that it is deprived of lively action.

12. And that it is holden in hell languishing, as that it should never after live; but these that be regenerated have another soul than that they had before, because of the substance which is renewed, and for the Godhead which is joined.

13. That alike it is to baptize an infant, as to baptize an ass or a stone.

14. That there is no mortal sin committed before the age of twenty years.

These I have thought sufficient to produce at this present, to let the reader understand that it is not without cause that I say, that Servetus, whom ye justify, is a blasphemer. I have omitted things more horrible and grievous, to avoid the offence of godly readers, which suddenly I am not minded to manifest, except that I shall understand that your venomous tongues be not stayed by these. I appeal to the conscience of Castalio himself, if in every one of these former Propositions which concern the Godhead, there be not contained horrible blasphemy. For what is more blasphemous, than to affirm that such as believe in the Godhead three distinct Persons, have no true God, but the illusion of the Devils: That Christ Jesus is not the Eternal Son of the Eternal Father: That there is no distinction betwixt the Father and the Son, but in imagination only: That Christ hath no participation of man's nature, but that his flesh is from heaven; yea, that it is the flesh of the Godhead: That in stocks, stones, and all creatures, is the substantial Godhead? If these, I say, be not blasphemies worthy of ten thousand deaths, especially being obstinately maintained against all wholesome admonition, let all those that fear God judge; yea, even you yourselves, how furious that ever ye be, judge in the matter, even as ye will answer before the throne of the Lord Jesus. That contemptuously he spake of baptising of the children, of the public preaching of the Evangel, and of the administration of the Lord's Supper, that have you common with him. For this is your glory and persuasion to all your scholars, that these things be nothing necessary to salvation; yea, most straightly ye inhibit all of your sect to frequent any congregation but your own. And whether this be blasphemy of your part, or not, to affirm those things nothing necessary which Christ Jesus hath established, and commanded to be used in remembrance of him to his second coming, I am content that judgment be referred even to those that be most indifferent betwixt us and you.

To supersede the rest of your blasphemies, I return to your book, because, that after I purpose to speak of your holy conversation, and of the great perfection that is found in you.

Ye accuse us, that we have written books, in a perpetual memory of our cruelty, affirming it to be lawful to put to death such as dissent from us in religion, notwithstanding that some of us were of another mind before they came to authority; and further, that we have given the sword in to the hands of bloody tyrants.

True it is, that books are written both by you and by us. For your Master Bellius affirmeth, That lawful it is not to the Civil Magistrate to use the sword against heretics. To whom that godly learned man, Theodorus Beza, hath answered. In which, if you or your Master think not yourselves fully answered, ye may put pen to the paper when you list, looking to receive answer with convenient expedition. John Calvin hath besides committed to writing the Examination of Servetus, and the Cause of his miserable death. Which books, albeit to you they be a perpetual memory of cruelty, yet I have good hope, that to our posterity they shall be profitable (as now to us be the godly labours of those that before us have fought the same battle against the obstinate heretics). And further, seeing both you and we must abide the sentence of one Judge, we can not greatly fear the prejudice of your faction.

Where ye ask, If these be the sheep which Christ sent forth in the midst of wolves, and if the sheep can persecute the wolves? And I demand for answer, Whether Moses was a sheep or a wolf, and whether that fearful slaughter executed upon idolaters, without respect of persons was not as great a persecution as the burning of Servetus and Joan of Kent? To me it appeareth greater. For to them was granted no place of repentance; no admonition was given unto them, but, without further delay or question, was the brother commanded to kill the brother; yea, the father not to spare the son [Lev. 23.] I think, verily, that if judgment should be referred unto you, that then should Moses and the tribe of Levi be judged wolves, sent to devour innocent sheep. But because we know what God hath allowed, we the less fear the judgment of man. If ye claim any privilege by the coming of the Lord Jesus, himself will answer, "that he is not come to break nor destroy the law of his heavenly Father."

Where further ye ask, If Abel did kill Cain, or David Saul, or he which is born of the Spirit did kill him which is born of the flesh? I answer, If your question be of Abel, David, and Isaac, in their proper persons, that none of them did kill any of these forenamed. But if thereof ye infer no more, Is it lawful for any of God's Elect to kill any man for his conscience sake? I answer, That if under the name of Conscience ye include whatsoever seemeth good in your own eyes, that then ye affirm a great absurdity, manifestly repugnant aswell to God's law as to the examples of those whom God hath highly praised in his holy Scriptures. But because continually ye claim to your conscience, to remove from you that vain cover, I ask, If the murderer, adulterer, or any other malefactor, should be exempted from punishment of the law, although he alledge that he did all thing of conscience? I trust ye will confess, that he ought to be mocked that will claim the patrocinie of conscience, when that he doth plainly offend against God's will revealed. And why will ye not grant as much in this matter which now standeth in controversy? Because (say you) external crimes have no affinity with matters of religion; for the conscience of every man is not alike persuaded in the service and honouring of God, neither yet in such controversies as God's word hath not plainly decided. But I ask, If that be a just excuse why pernicious errors shall be obstinately defended, either yet that God's established religion shall be contemptuously despised.

To make the matter more plain, Israel and Judah were not both of one mind in the honoring of God, after that the ten tribes departed from the household of David. Yea, Judah in the self was often corrupted with pestilent idolatry, insomuch that the fathers did offer their children to Moloch; which I am assured they did not without some zeal, which they thought to be good conscience. But notwithstanding those controversies, divers opinions, and forged consciences at their own appetites, Elijah did kill the priests of Baal; and was he born, I pray you, of the flesh? or was he not rather regenerated by God's Holy Spirit? Josiah [2 Kings 23] did kill all the priests of the high places, and did burn men's bones upon their altars; and was he, I beseech you, brother to Cain; or rather fellow-heir of the kingdom promised with Abel? But that he was God's most faithful king, after David, I trust ye will not deny, except that ye will say, as before boldly ye have affirmed of other, that God revenged blood with blood, in that he suffered him to fall in battle. But the Spirit of God, speaking in the Prophet Jeremiah, is more mild of judgment, for he absolveth him, and doth affirm that he was taken away for the sins of the people. Consider these things, and convict us if ye can by Scriptures.

We say, the man is not persecuted for his conscience, that, declining from God, blaspheming his Majesty, and contemning his religion, obstinately defendeth erroneous and false doctrine. This man, I say, lawfully convicted, if he suffer the death pronounced by a lawful Magistrate, is not persecuted, (as in the name of Servetus ye furiously complain,) but he suffereth punishment according to God's commandment, pronounced in Deuteronomy, the 13th chapter.

To put end to these your calumnies for this time, two things I would require of you. First, That thus foolishly ye abuse not the name of conscience, which you say constraineth you to write, to the end that ye might awake us out of our dreams. Conscience, for assurance of the self in well-doing, must have a testimony of God's plain will revealed; which ye shall not find to be your assurance, that so odiously ye may accuse us of those crimes whereof ye be never able to convict us.

The second is, That by plain Scriptures and solid reasons ye study to confute our doctrine, and not by raging words, spoken, as it were, by men in a frenzy. You shall never be able to prove, either that our doctrine is poisoned, either yet that we draw the people to a secure, idle, and careless life. Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who of his mere mercy hath caused our doctrine somewhat to fructify; our good hope is, that with us and his afflicted Church He will continue his fatherly favour, in such sort, that from time to time he will leave documents to the ages following, that His heavenly doctrine is not sent in vain. To Him be glory for ever.


Footnotes:



1. Michael Servetus was burned for heresy at Geneva, on the 27th October 1553. Calvin's share in his condemnation has given rise to much obloquy. But in vindication of such a sentence, he published his "Defensio Orthodoxæ Fidei de sacra Trinitate, contra prodigiosos errores Michaelis Serueti Hispani: vbi ostenditur hæreticos iure Gladii coercendos esse, et nominatim de homine hoc tam impio iustè et merito sumptum Geneuæ fuisse supplicium. Per Iohannem Caluinum [Genevæ,] Oliua Roberti Stephani, M.D.LIIII." 8vo.

2. Elizabeth Barton of Aldington, in Kent, was commonly called the holy maid of Kent. The story of her alleged trances, revelations, and prophecies, is mentioned by the various historians of the reign of Henry VIII. After a period of eight years, she was detected, and confessed her impostures to Archbishop Cranmer, as he himself relates in a letter, dated 20th of December 1533.—(Todd's Life of Cranmer, vol. i. p. 89-94.) She was hanged for treason and heresy, in 1534.—(Strype's Cranmer, p. 22.) But the allusion is rather to Joan Bucher, usually called Joan of Kent, who was tried and condemned for various heretical opinions, in April 1549: after vain attempts to reclaim her, she was consigned to the flames, in 1550. (Ib. 181.)

3. These be the detestable errors of Johan of Kent.

4. The Adversaries look also to be Christ's at length.

5. The present error of the Anabaptists.