Michael Servetus, who would become a brilliant scientist and unconventional theologian, was born 500 years ago in the Spanish city of Villanueva de Sijena. Eventually, he would rediscover what Arabs in the 13th century already knew: the pulmonary circulation of the blood. Yet, for his theological views about the Trinity, sin, and baptism, he would be declared a heretic and burned at the stake in the Protestant city of Geneva.
Scientist and anti-trinitarian
After studies in Toulouse and Paris and travels to the Reformation cities of Strasbourg and Basel, Servetus settled in Lyon and Vienne, where he worked as an editor and physician.
Widely read in Platonic, Gnostic, Jewish and Arabic thought, he became a severe critic of the classical Christian doctrine of the Trinity — a word that he could not find in the Bible — and its definition of three persons in one essence. Servetus reasoned that the Son of God could not be eternal since in him were joined the eternal Word and the man Jesus.
We should be mistaken, warns Roland Bainton — who wrote “Hunted Heretic,” a book about Servetus — if we saw in Servetus a theologian who reduced Jesus to a mere human.
“Not the reduction of Christ to the level of humanity,” writes Bainton, “but the exaltation of humanity to the level of Christ was the core of the religion of Servetus.”
Servetus also rejected what cost many Anabaptists their lives: the Roman Catholic and mainstream Protestant practice of infant baptism. His major work, “On the Restitution of Christianity,” sought to express what he believed to be the authentic faith of early Christianity.
Servetus’s first serious judicial problems occurred while he was employed as a physician for the Archbishop of Vienne. Correspondence he had conducted with John Calvin, the great reformer of Geneva, helped the prosecution make its case. Although arrested and imprisoned, Servetus managed to escape and was subsequently tried in absentia for heresy and burned in effigy.
Seeking refuge in Naples, Servetus travelled via Geneva, where he was discovered and arrested at John Calvin’s behest.
Calvin had earlier left no doubt about what he would do if Servetus ever visited Geneva. To his friend and fellow reformer, Guillaume Farel, he had written years earlier that he would never let him escape alive.
The trial of Servetus for heresy was, however, conducted by the city authorities of Geneva, who also sought the opinions of other Swiss cities, all of which denounced Servetus and encouraged his prosecution for the capital offence of blasphemy.
On Oct. 26, 1553, Servetus was condemned to death for his heretical opinions on the Trinity and infant baptism and ordered “to be bound and taken to Champel (the place of execution) and here attached to a stake and burned with your book to ashes,” as a warning example to all who would hold similar opinions.
Denial of the doctrine of the Trinity was considered to be blasphemy, a crime punishable by death in both Roman Catholic and Protestant jurisdictions. Calvin tried, unsuccessfully, to have the heretic beheaded rather than burned — a small comfort.
The execution took place the next day. Never retracting his unorthodox views, Servetus died with a prayer on his lips that reflected what he believed about Jesus: “Jesus, Son of the Eternal God (not “Eternal Son of God”), have mercy on me!”
Condemnation and protest
Most leading reformers, including the great Lutheran peacemaker Philip Melanchthon, agreed with the verdict and sentence. “I affirm also your Magistracy has acted justly,” Melanchthon wrote to Calvin, “in putting this blasphemer to death after a regular trial.”
While Calvin’s position at Geneva and as a leader of the Protestant reformation was strengthened by his role in the trial, today many would agree with the dissenting voice of Sebastian Castellio, a reformer in Basel, who wrote about the verdict: “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine: it is to kill a man.”
Servetus is today mainly remembered for his trial and execution, but as the historian Jerome Friedman has pointed out, his “ideas and exegetical method proved influential in the development of subsequent Unitarianism.”
Hans Rollmann is Professor of Religious Studies at MUN and can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.