Michael Servetus: Unitarian Martyr
by Barbara Park
Prairie UU Society
presented on September 16, 2012

As those of you who know me remember, I was raised a Universalist, so my knowledge of Unitarian history is very limited, but the Prairie Book Group read Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone and this talk is based on that book.

Wikipedia describes Servetus as a "Spanish theologian, physician, cartographer, and Renaissance humanist" who was the first European to correctly describe pulmonary circulation. He was versed in mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, astronomy, anatomy, jurisprudence, languages, poetry and the study of the Bible.

He was born as Miguel Serveto in the NE corner of Spain on Sept 29, 1511 to a family of minor gentry. This was the time of Charles V, last Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. France was ruled by his rival Francis I and England was ruled by Henry VIII.

This story is also wrapped up with the new interest in books. This was also the time of a new, high demand for books since Gutenberg developed the printing press in 1455. There was an increase in literacy and the wealthy had started to collect books. There was also a high demand for books by the Universities. By 1500AD, more than 300 printing presses had been set up across Europe.

Humanism: There was a major intellectual and literacy movement in progress called Humanism. It was replacing Scholasticism. In Scholastic study, all knowledge was divided into four strictly delineated areas:

Theology – Philosophy – Jurisprudence – Medicine
Students studied a very specific set of texts and then would defend their interpretation, but never the validity of the text.

Humanism started with the same basic texts but expanded them to include grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry and moral philosophy. All of these were based on classic Greek and Latin texts. The basic philosophy encouraged free inquiry and an outward perspective rather than inward examination of minutia. The emphasis was on personal worth of the individual and the central importance of human values rather than religious dogma.

Humanist scholars were tolerated as long as they didn't directly challenge the Church's authority or its interpretation of theological or scientific principles. This is the time into which Servetus was born.

Servetus was looked on as a prodigy early in his life. He was especially gifted in language. By age 13 he could read Spanish, French, Greek, Latin and Hebrew. (In most of Christian Europe, Hebrew was a forbidden language until made legal in France in 1531.) All this meant that he could read the Old Testament in its original form.

Servetus was sent to the University of Zaragossa at age 13. He soon became secretary to Juan de Quintana, a well known humanist professor. Now age 14, he began reading all the assigned texts plus the classics and humanist texts and the German Martin Luther.

Quintana left for the University of Barcelona and Servetus went with him. At age 16, his father sent him to the religiously orthodox town of Toulouse and the University of Toulouse. (Quintana gave him a 2 year leave.) None of them realized that, although the town was conservative, the University was a hot bed of radical thought. It was here that he Latinized his name to Michael Servetus (as was the fashion among the students.) The students read widely, but the most subversive book was the Bible! (both the Erasmus' translation and Computensian Polyglot Bible edited by the humanist Cardinal Ximeres and approved by the Vatican in 1522. It has one column in Hebrew + Greek and one parallel column in Latin Vulgate. Since Servetus could read all of the texts, he could see the difference between the original text and the Vulgate translation. He could also read the Koran in Arabic. (Now age 17.)

He was not anti-Christian. On the contrary, he felt that a return to Biblical scholarship could save Christianity.

After 2 years, he returned to Quintana's service. He was now Confessor to Charles V and part of his inner circle. He was there to observe the extravagant surrounding Charles's coronation as head of the Holy Roman Empire and resigned his position.

Servetus then went to the University of Basel in Switzerland which had been established by Pope Pius II based on humanist principles. By the time he got there, the town was openly protestant. Servetus stayed with the town's leading Protestant figure, but Servetus thought that the reforms had not gone far enough and criticized his host. He insisted that all Roman corruption went back the Trinity. The newly established leader was now much more interested in maintaining the status quo now that he was very influential than examining doctrine and after 10 months, denounced his troublesome guest who fled to Strasbourg. (May 1531)

A supporter put him in touch with the printer Johann Setzer who agreed to publish his first book, On the Errors of the Trinity. The book was 3 ½" x 6" and 120 pages and divided into 7 sections. It was not the best writing, but a "prodigious piece of scholarship". He cited over 30 sources in Latin, Greek Hebrew and Arabic and quoted or alluded to 52 of the 66 books of the Bible and 6 books of the Apocrapha. He wrote it as though addressing an opponent and fiercely attacking, and often ridiculing him. He thought that viewing the Holy Spirit as "a separate being" was "practical tri-theism, no better than atheism." He said that the doctrine of the Trinity itself was "inconceivable, worst of all it incurs the ridicule of the Mohammedans and the Jews." He observed "I know not what madness it is in men that does not see that in the Scriptures every sort of unity of God is always referred to as the Father." The book was not heretical in intent. It is filled with passionate earnestness, warm piety, a reverence for the Scripture and a mystical and overpowering love of Christ. He expressed that the concept of the Trinity that had been imposed on Chirstianity was in error, but that the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit were different aspect of God, not separate and distinct beings. (Insert page 72)

The book was published without a printer's imprint, but heresy sold well. It sold out quickly and was discussed everywhere.

The concept of the Trinity was going out of vogue with reformers. Luther left it out of his catechism, but some theorize that this frontal attach brought the argument out prematurely and led to hardening of arguments in it's favor.

The book was banned and Servetus was sentenced to death by the Spanish Inqusition and denounced by reformers. He then published a less strident book Two Dialogues on the Trinity which was also banned. He escaped from both camps.

Now age 22, he enrolled at the University of Paris as Michael de Villeneuve. He ultimately aligned himself with the most radical faction at the U. John Calvin was also there and wrote his first book on Seneca which bombed! The radical professor Cop's was inaugurated into the head of the Theological school and Calvin helped write his inaugural speech. Given on Nov 1, 1533, it was labeled heretical. The reformers had overplayed their hand and all had to flee arrest. Reform in France was driven underground again. (At this point, Calvin already hated Servetus for having published a successful book when his was not.)

They were quietly able to return to Paris the next year. Calvin wrote his bleak but carefully reasoned book Institutes of the Christian Religion. His basic philosophy was Man is nothing, God is everything. Man is small, corrupt and weak. Free will is an illusion. God alone decides who will be saved. An individual cannot alter that decision by good works or other exertions. The decision is made before he is born. Through Christ, man as a species participates in salvation. To understand God, people must turn to the pastors and teachers of the true Church – which Calvin is ready to define. Original sin is a hereditary corruption and depravity of our nature, extending to all parts of the soup and transmitted from parent to child so that all, without exception, are originally depraved. Calvin's book eventually ran to 1118 pages and first was printed in 1536 causing a sensation.

Servetus went to Lyon, 2nd largest city in France, in 1535, already having burned his bridges in both Switzerland and Germany. Lyon had its own independent printing and publishing industry. He was hired by the Trechsel brothers, 1st as a proofreader and then as editor and updater of Ptolemy's Geography. Servetus used the oldest Latin and Greek editions he could find to create a more authentic book - The Eight Books of the Account of Geography by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria…. This version was so extensive and improved, that some have claimed that Servetus was the father of comparative geography. He read and corrected medical texts and was firmly safe and accepted under his alias. Things calmed down in France and the following year he returned to the University of Paris to study medicine.

The study of medicine was stuck at Galen (b.AD130). The 16th century Church restricted the science of medicine and anatomy to Galen. However in 1525, Galen was retranslated into Greek creating two versions which ultimately open the field of study. Servetus became assistent to the major anatomy professor. He also was a popular lecturer on geography, astronomy and mathematics. He wrote a book The Syrups instructing how to concoct medications according to Galen.

Always a genius for indiscretion, he starting criticizing other professors. He wrote a scathing pamphlet for which he was tried and was forced to withdraw it.

During this time he made the intuitive leap of understanding the pulmonary circulation, but did not publish it until his final and deadly book.

Servetus became a physician in Lyon but was not accepted there and moved to Vienne where he treated rich and poor alike. Ignoring the risk, he worked through the plague of 1542.

Things were going well and probably would have continued that way except that, in 1541, he was asked to edit a one volume edition of the Pagnini Bible. In the preface, he criticized biblical scholar's ignorance of Hebrew and history, saying they were too apt to overlook the historical and literal sense of the scriptures and hunt for mystical meaning where none existed. Then he agreed to edit the full 7 volume edition. This rekindled his passion for theology.

He started debating theology and Biblical underpinnings with his friend Jean Frellon who was outmatched and, in 1546, Frellon set up a debate though letters between Servetus and his friend, John Calvin.

After 6 years of writing in secret, Servetus published The restoration of Christianity in 1552. It contained several themes including the injustice of infant baptism, the contortions of the Scriptures, the myth of the Trinity, and the assertion that God existed in all people and things. It was published in secret, not by the regular employees. The first batch was 500 books. Some were hidden in bales of hay bound for Frankfurt, a second batch went to Geneva and some were sent to Lyon for safe keeping. In Geneva, Calvin got hold of a copy of the book and burned it. He got a Geneva merchant to write his cousin in Lyon to alert the authorities about the book. Servetus was arrested when he was dupt into going to the palace to tend the sick. He was questioned about the book and his letters to Calvin. At night, he was able to escape but was sentenced in abstensia and the books in the bales of hay were burned.

Servetus decided to escape south to Naples, but surprisingly traveled north to Geneva into Calvin grasp. He arrived on August 12th and was captured and tried. He tried to defend himself in front of the council - at times debating Calvin directly. They finally revised the charges so that simple banishment would not work with a list of 30 charges saying he was a disreputable person and a menace to Society. On Aug 28th they changed to 37 charges, much more sophisticated, and clearly written by Calvin. They changed the debate to a written rather than oral one. The libertines in the town who Servetus was depending on decided not to challenge Calvin and Servetus's fate was sealed. He was convicted on Oct 26, 1553, and burned the next day with his book lashed to his arm.

At the time, Calvin was severely criticized for his leading part in the death of Servetus. Others who agreed with his anti-trinitarian views became much more cautious in expressing them. However, since he was dead, his workd could be distributed more widely and others developed them under their own names. His writings influenced the Unitarian movement in Poland and Transylvania and lead to the separation of the Polish brethren from the Calvinist Reformed Church in Poland. Eventually the movement spread to Holland and then to England.