VI. MICHAEL SERVETUS: 1511-53

Miguel Serveto was born at Villanova (some sixty miles north of Saragossa), son of a notary of good family. He grew up at a time when the writings of Erasmus were enjoying a transitory tolerance in Spain. He was in some measure influenced by the literature of the Jews and the Moslems; he read the Koran, made his way through rabbinical commentaries, and was impressed by the Semitic criticism of Christianity (with its prayers to a Trinity, to Mary, and to saints) as polytheistic. Luther called him “the Moor.” At Toulouse, where he studied law, he saw for the first time a complete Bible, vowed to read it “a thousand times,” and was deeply moved by the visions of the Apocalypse. He won the patronage of Juan de Quintana, confessor to Charles V, and was taken by Juan to Bologna and Augsburg (1530). Michael discovered Protestantism, and liked it; he visited Oecolampadius at Basel, and Capito and Bucer at Strasbourg; soon he was too heretical for their taste, and was invited to graze in other fields.

In 1531 and 1532 he published the first and second edition of his basic work, De Trinitatis erroribus. It was rather confused, and in a crude Latin that must have made Calvin smile if ever; but in wealth of Biblical erudition it was an astonishing performance for a lad of twenty. Jesus, in Servetus’s view, was a man into whom God the Father had breathed the Logos, the Divine Wisdom; in this sense Jesus became the Son of God; but he was not equal or co-eternal with the Father, Who might communicate the same spirit of wisdom to other men; “the Son was sent from the Father in no other way than as one of the Prophets.”57 This was pretty close to Mohammed’s conception of Christ. Servetus proceeded to take the Semitic view of Trinitarianism. “All those who believe in a Trinity in the essence of God are tritheists”; and, he added, they are “true atheists” as deniers of the One God.58 This was youthfully extreme, but Servetus tried to soften his heresy by inditing rhapsodies on Christ as the Light of the World; most of his readers, however, felt that he had extinguished the light. As if to leave no stone unhurled, he concurred with the Anabaptists that baptism should be given only to adults. Oecolampadius and Bucer repudiated him, and Servetus, reversing Calvin’s itinerary, fled from Switzerland to France (1532).

On July 17 the Inquisition at Toulouse issued a warrant for his arrest. He thought of going to America, but found Paris more agreeable. There, disguising himself as Michel de Villeneuve (the family name), he studied mathematics, geography, astronomy, and medicine, and flirted with astrology. The great Vesalius was his fellow student in dissection, and their teachers praised them equally. He quarreled with the dean of the medical faculty, and seems in general to have given offense by his impetuosity, passion, and pride. He challenged Calvin to a debate, but did not appear at the appointed place and time (1534). In the furore over Cop’s address and the heretical placards, Servetus, like Calvin, left Paris. At Lyons he edited a scholarly edition of Ptolemy’s Geography. In 1540 he moved to Vienne (sixteen miles south of Lyons), and there he lived till his last year, practicing medicine and scholarship. Out of so many scholars available to the Lyons publishers-printers, he was chosen to edit a Latin translation of the Bible by Santes Pagnini. The work took him three years, and ran to six volumes. In a note on Isaiah 7:14, which Jerome had rendered “a virgin shall conceive,” Servetus explained that the Hebrew word meant not virgin but young woman, and he suggested that it referred not prophetically to Mary but simply to Hezekiah’s wife. In the same spirit he indicated that other seemingly prophetic passages in the Old Testament referred only to contemporary figures or events. This proved disconcerting to Protestants and Catholics alike.

We do not know when Servetus discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood—the passage of the blood from the right chamber of the heart along the pulmonary artery to and through the lungs, its purification there by aeration, and its return via the pulmonary vein to the left chamber of the heart. So far as is now known, he did not publish his finding till 1553, when he included it in his final work, The Restitution of Christianity. He brought the theory into a theological treatise because he thought of the blood as the vital spirit in man, and therefore—more probably than the heart or the brain—the real seat of the soul. Deferring for a while the problem of Servetus’s priority in this discovery, we merely note that he had apparently completed the Christianismi restitutio by 1546, for in that year he sent the manuscript to Calvin.

The very title was a challenge to the man who had written the Christianae religionis institutio; but further, the book sharply rejected, as blasphemy, the notion that God had predestined souls to hell regardless of their merits or guilt. God, said Servetus, condemns no one who does not condemn himself. Faith is good, but love is better, and God Himself is love. Calvin thought it sufficient refutation of all this to send Servetus a copy of the Institutes. Servetus returned it with insulting annotations,59 and followed up with a series of letters so contemptuous that Calvin wrote to Farel (February 13, 1546): “Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word, for should he come, if my authority is of any avail, I will not suffer him to get out alive.” 60 Servetus, angry at Calvin’s refusal to continue the correspondence, wrote to Abel Poupin, one of the Genevese ministers (1547) :

Your gospel is without God, without true faith, without good works. Instead of a God you have a three-headed Cerberus [the predestinating Trinity? ]. For faith you have a deterministic dream.... Man is with you an inert trunk, and God is a chimera of the enslaved will.... . You close the Kingdom of Heaven before men.... . Woe! woe! woe! This is the third letter that I have written to warn you, that you may know better. I will not warn you again. In this fight of Michael I know that I shall certainly die .... but I do not falter.... Christ will come. He will not tarry.61

Obviously Servetus was a bit more insane than the average of his time. He announced that the end of the world was at hand, that the Archangel Michael would lead a holy war against both the papal and the Genevese Antichrists, and that he, who had been named after the Archangel, would fight and die in that war.62 The Restitutio was a call to that war. No wonder it had difficulty finding a publisher. The Basel printers shied away from it. Finally (January 3, 1553) it was clandestinely printed in Vienne by Balthasar Arnouillet and Guillaume Guéroult. Their names, and the place of publication, were omitted, and the author signed himself only as MSV. He paid all the expenses, corrected the proofs, and then destroyed the manuscript. The volume ran to 734 pages, for it included a revised form of De Trinitatis erroribus, and Servetus’s thirty letters to Calvin.

Of the thousand copies printed some were sent to a bookseller in Geneva. There one came into the hands of Guillaume Trie, a friend of Calvin’s. The thirty letters made plain to Calvin that MSV stood for Michael Servetus of Villanova. On February 26, 1553, Trie wrote to a Catholic cousin in Lyons, Antoine Arneys, expressing surprise that Cardinal François de Tournon should allow such a book to be printed in his diocese. How did Trie know the place of publication? Calvin knew that Servetus was living in Lyons or Vienne.

Arneys brought the matter to Matthias Ory, inquisitor at Lyons. Ory notified the Cardinal, who ordered Maugiron, Lieutenant-Governor of Vienne, to investigate. On March 16 Servetus was summoned to Maugiron’s house. Before obeying he destroyed all papers that might incriminate him. He denied having written the book. Arneys dispatched to Trie a request for more evidence of Servetus’s authorship. Trie obtained from Calvin some of Servetus’s letters, and sent them to Lyons. They tallied with several letters in the book. On April 4 Servetus was arrested. Three days later he escaped by leaping over a garden wall. On June 17 the civil court of Vienne condemned him, if found, to be burned alive by a slow fire.

Servetus wandered about France for three months. He decided to seek refuge in Naples, and to go via Geneva. For reasons unknown he remained in Geneva a month, under an assumed name; and meanwhile he arranged for transportation to Zurich. On Sunday, August 13, he attended church, perhaps to avoid investigation by the authorities. He was recognized. Calvin was informed, and ordered his arrest. Calvin explained this action in a later letter (September 9, 1553): “When the papists are so harsh and violent in defense of their superstitions that they rage cruelly to shed innocent blood, are not Christian magistrates shamed to show themselves less ardent in defense of the sure truth?” The Small Council followed Calvin’s lead, and outran his ferocity. Since Servetus was only a transient, and not a citizen subject to the laws of Geneva, the Council could not legally do more than banish him.

He was confined in the former episcopal palace, now a prison. He was not tortured, except by the lice that infested his cell. He was allowed paper and ink, and whatever books he cared to buy, and Calvin lent him several volumes of the early Fathers. The trial was carefully conducted, lasting over two months. The indictment was drawn up by Calvin in thirty-eight articles, supported by quotations from the writings of Servetus. One charge was that he had accepted Strabo’s description of Judea as a barren country, whereas the Bible called it a land flowing with milk and honey.63 The basic accusations were that Servetus had rejected the Trinity and infant baptism; he was also accused of having, “in the person of M. Calvin, defamed the doctrines of the Gospel of the Church of Geneva.”64 On August 17 and 21 Calvin appeared in person as the accuser. Servetus defended his views boldly, even to pantheism. By an unusual co-operation of hostile faiths, the Protestant Council of Geneva asked the Catholic judges at Vienne for particulars of the charges that had been brought against Servetus there. One new count was sexual immorality; Servetus replied that rupture had long since made him impotent, and had kept him from marriage.65 He was further accused of having attended Mass at Vienne; he pleaded fear of death as exculpation. He challenged the jurisdiction of a civil court over cases of heresy; he assured the court that he had engaged in no sedition, and had not violated the laws of Geneva; and he asked for an attorney, better acquainted than himself with these laws, to help him in his defense. These pleas were refused. The French Inquisition sent an agent to Geneva to demand that Servetus be sent back to France for the execution of the sentence that had been pronounced against him; Servetus, in tears, begged the Council to reject this demand; it did; but the demand may have stimulated the Council to equal the Inquisition in severity.

On September 1 two enemies of Calvin—Ami Perrin and Philibert Berthelier—were allowed to join the judges in the trial. They engaged Calvin in disputes, to no result; but they persuaded the Council to consult the other churches of Protestant Switzerland on how Servetus should be treated. On September 2 Calvin’s leadership in the city was again challenged in the Council by Patriotes and Libertins; he survived the storm, but the evident desire of the opposition to rescue Servetus may have hardened Calvin to pursue the heretic to the death. However, we should note that the chief prosecutor in the trial was Claude Rigot, a Libertin.66

On September 3 Servetus presented to the Council a written reply to the thirty-eight charges adduced by Calvin. He met each point with keen argument and Scriptural or patristic citations; he questioned Calvin’s right to interfere in the trial, and called him a disciple of Simon Magus, a criminal, and a homicide.67 Calvin answered in twenty-three pages; these were submitted to Servetus, who returned them to the Council with such marginal comments as “liar,” “impostor,” “hypocrite,” “miserable wretch”;68 probably the strain of a month’s imprisonment and mental torment had broken Servetus’s self-control. Calvin’s reports of the trial are themselves in the manner of the time; he writes of Servetus that “the dirty dog wiped his snout”; “the perfidious scamp” soils each page with “impious ravings.”69 Servetus petitioned the Council to indict Calvin as a “repressor of the truth of Jesus Christ,” to “exterminate” him, confiscate his goods, and, with the proceeds, reimburse Servetus for the losses he had sustained by Calvin’s actions. The suggestion was not favorably received.

On October 18 the replies came in from the Swiss churches whose counsel had been asked; all advised the condemnation of Servetus, none his execution.

On October 25 Perrin made a last effort to save him by moving for a retrial before the Council of Two Hundred; he was overruled. On the twenty-sixth the Small Council, with no member dissenting, passed sentence of death on two counts of heresy—Unitarianism and the rejection of infant baptism. When Servetus heard the sentence, says Calvin, “he moaned like a madman, and... beat his breast, and bellowed in Spanish, Misericordia! Misericordia/” He asked to talk with Calvin; he pleaded with him for mercy; Calvin offered no more than to give him the final consolations of the true religion if he would retract his heresies. Servetus would not. He asked to be beheaded rather than burned; Calvin was inclined to support this plea, but the aged Farel, in at the death, reproved him for such tolerance; and the Council voted that Servetus should be burned alive.70

The sentence was carried out the next morning, October 27, 1553, on the hill of Champel, just south of Geneva. On the way Farel importuned Servetus to earn divine mercy by confessing the crime of heresy; according to Farel the condemned man replied, “I am not guilty, I have not merited death”; and he besought God to pardon his accusers.71 He was fastened to a stake by iron chains, and his last book was bound to his side. When the flames reached his face he shrieked with agony. After half an hour of burning he died.*

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