IN THE DEVELOPMENT of religious thought among the dissenting elements of the Protestant movement, that we have thus far traced, no positive results have been discovered. There has been indeed a widespread assertion and exercise of freedom from the Christian traditions and forms of thought hitherto dominant; there has been an even more significant demand for tolerance of thought and practice; but the main emphasis has been the practical one as realized in personal experience and character and in the institutions of society. There have also been individual leaders of great power and wide influence, and independent thinkers of originality, deep insight, and no little merit, who have thrown out pregnant truths and significant hints; but none of them attempted a systematic formulation of the Christian faith from a new point of view, or sought to carry out the full implications of a faith appealing to a new seat of authority. The relentless persecution of the Anabaptists would have made any such attempt untimely and barren.

Yet the daring thinkers with whom we have been concerned had most of them hardly been silenced by death or imprisonment, before there arose from an entirely different quarter a solitary figure who, though quite unconnected with them, was destined to go on beyond the point where they had been forced to stop, and who, having ignored the authority of the ancient creeds and the forms of mediaeval theology, was to work out, however crudely, a new system of belief based strictly on Scripture alone; and who, although he was to leave hardly a single disciple of his peculiar form of doctrine, was yet to leave an enduring impress upon the course of free Christian thought. This man was Michael Servetus,(1) whose dramatic life, tragic death, and cardinal relation to the whole movement here considered entitle him to more than the ordinary measure of our attention. In the judgment of a biographer of Calvin not likely to be partial to him, Servetus ‘was in intellectual endowments undoubtedly the peer of the greatest men of his century, Calvin included.’(2) As to his significance in the history of religious thought, Trechsel, a competent judge, states that ‘Servetus personified the antitrinitarian spirit, and worked it out into a comprehensive system, giving it its first speculative and systematic form. Previous Antitrinitarians had either been merely negative, or their teaching had gone off on a tangent, and had left only sketches and hints, and were less concerned with dogma than with practical ends.’(3) The German scientist Karl Vogt pronounced him ‘the greatest savant of his century’; the French theologian Tollin called him one of the greatest mystics of all time; the Spanish littérateur Menéndez y Pelayo said, ‘Of all Spanish heretics none surpasses Servetus in boldness and originality of ideas, in the order and consistency of his system, in logical vigor, and in the extreme character of his errors'(4) He made a conspicuous mark for himself not only in the history of Christian theology, but also in biblical criticism, in the history of medicine and anatomy, and in comparative geography, and his thought ranged over yet other wide and varied fields.

Comparatively little is known of Servetus’s life before he entered the field of religious controversy at the age of twenty,(5) and from that little it is not always easy to discover the truth; for it is nearly all contained in his testimony given at trials at Vienne and Geneva where his life was at stake, and he had the strongest motive for concealing or misstating facts that might prejudice his case. He was perhaps born at the little town of Tudela in southern Navarre, but if so his father soon afterwards removed to Villanueva de Sigena,(6) whence the son later chose the disguising name of Michel de Villeneuve, or its Latin equivalent. As Spain has well-nigh three hundred places named Vilanova, Vilanoba, Villanueva, Vilanueba, Villanuova, etc.,(7) it was long uncertain from which of them Servetus came; but the place is now known to have been correctly described in his testimony at Geneva as Villanueva in the diocese of Lerida (though in the province of Huesca), a little village on the Alcanadre about sixty miles northeast of Saragossa. The ancestral borne, the casa de Reves, is still standing, the most pretentious house in the village; and over the side-altar to Santa Lucia in the parish church of San Salvador hard by is a retablo believed to have been erected by the mother and brother of Servetus, and to bear their portraits.(8)

The date of Servetus’s birth is also uncertain, but it was probably 1511.(9) His father was Antonio Serveto alias Revés,10 who from 1511 until 1538 held the important office of Notary at Sigena, and was raised to the nobility in 1529. His mother was Catalina Conesa, and he had at least one brother, Juan, who entered the priesthood and became rector of Poliñino. The family Serveto was well known in Aragón, and numbered persons of distinction in state and church, among them Andrés Serveto of Aninõn, Professor of Law at Bologna and later Senator in Aragón, and Marco Antonio Serveto de Reves (a later style of the name), Canon of Saragossa and Abbot of Montearagón.11

When he published his first book at the age of twenty, Servetus had, besides his native Spanish, a ready writing and speaking knowledge of Latin, and knew Greek and Hebrew well enough to discuss intelligently the meaning of the Bible in its original tongues. He also had a considerable acquaintance with the Fathers of the Church and with scholastic philosophy. Where he acquired this knowledge is not definitely known, but as he was not physically strong he may have been originally intended for a religious life. If so, he would in all probability have been brought up in some cloister school,12 or possibly (as has been suggested, though without the least proof) may have attended the University of Saragossa. It was early declared,13 and often repeated, that he went to Africa to learn Arabic among the Moors; but for this there is no more evidence than the fact that in his first book he several times refers to the teachings of the Koran.

At the age of fifteen or sixteen, however, Servetus was sent by his father across the Pyrenees to Toulouse to study law, and he remained there two or three years.14 The school of law at the University of Toulouse was at this time the most celebrated in all Europe, while the theological atmosphere was of the narrowest type, and heresy was suppressed with ruthless cruelty. In such an environment Servetus began for the first time in his life secretly to read the Bible with some fellowstudents;15 and it is possible that here he first learned Greek and Hebrew in order the better to understand it. His enthusiasm over it as a book of vital religious experience knew scarcely any bounds, and is reflected in his first book published some three years later. Such religious teaching as he had hitherto received had been of the most abstract, speculative sort. Its central doctrine, and the one most strenuously insisted upon in the schools, conceived of God as a being existing in three distinct hypostases in one substance, and Christ was conceived of as one of these hypostases having had existence from all eternity. There was in such a doctrine more than enough to puzzle and confuse one’s head, but nothing to warm his heart or inspire his life. In his newly discovered Bible, however, Servetus found something to which his whole religious nature responded, yet ‘not one word about the Trinity, nor about its Persons, nor about an Essence, nor about a unity of the Substance, nor about one nature of the several beings.’16 It was because they were unwilling to profess this doctrine that in the generation just preceding 8oo,ooo Jews had been banished from Spain, and many thousands of Moors had recently been burned at the stake in Andalusia.17 Now, in contrast to all this, Servetus was relieved and inspired to find in the New Testament as the centre of Christian faith a historical being, the man Jesus of Nazareth. His religious problem was solved, and the wonderful Bible seemed to him no less than a book come down from heaven, in which he found all philosophy and all wisdom.18 From this point on the vocation of Servetus was determined. He was destined to become not a jurist, nor yet a priest, but a religious reformer, who was to make known to the world his great discovery, supplement Luther’s reform of abuses in the Church by simplifying its teachings and restoring the purity of its doctrines which the perverse subtlety of the Scholastics had rendered so confusing and sterile, and was thus, as he hoped, to open the way to a general conversion of Mohammedans and Jews to Christianity.

At about the time when he went to Toulouse,19 Servetus had entered the service of Juan de Quintana, a broad-minded, scholarly and eloquent Franciscan monk who was court preacher to the Emperor, and as such had distinguished himself at Worms during the Diet in 1521.20 Servetus’s service was that of a famulus, a sort of student-secretary, such as monks often employed. If student in some Franciscan cloister school, he may there have attracted the notice of Quintana by his talents and his excellent handwriting. His studies at Toulouse, however, were brought to an end early in 1529 when he was taken with his master into the suite of the Emperor who was about to go to Italy to receive from Pope Clement VII. coronation as Holy Roman Emperor.21 He thus left his native land and never saw it again. This journey was of critical importance in shaping the rapidly developing religious thought of Servetus, for during the nearly six months that he was at Bologna,22 he was able to get at close range many views of the conduct and character of the highest dignitaries in the Church.

Charles had already received the silver crown as Emperor of Germany at Aix-la-Chapelle ten years before, and now at Bologna he received the iron crown as King of Lombardy, and two days later, on February 24, the Pope placed on his head the golden crown as Roman Emperor. The whole drama was preceded, accompanied and followed by a magnificence, a splendor, a luxury, an extravagance unprecedented in the history of Italy, and perhaps of the whole modern world.23 Princes, nobles, legates from all the nations of Europe, cardinals, bishops were present in great numbers. This on the front stage for outward display. On the other hand, behind the scenes, where Servetus’s office required him to be, and where his unsophisticated mind might have expected to find sincerest piety and spotless sanctity of life, he saw among ecclesiastical politicians and the highest dignitaries of the Church unmistakable evidences of worldliness, selfish ambition, cunning intrigue, cynical skepticism, and shameless immorality that made him sick at heart. Thoroughly disillusioned, he came to regard the official religion of the Church as hollow mockery, and to see in the Pope the Antichrist foretold in the New Testament. At the same time he saw the Pope treated with what seemed to him little less than idolatry. The Emperor knelt and kissed his feet, princes harnessed themselves to his chariot, the crowds in the streets knelt as he passed, or pressed to touch the hem of his garment as though even that could sanctify them. More than twenty years later as he recalled all this he boiled with mingled disgust and indignation in his last book:

He dares not touch his feet to the earth, lest his holiness be defiled. He has himself borne upon the shoulders of men, and adored as a God upon earth. Since the foundation of the world no one has ever dared try anything more wicked. With these very eyes we saw him carried with pomp on the necks of princes, making threatening crosses with his hand, and adored in the open squares by the whole people on bended knee; to such a degree that those that were able to kiss his feet or his shoes deemed themselves happy beyond others, said that they had got the greatest indulgences, and that for this the punishments of hell had been remitted for many years. 0 beast of beasts most wicked, harlot most shameless.24

All this, following so soon after his quickening experience of the simplicity and purity of native Christianity as discovered in the Bible, and in such shocking contrast with it, must inevitably have deepened whatever conviction he already had as to the need of a reformed Christianity, and have impressed upon him a determination to do whatever he could to promote it. If the chance of doing this through the dominant organization of the Church now seemed hopeless, there might be an opportunity of accomplishing something through those north of the Alps who were aiming at reformation. He may therefore well have looked forward with eager anticipation to the possibility of coming into touch with them at the approaching Diet at Augsburg, where their cause was to be laid before the Emperor.

Charles was at Augsburg from the middle of June until late in November; and if Servetus was there in his suite, as is entirely probable, though direct evidence on the point is wanting,25 he is almost certain to have seen and heard Melanchthon, Butzer and Capito, leaders of the reforming party.26 It is evident that in their quarter he saw much more hope for the reform he had in mind than in the old Church, for at this time he removed from a Catholic environment to a Protestant one. Just when his service with Quintana came to an end is not known, nor whether his leaving of it was voluntary, for definite data for his life at this period are wholly lacking; though his apparent implication at Vienne that it was occasioned by his master’s death is misleading.27 At all events, in October or earlier we find him at Basel in close personal intercourse with Oecolampadius, leader of the Reformation there.28 His effort is now to be devoted to an attempt to get the leaders of the still plastic Protestant movement to see that the future of reformed Christianity, and its acceptance in quarters that hitherto have remained impervious to Christianity at all, in large measure depends upon its being purified of the accretions of the centuries, relieved of the perverse subtleties of the scholastic theologians, and restored to the simplicities of its primitive state, especially as regards the doctrines about God and the nature of Christ, which have furnished the greatest difficulties to Christian faith.

At Basel Servetus sought repeated interviews with Oecolampadius. It must be remembered that he was as yet but a youth of nineteen, while Oecolampadius was forty-eight, professor at the University, and head of the city clergy, with a large part of the weight of the cause of the Reformation at Basel resting on his shoulders. But Servetus was precocious and eager, and obsessed with a certain sense of a divine calling in what he had undertaken. He was therefore less interested in learning from Oecolampadius than in instructing him as to the central dogmas of the Christian faith. The reformer at first received him kindly and, recognizing his talents, listened to him patiently; but when Servetus showed himself unteachable, and used language about Christ which seemed to him blasphemous, he lost patience. Servetus continued to crowd himself upon Oecolampadius’s attention, only to be repulsed; whereupon he wrote complaining that he had been rudely and harshly treated, and wrote out for the reformer a confession of faith to reassure him. At first sight this seemed to be orthodox enough, but when Oecolampadius carefully scrutinized it he saw that it was calculated to deceive the unwary, for it gave no recognition to the three persons in the Godhead nor to the eternal divinity of Christ. He replied in a letter answering Servetus’s complaints, refuting his arguments, criticizing his confession, and practically putting an end to any further discussion.29 Servetus seems in his disappointment to have repeated his complaints to Butzer, with whom he was now evidently acquainted, and Butzer apparently interceded for Servetus. Oecolampadius replied, justifying his action on doctrinal grounds.30

Late in the same autumn a conference of leading reformers was held to discuss ways and means for spreading and defending their cause in the face of serious Catholic opposition. Zwingli, Bullinger, Oecolampadius, Butzer and Capito were present. Oecolampadius there reported the trouble he was having with Servetus and his Arian views, which he feared might infect others. Zwingli was much concerned, for he saw here a danger that their whole cause might be undone, and he urged that all pains be taken to convert or silence Servetus, and that his blasphemies be smothered.31 They were however soon to be broadcast in another way. Servetus, it seems, had by now put his doctrinal views into writing, and he tried to secure attention for them in another quarter of highest influence. Erasmus had already become well known in Spain for his interest in the reform of the Church, and at just this period he was living at Basel. The fact that he was one of the most famous men in the world of his time, and now in his sixtieth year, did not prevent the youth Servetus from attempting to make a convert of him; but Erasmus would not listen.32

Thus rebuffed again, Servetus now determined upon a new line of procedure, by putting his views into print so that whether the reformers would heed them or no, the Christian world at large might read them and be convinced. The first step was to find a publisher. Since the book might be suspect, this was not quite easy. But there was at Basel a publisher and bookseller named Conrad Rous who also had shops at Strassburg and Paris.33 Doubtless unwilling to run the risk of publishing the book himself, he arranged with Servetus for its printing abroad by the well-known printer Johann Setzer (Johannes Secerius) at Hagenau in Alsace,34 some fifteen miles north of Strassburg. Setzer had a high reputation for his work, and a wide patronage among scholars. Having once studied at Wittenberg, he was also an intense Lutheran, and had printed works of Luther and Melanchthon.35 As Luther had fallen out with the theologians of the cities of the upper Rhine, who had sided with Zwingli in the controversy over the Lord’s Supper, Setzer chuckled over the printing of a book from their quarter which would displease them, and confirm Luther’s intimation at Marburg that they were unsound in the faith.36

Having now no hope of being able to accomplish anything by staying longer at Basel, Servetus in 1531 removed to Strassburg, where he might both be near the printer and thus easily see his book through the press, and also attempt if possible to succeed with the Strassburg reformers where he had failed with Oecolampadius. Servetus may well have hoped to find sympathy there. Strassburg was the most liberal of all the German cities, and had for some time been regarded as a paradise for freethinkers, if not even for heretics. We have already seen Cellarius, Denck, Haetzer, Kautz, Franck, Bünderlin, Entfelder, Marbeck, Hofmann and Joris gravitating thither when driven from other cities;37 and whether Servetus knew it or not, the two leaders of the Reformation there had a reputation for liberalism which bordered on heresy.38 Martin Butzer (Bucer), though by a dozen years the younger of the two, was the more influential. He was minister of a congregation of radical tendencies, and as Professor of New Testament Greek was founder of the University. He was a disciple of Erasmus, and disposed to wide toleration. Wolfgang Fabricius Capito as minister of another congregation was his colleague in the work of reform, and of even broader spirit, insomuch that his liberalism gave Butzer some concern.39 Already in 1527 both had been accused to Luther of being unsound on the Trinity; and similar charges made at Marburg had aroused much feeling against them; while at the Marburg colloquy of 1529 Luther had bitterly charged Butzer with being unorthodox as to the Trinity and the deity of Christ.40 Servetus had come to Strassburg to confer with Butzer and Capito about Scripture,41 and he seems already to have known Butzer by correspondence if not in person. Despite the recent warnings from Oecolampadius and Zwingli, he was kindly received by the open-minded reformers, more than twice his age. Capito appeared at first to agree with him,42 and Butzer, even after he had become his earnest opponent, addressed him in terms of affection.43 But in the end he evidently made no better progress in discussion here than at Basel; so without attempting conference with any one else,44 or taking his new friends into confidence as to what he was about to do,45 he proceeded to his printer at Hagenau.

The book was published early in 1531,46 and was entitled De Trinitatis Erroribus, libri septem.47 The printer was too prudent to publish his name or the place of publication. Servetus, however, seems to have seen no reason why he should not propose a restatement of the doctrine of the Trinity with as much freedom as the reformers had used with regard to other time-honored doctrines. He therefore boldly, perhaps proudly, placed his name on the title-page — per Michaelem Serveto alias Reves ab Aragonia Hispanum. It was a little book of 238 small pages, neatly printed, but written in none too perfect Latin.48 It was soon offered for sale at Strassburg, and later at Basel, Frankfurt, Bern and elsewhere;49 but before going on to speak of the way in which it was received and the effect that it produced, it will be well to give some account of the contents of the book itself.

The work comprises seven books; but the gist of it is contained in the first book, which the remaining books for the most part merely supplement or amplify. Servetus’s impulse toward writing this work dates back to his discovery of the Bible at Toulouse and his finding in it a view of the Christian faith very different from that which he had hitherto known. Christianity as he had been taught it was an abstruse system of doctrines, stated in the technical language of scholasticism, and centering about the Trinity as the doctrine of first importance, and the one most strenuously to be insisted upon. If we attempt to state this doctrine as simply as possible, it runs about as follows: the Divine Being is one in his substance or essence, but exists in three distinct hypostases or persons, known as the Father, the Word or Son, and the Holy Spirit, who are in all respects equal, and each of them God, and all of them eternally divine; yet there are not three Gods but one. The Word or Son had a divine existence from all eternity, but had two natures, a divine and a human, each of which, by a mysterious communicatio idiomatum, or mutual sharing of properties, possessed all the properties of the other.

Servetus had found this religiously a sterile doctrine. It confused his head, and failed to warm his heart or inspire his will. It not only was to Jews and Mohammedans an insuperable obstacle to accepting the Christian religion at all; but the average Christian, having no real comprehension of it, blindly accepted it as a holy mystery, which one must indeed profess, but was not expected to understand, or permitted to inquire into. Moreover, the professional theologians, the scholastics, at worst trifled with it and jested about it, and at best used it as a medium for hair-splitting distinctions and dialectical sleight-of-hand, as they set up theses and antitheses as to how the three could be one or the one three. Scholastic theologians of unquestioned orthodoxy, like Robert Holkot of England, John Major of Paris and others, not to mention also Pierre d’Ailly and Duns Scotus, frankly admitted that in this doctrine we really have three Gods, and might easily have had more, though adding that nevertheless it must be received on faith as an inscrutable mystery. As a matter of fact, whatever vitality or religious value this doctrine might once have had, it had at the beginning of the sixteenth century pretty much evaporated. Servetus saw this full well, and saw that in insisting on this scholastic doctrine as the central truth of Christianity, the Church was causing its members to miss Christianity’s very heart as revealed by the New Testament in the person of Jesus. Servetus did not mean in this book to deny the doctrine of the Trinity, for he believed in it to the very end. His intention was rather to point out the glaring errors in the form that perverse scholastics had given it, and instead to set forth the true form of the doctrine as taught in the New Testament. In place of a doctrine whose very terms — Trinity, hypostasis, person, substance, essence — were not taken from the Bible but invented by philosophers, and whose Christ was little more than a philosophical abstraction, he wished to get men to put their faith in a living God, in a divine Christ who had been a historical reality, and in a Holy Spirit forever working in the hearts of men. His method in doing this was at every step to place his feet solidly on clear teachings of Scripture, appealing also for confirmation to the authority of the Fathers of the Church who wrote before primitive Christianity had become corrupted by philosophy. He was a biblical literalist, amazingly familiar with the whole Bible, quotations from which are found on practically every page, and are applied in his arguments with great skill.

It would be neither interesting nor profitable to give in detail Servetus’s criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity as it was held and taught in his time, nor to set forth at length what he deemed its true scriptural form. A brief statement of it in its essential features will be sufficient. Instead of approaching the doctrine from the standpoint of an abstract philosophical concept, as was usually done, Servetus begins with the concrete historical person of Jesus. He was first of all a human being. Beyond this, he was the Son of God, because supernaturally begotten. Furthermore, he was also God, sharing the fullness of deity, though without human imperfections; yet he was God in a different sense of the word from that applied to the Father. The Holy Spirit is not a third Divine Being (for this would land us in tritheism), nor indeed a distinct being at all, but an activity or power of God working within men. There is a certain harmony of power, though not a unity of nature, between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and in this sense the three may be said to be one; but to invent the unscriptural terms of Trinity, persons, essence, substance and hypostases is only to introduce confusion. If one must use such terms, the simplest statement is that God’s divinity is shown in each of three ‘dispositions,’ or characters, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and this is the true Trinity. The essence of Christian faith is that we should believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. This ensures our salvation, and makes us sons of God; whereas the Lutherans, with a different conception of faith, do not understand what justification really is. Servetus supports all positions taken by ample citations from scripture authority, and takes frequent flings at the traditional view, which he treats with repeated expressions of contempt, and with strong and offensive epithets against those that hold the traditional belief. The style is direct and personal, as though an argument were being aimed at an opponent.

Thus Servetus precipitated into the arena of public discussion a doctrine which had until now remained untouched. The Strassburg reformers had passively taken it over from Catholic Christianity without change; but, conscious that it had no clear support in Scripture, they had purposely avoided any discussion of it or emphasis upon it, lest to the controversies which they already had with Lutherans on the one hand and Catholics on the other, a worse one should be added, which by seeming to question the fundamental doctrine of Christian theology should prejudice their cause in all quarters.50 And now came a book that was destined to drag this avoided doctrine into the very foreground.

If Servetus had hoped through his book to make his doctrines acceptable to the reformers, and through them to win favorable attention from the Protestant world at large, he was soon disillusioned. At Strassburg, where it was openly sold in the market-place, it was warmly received not by the adherents of the reformed churches, but by those opposed to them and by them, namely the Anabaptist and other radical elements.51 Capito reported this to Oecolampadius, who at once wrote Butzer deploring the probable effect upon the feeble churches in France and elsewhere, which might thus be alienated from the Reformation, and upon many of unstable mind whom the book might easily lead astray. He begged him to read the book and write him his opinion of it, and thought it would be well to nip the matter in the bud.52 At the same time he also wrote Zwingli a letter expressing his feelings in no measured terms.53

Meantime Servetus had written Butzer, asking his support for the views expressed in the book. Butzer answered with considerable reserve, saying that in that case he should have been consulted before the book was published, as there were sundry things in it that he did not approve, which he would be glad to discuss with him when he had time. Servetus need look for no harm from him, but if he wished to stay at Strassburg he was advised to keep out of sight, for if the magistrate learned of his being there he would not allow it.54 Servetus seems soon after this to have returned to Basel, and the discussion of which Butzer wrote did not take place, though he later wrote Servetus in a more cordial tone, taking up several points of difference.55

Sale of the book was soon forbidden at Strassburg,56 and Butzer in a public lecture ere long confuted pestilentissimum ilium De Trinitate librum;57 but the poison of it had so affected some that while lecturing he was publicly contradicted by one of his neighboring colleagues in the clergy, Wolfgang Schultheiss, pastor at Schiltigheim;58 and he suspected that Caspar Schwenckfeld might also be wavering, so that the latter felt called on to justify himself at the end of his book Vom Ursprung des Fleisches Christi.59 The reaction of Capito himself was so equivocal as to cause Butzer uneasiness.60

Butzer was now beset from all quarters for his opinion and guidance. Wolfgang Musculus, preacher at Augsburg, wrote suggesting that he take Servetus in hand and find out his inmost thoughts.61 Berthold Hailer wrote from Bern a letter of anxious inquiry as to how things were going at Strassburg.62 Ambrosius Blaurer wrote from Esslingen urging him by all means to bring Capito back to the right way, and strongly besought and adjured him to write him his judgment.63 Simon Grynaeus, who had succeeded Oecolampadius at Basel, wrote wishing immediately to know what Butzer thought of the book: he himself had not read it, though he thought Servetus must be insane.64 A little later, having read a page or two, but being unable to make anything of it, he wrote yet more urgently; and six months later yet Christopher Hoss, preacher at Speyer, wrote for information about Servetus, who had won ardent disciples in the Palatinate.65 As soon as he could do so, Butzer answered these inquiries, and sent inquirers copies of his confutation, quieting their misgivings, dispelling their doubts, and ensuring their opposition to the new teaching. Butzer himself became so wrought up over the matter that he declared from the pulpit that Servetus deserved to be drawn and quartered.66

At Basel also the sale of Servetus’s book was soon prohibited by the Council, though not at the instigation of the clergy; but Oecolampadius was asked his opinion of it.67 After reading it through carefully he reported that the work was carelessly done and had many minor faults, which were however of little consequence in comparison with his denial of the eternal deity of Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, and the accepted doctrine of the Trinity, though he had mingled some useful things with his errors.68

At Bern, so Oecolampadius reported,69 some of the brethren that had seen the book were greatly displeased with it, and wished Butzer to write to Luther that the book had been published abroad without their knowledge. It was sheer impudence for Servetus to charge the Lutherans with knowing nothing about justification by faith.70 Unless he was to be authoritatively answered, the churches would get a very bad name with the Emperor.

Thus the general impression which Servetus had made upon all the leading reformers of the upper Rhine and Switzerland was strongly adverse. There were distinct reasons for this. He had brought out into the open, where they were now practically forced to declare themselves upon it, a doctrine which the reformers, it is true, nominally believed and had tacitly accepted, but as to whose foundations they had many misgivings, and which they had therefore by common consent passed over with a bare mention; and he had attacked it in terms so rude and bald that his attacks must now be met with either implied approval or strong condemnation. In the second place, his reference to the favorite doctrine of Luther, that of justification by faith, though brief, had been so offensive as to raise great fear lest the serious breach between Lutherans and Zwinglians over the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper should now be further widened, and the Protestant movement be permanently split into two mutually hostile camps. Hence the request that Oecolampadius made to Butzer, that he write Luther in the name of the churches, disowning responsibility for the book. Finally, there was the ever-haunting fear that the Catholics, and especially the Emperor, might be stirred up by any extreme tendencies among the reformers to use strong measures to suppress the whole Protestant cause; though as a matter of fact Servetus’s book seems not to have made any impression in France, nor to have attracted Catholic attention at the time, except in one instance to be mentioned a little later, nor was the book placed on the Index until many years afterwards.

Finding himself unwelcome, perhaps not even safe, at Strassburg, where he would have preferred to stay, Servetus returned to Basel where, as he thought, he still had friends. But Oecolampadius had various complaints to make of his teachings, and when Servetus called he received him in so much anger that he dared not approach him again uninvited. He therefore wrote a letter in humble spirit, asking two favors: that he be not hindered from sending to the autumn fair at Lyon the copies of his book which he had brought with him, and that his name and reputation be spared. He had not thought to give such offence by what he had said of the Lutheran doctrine of faith, as to which the leading reformers themselves were not agreed. At all events, it was a property of man to err, and it was a serious thing to put men to death for some mistake in their understanding of Scripture. If Oecolampadius thought it better that he should not stay here, he would of course leave, provided he were not deemed to be a fugitive from justice, for he had written all with clear conscience, even if crudely.71 We know nothing further of Servetus at Basel.

In his opinion rendered to the Basel Council, Oecolampadius had recommended that the books either be wholly suppressed, or be permitted only to persons that would make no bad use of them; but that if the Writer acknowledged and retracted his errors in writing, they should be overlooked as only human.72 It is probable that this counsel was communicated to Servetus, and that chastened by the unexpected hostility that he had aroused, and by the grave danger to which he found that he had exposed himself, he determined to follow the advice given. At all events, early in 1532 there appeared from the same press as before a little book which may probably be regarded as an outgrowth of the retraction suggested by Oecolampadius, and accepted in lieu of the prosecution for heresy that had seemed to threaten, and which was at the same time Servetus’s parting word to the reformers who had shown themselves so inhospitable to his well-meant arguments.

The Dialogues on the Trinity were intended, according to the preface, to set forth a more perfect statement of the subject in place of the unsatisfactory one in the previous work which, Servetus confesses, was rude, confused, incorrect and carelessly printed, and hence likely to give offence. The contents and style show that while Servetus did not mean to retract anything of the substance of his position as to the main questions involved, yet alarmed by the danger he had so narrowly escaped, and instructed by the impression his work had made on the reformers and by the objections they had filed against it, he wished to express his views so as to give as little offence as possible. The attitude is therefore conciliatory, and the language comparatively restrained. Apart from the extremely irritating language he had used of his opponents and their views, the criticism of the book on the Errors had fallen into two main classes: one concerned the views he had expressed in relation to the Trinity, the other concerned the attacks he had made upon the teachings of Luther. As to the former, under the guise of a dialogue with a collocutor named Petrucius, he defends himself against some of the objections that have been made. The specific points most objected to were that the Holy Spirit is an angel, that Christ is divine not by nature but only by God’s grace, and that the Word ceased to exist after the incarnation. He tries to restate or explain these points so as to make them acceptable; and in doing this he goes so far in adopting the current doctrinal phraseology as sometimes to seem quite orthodox. Nevertheless, his central contentions as to the Trinity and the nature of Christ are not retracted. The offence given by his criticism of Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith he softens in the four appended chapters. Here he holds the balance fairly even between the value of faith and of works, pleading for the merit of each. In conclusion, he states that he does not wholly agree with either the Lutheran or the Catholic view, each of which is partly right and partly wrong, and laments that the current leaders of the Church exercise a tyrannical power, and give newer views no chance to be heard.

The work bears evidences of haste, and was probably put through the press at Hagenau after Servetus had left Base!, and just before he removed from the country. He did not stay to see how it was received, but there is no evidence that the feeling against him was perceptibly softened. Berthold Haller wrote Butzer from Bern that his new apology was full of monstrous errors, which if Butzer did not oppose he would bring trouble upon the Church, and would himself be suspected of agreeing or conniving at them.76

The feeling aroused by Servetus’s two books in Lutheran circles was less violent than that in the cities of the upper Rhine, but yet it was decidedly unfavorable. Melanchthon, being asked by his intimate friend Joachim Camerarius his opinion about Servetus, replied that he was keen and subtle enough in argument, but was too little serious; he seemed to be confused in his ideas, and not to have thought his subjects through, and was plainly off the track as to justification. He had always feared that questions about the Trinity, unprofitable as they were, would break out and lead to tragedies.77 A few weeks later he wrote again that he was reading Servetus a good deal.78 At the middle of the year he wrote Johann Brenz (Brentius), preacher at Hall, that he found many signs of fanaticism in Servetus, and that he misinterpreted the Fathers whom he quoted. No doubt after a little great controversies would arise on the subject. Though there was much to complain of in the scholastic doctrine, yet Servetus should have made Christ really Son of God by nature.79 He was then preparing a new edition of his Loci Communes. In the first edition of this (1521), the first attempt to put the teaching of the reformers into some kind of system, he had said, ‘It were more fitting to adore the mysteries of the Godhead than to inquire into them; for this can not be attempted without great peril, as holy men have more than once found out. . . . There is no reason why we should pay much attention to the profoundest subjects about God, his unity, his trinity. What, pray, have scholastic theologians in all the centuries gained by dealing with these subjects alone? When Paul in his Epistle to the Romans drew up a short statement of Christian doctrine, he did not philosophize on the — mysteries of the Trinity, did he?’80

The results of Melanchthon’s study of Servetus are clearly seen in the 1535 edition of the Loci Communes.81 These appear not only in the fact that he now takes up the doctrines that he formerly avoided, giving the persons of the Trinity full treatment, and undertaking to refute the views of Servetus on this and other doctrines that he had attacked, but also in his method of approach. He now insists that it is not enough to entertain an opinion about faith and the knowledge of the will of God, but that one must have a sure and firm opinion about the articles of faith according to the Scriptures; for doubt begets wickedness and despair.82 From now on Melanchthon becomes openly and aggressively the opponent of Servetus. In the first chapters of his Loci he several times singles Servetus out for special mention by name, and alludes to him frequently. When a Venetian student brought to Wittenberg in 1539 a report of the alarming spread of Servetus’s views in the Venetian territory83 a long letter was addressed to the Council at Venice over Melanchthon’s name, seriously warning against them, and confuting them at length.84 And when Servetus was finally put to death at Geneva in 1553, no one was more hearty than Melanchthon in expressing his approval. Luther, on the other hand, seems to have concerned himself but little with Servetus or his heresies. In all his works Servetus is mentioned but thrice, and then only briefly and by the way.85

Calvin also was greatly disturbed at the spread of Servetus’s views in Italy, and it was the hope of counteracting these that was one of the main reasons that led him to publish his Defensio Orthodoxae Fidei in 1554.86 The influence of these early writings of Servetus long persisted. More than twenty years later Peter Martyr was reported to be writing at Strassburg a book (never published) in opposition to Servetus’s De Trinitatis erroribus, and to be wishing to write against his other books if he had copies.87

Although Catholic writers at a later period cited the blasphemous errors of Servetus as a witness of what Protestantism could lead to, and joined with orthodox Protestants in the absurd conjecture that he had been in league with the Grand Turk in a conspiracy to undermine Christianity in western Europe and thus to pave the way for conquest by the Mohammedan power, which was then a seriously threatening danger, there is from the time of which we have been speaking no record of attention from Catholic quarters save in one instance. In April, 1532, while the diet was sitting at Ratisbon (Regensburg), Servetus’s book on the Trinity was discovered on sale there by Johannes Cochlaeus, who at Augsburg had been the chief opponent of the reformers and the liberal Catholics. He brought it to the more tolerant Quintana, head of the board of censors, perhaps not without malicious pleasure that here was the work of a fellow-countryman of Quintana’s. The latter was annoyed beyond measure both by the unheard-of heresies in the book, and by the fact that the author was a Spaniard. With prudent reserve he confessed that he knew the author by sight, and he had the sale of the book prohibited.88 A copy of it was sent to the Bishop of Augsburg to see what action he would take;89 while Girolamo Aleandro, who had from the first been Luther’s uncompromising opponent, and was now papal representative at the Emperor’s court, wrote that if nothing else were done he would call together the theologians, especially the Spaniards, there present, and would have the book formally censured, and a letter written to Spain to have it proclaimed and burned, and the heretic dealt with in the Spanish manner, since it was said that he had perhaps made some impression there with his heresy and had already sent his book thither. Steps would be taken to have the heretic punished wherever found.90

Such steps evidently were taken; for on June 17 of that same year a decree of arrest was issued at Toulouse against forty fugitives, students, monks, etc., and among the first of these was Michel Serveto alias Reves.91 A few weeks earlier than even this, measures against Servetus were instituted in Spain. Acting on information received from Germany, the Council of the Inquisition directed the Inquisitor of Aragón to make inquiries as to the origin, family and history of Servetus, and to have him summoned by the usual public notice to appear before the Inquisition. Instructions were given to try by any means to persuade him to return to Spain, but not to betray to him or his family what was really intended. Servetus’s own brother, the priest Juan, at that time chaplain to the Archbishop of Santiago de Compostela, was deputed to undertake this mission, and apparently went to Germany for the purpose. Even if he acted in good faith he can not have succeeded in his undertaking, for Servetus had already left Germany and disappeared into thin air. When in 1538 the Council impatiently called for a report of progress on the case, though Juan had filed his deposition, no information was forthcoming as to the whereabouts of his brother Miguel. The records give no trace of further proceedings.92

It was not in the nature of the case possible for Servetus, young as he was, and in all the circumstances of his life, to win a personal following of disciples to form a school and spread his views; and although the questions that his little books raised led many to carry their inquiries and speculations further than he had gone, yet hardly one came forward as his acknowledged follower. One person, however, deserves mention in this connection, Claude d’Aliod (Claudius Aliodus), commonly spoken of as Claude of Savoy.93 He was a native of Moûitier in Savoy, and first comes to our attention when preacher at Neuchâtel as colleague of Farel. He was a restless, contentious, somewhat erratic figure, and he grew increasingly fanatical as time went on and persecution of him increased. The doctrines he preached at Neuchâtel gave offence, and as they were spreading, and it was feared that they were infecting Farel himself, the Bernese preachers called him to account and argued with him. As they could not convert him, they ordered him not to spread his views; and when he disobeyed the order the Bernese government banished him from its territory early in 1534.94 He next lived for several months at Constanz, where similar trouble ensued. Being put on examination by the ministers of the city, he made no secret of his views, but presented a confession of them. Here he declared, as at Bern, that Jesus Christ was a mere man; but he later admitted that Christ was the natural Son of God and hence divine, though not eternally so, and he asserted that Farel agreed with him. He denied a Trinity of persons in both name and fact, and concluded: ‘In short, I do not believe that three persons are the one God.’ He was therefore banished from Constanz. At Zürich, where he also appeared, Bullinger thought it necessary to counteract his influence, and to defend the reformers’ reputation for orthodoxy by writing a book on the two natures in Christ.96

Claude now determined to thresh the question out with Luther, but on his way north stopped for a conference with Myconius at Basel, where he was soon imprisoned and again banished, as also from Strassburg. He stayed at Wittenberg a month or so, but when it was discovered that he was stirring up trouble about the Trinity, he was again ordered to move on.97 Undaunted, he returned to Switzerland and tried his fortunes at Lausanne, where he won so much favor among the more liberal spirits that a synod was convened over the matter, at which Butzer feared that they might carry the day.98 He was voted down, however, and forced to recant,99 presumably as an alternative to yet another banishment. A few years later he appeared at Augsburg, where he won a following and was again arrested and banished; then at Strassburg in 1542, where Schwenckfeld earnestly opposed him; then again for a considerable time at Constanz. His last reported activity was at Memmingen in 1550, where he assumed the role of a prophet, made fanatical claims, and won so many converts that even after he had once more been driven into banishment (from which he later stole back) it took five years of incessant work on the part of the ministers, assisted by a theologian imported from Ulm, to convert them from their errors. After this nothing further is known of him. The views reported as his, and expressed in his confession at Constanz, show distinctly the influence of Servetus, and he also anticipated some positions commonly credited to Socinus. But his experiences in trying to spread his views show how far the Protestant world had yet to go before realizing the ideals of freedom, reason and tolerance in religion.

Despite the assertions of some more recent writers to the contrary, there is no contemporary evidence that Servetus was forced to leave Basel; though he must have been haunted by a constant sense of danger in a country where he was known as the author of two such heretical works. But he knew not where to turn. Spain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, France were all dangerous lands for one whom Protestants and Catholics equally considered heretical. Ten years or so later he writes with deep feeling of the terrors and lonesomeness of this period, when for years he felt divinely impelled to spread his views of Christian truth, and yet humanly tempted to flee from his duty like Jonah, by going to sea or emigrating to the New Isles (America).100 In his testimony at Geneva he stated that his reason for leaving Germany was that he was poor and did not understand the language,101 but these can hardly have been the compelling reasons. He had had money enough to publish his books, and would scarcely be likely to have more in another country; and German is one of the modern languages with which he says in his preface to Ptolemy, published three years later, that he is to some extent acquainted.102 At all events, he proceeded from Basel (perhaps stopping at Hagenau on the way to see his Dialogues through the press) to Lyon,103 where he could find remunerative employment, and feel at home in the language that he had spoken at Toulouse. In order effectually to cut himself off from his past and so guard against discovery, he now concealed himself under the name Michel de Villeneuve (Michael Villanovanus), in allusion to his earlier home in Spain. He left no trace of his movements, and it was twenty-one years before he was again discovered to the world in his own person. Ignorance meanwhile opened the door to conjecture, and a few years later the rumor was current that he had perished mad in some old castle dungeon.104

With the first half of his life completed, we must now take our leave of Servetus for a time, in order to trace the working of the leaven of his thought and the progress of the struggle for freedom and reason in religion during the next twenty years, until he again appears upon our scene.


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