FOLLOWERS OF SERVETUS IN SWITZERLAND:
TOWARD THE END of the preceding chapter it was observed that though the great hope and purpose of Servetus was to reform the doctrinal system of Christianity, yet he died without having formed a school or leaving even a professed disciple to carry out his plan as a whole. He was, however, survived by a number of individuals who, though they had never known him in person, were in some respects influenced by his writings, especially as to the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Taking up his criticism of these doctrines they carried it further, first in Switzerland and later in the more tolerant atmosphere of Poland and Transylvania. They thus form the connecting link between Servetus as precursor and the fully developed Socinian and Unitarian movements in those countries. They were all Italian Humanists who under the influence of the early Reformation had abandoned the dogmas of the Roman Church, and who, especially in the north of Italy where the influence of Servetus was wide-spread, proceeded, independently of the guidance of Luther and Calvin, to think out for themselves a liberal biblical theology. We have already traced the beginnings of their movement in Italy and the Grisons before the death of Servetus. It remains in this chapter to follow the fortunes of those who after that prolonged and extended his influence in Switzerland. Apart from the work of the liberal circle at Basel, which bore more on freedom of conscience and toleration than on doctrinal reform, this development in Switzerland centered chiefly at Calvin’s own city of Geneva, and secondly at Zurich, in both cases in the congregations of Italian refugees.
Geneva was a convenient and attractive city of refuge for those that fled from Italy after the establisment of the Inquisition, and not a few were admitted to citizenship and established their permanent home there. A nucleus of an Italian Protestant church was formed there in 1542, when Ochino, just escaped from Italy, became their preacher, and they were assigned a chapel of their own. After three years Ochino left Geneva, and the movement lay dormant until 1552 when it was revived and regularly organized as a church after the Geneva model, with not only Sunday worship, but week-day meetings in which there was free discussion of religious questions.1 As the Italian mind was very keen for debates over doctrines, these meetings afforded a ready ground for bringing forward heretical views; and as all was done in Italian, Calvin was unable to have his usual close oversight of proceedings. It was among these Geneva Italians, with whom the doctrines of Servetus had been quietly smoldering during the year since his death, that a revival of something like them took place in the summer of 1554. It was occasioned, strangely enough, not by one of the members of the church, but by a passing visitor, to whom Calvin ascribed all the trouble that ensued during the next few years. 2 This visitor was Professor Matteo Gribaldi Mofa of the University of Padua. 3
Gribaldi was born early in the sixteenth century of a patrician family at Chieri near Turin.4 Giving his attention to legal studies he became one of the most famous jurists of his age, and is said to have taught jurisprudence in some ten different universities in France, Italy and Germany, which eagerly sought his services. Meantime, by his marriage with a French lady who had inherited the property, 5 he became owner of an estate at Farges about twenty miles west of Geneva in Bernese territory, and thus a citizen of Bern. 6 He used every summer to come to Farges for his holidays. In 1548 he became professor at Padua, where students came to his lectures in such crowds as to rouse envious hate in his colleagues. As a rationalistic humanist he inclined to the Reformation; but though he maintained correspondence with refugees in Protestant quarters, 7 he was so circumspect as long to escape the notice of the Inquisition. At length he became known as author of a narrative of which the Protestants were making much use, 8 and he was thenceforth narrowly watched by the spies of the Church. These brought such pressure to bear upon the university authorities that he had to choose between outward conformity and conscience. He therefore resigned his professorship in April, 1555, and crossed the Alps, not knowing whither he went. He had, however, an influential friend there in Pierpaolo Vergerio, who six years before had resigned his bishop’s mitre in Italy and fled the country, and to whom Gribaldi had then given a letter of warm recommendation to Calvin. 9 Vergerio, advised of what had taken place, met Gribaldi at Zurich with an invitation that he had procured from the Duke of Wurttemberg to accept a chair at his University at Tubingen. 10
Trouble, however, was also lying in wait for him, and all unwitting he at once exposed himself to it. It had happened that while Servetus was on trial in 1553 Gribaldi, returning from Farges to Padua, passed through Geneva; and being told of the case he said that he had never thought that one should be put to death for his opinions, however heretical. When unwillingly dragged into discussion of the unity of God before a large congregation, he gave reasons for his view, also adding that he had nothing against Servetus’s view of the nature of Christ, for he had held the same view from boyhood. Offence was taken at this, and as feeling ran high he suggested a meeting for open discussion of the subject, though nothing came of it, nor of his effort to get an audience with Calvin, which the latter haughtily refused. Greatly disturbed at this, he went his way and wrote the brethren at Vicenza a letter about it.11 On his return journey to Padua he talked with Bullinger at Zurich, and with Gallicius and Vergerlo at Chur, apparently not concealing from them his sympathy with Servetus.12 This sympathy was much increased the following winter when he was given a copy of Servetus’s De Trinitatis erroribus, without which he afterwards declared that he should never have known Christ. 13 In the autumn of the following year Gribaldi was again at Geneva, and was present at a general meeting of the Italian congregation, where he was against his will again dragged into a discussion of the still burning question about the Trinity. The views he expressed were taken for heretical, and gave great offence, though the scripture proofs he brought forward were not refuted, and his saying that he believed that the Father and the Son were one only in the scriptural sense — ‘I and the Father are one’ — was misunder stood. It was therefore left for him to write on the subject rather than continue an oral debate; and to correct the misunderstanding he wrote the next day a brief and clear statement 14 of how he understood the unity of God. Gribaldi promised to send from Padua the Scripture passages and citations from the Fathers in support of his view, though whether he did so is not known. It is clear from this statement that in making a layman’s attempt to explain the doctrine of the Trinity in terms that might be acceptable to the lay mind while also agreeable to Scripture and reason, he laid himself open to the charge that he believed in three Gods. Rumor of his unsoundness spread rapidly. Vergerio wrote Bullinger15 in close confidence that Gribaldi had certainly deserted the cause, and was on the point of introducing Servetus to others, as he knew for certain.
In the course of the winter, Vergerio’s confidence in Gribaldi must have been restored, as his recommendation of him to Duke Christoph of Wiirttemberg,16 indicates. Before proceeding to take his chair at Tubingen, Gribaldi went to visit his estate at Farges, and on the way he had the unfortunate thought to visit his friends at Geneva. Calvin learned of his presence there, and this time it was he that proposed a conference about the doctrines that Gribaldi held. 17 Calvin refused to meet him alone in his own house, but proposed a meeting in the presence of witnesses. He was therefore invited to meet with members of the church Consistory, at which the ministers hoped to convert him from his errors. He accepted the invitation and came, accompanied by several Italian friends; but when Calvin declined to take the hand he offered, until they had reached agreement in doctrine, Gribaldi at once said, ‘Adieu, messieurs,’ and left the room in anger. 18 Calvin was not to be put off, and then had him summoned for examination at the Hotel de Ville before members of the Council. Here, assuming a bold and confident air, he complained of Calvin’s rudeness to him, and of being persecuted for a difference of opinion; while when questioned he evaded and evidently tried to conceal his beliefs. After a little he inadvertently let fall some expressions that indicated serious error; but the Council, finding it impossible to accomplish his conversion, and seeing that he was a foreigner, let him go. He soon afterwards left the city, although his surviving influence there was long a source of trouble.
On his way from Farges to Tübingen, Gribaldi passed through Zurich, and complained bitterly to Bullinger of the treatment he had received at Geneva. 19 Bullinger counseled him to beware of spreading heresy. Apparently taking serious warning from the danger he had just escaped at Geneva, he wrote out a confession that Bullinger could not but approve; for he not only professed the Nicene Creed, but also expressed his abhorrence of Servetus. He proceeded to Tubingen, where he was cordially received, was made one of the Duke’s counselors, and consulted in affairs of great importance. 20 Vergerio, who had had misgivings, and had had from Beza a letter severely reproaching him for taking Gribaldi’s part, 21 was reassured, and wrote Bullinger not to be concerned about him. 22 Beza, however, still continued to exert pressure, and wrote Vergerio expressing great surprise that he cared for, and was even willing to be intimate with, the most impious man he had ever heard of, 23 and repeating in detail the offensive views he had expressed about the person of God and Christ. He had no faith that Gribaldi had renounced the errors of Servetus and returned to orthodox beliefs, and he would do all in his power to expose him to the churches.24 Even before Gribaldi’s arrival at Tubingen, Calvin had written Wolmar there, warning him against Gribaldi for his insinuating ways, his vanity, his boastfulness, and his swaggering airs, as well as for his heretical views. 25
Gribaldi on his part now sought to conciliate favor at Geneva. In response to an urgent request from a former pupil of his there that he clear his name from the increasing rumors against him, he sent from Backnang, whither the University had temporarily removed to avoid the plague raging at Tübingen, a carefully prepared statement of his faith, to be presented to Martinengo, minister of the Italian church at Geneva. It is expressed in the terms of the Nicene Creed, and covers the articles concerning God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, ‘according to their true and evangelical sense.’26 This qualifying phrase left the way open to considerable latitude in intepretation within the limits of sincerity; but it may be seen on close examination of his statement that Gribaldi, while employing accepted orthodox phraseology, took care not to deny the views that he had hitherto expressed. It may be offered in his defense that perhaps he meant to accept the Nicene Creed as a traditional and conventionally accepted summary of Christian faith as a whole, without meaning to assent to its statements in detail — a usage that has enjoyed long and wide currency, even in high quarters, in the Christian Church.
All through Gribaldi’s first year at Tübingen, rumors kept coming from various quarters that he was not orthodox, until the confidence of even his friends began to be shaken. Musculus of Bern still believed in him in April, 27 and Zanchi suspended judgment; 28 but Vergerio, hitherto his prime sponsor, began again to be disquieted, and to suspect that he had been misled by a man of slippery character; 29 while Bullinger warned Sulzer of Basel against him, 30 as one that attacked the doctrine of the Trinity. For the Easter vacation in 1557 Gribaldi went as usual to Farges; but he passed through Zurich without calling on his fellow countryman Vermigli, by whom he had heard that his doctrines were detested. 31 While he was thus absent, Vergerio confided to the Duke that Gribaldi was said to entertain some very bad opinions; and a few weeks later, on his return from a mission to Switzerland, where he had got much new information about him, he wrote the Duke strongly confirming all he had previously said. 32 It was a hard thing to do to one that had been his trusted friend, and he has been much blamed for it; but conscience urged it as a duty to the Duke, even had no self-interest been involved. The Duke’s uncle, Count George, now wrote to Geneva (doubtless at the Duke’s request) for further information; and the answers soon received from both the Geneva Council and Calvin gave an accurate account of their experience of Gribaldi two years before. 33
The Duke had previously questioned Gribaldi privately as to his belief about the Trinity, and had received satisfactory answers; but now the charges had become too definite to be ignored, and in view of the information received from Geneva he felt bound to make further investigation. He therefore had Gribaldi summoned to appear before him and the University Senate to answer to charges of heresy. 34 The discussion was amicable and lasted for two days. Gribaldi was faced with a manuscript in his own hand, and had to acknowledge the doctrine it contained as his own. He was asked to make a frank and clear confession about the doctrine of the Trinity, which should disprove the rumors current about him. He sought to parry by making evasive statements; but a mere profession of accepting the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds was not now enough to dispel doubts. The Athanasian Creed had been expressly designed to define the Trinity in terms that could be neither evaded nor explained away. He was therefore ordered to state simply whether or not he accepted this creed and the corresponding section of the Theodosian Code. He again sought to evade the issue, saying that it was only a difference in words, as to which they might easily come to agree if a little time were only given. He was therefore granted a space of three weeks to prepare his answer. Efforts to arrive at a settlement continued, but just as the period was about to expire, Gribaldi, without having given his answer, quietly slipped away on foot, bound for his estate at Farges. 35 A few days later he sent back from Zurich a letter of apology to the Rector and Senate.36 He had felt, he said, that he had become a constant burden to them, and he had also received an intimation from friends at court that the Duke would be pleased if he should leave the country as soon as possible. It was doubt less the easiest way out of a situation embarrassing to all concerned. The Duke, however, felt it his duty to inform the Council at Bern of these events involving one of their subjects. He also had Gribaldi’s library searched, and forwarded to Bern some writings found in it, together with an account of what had taken place, and a warning to keep watch of him. 37
Had he learned prudence from his experiences, Gribaldi might now have been left unmolested at Farges; but his eagerness for propaganda was insatiable. Unaware that orders had issued from Bern that he be watched, he at once began circulating his writings. In much less than a month, therefore, he found himself arrested and taken to Bern for trial. He was lodged in prison, and his books were given to the ministers for examination. From these it was clear that the heresies with which he had been charged two years before had grown only more pronounced and definite with time. The examination lasted nine days. Some were for burning him, others for banishment. The latter punishment was decided on and the banishment was to end and his estate to be restored to him only when he had returned to the Duke and obtained a due acquittal. 38 But Gribaldi was so reluctant to return to Tubingen that he declared he would sooner return with his whole family to the Papacy; 39 and he begged the Council rather to send him back to the ministers, promising to submit to whatever they decreed. His request was granted. The conference between them lasted long. Finally the ministers drew up a confession that explicitly affirmed the Athanasian doctrine, and as explicitly denied the doctrines he had been spreading. They asked him to subscribe it. He turned and squirmed, but they were inexorable. As he was not prepared to face martyrdom, he renounced his errors and signed. The ministers were satisfied; but the Council (as well they might) evidently doubted his sincerity, and banished him nevertheless. 40 He was granted a few months in which to try to sell his estate, 41 and then withdrew to Langres in France, only to hear iii a few months of the death of his wife. The heart-broken man now appealed anew to Bern for permission to return to his home with his seven motherless children. 42 Through the intervention of Zurkinden, the noblest friend of toleration among the public men of his age, 43 the request was granted; and henceforth he kept his heresies to himself. The magnanimous Duke offered him his old chair at the University if he would submit a confession of faith, and this he did in 1558; but the Senate at Tubingen would not accept it as satisfactory. 44 The following year he was recalled to his former chair at the University of Grenoble, which had declined ever since he left it fourteen years before,45 but here also troubles lay in his path. He had taught but a few months when internal strife broke out in the University, arising from a quarrel between partisans of Gribaldi and those of another professor. The friends of his rival dragged Gribaldi’s doubtful orthodoxy into the question, with the result that the authorities of the University were forced by the government, against their will, to dismiss him, or else see the University suspended. 46 Nothing further is known of him, save that he died of the plague at Farges in September, 1564 (four months later than Calvin), deserted by all his friends, of whom hardly one could be found to give him burial; 47 nor of his seven children, save that fifteen years later one of his sons came to Tubingen to settle some outstanding matters relating to his father’s property. 48
The doctrines that Gribaldi held and tried to spread are not to be learned from the several confessions that he composed for Bullinger and Martinengo, or subscribed at Bern; for in these he was trying as far as possible to accommodate his language to that of the accepted creeds, or was subscribing reluctantly and under no little stress. The true source is found in the statement that he first prepared for the brethren at Geneva, and in his discussions at Bern. 49 From these his beliefs may be condensed and briefly stated as follows. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are really three distinct beings, each of them very God. The Father is self-existent, a sort of supreme being like Jove, chief of the Gods; while the Son and the Holy Spirit are derived from him, and subordinate. Taken concretely, the persons are distinct; taken abstractly, they are one and the same divinity, as manifesting one power and wisdom. Thus taken, the mind easily understands their unity; but the usual notion of a triune God is an incomprehensible scholastic dream. The communicatio idiomatum in Christ is also denied. It is clear from this that Gribaldi was only an amateur theologian who, in trying to avoid certain difficulties in the orthodox doctrine, incurred others no less serious. In themselves his doctrines have no great significance. Their importance in history lies in the fact that he was the only person of distinction in his own time who attempted to set forth a doctrine of God and Christ that should be more scriptural and more reasonable than the current one, and who also gained some currency for his views. This currency was almost entirely limited to Italians, and the tritheism that he launched in 1554 lasted hardly longer than a dozen years; but it served as a bridge between Servetus and the beginnings of what was soon to develop into the Socinian movement in Poland. Gonesius, the first to advocate antitrinitarian views in Poland, had probably come under Gribaldi’s influence when a student at Padua, and been there introduced to the doctrine of Servetus. In 1562 Sylvius wrote Calvin that Lismanino had drawn a whole nest of Gribaldines from Switzerland to Poland, where they were causing the churches great trouble; and he especially named Biandrata, Gentile, and Alciati.50 We must therefore follow the story of these as Gribaldi’s best known disciples.
Of the three just named, Dr. Giorgio Biandrata 51 (Lat., Blandrata) was in our history quite the most important. He was born of a noble family at Saluzzo in Piedmont, about thirty miles south of Turin, in 1516. 52 He had his early education in Piedmont, and took his degree at the University of Montpellier in 1533. He applied himself very diligently to the study of medicine, specializing in the diseases of women. On this subject he wrote several works, and acquired so wide a reputation that by 1540 he had been called to the court of King Sigismund of Poland, to be the personal physician of the Queen, the Milanese Bona Sforza. Later on, as we shall see in due course, he was to have marked influence on the development of our movement in Poland and Transylvania. After serving the Queen, and her daughter Isabella, wife of the King of Hungary, for something like a dozen years, he returned to Italy, where we find him first at Mestre in 1553, 53 and later practicing his profession at Pavia. Here he became acquainted with the views of the reformers, and at length falling under the eye of the Inquisition he made his escape to Geneva in 1556, where he joined the Italian congregation, was elected one of the four Elders of the church early that year,54 and was received as a resident in November, I557. 55 For a time he lived quietly in the practice of his profession, but later on he began cautiously to raise questions with others as to the deity of Christ, and to put such questions to the minister, who became so offended by them that he refused longer to employ Biandrata as his family physician. He also repeatedly came to Calvin with his questions, going away apparently satisfied, yet returning the next day with the same ones in another form. 56 He wished to know to whom the name of God may justly be applied; what is the meaning of the terms person, essence, substance, subsistence, property, divinity, deity, as used in the creeds, and what is the difference between them; to whom prayer is to be addressed; and how the incarnation of the Word is to be understood. 57 If these and similar questions were sincerely put, they seem to indicate a mind trying to frame for itself a clear, intelligible, scriptural and reasonable statement of the central Christian doctrines, yet persistently puzzled by the theological terms used to explain them. Calvin at first treated him patiently, and at length wrote out an extended answer to his questions; 58 but at last he concluded that Biandrata’s real purpose was to stir up dissension in the church.
Complaints also arose in the Italian church itself that the common people were being secretly perverted by false doctrines. 59 Biandrata was therefore called before the Consistory with some others and admonished, but assured that they should not be punished for what was past. He must, however, have had a bad conscience, for sometime later, while attending a lecture of Calvin’s, he felt a presentiment that he was about to be arrested, and suddenly fled the city, nor dared he return until his intimate friend Alciati had begged a safe conduct for him. The late minister of the Italian church, Martinengo, had already when on his death-bed in the summer of 5557 most urgently besought Calvin and his colleagues to undertake to cure the evil of the doctrinal discussions that had been set on foot by Gribaldi. 60 As the evil was spreading, the elders of the church now called on Calvin to extend a helping hand. A public meeting was appointed (May 18, 1558). With Calvin’s advice a confession of faith had been prepared which should meet the new heretical views, and which all the members were to be asked to sign. 61 Calvin spoke, and invited each to express freely what he thought, without fear of prosecution for anything he might say. The discussion was heated, and lasted for three hours. Biandrata made a bad impression by what he said, and Alciati a yet worse one; and they left Geneva a little later, without signing. It was ordered that if they returned they should be imprisoned. Of the others, all signed but six who objected, and these also subscribed four days later.
Biandrata probably went first to Gribaldi, who had now been permitted to return to Farges; and a little later he was at Bern. Zurkinden wrote Calvin from there that he regarded both Biandrata and Gribaldi as brethren, despite their errors in doctrine, since they wished to be brethren in Christ. 62 By early in July Alciati had joined him, and they were at Zurich together. Biandrata had several conferences with Vermigli (Peter Martyr), hoping to convert him to his own views, but in this he was disappointed. Vermigli on his part tried to get Biandrata to subscribe the creed, and was also disappointed. As no professed heretic was welcome at Zurich, Biandrata was advised to take his departure rather than suffer arrest and banishment, and he therefore went to Poland along with Laelius Socinus who was then living at Zurich. Alciati was believed to have gone to Chiavenna, 63 but he too ere long joined Biandrata in Poland, where in a later chapter we shall find them both active in promoting the early stages of the antitrinitarian movement. Calvin’s parting word at the end of the year was in a letter addressed to Lismanirto, who had lately returned to Poland after a long stay in Switzerland, and was himself soon to become involved in the same movement with Biandrata: ‘Warn the good brethren, before they learn by experience what a monster Giorgio Biandrata is, or rather, how many monsters he fosters, to beware of him.’ 64
As a theologian Biandrata had still less merit than Gribaldi, and at a critical point of the later history in Transylvania he was forced to acknowledge, when discomfited in debate, that he was not a theologian but a physician. Beza’s verdict was that what he lacked in learning he more than made up in impudence and wickedness.65 While in Switzerland his thought was still too immature for him to exert much leadership, and his activity there seems to have been mostly in the way of promoting schism in the minds of others. But we shall see that in the next ten years in Poland and Transylvania his wide and influential acquaintance in high circles, together with his professional reputation and his courtly manners, gave him no mean advantage as he tried to promote there the simpler form of doctrine which had made so little headway in Switzerland and Italy.
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
This page was last modified
Sunday 12 November 2006.