CHAPTER XVI

FOLLOWERS OF SERVETUS (CONTINUED):

ALCIATI AND GENTILE

BIANDRATA’S COMPANION in refusing to sign Calvin’s test confession of faith imposed on the members of the Italian church at Geneva, and in consequently going into exile for the sake of his convictions, was Gianpaolo Alciati de la Motta,1 a nobleman of Piedmont, born perhaps about 1515—1520 at Savigliano, just east of Saluzzo. 2 He was evidently an educated man, but he followed a military career until somewhere near the middle of the century, when he embraced the reformed religion and removed to Geneva. Here his rank and wealth gained him consideration, and he is recorded as a member of the Italian church in 1552. 3 In 1554 Calvin addresses him as a ‘dearly beloved brother,’ answering an inquiry about the baptism of an infant; 4 in 1555 he is received as a citizen of Geneva, 5 in the same year he is elected Deacon, and in the following year Elder of the church. It was at the very period when the doctrinal discussions above referred to were beginning, and in these Alciati was drawn to the liberal side. In the discussion that preceded the signing, Alciati shocked many by the sacrilegious statement that in the Trinity ‘we worship three devils, worse than all the idols of the Papacy, because we make it three persons. 6 It is therefore no wonder that Beza a few years later referred to him as a person that was evidently mad and unbalanced.7

Not long after parting from Biandrata at Zurich, Alciati returned to the vicinity of Geneva, hoping to save some of his business interests there. He apparently made his headquarters at St. Julien, six miles south. Here he kept in communication with his friends, who used to meet him at the pont d’Arve until the Council taking notice of it formally declared him an enemy of the Geneva church, and forbade all communciation with him, under penalty of banishment, and sequestered his property. 8 Being thus cut off from his friends at Geneva, Alciati now went to Basel and was enrolled at the University for the winter semester. 9 Meanwhile history had been making at Geneva. Gentile, one of the six recalcitrant liberals who finally signed the confession, soon relapsed into his old heresies, was arrested, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death, which he narrowly escaped by performing a humiliating penance. Soon after this he fled to Gribaldi at Farges, as will be told a little later on in this chapter. Caterina Coppa of Ferrara, who had come to Geneva to seek her fugitive son, found things here so different from what she had expected that it was hard for her to keep to herself her impressions of Calvin’s régime. The ever-present spies informed against her, and she was tried on the charge of having said, among other things, that Servetus died a martyr of Jesus Christ; that Gribaldi, Alciati and Biandrata had good doctrine and were wrongly persecuted; that she did not like the Italian church; that the magistrate did wrong to punish any kind of heretic; and that Calvin was jealous of Gribaldi’s superior wisdom. She was found guilty, condemned to make a solemn retractation, and banished within twenty-four hours, on pain of being beheaded. 10

After having visited Turin in the spring, and created serious doctrinal trouble in the reformed congregation there,11 Alciati returned to Farges, and from there wrote a letter to the Geneva government resigning his citizenship, with some skillfully veiled reflections on Calvin and his oppressive rule. A little later a suit was filed against him and another, and they were cited to appear. 12 He replied that he would not set foot in Geneva so long as Calvin lived, since he had no mind to suffer like Gentile; 13 and he was consequently banished from Geneva territory forever, on pain of being beheaded. The charge against him was that he had broken his oath of citizenship in introducing confusion into the church. His property was not restored to him.14

While this trial was in process Alciati wrote a second letter, from St. Julien, declaring himself innocent of any ground for prosecution, unless possibly on account of his religious views. To avoid any misunderstanding as to these he submitted a carefully drawn confession of faith for their inspection. 15 This confession is very different in matter and tone from the things that witnesses declared that he had said the previous autumn, which were certainly far from being orthodox; 16 but as it was not written under stress, nor with any hope of reconciliation, it may be accepted as sincere for the time when it was written. He squarely denies the things he has been accused of saying, and he confesses that in the quiet atmosphere of the University he has become better instructed as to the meaning of the term person, to which he formerly so strongly objected. Yet though this confession is essentially orthodox, Alciati’s career in Poland, to which we shall return in a later chapter, shows that he did not long remain so. His was apparently a mind that did not so much think for itself as reflect the thoughts of those with whom he closely associated; but in the history of religious liberty he deserves to be remembered for the fearless ardor and persistence with which he defended his convictions, even in the very face of Calvin. For in the field of religious controversy he showed the same courage that he will have displayed as a soldier on the field of battle.17

As we have already seen, not a few of the reforming Italians of the sixteenth century manifested, as sons of the Renaissance, a much freer spirit of inquiry than was common among the reformers north of the Alps. Their primary interest in the reformation seems to have lain in the intellectual field, and their first effort was to have its new system of doctrine not only more scriptural but also more reasonable. It was independent and daring thinkers moved by this spirit that were giving Calvin much trouble in the Italian church at Geneva. Gribaldi was the first there to give public expression to this tendency; Biandrata by his questions secretly promoted it at Geneva, and in Poland and Transylvania was later able to do most to propagate its radical views until they became well rooted there. But the one to advocate them most boldly in Switzerland was Gentile, whose conspicuous trial at Geneva, adventurous experiences elsewhere, and heroic death at last at Bern, make him a figure second only to Servetus in dramatic interest. Beza 18 regarded him as the author of the antitrinitarian views that so seriously infected the Italian congregation, and he was certainly their most conspicuous advocate. But Calvin called him a man of no account, and a mere mouther of Gribaldi’s lines,19 though he thought it worth his while to devote an octavo book of over a hundred pages to refuting his teachings.

Giovanni Valentino Gentile20  was born at Cosenza in Calabria, presumably in the first quarter of the sixteenth century. He made great progress in his studies, and going to Naples soon established a reputation as a teacher of grammatica, i.e. Latin. 21 He had a keen and subtle mind, inclined to speculation, 22 presently embraced the Reformation, and attracted by the reputation of Calvin23 came to Geneva in 1556. It is evident that his closest associations there were with the liberal circle, for when the members of the Italian congregation were asked in May, 1558 to subscribe a confession of faith, he was one of those that at first refused to do so. After five days, however, and conference with Calvin, he professed to be convinced, and submitted to the inevitable; 24 though he was evidently unsatisfied, for he later returned for further conference on the subject. 25 As Biandrata and Alciati, who had hitherto been the leaders of the liberal group, had now left Geneva, there was promise of quiet in the church, had not the minister of it continued to attack as Arians and Servetians some of those that had subscribed, 26 and thus kept the matter stirred up. Calvin’s spies were also on the watch, and one of them, engaging Gentile in what he supposed to be a private conversation on theological subjects, drew out of him several expressions interpreted as heretical, made a note of them, and reported them to Calvin, 27 denouncing Gentile as a heretic. He was therefore arrested and put under examination. 28 In the first examination before the Council, based upon the confession he had signed, the attempt was made to fix on him the charges of perjury, mutiny and sedition in violating his promise there given. But he declared that since signing he had observed the faith and agreed with the view of Calvin, and had always believed in the Trinity as well as in the Unity. At the next examination he was faced with his accusers, whose testimony he flatly contradicted. Calvin also appeared and tried to prove him in error in saying that in the Old Testament the name God is used only of God the Father.

In the meantime he had, at the command of the Council, prepared a confession of his own faith. 29 In this, while he confessed belief in the one God, and in Jesus Christ his only Son, he did not scruple to say that Calvin’s view of the Trinity was sophistical, and involved not a Trinity but a Quaternity; and he appended a list of citations from the early Fathers in support of his view. At the same time he addressed a letter30 to the ministers of the church, defending himself against the charges made, raising several questions the answers to which he felt would confirm his view, and promising to abide by their judgment. At these writings Calvin took great offence, and at the following examination he heaped all possible abuse upon Gentile, and threatened him with a capital charge. 31 To refute his arguments the ministers, or Calvin in their name, made a lengthy reply, bitter in spirit and filled with invectives. 32 At the next session he was again asked whether he adhered to the confession he had first made, and he replied that since signing he had come to a different view, as he had recently written, and that he should hold this until otherwise taught by Scripture; though he was ready to accept Calvin’s formula, provided it asserted a Trinity and not a real Quaternity. He also asked for counsel to represent him; but this was refused to him as it had been to Servetus.

Gentile now began to realize that he was at the mercy of civil and ecclesiastical judges whose attitude toward him was entirely hostile, with Calvin’s enmity against him especially pronounced; and he was even threatened with torture if he should attempt to evade direct answers. He therefore asked an opportunity to write out his views and the grounds for them. Proceedings were now suspended for more than two weeks, during which Gentile came to adopt a different attitude. Seeing that the ministers to whose judgment he had appealed unanimously condemned his view as erroneous, 33 he acquiesced with them as he had promised, asking their pardon, especially that of Calvin. The following day he retracted more explicitly and confessed his broken oath; but his accusers were not satisfied until they had also introduced witnesses to assail his private character.34 At each of the successive sessions he continued humbly to confess his errors, and to declare his repentance and ask for pardon and mercy. The committee of five lawyers, however, to whom the Council had referred the case, pronounced him worthy of death for his perjury and heresies, ignored his recantation as feigned, declared him unworthy to be pardoned, and called attention to the mischief he might do if set at liberty. They added, however, that although under the law he deserved death by fire, yet in view of his recantation there might be ground for mitigating his punishment to mere beheading. 35 It was voted that he be executed the following day. When the next day came, however, it was voted to postpone matters for further light as to his guilt. At the same time a letter arrived from an influential Italian gentleman then at Lyon, powerfully interceding for Gentile. 36 He threw the whole blame upon the influence of Biandrata, and declared that Gentile was the victim of transient mental disturbances; but also that he had rare talents, which might be of great service to the cause of the Reformation; and that clemency would attract more converts among the Italians. The letter was referred to Calvin. Two weeks passed. More Italians asked for clemency, and the sentence pronounced against Gentile was seen to have aroused general indignation. Meanwhile he was again examined as to the sincerity of his repentance, and presented a new confession of faith, in which he more definitely than ever abjured his errors, even that concerning a Quaternity. 37 The Council again took up the case, and finally commuted the death sentence to a performance of an amende honorable. 38 By this sentence he was required to appear at the H de Ville clad only in his shirt, with head and feet bare, a lighted torch in hand; to kneel before his judges and beg God and them for mercy, confessing the wickedness of what he had done and written; then to throw his writings into the fire; and finally to be led through the streets and squares to the sound of a trumpet, and to be forbidden to go from the city without permission. 39 Gentile performed this public penance the next day, 40 almost joyfully according to one account, 41 so glad was he to have made his narrow escape. He can no longer have felt at ease at Geneva. Two weeks after this he was granted permission to go beyond the city limits. Apparently he never returned. Whether he fled, or whether the authorities were glad to be rid of his presence, and so winked at his absence, is not quite clear.42 At all events, he at once went to join his friends Gribaldi and Alciati at Farges, where his recently suppressed views were naturally revived and confirmed.

After a short time he went on to Lyon,43 where many Italians then resided, inclined to the Reformation. There being assisted in his studies he compiled the teachings of the Fathers, and composed a considerable book, entitled Antidota. 44 In this work he made a sharp attack on Calvin’s doctrine of the Trinity as set forth in his Institutes, set forth his own statement of the true doctrine of the Trinity and related doctrines, and vindicated himself against his enemies at Geneva. The state of his health and fortunes ere long led him to Grenoble, where Gribaldi had just established himself. While he was here recovering his health, his doctrines fell under suspicion, and he was ordered to present a confession; but he succeeded in expressing himself so skillfully that, while avoiding the main point, it was accepted by the Catholics as directed against only the Protestants, and especially against Calvin. Returning now to Farges he found that the account of hip trial at Geneva had become well known there, so that the local governor had him arrested and imprisoned at Gex. After a few days he was released, 45 upon promising to cause no disturbance, and to submit a confession that might be sent to Bern for examination. This done, he returned to Lyon. There his confession presently appeared in print in the form of a letter to the governor at Gex, together with some theological propositions, and some notes on the Athanasian Creed, which set forth his beliefs and criticisms in the boldest and baldest form. 46 Gentile later declared that the publication was made without his knowledge or consent, after a copy that he had given to Alciati, which had apparently fallen into the hands of a printer. 47 Copies of the book soon reached Poland, and shocked leaders of the reformed church there by its apparent belief in a plurality of Gods. Calvin wrote to them that Gentile was a second Biandrata. 48 In Lyon the unfortunate man was again soon imprisoned on suspicion, but again he succeeded in clearing himself just as he had done at Grenoble, 49 and after fifty days he was released. He realized, however, that he could no longer feel safe there, and he therefore gladly accepted an invitation from Biandrata, and went to Poland in the summer of 1562, accompanied by Alciati. 50 His part in the growing antitrinitarian movement there will be related in its due place; but after somewhat less than two years a royal edict was issued against foreign heretics, and Gentile was forced to depart. He then spent some time in the Anabaptist colony in Moravia, 51 whence he went to Vienna; but finding no rest for the sole of his foot he decided to return to Savoy. 52 For he knew that Calvin had flow died, and he supposed that Gribaldi was still alive; though he too had been carried off by the plague, which had cost Switzerland 38,000 lives.

Gentile found the same governor still in office at Gex, though he little suspected how much he had been angered that his own name should have been involved in Gentile’s published confession. Being full of almost fanatical confidence in his cause he therefore ventured to go at once to the governor with a proposal for a theological disputation to be held under his auspices. He would challenge all the Protestant divines of neighboring France and Savoy to debate with him three theses about God and Christ, the vanquished party to suffer death as a teacher of false religion. 53 The governor’s only answer was to have him at once lodged in prison, pending instructions from the capital at Bern. Gentile’s arrest aroused the liveliest interest at Geneva, whence Beza at once wrote Haller at Bern, calling it providential that Gentile had again fallen into their hands, reminding him of his shamefully wicked record, rehearsing his heresies, telling how near he had recently come to ruining the reformed cause in Poland, and praying above all that they might not let him escape at Bern as he had done at Geneva. 54 He also urged Bullinger to exert upon Hailer what pressure he cou1d. 55 After five weeks’ detention at Gex, he was taken to Bern, where he had still to wait two weeks before his trial could begin. 56 While some espoused his cause, as one that had been persecuted by Calvin, his case was not a little prejudiced because of his supposed sympathy with the Anabaptists, who had of late been causing much scandal in that vicinity, as well as by several attacks that well-known theologians had recently published against his doctrines. 57

After examination of his books and papers, Gentile was charged with seven specific errors about the Trinity, and also with making false accusations against the Church, and repeatedly practicing cheats and deceptions in order to evade due punishment. 58 He did not deny that he held the views charged, but defended them as true. Beza returning from Zurich to Geneva went to talk with him, but could make no impression. 59 The clergy strove to get him to recant and subscribe the confession that Gribaldi signed nine years before but he only replied that Gribaldi had committed a grievous sin in doing this. Finally, after a month’s fruitless effort for his conversion, the Council sentenced him to death by the sword. The grounds stated were his errors about the Trinity and other doctrines that he had abjured at Geneva but later defended again, his shocking blasphemies against the Son of God and the mystery of the Trinity, and the stubbornness with which he had resisted all instruction to the contrary. 60 His execution followed on the next day. Unlike his master Gribaldi, and unlike his former self at Geneva, he now remained true to his convictions, continually declaring on his way to the block that he died as a martyr to the honor of the most high God, and reproaching the attendant clergy as Sabellians. For a single moment he wavered, then went steadfastly to his death.

Gentile had formed his characteristic beliefs after coming to Geneva, and under the influence of Gribaldi, though in time he moved away from Gribaldi’s position. Aside from the usual objections to the doctrine of the Trinity, its want of clear support from Scripture, and the unscriptural terms used to explain it, and the further objection (derived from Servetus) to the commnunicatio idiomatum as an explanation of the union of the two natures in Christ, he held that only the Father is self-existent, while the Son and the Holy Spirit are derived from him and subordinate. In the Godhead he asserted the existence of three distinct eternal spirits, equally divine, yet differing in rank, dignity and character; while (again like Servetus) he condemned Calvin’s view of the Trinity as one that led to a Quaternity. While rejecting the current orthodox doctrine, therefore, and trying to take a middle course between Sabellianism and Arianism, he laid himself open to the yet more serious charge of Tritheism. This Tritheism was only a brief passing episode in the history of reformation theology. It began in Geneva with Gribaldi, reached its climax in Gentile, and for a few years had an alarming spread in the new reformed church in Poland, giving the Swiss reformers the deepest concern as they watched it from afar. But in hardly more than a dozen years it had dissolved, or been transformed into Arianism and then shortly into the more rational and consistent doctrine of humanitarianism, as framed into a system by Socinus, on its way to fully developed Unitarianism. In its time, however, it was taken seriously into account by theologians, and beside the controversial works already mentioned, it was elaborately answered and opposed in the theological work of Zanchi at Heidelberg.61

In view of the reaction following the death of Servetus, it is interesting to note that hardly a voice was now raised in protest at the death of Gentile save at Basel. Even there it was perhaps more because of the strained relations existing with the rest of Switzerland than because of any strong sentiment for religious toleration. For it will be remembered that it was there that the body of Joris had seven years before been taken from its grave and burnt. In fact, in the thirteen years since the death of Servetus, all open sympathy with any criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity had been thoroughly suppressed. So great had been the fear, both at Geneva and elsewhere, that the tritheistic views of which Gentile had been the most conspicuous advocate might spread, and bring confusion and division in the reformed churches in Switzerland, as they were already doing in those in Poland, that the greatest efforts were put forth to exterminate the heresy. In this very year most of the Swiss churches adopted the Helvetic Confession, which ere long was to be adopted also by the reformed churches of France, Hungary and Poland. Calvin’s refutation of Gentile’s doctrine, which together with a summary account of his trial, recantation and sentence at Geneva62 had been published immediately after the publication of Gentile’s confession at Lyon in 1561, was now republished by Beza with a long preface of his own and considerable other matter, and a most urgent appeal to the kings of Poland and Transylvania and the leaders of the churches there to check the spread of this heresy. 63 Finally Aretius, professor at Bern, published in the same year a brief history of Gentile with a lengthy refutation of his teachings, 64 which was to be translated and published in England toward the end of the following century as a contribution to a similar controversy then arising there. Thus not only the heresies of which we have spoken, but also freedom of conscience and of speech in religion, were as effectually suppressed in western Switzerland under Calvin’s stern régime and powerful reasoning as they had been in Italy twenty years before by the Inquisition.

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