MICHAEL SERVETUS: A RADICAL FOR ALL TIMES
Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Ph.D.
The term “radical” as used in this paper fits Michael Servetus like a well-tailored suit. He was known for being fastidious in his apparel. Or, as Ángel Alcalá puts it: “immersed fully in the Renaissance air, our Villanueva man did not hesitate to invest a substantial part of his income in his personal attire.” His primary concern, though, was keeping to the disciplines required for expression of his genius: study, discourse, inward reflection and practicing “radicalism as intellectual method.” Known to us for his writings, for the editing of important works such as the Pagnino Bible, and Ptolemy’s Geography, his medical work, his broad knowledge of languages, philosophy theology, and the sacred texts of Christianity, Judaism and Islam (which he read in their original languages), Servetus was astonishingly brilliant. He was not attempting to fix what he perceived to be wrong with the Church. He wanted to see a complete restoration of Christianity back to its original, purest state. Restoration would have placed Christianity in its rightful place among the Abrahamic traditions.
Any progress made by Servetus would have meant a loss on the part of those who were benefitting from the status quo of the Church. Consequently, in the eyes of the Church, he was a dangerous man.
Keeping a low profile after attracting a negative response to writing On the Errors of the Trinity in 1531, once again he put himself in harm’s way by writing The Restoration of Christianity in 1553.
Michael Servetus opens his Restoration of Christianity with a brief overview of what we are to expect in the seven books that make up his Treatise Concerning the Divine Trinity. He calls us to attention by telling us in advance that:
God was previously not visible, but now we shall see Him with his face unveiled, and, so long as we open the gate and step upon the road, we shall gaze upon Him as He shines in ourselves. It is time that we open that gate and this path of light. For without it nothing can be seen, without it none can read the holy scriptures of perceive God or become a Christian, This is the path of truth. The path that is sure, easy, and free from deceit, the only one that makes completely accessible the divine origin of Christ in the Word and the true perfection of the holy spirit, and identifies both with God substantively. It is the one that places God himself before our very eyes.
The first book contains axioms concerning Christ. The second contains twenty passages from scripture, the third focuses on the prefiguration of the person of Christ in the Word, the appearance of God and the hypostasis of the Word. The fourth is about the names and essence of God and the first principles of all things. The fifth is about the holy spirit. These are followed by two dialogues concerning how Christ is the culmination of all things and why He is not himself a creature nor something of limited power.
Aware of the persecution of Jews and Muslims in his own country, he had more passion and intense energy for pointing out the evils of the Doctrine of the Trinity than we would expect to find in most scholars. Servetus traveled widely, always seeking the company of the popular thinkers of his time. Not that he always was well received, nor received at all—but along the way he met many a soul who supported his radical nature and admired his intellectual acumen.
Servetus knew Arabic and was familiar with the Qur’an. He may have been drawn to this study because he knew that the Ottoman Empire was a refuge for Jews, Moors and other individuals fleeing persecution. Süleyman was the Sultan during the career of Servetus. Süleyman was a practical man who did not see any sense in killing non-Muslims or even attempting to convert them. Why kill a man who could pay you taxes? He welcomed refugees and encouraged freedom of religion among each group. “It is well known that the Ottomans were sensitive and practical as far as welcoming the Jews, Moors, and persecuted minorities into their territory. Each group freely pursued their trade, their religion and their way of life. They were expected to pay a tax to the Grand Porte, while dissidents in the west were frequently executed for heresy. The Sultan looked upon all non-Muslims as infidels, but kept to strict laws regarding war and peace and did not force conversion upon anyone seeking refuge in his territory. He supported them in keeping the religion they believed in and helped their churches to survive.”
With a natural instinct, Servetus practiced what we today refer to as cross-cultural exchange with a mind to setting the record straight about the unity of the Abrahamic traditions. He was not crossing imaginary boundaries between languages, customs or ideas—but rather engaging in a real mission to make whole the family of brothers and sisters of the Jewish and Islamic faiths who were falsely separated from true and pure Christianity by a Trinity that destroyed the original One God.
Servetus says that:
“What shall we say about the Mohammedan who disagrees with us for the same reason? How wretchedly we are criticized by them! But they are justified and act with the just judgment of God. The Trinity is clearly rejected in the Qur’an, Suras 11, 12, and 28.”
In addition to Erasmus, (1466–1536) who was well known prior to Servetus’s time, contemporaries who felt similarly about the Jews and the Turks included Sebastian Castellio (1515–1563); Conrad Pellikan (1478–1556); Sebastian Franck (1499–1543); Melchior Hoffman (1495–1543); Michael Sattler (1490–1527); and others.
Juan de Valdés (1509–1541) was from a family of Erasmian liberals , and was a major figure in the Naples area of Italy. Of some interest for our purpose is his friendship with Isabella di Aragona, daughter of the King of Naples. She married the Duke of Milan, of the family of Sforza, and had five children. Her husband died prematurely (thought to have been poisoned) and she lost all but one of her children to various ailments. The surviving child, Bona, was brought up with the same humanist education as her mother had received, and was married off to the widowed King of Poland when she was twenty. Bona took as much of Italy as she could fit into twenty-six carriages—furniture, tapestries, clothing, books, maids, cooks, vegetable seeds, advisors and medical doctors. Her court physician in Poland was none other than Giorgio Biandrata. The writings of Bernardino Ochino and the influence of Biandrata led her to Protestantism. Bona became known for passing on manuscripts considered heretical to individuals she trusted. It is thought to be the case that Giorgio Biandrata took a manuscript of The Restoration of Christianity to Transylvania, where it ended up in the hands of Ferenc Dávid, (1510–1579) Bishop of Transylvania which was under Ottoman surety. Transylvania was ruled by Bona’s daughter, Queen Isabella Sforza Szapolyai from 1540 until her death in 1559. She was sent there by Sultan Süleyman, who became her (and her son’s) guardian when her husband, the King of Hungary, died, just one year into their marriage. The Sultan protected Isabella and her son from all pretenders to the throne, especially Ferdinand the Hapsburg. When Isabella became ill, Bona sent Biandrata to serve as her physician. He then became the tutor to Isabella’s child, John II, much to the dismay of the conservatives who feared that the influence of Biandrata would surely lead the young man astray. Their premonition was born out when King John II became the first Unitarian King in History.
Knowing that exchanges existed between the Antitrinitarians and the Ottomans during the time of Servetus is helpful in understanding why so many radicals and liberals in the west referred to the Turks in positive ways, and why the conservatives saw any such affirmation as a dangerous threat. The threat to the status quo of the Church attributed to Servetus being assumed guilty before he was tried. Note the etching found on the Michael Servetus Institute’s web site that depicts Servetus being burned at the stake in the foreground, while individuals wearing turbans watch from below, and the spirals of the churches in Geneva are adorned with the crescent of Islam.
Commentaries which contain remarks regarding religious tolerance and the Turks were made by individuals known to Servetus, and are too numerous to quote here, but a few examples include:
• Erasmus. “No one did more than Erasmus to break down the theory and practice of the medieval variety of intolerance, though the weapons which he forged did not attain their full effectiveness until wielded by men like Sebastian Franck and Sebastian Castellio.” Erasmus favored inwardness, simplicity and humility. He was skilled at keeping to the safe side of a very thin line that determined who was a heretic and who was doing no more than pointing out the follies of the Church. He detested ceremonies and proclamations in both Catholic and Protestant when the heart and the whole of life was missing. “The sum of our religion is peace and unanimity, but these can scarcely stand unless we define as little as possible, and in many things leave each one free to follow his own judgment, because there is great obscurity in many matters, and man suffers from this almost congenital disease that he will not give in when once a controversy is started, and after he is warmed up he regards as absolutely true that which he began to sponsor quite casually.”
Erasmus favored religious liberty, but kept himself out of harm’s way by tactfully avoiding a frontal, open attack on Church dogma. The authority of the church was always in reserve, and thus he managed to escape persecution. Still, he was fond of toying with danger while venturing into questionable territory with his observations about the Church declining from a state of primitive purity, and the rise of persecution was a mark of that decline.” He saw the Christians going on crusades against the Turks because they wanted what the Turks possessed. His friend Sir Thomas Moore (Saint Thomas Moore) was not willing to compromise his thoughts as they left his brain and headed for his mouth, and lost his head as a result in England under the reign of Henry VIII. Erasmus’s ability to stay out of the clutches of Inquisitors was criticized by some. “He was a bell calling others to church while he remained in the steeple.”
• Conrad Pellikan. Conrad Pellikan was a Zwinglian, friendly to Catholics and the Turks. “If the Pope was Antichrist for Pellikan it was in part because he had stirred up kingdoms against the Turk for the increase of his own power.”
• Sebastian Franck. Sebastian Franck, one of the two named by George Huntston Williams as capable of wielding the weapons forged by Erasmus, was a Pacifist, originally a Catholic priest who became a Lutheran minister, but became disillusioned with all sects and people—himself included. “Antichrist is everywhere.” He supported himself with manual labor and writing. Tolerance was primary, not derivative, in Franck’s system. War for Franck was an abomination, a crusade an anomaly, and persecution a crime. All of his thinking pointed to the moral of religious liberty. “The characteristic trait of heretics is that they regard all others, and especially Christians, as heretics and denounce and persecute and put them to death.”
Franck admired the Turks for not forcing anyone to the faith.
“Wherefore my heart is alien to none. I have my brothers among the Turks, Papists, Jews and all peoples. Not that they are Turks, Jews, Papists and Sectaries or will remain so; in the evening they will be called into the vineyard and given the same wage as we. From the East and from the West children of Abraham will be raised up out of the stones and will sit down with him at God’s table.”
• Michael Sattler. Michael Sattler was an Anabaptist and a pacifist, but said if he had to go to war, he would rather fight the Christians than the Turks. More will be said about Sattler in the section on Anabaptism.
Changing positions regarding the right to persecute individuals who threatened the status quo of the Church was witnessed in several of the major reformers, including Calvin, Luther and Zwingli. Men such as these lacked the kind of moral integrity that Michael Servetus kept in good stead throughout his life. Servetus could not be bought at any price. While this is a highly commendable trait of good character and seldom seen to hold up through all trials and tribulations today, some historians have taken the liberty to insinuate that Servetus brought his troubles upon himself, especially in relation to how he allegedly conducted himself at his trial. Could Servetus present himself in an orderly manner after being thrown into a vermin infested, damp, cold, dark cell with no sanitary facilities, no nutritious food and no change of clothes throughout the lengthy trial? How could anyone wonder why Servetus could not offer those judging him (then and now) a display of pristine appearance and complete command of tone and eloquence while being so badly treated? The trial itself was a punishment, overseen by the man who had been waiting for several years to capture Michael Servetus in a net of complete absence of moral integrity.
The two main charges that condemned Servetus were Anabaptism and Antitrinitarianism. Both of these charges can be found in the writings of Servetus.
Regarding the Antitrinitarianism of Servetus, all impediments to the practice of pure, primitive Christianity are evil. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not scripturally sound, has led to separation of humankind from being one with the Abrahamic traditions and to separation from the One true God. The abuses of the Church and the despicable condition of the realm over which it reigns can be found everywhere. Servetus referred to the transgressions against the true One God as the “Antichrist.”
The Antichrist is “every class of evil, which takes its origin from the serpent and Adam and it begins in us when we begin to have knowledge of good and evil, when it is the serpent who encourages us as a teacher, already from childhood. Adam is the actual cause that brings about our perdition because, on account of his sin, power was given over to the serpent to cause corruption of the body and mind within us and to make disordered the components of our soul, when he begins to teach us his knowledge. At that time we begin to die; then we also begin to need penance and faith in order to regain our senses after we have slipped. I say that we “begin to die” because we die not all at once, but gradually in a manner as it happened to the first parents, as James states.” Servetus may have begun the formation of an idea of the Antichrist when he was in the service of John of Quintana, Chaplain to Emperor Charles V and thus invited to the festivities of the coronation of the Emperor. The disgust that Servetus felt at the sight of the Pope and the Emperor acting out a presumed unity of Church and State was something he never forgot. In his writing of the scene, his outrage at what he considered blatant blasphemy is reported:
Now let us see other abominations in order that to all it might be apparent how admirable is this Beast and God of the Beast, which turned Daniel and John [of the Apocalypse] in astonishment. . . . As Christ, King and Priest, has his ministers, so his Vicar, King and Priest, has his sacrificing priests. As concerning Christ it is said [Luke 4:11] “On their [angels’] hands they will bear thee up, lest thou strike thy foot against a stone,” so the Pope for this reason has himself carried by others. He does not touch the ground with his feet, lest his holiness be polluted—be carried on the shoulders of men and thus to make himself to be adored on earth as God, which no one so impious has dared to be from the foundations of the world. With these very eyes we have seen him borne in pomp on the necks of princes making with his hand the sign of the cross and adored in the open streets by all the people on bended knee; so that those who were able to kiss his feet or slippers counted themselves more fortunate than the rest, and declared that they had obtained many indulgences, and that on his account the infernal pains would be remitted for many years. O vilest of all beasts, most brazen of harlots!
For more clarity on how Servetus developed his ideas about the Antichrist from the time of his youth until the time he wrote The Restoration of Christianity, I refer you to Sixty Signs of the Kingdom of the Antichrist, published with his thirty letters to Calvin in a separate volume, though it is actually part of the Restoration text.
Servetus concludes his Sixty Signs of the Kingdom of the Antichrist with:
“Whoever truly believes that the Pope is the Antichrist will also truly believe that the Papist Trinity, the baptism of children, and the other sacraments of the Papacy are teachings of demons. O Christ Jesus, son of God, most merciful liberator who so many times have freed the people from hardship, free us wretches from this Babylonian captivity to the Antichrist, from his hypocrisy, tyranny and idolatry! Amen.”
Charged with being an Anabaptist at his trial, though he held his own interpretations of several of the seven articles in the Anabaptist Confession of Faith, the real issue was in his denouncing the baptism of infants. Like the Anabaptists, adult baptism and the Lord’s Supper were essential to his understanding of what it meant to be a Christian. Known for their steadfast adherence to their faith, which was strictly in keeping with scripture, the Anabaptists were the most radical group of the Reformation.
The first Anabaptist Confession of Faith was drafted by Michael Sattler in Schleitheim, Switzerland, in 1527. It affirms: (1) Baptism, excluding infant baptism, “the highest and chief abomination of the Pope.” (2) The Lord’s Supper, which takes place after confession by those of the faith so that “we may break and eat one bread, with one mind and in one love, and may drink of one cup.” This confession makes it clear that the bread and the wine are in remembrance of Christ, which places them in accord with Zwingli in his conflict with Luther, but not necessarily identical to Servetus. (3) Separation from the Abomination. This means that all Catholic and Protestant works and church services, drinking houses, civic affairs, oaths and all devilish weapons of force are to be shunned. Servetus was curious about the church services of John Calvin, but would have done well to shun the idea of attending on that fateful Sunday. (4) A pastor will read (a large number of Anabaptists were not literate, but learned scripture by heart through listening to a reader), admonish, teach, warm, discipline, ban, lead in prayer and lift up the bread when it is to be broken. It is interesting to note that when a pastor died or was himself removed from office by his flock, a new pastor was to be appointed on the same day so that the group would not be without a leader. (6) Only the ban and excommunication could be used— never was it accepted to kill or physically harm,
Servetus was not a pacifist. He favored exile as punishment, but allowed that death was acceptable in certain conditions. (7) Oaths were not allowed. Thus, Anabaptists could not hold public office, nor be asked to testify under oath. “Let your communication be Yea, yea, Nay, nay, for whatever is more than these cometh to evil.”
Michael Sattler and his wife, Marguerite, were captured shortly after this confession of faith was adopted. Michael was tortured and burned at the stake. His wife was offered a position in the household of the judge who sent Michael to his fate. Marguerite declined, saying that she preferred to join her husband. She believed that her steadfast faith to the end would result in going to a better place, welcomed at God’s Table and greeted by loved ones who had passed on before. This certainty was widely held during the time of Michael Servetus. Marguerite was drowned five days after her husband was executed.
We can see the Anabaptist strain in the theology of Servetus in several of these articles of faith. In particular, keeping the Lord’s Supper and baptism only of individuals who have reached an age of understanding their commitment, the two articles most important to the early Anabaptists as well as to Servetus. His denial of the baptism of infants was the strongest charge against his Anabaptist leanings at his trial.
Like many radicals in the early Reformation, Sattler was formerly a Catholic priest and his wife a Beguine . Before Michael was executed, he said that he would rather go to war against the Christians than against the Turks, though neither was an option, according to the Confession of Faith he was paying for with his life.
Other notable Anabaptists include George Blaurock, (Blue Cloak) an excommunicated priest, married to Els, a Beguine. George was one of the leaders in Zurich who split off from Zwingli and formed the official Anabaptist group in 1525. This meeting, where Conrad Grebel, a priest, baptized Blaurock, followed by Blaurock baptizing everyone present, took place in the home of Anna Mantz, mother of Felix Mantz, the illegitimate son of a priest. Felix, Conrad and George were the leaders in Zurich. When Zwingli made re-baptism a capital crime, none of them stopped this practice and wound up in jail several times, escaping only to be caught again, until Felix was executed, Conrad died of the plague in prison and George and Els were banished, after being forced (along with Anna) to watch Felix die. George continued to re-baptize great crowds of people. Without a church or a large space of any kind, George held gatherings in fields, sometimes near Bern. The Mennonites (direct descendants of the Anabaptists) still sing a hymn that George wrote and sang in the fields: Songs and prayers from this period have been passed down through the centuries in a hymnal that is the oldest one known to have ongoing use since the 16th Century in the Western World, the Ausband.
George met the stake too, in 1529. All of the leaders of the first organized Anabaptist group died during the first four years of its founding.
Unlike the true radicals who were steadfast in their faith, Calvin, who came to think of himself as God’s Watchdog, entreated the French Catholics for religious toleration before he left for Geneva. He urged the King of France to cease the constraint of the Protestants, because the king was persecuting the truth. “If Calvin ever wrote anything in favor of religious liberty, it was a typographical error.”
And Luther made so many shifts in his position that he is taught in three separate courses at the Lutheran seminary in Berkeley, California. He began his rise to power as a radical but shifted from the left to the right when power, influence and wealth came around. Luther said, early on, “I am not terrified because many of the great persecute and hate me. Rather, I am consoled and strengthened, since in all the Scriptures the persecutors and haters have commonly been wrong and the persecuted right. The majority always supports the lie and the minority the truth.” There is a distinctly traceable development from liberalism to persecution in Luther’s thinking. By 1526 and the Peasant’s War, Luther turned on the peasants with a call to kill anyone who fought for a better life—though they were fighting with farm tools and sticks. Thousands of peasants died, with a courageous woman known to Michael Servetus defying the city of Strasbourg by finding shelter and aid for 3,000 of the wounded, in a city where it was against the law to harbor a “foreigner” which meant anybody who did not live there or was not invited as a special guest. Three-thousand wounded peasants in a town of 25,000 would be a little difficult to hide. Her name was Katerina Zell, the wife of ex-priest and one of the first to marry in Strasbourg, to Matthew Zell. He was soon excommunicated, along with four colleagues in the city of Strasbourg who had done the same thing. When Matthew died and his replacement refused to officiate at an Anabaptist funeral, Katerina Zell stepped in. She wrote this note to the new priest:
You behave as if you have been brought up by savages in a jungle. The Anabaptists are pursued as by a hunter with dogs chasing wild boars. Yet the Anabaptists accept Christ in all essentials as we do. They have borne witness to their faith in misery, prison, fire and water. You young fellows tread on the graves of the first fathers of this church in Strasbourg and punish all who disagree with you, but faith cannot be forced.
Katerina and Matthew were known for their dinner gatherings, once entertaining Calvin. Matthew was thought to have gone “soft” because he gave in to his wife’s wishes, which were believed to be sometimes lacking in good judgment. One such time was when Michael Servetus was invited to dinner. Katerina expressed profound dismay about the execution of Servetus in 1553—five years after the death of her husband.
Servetus was a target of Calvin, who confided in a letter to William Farel in 1546 that Servetus had sent him drafts of the Restitution of Christianity, with three questions he wanted Calvin to answer. Calvin grudgingly responded, but Servetus was not satisfied, and proceeded to send thirty letters that explained his own point of view. Calvin then sent Servetus a copy of his Institutes, which, he observed, adequately explained his position. In the letter to Farel, Calvin said “Servetus has just sent me, together with his letters, a long volume of his ravings. If I consent, he will come here, but I will not give my word; for, should he come, if my authority is of any avail, I will not suffer him to get out alive.”
When Calvin finally captured Servetus, he certainly demonstrated a great deal more venom toward him than did the Catholics, who treated him more like a gentleman when they arrested him. He had decent accommodations and was given permission to walk outside. They did not confiscate his valuables, which included a gold chain worth about eighteen escudos sol in weight, a great turquoise ring, a white sapphire, a plain diamond, a ruby, a great Peruvian emerald, a carnelian ring for sealing and two letters of debt acknowledgment. These items were confiscated when Servetus was arrested in Geneva. While under arrest by the Catholics, he slipped out of the prison yard at night.
There was no slipping away from Calvin, who ignored legal protocol, refused to provide any comfort or cleanliness for his prisoner and denied legal representation for Servetus, though he had, of course, secured counsel for himself.
Though the trial dragged on for weeks, when the sentence of death was pronounced, Servetus had very little time to prepare himself. Though pressured up until the last moment to recant—to admit that Jesus is the eternal Son of God, Servetus’s dying words were: “Oh Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me.”
When the news of the death of Michael Servetus spread across Europe, it set off a storm of outrage. If the highest form of martyrdom is an act that sets history on a more humane, rational and worthy trajectory, Servetus achieved this state, and we today have freedoms which he himself did not enjoy in his life and work.
Concerning Heretics is believed to have been compiled by Sebastian Castellio in protest to the death of Servetus. It has become a foundational document in defense of religious toleration and freedom of conscience. The most remembered statement in the book will close this paper:
To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.
There will some day be a time of vengeance, but in the meantime the Son of Man is come not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. (Luke 9:56)
Pacific Unitarian Universalist