Michael Servetus:  Early Life, 15111532


    In a previous chapter we saw that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, noting the fact that the teaching of the Catholic Creeds as to the Trinity and the two natures in Christ was not to be found in Scripture, seemed at first half inclined, if not quite yet to deny those doctrines outright, at all events to pass them by without emphasis as doctrines not necessary for salvation.  We next saw how some of the Anabaptist leaders who were so bold as to deny those doctrines, brought their own views on these matters into the greater disrepute through the extravagance of their movement in other directions.  Now if the case had been dropped here, it might have been long before Antitrinitarian views would have asserted themselves in Protestantism; but we have now to turn to a man who arose just when the Anabaptist heretics had been pretty well put to silence, and forced the question upon the attention of the Reformers more insistently and sharply than ever.  This man was a Spanish Catholic named Michael Servetus.1   He was in more than one respect one of the most remarkable men of the sixteenth century; while the tragic death which he suffered made him the first and most conspicuous martyr to the faith whose history we are following.

    Though our records of the life of Servetus are scanty and inconsistent, and the gaps in them have often been filled up by conjectures which have later proved to be mistaken, it seems most likely that he was born in 1511 at Tudela, a small city in Navarre, and that in his infancy his parents removed to Villanueva in Aragon, where his father had received an appointment as royal Notary, an office of some distinction, and where the family lived in handsome style.  His parents were devoted Catholics, and it is thought that he may at first have been designed for the priesthood.  Little is known to a certainty about his early education, but he seems to have been a precocious youth, and early in his teens to have acquired a knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and to have become well versed in mathematics and the scholastic philosophy.

    There was much going on in Spain at this period to make a serious minded youth thoughtful about questions of religion.  Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic were on the throne, determined to secure political unity in their new nation by compelling religious uniformity; and a spirit of the most intolerant orthodoxy controlled the government.  In 1492, for refusing to deny the faith of their fathers and profess Christianity, 800,000 Jews had been banished from the kingdom.  In the same year the Moors had been overthrown in Granada, and although for a few years they were granted toleration, they were soon compelled to choose between abandoning their Mohammedanism and being driven from Spain.  In both cases it was the dogma of the Trinity that proved the insurmountable obstacle for races which held as the first article of their faith the undivided unity of God.  Within the generation including Servetus’s boyhood, some 20,000 victims, Jewish or Mohammedan, were thus burned at the stake.  Despite the resistance of the liberty loving Aragonians, the Inquisition was set up among them to root out heresy; and these things must all have made a deep impression upon the mind of the young Servetus, and may well have laid the foundation for the main passion of his life.

    Whatever may have been intended for him before, when Servetus was seventeen his father determined that he should enter the law, and to that end sent him across the Pyrenees to the University of Toulouse, then the most celebrated in France.   Here he made a most wonderful discovery.  For the first time in his life he found a Bible to read.2  He simply devoured it.  It seemed to him as though it were a book fallen into his hands from heaven, containing the sum of all philosophy and all science, and it made upon him a profound impression which lasted as long as he lived.  For hitherto he had been taught to believe that the dogma of the Trinity was the very center of the Christian religion, and he knew that for refusing to accept it thousands in his own land had recently been put to death.  Despite all this, the doctrine as taught in the schools had seemed to him but a dead thing, yielding no inspiration for his religious life, and used chiefly as a subject of hairsplitting debates between scholastic theologians.   Now to his surprise and infinite relief he found in the Bible nothing of all this, but instead the most wonderful religious book in all the world, full of life, and revealing to him as a vivid reality the great, loving heart of Christ.  The more he read it, the more he was inspired by it, and the more he became convinced that not only for Jews and Mohammedans but for all men the doctrine of the Trinity as then taught in the Church was the greatest stumbling block.  For the masses of the people could never comprehend it, and even the teachers themselves seemed not to understand it.  His mind was made up.  He would devote his life to exposing the errors in this doctrine, and to showing men what was the true teaching of the Bible about God and Christ.  He was as yet but eighteen years old!

    The study of the law had by now lost any attraction it may ever have had for him, and after about a year at the University he left it for the service of the friar Juan de Quintana, soon to become confessor to the young Emperor, Charles V.  He followed his master to court, and never saw his parents or his native land again.   Thus it happened that as one of the Emperor’s suite Servetus was early in 1530 present at Bologna, where Charles, though he had long since been crowned Emperor in Germany, was now to receive from Pope Clement VII a religious coronation with both the iron crown of Lombardy and the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, amid scenes of the most riotous luxury and extravagance that the modern world had ever known.  Here Servetus received a second profound impression upon his religious experience, calculated by sharp contrast to emphasize that made by his recent discovery of the Bible.  For on the one hand he saw the Pope bowed down to by the earth’s mightiest as little less than a god, and this filled him with a revulsion from which he never recovered;3 while on the other hand, behind the scenes, he saw among the highest dignitaries of the Church sickening evidences of worldliness' selfish ambition, cynical skepticism, and unconcealed immorality.   Henceforth the official religion of the Church seemed to him but a hollow mockery, and the Pope became for him the very Antichrist predicted in the New Testament.

    From Bologna the Emperor proceeded to Germany to attend the famous Diet of Augsburg, where Protestantism was to receive political recognition under the Empire, and where Melanchthon was to offer for the Emperor’s approval the Augsburg Confession as a statement of the Protestant doctrines. Servetus followed in the Emperor’s suite.  He had no doubt already seen some of the writings of Melanchthon, and perhaps also of others of the reformers; and he must have been eager to see and hear men who, like himself, had at heart the great cause of purifying the Church.   Although with his position in the service of the man who had the Emperor’s closest confidence, and with his own talents, he had the most enviable opportunity for worldly advancement, the only thing that now really interested him was to reform the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity.  He evidently saw little chance of accomplishing anything in this direction in Catholic circles, and so he gave up all his worldly prospects, left Quintana’s service, and went to seek the leaders of Protestantism.   For although the Augsburg Confession had just declared that Protestants accepted the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, the Protestant Churches had not yet adopted a permanent creed of their own; and he felt that if he could only get the chance to lay his views before the leaders of Protestant thought, he could surely get them to see the doctrine of the Trinity as he saw it.

    Servetus accordingly went in the autumn of 1530 to Basel, and sought repeated interviews with Oecolampadius, the leader of the Reformation in that city.   Though Servetus was but a youth of nineteen, a foreigner and a Catholic, and Oecolampadius was far more than twice his age, a distinguished man busy with important affairs, yet he received Servetus for some time patiently, and though scandalized by the views he expressed tried to convince him of his errors.  Before long he found Servetus so conceited, so obstinate in his opinions, and so much more bent on pressing his own views than upon humbly seeking to learn the truth, that he lost patience; and when Servetus complained because Oecolampadius would no longer listen to him, the latter wrote in reply, “I have more reason for complaint than you.  You thrust yourself upon me as if I had nothing to do but answer your questions.”  Servetus therefore, after having failed to get an interview with Erasmus, who, was then living at Basel, next went to Strassburg to see what he might accomplish with the reformers there.

    Now Strassburg was at that time the most liberal of the Protestant cities.  Denck and other Anabaptists had been there but a few years before, and their influence was still felt.  Bucer (Butzer) and Capito, the Strassburg reformers, received Servetus most kindly, and as they seemed at first to feel some sympathy for his views, he began to hope that here at last they would be adopted. But Zwingli, the founder and leader of the Swiss Reformation, who had already been told of Servetus’s heretical opinions, had warned the other reformers against these dreadful blasphemies as he considered them, lest they spread and bring incalculable harm upon the Protestant cause.  So that in the end Servetus made no better progress here than at Basel.

    It may seem almost incredible that a youth of nineteen should have had the effrontery thus to approach the acknowledged leaders of Protestant thought, men more than twice his age, and to assume to set them right as to the very first and most important article of their faith; but, as he later declared, he felt moved in this matter by a divine impulse, as though he had a fresh revelation from God to communicate.  If he could but once get his views fairly before men’s minds, they would be sure to be accepted; and then the whole world could easily be won to the Christian faith.   Nothing daunted therefore, and without trying to travel further and attempt to win over Melanchthon or Luther, he now resolved upon another course.  He would put his views into print where everyone might see them.  Even this was not so easily managed.  At Basel, the publishing center of northern Europe, the printer would not take the risk of publishing his manuscript; but after a little while one was found elsewhere who would print the book, though he dared not put his name and place on the title page.  Servetus, however, had no such misgivings, but was so confident in his cause that he boldly printed his own name as author.

    Thus was issued in the summer of 1531, at Hagenau in Alsace, a little book which was destined to start a profound revolution in the religious world.   It was entitled On the Errors of the Trinity.4 It was written in rather crude Latin, with thoughts not too well digested or arranged, though its main intention is clear enough, and it shows a remarkable range of reading for a youth.   It was put on sale in the Rhine cities, and its influence soon spread far and wide through Switzerland and Germany and into northern Italy; and wherever it was read it won marked attention.  Servetus seems naïvely still to have expected that the reformers would actually welcome his contribution to their cause as soon as they took time to reflect on what he had to say; but instead they were thrown into the greatest consternation by it.

Melanchthon, it is true, admitted that he was reading it a good deal; and he and Oecolampadius agreed that it contained many good points; but any slight praise was soon drowned by the general chorus of denunciation.  To Luther it seemed “an abominably wicked book”; Melanchthon foresaw (correctly enough, as the event proved) great tragedies resulting from it; Oecolampadius saw the whole Reformation imperiled by this new Hydra, if he were tolerated, since the Emperor would hold the Protestant churches responsible for these odious blasphemies; Bucer said from his pulpit that the author deserved to be drawn and quartered;5 and the vocabulary in general was exhausted for offensive epithets to heap upon him.  It was charged that he must have gone to Africa and learned his doctrine from the Moors, and that he was in secret league with the Grand Turk who was just then threatening to conquer Christian Europe.  As soon as the character of the book became generally known the sale of it was forbidden at Basel and Strassburg; and when it was brought next year to the notice of Quintana, to his infinite chagrin that it should have been written by one who had been his protégé, he had “that most pestilent book” at once prohibited throughout the Empire.  So thoroughly was it suppressed that some twenty years later, when a copy was eagerly wanted at Geneva in the trial of Servetus for heresy, not one could be found.

    At the request of Oecolampadius, Bucer wrote a refutation of Servetus’s book (which, however, he never ventured to publish), and he warned him that though he would not himself do him the least harm, the magistrate would no longer suffer him to stay at Strassburg, nor would he himself intercede with the magistrate in Servetus’s behalf.  Servetus therefore returned to Basel, where he had previously made at least a partial living by giving language lessons; and he brought with him a part of the edition of his book to dispose of there or to send on to the book fair at Lyon.  Here too he found the feeling against him so intense that he scarcely knew what to expect next.  Accordingly he wrote to Oecolampadius offering to leave town if it were thought best, but also saying that he was willing to publish a retraction of what he had written.  Indulgence was given him, and the result was that the following spring he brought out another and smaller book, entitled Dialogues on the Trinity; for the dialogue was at that time a favorite form for discussing subjects of every sort.

    This new work was hastily and carelessly done, but it was ostensibly meant to correct the errors and imperfections of the former book which, he said, were due partly to his own lack of skill, and partly to the carelessness of the printer.  It was in fact intended only to strengthen his former arguments by meeting the objections which the reformers had raised against them; and he prided himself that they had not brought forward a single passage of Scripture to disprove what he had said.  He omitted, to be sure, some of the objectionable things in the first book, and he restated his views in language somewhat nearer the teaching of the Church; but so far as his main purpose was concerned, it was the same thought as before, only expressed more briefly, and in another form.  His opponents were in no wise appeased, and as he lacked both friends and money, while his ignorance of German hindered him in trying to earn his bread, he now left the German world, and for more than twenty years was as completely lost to sight as if the earth had opened and swallowed him up.  What became of him, what an adventurous and exciting life he led during this long period, and how at length he suffered a cruel death for the same teachings that obliged him to leave Germany now, must be told in a later chapter.

    What now was the teaching of these books, that they should have so shocked the reformers?  Let us glance at them in the briefest and clearest summary of them possible.  Taking the teaching of the Bible as absolute and final authority, Servetus held that the nature of God can not be divided, as by any doctrine of one being in three persons, inasmuch as no such doctrine is taught in the Bible, to which indeed the very terms Trinity, essence, substance, and the like as used in the Creeds are foreign, being mere inventions of men.  The earlier Fathers of the Church also knew nothing of them, and they were simply foisted upon the Church by the Greeks, who cared more to make men philosophers than to have them to be true Christians.6  Equally unscriptural is the doctrine of the two natures in Christ.  He pours unmeasured scorn and satire on these doctrines, calling them illogical, unreasonable, contradictory, imaginary; and he ridicules the received doctrine of the Holy Spirit.  The doctrine of one God in three persons he says can not be proved, nor even really imagined; and it raises questions which can not be answered, and leads to countless heresies.  Those that believe in it are fools and blind: they become in effect atheists, since they are left with no real God at all; while the doctrine of the Trinity really involves a Quaternity of four divine beings.  It is the insuperable obstacle to the conversion of Jews and Mohammedans to Christianity;7 and such blasphemous teachings ought to be utterly uprooted from men’s minds.

    In place of these artificial doctrines of the Creeds, Servetus draws from the Bible the following simple doctrines, and quotes many texts to prove them.   Firstly, the man Jesus, of whom the Gospels tell, is the Christ, anointed of God.   Secondly, this man Jesus the Christ is proved by his miraculous powers and by the statements of Scripture to be literally the human Son of God, because miraculously begotten by him.  Thirdly, this man is also God, since he is filled with the divinity which God had granted him; hence he is divine not by nature, as the Creeds teach, but solely by God’s gift.  God himself is incomprehensible, and we can know him only through Christ, who is thus all in all to us.  The Holy Spirit is a power of God,8 sent in the form of an angel or spirit to make us holy.  And the only kind of Trinity in which we may rightly believe is this: that God reveals himself to man under three different aspects (dispositiones); for the same divinity which is manifested in the Father is also shared with his Son Jesus, and with the Spirit which dwells in us, making our bodies, as St. Paul says, “the temple of God.”

    Servetus is often reckoned the first and greatest martyr of Unitarianism; but though all this was of course a very different doctrine from that of the Creeds, it will have been seen that Servetus was not a Unitarian in any true sense.   He was more like a Sabellian9 than anything else, though really his system was peculiar to himself.  So it has always remained, for no school of followers rose after him, as after Luther and Calvin, to take up his teachings and carry them on.  As a matter of fact, he never withdrew from the Catholic Church, and he says at the end of his second little book that he does not wholly agree nor wholly disagree with either party.  Both Catholic and Protestant seem to him to teach partly truth and partly error, while each perceives only the other’s errors, but not his own.  The matter would be easy enough, he says, if one might only speak out freely in the Church what he felt was God’s truth now, without regard to what ancient prophets may have said.

    Yet while Servetus made few converts to his precise system of thought, his two little books, though they probably did not circulate in very large numbers,10 spread far and wide11 and had an epochmaking influence; for they focused men’s attention sharply upon the foundations of the doctrine of the Trinity.  The Catholic world paid little attention to them, but their influence on the Protestant world was at once shown.  Instead of converting the reformers to his own views as he had hoped, Servetus simply made them more than ever firmly determined to adhere to the doctrines of the Catholic Creeds.   Melanchthon, whom we have seen in his first treatise passing the Trinity by as barely deserving mention, and as not necessary to salvation12 in his next edition in 1535 treats the doctrines which Servetus had attacked as absolutely necessary to salvation.  Calvin, whom we also saw in his first Catechism slurring over the doctrine of the Trinity very lightly,13 gives it full treatment in his Institutes in 1536, and in 1553 will have Servetus burned at the stake for denying it.  All the Protestant creeds are careful henceforth to be unmistakably orthodox on this point.  On the other hand, many who read Servetus became convinced with him that the Trinity is no doctrine of the Bible, and hence ceased to believe it.  We shall find numerous traces of his thought in the course of the following chapters.

    Twenty years later Servetus enlarged these little books into a much more important one, as we shall see; but although it brought him to the stake, and thus gave his denial of the Trinity great notoriety, all but a very few copies of it were destroyed before any one had a chance to read them, and it is not known to have had any considerable influence.  It is through the two little books spoken of in this chapter that Servetus started men out on the line of thought which led at length to modern Unitarianism.  How the influence of them spread, undermining belief in the Trinity in various countries during the next twenty years, remains to be seen in the next two chapters.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
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