Michael Servetus, John Calvin and the Trinity Doctrine
a study on the consuming flames of religious orthodoxy
Michael Servetus, also known as Miguel Servet, was a man of considerable accomplishments in theology, medicine, and other fields. He was born in Spain, around 1511, but the exact date of his birth is unknown. He distinguished himself as a linguist studying Greek, Latin and Hebrew. He studied law at the University of Toulouse, and was taken underwing by a patron, a Franciscan friar named Juan de Quintana. Quintana expanded Michael's theological horizons by introducing him to the works of Desiderius Erasmus as well as the writings of Martin Luther.
When Quintana became the confessor for Charles V in 1530, Servetus was taken along as a low level member of the royal entourage serving as Quintana's page or secretary. As such he traveled through Italy and Germany, and was present at the coronation of Charles as the Holy Roman Emperor in Bologna in 1530. It was during this event that Servetus was stunned and outraged by the pomp and ostentatious luxury openly displayed by Pope Clement VII and his retinue. He witnessed Clement being carried on the shoulders of court officials. He was also disturbed and shaken by the emperor's unabashed deference to the pope.
Sometime later he parted ways with his patron and traveled through Lyon, Geneva, Basel and Strasbourg. During this period he began to meet with some of the leaders of the growing reformation movement including Oecolampadius, Martin Bucer, and Kaspar Schwenckfeld. His first public attack on the orthodox doctrine of the trinity was when he published De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity) in 1531. It was his first attempt to articulate a reformist view of what he believed was a serious doctrinal error on the part of the church. He believed that the doctrine of the trinity was a disastrous mistake. His views were met with forceful criticism from both Catholic and Protestant leaders, none of whom could quite grasp his novel speculations on an established concept that is likewise a speculative concept, impossible for those leaders to explain in any coherent way. His detractors weren't exactly sure why, but they knew they didn't like it. In an attempt to better explain his views, he published the Dialogorum de Trinitate (Dialogues on the Trinity) also in 1531.
In his writings on the subject, Servetus crafted a theology that objected to the fact that the trinitarian doctrine was not based on biblical teachings, but rather on Greek philosophy. He saw himself as a voice advocating for a return to the simplicity of the gospel accounts and the apostolic fathers of the church (disparaged as 'restorationism', a proposal believed to be a theological impossibility). In addition, he believed that the church would hold much greater appeal to Jews and Muslims if the trinitarian doctrine, a tritheistic teaching, were removed as an impediment to monotheistic believers.
Servetus argued that Christ was never "the eternal Son of God," but rather, "the Son of the Eternal God." He contended that the divine Logos was indeed a manifestation of God, but not a separate divine person within the context of a "Godhead." Rather, this manifestation attached itself to the human being of Jesus at the time of conception as the Holy Spirit entered the womb of Mary. These events created the "Son" who was not eternal, it was the Logos from which he was formed that was eternal. His views were essentially very similar to the Pre-Nicene views as expressed in Arianism. Yet Arianism was already clearly condemned as heresy, and Servetus was guilty of questioning the established trinitarian dogma that shoehorns three individual divine persons into a singular entity that the Nicene church claims constitutes "One God," a false, but popularly accepted imitation of monotheism.
He moved to Lyon, taking the name Villanovanus to avoid inquisitors, and took up scientific studies, publishing works on astrology, medicine and pharmacology as well as a translation of Ptolemy's Geographia. In 1536 he returned to Paris to study medicine, becoming a Doctor of Medicine in 1539. All the while, keeping up the outward appearance of a proper orthodox Catholic, while pursuing his theological studies in private.
As a medical doctor, he became the personal physician to the Archbishop of Vienne. This was when he met an acquaintance of John Calvin, who aided him in initiating a correspondence with the well known reformist. In their correspondence back and forth, Calvin used the pseudonym "Charles d'Espeville" and Servetus kept up his "De Villeneuve" persona. By this time he had become a French citizen.
In 1546 Servetus published, Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity) revising his anti-trinitarian views, and forwarded a copy of the manuscript to Calvin, expressing a desire that the two men should meet. Calvin, who found Servetus' theological ideas offensive, given that they conflicted with his own theology, responded by sending a copy of his own work, a summary of Christian doctrine entitled Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutes of the Christian Religion) which Servetus promptly returned with critical notations. This so insulted the intellectual pride of Calvin, that after a few more letters, Calvin made up his mind that he would have nothing more to do with Servetus.
A secret printing of 1,000 copies of the revised manuscript of Restitutio was published in Vienne in 1553, and it was in 1553, the first formal charges of heresy were brought against Servetus. The charges originated from a close personal friend of John Calvin in Geneva, and were brought to the attention of the French Inquisitor, Matthieu Ory in Lyon. Both Servetus and Arnollet, the printer of Christianismi Restitutio, were questioned by the Catholic inquisitor, but released for lack of evidence.
The inquisitor asked for more documentation and received back the copy of the manuscript that Servetus had sent to Calvin along with some of the letters the two had exchanged. Some quotes from the writings of Servetus were sufficient:
"In the Bible, there is no mention of the Trinity . . .We get to know God, not through our proud philosophical
concepts, but through Christ."
"It [the trinity] is an invention of the devil, an infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity."
In April 1553, Servetus was arrested by Roman Catholic authorities and imprisoned in Vienne. However, he escaped three days later and disappeared. Undeterred by the absence of a prisoner, the French inquisition convicted him of heresy and sentenced him to burning along with his writings. He was burned in effigy along with blank paper, substituted for his books.
John Calvin, Protestant Reformer
Running from the inquisitors, Servetus was planning to go to Italy, but for some inexplicable reason, he went instead to Geneva where he attempted to attend a sermon being given by John Calvin. He obviously held Calvin in high esteem, and perhaps believed that this shining light of the reformation would exercise some of his popular acclaim and recognition to protect a fellow traveler from the Catholic inquisition. He wasn't just wrong, he was dead wrong. He was immediately recognized and arrested.
Even though he did not personally participate in the trial, Calvin's pride and prestige were on the line, and he pressed with all means at his disposal, from behind the curtain, to see the conviction of Servetus through to the finish. Michael Servetus was convicted on two charges, first, spreading and preaching non-trinitarianism, and second, preaching his opposition to the practice of infant baptism.
The Protestant Council had predetermined the need to carry out the sentence that the Catholics had already adjudicated, but it wasn't as easy as that. Because Servetus was not a citizen of Geneva, the worst they could do to him was banishment. However, the Protestants worried about creating the appearance of leniency towards heretics and blasphemers, so they conferred with other Reformed Swiss Cantons arriving at the unanimous conclusion that Geneva should condemn the man and suppress his teachings.
Then, putting a finger to the wind, they sought allies from among other reformist leaders before making a final decision on what to do with the problem of Michael Servetus. They found that fellow reformers such as Martin Luther had condemned the writings of Servetus in the strongest of terms, and Phillip Melanchthon, a close friend and colleague of Luther, also a highly respected Protestant theologian, held severely hostile opinions of Servetus' works. It was then, the conclusion of the Geneva Council, presided over by a Libertine named Ami Perrin, that Servetus be burned at the stake. It is said that Calvin argued in favor of the more dignified beheading, rather than burning, however, for the charges against a heretic, burning was the only legally acceptable sentence. Servetus is quoted as saying, "May the Lord destroy all the tyrants of the church. Amen."
On October 27, 1553, Michael Servetus was taken to the outskirts of Geneva and burned alive on a pyre which included his own books. It is recorded that his last words were, "Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me." The point was made that the Protestants, just as the Catholics, felt a cruel duty to exterminate anyone expressing theologies that contradicted the Nicene Mother church as heretics, to do it publicly, and in the most inhumane manner possible.
The fact that the Protestants did not want to give the impression of leniency towards heretics and blasphemers, indicates that they were still trying to please the Nicene Mother church, seeking some form of approval. After all, they were obediently carrying out the punishment that the Catholic inquisition had already adjudicated.
There are some important lessons to take away from these events. Most importantly, the religious leaders of the Christian church, including the reformers, lived in mortal fear of exposure for the frauds they were and had always been. They understood that the trinity doctrine, this core concept of Christian theology, was unsupported by scripture, and stood in absolute defiance of the Jewish monotheistic tradition, the tradition of Yeshua, the tradition of Moses and Abraham. That this teaching was an invention of such fragile composition that even obscure criticism from some remote corner of the faith, threatened the entire framework of the church with collapse. Further, if this core element of the greater institutional structure were to be thrown over as false, the entire religious structure could come crashing down, and they would all be out of jobs. Not that the faith, or the Christian Way would be damaged, only that the institutional religious structure which supported the livelihood of the professional churchmen could itself go - belly up. All of the grand cathedrals of Christendom might have to be 'repurposed'. Perhaps they could be turned into drive through oil-change/car wash centers. Maybe movie theaters, or indoor skateboard parks.
Worse than that, if the trinitarian doctrine were in fact found false, then the Christian clergy would be guilty of leading the flock of Yeshua after a false God. Worshipping a philosophically weird deity of human invention, thus leading the flock to destruction, just as Servetus had dared to suggest.
The same is true of Servetus' criticism of the doctrine of infant baptism. Here, the clergy would be guilty of assuring the flock of the validity of their baptisms, when in fact, infant baptism carries no merit or benefit. Yet the most estimable churchmen will warn you, "Your child cannot get into heaven if it isn't baptized." Yet, an infant cannot make a commitment to serve and obey Yeshua, rendering the infant baptism invalid (see - Anabaptists). The innocent little thing has only been splashed with a little water, it doesn't know why. This fact thus ensures that the greatest segment of Christians are in fact, unbaptized, and the clergy know it. It is fear that demands, they cannot allow these facts to be revealed. Fear that the laity could turn on them in anger. They fear the laity, they have no fear of God.
Therefore, the expedient course of action is always to have critics executed in public and in the most inhumane manner. Thus providing a two-fold benefit. First, eliminating the source of the criticism, and secondly making a memorable example before a large crowd of people, meant to discourage any others who might allow themselves to harbor similar criticisms. It's what esteemed men of the cloth did to Yeshua, the Messiah, to Arius of Alexandria, to William Tyndale, John Wycliffe (the late), Jan Hus, and to so many, many more whose names are lost to history. God knows who they are though, and they will go to their rewards. God will remember these people who dared to question established religious orthodoxy, and suffered at the hands of the clergy - the evil men who have no fear of God.
Calvin never publicly gave any indication of remorse over the events surrounding the execution of Michael Servetus. In fact, he continued to condemn Servetus publicly, trying to justify his hand in the monstrous act of committing another Christian soul to the flames. One is forced to conclude, as a result of these events, that for all the praise heaped upon John Calvin as a brilliant intellectual, a scholar, and theologian, in fact, he did not know Christ. (see- 1 John 3:4-8) He did not know the simplest of Yeshua's teachings. It calls into question everything he wrote, and everything he taught. In addition to his homicidal support of the trinitarian doctrine, he was the first Christian theologian to articulate the controversial concept of "predestination." He also taught his doctrine of justification, "once saved, always saved," known also as the "doctrine of eternal security." This is considered by many to be a lawless doctrine, a "license for immorality," falsely taught under the rubric of grace.
John Calvin was a callous, self-absorbed captain of Protestantism even willing to stoop to murder over a matter of personal pride. He was a moral coward, given that he would not face, and would not confront the man he was accusing of a capital offense, choosing instead to remain in the shadows, content to allow the hands of others to do the Devil's work on his behalf. In this respect, he was no better than the Roman Catholic pope.
Much like Luther, and the Anglicans, he also chose to keep his theological divergences mostly under the yoke of his Roman Catholic overlords, unwilling to stray too far from established orthodoxy. One denomination as unwilling as the next to penetrate the true depths of the Nicene Mother church's doctrinal errors, and murderous ways, on some level, always seeking her approval.
see also - Desiderous Erasmus of Rotterdam
see also - Martin Luther
see also - prominent men of the Reformation
Calvin wrote to another friend stating, "Servetus has just sent me a long volume of his ravings. If I consent he will come here, but I will not give my word; for if he comes here, if my authority is worth anything, I will never permit him to depart alive." Truly spoken in the spirit of an individual possessed with an over-developed sense of personal pride.
see also - the Devil's Handmaiden goes on the Warpath
"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Therefore by their fruits you will know them. - Matthew 7:15-20
Calvinism along with the rest of the Protestant movement were thus doomed to a course of 'image' over substance, ensuring that the genuine potential of the Protestant movement would be squandered - reduced to pointless barking at the moon, mired as the Protestants were in the errors of the Nicene Mother church. Calvin and others created a remarkable movement of mainline Protestant lukewarm mush, mainly for the benefit of personal aggrandizement of a few. Michael Servetus was one of so many good hearted Christian souls that paid a terrible price for failing to recognize these institutional religious realities.
May Yeshua, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on the soul of Michael Servetus.
see also - Anabaptists of the Reformation
Even a brief look into the life of Michael Servetus will reveal a remarkable man of faith and intellect.