Chapter Four
Michael Servetus

      (This account of Servetus is merely a brief reconstruction of the circumstances and events of his trial for heresy. Since it does not involve the use of esoteric source materials, but is based instead on printed materials available in any good university library, I have foregone the unnecessary erudition of footnotes)

      Michael Servetus was a physician from Spain. A man of broad intellectual interests and ability, he was the first person in the western world to discover the principles of the circulation of the blood.

      To the study of comparative geography he contributed a scholarly treatise on the Geography of Ptolemy. He was also trained in the law and was considered to be something of an expert on astronomy, geometry, meteorology and ancient languages. He also took a lively interest in religious matters, and wrote a number of books on theological subjects, of which the best known are his Restitution of Christianity and his On the Errors of the Trinity. Unfortunately for him, he succeeded in antagonizing orthodox defenders of both Catholic and Protestant truth, for Servetus had doubts about the eternal nature of Jesus Christ. That is, he did not think that Christ had existed before He was born, whereas everybody else in both camps knew that Jesus had existed from the beginning of time and before.

      Because of his religious views Servetus fled his Spanish homeland just a few steps ahead of the Inquisition. After wandering about in Germany and France for a number of years he settled down in the French city of Vienne. There, for twelve years, he practiced medicine under the name of Michael Villeneuve, a French rendition of the



name of his home town of Villanueva. Outwardly he was a conforming Catholic, as he continued his theological speculations in private.

      Servetus began corresponding with John Calvin about 1546. Their exchanges were acrimonious, which was inevitable in view of their differing opinions on matters of salvation. Calvin finally became so angered at the impudent blasphemies of Servetus that he revealed to the Catholic authorities at Vienne the information that Michael Villeneuve was really the notorious heretic Michael Servetus. Servetus was arrested by the Inquisition, tried and found guilty of heresy and sentenced to be burned at the stake.

      However, on April 7, 1553, Servetus escaped from his prison at Vienne. For the next several months he dropped completely out of sight. Apparently he was planning to go to Naples, where other religious refugees had been able to find a safe haven in these unsafe times.

      In August he came through Geneva, where he attended Sunday services, was recognized and arrested. We read in the Geneva city records:

On August 13 of the present year Michael Servetus was recognized by certain brothers. It seemed best to make him a prisoner so that he could not continue to infect the world with his heresies and blasphemies, since it is well known that he is hopeless and incorrigible.

      The following day one Nicolas de la Fontaine, acting for John Calvin, presented a list of charges against Servetus before the Council of Geneva. Thirty-nine in number, the charges may be grouped under six general categories.

1. Almost thirty years ago Servetus began spreading his errors and heresies in Germany. He was ultimately forced to flee from Germany to escape punishment, particularly because of a book he published there in 1531, entitled On the Errors of the Trinity, which poisoned the minds of many people. He has also written many other books and commentaries, containing innumerable blasphemies, in order to disseminate his poisonous doctrines among faithful Christians.


2. He denies the immortality of the soul, maintaining that the soul of man is mortal, like his body.

3. He rejects infant baptism as an invention of the devil. Babies, he says, are not born in sin, and therefore have no need of baptism. People do not commit mortal sin until they are twenty years old.

4. He says that to believe in three distinct Persons of the Trinity is to make of God a devil with three heads. He describes those who believe in the Trinity as Trinitarians and atheists.

5. He says that Jesus Christ was not the Son of God through all eternity - that He was not the Word made flesh. Jesus, he claims, did not become the Son of God until He was conceived in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. Those who maintain that Jesus Christ existed before that time he describes as believers in fantasy and sorcery.

6. He not only upholds his heretical blasphemies as truth, but he insults those who do not agree with him. He calls the German Reformer Melanchthon a man without faith and a son of the devil. As for John Calvin, minister of the word of God in this Church of Geneva, this Servetus has defamed the true doctrines of Calvin, uttering all the injuries and blasphemies which it is possible to invent.

"Therefore", Fontaine concluded, "I ask that Michael Servetus be called to answer for his crimes, and particularly for the grave scandal which he has brought upon the Christian world, the blasphemies he has uttered against God, the heresies with which he has infected the world, the wicked calumnies he has published against John Calvin and other true servants of God, and the dishonor he has sought to bring upon the Church of Geneva with his condemnations of our holy doctrine."


      The week which followed was taken up with Servetus' replies to the charges and his arguments with John Calvin over matters of orthodoxy. Servetus began by saying that he had never been condemned by any churches in Germany, and had never caused any troubles there:

It is true that I have written many books and commentaries, but they have certainly not been full of poison and blasphemy; rather, I have done nothing but good with these books. If my accusers can show me what these alleged blasphemies are, I will be glad to correct them.

CALVIN: I have here a copy of your edition of the Latin Bible, which you published in Lyons eleven years ago. I say that by your annotations in this work you soil the word of God with your futile trifles and impious ravings. Hear, for example, the violence you do to the book of Isaiah. In Chapter 53 Isaiah speaks of the servant of God who bore the iniquities of His people. Now, you claim that the servant of God to whom the passage refers is no other than Cyrus the Persian. This, it is clear, is a bold corruption of prophecy, for indeed the Christian Church clearly understands that the servant of God in this case is none other than Jesus Christ, whose coming is here foretold by the prophet.

SERVETUS: You either do not or cannot understand. The ancient doctors of the Church have commented on this passage in essentially the same way as have I. You will notice that in my annotations I have also observed that although the historical reference is clearly to Cyrus, the language used also foreshadows the coming of Christ. Likewise have the ancient doctors attached the same double meaning to this passage, namely, that the symbolic reference is to Jesus Christ, but the literal and historical reference is to Cyrus of Persia.

CALVIN: Never would a man have the boldness so wretchedly to corrupt a passage so noble, had he not lost all sense of shame,


taking a diabolical pleasure in suppressing the Christian faith.

      Servetus went on to deny that he had ever even questioned the immortality of the soul. He had said and written that the soul is clothed with corruptible elements, as everyone knew, but he had never claimed that the soul is mortal. He readily admitted that he regarded the baptism of infants as an invention of the devil and an infernal falsehood for the destruction of Christianity. However, he never denied original sin; he merely said that redemption of sins must wait until a person is mature. "For I do not believe that God would regard as mortal sins those which are committed before the age of twenty." On the subject of the Trinity, the discussion almost immediately bogged down in a wrangle between Servetus and Calvin over authorities. Servetus maintained that the word "Trinity" had never appeared in the writings of the Church fathers before the Council of Nicaea in the fourth century. If the early fathers had implicitly recognized any distinctions in the Divine Essence, they went no farther than to imply three special modifications in the same single Essence; they certainly did not recognize the existence of three equal and distinct Persons in the same single Being. To this, Calvin retorted that Servetus had not correctly read the early Church fathers, that the anti-Trinitarian doctrine which Servetus imputed to them was certainly unknown today (to anybody except Servetus), and that all Servetus was doing was citing in support of his heretical views only "apocryphal writings, which are full of absurdities." On the subject of Jesus Christ, Servetus maintained that the term "Son of God" applied to Jesus only after He appeared on earth.

      Calvin replied that it was proper and necessary to attach the title "Son of God" to the invisible and divine Word, which took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, who had existed from all eternity. But Servetus insisted that such a distinction was false; Jesus Christ, before His incarnation, existed only as a simple mode of being in the Godhead, and certainly not as a Person endowed with his own proper existence.

      From such head-breaking subtleties as these, the discussion then turned to the charge that Servetus had insulted Calvin and the other


Geneva ministers. Calvin produced a copy of his own work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, which had been in the possession of Servetus, and in which the latter had made a number of marginal notations of an insulting nature. Calvin also produced some letters written by Servetus which contained strong attacks on the heavenly doctrines preached by the Geneva clergy.

      Servetus admitted that he had indeed made the comments in question. But, said he,

Calvin has likewise insulted me in many of his printed works. I have merely answered him, showing that he has erred in some places. I did these things in my own defense, not with the intention of causing injury, but merely to show him his errors and faults, using Holy Scripture as my authority.


      On August 23 (still 1553) the character of the trial shifted, from an emphasis on heresy to an emphasis on sedition - another topic close to the hearts of the orderly men of Geneva. To pursue this line of attack, the public prosecutor, one Claude Rigot, now took up the prosecution. His general approach was that Servetus was a dangerous character whose heresies were not only wicked in themselves, but because this heresiarch worked so diligently to spread his false opinions, he was a threat to the security of the entire Christian world (Protestant and Catholic - orthodox and heterodox alike).

PROSECUTOR: In spite of the warnings of learned doctors against your heretical books, you continued to publish them, knowing full well that by so doing you were raising a great tumult in the whole of Christendom.

SERVETUS: I did not think that my books would disturb the peace of Christendom. Rather I thought they would help to keep it, by giving to men of reflection the opportunity to speak their thoughts and thus, by open and free discussion, the truth could be disseminated amongst everyone. Furthermore, had I not


published the truth of Christianity as I see it, I felt I would be offending God. For Our Lord has commanded us, in the tenth chapter of Matthew, that what has been revealed to us in secret should not be concealed, but imparted to others. He has also told us, in the fifth chapter of Matthew, that we should not hide the light He has given us under a bushel, but put it where it can enlighten others. Thus I did what I thought was right according to God and my conscience. I have never sought to raise sedition and turbulence, but have acted only in accordance with the injunctions of Scripture, with the intent of doing good. I thought thereby to restore in Christianity many things which have been lost from it since ancient times.

PROSECUTOR: What, for example, do you think is missing in Christianity today?

SERVETUS: I cannot accept the doctrine of John Calvin that all men are utterly depraved and that they are predestined to Heaven or Hell.

PROSECUTOR: What makes you think that your doctrines will be accepted instead?

SERVETUS: I do not know that they will be, but many things have often been rejected at first and accepted later.

PROSECUTOR: You say that you did not conceal your opinions for fear of offending God. Why then did you not express your views when you were in France?

SERVETUS: In France, where the papists are in power, there is great persecution, and there one would only be casting pearls before swine.

PROSECUTOR: You claim that your teachings would raise no tumult. Yet you deliberately encourage the young to relax their morals by saying that until they reach the age of twenty they are not liable to punishment for sin.


SERVETUS: I never meant anything other than punishment by death. Of course they are subject to other punishments, such as the whip, the galleys or prison.

PROSECUTOR: Have you read the Koran?

SERVETUS: Yes I have.

PROSECUTOR: Do you find any good things in it?

SERVETUS: Certainly.

PROSECUTOR: We can only conclude then that you would help to foster tumult in Christendom by aiding and abetting the followers of Mohammed.*

SERVETUS: I would no more aid Mohammed than I would aid the devil. But even in the worst books one can find some good things. And in the Koran there are some things which testify to the glory of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

PROSECUTOR: You are not only quarrelsome and contentious but you are also a libertine and a debauchee. Have you ever been married?


PROSECUTOR: How have you managed to avoid it?

SERVETUS: I am physically incapacitated by a rupture.

PROSECUTOR: How old were you when you were ruptured?

SERVETUS: About five

      *The thought suddenly flashes through my mind that Claude Rigot still lives.


PROSECUTOR: Did you ever think of getting married?

SERVETUS: Yes, but I refrained because of my incapacity.

PROSECUTOR: But have you not been heard to observe that there are enough women in the world so that a man does not need to marry?

SERVETUS: I don't recall saying any such thing, although I might have said it as a joke, and to hide my own impotence.

PROSECUTOR: Seeing that you have lived such a dissolute and lewd life, what gave you the idea that someone such as you, who scorns Christian chastity, could write on matters of Christian faith?

SERVETUS: Because I have studied Holy Scripture to find the truth and because, no matter what you say, I have lived as a Christian.

PROSECUTOR: You have not only slandered the doctrines of our church and the persons of our ministers but you came to this city for the express purpose of sowing your seeds of heresy here and raising a tumult in the church of Geneva.

SERVETUS: I can only reply, as I did before, that I have been insulted equally by your own ministers and that my slanders, as you call them, have merely been replies in my own defense, designed to point out the errors of my critics. As to your accusation that I came to Geneva deliberately to foment sedition, anyone can tell you that I merely stopped by here on my way to Italy, and had no intention of staying.

      The following day (August 24) Servetus addressed a lengthy petition to the Council, asking that he be given his freedom. "It is a new invention," he wrote, "unknown to the apostles and disciples of the ancient Church, to accuse someone for wrong doctrine." In the


early days of the church, the worst punishment provided for heresy was banishment:

I beseech you, my lords, to consider that I have not committed any sedition either in your territories or elsewhere. The religious questions with which I deal are abstruse. They are addressed only to the learned few and not to the multitude. I ought not be detained for merely having put forth my views on certain religious questions, without any seditious intent or result. At the very least, since I am a stranger to Geneva and unacquainted with your customs and legal procedures, I ask that you appoint an attorney to assist me in my defense.

      Prosecutor Claude Rigot objected in the name of law and virtue. Servetus had studied law, he reminded the Council, so he could hardly be ignorant of the laws and constitutions whereby the first Christian emperors pronounced death against heretics. The prisoner was trying to deprive the Geneva magistrates of their right to kill him, because "his own conscience condemns him and proves him to be deserving of death." Servetus' other claim-that he had communicated his heresies to a very few, was "an evident lie; for he himself has said that he would consider it an offense against God not to communicate the truth to others." And as for the prisoner's request for an attorney to represent him, well-

Seeing that he knows so well how to lie, he has no need of counsel. For who is there that could or would assist him in such impudent falsehoods and evil purposes? Add to this that it is forbidden by law that such seducers speak through an attorney.
Besides, there is not a single sign of his innocence which would justify an attorney. Wherefore he ought to be instantly denied such a request on the ground that it is inept and impertinent.

      So the petition by the prisoner was turned down by the court on all counts.


      Once again it was John Calvin's turn to take over the prosecution. On September 5 he presented to the Council thirty-eight propositions which he had squeezed from the writings of Servetus, "which propositions are in part blasphemous, in part full of errors and profane reveries, and are all utterly repugnant to the Word of God and the common consent of the Church." This new set of accusations covered the same ground already worked over in the initial stages of the trial. After reviewing in laborious detail these already familiar accusations against Servetus, Calvin concluded that "Servetus has no other purpose but to extinguish the light which we have from the Word of God, and so to abolish all religion."

      It is obvious, from Servetus' reply, that his patience (and his hopes) were wearing thin:

Already Calvin claims such authority that he draws up accusations after the fashion of the Catholic doctors of the [Sorbonne] University of Paris. He either does not understand my views or he cunningly distorts them. He has a confused mind which cannot understand the truth. He is a wretch who persists in condemning what he does not understand. With his doctrines of the total depravity of man and predestination to Hell or Heaven, he would deprive man of his humanity and make of him a mere block of wood or stone. I say that a prosecutor and a murderer like Calvin cannot be a true minister of the Church.

      The Geneva ministers were shocked at the prisoner's bad taste, and they formally protested to the Council: "Servetus is a shameless reviler. He vomits insults upon Calvin and calls him a murderer. He shows an utter lack of the spirit of humility and meekness. Such terrible blasphemy deserves no mercy." Probably to teach him a lesson, they left Servetus to cool his heels in his cell for a while. After ten days of this, the prisoner wrote a petition to his captors (September 15). He was still angry, but he was having some troubles:


Most honorable lords. I humbly beg you either to put an end to these long delays or set me free. It is obvious that Calvin is at a loss to say more, so he gets his revenge by making me rot here in prison. The lice are eating me alive. My clothing is all torn, and I have nothing else to wear. I have also petitioned you to provide me with an attorney since I am a stranger here and am not acquainted with the customs of the country. But you have refused to grant this petition, although you have allowed my opponent to have all the counsel he wishes. Therefore I wish to appeal my case to a higher court, and I am ready to assume all the costs involved in such an appeal.

      The Council ignored this petition and invited the prisoner to submit another written defense to the court. Servetus complied three days later, directing himself to Calvin personally:

So you deny that you are a murderer, John Calvin? I will prove that you are, by your own deeds. I am firm in a good cause and am not afraid to die. But you howl like a blind man in the desert, because the passion for revenge burns in your heart. You lie, you lie, you lie, you ignorant calumniator. The madness in you drives you to persecute others unto death. I wish that all your black magic were still in your mother's belly, and that I were free to make a catalogue of your errors. You have all roared that I am a heretic, but what passages from Scripture have you quoted to prove me wrong? My doctrines are met neither by arguments nor by authorities, but only by your ravings.

      Four more days passed. On September 22, Servetus sent another petition to the Council, asking that Calvin be put on trial for falsely accusing him of not believing in the immortality of the soul.

If I have said that, or written it anywhere, I would indeed deserve death. But I have not. Therefore, my lords, I demand that my false accuser be punished and that he be held prisoner as


I am, until his case be decided. There are other great and infallible reasons why Calvin should be condemned. Not least among them is his desire to repress the truth of Jesus Christ by following the doctrine of predestination against all the teaching of all the doctors who ever were in the Church. Wherefore he ought not merely to be condemned, but exterminated, and his property turned over to me to compensate me for the seizure of mine.

      This too was ignored by the Council, as Servetus must have known it would be. On October 10 he made one more try; it is obvious that his spirit was rotting away:

Magnificent lords. It is three weeks since I asked for an audience, but it has not been granted to me. I implore you, for the love of Jesus Christ, not to deny me justice, which you would not deny even to a Turk. Nor has anything been done to render me more comfortable here in this cell, and I am now more wretched than ever. The severe cold aggravates my colic and rupture and causes me other miseries which I am ashamed to describe. For the love of God, my lords, delay no longer.

      The delays of which Servetus complained were perhaps not entirely deliberate on the part of his captors. Early in September the Council had sent copies of the trial records to the pastors of the churches in four other cantons-which had liberated themselves from Roman oppression-seeking their opinions on the trial. The replies, which were finally received in Geneva on October 18, were (not surprisingly) in unanimous agreement that Servetus was guilty. Justice dictated that the votes be entered in the trial records:

The Church of Berne: In a thousand ways Satan seeks to obscure the light of truth with a fog of pernicious dogma. This Servetus considers himself free to question all the essential doctrines of our religion, to overthrow it and utterly corrupt it by reviving the poison of the ancient heretics. We pray that with God's help you may put your own and other Churches beyond the reach of this pestilential man.


The Church of Zurich: We think you should proceed against this man with much faith and zeal particularly since our Churches have the evil reputation abroad of being heretical and favorable to heresy. But God, in His holy providence, at this hour gives you the opportunity to free all of us from such a hurtful suspicion. We do not doubt that your lordships will know how to prevent the further spread of that man's poison.

The Church of Schaffhausen: We do not doubt that you will repress this Michael Servetus according to your praiseworthy prudence, lest his blasphemies waste away like a gangrene the Church of Christ. To engage in long reasonings to overthrow his errors would be to indulge a fool in his own madness.

The Church of Basle: We know you will not fail, either in Christian prudence or in saintly zeal, to remedy this evil which has already caused the ruin of many souls. Servetus is worse than all the ancient heretics combined, for he vomits all their many errors from a single blasphemous mouth. Like a snake he hisses his curses against that sincere servant of God, John Calvin. If he refuses to depart from his perverse opinions, use the power you hold from God so that he may never more trouble the Church of Christ. The Lord grant you, for that purpose, His spirit of power and wisdom.

      October 26, 1553, the Council voted to condemn Servetus to death. The following morning he was brought before the assembled worthies and townsfolk of Geneva, at the gates of the Town House. From a balcony above the crowd, his many heresies were enumerated in excruciating detail, and sentence was pronounced:

We, the judges in criminal cases of this city of Geneva, having considered the case conducted before us against you, Michael Servetus of Villanueva, in the kingdom of Aragon in Spain, it is


plain and apparent to us that you have for a long time put forth false and clearly heretical doctrines. Further, with your malicious and perverse obstinacy you have rejected all friendly remonstrance and correction, and have promulgated and disseminated your heretical doctrines even to the publishing of printed books against God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, and against all the true principles of the Christian religion. You have thereby endeavored to cause schism and trouble in the Church of God in order to ruin and destroy the souls of men-a thing horrible and shocking, scandalous and infectious. You have had no shame nor horror boldly to assail the Divine Majesty and the Holy Trinity, and you have been obstinately employed in infecting the world with your heresies and offensive heretical poison. For these and other just reasons, and desiring to purge the Church of God of such infection and to cut off from it such a corrupt member-having God and His Holy Scriptures before our eye&- we hereby give, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, our definitive sentence against you.

We condemn you, Michael Servetus, to be bound and led to the hill of Champed, there to be fastened to a stake and burned alive, until your body be reduced to ashes. Thus will you finish your days, providing an example to others who might wish to commit the like heresies.

      Servetus was then taken outside the walls of Geneva to the summit of the little hill called Champed (not Calvary? ). A great procession of Geneva citizens, along with the town officials, followed behind him.

      There he was given a final opportunity to recant his heresies -- at least he could have a final chance at Heaven. He refused. So while a body of the Geneva clergy chanted appropriate invocations to Heaven, Michael Servetus was bound to the stake and burned to ashes.