Michael Servetus

Living between 1511 and 1553, Michael Servetus was the first to discover the pulmonary circulation of blood. This bold Spaniard was a scientist ahead of his time and a free-lance theologian of rationalistic temper. Probably the best known of the Spanish Protestants, Servetus was a native of Villanova who began to take an interest in theology while studying law in Toulouse. In 1530 he met Oecolampadius in Basel, to whom he explained his anti-trinitarian views. These appeared in his book, "Concerning the Errors of the Trinity". When this and others of his books caused a storm of indignation among the Protestant reformers, he went to Lyon and worked as a corrector of proof and editor, and then to Paris, where, under the pseudonym Villeneuve, he studied medicine. There, incidentally, he discovered the pulmonary circulation of blood, for he showed that it was carried from the heart to the lungs where it was aerated and changed color.

Having got into difficulty with the medical faculty for lecturing on astrology, Servetus left Paris in 1538, set up a private medical practice near Lyon, and, in 1544, became the friend and personal physician of the arch-bishop of Vienna, still under his assumed name. Servetus still retained his interest in theology and in 1533 he secretly published his "Restitution of Christianity" a manuscript copy which he sent to John Calvin in 1546. Servetus had been led to the study of the trinity by his concern over the stubborn refusal of the Jews and Moors in his native Spain to be converted to Christianity. The "restitution" aimed to refute the Nicene conception of the Trinity, which he called "a sort of three-headed Cerberus", and to substitute an essentially pantheistic conception of God, with a denial of the pre-existence of Jesus. He also rejected predestination in advance of his times in the principles of Biblical criticism in that he interpreted Old Testament prophecies as referring primarily to contemporary events.

Sevetus developed his own doctrines which were clearly heretical. His views offended virtually all Christians, but especially Calvin. In his book, published in Basel by his brothers-in-law and intended to replace Calvinism, Servetus believed Christ was not called the Son of God until He was born, he had a Jewish idea of the Trinity, and rejected infant baptism. When it was discovered that Severetus had written the "Restitution", he was denounced as a heretic before the court of the Inquisition at Vienne, arrested, escaped from prison and fled. This had now earned him two death sentences from the Inquisition.

Servetus was perhaps too bold and prone to recklessness. On his way to Italy Servetus foolishly stopped at Geneva and visited the church in which Calvin was preaching. He was recognized, arrested, thrown into prison, and, after a long trial, the Genevan Council sentenced Servetus to the stake.

It was through direct evidence supplied by Calvin that Servetus suffered these injustices and condemned by the French Inquisition to death by a slow fire. Servetus was refused an advocate at the trial, being told with grim humor that he could lie well enough without one. The Spaniard was found guilty on heresy on three primary charges: denying the Trinity, declaring that infant baptism was an invention of the devil, and attacking the doctrines of the Church of Geneva. During the trial, Calvin called Servetus a "villainous cur". Calvin had wished the death be more merciful than burning and that he should be beheaded, but he had worked to secure the execution, some good men believed that the severity should be blamed upon him. On October 27, 1553, the torch was lit and in half an hour the spectators were satisfied. Disbelieving what was happening to him, he was burned at the stake over green wood so that it took three hours for him to die. Servetus met his death with steadfastness and prayer, calling upon the Son of the eternal God to grant him mercy.

The bigot and tyrant, John Calvin, never regretted the part he played in the case against Servetus and wrote a book defending his position. And though the leading Protestant divines supported Calvin's view that the execution had been more than justified, there was enough of an outcry to make further defense desirable, and in the next year Beza published his book "Whether Heretics should be punished By the Civil Magistrate?." The responsibility rests heavily enough on Calvin, but it rests still more upon the intolerant spirit of the age. After 1600 persons were rarely executed on this charge.

The Reformation made toleration possible but it began with no such intention. The states and churches of a divided Europe found in the end that it must tolerate or die. Years later, Genevan Calvinists erected a "expiatory monument" on the site of the burning, not to signify approval of Servetus' views but as a testimony to their disapproval of violence as an instrument for the defence of orthodoxy.
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