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Michael Servetus


Michael Servetus (also Miguel Servet or Miguel Serveto; 29 September, 1511 – 27 October, 1553) was a Spanish (Aragonese) theologian, physician, and humanist and the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation.

His interests included many sciences: astronomy and meteorology; geography, jurisprudence, study of the Bible, mathematics, anatomy, and medicine. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology.

He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later developed a nontrinitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was burnt at the stake by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council as a heretic.

Additional recommended knowledge


Early life and education

Servetus was born as Miguel Serveto Conesa at Villanueva de Sijena, Huesca, Aragon, Spain, in 1511, probably on September 29, the patron saint day of Saint Michael (Michaelmas),[1] although no specific record exists. Some sources give an earlier date based on Servetus' own occasional claim of being born in 1509.[2] His paternal ancestors came from the hamlet of Serveto, in the Aragonese Pyrenees, which gave the family their surname. The maternal line descended from Jewish conversos of the Monzón area. His father Antonio Serveto (alias Revés, i.e. "Reverse") was a notary. Servetus had two brothers: one who later became a notary like their father, and another who was a Catholic priest.[1] Servetus was very gifted in languages and studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew under the instruction of Dominican friars.[3] At the age of fifteen, Servetus entered the service of a Franciscan friar by the name of Juan de Quintana,[4] an Erasmian, and read the entire Bible in its original languages from the manuscripts that were available at that time. He later attended the University of Toulouse in 1526 where he studied law. There he became suspect of participating in secret meetings and activities of Protestant students.

In 1528, Servetus traveled through Germany and Italy with Quintana, who was then Charles V's confessor in the imperial retinue.[3] In October 1530 he visited Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel, staying there for about ten months, and probably supporting himself as a proofreader for a local printer. By this time, he was already spreading his beliefs. In May 1531 he met Martin Bucer and Fabricius Capito in Strasbourg. Then two months later, in July, he published De trinitatis erroribus ("On the Errors of the Trinity"). The next year he published Dialogorum de Trinitate ("Dialogues on the Trinity") and De Iustitia Regni Christi ("On the Justice of Christ's Reign").

He took on the pseudonym Michel de Villeneuve (i.e., "Michael from Villanueva"), in order to avoid persecution by the Church because of these religious works. He studied at the College Calvi in Paris in 1533. After an interval, he returned to Paris to study medicine in 1536. In Paris, his teachers included Sylvius, Fernel, and Guinter, who hailed him with Vesalius as his most able assistant in dissections.


In these books, Servetus built a theology which maintains that the belief of the Trinity is not based on biblical teachings but rather on what he saw as deceiving teachings of (Greek) philosophers. He saw himself as leading a return to the simplicity and authenticity of the Gospels and the early Church Fathers. In part he hoped that the dismissal of the Trinitarian dogma would also make Christianity more appealing to Judaism and Islam, which had preserved the unity of God in their teachings, whereas trinitarians, according to Servetus, had turned Christianity into a form of "tritheism", or belief in three gods.

Servetus affirmed that the divine Logos, which was the manifestation of God and not a separate divine Person, was incarnated in a human being, Jesus, when God's spirit came into the womb of the Virgin Mary. Only from the moment of conception, the Son was actually generated. Therefore the Son was not eternal, but only the Logos from which He was formed. For this reason, Servetus always rejected that Christ was the "eternal Son of God", but rather that he was "the Son of the eternal God" [5].

In describing Servetus' view of the Logos, Andrew Dibb explained: In Genesis God reveals himself as the creator. In John he reveals that he created by means of the Word, or Logos, Finally, also in John, he shows that this Logos became flesh and 'dwelt among us'. Creation took place by the spoken word, for God said "Let there be …" The spoken word of Genesis, the Logos of John, and the Christ, are all one and the same. [6]

Servetus states his view clearly in the preamble to Restoration of Christianity (1553): "There is nothing greater, reader, than to recognize that God has been manifested as substance, and that His divine nature has been truly communicated. We shall clearly apprehend the manifestation of God through the Word and his communication through the Spirit, both of them substantially in Christ alone."[7]

This theology, though original in some respects, has often been compared to Adoptionism, Arianism, and Sabellianism or Modalism, which were condemned as old Christian heresies by Trinitarian scholars. Nevertheless, based on the secondary and often partial sources available to him at that time, Servetus rejected these theologies in his books: Adoptionism, because it denied Jesus's divinity[8]; Arianism, because it multiplied the hypostases and established a rank[9]; and Sabellianism, because it confused the Father with the Son[10].

Under severe pressure from Catholics and Protestants alike, Servetus clarified this explanation in his second book, Dialogues (1532), to show the Logos coterminous with Christ. This made it nearly identical with the pre-Nicene view, but he was still accused of heresy because of his insistence on denying the dogma of the Trinity and the individuality of three divine Persons in one God.


After his studies in medicine he started a medical practice. He became personal physician to Pierre Palmier Archbishop of Vienne, and was also physician to Guy de Maugiron, the lieutenant governor of Dauphiné. While he practiced medicine near Lyon for about fifteen years, he also published two other works dealing with Ptolemy's Geography. Servetus dedicated his first edition of Ptolemy and his edition of the Bible to his patron Hugues de la Porte, and dedicated his second edition of Ptolemy's Geography to his other patron, Archbishop Palmier. While in Lyon, Symphorien Champier, a medical humanist, had been Servetus' patron, and the pharmacological tracts which Servetus wrote there were written in defense of Champier against Leonhart Fuchs.

While also working as a proof reader, he published a couple more books which dealt with medicine and pharmacology. Years earlier he had sent a copy to John Calvin, initiating a correspondence between the two. Initially in the correspondence Servetus used the pseudonym "Michel de Villeneuve".

In 1553 Servetus published yet another religious work with further Antitrinitarian views. It was entitled Christianismi Restitutio, a work that sharply rejected the idea of predestination and the idea that God had condemned souls to Hell regardless of worth or merit. God, insisted Servetus, condemns no one who does not condemn himself through thought, word or deed. To Calvin, who had written the fiery Institutes of the Christian Religion, Servetus' latest book was a slap in the face. The irate Calvin sent a copy of his own book as his reply. Servetus promptly returned it, thoroughly annotated with insulting observations.

Calvin wrote to Servetus, "I neither hate you nor despise you; nor do I wish to persecute you; but I would be as hard as iron when I behold you insulting sound doctrine with so great audacity."

In time their correspondences grew more heated until Calvin ended it.[11] Whereupon Servetus bombarded Calvin with several extraordinarily unfriendly letters. [12] Thus Calvin's antagonism against Servetus seems to have been based not simply on his unorthodox views but also on Servetus's tone of superiority mixed with personal abuse. Calvin stated of Servetus, when writing to his friend William Farel on 13 February 1546:

"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 ("Si venerit, modo valeat mea autoritas, vivum exire nunquam patiar").[13]

Imprisonment and execution

On 16 February 1553, Servetus, while in Vienne, was denounced as a heretic by Guillaume Trie, a rich merchant who had taken refuge in Geneva and was a very good friend of Calvin,[14] in a letter sent to a cousin, Antoine Arneys, living in Lyon. On behalf of the French inquisitor Matthieu Ory, Servetus as well as Arnollet, the printer of Christianismi Restitutio, were questioned, but they denied all charges and were released for lack of evidence. Arneys was asked by Ory to write back to Trie, demanding proof.

On March 26, 1553, the letters sent by Servetus to Calvin and some manuscript pages of Christianismi Restitutio were forwarded to Lyon by Trie.

On April 4, 1553 Servetus was arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities, and imprisoned in Vienne. He escaped from prison three days later. On June 17, he was convicted of heresy by the French inquisition, "thanks to the 17 letters sent by Jehan Calvin, preacher in Geneva"[15] and sentenced to be burned with his books. An effigy and his books were burned in his absence.

Meaning to flee to Italy, Servetus stopped in at Geneva, where Calvin and his Reformers had denounced him. On August 13, he attended a sermon by Calvin at Geneva. He was immediately recognized and arrested after the service[16] and was again imprisoned and had all his property confiscated.

Unfortunately for Servetus, at this time Calvin was fighting to maintain his weakening power in Geneva. Any mercy would have been taken as a sign of weakness. Also, the French Inquisitors asked that Servetus be extradited to them for execution. Also Calvin's opponents used Servetus as a pretext for attacking the Geneva Reformer's theocratic government. It became a matter of prestige for Calvin to be the instigator of Servetus's prosecution. "He was forced to push the condemnation of Servetus with all the means at his command."[16] Calvin's delicate health and usefulness to the state meant he did not personally appear against Servetus.[17] Nicholas de la Fontaine played the more active role in Servetus's prosecution and the listing of points that condemned him.

At his trial, Servetus was condemned on two counts, for spreading and preaching Nontrinitarianism and anti-paedobaptism (anti-infant baptism).[18] Of paedobaptism Michael Servetus had said, "It is an invention of the devil, an infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity"[19] Whatever the cause of them, be it irritation or mistreatment, his statements that common Christian traditions were "of the devil" severely harmed his ability to make allies. Nevertheless, Sebastian Castellio denounced his execution and became a harsh critic of Calvin due to the whole affair.

In the case the Procureur General, who was not Nicholas, added some curious sounding accusations, in the form of inquiries, the most odd sounding perhaps being, "whether he has married, and if he answers that he has not, he shall be asked why, in consideration of his age, he could refrain so long from marriage." To this oblique imputation of unchastity Servetus replied that rupture had long since made him incapable of that particular sin. More offensive to modern ears might be the question "whether he did not know that his doctrine was pernicious, considering that he favors Jews and Turks, by making excuses for them, and if he has not studied the Koran in order to disprove and controvert the doctrine and religion that the Christian churches hold, together with other profane books, from which people ought to abstain in matters of religion, according to the doctrine of St. Paul."[citation needed]

Although Calvin believed Servetus deserving of death on account of his "execrable blasphemies", he nevertheless hoped that it would not be by fire, as he was inclined toward clemency.[20] Calvin expressed these sentiments in a letter to Farel, written about a week after Servetus’ arrest, in which he also mentions an exchange between himself and Servetus. Calvin writes:

…after he [Servetus] had been recognized, I thought he should be detained. My friend Nicolas summoned him on a capital charge, offering himself as a security according to the lex talionis. On the following day he adduced against him forty written charges. He at first sought to evade them. Accordingly we were summoned. He impudently reviled me, just as if he regarded me as obnoxious to him. I answered him as he deserved… of the man’s effrontery I will say nothing; but such was his madness that he did not hesitate to say that devils possessed divinity; yea, that many gods were in individual devils, inasmuch as a deity had been substantially communicated to those equally with wood and stone. I hope that sentence of death will at least be passed on him; but I desired that the severity of the punishment be mitigated.[21]

As Servetus was not a citizen of Geneva, and legally could at worst be banished, the government had consulted with other Swiss Reformed cantons (Zurich, Bern, Basel, Schaffhausen), which universally favored his condemnation and the suppression of his doctrine, but without saying how that should be accomplished.[22] Martin Luther had condemned his writing in strong terms. Servetus and Philip Melanchthon had strongly hostile views of each other. Most Protestant Reformers saw Servetus as a dangerous radical, and the concept of religious freedom did not really exist yet. The Catholic world had also imprisoned him and condemned him to death, which apparently spurred Calvin to equal their rigor. Those who went against the idea of his execution, the party called "Libertines", drew the ire of much of Christendom. On 24 October Servetus was sentenced to death by burning for denying the Trinity and infant baptism. When Calvin requested that Servetus be executed by decapitation rather than fire, Farel, in a letter of September 8, chided him for undue lenity[23], and the Geneva Council refused his request. On 27 October 1553 Servetus was burned at the stake just outside Geneva with what was believed to be the last copy of his book chained to his leg. Historians record his last words as: "Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy on me."[24]

The common view of the age, that heretics like Servetus should be subject to punishment, was explained by Calvin as follows:
Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man's authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.[25]

Modern relevance

Due to his rejection of the Trinity and eventual execution by burning for heresy, Servetus is often regarded as the first (modern) Unitarian martyr by Unitarians. Other modern non-trinitarian groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses[citation needed], Christadelphians[26] and Oneness Pentecostalism,[27] also claim Servetus as a spiritual ancestor.

Servetus' influence on the beginnings of the Unitarian movement in Poland and Transylvania has been confirmed by scholars,[28] and two Unitarian Universalist congregations are named after him, in Minnesota[1] and Washington[2]. A church window is also dedicated to Servetus at the First Unitarian Congregational Society of Brooklyn, NY.

Oneness Pentecostalism identifies with Servetus' teaching on the divinity of Jesus Christ and his insistence on the one God, rather than a Trinity of three distinct persons: "And because His Spirit was wholly God He is called God, just as from His flesh He is called man" [29]

The theology of Servetus also has many affinities with that of Swedenborg.[30][3]

Servetus was the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation, although it was not widely recognized at the time, for a few reasons. One was that the description appeared in a theological treatise, Christianismi Restitutio, not in a book on medicine. Further, most copies of the book were burned shortly after its publication in 1553. Three copies survived, but these remained hidden for decades. It was not until William Harvey's dissections in 1616 that the function of pulmonary circulation was widely accepted by physicians. It is increasingly recognized that the discovery of pulmonary circulation was made 300 years earlier by Ala-al-Din Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn Abi al-Hazm al-Qarshi al-Dimashqi (known as Ibn Al-Nafis) who was born in 1213 A.D. in Damascus.

In 1984, a Zaragoza public hospital changed its name from José Antonio to Miguel Servet. It is now a university hospital. Most Spanish cities also include at least a street, square or park named after Servetus.

Further reading

  • Jean Calvin, Defensio orthodoxae fidei de sacra Trinitate contra prodigiosos errores Michaelis Serveti…, (Defense of Orthodox Faith against the Prodigious Errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus…), Geneva, 1554.[31][32]
  • Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus 1511–1553 by Roland H. Bainton. Revised Edition edited by Peter Hughes with an introduction by Ángel Alcalá. Blackstone Editions. ISBN 0-9725017-3-8.
  • Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World by Lawrence Goldstone and Nancy Goldstone. ISBN 0-7679-0837-6.
  • Michael Servetus: Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr by Marian Hillar, 2003. ISBN 0761824006.
  • The Case of Michael Servetus: (1511-1553 : The Turning Point in the Struggle for Freedom of Conscience) by Marian Hillar, 1997. ISBN 0773485724.
  • The Heretics: Heresy Through the Ages by Walter Nigg. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1962. (Republished by Dorset Press, 1990. ISBN 0-88029-455-8)
  • The History and Character of Calvinism by John T. McNeill, New York: Oxford University Press, 1954. ISBN 0-19-500743-3.
  • Bonnet, Jules (1820–1892) Letters of John Calvin, Carlisle, Penn: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1980. ISBN 0-85151-323-9.
  • Find in a Library with WorldCat. Contains seventy letters of Calvin, several of which discuss his plans for, and dealings with, Servetus. Also includes his final dicourses and his last will and testament (April 25, 1564).
  • Jules Bonnet, Letters of John Calvin, 2 vols., 1855, 1857, Edinburgh, Thomas Constable and Co.: Little, Brown, and Co., Boston – The Internet Archive
  • The Man from Mars: His Morals, Politics and Religion by William Simpson, San Francisco: E.D. Beattle, 1900. Excerpts from letters of Servetus, written from his prison cell in Geneva (1553), pp. 30–31. Google Books.
  • A complete translation of Christianismi Restitutio into English (the first ever) by Christopher Hoffman and Marian Hillar was announced in late 2006 and was published with a release date of April 30, 2007.[4] [5]

See also

  • Polish brethren
  • Piotr z Goniądza


  1. ^ a b Goldstone, Lawrence (2002). Out of the Flames: The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar, a Fatal Heresy, and One of the Rarest Books in the World. New York, New York: Broadway Books, p7. ISBN 0-7679-0836-8. 
  2. ^ Drummond, William H. (1848). The Life of Michael Servetus: The Spanish Physician, Who, for the Alleged Crime of Heresy, was Entrapped, Imprisoned, and Burned, by John Calvin the Reformer, in the City of Geneva, October 27, 1553. London, England: John Chapman, p2. 
  3. ^ a b Drummond, p3.
  4. ^ Wright, Richard (1806). An Apology for Dr. Michael Servetus: Including an Account of His Life, Persecution, Writings and Opinions. London: F. B. Wright, p91. 
  5. ^ See English translation of 'De trinitatis erroribus' Book 7
  6. ^ Dibb, Andrew, Servetus, Swedenborg and the Nature of God, University Press of America, 2005, p93. Online at Google Book Search
  7. ^ See Servetus, Restitución del Cristianismo, Spanish edition by Angel Alcalá and Luis Betés, Madrid, Fundación Universitaria Española, 1980, p. 119.
  8. ^ See Restitución, p. 137
  9. ^ Restitución, pp. 148, 168
  10. ^ Restitución, p. 169
  11. ^ Downton, An Examination of the Nature of Authority, Chapter 3.
  12. ^ Will Durant The Story of Civilization: The Reformation Chapter XXI, page 481
  13. ^ Ibid., 2
  14. ^ Bainton, Hunted Heretic, p. 103.
  15. ^ Hunted Heretic, p. 164.
  16. ^ a b The Heretics, p. 326.
  17. ^ Hanover History.
  18. ^ Hunted Heretic, p. 141.
  19. ^ Hugh Young Reyburn, John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work, London, New York, Hodder and Stoughton, 1914. p. 175.
  20. ^ Owen, Robert Dale, The debatable Land Between this World and the Next, New York, G.W. Carleton & Co.; [etc.] 1872, p. 69, notes.
  21. ^ Calvin to William Farel, Aug. 20, 1553, Bonnet, Jules (1820–1892) Letters of John Calvin, Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980, pp. 158–159. ISBN 0-85151-323-9.
  22. ^ Schaff, Philip: History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: Modern Christianity: The Swiss Reformation, William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA, 1910, page 780.
  23. ^ The History & Character of Calvinism, p. 176.
  24. ^
  25. ^ John Marshall, John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture (Cambridge Studies in Early Modern British History), Cambridge University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-521-65114-X p. 325
  26. ^ Why The Trinity Was Accepted
  27. ^ Bernard, D. K., The Oneness of God Word Aflame Press, 1983.
  28. ^ See Stanislas Kot, "L'influence de Servet sur le mouvement atitrinitarien en Pologne et en Transylvanie", in B. Becker (Ed.), Autour de Michel Servet et de Sebastien Castellion, Haarlem, 1953.
  29. ^ Servetus, M., De Trinitatis Erroribus, 59b (quoted in Bainton, R.H., Hunted Heretic, Blackstone Editions, 2005, p30
  30. ^ Servetus, Swedenborg and the Nature of God by Andrew M.T. Dibb, Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America Inc, 2005
  31. ^ Calvin's Opere in the Corpus Reformatorum, vol. viii, 453-644.
  32. ^ Ursus Books and Prints. Catalogue of Scarce Books, Americana, Etc. Bangs & Co, p. 41.

This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Michael_Servetus". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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