Servetus, Michael (Serveto, surnamed Reves, known in France as Michel de Villeneuve), unquestionably the leading Antitrinitarian in the period of the Reformation, was born at Villaneuva, in Arragon, in 1509 or 1511, and belonged to an ancient Christian family of prominence, perhaps of noble rank. His father was a jurist and notary, and Michael was sent at an early age to Toulouse in preparation for a similar career; but his impetuous and imaginative spirit was not attracted by the dry study of jurisprudence, and turned with preference towards theological investigations, prompted, perhaps, by the fact that at Toulouse he first became acquainted with the Bible. The above statements are taken from his own testimony at the Geneva trial, and are probably truthful in the main; but it is difficult to harmonize them with his declarations at Vienne, according to which he entered the service of father Quintana, the confessor of Charles V, at the early age of perhaps fourteen or fifteen years, and with his master accompanied the court to Italy on the occasion of the emperor's coronation at Bologna, and to Germany on its return. The further statement that he remained with Quintana in Germany until the death of the latter in 1532 is known to be positively untrue, since he was at Basle, and alone, by the close of the summer of 1530; and the Geneva testimony recites that he came to Basle direct from Toulouse, by way of Lyons and Geneva, without referring in any way to travels in Italy or Germany. When Servetus came to Basle he was without experience in the Christian life, and his moral consciousness was undeveloped. Religion was not to him an answer to the questionings of the human heart — a dissolving of doubts in the field of morals, a deliverance from internal conflicts. The unmistakably speculative tendency of his mind led him to conceive of Christianity as being first of all a system of doctrine, and he had already developed a scheme in which the doctrines of God and of his manifestation in Christ, in their speculative aspects, were regarded as constituting its essential basis. The object of his visit was to find a publisher for the book in which he had embodied his views, and to secure the favorable regards of the Swiss reformers in behalf of the modifications he proposed to introduce into. the teaching of the Reformation. OEcolampadius, however, found his statements of doctrinal views obscure and misleading, contrary to the Scriptures, and even blasphemous, as being directed against the eternal godhead of Christ; and when the book finally appeared in 1531 from the press of Conrad Rous, of Hagenau and Strasburg (under the title De Trinitatis Erroribus Libri Septem, etc., 15 sheets, 8vo), it was condemned on every hand. Bucer declared its author to be deserving of death; and when Servetus brought a portion of the edition to Basle, it would seem that the town council confiscated the book and required from him a retraction of its teachings. A second work from the same press in 1532 (Dialog. de Trinit. Libr. II, de Just. Regni Christi Capit. 4, 8 sheets, 8vo) begins with a retraction of the former book, but on the ground of its immaturity rather than substantial error. This work produced no impression whatever, and Servetus was obliged to renounce the hope of exercising a determining influence over the progress of the Reformation in Germany. He withdrew to France, assumed the name of De Villeneuve, and entered on the study of mathematics and medicine, and also that of philosophy, particularly of theosophic Neo-Platonism, at Paris. At this time he first sought the acquaintance of Calvin, but failed to attend an interview granted at his solicitation by the latter. The life of Servetus while in France was unsettled; the first six years being spent in Paris, Orleans, Lyons, Paris again, where he taught mathematics in the Lombard College, Avignon, and Charlieu; and it was disturbed with frequent disputes, which occasionally involved serious consequences for him. One of these quarrels determined him to leave Paris forever. He had acquired considerable knowledge in medical science — as is attested by his observation of the circulation of the blood, long before Harvey's discovery — and was a zealous student of astrology; but his vanity led him to speak disparagingly of other physicians, and brought on him the opposition of the medical faculty and of the entire university. He was condemned by the Parliament to destroy all the copies of an apology which he had written to substantiate his position, and to abstain from meddling with astrology except in so far as the natural influence of the stars upon human affairs might be concerned. He ultimately settled at Vienne in response to the invitation of his patron and former pupil, the archbishop P. Paulmier, and spent twelve years in that town in the practice of medicine and in intercourse with the leading clergy; but he still found time for learned labors, both in the line of his own profession and in other departments, one of the results being a new edition of the Latin version of the Bible by Sanctes Pagninus (Lugd. ap. Hug. a Porta, 1542, fol.), with notes. This work was but carelessly done; the few notes from his pen being chiefly attached to the Messianic prophecies, and aiming to show that such prophecies invariably referred in the minds of the prophets to historical personages and events in the immediate future, and that they had only a typical reference to Christ. The work was accordingly placed in Spain and the Netherlands on the Index Expurgandorum. Servetus had by no means given up his theological speculations, though he accommodated his habits in all respects to his Roman Catholic surroundings. He believed himself called to effect a restoration of true Christianity, which had been obscured and even lost to the world since the beginning of the 4th century, and to promote his ends he opened a correspondence with the Reformed leaders Viret and Calvin. The latter responded, and at first with moderation; but as Servetus assumed a depreciatory attitude, and persisted in the endeavor to contradict the responses made to his inquiries, the reformer eventually refused to continue the correspondence, and referred to his Institutes for further information.. Servetus now resolved to bring before the public the work in which he had laid down the results of his long continued cogitations, and, in utter disregard of the warnings already received from Calvin, as well as of the dangers clearly recognized as impending by his own mind, he carried forward the project to its conclusion. The rashness and almost fanatical tenacity of his natural temper are well illustrated in this undertaking; but the method by which it was accomplished serves to show with equal clearness that he was not above the use of caution, artifice, and even duplicity, when needed to secure himself against the consequences of his action. The bookseller Arnoullet, of Vienne, was secured by the use of money and the false assurances of a friend; the printing was conducted with the utmost secrecy and haste, and immediately on its completion the book was sent to Lyons, Chatillon, Geneva, and Frankfort, without the knowledge of persons resident in Vienne. It appeared early in 1553, and bore the title Christianismi Restitutio, etc. The author's name is indicated at the end by the letters "M.S.V." and the name of the publisher and the place of printing are not given.
This most extensive of the works of Servetus (734 pp. 8vo) presents no thorough elaboration and systematic statement of his ideas, but consists rather of a series of disconnected papers, some of them new and others emendations of earlier productions from his pen. It contains seven books De Trinitate Divina; three books De Fide et Justitia Regni Christi, et de Caritate; five books De Regeneratione et Manducatione Superna et de Regno Antichristi; Epistoloe Triginta ad. Jo. Calvinum; Signa Sexaginta Regni Antichristi et Revelatio ejus jam nunc Proesens; and De Mysterio Tinitatis et Veterum Disciplina ad Ph. Melancthonem, etc., Apologia. The attitude of the author towards the dogma of God, the Father, Son, and Spirit, as held by the Church, is that of uncompromising hostility. He regards it as of necessity involving tritheism and polytheism, and even atheism; or, on the other hand, as inconceivable; and he finds it significant that this doctrine began to prevail at the very time from which the Church must date its growing degeneracy. But, while rejecting a trinity of essence in the Godhead, he insists on a trinity of manifestation; the fundamental principle that God is one and undivided leads to a second principle — namely, that everything which comes to pass in or with the divine nature is but a disposition, which does not affect the divine essence, but must be regarded somewhat as one of its accidents. God is able to dispose and manifest himself because he is not an abstract unit, a bare mathematical point, but rather an infinite Spirit, an infinite ocean of substance which fashions all forms and bears them within itself. His manifestation of himself results from the act of his will, rather than from any necessity lying in his nature, and takes place because without such revelation of himself he could not be known by his creatures. The mode of manifestation is likewise wholly subject to his will, and he is by no means limited to only two revelations of himself; his incorporation in Christ was determined simply by the needs of the world he has chosen to create and those of the human race. It pleased him, consequently, to dispose himself to a twofold manifestation, the one a mode of revelation by the Word, the other a mode of impartation by the Spirit. The Word, however, was not merely an empty articulate sound, but, in harmony with the nature of God, an uncreated light. The Logos is the Eternal Thought, the Eternal Reason, the Ideal World, the Archetype of the world in which the original types of all things are contained. In this Divine Light was already manifested the form of the future Christ, not ideally alone, but actually and visibly; and from this original type and mode of divine revelation proceed all the modifications of the Deity. The creation of the world, for example, was the necessary condition for the incarnation of the Christ who was preformed in the Eternal Light, which incarnation had been decreed by the will of God; so that the world came into being through Christ, and solely to admit of his becoming man, and it has no significance aside from him who should appear in it and reign. But as a vapor rises with the utterance of a word, so the spirit of God came forth on the utterance of the Creative Word, and the second mode of revelation and disposition was given, in intimate combination with the first. That spirit is more immediately the spirit of natural life, which moves on the waters and breathes in the air — the world soul, by which in respiration the living soul is first given to man. The incarnation of Christ was delayed and obscured by man's fall into sin, but he nevertheless revealed himself in many though imperfect forms. Adam was created in his image; angels and theophanies were his shadows, the cloud of light in the wilderness was the reflection of the heavenly light. The spirit, too, was in the world, but only as a spirit of law and terror. The truth, and God himself; attained to a full manifestation and revelation for the first time in the man Jesus, in whom the Eternal Word became incarnate in time. The generation of this man is to be conceived of as literal, the Deity which formed the substance of the Logos in the Uncreated Light taking the place of the paternal seed, and the three superior elements contained in that, light — fire, air, and water — combined with the Christ idea and the Life spirit, uniting with the blood and earth substance of the Virgin to form a real man; but the man is so penetrated by the Deity that he becomes God in his flesh and blood, his body, soul, and spirit; he was such while in the embryo, and continues to bear the substantial form of the Godhead when in the grave. The Word, accordingly, did not assume flesh, but became flesh. By virtue of this nature Christ is the Son of God — the only Son, especially the only eternal Son. The eternal generation of the Son within the Godhead is a simple monstrosity, since generation is a function of the flesh alone; an ante-mundane person is conceivable only as it signifies the image or form of Christ as the pre-existing Word, who first became the actual Son of God, however, when he appeared in time and in the nature of man. The manifestation of the divine glory in the person of Christ was, moreover, a gradual process, not fully realized so far as his body is concerned until the resurrection, when he returned into the divine idea as he had previously come out from that idea into corporeal existence. He is now Jehovah — not Elohim, the God who may appear — and as such is seen by the eye of faith and participates in all the creative power, honor, and dominion of God, with whom he is identified. The Holy Ghost, too, is dependent on the resurrection of Christ for the consummation of his character and his truth. The fullness of the Divine Spirit was, imparted in connection with the Word to the soul of Christ on his becoming incarnate, the two constituting but a single and indivisible substance; but the soul included corruptible elements of blood and created light down to the experience of the resurrection. In that experience he was, so to speak, born again; the creature element was laid aside his human spirit was wholly absorbed into the Spirit of God, and the resultant combination forms the true Holy Spirit, the principle of all regeneration, which proceeds from the mouth of Christ. In this way the real Trinity is constituted — a trinity not of things or so called persons in the divine essence, but a threefold manifestation of himself by the one and indivisible God.
Such was the teaching which Servetus presented to the world as the restored truth of Christianity. He, was incapable, from the tendency of his mind, of admitting the importance of the element of practical ethics in the scheme of Christianity, and regarded the latter as preeminently a system of doctrine. He speaks constantly of the person of Christ, but rarely of his work of redemption. Faith is represented as the central and fundamental element, but rather in the character of apprehension and assent than of trust. The ideas of sin and guilt are scarcely recognized, and are confined to wicked actions; and the results of such actions are held to be not unto death in the case of persons under twenty years of age. The baptism of children is accordingly condemned, and is even characterized as being a principal source of the corruption of the Church. Baptism should not be conferred until persons have reached the age of thirty years, and have been prepared by preaching, careful instruction, repentance, and faith. The Lord's supper should be administered immediately after baptism, since the new man will at once require sustenance. Good works and holy living do not necessarily spring from faith, but they are not beyond the ability of mankind, even in the heathen state. By them a higher degree of blessedness may be attained, and they are useful to strengthen faith and guard against reactions of the flesh; for which reason such works as will subdue the flesh are recommended, and such others as will satisfy the claims of justice (prayer, almsgiving, voluntary confession, etc.) so far as to wholly or partially deliver from the purgatorial fires which await even the faithful and the baptized in the region of the dead.
The measures by which it was hoped to conceal the author of this book proved insufficient, and Servetus was denounced to the archiepiscopal tribunal of Lyons. Evidence to substantiate the charge was obtained, and the governor-general of Dauphiny ordered his apprehension and trial; and having allowed himself to be entrapped into an acknowledgment of the offense, he was on June 17 condemned to death by fire. He was enabled to effect an escape before the conclusion of the trial, evidently through the assistance of powerful friends, and was accordingly burned in effigy. The sentence of the spiritual court was not pronounced until after his death.
The first intention of Servetus was to escape into Spain, but he soon turned towards Switzerland in the hope of being ultimately able to reach Naples. He arrived at Geneva in the middle of July, and remained about a month in the public hostelry, when Calvin learned of his presence and caused him to be apprehended (Aug. 13). As the laws required that a civilian should appear as the accuser, Nicholas de la Fontaine, Calvin's pupil and amanuensis, acted in that relation, and charged Servetus with having disseminated grossly erroneous teachings, on account of which he had already been imprisoned and was now a fugitive. Thirty-eight articles were attached to this charge, which had been drawn up by Calvin, and to which the accused was required to render categorical answers. Servetus bore himself quietly, and answered with considerable frankness, but the council nevertheless ordered the case to proceed to trial. In a subsequent examination, the accused conceded his rejection of certain orthodox doctrines, and claimed the privilege of publicly and in the Church convincing Calvin, in whom he recognized his principal antagonist, that such doctrines were unscriptural and erroneous. The action of Philibert Berthelier, a declared enemy to Calvin and leader of the libertine party, who openly sought to protect Servetus, led the reformer to declare himself the real accuser, and he was accordingly admitted to the sessions of the court and allowed to take part in the proceedings. The presence of Calvin, and his own confidence in the protection of powerful supporters, influenced Servetus to display more arrogance in his replies, until in the heat of argument he gave utterance to strong and unequivocally pantheistic assertions. It now appeared that his guilt in the principal matter was proved, and the determination of his punishment alone remained to be settled. The procurator-general (Aug. 23) brought forward thirty new questions relating to the circumstances of the prisoner's life, his designs, and his intercourse with other theologians, and the warnings he had received from them, to which Servetus responded with greater moderation, though not without doing violence to the truth. He also petitioned that he might be discharged from trial under criminal process, since such action had never been usual in matters concerning the faith before the time of Constantine, and was the more unreasonable in his case, as his views had been made known to a few scholars only, and he had nothing in common with the rebellious Anabaptists; and he requested, further, that he be furnished with legal counsel as especially necessary to a stranger in his situation. His petition was denied on the recommendation of the procurator-general, to which it is supposed that Calvin was no stranger; but his earlier request for a discussion with Calvin was granted, with the modification that it should take place before the council rather than in the Church. Servetus, however, suddenly changed his tactics, and instead of entering on a discussion with Calvin at their meeting on Sept. 1, he proceeded to deny the competency of civil tribunals to deal with questions of faith; and on the ground that the Church of Geneva could not impartially determine in matters at issue between Calvin and himself, he appealed to the judgment of the churches in other places. As this appeal corresponded with a resolution already reached in the council, it was entertained, and the matter referred to the authorities of the four evangelical cities of Switzerland; and it was determined that all further transactions should be conducted in writing and in the Latin language. Calvin accordingly extracted from the works of Servetus their most hurtful teachings, and submitted them, accompanied with remarks intended to show their blasphemous and dangerous character, on Sept. 5. Servetus responded with complaints about the treatment he was obliged to undergo, and appealed from the smaller council to the Council of the Two Hundred, many of whose members, as he knew, were hostile to Calvin; but finding it necessary to reply to Calvin's allegations, he permitted himself the use of violent attacks and reproaches against his opponent, while at the same time presenting more clearly, and with less dissimulation than before, the meaning and tendencies of his views. A comprehensive reply by Calvin and his colleagues was met with further insult, though a private communication intended to instruct the former in certain principles of philosophy and other matters was written in a spirit of greater moderation. A messenger from the council conveyed the writings exchanged between the respective parties, and a copy of the principal work written by Servetus to the councillors and the clergy of Zurich, Berne, Basle, and Schaffhausen. Calvin (did not neglect to influence his friends by means of his private correspondence in the endeavor to secure an approval of his course; and Servetus, in the meantime, directed a complaint against Calvin as a false accuser, and demanded that he should be imprisoned and tried, the prosecution to continue until one of the antagonists should be sentenced to suffer death or some other punishment.
The opinions of the cities had all been received by Oct. 22, and were unanimous in condemning the false teachings of Servetus as not to be tolerated in the Church. The Council of Berne especially urged the use of severe measures to prevent the introduction of such errors, while the clergy of that city sought to moderate the force of that recommendation by a warning against indiscretion. Calvin and his associates were decidedly of the opinion that the penalty of death should be inflicted on the accused, and so expressed themselves, though averse to death by fire as involving unnecessary cruelty. When the council met to determine the penalty to be imposed (Oct. 23), opinions were divided, and several councillors were absent. A recess was therefore taken until Oct. 26. The syndic A. Perrin, a zealous opponent of Calvin, then proposed; first, an acquittal of the accused, and afterwards a reference of the matter to the Council of the Two Hundred, but in each case without success. The sentence of death by fire was pronounced in conformity with the laws of the empire. The condemned man was profoundly, moved, and pleaded earnestly for mercy, but he could not be persuaded to recant. He died Oct. 27, 1553, without having changed his views in any important particular, but not without exhibiting the marks of a Christian spirit.
It is not possible to regard the character of Servetus as favorably as it has been described by the opponents of Calvin. He was not pure and great, and though he ultimately died for his convictions, he was by no means a martyr for the truth. He concealed his beliefs and attended mass in France during more than twenty years at a time when multitudes chose death or the loss of country and prospects rather than deny their faith. He availed himself unhesitatingly of falsehood and perjury, especially in the trial at Vienne. He certainly did not possess a high degree of moral earnestness. As a thinker, he was noticeable for originality and ingenuity, for speculative depth and a wealth of ideas, though the very number of ideas prevented him from presenting them with adequate clearness. His theological and christological system rested to a much greater extent than he imagined upon hypotheses and theories in natural philosophy, and to a much smaller extent upon the Bible. His one-sided intellectualism, finally, afforded no satisfaction to the religious sense in man, while his strongly pantheistic leanings and his irreverent polemics necessarily offended the religious consciousness. His pyre unfortunately did more to enlighten the world than all his books. His teachings were scarcely understood until the most recent times. His so called followers, the later Antitrinitarians, failed to comprehend either their organic unity or their fullness and depth, and, while they appropriated. surface ideas, were unable to appreciate what is really speculative in his books. Gribaldo and Gentile, for example, sensualize the twofold manifestation of God into an essentiation of subordinate deities, and Socinus degrades the real Sonship and Deity of Christ as taught by Servetus until nothing beyond his essential manhood remains.
The course pursued by Calvin in the trial of Servetus has been the subject of incessant dispute from his own day until now. His contemporaries already condemned his action, though the most eminent orthodox thinkers and theologians approved his course; and though the argument has been renewed as often as occasion offered, the Christian world is not yet able to agree upon a judgment which shall afford universal satisfaction. The facts upon which a decision must be based are as follows:
1. Calvin was thoroughly convinced that the welfare of the Church demanded the death of Servetus as an incorrigible heretic, and never hesitated to acknowledge that conviction. When Servetus requested that Calvin should protect him during a proposed visit to Geneva, the latter refused, and wrote to Farel, under date of Feb. 7, 1546, "If he [Servetus] should come hither, I will not permit him to escape with his life, if my authority has any weight" (Henry, Leben J. Calvin's, 3, 66, appendix). His views upon the subject never changed, as appears from his correspondence while the trial was in progress, e.g. the letter of Sept. 14, 1553 (Ep. et Resp. fol. 127), in which Bullinger urges Calvin not to leave Geneva even though Servetus should not be punished with death. The absence of such facts from the records of the trial is sufficiently explained by the consideration that they were not matter for public record; and the Fidelis Expositio Errorum M. Serveti, etc., written to explain his conduct in that unhappy business, does not justify the argument sometimes based on it to show that Calvin did not desire the death of Servetus, since the book was intended to show, first, that incorrigible heretics ought to be punished by the secular arm; and, second, that Servetus was such a heretic.
2. In obedience to such convictions, Calvin caused the imprisonment of Servetus as soon as he learned that the latter was in Geneva, and personally directed the prosecution of the trial. Both statements rest on his own repeated acknowledgments in letters to his friends and in his Refutatio, and are substantiated by the public records.
3. While Calvin wished Servetus to die, he did not favor his being burned at the stake (comp. the letter to Farel of Aug. 20, 1553 [Ep. et Resp. fol. 114], and Beza, Joan. Calv. Vita).
It is no longer possible to undertake an unconditional defense of the opinions by which Calvin was governed in this matter, nor of the action which resulted. Unbiased minds are compelled to see that the reformer not only failed in this respect to rise above the errors of his time, but that in his management of the case he was guilty of evasions and exaggerations which form a real blot on his record; but there is no reason to doubt that his course was dictated by his sense of the duty he owed to God, to the Church in general, and to the Church of Geneva in particular; and this forms the only explanation which will justify his action in any degree to candid minds. His failure to save his antagonist from the cruel death by fire was doubtless owing to his difficult position at this very time. The ruling party in Geneva was opposed to Calvin, and had neutralized his measures in some instances insomuch that he declared his intention of leaving that city unless such action should cease; the Council of the Two Hundred was strongly hostile to him; and in the smaller council, before which Servetus was tried, measures were passed of which Calvin did not approve (e.g. the resolution to consult with the authorities of other cities), and direct efforts were made to save the accused from his impending doom. He could not suggest before the council that a different form of capital punishment from that prescribed by law should be inflicted, lest his own sincerity should be impugned by his opponents; and it is not difficult to discover reasons which may have neutralized whatever private efforts he employed. There is, at all events, no sufficient reason for doubting his own explicit statements on the matter. Sources. — The Works of Servetus and Calvin's Refutation; Calvini Ep. et Resp.; Mosheim, Vers. ein. vollst. u. unpart. Ketzergesch. (Helmst. 1748); id. Neue Nachr. v. d. beruhmt. span. Arzte M. Serveto (ibid. 1750); Trechsel, M. Servet u. seine Vorgänger (Heidelb. 1839);
Henry, Leben J. Calvin's, 2, 95 sq., and Beilagen, p. 49 sq. On the teachings of Servetus, see Heberle, M. Servet's Trinitatslehre u. Christologie, in the Tüb. Zeitschr. f. Theol. 1840, No. 2; Baur, Christl. Lehre v. d. Dreieinigkeit u. Menschwerdung Gottes, 3, 54 sq.; Dorner, Person Christi, 2, 649 sq.; Meier, Lehre v. d. Trinitat in ihrer histor. Entw. 2, 5 sq. On the Genevan trial of Servetus, see Rilliet, Relation du Proces contre M. Servet, etc. (Genèv. 1844). See also Galiffe, Notices Geneal. sur les Familles Genev. and Nouvelles Pages d'Histoire Exacte; Stähelin, J. Calvin, Leben u. ausgewählte Schriften (Elberfeld, 1860-63, 2 vols.).