Michael Servetus (1511-1553) and the Socinians

Published 20 May 2020 | Posted under History

Michael Servetus has the singular distinction of having been burned by the Catholics in effigy and by the Protestants in actuality.

History is the regular occurrence over time of extraordinary events. It is a process where the mundane lives of individuals, and thus of society generally, changes course as a result of unexpected events. The Reformation is a case in point and the West is still experiencing the effects of that upheaval. Yet the Reformation was itself a result of many extraordinary events and one of the more significant was the execution of a Spaniard named Michael Servetus.

Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus engraving. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

This article introduces the life and work of Michael Servetus and follows his contribution to the Reformation in the form of a movement of Antitrinitirian Christians who found refuge from religious persecution in Cathoic and Protestant lands in 16th century Poland – the Socinians.

About Michael Servetus

Servetus (1509 or 1511-1553) was a Spanish physician who had his training in Paris and is responsible for the discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood. He was also a theologian who held beliefs contrary to both Protestants and Catholics. He believed that God was Unitary rather than Trinitarian and was convinced that the latter view was a corruption from the teachings of the Bible. He published his theological views anonymously in Restitution of Christianity but was discovered as the author and, therefore, forced to change his name to escape the Catholic Inquisition. Thinking that his views would be more widely accepting in Protestant lands, he fled France to travel to Italy by way of Geneva. Unfortunately for him, he was recognized in Geneva and arrested on the orders of the Reformer John Calvin. He was condemned by Calvin and the authorities as a heretic and executed by fire.

Why was this event significant for the Reformation? First, because this man died not at the hands of the Catholics but by the renown Genevan Reformer John Calvin. It was not so much the charge against him that was significant – he rejected two of the most fundamental doctrines of Christianity: the Trinity and Infant Baptism – but that he should be condemned to death by a Protestant Reformer who abhorred the religious tyranny practiced in Catholic countries. Second, because his teachings found a home in a modified way amongst the rationalists known as the Polish Brethren, or there more common name, the Socinians.

Because Calvin considered the theological views of Servetus so diabolical, he found himself in alliance with the Roman Inquisition which had recently condemned Calvin for his theology. Servetus was condemned by the Catholic inquisition in Lyons in absentia on the same charges and lacking the body to burn had burnt him in effigy. Calvin, therefore, was in an awkward position of agreeing with Rome and even using the Roman Catholic practice of burning heretics.

Calvin was severely criticized for “copying” Rome’s practice of burning heretics. This was an extraordinary event and aside from how it affected the Toleration Movement (it began it) it brought into the public arena for the first time a lingering debate within the Reformation about the soundness and validity of the Trinitarian formulation of the Godhead.

About the Socinians

Like Servetus, the Socinians rejected the orthodox Trinity but as will be seen they did not share the same heterodoxy as the Spaniard. The Socinians understood the doctrine of the Godhead differently and that this difference was the result of a differing hermeneutic method resulting in radically different antitrinitarian constructions. For the Socinians, their method involved a rationalistic Bible-based exegesis, while Servetus used appeals to the Church Fathers and Greek Philosophy. These differences notwithstanding, Servetus positively contributed to the development of Socinian Antitrinitarianism in that the latter began with Servetus’s original conceptions of the Godhead but ended with a unique theology free of the influences of both the Church Fathers and the Philosophers.

History is the regular occurrence over time of extraordinary events. It is a process where the mundane lives of individuals and thus of society generally changes course as a result of unexpected events. The Reformation is a case in point and the West is still experiencing the effects of that upheaval. Yet the Reformation was itself a result of many events that seemed insignificant at the time. Perhaps one such event that produced an extraordinary outcome was the execution of a Spaniard named Michael Servetus in 1553 Geneva, Switzerland