Antitrinitarians of the Reformation - From Michael Servetus to the Socinians


This Article is dedicated to Professor Werner Otto Packull (1941-2018)

Part of the fascination of history is the quite regular occurrence over time of extraordinary events. History is a process of the mundane flow of the lives of individuals and of society generally that changes course as a result of unexpected and/or extraordinary events.

The Reformation is a case in point. Collectively it was an extraordinary event encompassing all of Europe and beyond causing untold suffering, death and destruction. How many people became homeless, starved, suffered, died during this time is unknown and unknowable. Nations and regions rose up and fought long and bitter wars against other societies that didn’t accept their theology, for lack of a better term.

Central Europe at the beginning of the 1500s. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Central Europe at the beginning of the 1500s. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Peoples long oppressed rose up and took on the existing order and in pitched battles attempted to overturn the authority of existing states, usually with horrific loss of life both of combatants and non-combatants. The leading lights of this long and bitter time are well known, such as Henry VIII, Luther, the Pope and so on. But the rivers of blood flowed from the veins of the hardy stock of peasants bearing pitchforks, from soldiers bearing all sorts of nasty, brutal weapons and from new and horrific engines of war. This upheaval tore up an existing order and established a new one. And to add suffering upon suffering, massive pandemics swept through Europe as if on a schedule of every 20 or so years. Every part of Europe was denuded of thousands of people with the rest left to build new societies with new powerful sea-faring nations arising in England, Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands.

Protestant Reformation at its peak

Protestant Reformation at its peak by mid 1600s. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The West and even the world are still experiencing the effects of that upheaval. But the Reformation itself was the result of many extraordinary events and one of the more significant among them was the execution of a Spaniard named Michael Servetus on October 27. 1553 in Geneva, Switzerland.

Michael Servetus. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Michael Servetus. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Has there ever been such a strange uniting1 of efforts by two powerful rivals of both Protestants and Catholics to expunge from amongst themselves someone they considered so repulsive? Probably so, but Michael Servetus was considered so diabolical that in the midst of the rupture between Rome and the Protestants, both were determined to stamp out this radical whose teachings they considered too dangerous for Christianity.

Servetus had crossed that boundary by rejecting the Trinity and pedobaptism (infant baptism)2. These were two of the most fundamental teachings of orthodox Christianity. This was simply intolerable for the Churches and Servetus forfeited his life for his impiety.

Yet Servetus did succeed. His influence survived. This article outlines his teachings and follows his contributions not so much on the course of the Reformation but on specific developments during that period. This was first and foremost an increasing tolerance for religious dissidents. And secondly, the emergence of antitrinitarianism3 and infant baptism as the “third way” that ultimately became the distinguishing feature of the radical Polish Brethren, otherwise known as the Socinians.4

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  1. Not necessarily a uniting but there was some communication between the Inquisition in France and the Council at Geneva with respect to Servetus’ views. In so far as the Genevan Reformers considered Catholicism apostate, they were not above asking the Catholics for information regarding a Heretic they both found offensive. 

  2. Calvini Opera, VIII, pg. 829, as quoted in Bainton, R. Hunted Heretic, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953.), Pg. 207-208. 

  3. Antitrinitarianism is a term that designates not-Trinitarian according to the Athanasian formulation. Friedman writes, “While dogmatic definitions of the Trinity do exist as do historical phrasings such as ‘economic trinitarianism’ to accommodate early belief, no such definitions for antitrinitarianism have ever been developed. The rejection of these standard formulations in and of itself justify the charge of antitrinitarianism but does not supply any understanding whatever concerning what that specific heretical system accepts as true and as such, antitrinitarianism is more a charge of heresy than a code name for any specific religious viewpoint. Consequently, each antitrinitarian thinker must be dealt with separately in determining why each individual member of the Godhead has been rejected or modified.” {Freidman, J. Michael Servetus. (Geneva: Librairie Droz S.A.:1978) pg. 21f.} Consequently, antitrinitarianism does not describe a particular formulation but only an non-orthodox construction. Both Servetus and the Socinians are antitrinitarian but have differing formulations of the Godhead. 

  4. James Miller calls some of the Italians antitrinitarians who came to Poland “Servetians”; If by that term is meant antitrinitarian, then they are Servetian; but if it is meant to represent followers of Servetian teaching on the Trinity, then it becomes problematic. Biandrata believed in a non-orthodox Godhead but did not follow precisely Servetus. See Miller, J. “Origins of Polish Arianism”, in Sixteenth Century Journal, Volume XVI, Number 2, Summer 1985, pg. 254. See also Freidman, Michael Servetus, pg. 14.