Antitrinitarians of the Reformation - From Michael Servetus to the Socinians


"[that Servetus] was not subject to [Geneva's] laws, has to be considered as a barbaric act and an insult to the Right of Nations.” - Voltaire

It could have been different

A significant point on which to conclude is that it was a heightened consciousness during the sixteenth century of the potential problems inherent in the Orthodox Trinity which galvanized the reformers to critique the Athanasian formulation in the Nicaean Creed.

Had Servetus kept his views to himself or at least not been so hostile to his intellectual enemies, the Reformers might have left the issue of the Trinity alone and the Nicaean Creed might have passed out of use by the Protestant Churches. But considering the various independent tracks whereby antitrinitarianism was developing in Poland, in Italy, and in Geneva, it is unlikely the Reformation could have bypassed tackling the problems inherent in the orthodox Trinitarian formulation. Likewise, it is unlikely that the Continental Reformers would have discarded the orthodox Trinity. But the Reformers almost did.

This was, according to Wilbur, Servetus’ legacy to the teachings of the Reformers, besides a very significant role in the development of the unique antitrinitarianism of the Socinians.

And had Calvin not treated Michael Servetus as he was treated by the Inquisition, it is quite possible even fewer reformers would know about his teachings. But Calvin did behave identically to his theological enemies in the Catholic Church. Servetus was burned at the stake. From this event Western Europe began a push in small steps for religious toleration.

In 1908, a monument was dedicated to Servetus, not in Geneva but in a neighbouring French town Annenmasse. On it was an inscription written by Voltaire.

“The arrest of Servetus in Geneva, where he did neither publish nor dogmatize, hence he was not subject to its laws, has to be considered as a barbaric act and an insult to the Right of Nations.”

As a final affront to freedom of thought everywhere, the Vichy government under the yoke of the National Socialists of Germany destroyed the monument. It was restored in 1960. When Geneva got around to erecting a monument to Servetus in 2011, the honoured guests at the ceremony was noted by the absence of the National Protestant Church which was the modern descendent of the church of John Calvin.

Appendix I: Michael Servetus as the Renaissance Man

In France Servetus developed into what can be called a “Renaissance man.” His interests in medicine, geography, publishing, and editing, as well as writing, astrology, and, of course, theology whirled around in his mind like a complex interlocking matrix whose developments in one field affected his thinking in another. His discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood, for instance, was important for him only insofar as it affected the Grace of God.

Geography was significant for him not so much for commerce but as a means to demonstrate how God had given places for the varied races of men. All things to be known were related in some way to one another and were not compartmentalized as is the case in today’s division of learning. He probably would not have felt comfortable in today’s highly specialized world. He was a renaissance man and his understanding of the interdependence of all fields of study remains as valid today as it was then. But alas, the days of the Renaissance men (there were few women historically in that position unfortunately) are long since gone.

Appendix II: Michael Servetus in France

For almost twenty years Michael Servetus lived in hiding in France under his alias Michael de’ Villeneve. He went to Paris for a time and studied and lectured but later went to live in Lyons as an employee of the Archbishop of Vienne, France.

It was while in Paris that he developed his interests in Geography and Medicine (it is claimed that he was one of the founders of the science of Geography). Servetus could not stay out of trouble and for expressing an opinion on a particular matter for which the Parisian School could not tolerate, he had to leave and went to Lyons.

While still hiding behind his alias he found employment with the Archbishop of Lyons, amazingly. Servetus probably felt he was safest living in the closest proximity to the powers that could end his life. Eventually, however, his alias failed him, and he was found out through the publication of his Restitution.

In 1553 on January 3 he was charge with heresy and condemned to death by the Inquisition but escaped and fled, his final destination being Italy. In absentia he was sentenced to die by the stake, which the Inquisition carried out by effigy. But Servetus decided to go to Italy through Geneva, of all places, and was recognized. He was consequently charged with the same accusations as at Lyons and was condemned by the city authorities on Calvin’s recommendation. This time he did not escape and died by fire on a stake. It is uncertain why he went to Geneva but perhaps he believed he could convince Calvin of his views and exonerate himself. He had only gone there to pass through to Italy as he was heading to the humanist circles which were developing in Florence. But on August 13 Servetus was recognized while attending Mass and after a lengthy trial with Calvin as his accuser he was sentenced to death by stake, the same sentence he received in France. At half past noon, October 27, 1553 Servetus died crying that statement with the misplaced adjective,

Oh Jesus, Son of the Eternal God have pity on me”.

Although the Socinians could not have agreed with what he meant by the Son of the Eternal God, they certainly could thank him for challenging the establish orthodoxy and paving the way for their own distinctive understanding of the “Son of the Eternal God”.

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