Michael Servetus

The Spanish religious philosopher Michael Servetus (ca. 1511-1553), often called the first Unitarian, denied the divinity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. His views made him abhorrent to both Catholics and Protestants.

Michael Servetus was born at Villanueva. The son of a notary, he became a law student in Toulouse, where he developed an avid interest in the Bible. A Franciscan named Juan de Quintana befriended him in 1525. Quintana became confessor to Emperor Charles V in 1530, and that year Servetus accompanied Quintana to Bologna for Charles's coronation. There the pomp surrounding the Pope repelled him and tended to alienate him from the Roman Catholic Church. This journey was decisive in shaping Servetus's thought, for he also visited Augsburg, where he came into immediate contact with Protestantism, which impressed him favorably. He soon became acquainted with the leading spirit of Rhenish Protestantism, Martin Bucer.

Servetus then published a book that separated him philosophically not only from Catholicism but also from all the current reforming movements: De Trinitatis erroribus (1531; On the Errors of the Trinity). Its erudition was astonishing in light of the fact that its author was so young. But its thesis horrified Servetus's contemporaries, making him in their eyes a heretic. Servetus viewed Jesus as a man upon whom God had bestowed divine wisdom. Jesus came forth as a prophet bearing God's precious gift, but he did not partake of God's immortality.

If Servetus denied Jesus' equality to the godhead, he yielded to none in his praise of Jesus, calling him the Light of the World. Servetus insisted that those who believed in the Trinity were tritheists who could not escape the logic that they denied the One True God.

Because of these views Servetus was forced to take flight, moving in 1532 from Switzerland to France. There he lived for a time unmolested, traveling in 1536 to Paris to study medicine. He met John Calvin briefly, but Servetus concentrated for a time on medicine rather than on religious reform. He became assistant to the physician Johann Günther and continued to study avidly, taking up theology and Hebrew as well as medicine.

In 1546 Servetus wrote to Calvin, sending him elaborate manuscripts on his theological views. Calvin answered without warmth, letting Servetus know he would not be welcome in Geneva. The reformer very probably, through correspondence, was partially responsible for Servetus's arrest by the inquisitor general of Lyons on April 4, 1553. On April 7 Servetus escaped, turning up 4 months later in Geneva. He was seized, tried, and on Oct. 27, 1553, burned alive with the acquiescence of Calvin.

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Further Reading on Michael Servetus

A scholarly biography of Servetus is Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (1953; new foreword, 1960). Also useful is John F. Fulton, Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr (1953). A good account of Servetus's theology is in Louis Israel Newman, Jewish Influence on Christian Reform Movements (1925).

Additional Biography Sources

Friedman, Jerome, Michael Servetus: a case study in total heresy, Geneve: Droz, 1978.