On October 27, 1553, Michael Servetus was burned alive in Geneva, Switzerland, accused by John Calvin of heresy for his denial of the Trinity (Wilbur, Two Treatises xxv). Servetus purportedly studied law in Toulouse and medicine in Paris and is credited with the initial discover of pulmonary circulation. In 1531, just over twenty years of age, Servetus published De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity), deconstructing the Nicene conception of the Godhead and arguing for God’s complete monadity. In a courageous effort to interpolate what Servetus believed to be a primitive and Apostolic view of the person of Jesus Christ into the Protestant Reformation, Servetus introduced his position to John Calvin, the famed theologian during his tenure in Paris (Walker 326-327). Calvin rejected the young man’s ideas and eventually secured his extermination, a strange and heinous interlude in Protestant history.
An examination of the treatises of Servetus reveals a sophisticated and Biblical rejection of radical Trinitarianism. He fully articulates the absurdities of Tri-unity and shows the doctrine’s logical degradation into pure tritheism. While antitrinitarianism is common enough during the Reformation era, most exchanged the heresy of the Trinity for equally damnable doctrines, denying the divinity or humanity of Jesus Christ. Denying both of these extremes, Servetus lands very near the modern Oneness position, describing the dual nature of Christ without any of the philosophical additives of trinitarian apologists.
Servetus anchors his arguments in the man Christ Jesus, progressing from his humanity to His Sonship to His deity. While he attributes, full Godhead to Jesus, he cannot accept the corporal eternality of the Son, but admits the conceptual eternality of the Word: “The Word existing before creation, was begotten when first uttered by God, and was afterwards incarnate in the flesh of Christ . . . The Word was never the Son” (Wilbur, Two Treatises 105). Rather, Sonship is attributed to the manifestation of God in Christ, and Servetus firmly believes that Jesus Christ is God in flesh: “For Christ after the inward man (to speak in the manner of Paul) means something divine, resulting from an inward anointing divinely done. According to the flesh, he is man; and in the spirit he is God, because that which is born of the Spirit is spirit, and, God is Spirit (Wilbur Two Treatises 17).
In identifying the two natures resident in Christ Jesus, Servetus preserves God’s unity while admitting the uniqueness of the God-man. He appeals to the simplicity of Apostolic exposition: “Paul did not say that there are two beings and one Nature, or that the second Person is of equal Essence with the first” (Wilbur, Two Treatises 30). Servetus views the sophisticated post-Apostolic philosophizing about natures, persons, and substance as completely foreign to the straightforward New Testament understanding of Christ and absolutely indicts Trinitarians outright:
For they [Trinitarians] also contrive three Gods, or one threefold God. These three Gods of theirs form one composite Ouisia; and although some will not use a word implying that the three have been put together, yet they do use a word implying that they are constituted together, and that God is constituted out of three beings. It is clear, therefore that we are Tritoites [tritheists], and we have a threefold God: we have beomce Atheists, that is, men without any God. For as soon as we try to think about God, we are turned aside to three phantoms, so that no kind of unity remains in our conception . . . for the kingdom of heaven knows none of this nonsense. (Wilbur, Two Treatises 34-35)
Remarkably, the historical Servetus is often adopted by Unitarians, who seek to aggregate all antitrinitarians into their humanist view of Jesus Christ, which is really Arianism, or the belief that Jesus Christ was sent by God but only as a man, a prophet whose message and goodness are an example to those who seek God. Jesus is creature and not Creator. Dr. Earl Morse Wilbur begins his acclaimed history of Unitarianism with Servetus, calling the publication of De Trinitatis Erroribus, the “initiation” of the Unitarian movement (Wilbur, A History 3-4). However, Servetus rails against Arius: “For when Arius held the very foolish view that the Son was of different Substance from the Father, having also no appreciation at all of the glory of Christ, he introduced a new creature, more exlated than man . . . he fell into the most abominable error” (Wilbur, Two Treatises 22). Certainly, Michael Servetus was not an Arian.
Servetus viewed his theology as a possible catalyst for greater reformation in the Church, a return to a more primitive and Apostolic view of Jesus Christ, free from the layers of creed and tradition. When he attempted to draw John Calvin into a correspondence on the issue of the Trinity, the missives soon turned abusive and Calvin arranged for his name to be given to the Inquisitor at Lyons. Servetus was soon arrested but escaped the following morning (Wilbur, Two Treatises xxiii-xxiv). Despite his absence, the Catholic court tried the case and sentenced Servetus the “death by slow fire”, even carrying out the judgment in effigy. In August 1553, Servetus entered Geneva, Switzerland and was apprehended after being recognized in a church service where John Calvin was preaching (Walker 332). Calvin moved quickly to try and execute Servetus, keeping him imprisoned in deplorable conditions. Tied to the stake and ignited, the faithful Servetus, who refused to recant, died with a prayer upon his lips, an invocation that synopsized his doctrine: “Jesus, thou Son of the eternal God, have pity on me!” (Walker 342). He did not pray to the eternal Son but to the eternal God! Calvin garnered criticism for his action and continued to publish refutations against Servetus and even a book in defense of the martyrdom with the explicative title Defense of the Orthodox Faith Concerning the Sacred Trinity against the prodigious errors of the Spaniard Michael Servetus, where it is shown that heretics are to be punished with the sword and in particular that this so impious man was justly and properly punished at Geneva (Bainton 265).
Michael Servetus undoubtedly possessed clarity of revelation unequalled in his age. While it is impossible to make a point by point comparison between every tenet of Servetus’s doctrine and Oneness, the parallels and foundational premises are strikingly alike. Truth has never been completely extinguished in any age, and Servetus certainly represents a bold attempt at Apostolic rediscovery. The strange episode is obscured by the mythic legends of Protestant glory, especially the famous Calvin, but the heroic Servetus drank the martyr’s cup and died faithful to his conviction that Jesus Christ was at once human and divine, flesh and God.
Bainton, Roland H., trans. Concerning Heretics, an anonymous work attributed to Sebastian Castellio. New York: Octagon Books, Inc., 1965.
Walker, Williston. John Calvin: the Organiser of Reformed Protestantism 1509-1564. New York: Shocken Books, 1906.
Wilbur, Earl Morse. A History of Unitarianism Socianism and its Antecedents. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1947.
Wilbur, Earl Morse, trans. The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity. London: Oxford University Press, 1932.