Servetus, Michael

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SERVETUS, MICHAEL (1509?/11?1553), born Miguel Serveto y Conesa was a Spanish biblical scholar, physician, and theologian. Servetus was born in Villanueva, Spain.

By the time he was fourteen, Servetus had learned Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and was ready to participate in the burgeoning new field of biblical scholarship. Spanish clerics were in the forefront of the movement, Cardinal Ximenes de Cisneros having published an edition of the Bible in three ancient languages, using the oldest available manuscripts, in 1522. Though extreme religious intolerance prevailed, it was still remembered in Spain that at one time Christians, Jews, and Muslims had lived and studied side by side, producing great works of literature, science, and mysticism. As Jews were crowded out of Spanish life, some became Christian. Not fully accepted, they were called conversos. According to Roland H. Bainton's Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 15111553 (1953), it was Bishop Paulus of Burgos, a converso, who had secretly and illegally instructed the young Servetus in Hebrew. The dream of a future when religious differences were again tolerated and the vision of a Christianity purified by going back to its roots guided Servetus's work as biblical scholar and theologian. The humanistic style of scholarship, based on observation and argumentation, served not only his theological inquiries but also his study of medicine.

Miguel Serveto y Conesa went to Toulouse at the age of seventeen to study law. Very soon he discovered biblical studies and theology, latinized his name, and began to develop his own ideas about the way Christianity had been before the Council of Nicaea (325). During his studies in Toulouse, he became convinced that the dogma of the Trinity is not based on Scripture.

Another turning point occurred when he traveled with his patron, Juan de Quintana, to the coronation of Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor in 1529. Seeing the splendor and temporal power of the pope, he abruptly left the service of Quintana, going to Basel, Switzerland, where the Reformation was already under way. The toleration he sought, however, did not exist there, either. His first book, De Trinitatis erroribus (1531), was written as a coda to a long argument with his host in Basel, Oecolampadius.

De Trinitatis erroribus and Dialogorum de Trinitate

In De Trinitatis erroribus, he argued that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God by nature (not by adoption), and that he is God by grace, whereas the Father is God by nature. Servetus emphasized a distinction between the Word and the Son. The Word had existed from eternity as one mode in which God expresses himself. When the Word was completely incarnated in the man Jesus, the Son came into being. The Holy Spirit is another mode in which God expresses himself among humans, but it is not a separate person. Servetus believed that Scripture speaks of the three persons of the Trinity as the varying appearances of God. This heretical view has been called modalistic trinitarianism, with a subordinationist Christology. Both in De Trinitatis erroribus and in later works, Servetus drew on passages from the ante-Nicene fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian to support his views.

Servetus's book aroused so much opposition that in 1532 he published Dialogorum de Trinitate, in which he made some conciliatory changes without altering his basic conclusions. Pursued by the Inquisition, he assumed the name Michel de Villeneuve and found work as an editor in Lyons, France. In 1538 he began medical studies in Paris, upon completion of which he became physician to the archbishop of Vienne, France, still under his assumed name. Both his editorial and medical careers were distinguished. Among his editorial contributions, the 1535 edition of Claudius Ptolemy's second century Geography and the 1540 edition of the Santes Pagnini Bible were particularly noteworthy.

Christianismi Restitutio

In 1546 Servetus sent parts of an early draft of Christianismi restitutio to John Calvin; the revised book was published anonymously in 1553. In Christianismi restitutio, Servetus modifies and supplements the views expressed in his previous works. He adds an emanationist philosophical context, a millenarianist historical view, and a celestial flesh Christology. In his emanationist philosophy, he sees God as above light, above essence, and as describable only in negative terms. According to Servetus, God relates to the world through a continuum progressing from God's hiddenness to his participation in the world. Servetus uses light symbolism to describe this continuum. Everything in this unfolding emanation is part of God, including the Logos (God's internal reason), Wisdom (ideas that are the exemplars of things), and the Word (through which God made the visible world appear). The Word forms a bridge between the invisible world and the visible world, for it is both immaterial and physical. Thus, the essence of God is in everything. This view is not pantheistic, for in it the world is dependent on God for its being; yet God in his being extends beyond the worldGod is not dependent on the world.

The millenarian theme appears in the conflict between God's modalistic presence in Christ and Satan's modalistic presence in the Antichrist. This conflict, pursued throughout five ages of world history, began in the garden of Eden when God's creation, including humankind, came under the control of the serpent, and God withdrew. The conflict continued when, after the incarnation, the Antichrist came to the papal throne, whereupon Christ withdrew from the world. All Christian history since the time of Constantine has been under the reign of the Antichrist. In the imminent fifth age, the archangel Michael will destroy Satan, releasing Christ's power.

Prior to the incarnation, Christ was prefigured in the Word. In the incarnation the divine nature mixed with (not united with) Christ's human nature, the mortal body of the man Jesus. Christ came through Mary, but he did not receive Mary's substance, for his divine nature and his human nature or flesh were both of heavenly origin. After the resurrection, Christ was again the Word with a celestial nature, that of God's heavenly substance.

All persons receive a first grace, which comes through the air as the spirit of God (to be distinguished from the Holy Spirit). Receiving the first grace makes it possible to live in accordance with codes of morality but is not sufficient for divinization. Christ's celestial nature makes possible a second grace, by which humanity is regenerated and physically transformed.

Servetus relates these themes to his view of the sacraments. In baptism the soul receives illumination, a wisdom from the Holy Spirit that combats Satan's serpentine wisdom. Baptism is a covenant with God and a commitment on the part of the person; hence, it is not for infants. The Lord's Supper is a sacrament involving the real presence (not only a symbolic presence) of Christ's celestial flesh in the bread and wine. This sacrament effects in the faithful both a spiritual and a physical change. Participants are changed to the nature of God, divinized.

Christianismi restitutio contains Servetus's discovery of the pulmonary circulation of the blood, a result of his medical dissections. This discovery is presented in theological terms to illustrate how each person receives God's spirit just as air circulates through the body. (A thirteenth-century Arab, Ibn al-Nafis, preceded Servetus in his medical discovery, but Servetus's description was more explicit.)

A copy of Christianismi restitutio fell into the hands of a Catholic named Guillaume de Trie, who suspected that Servetus was its author. Soon the Inquisition had arrested both Servetus and the printer. Servetus escaped but was apprehended in Geneva. He was tried, condemned for antitrinitarianism and opposition to infant baptism, and burned at the stake on 27 October 1553 at Champel, near Geneva.

Despite the attempts by the publisher and the Roman Catholic Inquisition to destroy every copy of Christianismi restitutio, a few copies survived. Servetus's execution gave rise to an important controversy among Protestant church leaders over religious toleration, initiated by the publication in 1554 of De haereticis, an sint persequendi, written principally by the French Protestant theologian Sébastien Chateillon under a pseudonym, and by other publications. Servetus's antitrinitarian views influenced prominent leaders in the antitrinitarian movements in Poland and Transylvania, but these leaders did not accept his emanationist philosophy or his celestial flesh Christology. These latter themes were not among the sections of Christianismi restitutio that were reprinted in 1569 in De regno Christi.


The original text of De Trinitatis erroribus (1531) is available in a facsimile reprint edition (Frankfurt, Germany, 1965). It is more accessible in The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur (1932; reprint, New York, 1969). The original text of Christianismi Restitutio (1553) is available in a reprint edition (Frankfurt, Germany, 1966). Angel Alcalá and Luis Betes have published the first edited modern translation, Restitución del cristianismo: Miguel Servet (Madrid, Spain, 1980).

Roland H. Bainton's reliable biography, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 15111553 (Boston, 1953), contains a chronology, detailed notes, and an extensive selected bibliography. Bruno Becker, ed., Autour de Michel Servet et de Sébastien Castellion (Haarlem, 1953), contains important essays, including "Michael Servetus and the Trinitarian Speculation of the Middle Ages," by Roland H. Bainton, and "L'influence de Servet sur le mouvement antitrinitarien en Pologne et en Transylvanie," by Stanislas Kot. Mihály Balázs corrected and supplemented Kot's essay in "Die Osteuropäische Rezeption der Restitutio Christianismi von Servet," in Antitrinitarianism in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century, edited by Róbert Dán and Antal Pirnát (Leiden, Netherlands, 1982), pp. 1323. Claudio Manzoni, Umanesimo ed eresia: Michele Serveto (Naples, Italy, 1974), and Elisabeth F. Hirsch, "Michael Servetus and the Neoplatonic Tradition: God, Christ and Man," Bibliothèque d'humanisme et Renaissance 42 (1980): 561575, have contributed to an understanding of the Neoplatonic elements in Christianismi restitutio. Jerome Friedman, Michael Servetus: A Case Study in Total Heresy (Geneva, Switzerland, 1978), contains an informative argument, detailed bibliographical notes, and a glossary that the reader will appreciate.

Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents (Cambridge, Mass., 1945), has a lengthy discussion of Servetus. There is also biographical material in the introduction to The Two Treatises (1932; reprint, New York, 1969). Marian Hillar, with Claire S. Allen, Michael Servetus: Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr (Lanham, Md., 2002) is an important addition to scholarly work on Servetus in English. It has a bibliography of Servetus's works and their translations that includes his important editorial and medical contributions. Out of the Flames (New York, 2002) by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, adds interesting material on the survival of copies of Christianismi Restitutio.

Signaled by the publication of Restitucion del Christianismo in Spanish in 1980, there has been a flowering of interest in Servetus studies in Spain. These include Angel Acala Galve, Miguel Servet (Aragon, Spain, 2000); Jose Luis Cano Rodriguez, Miguel Servet y el doctor de Velleneufve (Zaragosa, Spain, 2002); and Manuel de Fuentes Sagaz, Michael Servetus, 15111553 (Barcelona, Spain, 1999). A comprehensive bibliography is maintained by the Servetus International Society at its Web Site, available at

John C. Godbey (1987)

Mary Wellemeyer (2005)