Servetus, Michael (1511–1553)

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Michael Servetus, the Spanish theologian and physician, was born in Spanish Navarre and was burned at the stake in Geneva. In the history of medicine he is remembered for having been the first to publish a description of the pulmonary circulation of the blood, and in the history of theology, he is noted for his systematic refutation of the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity. In philosophy, he developed a Christocentric pantheism that included elements from the Neoplatonic, Franciscan, and kabbalistic traditions. It should be pointed out, however, that he believed that natural philosophy should be grounded in empirical investigation.

After studying the three biblical languages as well as mathematics, philosophy, theology, and law at the universities of Zaragoza and Toulouse, Servetus, in the capacity of secretary, accompanied Juan de Quintana, the Franciscan confessor of Emperor Charles V, to the latter's coronation in Bologna. Breaking with the imperial court, he went on his own to Basel, where he sought out John Oecolampadius, and then went on to Strasbourg, where he had some contact with Martin Bucer and, in particular, Wolfgang Capito. In nearby Hagenau he had printed his De Trinitatis Erroribus (1531) and, in response to Bucer's critique, the more moderate and more Christologically oriented De Trinitate (1532). In Strasbourg Servetus met Kaspar Schwenkfeld, from whom he may have taken over a heretical idea about the celestial flesh of Christ. In Strasbourg he may also have come in contact with the Anabaptists, whose views on baptism he was later to espouse. By way of Basel, where he tried to get Desiderius Erasmus's approval of his De Trinitate, he went to Lyons, where he worked as a proofreader and began his study of medicine under the Neoplatonizing Symphorien Champier. Next he went to Paris, where by chance he met John Calvin and got into trouble with the medical faculty over his views on astral influences. His Apologetica Disceptatio pro Astrologia (1538) marks an important turning point in Servetus's evaluation of the place of Greek philosophy. Whereas before he had regarded the influence of philosophy on theology as corrupting, he was now prepared to speak of "divinus Plato," on whose authority he defended astrology. After establishing himself in Vienne as physician to the archbishop, he engaged in correspondence with Calvin and composed the recently discovered and identified Declaratio Jesu Christi Filii Dei (c. 1540). Out of this grew his more massive Restitutio Christianismi (1553). Through the machinations of Calvin himself, Servetus was apprehended and tried for heresy, first in Catholic Lyons and then, after his escape, in Calvinist Geneva, where, after refusing to recant, he was burned at the stake.

Servetus's view of nature, history, and salvation was centered on the figure of Jesus Christ, whom he considered to be in a quite physical sense the Son of God. Servetus declined, however, to call the earthly Son eternal and declined to call either the Word or the Spirit personae ; rather, he called them, neutrally, res that is, in a modalist sense, the faces, forms, images, or manifestations of God. He mistakenly regarded the traditional hypostasis (persona ) and substantia as equivalent, and hence, to avoid what he considered an unbiblical tritheism, he called the Father or Jehovah alone God. Before the Incarnation the Word was Elohim, or Uncreated Light. Indeed, this Light, or alternatively Christ (as distinguished from the earthly Son, Jesus), was also "the eternal sea (pelagus ) of ideas." The Spirit has always been a Power of God, working outwardly in the world as his breath (flatus ) and inwardly as the agitation, or motion, of the human spirit at regeneration.

The way in which the Uncreated Light became the Second Adam in Mary was for Servetus paradigmatic of the process by which creative Light was ever penetrating matter to form minerals, plants, animals, and all created things. For Servetus "even the treasures of natural science are hidden in Christ." Connected with his speculation on Light was Servetus's concept of the Shadow, according to which he was able to regard all of the Old Testament and all religion outside the Bible as a shadowing forth of the Son that was to be born of Mary. He cherished the old Law as a pregnant woman bearing the embryonic Christ until the fullness of time.

Servetus rejected post-Constantinian (post-Nicene) Catholicism because of its alleged tritheism and its use of political force in the realm of conscience. He also opposed the Reformation churches because of their use of force, their denial of free will in accepting redemptive grace, and their neglect of sanctification, which he understood as communicated in an almost physical sense through the believers' baptism at the age of thirty (in imitation of Jesus). Nevertheless, in common with the Spiritual Libertines and some Anabaptists, Servetus held to the provisional death of every soul with the body pending the general resurrection. Under the influence of Joachimite speculation, he believed that the true church would be restored in the year 1560.


works by servetus

The two works on the Trinity have been translated by E. M. Wilbur as Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Harvard Theological Studies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), Vol. 16. See also Charles D. O'Malley, Michael Servetus: A Translation of His Geographical, Medical and Astrological Writings (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1953).

works on servetus

For literature on Servetus, see Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, 15111553 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953), which includes a bibliography; Wolrad Emde, "Michael Servetus als Renaissancephilosoph und Restitutionstheologe," in Zeitschrift für Kirchengeschichte 50 (1941): 96131, especially good on Restitutio Christianismi ; and Marcial Solana, Historia de la filosofia española (Madrid: Real Academia de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales, 1941), Vol. I, pp. 629681, especially good on De Trinitate.

George Hunston Williams (1967)