Vol. 8, Chapter XVI (Cont’d) The Early Life of Servetus

Illustration, Michael Servetus.

For our knowledge of the origin and youth of Servetus we have to depend on the statements which he made at his trials before the Roman Catholic court at Vienne in April, 1553, and before the Calvinistic court at Geneva in August of the same year. These depositions are meagre and inconsistent, either from defect of memory or want of honesty. In Geneva he could not deceive the judges, as Calvin was well acquainted with his antecedents. I give, therefore, the preference to his later testimony.

Michael Serveto, better known in the Latinized form Servetus, also called Reves, was born at Villa-nueva or Villanova in Aragon (hence “Villanovanus”), in 1509, the year of the nativity of Calvin, his great antagonist. He informed the court of Geneva that he was of an ancient and noble Spanish family, and that his father was a lawyer and notary by profession.

The hypothesis that he was of Jewish or Moorish extraction is an unwarranted inference from his knowledge of Hebrew and the Koran.

He was slender and delicate in body, but precocious, inquisitive, imaginative, acute, independent, and inclined to mysticism and fanaticism. He seems to have received his early education in a Dominican convent and in the University of Saragossa, with a view at first to the clerical vocation.

He was sent by his father to the celebrated law-school of Toulouse, where he studied jurisprudence for two or three years. The University of Toulouse was strictly orthodox, and kept a close watch against the Lutheran heresy. But it was there that he first saw a complete copy of the Bible, as Luther did after he entered the University of Erfurt.

The Bible now became his guide. He fully adopted the Protestant principle of the supremacy and sufficiency of the Bible, but subjected it to his speculative fancy, and carried opposition to Catholic tradition much farther than the Reformers did. He rejected the ecumenical orthodoxy, while they rejected only the mediaeval scholastic orthodoxy. It is characteristic of his mystical turn of mind that he made the Apocalypse the basis of his speculations, while the sober and judicious Calvin never commented on this book.

Servetus declared, in his first work, that the Bible was the source of all his philosophy and science, and to be read a thousand times. He called it a gift of God descended from heaven. Next to the Bible, he esteemed the ante-Nicene Fathers, because of their simpler and less definite teaching. He quotes them freely in his first book.

We do not know whether, and how far, he was influenced by the writings of the Reformers. He may have read some tracts of Luther, which were early translated into Spanish, but he does not quote from them.

We next find Servetus in the employ of Juan Quintana, a Franciscan friar and confessor to the Emperor Charles V. He seems to have attended his court at the coronation by Pope Clement VII. in Bologna (1529), and on the journey to the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, which forms an epoch in the history of the Lutheran Reformation. At Augsburg he may have seen Melanchthon and other leading Lutherans, but he was too young and unknown to attract much attention.

In the autumn of 1530 he was dismissed from the service of Quintana; we do not know for what reason, probably on suspicion of heresy.

We have no account of a conversion or moral struggle in any period of his life, such as the Reformers passed through. He never was a Protestant, either Lutheran or Reformed, but a radical at war with all orthodoxy. A mere youth of twenty-one or two, he boldly or impudently struck out an independent path as a Reformer of the Reformation. The Socinian society did not yet exist; and even there he would not have felt at home, nor would he have long been tolerated. Nominally, he remained in the Roman Church, and felt no scruple about conforming to its rites. As he stood alone, so he died alone, leaving an influence, but no school nor sect.

From Germany Servetus went to Switzerland and spent some time at Basel. There he first ventilated his heresies on the trinity and the divinity of Christ.

He importuned Oecolampadius with interviews and letters, hoping to convert him. But Oecolampadius was startled and horrified. He informed his friends, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger, who happened to be at Basel in October, 1530, that he had been troubled of late by a hot-headed Spaniard, who denied the divine trinity and the eternal divinity of our Saviour. Zwingli advised him to try to convince Servetus of his error, and by good and wholesome arguments to win him over to the truth. Oecolampadius said that he could make no impression upon the haughty, daring, and contentious man. Zwingli replied: “This is indeed a thing insufferable in the Church of God. Therefore do everything possible to prevent the spread of such dreadful blasphemy.” Zwingli never saw the objectionable book in print.

Servetus sought to satisfy Oecolampadius by a misleading confession of faith, but the latter was not deceived by the explanations and exhorted him to “confess the Son of God to be coequal and coeternal with the Father;” otherwise he could not acknowledge him as a Christian.


141. The Book against the Holy Trinity

Servetus was too vain and obstinate to take advice. In the beginning of 1531, he secured a publisher for his book on the “Errors of the Trinity,” Conrad Koenig, who had shops at Basel and Strassburg, and who sent the manuscript to Secerius, a printer at Hagenau in Alsace. Servetus went to that place to read the proof. He also visited Bucer and Capito at Strassburg, who received him with courtesy and kindness and tried to convert him, but in vain.

In July, 1531, the book appeared under the name of the author, and was furnished to the trade at Strassburg, Frankfort, and Basel, but nobody knew where and by whom it was published. Suspicion fell upon Basel.

This book is a very original and, for so young a man, very remarkable treatise on the Trinity and Incarnation in opposition to the traditional and ecumenical faith. The style is crude and obscure, and not to be compared with Calvin’s, who at the same age and in his earliest writings showed himself a master of lucid, methodical, and convincing statement in elegant and forcible Latin. Servetus was familiar with the Bible, the ante-Nicene Fathers (Tertullian and Irenaeus), and scholastic theology, and teemed with new, but ill-digested ideas which he threw out like firebrands. He afterwards embodied his first work in his last, but in revised shape. The following is a summary of the Seven Books on the Trinity: — 

In the first book he proceeds from the historical Jesus of Nazareth, and proves, first, that this man is Jesus the Christ; secondly, that he is the Son of God; and thirdly, that he is God. He begins with the humanity in opposition to those who begin with the Logos and, in his opinion, lose the true Christ. In this respect he anticipates the Socinian and modern humanitarian Christology, but not in a rationalistic sense; for he asserts a special indwelling of God in Christ (somewhat resembling Schleiermacher), and a deification of Christ after his exaltation (like the Socinians). He rejects the identity of the Logos with the Son of God and the doctrine of the communication of attributes. He distinguishes between the Hebrew names of God: Jehovah means exclusively the one and eternal God; Elohim or El or Adonai are names of God and also of angels, prophets, and kings (Joh_10:34-36). The prologue of John speaks of things that were, not of things that are. Everywhere else the Bible speaks of the man Christ. The Holy Spirit means, according to the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma, wind or breath, and denotes in the Bible now God himself, now an angel, now the spirit of man, now a divine impulse.

He then explains away the proof texts for the doctrine of the Trinity, 1Jo_5:7 (which he accepts as genuine, though Erasmus omitted it from his first edition); Joh_10:30; Joh_14:11; Rom_11:36. The chief passages, the baptismal formula (Mat_28:19) and the apostolic benediction (2Co_13:14) where the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are coordinated, he understands not of three persons, but of three dispositions of God.

In the second book be treats of the Logos, the person of Christ, and the Spirit of God, and chiefly explains the prologue to the fourth Gospel. The Logos is not a metaphysical being, but an oracle; the voice of God and the light of the world. The Logos is a disposition or dispensation in God, so understood by Tertullian and Irenaeus. Before the incarnation the Logos was God himself speaking; after the incarnation the Logos is Jesus Christ, who makes God known to us. All that God before did through the Word, Christ does in the flesh. To him God has given the kingdom and the power to atone and to gather all things in him.

The third book is an exposition of the relation of Christ to the divine Logos.

The fourth book discusses the divine dispositions or manifestations. God appeared in the Son and in the Spirit. Two divine manifestations are substituted for the orthodox tripersonality. The position of the Father is not clear; he is now represented as the divinity itself, now as a disposition and person. The orthodox christology of two natures in one person is entirely rejected. God has no nature (from nasci), and a person is not a compound of two natures or things, but a unit.

The fifth book is a worthless speculative exposition of the Hebrew names of God. The Lutheran doctrine of justification is incidentally attacked as calculated to make man lazy and indifferent to good works.

The sixth book shows that Christ is the only fountain of all true knowledge of God, who is incomprehensible in himself, but revealed himself in the person of his Son. He who sees the Son sees the Father.

The seventh and last book is an answer to objections, and contains a new attack on the doctrine of the Trinity, which was introduced at the same time with the secular power of the pope. Servetus probably believed in the fable of the donation of Constantine.

It is not surprising that this book gave great offence to Catholics and Protestants alike, and appeared to them blasphemous. Servetus calls the Trinitarians tritheists and atheists. He frivolously asked such questions as whether God had a spiritual wife or was without sex. He calls the three gods of the Trinitarians a deception of the devil, yea (in his later writings), a three-headed monster.

Zwingli and Oecolampadius died a few months after the publication of the book, but condemned its contents beforehand. Luther’s and Bucer’s views on it have already been noticed. Melanchthon felt the difficulties of the trinitarian and christological problems and foresaw future controversies. He gave his judgment in a letter to his learned friend Camerarius (dated 5 Id. Febr. 1533): — 

“You ask me what I think of Servetus? I see him indeed sufficiently sharp and subtle in disputation, but I do not give him credit for much depth. He is possessed, as it seems to me, of confused imaginations, and his thoughts are not well matured on the subjects he discusses. He manifestly talks foolishness when he speaks of justification. περὶ τῆς τριάδος [on the subject of the Trinity] you know, I have always feared that serious difficulties would one day arise. Good God! to what tragedies will not these questions give occasion in times to come: εἴ ἐστιν ὑπόστασις ὁ λόγος [is the Logos an hypostasis]? εἴ ἐστιν ὑπόστασις τὸ πνεῦμα [is the Holy Spirit an hypostasis]? For my own part I refer to those passages of Scripture that bid us call on Christ, which is to ascribe divine honors to him, and find them full of consolation.”

Cochlaeus directed the attention of Quintana, at the Diet of Regensburg, in 1532, to the book of Servetus which was sold there, and Quintana at once took measures to suppress it. The Emperor prohibited it, and the book soon disappeared.

Servetus published in 1532 two dialogues on the Trinity, and a treatise on Justification. He retracted, in the preface, all he had said in his former work, not, however, as false, but as childish. He rejected the Lutheran doctrine of justification, and also both the Lutheran and Zwinglian views of the sacrament. He concluded the book by invoking a malediction on “all tyrants of the Church.”


142. Servetus as a Geographer

As Servetus was repulsed by the Reformers of Switzerland and Germany, he left for France and assumed the name of Michel de Villeneuve. His real name and his obnoxious books disappeared from the sight of the world till they emerged twenty years later at Vienne and at Geneva. He devoted himself to the study of mathematics, geography, astrology, and medicine.

In 1534 he was in Paris, and challenged the young Calvin to a disputation, but failed to appear at the appointed hour.

He spent some time at Lyons as proof-reader and publisher of the famous printers, Melchior and Caspar Trechsel. He issued through them, in 1535, under the name of “Villanovanus,” a magnificent edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, with a self-laudatory preface, which concludes with the hope that “no one will underestimate the labor, though pleasant in itself, that is implied in the collation of our text with that of earlier editions, unless it be some Zoilus of contracted brow, who cannot look without envy upon the zealous labors of others.” A second and improved edition appeared in 1541.

The discoveries of Columbus and his successors gave a strong impulse to geographical studies, and called forth several editions of the work of Ptolemy the famous Alexandrian geographer and astronomer of the second century. The edition of Villeneuve is based upon that of Pirkheimer of Nürnberg, which appeared at Strassburg, 1525, with fifty charts, but contains considerable improvements, and gave to the author great reputation. It is a very remarkable work, considering that Servetus was then only twenty-six years of age. A year later Calvin astonished the world with an equally precocious and far more important and enduring work — the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

The most interesting features in the edition of Villeneuve are his descriptions of countries and nations. The following extracts give a fair idea, and have some bearing on the church history of the times: — 

“The Spaniard is of a restless disposition, apt enough of understanding, but learning imperfectly or amiss, so that you shall find a learned Spaniard almost anywhere sooner than in Spain. Half-informed, he thinks himself brimful of information, and always pretends to more knowledge than he has in fact. He is much given to vast projects never realized; and in conversation he delights in subtleties and sophistry. Teachers commonly prefer to speak Spanish rather than Latin in the schools and colleges of the country; but the people in general have little taste for letters, and produce few books themselves, mostly procuring those they want, from France …. The people have many barbarous notions and usages, derived by implication from their old Moorish conquerors and fellow-denizens …. The women have a custom, that would be held barbarous in France, of piercing their ears and hanging gold rings in them, often set with precious stones. They besmirch their faces, too, with minium and ecruse — red and white lead — and walk about on clogs a foot or a foot and a half high, so that they seem to walk above rather than on the earth. The people are extremely temperate, and the women never drink wine …. Spaniards are notably the most superstitious people in the world in their religious notions; but they are brave in the field, of signal endurance under privation and difficulty, and by their voyages of discovery have spread their name over the face of the globe.”

“England is wonderfully well-peopled, and the inhabitants are long-lived. Tall in stature, they are fair in complexion, and have blue eyes. They are brave in war, and admirable bowmen ….”

“The people of Scotland are hot-tempered, prone to revenge, and fierce in their anger; but valiant in war, and patient beyond belief of cold, hunger, and fatigue. They are handsome in person, and their clothing and language are the same as those of the Irish; their tunics being dyed yellow, their legs bare, and their feet protected by sandals of undressed hide. They live mainly on fish and flesh. They are not a particularly religious people ….”

“The Italians make use in their everyday talk of the most horrid oaths and imprecations. Holding all the rest of the world in contempt, and calling them barbarians, they themselves have nevertheless been alternately the prey of the French, the Spaniards, and the Germans ….”

“Germany is overgrown by vast forests, and defaced by frightful swamps. Its climate is as insufferably hot in summer as it is bitterly cold in winter …. Hungary is commonly said to produce oxen; Bavaria, swine; Franconia, onions, turnips, and licorice; Swabia, harlots; Bohemia, heretics; Switzerland, butchers; Westphalia, cheats; and the whole country gluttons and drunkards …. The Germans, however, are a religious people; not easily turned from opinions they have once espoused, and not readily persuaded to concord in matters of schism; every one valiantly and obstinately defending the heresy he has himself adopted.”

This unfavorable account of Germany, borrowed in part from Tacitus, was much modified and abridged in the second edition, in which it appears as “a pleasant country with a temperate climate.” Of the Swabians he speaks as a singularly gifted people. The fling at the ignorance and superstition of the Spaniards, his own countrymen, was also omitted.

The most interesting part of this geographical work on account of its theological bearing, is the description of Palestine. He declared in the first edition that “it is mere boasting and untruth when so much of excellence is ascribed to this land; the experience of merchants and travellers who have visited it, proving it to be inhospitable, barren, and altogether without amenity. Wherefore you may say that the land was promised indeed, but is of little promise when spoken of in everyday terms.” He omitted this passage in the second edition in deference to Archbishop Palmier. Nevertheless, it was made a ground of accusation at the trial of Servetus, for its apparent contradiction with the Mosaic account of the land, “flowing with milk and honey.”


143. Servetus as a Physician, Scientist, and Astrologer

Being supplied with the necessary funds, Servetus returned to Paris in 1536 and took his degrees as magister and doctor of medicine. He acquired great fame as a physician.

The medical world was then divided into two schools, — the Galenists, who followed Hippocrates and Galen, and the Averrhoists, who followed Averrhoes and Avicenna. Servetus was a pupil of Champier, and joined the Greek school, but had an open eye to the truth of the Arabians.

He published in 1537 a learned treatise on Syrups and their use in medicine. It is his most popular book, and passed through four editions in ten years.

He discovered the pulmonary circulation of the blood or the passage of the blood from the right to the left chamber of the heart through the lungs by the pulmonary artery and vein. He published it, not separately, but in his work on the Restitution of Christianity, as a part of his theological speculation on the vital spirits. The discovery was burnt and buried with this book; but nearly a hundred years later William Harvey (1578-1658), independently, made the same discovery.

Servetus lectured in the University on geography and astrology, and gained much applause, but excited also the envy and ill-will of his colleagues, whom he treated with overbearing pride and contempt.

He wrote an “Apologetic Dissertation on Astrology,” and severely attacked the physicians as ignoramuses, who in return denounced him as an impostor and wind-bag. The senate of the University sided with the physicians, and the Parliament of Paris forbade him to lecture on astrology and to prophesy from the stars (1538).

He left Paris for Charlieu, a small town near Lyons, and practised medicine for two or three years.

At his thirtieth year he thought that, after the example of Christ, he should be rebaptized, since his former baptism was of no value. He denied the analogy of circumcision. The Jews, he says, circumcised infants, but baptized only adults. This was the practice of John the Baptist; and Christ, who had been circumcised on the eighth day, was baptized when he entered the public ministry. The promise is given to believers only, and infants have no faith. Baptism is the beginning of regeneration, and the entrance into the kingdom of heaven. He wrote two letters to Calvin on the subject, and exhorted him to follow his example.

His arrogance made him so unpopular that he had to leave Charlieu.


144. Servetus at Vienne. His Annotations to the Bible

Villeneuve now repaired to Vienne in Dauphiné and settled down as a physician under the patronage of Pierre Palmier, one of his former bearers in Paris, and a patron of learning, who had been appointed archbishop of that see. He was provided with lodgings in the archiepiscopal palace, and made a comfortable living by his medical practice. He spent thirteen years at Vienne, from 1540 to 1553, which were probably the happiest of his fitful life. He conformed to the Catholic religion, and was on good terms with the higher clergy. Nobody suspected his heresy, or knew anything of his connection with the work on the “Errors of the Trinity.”

He devoted his leisure to his favorite literary and theological studies, and kept the publishers of Lyons busy. We have already mentioned the second edition of his “Ptolemy”, which he dedicated to Palmier with a complimentary preface.

A year afterwards (1542) he published a new and elegant edition of the Latin Bible of Santes Pagnini, a learned Dominican monk and pupil of Savonarola, but an enemy of the Reformed religion. He accompanied it with explanatory notes, aiming to give “the old historical but hitherto neglected sense of the Scriptures.” He anticipated modern exegesis in substituting the typical for the allegorical method and giving to the Old Testament prophecies an immediate bearing on their times, and a remote bearing on Christ. Thus he refers Psa_2:1-12, Psa_8:1-9, Psa_22:1-31, and Psa_110:1-7 to David, as the type of Christ. It is not likely that he learned this method from Calvin, and it is certain that Calvin did not learn it from him. But Servetus goes further than Calvin, and anticipates the rationalistic explanation of Deutero-Isaiah by referring “the servant of Jehovah” to Cyrus as the anointed of the Lord. Rome put his comments on the Index (1559). Calvin brought them up against him at the trial, and, without knowing that the text of the book was literally taken from another edition without acknowledgment, said that he dexterously filched five hundred livres from the publisher in payment for the vain trifles and impious follies with which he had encumbered almost every page of the book.


145. Correspondence of Servetus with Calvin and Poupin

While engaged in the preparation of his last work at Vienne, Servetus opened a correspondence with Calvin through Jean Frellon, a learned publisher at Lyons and a personal friend of both. He sent him a copy of his book as far as then finished, and told him that he would find in it “stupendous things never heard of before.” He also proposed to him three questions: 1) Is the man Jesus Christ the Son of God, and how? 2) Is the kingdom of God in man, when does man enter into it, and when is he born again? 3) Must Christian baptism presuppose faith, like the Lord’s Supper, and to what end are both sacraments instituted in the New Testament?

Calvin seems to have had no time to read the whole manuscript, but courteously answered the questions to the effect, 1) that Christ is the Son of God both according to his divine nature eternally begotten, and according to his human nature as the Wisdom of God made flesh; 2) that the kingdom of God begins in man when he is born again, but that the process of regeneration is not completed in a moment, but goes on till death; 3) that faith is necessary for baptism, but not in the same personal way as in the Lord’s Supper; for according to the type of circumcision the promise was given also to the children of the faithful. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are related to each other as circumcision and the passover. He referred to his books for details, but was ready to give further explanation if desired.

Servetus was by no means satisfied with the answer, and wrote back that Calvin made two or three Sons of God; that the Wisdom of God spoken of by Solomon was allegorical and impersonal; that regeneration took place in the moment of baptism by water and the spirit, but never in infant baptism. He denied that circumcision corresponded to baptism. He put five new theological questions to Calvin, and asked him to read the fourth chapter on baptism in the manuscript of the Restitutio which he had sent him.

To these objections Calvin sent another and more lengthy response. He again offered further explanation, though he had no time to write whole books for him, and had discussed all these topics in his Institutes.

So far there is nothing to indicate any disposition in Calvin to injure Servetus. On the contrary we must admire his patience and moderation in giving so much of his precious time to the questions of a troublesome stranger and pronounced opponent. Servetus continued to press Calvin with letters, and returned the copy of the Institutes with copious critical objections. “There is hardly a page,” says Calvin, “that is not defiled by his vomit.”

Calvin sent a final answer to the questions of Servetus, which is lost, together with a French letter to Frellon, which is preserved. This letter is dated Feb. 13, 1546, under his well-known pseudonym of Charles Despeville, and is as follows: — 

“Seigneur Jehan, As your last letter was brought to me on my departure, I had no leisure to reply to the enclosure it contained. After my return I use the first moment of my leisure to comply with your desire; not indeed that I have any great hope of proving serviceable to such a man, seeing him disposed as I do. But I will try once more, if there be any means left of bringing him to reason, and this will happen when God shall have so wrought in him that he has become altogether another man. Since he has written to me in so proud a spirit, I have been led to write to him more sharply than is my wont, being minded to take him down a little in his presumption. But I could not do otherwise. For I assure you there is no lesson he needs so much to learn as humility. This must come to him through the grace of God, not otherwise. But we, too, ought to lend a helping hand. If God give such grace to him and to us that the present answer will turn to his profit, I shall have cause to rejoice. If he persists, however, in the style he has hitherto seen fit to use, you will only lose your time in soliciting me further in his behalf; for I have other affairs that concern me more nearly, and I shall make it a matter of conscience not to busy myself further, not doubting that he is a Satan who would divert me from more profitable studies. Let me beg of you, therefore, to be content with what I have already done, unless you see occasion for acting differently.”

Frellon sent this letter to Villeneuve by a special messenger, together with a note in which be addresses him as his “dear brother and friend.”

On the same day Calvin wrote the famous letter to Farel already quoted. He had arrived at the settled conviction that Servetus was an incorrigible and dangerous heretic, who deserved to die. But he did nothing to induce him to come to Geneva, as he wished, and left him severely alone. In 1548 he wrote to Viret that he would have nothing more to do with this desperately obstinate heretic, who shall force no more letters from him.

Servetus continued to trouble Calvin, and published in his Restitutio no less than thirty letters to him, but without dates and without replies from Calvin. They are conceived in a haughty and self-sufficient spirit. He writes to the greatest divine of the age, not as a learner, or even an equal, but as a superior. In the first of these printed letters he charges Calvin with holding absurd, confused, and contradictory opinions on the sonship of Christ, on the Logos, and on the Trinity. In the second letter he tells him: “You make three Sons of God: the human nature is a son to you, the divine nature is a son, and the whole Christ is a son …. All such tritheistic notions are a three-headed illusion of the Dragon, which easily crept in among the sophists in the present reign of Antichrist. Or have you not read of the spirit of the dragon, the spirit of the beast, the spirit of the false prophets, three spirits? Those who acknowledge the trinity of the beast are possessed by three spirits of demons. These three spirits incite war against the immaculate Lamb, Jesus Christ (Rev_16:1-21). False are all the invisible gods of the Trinitarians, as false as the gods of the Babylonians. Farewell.” He begins the third letter with the oft-repeated warning (saepius te monui) not to admit that impossible monster of three things in God. In another letter he calls him a reprobate and blasphemer (improbus et blasphemus) for calumniating good works. He charges him with ignorance of the true nature of faith, justification, regeneration, baptism, and the kingdom of heaven.

These are fair specimens of the arrogant, irritating, and even insulting tone of his letters. At last Servetus himself broke off his correspondence with Calvin, who, it seems, had long ceased to answer them, but he now addressed his colleagues. He wrote three letters to Abel Poupin, who was minister at Geneva from 1543 to 1556, when he died. The last is preserved, and was used in evidence at the trial. It is not dated, but must have been written in 1548 or later. Servetus charges the Reformed Christians of Geneva that they had a gospel without a God, without true faith, without good works; and that instead of the true God they worshipped a three-headed Cerberus. “Your faith in Christ,” he continues, “is a mere pretence and without effect; your man is an inert trunk, and your God a fabulous monster of the enslaved will. You reject baptismal regeneration and shut the kingdom of heaven against men. Woe unto you, woe, woe!”

He concludes this remarkable letter with the prediction that he would die for this cause and become like unto his Master.


146. “The Restitution of Christianity.”

During his sojourn at Vienne, Servetus prepared his chief theological work under the title, “The Restitution of Christianity.” He must have finished the greater part of it in manuscript as early as 1546, seven years before its publication in print; for in that year, as we have seen, he sent a copy to Calvin, which he tried to get back to make some corrections, but Calvin had sent it to Viret at Lausanne, where it was detained. It was afterwards used at the trial and ordered by the Council of Geneva to be burnt at the stake, together with the printed volume.

The proud title indicates the pretentious and radical character of the book. It was chosen, probably, with reference to Calvin’s, Institution of the Christian Religion.” In opposition to the great Reformer he claimed to be a Restorer. The Hebrew motto on the title-page was taken from Dan_12:1: “And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince;” the Greek motto from Rev_12:7: “And there was war in heaven,” which is followed by the words, “Michael and his angels going forth to war with the dragon; and the dragon warred, and his angels; and they prevailed not, neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast down, the old serpent, he that is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world.”

The identity of the Christian name of the author with the name of the archangel is significant. Servetus fancied that the great battle with Antichrist was near at hand or had already begun, and that he was one of Michael’s warriors, if not Michael himself.

His “Restitution of Christianity” was a manifesto of war. The woman in the twelfth chapter of Revelation he understood to be the true Church; her child, whom God saves, is the Christian faith; the great red dragon with seven heads and horns is the pope of Rome, the Antichrist predicted by Daniel, Paul, and John. At the time of Constantine and the Council of Nicaea, which divided the one God into three parts, the dragon began to drive the true Church into the wilderness, and retained his power for twelve hundred and sixty prophetic days or years; but now his reign is approaching to a close.

He was fully conscious of a divine mission to overthrow the tyranny of the papal and Protestant Antichrist, and to restore Christianity to its primitive purity. “The task we have undertaken,” he says in the preface, “is sublime in majesty, easy in perspicuity, and certain in demonstration; for it is no less than to make God known in his substantial manifestation by the Word and his divine communication by the Spirit, both comprised in Christ alone, through whom alone do we plainly discern how the deity of the Word and the Spirit may be apprehended in man …. We shall now see God, unseen before, with his face revealed, and behold him shining in ourselves, if we open the door and enter in. It is high time to open this door and this way of the light, without which no one can read the sacred Scriptures, or know God, or become a Christian.” Then he gives a brief summary of topics, and closes the preface with this prayer: — 

“O Christ Jesus, Son of God, who hast been given to us from heaven, who in thyself makest the Deity visibly manifest, open thyself to thy servant that so great a manifestation may be truly understood. Grant unto me now, who entreats thee, thy good Spirit, and the efficacious word; direct my mind and my pen that I may declare the glory of thy divinity and give expression to the true faith concerning thee. The cause is thine, and it is by a certain divine impulse that I am led to treat of thy glory from the Father, and the glory of thy Spirit. I once began to treat of it, and now I am constrained to do so again; for the time is, in truth, completed, as I shall now show to all the pious, from the certainty of the thing itself and from the manifest signs of the times. Thou hast taught us that a lamp must not be hidden. Woe unto me if I do not preach the gospel. It concerns the common cause of all Christians, to which we are all bound.”

He forwarded the manuscript to a publisher in Basel, Marrinus, who declined it in a letter, dated April 9, 1552, because it could not be safely published in that city at that time. He then made an arrangement with Balthasar Arnoullet, bookseller and publisher at Vienne, and Guillaume Guéroult, his brother-in-law and manager of his printing establishment, who had run away from Geneva for bad conduct. He assured them that there were no errors in the book, and that, on the contrary, it was directed against the doctrines of Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and other heretics. He agreed to withhold his and their names and the name of the place of publication from the title-page. He assumed the whole of the expense of publication, and paid them in advance the sum of one hundred gold dollars. No one in France knew at that time that his real name was Servetus, and that he was the author of the work, “On the Errors of the Trinity.”

The “Restitution” was secretly printed in a small house, away from the known establishment, within three or four months, and finished on the third of January, 1553. He corrected the proofs himself, but there are several typographical errors in it. The whole impression of one thousand copies was made up into bales of one hundred copies each; five bales were sent as white paper to Pierre Martin, type-founder of Lyons, to be forwarded by sea to Genoa and Venice; another lot to Jacob Bestet, bookseller at Chatillon; and a third to Frankfort. Calvin obtained one or more copies, probably from his friend Frellon of Lyons.

The first part of the “Restitution” is a revised and enlarged edition of the seven books “On the Errors of the Trinity.” The seven books are condensed into five; and these are followed by two dialogues on the Trinity between Michael and Peter, which take the place of the sixth and seventh books of the older work. The other part of the “Restitution,” which covers nearly two-thirds of the volume (pp. 287-734), is new, and embraces three books on Faith and the Righteousness of the Kingdom of Christ (287-354), four books on Regeneration and the Reign of Antichrist (355-576), thirty letters to Calvin (577-664), Sixty Signs of Antichrist (664-670), and the Apology to Melanchthon on the Mystery of the Trinity and on Ancient Discipline (671-734). Calvin and Melanchthon are the two surviving Reformers whom he confronts as the representatives of orthodox Protestantism.