Vol 8. Chapter XVI (Cont’d) The Theological System of Servetus

Calvin, in his Refutatio Errorum Mich. Serveti, Opera, vol. VIII. 501-644, presents the doctrines of Servetus from his writings, in thirty-eight articles, the response of Servetus, the refutation of the response, and then a full examination of his whole system. — H. Tollin: Das Lehrsystem Michael Servet’s genetisch dargestellt. Guetersloh, 1878, 3 vols. 8°. The most complete exposition of the theological opinions of Servetus.

Calvin and Tollin represent two opposite extremes in the doctrinal and personal estimate of Servetus: Calvin is wholly polemical, and sees in the Restitutio a volume of ravings (“volumen deliriorum”) and a chaos of blasphemies (“prodigiosum blasphemiarum chaos”); Tollin is wholly apologetical and eulogistic, and admires it as an anticipation of reverent, Christocentric theology; neither of them is strictly historical.

Trechsel’s account (I. 119-144) is short, but impartial. — Baur, in his “History of the Doctrine of the Trinity and the Incarnation” (Tübingen, 1843, 3 vols.) devotes, with his usual critical grasp and speculative insight, fifty pages to Servet’s views on God and Christ (I. 54-103). Dorner, in his great “History of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ” (Berlin, 1853), discusses his Christology profoundly, but rather briefly (II. 649-656). Both recognize the force of his arguments against the dyophysitism of the Chalcedonian Christology, and compare his Christology with that of Apollinaris.

Before we proceed to the heresy trial, we must give a connected statement of the opinions of Servetus as expressed in his last and most elaborate work.

To his contemporaries the Restitutio appeared to be a confused compound of Sabellian, Samosatenic, Arian, Apollinarian, and Pelagian heresies, mixed with Anabaptist errors and Neo-platonic, pantheistic speculations. The best judges — Calvin, Saisset, Trechsel, Baur, Dorner, Harnack — find the root of his system in pantheism. Tollin denies his pantheism, although he admits the pantheistic coloring of some of his expressions; he distinguishes no less than five phases in his theology before it came to its full maturity, and characterizes it as an “intensive, extensive, and protensive Panchristism, or ‘Christocentricism.’”

Servetus was a mystic theosophist and Christopantheist. Far from being a sceptic or rationalist, he had very strong, positive convictions of the absolute truth of the Christian religion. He regarded the Bible as an infallible source of truth, and accepted the traditional canon without dispute. So far he agreed with evangelical Protestantism; but he differed from it, as well as from Romanism, in principle and aim. He claimed to stand above both parties as the restorer of primitive Christianity, which excludes the errors and combines the truths of the Catholic and Protestant creeds.

The evangelical Reformation, inspired by the teaching of St. Paul and Augustin, was primarily a practical movement, and proceeded from a deep sense of sin and grace in opposition to prevailing Pelagianism, and pointed the people directly to Christ as the sole and sufficient fountain of pardon and peace to the troubled conscience; but it retained all the articles of the Apostles’ Creed, and especially the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. It should be noticed, however, that Melanchthon, in the first edition of his Loci (1521), omitted these mysteries as objects of adoration rather than of speculation, and that Calvin, in the controversy with Caroli, spoke lightly of the Nicene and Athanasian terminology, which was derived from Greek philosophy rather than from the Bible.

Servetus, with the Bible as his guide, aimed at a more radical revolution than the Reformers. He started with a new doctrine of God and of Christ, and undermined the very foundations of the Catholic creed. The three most prominent negative features of his system are three denials: the denial of the orthodox dogma of the Trinity, as set forth in the Nicene Creed; the denial of the orthodox Christology, as determined by the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon; and the denial of infant baptism, as practised everywhere except by the Anabaptists. From these three sources he derived all the evils and corruptions of the Church. The first two denials were the basis of the theoretical revolution, the third was the basis of the practical revolution which he felt himself providentially called to effect by his anonymous book.

Those three negations in connection with what appeared to be shocking blasphemy, though not intended as such, made him an object of horror to all orthodox Christians of his age, Protestants as well as Roman Catholic, and led to his double condemnation, first at Vienne, and then at Geneva. So far he was perfectly understood by his contemporaries, especially by Calvin and Melanchthon. But the positive features, which he substituted for the Nicene and Chalcedonian orthodoxy, were not appreciated in their originality, and seemed to be simply a repetition of old and long-condemned heresies.

There were Antitrinitarians before Servetus, not only in the ante-Nicene age, but also in the sixteenth century, especially among the Anabaptists — such as Hetzer, Denck, Campanus, Melchior Hoffmann, Reed, Martini, David Joris. But he gathered their sporadic ideas into a coherent original system, and gave them a speculative foundation.


1. Christology

Servetus begins the “Restitution,” as well as his first book against the Trinity, with the doctrine of Christ. He rises from the humanity of the historical Jesus of Nazareth to his Messiahship and Divine Sonship, and from this to his divinity. This is, we may say, the view of the Synoptical Gospels, as distinct from the usual orthodox method which, with the Prologue of the fourth Gospel, descends from his divinity to his humanity through the act of the incarnation of the second person of the Trinity. In this respect he anticipates the modern humanitarian Christology. Jesus is, according to Servetus, begotten, not of the first person of God, but of the essence of the one undivided and indivisible God. He is born, according to the flesh, of the Virgin Mary by the overshadowing cloud of the Spirit (Mat_1:18, Mat_1:20, Mat_1:23; Luk_1:32, Luk_1:35). The whole aim of the gospel is to lead men to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God (comp. Joh_20:31). But the term “Son of God” is in the Scriptures always used of the man Jesus, and never of the Logos. He is the one true and natural son of God, born of the substance of God; we are sons by adoption, by an act of grace. We are made sons of God by faith (Joh_1:12; Gal_3:26; Rom_8:23; Eph_1:5). He is, moreover, truly and veritably God. The whole essence of God is manifest in him; God dwells in him bodily.

To his last breath Servetus worshipped Jesus as the Son of the eternal God. But he did not admit him to be the eternal Son of God except in an ideal and pantheistic sense, in which the whole world was in the mind of God from eternity, and comprehended in the Divine Wisdom (Sophia) and the Divine Word (Logos).

He opposed the Chalcedonian dualism and aimed (like Apollinaris) at an organic unity of Christ’s person, but made him a full human personality (while Apollinaris substituted the divine Logos for the human spirit, and thus made Christ only a half man). He charges the scholastic and orthodox divines, whom he calls sophists and opponents of the truth, with making two Sons of God — one invisible and eternal, another visible and temporal. They deny, he says, that Jesus is truly man by teaching that he has two distinct natures with a communication of attributes. Christ does not consist of, or in, two natures. He had no previous personal pre-existence as a second hypostasis: his personality dates from his conception and birth. But this man Jesus is, at the same time, consubstantial with God (ὁμοούσιος). As man and wife are one in the flesh of their son, so God and man are one in Christ. The flesh of Christ is heavenly and born of the very substance of God. By the deification of the flesh of Christ he materialized God, destroyed the real humanity of Christ, and lost himself in the maze of a pantheistic mysticism.


2. Theology

The fundamental doctrine of Servetus was the absolute unity, simplicity, and indivisibility of the Divine being, in opposition to the tripersonality or threefold hypostasis of orthodoxy. In this respect he makes common cause with the Jews and Mohammedans, and approvingly quotes the Koran. He violently assails Athanasius, Hilary, Augustin, John of Damascus, Peter the Lombard, and other champions of the dogma of the Trinity. But he claims the ante-Nicene Fathers, especially Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Irenaeus, and Tertullian, for his view. He calls all Trinitarians “tritheists” and “atheists.” They have not one absolute God, but a three-parted, collective, composite God — that is, an unthinkable, impossible God, which is no God at all. They worship three idols of the demons, — a three-headed monster, like the Cerberus of the Greek mythology. One of their gods is unbegotten, the second is begotten, the third proceeding. One died, the other two did not die. Why is not the Spirit begotten, and the Son proceeding? By distinguishing the Trinity in the abstract from the three persons separately considered, they have even four gods. The Talmud and the Koran, he thinks, are right in opposing such nonsense and blasphemy.

He examines in detail the various patristic and scholastic proof texts for the Trinity, as Gen_18:2; Exo_3:6; Psa_2:7; Psa_110:1; Isa_7:14; Joh_1:1; Joh_3:13; Joh_8:58; Joh_10:18; Joh_14:10; Col_1:15; Col_2:9; 1Pe_3:19; Heb_1:2.

Yet, after all, he taught himself a sort of trinity, but substitutes the terms “dispositions,” “dispensations,” “economies,” for hypostases and persons. In other words, he believed, like Sabellius, in a trinity of revelation or manifestation, but not in a trinity of essence or substance. He even avowed, during the trial at Geneva, a trinity of persons and the eternal personality of Christ; but he understood the term, person “in the original sense of a mask used by players on the stage, not in the orthodox sense of a distinct hypostasis or real personality that had its own proper life in the Divine essence from eternity, and was manifested in time in the man Jesus.

Servetus distinguished — with Plato, Philo, the Neo-Platonists, and several of the Greek Fathers — between an ideal, invisible, uncreated, eternal world and the real, visible, created, temporal world. In God, he says, are from eternity the ideas or forms of all things: these are called “Wisdom” or “Logos,” “the Word” (Joh_1:1). He identifies this ideal world with “the Book of God,” wherein are recorded all things that happen (Deu_32:32; Psa_139:16; Rev_5:1), and with the living creatures and four whirling wheels full of eyes, in the vision of Ezekiel (Eze_1:5; Eze_10:12). The eyes of God are living fountains in which are reflected all things, great and small, even the hairs of our head (Mat_10:30), but particularly the elect, whose names are recorded in a special book.

The Word or Wisdom of God, he says, was the seed out of which Christ was born, and the birth of Christ is the model of all births. The Word may be called also the soul of Christ, which comprehends the ideas of all things. In Christ was the life, and the life was the light of the world (Joh_1:4 sqq.). He goes here into speculations about the nature of light and of the heavenly bodies, and ventilates his Hebrew learning. He distinguishes three heavens — the two material heavens of water and air, spoken of by Moses in the account of creation, and a third, spiritual heaven of fire, the heaven of heavens, to which Paul was elevated (2Co_12:2), in which God and Christ dwell, and which gives splendor to the angels. Christ has revealed the true heaven to us, which was unknown to the Jews.

All things are one in God, in whom they consist. There is one fundamental ground or principle and head of all things, and this is Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the fifth book, Servetus discusses the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. He identifies him with the Word, from which he differs only in the form of existence. God is, figuratively speaking, the Father of the Spirit, as he is the Father of Wisdom and the Word. The Spirit is not a third metaphysical being, but the Spirit of God himself. To receive the Holy Spirit means to receive the anointing of God. The indwelling of the Spirit in us is the indwelling of God (1Co_3:16; 1Co_6:19; 2Co_6:16; Eph_2:22). He who lies to the Holy Spirit lies to God (Act_5:4). The Spirit is a modus, a form of divine existence. He is also called the Spirit of Christ and the Spirit of the Son (Gal_4:6; Rom_8:9; 1Pe_1:11). The human spirit is a spark of the Divine Spirit, an image of the Wisdom of God, created, yet similar. God breathes his Spirit into man in his birth, and again in regeneration.

In connection with this subject, Servetus goes into an investigation of the vital spirits in man, and gives a minute description of the lesser circulation of the blood, which, as we have seen, he first discovered. He studied theology as a physician and surgeon, and studied medicine as a theologian.

He discusses also the procession of the Spirit, which he regards not as a metaphysical and eternal process, but as a historical manifestation, identical with the mission. Herein he differs from both the Greek and the Latin theories, but unjustly charges the Greeks (who distinguish the procession from the Father alone, and the mission from the Father and the Son) with error in denying the Filioque. The Spirit, he says, proceeds from the Father and the Son, and he proceeds from the Father through the Son, who is the proper fountain of the Spirit. But he dates this procession from the day of Pentecost. In the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was unknown, which he proves from Joh_7:39 and Act_19:2 (but contrary to such passages as Psa_51:13; 1Sa_10:6; 1Sa_16:13; Isa_11:2; Isa_61:1; 1Pe_1:11). The spirit in the Old Testament was only a spirit of servitude and fear, not of adoption and love (Rom_8:15; Gal_4:6). Christ calls us friends and brethren (Joh_15:15; Joh_20:17). The Jews knew only a sanctification of the flesh and external things, not of the spirit. The anointing we receive from Christ is the anointing of the Spirit (2Co_1:21; 1Jo_2:20, 1Jo_2:27). The Holy Spirit becomes ours in regeneration. We are deified or made partakers of the divine nature by Christ.


3. Christopantheism

The premises and conclusions of the speculations of Servetus are pantheistic. He adopts the conception of God as the all-embracing substance. “All is one and one is all, because all things are one in God, and God is the substance of all things.” As the Word of God is essentially man, so the Spirit of God is essentially the spirit of man. By the power of the resurrection all the primitive elements of the body and spirit have been renewed, glorified, and immortalized, and all these are communicated to us by Christ in baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The Holy Spirit is the breath from the mouth of Christ (Joh_20:22). As God breathes into man the soul with the air, so Christ breathes into his disciples the Holy Spirit with the air …. The deity in the stone is stone, in gold it is gold, in the wood it is wood, according to the proper ideas of things. In a more excellent way the deity in man is man, in the spirit it is spirit.” “God dwells in the Spirit, and God is Spirit. God dwells in the fire, and God is fire; God dwells in the light, and God is light; God dwells in the mind, and he is the mind itself.” In one of his letters to Calvin he says: “Containing the essence of the universe in himself, God is everywhere, and in everything, and in such wise that he shows himself to us as fire, as a flower, as a stone.” God is always in the process of becoming. Evil as well as good is comprised in his essence. He quotes Isa_45:7: “I form the light, and create darkness; I make peace, and create evil; I am the Lord, that doeth all these things.” The evil differs from the good only in the direction.

When Calvin charged him with pantheism, Servetus restated his view in these words: “God is in all things by essence, presence, and power, and himself sustains all things.” Calvin admitted this, but denied the inference that the substantial Deity is in all creatures, and, as the latter confessed before the judges, even in the pavement on which they stand, and in the devils. In his last reply to Calvin he tells him: “With Simon Magus you shut up God in a corner; I say, that he is all in all things; all beings are sustained in God.”

He frequently refers with approval to Plato and the NeoPlatonists (Plotin, Jamblichus, Proclus, Porphyry).

But his views differ from the ordinary pantheism. He substitutes for a cosmopantheism a Christopantheism. Instead of saying, The world is the great God, he says, Christ is the great God. By Christ, however, he means only the ideal Christ; for he denied the eternity of the real Christ.


4. Anthropology and Soteriology

Servetus was called a Pelagian by Calvin. This is true only with some qualifications. He denied absolute predestination and the slavery of the human will, as taught first by all the Reformers. He admitted the fall of Adam in consequence of the temptation by the devil, and he admitted also hereditary sin (which Pelagius denied), but not hereditary guilt. Hereditary sin is only a disease for which the child is not responsible. (This was also the view of Zwingli.) There is no guilt without knowledge of good and evil. Actual transgression is not possible before the time of age and responsibility, that is, about the twentieth year. He infers this from such passages as Exo_30:14; Exo_38:26; Num_14:29; Num_32:11; Deu_1:39.

The serpent has entered human flesh and taken possession of it. There is a thorn in the flesh, a law of the members antagonistic to the law of God; but this does not condemn infants, nor is it taken away in baptism (as the Catholics hold), for it dwells even in saints, and the conflict between the spirit and the serpent goes on through life. But Christ offers his help to all, even to infants and their angels.

In the fallen state man has still a free-will, reason, and conscience, which connect him with the divine grace. Man is still the image of God. Hence the punishment of murder, which is an attack upon the divine majesty in man (Gen_9:6). Every man is enlightened by the Logos (Joh_1:17). We are of divine origin (Act_17:29). The doctrine of the slavery of the human will is a great fallacy (magna fallacia), and turns divine grace into a pure machine. It makes men idle, and neglect prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. God is free himself and gives freedom to every man, and his grace works freely in man. It is our impiety which turns the gift of freedom into slavery. The Reformers blaspheme God by their doctrine of total depravity and their depreciation of good works. All true philosophers and theologians teach that divinity is implanted in man, and that the soul is of the same essence with God.

As to predestination, there is, strictly speaking, no before nor after in God, as he is not subject to time. But he is just and merciful to all his creatures, especially to the little flock of the elect. He condemns no one who does not condemn himself.

Servetus rejected also the doctrine of forensic justification by faith alone, as injurious to sanctification. He held that man is justified by faith and good works, and appealed to the second chapter of James and the obedience of Abraham. On this point he sympathized more with the Roman theory. Justification is not a declaratory act of imputation, but an efficacious act by which man is changed and made righteous. Love is greater than faith and knowledge, because God is love. It embraces all good works which clothe, preserve, and strengthen faith and increase the reward of future glory. He who loves is better than he who believes.


5. The Sacraments

Servetus admitted only two sacraments, therein agreeing with the Protestants, but held original views on both.

(a) As to the sacrament of Baptism, he taught, with the Catholic Church, baptismal regeneration, but rejected, with the Anabaptists, infant baptism.

Baptism is a saving ordinance by which we receive the remission of sins, are made Christians, and enter the kingdom of heaven as priests and kings, through the power of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies the water. It is the death of the old man and the birth of the new man. By baptism we put on Christ and live a new life in him.

But baptism must be preceded by the preaching of the gospel, the illumination of the Spirit, and repentance, which, according to the preaching of John the Baptist and of Christ, is the necessary condition of entering the kingdom of God. Therefore, Servetus infers, no one is a fit subject for baptism before he has reached manhood. By the law of Moses priests were not anointed before the thirtieth year (Num_4:3). Joseph was thirty years old when he was raised from the prison to the throne (Gen_41:46). According to the rabbinical tradition Adam was born or created in his thirtieth year. Christ was baptized in the Jordan when he was thirty years (Luk_3:21-23), and that is the model of all true Christian baptism. He was circumcised in infancy, but the carnal circumcision is the type of the spiritual circumcision of the heart, not of water baptism. Circumcision was adapted to real infants who have not yet committed actual transgression; baptism is intended for spiritual infants — that is, for responsible persons who have a childlike spirit and begin a new life.

(b) Servetus rejected Infant Baptism as irreconcilable with these views, and as absurd. He called it a doctrine of the devil, an invention of popery, and a total subversion of Christianity. He saw in it the second root of all the corruptions of the Church, as the dogma of the Trinity was the first root.

By his passionate opposition to infant baptism he gave as much offence to Catholics and Protestants as by his opposition to the dogma of the Trinity. But while on this point he went further than the most fanatical Anabaptists, he did not belong to their society, and rejected the revolutionary opinions concerning obedience to government, and holding civil and military offices.

Children are unfit to perform the office of priests which is given to us in baptism. They have no faith, they cannot repent, and cannot enter into a covenant. Moreover, they do not need the bath of regeneration for the remission of sins, as they have not yet committed actual transgression.

But children are not lost if they die without baptism. Adam’s sin is remitted to all by the merits of Christ. They are excluded from the Church on earth; they must die and go to Sheol; but Christ will raise them up on the resurrection day and save them in heaven. The Scripture does not condemn the Ismaelites or the Ninevites or other barbarians. Christ gives his blessing to unbaptized children. How could the most merciful Lord, who bore the sins of a guilty world, condemn those who have not committed an impiety?

Servetus agreed with Zwingli, the Anabaptists, and the Second Scotch Confession, in rejecting the cruel Roman dogma, which excludes all unbaptized infants, even of Christian parents, from the kingdom of heaven.

(c) In the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, Servetus differs from the Roman Catholic, the Lutheran, and the Zwinglian theories, and approaches, strange to say, the doctrine of his great antagonist, Calvin. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper represent the birth and the nourishment of the new man. By the former we receive the spirit of Christ; by the latter we receive the body of Christ, but in a spiritual and mystical manner. Baptism kindles and strengthens faith; the eucharist strengthens love and unites us more and more to Christ. By neglecting this ordinance the spiritual man famishes and dies away. The heavenly man needs heavenly food, which nourishes him to life eternal (Joh_6:53).

Servetus distinguishes three false theories on the Lord’s Supper, and calls their advocates transubstantiatores (Romanists), impanatores (Lutherans), and tropistae (Zwinglians).

Against the first two theories, which agree in teaching a carnal presence and manducation of Christ’s body and blood by all communicants, he urges that spiritual food cannot be received by the mouth and stomach, but only by the spiritual organs of faith and love. He refers, like Zwingli, to the passage in Joh_6:63, as the key for understanding the words of institution and the mysterious discourse on eating the flesh and drinking the blood of Christ.

He is most severe against the papal doctrine of transubstantiation or transelementation; because it turns bread into no-bread, and would make us believe that the body of Christ is eaten even by wild beasts, dogs, and mice. He calls this dogma a Satanic monstrosity and an invention of demons.

To the Tropists he concedes that bread and wine are symbols, but he objects to the idea of the absence of Christ in heaven. They are symbols of a really present, not of an absent Christ. He is the living head and vitally connected with all his members. A head cut off from the body would be a monster. To deny the real presence of Christ is to destroy his reign. He came to us to abide with us forever. He withdrew only his visible presence till the day of judgment, but promised to be with us invisibly, but none the less really, to the end of the world.


6. The Kingdom of Christ, and the Reign of Antichrist

We have already noticed the apocalyptic fancies of Servetus. He could not find the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, so often spoken of in the Gospels (while Christ speaks only twice of the “Church”), in any visible church organization of his day. The true Church flourished in the first three centuries, but then fled into the wilderness, pursued by the dragon; there she has a place prepared by God, and will remain “a thousand two hundred and threescore prophetic days” or years (Rev_12:6) — that is, from 325 till 1585.

The reign of Antichrist, with its corruptions and abominations, began with three contemporaneous events: the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), which split the one Godhead into three idols; the union of Church and State under Constantine, when the king became a monk; and the establishment of the papacy under Sylvester, when the bishop became a king. From the same period he dates the general practice of infant baptism with its destructive consequences. Since that time the true Christians were everywhere persecuted and not allowed to assemble. They were scattered as sheep in the wilderness.

Servetus fully agreed with the Reformers in opposition to the papacy as an antichristian power, but went much further, and had no better opinion of the Protestant churches. He called the Roman Church “the most beastly of beasts and the most impudent of harlots.”

He finds no less than sixty signs or marks of the reign of Antichrist in the eschatological discourses of Christ, in Dan_7:1-28 and Dan_12:1-13), in Paul (2Th_2:3, 2Th_2:4; 1Ti_4:1), and especially in the Apocalypse (Rev. 13-18).

But this reign is now drawing to a close. The battle of Michael with Antichrist has already begun in heaven and on earth, and the author of the “Restitution” has sounded the trumpet of war, which will end in the victory of Christ and the true Church. Servetus might have lived to see the millennium (in 1585), but he expected to fall in the battle, and to share in the first resurrection.

He concludes his eschatological chapter on the reign of Antichrist with these words: “Whosoever truly believes that the pope is Antichrist, will also truly believe that the papistical trinity, paedobaptism, and the other sacraments of popery are doctrines of the daemons. O Christ Jesus, thou Son of God, most merciful deliverer, who so often didst deliver thy people from distresses, deliver us poor sinners from this Babylonian captivity of Antichrist, from his hypocrisy, his tyranny, and his idolatry. Amen.”


7. Eschatology

Servetus was charged by Calvin and the Council of Geneva with denying the immortality of the soul. This was a heresy punishable by death. Etienne Dolet was executed on the place Maubert at Paris, Aug. 2, 1546, for this denial. But Servetus denied the charge. He taught that the soul was mortal, that it deserved to die on account of sin, but that Christ communicates to it new life by grace. Christ has brought immortality to light (2Ti_1:10; 1Pe_1:21-25). This seems to be the doctrine of conditional immortality of believers. But he held that all the souls of the departed go to the gloomy abode of Sheol to undergo a certain purification before judgment. This is the baptism of blood and fire, as distinct from the baptism of water and spirit (1Co_3:11-15). The good and the bad are separated in death. Those who die without being regenerated by Christ have no hope. The righteous progress in sanctification. They pray for us (for which he gives six reasons, and quotes Zach. Dan_1:12, Dan_1:13; Luk_15:10; Luk_16:27, Luk_16:28; 1Co_13:1-13:18); but we ought not to pray for them, for they do not need our prayers, and there is no Scripture precept on the subject.

The reign of the pope or Antichrist will be followed by the millennial reign of Christ on earth (Rev_20:4-7). Then will take place the first resurrection.

Servetus was a chiliast, but not in the carnal Jewish sense. He blames Melanchthon for deriding, with the papal crowd, all those as chiliasts who believe in the glorious reign of Christ on earth, according to the book of Revelation and the teaching of the school of St. John.

The general resurrection and judgment follow after the millennium. Men will be raised in the flower of manhood, the thirtieth year — the year of baptismal regeneration, the year in which Christ was baptized and entered upon his public ministry. “Then wilt thou,” so he addresses Philip Melanchthon, who, next to Calvin, was his greatest enemy, “with all thy senses, see, feel, taste, and hear God himself. If thou dost not believe this, thou dost not believe in a resurrection of the flesh and a bodily transformation of thy organs.”

After the general judgment, Christ will surrender his mediatorial reign with its glories to the Father, and God will be all in all (Act_3:21; 1Co_15:24-28).


148. The Trial and Condemnation of Servetus at Vienne

See D’artigny in Nouveaux Memoires d’histoire, etc.; Mosheim’s Neue Nachrichten, etc.; and Calvin’s Opera, VIII. 833-856.

Shortly after the publication of the “Restitution,” the fact was made known to the Roman Catholic authorities at Lyons through Guillaume Trie, a native of Lyons and a convert from Romanism, residing at that time in Geneva. He corresponded with a cousin at Lyons, by the name of Arneys, a zealous Romanist, who tried to reconvert him to his religion, and reproached the Church of Geneva with the want of discipline. On the 26th of February, 1553, he wrote to Arneys that in Geneva vice and blasphemy were punished, while in France a dangerous heretic was tolerated, who deserved to be burned by Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, who blasphemed the holy Trinity, called Jesus Christ an idol, and the baptism of infants a diabolic invention. He gave his name as Michael Servetus, who called himself at present Villeneuve, a practising physician at Vienne. In confirmation he sent the first leaf of the “Restitution,” and named the printer Balthasar Arnoullet at Vienne.

This letter, and two others of Trie which followed, look very much as if they had been dictated or inspired by Calvin. Servetus held him responsible. But Calvin denied the imputation as a calumny. At the same time he speaks rather lightly of it, and thinks that it would not have been dishonorable to denounce so dangerous a heretic to the proper authorities. He also frankly acknowledges that he caused his arrest at Geneva. He could see no material difference in principle between doing the same thing, indirectly, at Vienne and, directly, at Geneva. He simply denies that he was the originator of the papal trial and of the letter of Trie; but he does not deny that he furnished material for evidence, which was quite well known and publicly made use of in the trial where Servetus’s letters to Calvin are mentioned as pieces justificatives. There can be no doubt that Trie, who describes himself as a comparatively unlettered man, got his information about Servetus and his book from Calvin, or his colleagues, either directly from conversation, or from pulpit denunciations. We must acquit Calvin of direct agency, but we cannot free him of indirect agency in this denunciation.

Calvin’s indirect agency, in the first, and his direct agency in the second arrest of Servetus admit of no proper justification, and are due to an excess of zeal for orthodoxy.

Arneys conveyed this information to the Roman Catholic authorities. The matter was brought to the knowledge of Cardinal Tournon, at that time archbishop of Lyons, a cruel persecutor of the Protestants, and Matthias Ory, a regularly trained inquisitor of the Roman see for the kingdom of France. They at once instituted judicial proceedings.

Villeneuve was summoned before the civil court of Vienne on the 16th of March. He kept the judges waiting for two hours (during which he probably destroyed all suspicious papers), and appeared without any show of embarrassment. He affirmed that he had lived long at Vienne, in frequent company with ecclesiastics, without incurring any suspicion for heresy, and had always avoided all cause of offence. His apartments were searched, but nothing was found to incriminate him. On the following day the printing establishment of Arnoullet was searched with no better result. On the return of Arnoullet from a journey he was summoned before the tribunal, but he professed ignorance.

Inquisitor Ory now requested Arneys to secure additional proof from his cousin at Geneva. Trie forwarded on the 26th of March several autograph letters of Servetus which, he said, he had great difficulty in obtaining from Calvin (who ought to have absolutely refused). He added some pages from Calvin’s Institutes with the marginal objections of Servetus to infant baptism in his handwriting. Ory, not yet satisfied, despatched a special messenger to Geneva to secure the manuscript of the Restitutio, and proof that Villeneuve was Servetus and Arnoullet his printer. Trie answered at once, on the last of March, that the manuscript of the Restitutio had been at Lausanne for a couple of years (with Viret), that Servetus had been banished from the churches of Germany (Basel and Strassburg) twenty-four years ago, and that Arnoullet and Guéroult were his printers, as he knew from a good source which he would not mention (perhaps Frellon of Lyons).

The cardinal of Lyons and the archbishop of Vienne, after consultation with Inquisitor Ory and other ecclesiastics, now gave orders on the 4th of April for the arrest of Villeneuve and Arnoullet. They were confined in separate rooms in the Palais Delphinal. Villeneuve was allowed to keep a servant, and to see his friends. Ory was sent forth, hastened to Vienne, and arrived there the next morning.

After dinner Villeneuve, having been sworn on the Holy Gospels, was interrogated as to his name, age, and course of life. In his answers he told some palpable falsehoods to mislead the judges, and to prevent his being identified with Servetus, the heretic. He omitted to mention his residence in Toulouse, where he had been known under his real name, as the books of the University would show. He denied that he had written any other books than those on medicine and geography, although he had corrected many. On being shown some notes he had written on Calvin’s Institutes about infant baptism, he acknowledged at last the authorship of the notes, but added that he must have written them inconsiderately for the purpose of discussion, and he submitted himself entirely to his holy Mother, the Church, from whose teachings he had never wished to differ.

At the second examination, on the sixth day of April, he was shown some of his epistles to Calvin. He declared, with tears in his eyes, that those letters were written when he was in Germany some twenty-five years ago, when there was printed in that country a book by a certain Servetus, a Spaniard, but from what part of Spain he did not know! At Paris he had heard Mons. Calvin spoken of as a learned man, and had entered into correspondence with him from curiosity, but begged him to keep his letters as confidential and as brotherly corrections. Calvin suspected, he continued, that I was Servetus, to which I replied, I was not Servetus, but would continue to personate Servetus in order to continue the discussion. Finally we fell out, got angry, abused each other, and broke off the correspondence about ten years ago. He protested before God and his judges that he had no intention to dogmatize or to teach anything against the Church or the Christian religion. He told similar lies when other letters were laid before him.

Servetus now resolved to escape, perhaps with the aid of some friends, after he had secured through his servant a debt of three hundred crowns from the Grand Prior of the monastery of St. Pierre. On the 7th of April, at four o’clock in the morning, he dressed himself, threw a night-gown over his clothes, and put a velvet cap upon his head, and, pretending a call of nature, he secured from the unsuspecting jailer the key to the garden. He leaped from the roof of the outhouse and made his escape through the court and over the bridge across the Rhone. He carried with him his golden chain around his neck, valued at twenty crowns, six gold rings on his fingers, and plenty of money in his pockets.

Two hours elapsed before his escape became known. An alarm was given, the gates were closed, and the neighboring houses searched; but all in vain.

Nevertheless the prosecution went on. Sufficient evidence was found that the “Restitution” had been printed in Vienne; extracts were made from it to prove the heresies contained therein. The civil court, without waiting for the judgment of the spiritual tribunal (which was not given until six months afterwards), sentenced Servetus on the 17th of June, for heretical doctrines, for violation of the royal ordinances, and for escape from the royal prison, to pay a fine of one thousand livres tournois to the Dauphin, to be carried in a cart, together with his books, on a market-day through the principal streets to the place of execution, and to be burnt alive by a slow fire.

On the same day he was burnt in effigy, together with the five bales of his book, which had been consigned to Merrin at Lyons and brought back to Vienne.

The goods and chattels of the fugitive were seized and confiscated. The property he had acquired from his medical practice and literary labors amounted to four thousand crowns. The king bestowed them on the son of Monsieur de Montgiron, lieutenant-general of Dauphiné and presiding judge of the court.

Arnoullet was discharged on proving that he had been deceived by Guéroult, who seems to have escaped by flight. He took care that the remaining copies of the heretical book in France should be destroyed. Stephens, the famous publisher, who had come to Geneva in 1552, sacrificed the copies in his hands. Those that had been sent to Frankfort were burnt at the instance of Calvin.

On the 23d of December, two months after the execution of Servetus, the ecclesiastical tribunal of Vienne pronounced a sentence of condemnation on him.


149. Servetus Flees to Geneva and Is Arrested

Rilliet: Relation du procès, etc., quoted above, § 136. (Tweedie’s translation in his Calvin and Servetus, pp. 62 sqq.) Opera, VIII. 725-856.

Escaped from one danger of death, Servetus, as by “a fatal madness,” as Calvin says, rushed into another. Did he aspire to the glory of martyrdom in Geneva, as he seemed to intimate in his letter to Poupin? But he had just escaped martyrdom in France. Or did he wish to have a personal interview with Calvin, which he had sought in Paris in 1534, and again in Vienne in 1546? But after publishing his abusive letters and suspecting him for denunciation, he could hardly entertain such a wish. Or did he merely intend to pass through the place on his way to Italy? But in this case he need not tarry there for weeks, and he might have taken another route through Savoy, or by the sea. Or did he hope to dethrone, the pope of Geneva with the aid of his enemies, who had just then the political control of the Republic?

He lingered in France for about three months. He intended, first, as he declared at the trial, to proceed to Spain, but finding the journey unsafe, he turned his eye to Naples, where he hoped to make a living as physician among the numerous Spanish residents. This he could easily have done under a new name.

He took his way through Geneva. He arrived there after the middle of July, 1553, alone and on foot, having left his horse on the French border. He took up his lodging in the Auberge de la Rose, a small inn on the banks of the lake. His dress and manner, his gold chain and gold rings, excited attention. On being asked by his host whether he was married, he answered, like a light-hearted cavalier, that women enough could be found without marrying. This frivolous reply provoked suspicion of immorality, and was made use of at the trial, but unjustly, for a fracture disabled him for marriage and prevented libertinage.

He remained about a month, and then intended to leave for Zürich. He asked his host to hire a boat to convey him over the lake some distance eastward.

But before his departure he attended church, on Sunday, the 13th of August. He was recognized and arrested by an officer of the police in the name of the Council.

Calvin was responsible for this arrest, as he frankly and repeatedly acknowledged. It was a fatal mistake. Servetus was a stranger and had committed no offence in Geneva. Calvin ought to have allowed him quietly to proceed on his intended journey. Why then did he act otherwise? Certainly not from personal malice, nor other selfish reasons; for he only increased the difficulty of his critical situation, and ran the risk of his defeat by the Libertine party then in power. It was an error of judgment. He was under the false impression that Servetus had just come from Venice, the headquarters of Italian humanists and sceptics, to propagate his errors in Geneva, and he considered it his duty to make so dangerous a man harmless, by bringing him either to conviction and recantation, or to deserved punishment. He was determined to stand or fall with the principle of purity of doctrine and discipline. Rilliet justifies the arrest as a necessary measure of self-defence. “Under pain of abdication,” he says, “Calvin must do everything rather than suffer by his side in Geneva a man whom he considered the greatest enemy of the Reformation; and the critical position in which he saw it in the bosom of the Republic, was one motive more to remove, if it was possible, the new element of dissolution which the free sojourn of Servetus would have created …. To tolerate Servetus with impunity at Geneva would have been for Calvin to exile himself … He had no alternative. The man whom a Calvinist accusation had caused to be arrested, tried, and condemned to the flames in France, could not find an asylum in the city from which that accusation had issued.”


150. State of Political Parties at Geneva in 1553

Calvin’s position in Geneva at that time was very critical. For in the year 1553 he was in the fever-heat of the struggle for church discipline with the Patriots and Libertines, who had gained a temporary ascendency in the government. Amy Perrin, the leader of the patriotic party, was then captain-general and chief syndic, and several of his kinsmen and friends were members of the Little Council of Twenty-five. During the trial of Servetus the Council sustained Philibert Berthelier against the act of excommunication by the Consistory, and took church discipline into its own hands. The foreign refugees were made harmless by being deprived of their arms. Violence was threatened to the Reformer. He was everywhere saluted as “a heretic,” and insulted on the streets. Beza says: “In the year 1553, the wickedness of the seditions, hastening to a close, was so turbulent that both Church and State were brought into extreme danger …. Everything seemed to be in a state of preparation for accomplishing the plans of the seditious, since all was subject to their power.” And Calvin, at the close of that year, wrote to a friend: “For four years the factions have done all to lead by degrees to the overthrow of this Church, already very weak. Behold two years of our life have passed as if we lived among the avowed enemies of the gospel.”

The hostility of the Council to Calvin and his discipline continued even after the execution of Servetus for nearly two more years. He asked the assistance of Bullinger and the Church of Zürich to come to his aid again in this struggle. He wrote to Ambrose Blaurer, Feb. 6, 1554: “These last few years evil disposed persons have not ceased on every occasion to create for us new subjects of vexation. At length in their endeavors to render null our excommunication, there is no excess of folly they have left unattempted. Everywhere the contest was long maintained with much violence, because in the senate and among the people the passions of the contending parties had been so much inflamed that there was some risk of a tumult.”

We do not know whether Servetus was aware of this state of things. But he could not have come at a time more favorable to him and more unfavorable to Calvin. Among the Libertines and Patriots, who hated the yoke of Calvin even more than the yoke of the pope, Servetus found natural supporters who, in turn, would gladly use him for political purposes. This fact emboldened him to take such a defiant attitude in the trial and to overwhelm Calvin with abuse.

The final responsibility of the condemnation, therefore, rests with the Council of Geneva, which would probably have acted otherwise, if it had not been strongly influenced by the judgment of the Swiss Churches and the government of Bern. Calvin conducted the theological part of the examination of the trial, but had no direct influence upon the result. His theory was that the Church may convict and denounce the heretic theologically, but that his condemnation and punishment is the exclusive function of the State, and that it is one of its most sacred duties to punish attacks made on the Divine majesty.

“From the time Servetus was convicted of his heresy,” says Calvin, “I have not uttered a word about his punishment, as all honest men will bear witness; and I challenge even the malignant to deny it if they can.” One thing only he did: he expressed the wish for a mitigation of his punishment. And this humane sentiment is almost the only good thing that can be recorded to his honor in this painful trial.


151. The First Act of the Trial at Geneva

Servetus was confined near the Church of St. Pierre, in the ancient residence of the bishops of Geneva, which had been turned into a prison. His personal property consisted of ninety-seven crowns, a chain of gold weighing about twenty crowns, and six gold rings (a large turquoise, a white sapphire, a diamond, a ruby, a large emerald of Peru, and a signet ring of coralline). These valuables were surrendered to Pierre Tissot, and after the process given to the hospital. The prisoner was allowed to have paper and ink, and such books as could be procured at Geneva or Lyons at his own expense. Calvin lent him Ignatius, Polycarp, Tertullian, and Irenaeus. But he was denied the benefit of counsel, according to the ordinances of 1543. This is contrary to the law of equity and is one of the worst features of the trial. He was not subjected to the usual torture.

The laws of Geneva demanded that the accuser should become a prisoner with the accused, in order that in the event of the charge proving false, the former might undergo punishment in the place of the accused. The person employed for this purpose was Nicolas de la Fontaine, a Frenchman, a theological student, and Calvin’s private secretary. The accused as well as the accuser were foreigners. Another law obliged the Little Council to examine every prisoner within twenty-four hours after his arrest. The advocate or “Speaker” of Nicolas de la Fontaine in the trial was Germain Colladon, likewise a Frenchman and an able lawyer, who had fled for his religion, and aided Calvin in framing a new constitution for Geneva.

The trial began on the 15th of August and continued, with interruptions, for more than two months. It was conducted in French and took place in the Bishop’s Palace, according to the forms prescribed by law, in the presence of the Little Council, the herald of the city, the Lord-Lieutenant, and several citizens, who had a right to sit in criminal processes, but did not take part in the judgment. Among these was Berthelier, the bitter enemy of Calvin.

Servetus answered the preliminary questions as to his name, age, and previous history more truthfully than he had done before the Catholic tribunal, and incidentally accused Calvin of having caused the prosecution at Vienne. It is not owing to Calvin, he said, that he was not burnt alive there.

The deed of accusation, as lodged by Nicholas de la Fontaine, consisted of thirty-eight articles which were drawn up by Calvin (as he himself informs us), and were fortified by references to the books of Servetus, which were produced in evidence, especially the “Restitution of Christianity,” both the manuscript copy, which Servetus had sent to Calvin in advance, and a printed copy.

The principal charges were, that he had published heretical opinions and blasphemies concerning the Trinity, the person of Christ, and infant baptism. He gave evasive or orthodox-sounding answers. He confessed to believe in the trinity of persons, but understood the word “person” in a different sense from that used by modern writers, and appealed to the first teachers of the Church and the disciples of the apostles. He denied at first that he had called the Trinity three devils and Cerberus; but he had done so repeatedly and confessed it afterwards. He professed to believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God according to his divinity and humanity; that the flesh of Christ came from heaven and of the substance of God; but as to the matter it came from the Virgin Mary. He denied the view imputed to him that the soul was mortal. He admitted that he had called infant baptism “a diabolical invention and infernal falsehood destructive of Christianity.” This was a dangerous admission; for the Anabaptists were suspected of seditious and revolutionary opinions.

He was also charged with having, “in the person of M. Calvin, defamed the doctrines of the gospel and of the Church of Geneva.” To this he replied that in what he had formerly written against Calvin, in his own defence, he had not intended to injure him, but to show him his errors and faults, which he was ready to prove by Scripture and good reasons before a full congregation.

This was a bold challenge. Calvin was willing to accept it, but the Council declined, fearing to lose the control of the affair by submitting it to the tribunal of public opinion. The friends of Servetus would have run the risk of seeing him defeated in public debate. That charge, however, which seemed to betray personal ill-feeling of Calvin, was afterwards very properly omitted.

On the following day, the 16th of August, Berthelier, then smarting under the sentence of excommunication by the Consistory, openly came to the defence of Servetus, and had a stormy encounter with Colladon, which is omitted in the official record, but indicated by blanks and the abrupt termination: “Here they proceeded no further, but adjourned till to-morrow at mid-day.”

On Thursday, the 17th of August, Calvin himself appeared before the Council as the real accuser, and again on the 21st of August. He also conferred with his antagonist in writing. Servetus was not a match for Calvin either in learning or argument; but he showed great skill and some force.

He contemptuously repelled the frivolous charge that, in his Ptolemy, he had contradicted the authority of Moses, by describing Palestine as an unfruitful country (which it was then, and is now). He wiped his mouth and said, “Let us go on; there is nothing wrong there.”

The charge of having, in his notes on the Latin Bible, explained the servant of God in the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, as meaning King Cyrus, instead of the Saviour, he disposed of by distinguishing two senses of prophecy — the literal and historical sense which referred to Cyrus, and the mystical and principal sense which referred to Christ. He quoted Nicolaus de Lyra; but Calvin showed him the error, and asserts that he audaciously quoted books which he had never examined.

As to his calling the Trinity “a Cerberus” and “a dream of Augustin,” and the Trinitarians “atheists,” he said that he did not mean the true Trinity, which he believed himself, but the false trinity of his opponents; and that the oldest teachers before the Council of Nicaea did not teach that trinity, and did not use the word. Among them he quoted Ignatius, Polycarp, Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Clement of Alexandria. Calvin refuted his assertion by quotations from Justin Martyr, Tertullian, and Origen. On this occasion he charges him, unjustly, with total ignorance of Greek, because he was embarrassed by a Greek quotation from Justin Martyr, and called for a Latin version.

In discussing the relation of the divine substance to that of the creatures, Servetus declared that “all creatures are of the substance of God, and that God is in all things.” Calvin asked him: “How, unhappy man, if any one strike the pavement with his foot and say that he tramples on thy God, wouldst thou not be horrified at having the Majesty of heaven subjected to such indignity?” To this Servet replied: “I have no doubt that this bench, and this buffet, and all you can show me, are of the substance of God.” When it was objected that in his view God must be substantially even in the devil, he burst out into a laugh, and rejoined: “Can you doubt this? I hold this for a general maxim, that all things are part and parcel of God, and that the nature of things is his substantial Spirit.”

The result of this first act of the trial was unfavorable to the prisoner, but not decisive.

Calvin used the freedom of the pulpit to counteract the efforts of the Libertine party in favor of Servetus.