Michael Servetus: Spanish theologian, medical pioneer, heretic and martyr

by Jean Morrison

given as a talk to Lakehead Unitarian Fellowship, Canada, 18 February 2007

I first heard of Michael Servetus at a Unitarian orientation session in Ottawa back around 1960. We learned that Servetus was a Spanish theologian whom Calvin had burned at the stake for denying the Trinity. The fact the Unitarians had a martyr affirmed my new-found religion's deep roots in humankin's long struggle for religious freedom.

The Protestant Reformation was big in Ontario high school history. We learned about transubstantiation, a Roman Catholic dogma which seemed highly irrational to our literal Protestant minds, and about the Church's enormous ill-gotten wealth gained from the sale of indulgences in return for pardon of sins and release from purgatory. The Reformation was also big at university where we debated endlessly about justification by faith, predestination, good works and free will.

I found the early heretics inspiring: John Wycliffe, translator of the Bible into English and his followers, the Lollards, many of whom, like the Czech John Hus, burned at the stake for reading the Bible and wanting that right for all.

Next on the path of progress was the revolutionary Gutenberg printing press. Now the Bible and the classics became accessible to those who could read and afford them. Then came Martin Luther who, by nailing his 95 Theses opposing indulgences on the church door in Wittenberg, launched the Protestant Reformation. From the Reformation arose the two major Protestant denominations, Lutheran and Calvinist, each as dogmatic as the Roman Catholicism from which they had broken away.

My formal education also touched lightly on Catholic humanism espoused by Erasmus and others, something to do with reason and free will. This was all exciting stuff to a born rebel like myself but I don't recall ever hearing the name Servetus in any of my history or religious education classes.

Even though, or perhaps because, I studied religious knowledge at Trinity College (University of Toronto), I began to question the Trinity as articulated in the Nicene Creed. When I later heard about Servetus at the Ottawa Unitarians, his idea that God was One God and not Three Gods in One made sense.

Much later I read in the UU World about organized Unitarianism's birth during the 1560s in Transylvania and Hungary, of all places. I was so intrigued that, despite my limited knowledge, I spoke about it at our Fellowship back in 1989. My talk mentioned Servetus, his link to Italian humanist scholars, then to Poland and the only Unitarian King in history. This was Sigismund of Transylvania who proclaimed the first Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience in 1568. My talk noted how none of this could have happened had not Transylvania been under Turkish domination.

In 1990, Ken and I joined the International Association for Religious Freedom tour to Hungarian Unitarian congregations in Transylvania and Hungary. We saw many old churches emblazoned with the motto Egy Az Isten, God is One. and learned more about Francis David, the movement's founder, who died for his beliefs.

Last fall when my daughter and I decided to visit Barcelona, I thought of our Spanish martyr, Servetus, and looked him up on Google. To my surprise, up popped the Servetus International Society (SIS) and a notice of a Servetus Congress in Barcelona planned for October, exactly when we would be there. We immediately registered. Before leaving I decided to find out more. Amongst the plethora of related sites was a wonderful resource, the Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography with an item on Servetus.

Good grief! What's this in the very first paragraph?

Sharply critical though he was of the orthodox formulation of the trinity, Servetus is better described as a highly unorthodox trinitarian.
When the Calvinist Council in Geneva found Servetus guilty of heresy and ordered him to be burned alive, Calvin asked for a more humane form of execution—beheading—rather than by fire.
What! Despite what many books say, Calvin didn’t give the order for Servetus to be burned at the stake? It even turns out that Calvin came into severe criticism for wanting Servetus’ death to be less cruel than by fire.

Perishing in the flames, he is said to have cried out, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!”  A witness of the execution, observed that Servetus, defiant to the last, might have been saved had he but called upon “Jesus, the Eternal Son.”
Servetus was turning out to be a much more traditional Christian than I had thought. But, after much soul-searching, I decided to go to the conference anyway. We had already registered. I was a Unitarian; I should be willing to have my pre-conceived ideas challenged. I might even learn something new.

At first, though, I wondered why I was there. We seemed to be the only Unitarians registered. Most of the delegates were scholarly and multi-lingual; some were evangelical Christians. Speakers came from such diverse groups as the Theological Evangelical Faculty in Mexico, the Church of Sweden, the Cathedral of Joy Christian Church in the United States and the Center for Philosophy and Socinian Studies, in Texas. The papers about Servetus and his beliefs were not easy to follow. I felt I needed an advanced degree in theology but when I re-read the UUA biography of Servetus I felt better. It cites the late John Godbey, a renowned theologian who was with us in Transylvania:
Most persons lack sufficient understanding of his views to make defensible statements about him.

From my notes taken at the conference and off the SIS webpage, here is what Servetus was all about—I think. Was Jesus was the Son of the Eternal God as he cried out or the Eternal Son of God according to Church doctrine? At first, the difference seems trivial but when you think about it, it is enormous.  

Servetus did not dispute that Jesus was the Son of God or the Word of God made flesh. He did dispute that Jesus existed from the beginning of time. In his view, Jesus came into existence at his birth and was a temporal being like us, with this difference—he was God’s special messenger to humanity.

According to Servetus, God's spirit “animates all men and things, moves all things, and fills the earth. When acting within us it is known as the Holy Spirit.” But what happens to the breath or Holy Spirit within the body? Seeking the answer led Servetus to a major medical achievement, the first proper description of the circulatory system. That is why the conference theme was HEART FELT.

 We heard two fascinating presentations on the heart, one by a University of Leiden cardiologist and the other by a University of Amsterdam psychologist. We learned how, from observations of dissected bodies, Servetus assigned a major role to the lungs, a radical change from Galen’s 1300 year-old theory that blood was aerated in the heart. Almost one hundred years before Sir William Harvey, Servetus correctly described the pulmonary blood flow, but because Servetus was a heretic and his works banned, his medical achievements were little acknowledged.

Come to think of it though, when I mentioned Servetus to a retired medical doctor, his response surprised me. “Didn’t he describe the circulation of the blood?” How did he know? Well, he graduated from McGill University. McGill’s medical library houses one of the largest collections of books by and about Servetus anywhere. You can find their titles on its on-line catalogue. These books were donated by one of Canada’s most renowned physicians, Sir William Osler (1849-1919) who helped found Johns Hopkins University, became professor regius at Oxford and revolutionized the practice of medicine. In 1909, he published Michael Servetus, a thirty-one page booklet. For SIS, Osler is a Servetan because he rescued one of the world’s greatest medical pioneers from oblivion.

In my cryptic conference notes are phrases like “freedom of choice”, “the use of reason”, “body and mind indistinguishable” “no such thing as original sin”. But it was the final paper at the conference which led me to pursue Servetus further. By Marian Hillar, it is entitled “Why the Memory of Servetus Should be Kept Alive”. Hillar is a Socinian and humanist and not a woman as I first thought. He is Polish-born, a biochemist turned theologian and prolific writer on Servetus.

Like any historical subject, Servetus can best be understood within the context of his times. So, while preparing this talk I decided to look at the Spain into which he was born. The long Islamic rule had ended just nineteen years before Servetus’ birth in 1511. Eight hundred years before that, in 1711, the Muslims had quickly conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and remained in power for various durations ranging from a few decades in the far north to some eight centuries in the south.

This era was marked by wars, wars of re-conquest, wars between rival Christian rulers and wars between rival Muslim emirates. Yet under Islam, Spain emerged as a great centre of learning and culture. Agriculture, astronomy, geography, law, medicine, philosophy all flourished. We can still marvel at the magnificent Islamic architecture in Cordoba and elsewhere in  Spain. When Arabic learning spread from there into Europe, it helped foster the Renaissance.

While Muslims considered pagans as infidels to be forcibly converted, they did not force Islam on Christians or Jews, the latter numbering around eight to nine hundred thousand. The three Abrahamic religions co-existed rather peacefully, their diverse traditions giving Spain its rich and distinctive heritage. This benign situation broke down somewhat when the more doctrinaire Islamic Berbers gained control of Spain. Yet, Moorish culture still persisted even after the final triumph of the Reconquista.

Miguel Servet was born 200 years after Spain reconquered the Kingdom of Aragon and his birthplace, Villanueva, a town near Zaragossa, Aragon’s capital city.  Nineteen years before his birth, another momentous event in Spain’s history occurred. This is one date everyone knows:

In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

A report about this venture written at the time for Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand portrays the world into which Servetus was born much more vividly than any secondary source ever could. It also tells of two other events that year which would influence Servetus' own world view.
This present year of 1492, after Your Highnesses had brought to an end the war with the Moors who ruled in Europe and had concluded the war in the very great city of Granada; and I saw the Moorish King come out to the gates of the city and kiss the Royal Hands of Your Highnesses; and later in that same month, because of the report that I had given to Your Highnesses about the lands of India and about a prince who is called "Grand Khan" ... and Your Highnesses, as Catholic Christians and Princes, lovers and promoters of the Holy Christian Faith, and enemies of the false doctrine of Mahomet and of all idolatries and heresies, you thought of sending me, Christobal Colon, to the said regions of India to see the said princes and the peoples and the lands, to see how their conversion to our Holy Faith might be undertaken. And you commanded that I should not go to the East by land, by which way it is customary to go, but by the route to the West, by which route we do not know for certain that anyone previously has passed. So, after having expelled all the Jews from all of your Kingdoms and Dominions, in the same month of January Your Highnesses commanded me to go, with a suitable fleet, to the said regions of India. [emphasis added]

The Treaty of Granada, which ended Islamic rule in Spain, is one of the most liberal documents of conquest ever for it declared that "all Muslims should have full liberty of faith, work and trade". Such generosity of spirit did not apply to the Jews for, as related by Columbus, the monarchy ordered their forcible expulsion from Spain in 1492. Those Jews who remained could choose between conversion or death. Just before Servetus’ birth and during his early years, thousands of Jews suffered cruel deaths, often by being burned at the stake.

This all happened in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition, an instrument of state instituted by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1478. Its primary purpose was to identify Muslims and Jews who falsely “converted” to Christianity but who secretly practiced their former religion. Its power also extended to Christian heretics. Inquisitions, under various names, began with Emperor Constantine who, in 326, made the dogma of the Trinity the official state religion. Any deviance from that dogma was heresy punishable by death. To cite Thomas Aquinas:

As for heretics their sin deserves banishment, not only from the Church by excommunication, but also from this world by death.

Successive church authorities decreed that the penalty for heresy was burning at the stake. In medieval and early modern Europe, state and church were intertwined. Heresy was equivalent to treason. It was also a good excuse to confiscate the property of those executed or exiled. Those deviating from orthodoxy were brave souls indeed.

Soon after signing the Treaty of Granada, Ferdinand and Isabella reneged on their toleration of Islam and, as with the Jews, gave the Muslims the choice of expulsion, conversion or death. Conversos who practised Islamic rites in secret, or those suspected of so doing, were burned at the stake. Some writers suggest that the purge of the Muslims had much do to with national security since the Ottoman Empire was now spreading westward after conquering Constantinople in 1453. By 1529 the Turks were laying siege to Vienna.

All of this could not help but affect the sensitive and precocious Miguel Servet. Born into a prosperous and devout family with one brother a priest, Miguel was a true genius. By the age of thirteen, he had mastered French, Greek, Latin and Hebrew, a language forbidden in Catholic Europe and one he must have learned from a Jew. At fourteen, he was at the University of Zaragossa under the tutelage of its leading scholar, Juan de Quintana, a Franciscan monk much influenced by the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam.

With the proliferation of printing presses, this was a heady time in intellectual circles. Besides the Bible, ancient Greek and Roman classics became more available as did contemporary humanist writings about free enquiry, free will, the use of reason and the personal worth of the individual. Despite his criticisms of the Catholic Church, Erasmus remained within its fold where his humanist views found favour with many clerics. Thanks to Quintana, his influence on Servetus was enormous.

 When Servetus sixteen, his father sent him to study law at the University of Toulouse, France. Reading Biblical texts in Greek and Hebrew, he discovered how much the earlier texts differed from the later Catholic Vulgate version. He also discovered that these texts made no mention of the Trinity.

This was in 1528. Since 1516, Spain had been under the rule of Charles I, grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand. In 1820, he was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. His primary aim was to crush the rising tide of heresy but he also had to defend his realm against Islam, thanks to Ottoman Turkey's sweep into Central Europe. Another enemy was France whose rule in Italy he defeated in 1527 with his ferocious "sack of Rome". Thousands were slaughtered and the Pope himself imprisoned. In 1530 Charles released the Pope on condition that he preside at an elaborate coronation ceremony confirming him as Holy Roman Emperor.

Since Rome lay in ruins, the ceremony was held in Bologna. Among the guests were the Franciscan monk Juan de Quintana and his now private secretary, Michael Servetus. Servetus was appalled by what he saw -- ostentatious displays of wealth, worship of the Pope and decadence of the priesthood. Severing his ties with the Church, he left for Basel, once a humanist haven but now a doctrinaire Protestant city and not very receptive to Servetus who loudly proclaimed that the Trinity had no Biblical basis and that, although Jesus was the Son of God, he was not one and the same person as God.

Now here's a thought: Muslims consider Jesus as one of their prophets. To cite the Koran:
59 Lo! the likeness of Jesus with Allah is as the likeness of Adam. He created him of dust, then He said unto him: Be! and he is.

Could it be that Servetus also thought of Jesus as a prophet in much the same way?

Servetus left Basel for Strasbourg in 1831 where, at age 20, he published his somewhat strident The Errors of the Trinity. One reason he wrote The Errors was to make Christianity more palatable to Jews and Muslims, especially the conversos in Spain who had become Christian on pain of death or expulsion.

The following quotations from The Errors of the Trinity reveal that Servetus wanted people to think for themselves and not blindly follow church doctrine. Today his words seem somewhat innocuous. At the time they posed a grave danger to religious institutions whose authority was based on their on their self-assigned role as sole intermediaries between the laity and God.

Not even a single word is found in the whole Scripture about the Trinity, nor about the persons, nor about the essence, nor about the substance’s unity, nor the nature of the various divine beings.
We must not impose as truths concepts over which there are doubts.
God gave us the mind so that we can know him.

The Errors of the Trinity brought down the wrath of Catholic and Protestant authorities alike. The once persecuted Protestants now were persecutors. They, like the Catholics, banned the book and wanted Servetus arrested for heresy. His more conciliatory Dialogues on the Trinity appeased neither. The Spanish Inquisition condemned him to death in absentia. His brother, the priest, sought him out with a dubious promise of protection from zealous Protestants if he returned to Spain.

Rather than face the Spanish Inquisition, Servetus disappeared under an assumed name to Paris where, as Michel Villeneuve, he studied medicine and mathematics. Work as an editor gave him unparalleled expertise in many fields, including geography and biblical criticism. He then moved to Vienne under his new name. There, for the next twelve years, he successfully practiced medicine, wrote on many medical topics, including circulation, and edited scholarly texts, his home the palace of the humanist-inclined archbishop.

Another question: How much was Servetus's medical knowledge informed by Ibn an-Nafis, the Arab physician who correctly described pulmonary circulation in the 13 century and whose writings were translated into Latin in 1547? Perhaps Servetus was not the first, but the first European, to publish correct observations of pulmonary respiration. For the Church,such descriptions were highly unorthodox for they countered what it considered an absolute truth, the 1200-year old writings of the Greek physician, Galen.

While in Vienne, Servetus began a long and acrimonious correspondence with one John Calvin, the French Protestant theologian who founded a theocratic state in Geneva. His letters challenged many aspects of Calvin’s theology. Among these are the absolute truth of the Bible and predestination, i.e.:

"eternal life is ordained for some, eternal damnation for others "

Servetus also challenged Calvin’s notion of humankind’s basic depravity, a view differing vastly from his own humanist belief in the divine spirit working in all persons.

In 1553, Servetus published his The Restitution of Christianity, a call for Christianity to be renewed by a return to the Gospels away from the dogma of the Trinity. The Restitution also includes his correct description of pulmonary blood circulation as well as all his correspondence with Calvin. Not only was Servetus's view of Jeus heretical but so was his refutation of Galen's theories on circulation. The incensed Calvin ordered all copies of the book banned and destroyed. He also betrayed Servetus’ real identity to the French Inquisition. Imprisoned and found guilty of heresy, he managed to escape just before his execution. Once more, Servetus was on the run.

For some reason, Servetus chose to go via Geneva on his way to Italy. Perhaps he wanted to further his dialogue with Calvin in person. Instead, the Council of Geneva had him arrested and tried for anti-trinitarianism and for opposing infant baptism. The Council insisted that he be burned at stake despite Calvin’s plea for beheading. Still Calvin instigated the prosecution of Servetus and later rejoiced in his death.

The powerful book, Out of the Flames by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, begins with a harrowing description of Servetus’ death by fire:
Chained to his side was what was thought to be the last available copy of his book [The Restitution of Christianity], the rest having all been zealously hunted down and destroyed. The ideas were to be burnt along with the man. There was no escape.

Servetus died in the flames but his ideas survived. As Marian Hillar tells us, Italian humanists spread his legacy to the Socinians of Poland and the Unitarians of Transylvania. Suppressed by the Counter-Reformation, his followers found their way to England and America where his legacy gave birth to concepts of tolerance, separation of church and state and freedom of conscience. Well acquainted with the works of Servetus and Socinius, Thomas Jefferson incorporated their idea of “absolute freedom of conscience” into the United States Constitution.

Servetus legacy for today’s Unitarian Universalists is not about the Trinity or the relationship of Jesus to God. It doesn’t matter that Servetus may have been a Trinitarian, however unorthodox. It is about freedom of conscience. Servetus lived in an Age of Absolutism which permitted no dissent from orthodoxy. In this present age of religious fundamentalism and political dogmatism, defending freedom of conscience is our most important duty. As Marian Hillar puts it,
From a historical perspective, Servetus died in order that freedom of conscience could become a civil right of the individual in modern society.

The following words of Servetus were dangerous in his time; they are still relevant today:
Natural righteousness is to give everyone what is his: that is to help everybody in need and harm nobody; to do what conscience and natural reason dictate so that whatever you want others to do to you, do to others. In such righteousness ... nations are justified and saved, including the Jews.

It seems to me a grave error to kill a man only because he might be in error interpreting some question of the Scripture when we know that even the most learned are not without error.

All seem to have a part of truth and a part of error and each espies the error of others and fails to see his own. May God in his mercy enable us without obstinacy to perceive our errors.
It would be easy to judge if it were permitted to all to speak in peace in the church that all might vie in prophesying and that those who are first inspired, as Paul says, might listen in silence to those who next speak, when anything is revealed to them.

     But today all strive for honor.
     May the Lord destroy all the tyrants of the church.  Amen

Just as I was concluding this paper, an e-mail came from Mary Bennett, Executive Director of the Canadian Unitarian Council. In it she challenged Canadian Unitarians to send her our own “Elevator Speech”. that is, how we would explain what our denomination is all about to a fellow elevator passenger in two minutes or less.

Inspired by Servetus’ ringing declaration against tyranny, this is how I have responded:

 Unitarian Universalists defend the right to freedom of conscience for all. We oppose those who would force their version of the truth on others.

Some sources for this talk:

Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone, Out of the Flames: New York, 2002

Marian Hillar, “Why the Memory of Servetus Should Be Kept Alive”. Paper presented at International Servetus Congress, October 2006. Also other works by Hillar found on SIS home page and on Google.

Servetus International Society, home page

Unitarian Universalist Association, Dictionary of UU Biography(on-line)
Josep Trueta, The Spirit of Catalonia (1946) digital version

                         And many other relevant sources found on Google.