Michael Servetus—A Solitary Quest for the Truth

BY AWAKE! WRITER IN SPAIN

On October 27, 1553, Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland. Guillaume Farel—the executioner and vicar of John Calvin—warned the onlookers: “[Servetus] is a wise man who doubtless thought he was teaching the truth, but he fell into the hands of the Devil. . . . Be careful the same thing does not happen to you!” What had this unfortunate victim done to deserve such a tragic fate?

MICHAEL SERVETUS was born in 1511 in the village of Villanueva de Sijena, Spain. From an early age, he excelled as a student. According to one biographer, “by the time he was 14 years of age, he had learned Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, and he had an ample knowledge of philosophy, mathematics, and theology.”

When Servetus was still a teenager, Juan de Quintana, the personal confessor of Spanish Emperor Charles V, employed him as a page. In his official journeys, Servetus could observe the underlying religious divisions in Spain, where Jews and Muslims had been exiled or forcibly converted to Catholicism.*

At the age of 16, Servetus went to study law at the University of Toulouse, in France. There he saw a complete Bible for the first time. Although reading the Bible was strictly forbidden, Servetus did so in secret. After completing his first reading, he vowed to read it “a thousand times more.” Probably, the Bible that Servetus studied in Toulouse was the Complutensian Polyglot, a version that enabled him to read the Scriptures in the original languages (Hebrew and Greek), along with the Latin translation.* His study of the Bible, together with the moral degeneracy of the clergy that he had seen in Spain, shook his faith in the Catholic religion.

Servetus’ doubts were reinforced when he attended the coronation of Charles V. The Spanish king was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by Pope Clement VII. The pope, seated on his portable throne, received the king, who kissed his feet. Servetus later wrote: “I have seen with my own eyes how the pope was carried on the shoulders of the princes, with all the pomp, being adored in the streets by the surrounding people.” Servetus found himself unable to reconcile that pomp and extravagance with the simplicity of the Gospel.

His Quest for Religious Truth

Servetus discreetly left his employment with Quintana and began his solitary search for the truth. He believed that Christ’s message was not directed to theologians or philosophers but to common people who would grasp it and put it into practice. Thus, he resolved to consult the Bible text in the original languages and to reject any teaching at odds with the Scriptures. Interestingly, the word “truth” and its derivatives appear more often than any other word in his writings.

Servetus’ historical and Biblical studies led him to the conclusion that Christianity had become corrupted during the first three centuries of our Common Era. He learned that Constantine and his successors had promoted false teachings that eventually led to the adoption of the Trinity as an official doctrine. At the age of 20, Servetus published his book On the Errors of the Trinity, a work that made him a principal target of the Inquisition.

Servetus saw things clearly. “In the Bible,” he wrote, “there is no mention of the Trinity. . . . We get to know God, not through our proud philosophical concepts, but through Christ.”* He also came to the conclusion that the holy spirit is not a person but, rather, God’s force in action.

Servetus did provoke some favorable response. Protestant Reformer Sebastian Franck wrote: “The Spaniard, Servetus, contends in his tract that there is but one person in God. The Roman church holds that there are three persons in one essence. I agree rather with the Spaniard.” Nevertheless, neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Protestant churches ever forgave Servetus for challenging their central doctrine.

The study of the Bible also led Servetus to reject other church doctrines, and he considered the use of images to be unscriptural. Thus, a year and a half after publishing On the Errors of the Trinity, Servetus said with respect to both Catholics and Protestants: “I do not agree or disagree in everything with either one party or the other. Because all seem to me to have some truth and some error, but everyone recognizes the other’s error and nobody discerns his own.” His was a solitary quest for the truth.*

His sincerity, however, did not prevent Servetus from reaching some mistaken conclusions. For example, he calculated that Armageddon and the Millennial Reign of Christ would come during his own lifetime.

Searching for Scientific Truth

Forced to flee from his persecutors, Servetus changed his name to Villanovanus and settled in Paris, where he obtained degrees in art and medicine. His scientific curiosity led him to practice dissection in order to understand the workings of the human body. As a result, Servetus became perhaps the first European to describe the pulmonary circulation of blood. His findings were included in his work The Restitution of Christianity. Servetus’ comments were made 75 years before the complete circulatory system was described by William Harvey.

Servetus also prepared a new edition of Ptolemy’s Geography. It proved so successful that some have called him the father of comparative geography and ethnography. Later, at his trial in Geneva, Servetus was denounced for his description of Palestine as a sparsely cultivated, sterile land. Servetus defended himself by arguing that his description applied to the present time rather than to the age of Moses, when it doubtless flowed with milk and honey.

Servetus also wrote the Universal Treatise on Syrups, which provided a new, balanced approach to a type of medicine. The wealth of medical knowledge found in that book made him a pioneer in the field of pharmacology and the use of vitamins. In view of Servetus’ expertise in so many fields, a historian described him as “one of the greatest minds in human history, one who contributed to universal culture.”

A Formidable Opponent

Seekers of the truth have always had many opponents. (Luke 21:15) Among Servetus’ many adversaries was John Calvin, who had established an authoritarian Protestant state in Geneva. According to historian Will Durant, Calvin’s “dictatorship was one not of law or force but of will and character,” and Calvin “was as thorough as any pope in rejecting individualism of belief.”

Servetus and Calvin probably met in Paris when they were both young men. From the outset their personalities clashed, and Calvin became Servetus’ most implacable enemy. Although Calvin was a leader of the Reformation, he finally denounced Servetus to the Catholic Inquisition. Servetus barely succeeded in escaping from France, where he was burned in effigy. However, he was recognized and imprisoned in the frontier city of Geneva, where Calvin’s word was law.

Calvin meted out cruel treatment to Servetus in prison. Nevertheless, in his debate with Calvin during the trial, Servetus offered to modify his views, provided his opponent gave Scriptural arguments to convince him. Calvin proved unable to do so. After the trial, Servetus was condemned to be burned at the stake. Some historians claim that Servetus was the only religious dissenter who was both burned in effigy by the Catholics and burned alive by the Protestants.

A Herald of Religious Freedom

Although Calvin eliminated his personal rival, he lost his own moral authority. The unjustified execution of Servetus outraged thinking people throughout Europe, and it provided a powerful argument for civil libertarians who insisted that no man should be killed for his religious beliefs. They became more determined than ever to press on in the fight for religious freedom.

Italian poet Camillo Renato protested: “Neither God nor his spirit have counselled such an action. Christ did not treat those who negated him that way.” And French humanist Sébastien Chateillon wrote: “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine, but it is to kill a man.” Servetus himself had said: “I consider it a serious matter to kill men because they are in error on some question of scriptural interpretation, when we know that even the elect ones may be led astray into error.”

Regarding the lasting impact of Servetus’ execution, the book Michael Servetus—Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr says: “Servetus’s death was the turning point in the ideology and mentality dominating since the fourth century.” It adds: “From a historical perspective, Servetus died in order that freedom of conscience could become a civil right of the individual in modern society.”

In 1908 a monument to Servetus was erected in the French city of Annemasse, some three miles [5 km] from the spot where he died. An inscription reads: “Michel Servet[us], . . . geographer, physician, physiologist, contributed to the welfare of humanity by his scientific discoveries, his devotion to the sick and the poor, and the indomitable independence of his intelligence and his conscience. . . . His convictions were invincible. He made a sacrifice of his life for the cause of the truth.”

[Footnotes]

Spanish authorities banished 120,000 Jews who refused to accept Catholicism, and several thousand Moors were burned at the stake.

See the article “The Complutensian Polyglot—A Historic Translation Tool,” in the April 15, 2004, issue of The Watchtower.

In his work A Statement Regarding Jesus Christ, Servetus described the doctrine of the Trinity as perplexing and confusing and noted that the Scriptures contained “not even one syllable” in its support.

While in prison, Servetus signed his last letter with these words: “Michael Servetus, alone, but trusting in Christ’s most sure protection.”

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Servetus and the Name Jehovah

  Servetus’ quest for the truth also led him to use the name Jehovah. Some months after William Tyndale employed this name in his translation of the Pentateuch, Servetus published On the Errors of the Trinity—in which he used the name Jehovah throughout. He explained in this work: “The other name, the most holy of all, יהוה, . . . can be interpreted as follows, . . . ‘He causes to be,’ ‘he who brings into being,’ ‘the cause of existence.’” He noted: “The name of Jehovah can properly apply only to the Father.”

  In 1542, Servetus also edited the renowned Latin translation of the Bible by Santes Pagninus (shown below). In his extensive marginal notes, Servetus highlighted the divine name again. He included the name Jehovah in the marginal references to key texts such as Psalm 83:18, where the word for “Lord” appeared in the main text.

  In his final work, The Restitution of Christianity, Servetus stated regarding the divine name, Jehovah: “[It] is clear . . . that there were many who pronounced this name in ancient times.”

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The monument in Annemasse, France

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A 15th-century engraving of the compulsory baptism of Muslims living in Spain

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Capilla Real, Granada

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First page of “On the Errors of the Trinity”

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From the book De Trinitatis Erroribus, by Michael Servetus, 1531

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Servetus studied the pulmonary circulation of blood

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Anatomie descriptive et physiologique, Paris, 1866-7, L. Guérin, Editor

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Servetus’ book “Universal Treatise on Syrups” pioneered ideas in the field of pharmacology

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John Calvin became a fierce enemy of Servetus

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Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid

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Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid