Why Miguel Died
By J.R. Ensey
The stench of burning flesh wafted from the hill outside the city over the walls of medieval Geneva. A house fire and someone failed to make it out in time? An accident with the newly invented compound called gunpowder? A cremation ceremony?
One should wish.
It is the bound body of a Spanish physician by the name of Miguel Serveto. A thief? A political insurrectionist? A murderer? One who would merit such punishment must surely have committed some grave offense.
Yes, that he did. He would not confess Christ as “the eternal Son of God.”
In sixteenth century Geneva, the church—in this case the Reform branch of Protestantism—was the ruling authority. They had broken with Rome along with Luther and Zwingli and others. They had departed from many Roman Catholic traditions and doctrines but not far enough from her intolerance and tyranny. Modern Presbyterianism, Reformed Church adherents, and Calvinists in whatever denomination do not like to remember what was done on that dreadful day in Geneva, but history is quite clear. What are the facts?
Miguel Serveto (known better to us by his Latinized name, Michael Servetus) was born in Villaneuva de Sijena, Spain in about 1510. There is disagreement on whether it was 1509 or 1511. He was educated at the University of Zaragoza (Saragossa) and studied law at the University of Toulouse in France. While enrolled at Toulouse he perused the Bible diligently, even though just a teenager. He was struck by the contradictions involved in the doctrine of the Trinity, considering it a major hindrance to the evangelization of the Moors and Jews. He observed that it was nowhere explicitly mentioned nor defined in the Bible. He deduced from the Scriptures that Jesus was at once fully human and divine, not another being of the Godhead separate from the Father, but God Himself come to earth.
While visiting Rome in 1529 he was appalled by the riches of the church, the inordinate adoration of the pope, and the ungodliness of the priests. He subsequently dropped out of Catholicism and joined the Reformed Protestants in Basel. Soon he wrote De Trinitatis Erroibus (On the Errors of the Trinity), his defining work on the Godhead, hoping it would cause the new Protestants to rethink their virtual automatic acceptance of the Catholic Trinity. It did not. They were already having enough trouble with their former church without attacking another major doctrinal stronghold. Melanchthon, the noted Lutheran reformer commented on Servetus’ treatise: “As for the Trinity you know I have always feared this would break out someday. Good God, what tragedies this question will excite among those who come after us.”
With the Catholics now calling for him to appear before the Inquisition court, and the Protestants rejecting him for fear of their own lives, he fled to Paris and took a new name—Michael Villeneuve. There he continued his studies in math and medicine. He was a brilliant scholar and was the one who first theorized that the aeration of the blood took place in the lungs rather than the heart, becoming the first person to record a modern understanding of pulmonary respiration.
Meanwhile, Calvin—the “pope of Protestantism”—began having problems of his own. Since he had written so little on the Godhead, he was accused of being an Arian. He had to come out strong for the Trinity in defending himself against the charge and was thereafter cautious and determined to deal severely with unorthodox deviations. As he and Servetus began a series of letters concerning their doctrinal stands, Calvin became convinced that Servetus was indeed a heretic and should be tried for that charge. In a letter to a local Reformed pastor, Calvin said that if Servetus came to Geneva, “I will not suffer him to get out alive if my authority is of any avail.” The die was cast. The doctrine of the Trinity was not on the table of either the Catholics or the Protestants, and in sixteenth century Europe if one did not embrace it his life was in daily jeopardy.
Calvin compromised the secret identity of Servetus and he was arrested in Vienna by the Catholic Inquisitors and imprisoned. He managed to escape and made his way to Geneva, choosing to attend a church service where Calvin was preaching. He was recognized and immediately arrested by Protestant authorities and charged with heresy. During the trial, he was harshly questioned and probed by Calvin and others who pulled out of him statements they construed as heresy, even bordering on idolatry. Not all of his theological views would be considered orthodox today by modern Oneness theologians, or even Unitarians, but he knew he was right on the Trinity. He boldly proclaimed that Trinitarians had created their doctrine, not to describe God, but to puff themselves up as central to God’s concern. Because they defined God to suit their own purposes, he called them atheists. This must have infuriated Calvin. During the trial Calvin wrote, “I hope the verdict will call for the death penalty.” While Calvin’s admirers defend him, it has to be admitted that Servetus’ life was in his hands. He could have said the word and had him spared. In Geneva, Calvin held the power of life and death.
A trial of approximately two months by the Council of Geneva resulted in his conviction of antitrinitarianism and opposition to child baptism. His sentence was to be burned at the stake despite Calvin’s “merciful” appeal to have him beheaded. It was carried out on October 27, 1553. He was manacled with chains, bound to a stake surrounded by slow-burning green faggots, and covered with straw and green twigs. Sulphur was put upon his head. They meant for him to suffer the cruelest of pain before expiring. As a final rebuttal of his doctrinal position, the hated manuscripts of his composition were rolled and tied around his waist.
Those who witnessed the burning marveled at his tenacious faith. As he perished in the flames, he cried out, “Oh Jesus, Son of the eternal God, have mercy on me!” One Protestant pastor who stood nearby observed that if Servetus had just called upon “Jesus, the Eternal Son of God,” he would have been loosed and spared. But he was defiant to the end that the concept of an eternal Son is foreign to the whole of Scripture.
Now, could it be said that the differences in Calvin’s and Servetus’ theology were just a matter of semantics? Are core, fundamental doctrines defined by words only or by concepts projected in Holy Writ? If truths concerning the person of Jesus are nothing more than wordcraft subject to each individual’s interpretation, then there are no absolutes and truth is what each person thinks it is.
A word is a word is a word—until it expresses a construct that is shaped by the whole of divine revelation. Fundamental doctrines are formulated by accepting clear biblical statements and by comparing scripture with scripture. The differences in the doctrines of the absolute Oneness of God and trinitarianism are not determined solely by semantics—mere shades of meaning in words. The differences are distinct and based on the revelation of both Old and New Testaments. The Monotheism of Judaism was founded on the Shema—the Jewish confession of faith (Deuteronomy 6:4) which incorporated the term “echad,” meaning “one and only one.” The monotheism of the NT is explicitly expressed in Mark 12:32; John 4:24; Romans 3:30; I Corinthians 8:6; James 2:19; I Timothy 1:17; 2:5 and many other passages.
Trinitarianism, by contrast, is a theory developed in the centuries subsequent to the apostolic age. Built on vague nuances in certain passages and crafted to accommodate the polytheistic pagan mindset, it became the defining criterion of orthodoxy in the Roman Catholic Church. It was not easily dislodged from its centrality of the Christian faith as perceived by medieval Christianity. Only in the twentieth century was headway made in the effort to return to biblical Christology. Worldwide, Oneness Pentecostals and non-trinitarians (excepting Unitarians) now number over twenty-five million.
The parameters of the doctrine of the absolute Oneness of God are not established by subtle nuances or semantics. Deuteronomy 6:4 and John 10:30 are quite plain. That Christ was “made of a woman” (Galatians 4:4) leaves no room for the concept of a Christ with “divine flesh”—another Jesus—who would be little more than a robot from heaven, unable to fully identify with us mortals. He was fully man and fully God, which had to be true for Him to be our mediator (I Timothy 2:5).
Servetus was willing to die for his belief in the absolute Oneness of God. How willing are we to go to the stake for our convictions? And why should we if they are nothing more than “semantics”?
Shout it from the housetops: Our God is one—and we have access to Him through the wonderful and powerful name of Jesus!
PS I find it quite interesting that there are several cities in Europe with statues of Servetus, commemorating his contributions to the fields of medicine, geography and theology.