On anniversary of birth of Michael Servetus, Neil Langdon Inglis reflects on “a mind of agile ferment and wonder, cruelly snuffed out”.
Michael Servetus is in more than one respect one of the most remarkable men of the sixteenth century; while the tragic death which he suffered made him the first and most conspicuous martyr to the faith whose history we are following. Records of the life of Servetus are scanty and inconsistent, and the gaps in them have often been filled up by conjectures which have later proved to be mistaken.
Servetus was born in 1511 at Villanueva de Sijena, a small city in Aragon, where his father had received an appointment as royal Notary, an office of some distinction, and where the family lived in handsome style. His parents were devoted Catholics, and it is thought that he may at first have been designed for the priesthood. Little is known to a certainty about his early education, but he seems to have been a precocious youth, and early in his teens to have acquired a knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and to have become well versed in mathematics and the scholastic philosophy. At age 14 he entered the service of Juan Quintana, a scholarly Franciscan monk. [more about historical context]
Having worn out his welcome there with constant theological dispute, Servetus moved to more tolerant Strasburg where he met the town reformers Bucer and Capito. There, in 1531, he published De Trinitatis Erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity). If Servetus hoped his book would persuade the new Protestant establishment to re-think orthodox trinitarian doctrine, as traditionally interpreted from the fourth century Council of Nicaea through the late mediaeval Scholastics, and replace it with his own formulation, he was quickly disappointed.
As "Villeneuve" Servetus studied mathematics and medicine at colleges in Paris, then a center of religious ferment. Nicholas Cop, Rector of the University, was forced to flee the city after an inaugural address deemed too Protestant. A young student of Servetus' acquaintance, John Calvin, who may have written the address, had also to leave town and to go into hiding. Sometime during the next year Calvin risked his life to return to Paris that he might meet Servetus and respond to his theological challenges.
During his twelve-year residence in Vienne, the longest quiet period of his troubled life, Servetus acquired fame and fortune as a physician and, at the same time, he continued working as proof corrector. In 1542, he brought out a new edition of Ptolemy which he softened down some of the notes that had given offense before. He next prepared an edition of the Santes Pagnini's Bible, completed in seven volumes in 1545. His introduction and notes anticipate modern biblical criticism and show a marked advance in sophistication beyond that of his earlier theological writing.
When Servetus published the Restitutio in early 1553 he sent an advance copy to Geneva. The printed text included thirty of his letters to Calvin. Soon afterward, at Calvin's behest, the identity of "Villeneuve" was betrayed to the Catholic Inquisition in Vienne. After his arrest and interrogation Servetus managed to escape from the prison. [To know more]
On his way, perhaps, to northern Italy where, he believed, there were people receptive to his writings, he made his way across the border to Geneva.
The arrest at Geneva
Although escaped from his imprisonment at Vienne, Servetus found the world by no means a place in which he might feel free to go or be wherever he would. He dared not stay in France for fear of recapture. It was hardly more safe for him to return to the Rhine country whence he had fled years before, and where he might still be recognized. Still less could he think of returning to his native land in fanatical Spain. He therefore determined to go to Naples in order to practice his profession among his countrymen, of whom many had fled thither for the sake of enjoying greater religious liberty. He thought at first of crossing the Pyrenees and going through Spain, but danger of arrest on the border deterred him, and after wandering like a hunted thing for four months he at length turned to the route throu gh Switzerland into northern Italy as the safest one for him. Fortunately for him, he was well provided with money.
In judging this whole affair one must take care not to be unjust toward Calvin, by being as narrow and unsympathetic toward him as he was toward Servetus. For he deserves to be judged by the standards of his own age rather than of ours, even though we condemn those in comparison with our own. Besides being a man of extraordinary ability, he had many of the finest traits of personal character. He has been called the father of popular education and the inventor of free schools.