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Early Life of Servetus little known.



By R. D. C. Robbins, Librarian, Theological Seminary, Andover, Mass.

The Early Years of Servetus. MICHAEL SERVETUS was born the same year with John Calvin (1509) at Villaneuva in Arragon. His father was a notary. Nothing is certainly known of his early education and training. It is said, that he was brought up in a cloister in his native kingdom, and although no proof of the fact is adduced, it is not improbable; for it was the custom of the time, especially in Spain, to devote children who were weak in intellect or feeble in health to the church, and Servetus' physical system was diseased.? In his fourteenth year, according to his account of himself at Vienne, he was taken into the service of Quintana, confessor of Charles V, who, himself a monk, probably took Servetus from the cloister. He was present at the crowning of the Emperor by the Pope at Bologna in Italy, and afterwards went in the suite of Charles V. to Germany. The splendor and parade by which the Roman Pontiff was surrounded, and the adoration which he received, exceedingly disgusted Servetus, and filled him with hatred towards the chief dignitary of the church.3

In Servetus' account of himself at the time of his trial at Geneva, he says that his father sent him to the University of Toulouse to study Law. If so, and there are some indications of knowledge of Law in his writings, he must have gone there immediately after his journey to Italy. At that University he probably first learned to read the Bible in the original languages, and acquired more familiarity with the dogmas of the Reformation, for he shows in his first work, published soon after, that he was no stranger to them. The question has been much discussed, wheth

1 Based chiefly on Henry's “ Leben Johann Calvins des grossen Reformators," Vol. 111. pp. 95–276.

• He himself, says Henry, speaks of a “ doppelten Bruchschaden und dass er zur Ehe untächtig gewesen." II. 107.

* The following language is found in his Restitutio in reference to the pope on this occasion : 0 bestiam bestiarum sceleratissimam, meretricum impudentiesinam, etc., p. 462.

er his first tendencies to heresy took their origin at this time, or were imbibed in Italy or Germany. But it is a question of little importance in respect to our present purpose. He was a freethinker by nature, and could not have lived anywhere without exhibiting his peculiar characteristics.' The similarity of the circumstances of the early life of Servetus and John Calvin, is not more striking than the diversity of their developments. They both began their course with the study of Law, but Servetus at the same time turned his attention to astrology, and rejected with contempt the philosophy of Aristotle. But the desire to promote a reformation in the world, gave him no rest. He read the works of most of the church fathers, especially those who lived before Arius. In Tertullian and Irenaeus he thought he found the true Christian doctrine. He also turned his attention to the Catholic writers of the middle ages, and made himself acquainted with the works of the German reformers, which were extensively circulated in France. As the result of these studies, he renounced popery as a whole, but thought that the reformers had but half accomplished their work. A passage in his treatise on Justification probably gives a correct view of his position at this time: “I hold neither with the Catholics nor Protestants in all things, nor am I opposed to them. Each of them seems to me to have a part of the truth mingled with error. Each looks at the wrong views of the other and sees not his own. God grant, through his compassion, that we may know our errors and be free from stubbornness. It would be easy to distinguish truth from error, if it were allowed to speak freely, so that all might exert themselves to prophesy; if the ancient prophets (i. e. the teachers of the Catholic and Pro. testant church) would subject themselves to those of modern times (i. e. Servetus), and be silent, whilst these spoke what was revealed to them.—The Lord destroy all the tyrants of the church.”

When Servetus went to France, he laid aside the name of Servetus and took that of Reves. The reasons for this change are variously given by his friends and enemies. He, however, did not long find Toulouse a place of safety for one adopting his views, and exercising the freedom of expression which he desired. He therefore went to Basil where Zuingli's dogmas had been embraced, in order to submit his own plans for the reformation of the church to Oecolampadius. But his impudent manner, as well

· See Mosheim, Gesch. des M. Serveto S. 9, and M'Crie's Hist, of Reform. in Italy, p. 178.


His View of the Trinity.


as his erroneous views, soon brought him into collision with one of so gentle and amiable a character as Oecolampadius. The principal point of difference between them was in reference to the person of Christ. Servetus denied the union of two natures in him, and contended that he could be eternal, only in the sense that the world is eternal, because the idea of it was from the beginning with God. This controversy was carried on by letters and in private conversation, and not publicly as has been sometimes affirmed. 1 Servetus attempted, a proceeding not unusual with men of his character, to quiet the mind of his opponent by a creed apparently orthodox, but he did not fully succeed. colampadius in a conversation with Zuingli and Bullinger showed plainly that he understood his wily antagonist, and perceived the dangerous nature of his doctrines.

In personal appearance Servetus was not unpleasing. According to an engraving in the work of Mosheim, said to be from a good portrait, he had rather marked features, a high forehead, a long and pointed beard, and large, bright eyes, which would at once give an attentive observer a premonition of the restless, fanatical spirit within. He was affable in his manners and ready in conversation, and seemed to attract notice wherever he went.

Servetus' first Work upon the Trinity. Soon after the controversy with Oecolampadius (1530) Servetus went to Hagenau, to make arrangement with the publisher Sarcerius for printing his first work “De Trinitatis Erroribus.” The book, however, did not appear until some time in the following year. The starting point in this work is the indivisibility of the nature of God. He is simple and one, and consequently the modifications of his being must be merely in form and not in per

Sull He is incomprehensible to man without revelation, and in order to make himself known he has assumed two forms, that of the Son and Spirit. Thus Servetus would retain the dis. tinction of Father, Son and Spirit, but merely as modifications of external appearance. This trinity is not eternal, but ends with the world, as it came into existence with it. Like the world, however, it may be said to have existed forever in the divine pur

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· See Mosheim Gesch. d. M. Serveto, S. 14.

. He even said to Servetus: Confessionem tuam simplex fortassis approbaret, quia autem mentem tuam declarasti, ut fallacem abominor. See Henry, Vol. III., 111, 115.

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pose; and this ideal existence is the Logos. This book, when it first appeared, was the cause of general commotion with all parties. It was a matter of so much wonder where such daring heresies could have originated, that a journey of Servetus to Africa was presupposed in order to enable him to derive his dog. mas from the Koran. This supposition was confirmed, perhaps originated, by the fact that he adduced proof-passages from the Mohammedan's Bible in substantiation of his positions.

The simple errors in doctrine and the reasoning in support of them, were not the only grounds of hostility to this work. The rashness and bitterness which followed him through life appeared here. And besides, for a young man in his twenty-first year, to attempt with full confidence an entire renovation of the religion and philosophy of his age, savored, it was thought, a little of arrogance. He professed to make the Holy Scriptures the source of all his knowledge and his reasonings, and attributed the corruption of true Christianity, to the philosophy of Aristotle and ignorance of the Hebrew language. This hurtful doctrine of the Trinity, he believed, crept into the church at the same time with the primacy of the Pope,' and Paul of Samosata first clearly proclaimed the true doctrine, which was but imperfectly comprehended in the time of the Apostles. The torrents of abuse which Servetus poured upon the doctrines received both by the protestants and catholics was still more annoying, and exhibited a want of reverence, to call it by no worse name, which stamped his character forever. The persons of the Godhead, he said, were delusions of the devil, and the triune God, a Cerberus. The protestants were specially troubled at the irregularities of Servetus, because he professed to be one of their number, and their opponents might attribute to them an agreement with him, or at least pretend that his doctrines were the natural result of their secession from the holy catholic church. Melanchthon, Zuingli and others expressed a very decided opposition to his doctrine and his course, and their opinions will be alluded to in a subse. quent part of this discussion.

It is probable, that Servetus after he had found a publisher for his book went to Strasburg, and it is even said that he heard the public addresses of Luther and Melanchthon at this time, but it

| Puto fuisse divinae punitionis judicium ut eodem tempore Papa efficeretur rex, quo est Trinitas orta, et tunc Christum perdidimus.--De Trin. Error. Lib. 7, fol. 36


Retraction of Errors.



is uncertain.! Where he was when his book appeared, seems also not to be definitely settled. It is however known, that in the middle of the year 1531, he dwelt for a time with his friend Morinus at Basil. Oecolampadius was not pleased at his return to that place, and sent word to the council of his arrival. He was so much opposed to the work which Servetus had issued, that in 1531 he urged Bucer to take ground against it. The author hiinself whilst the book was in press had explained his system to both Bucer and Capito, and they were decided in their convictions of the injury to be anticipated from him. Bucer even then began publicly to preach against him.

Servetus, notwithstanding the opposition which he met from Oecolampadius and others, and regardless of the inquisition, gave his name as author to the book, but the printer and the publisher, more wary, did not add their names or the place of publication to the title-page. After the book was issued, the inhabitants of Ba. sil requested Bucer to make another answer to Servetus, and his indignation was so much aroused, that he proclaimed from the pulpit that Servetus deserved the most summary and disgraceful punishment.

The general belief in the dangerous nature of the doctrines of this man long before he came in contact with Calvin should be borne in mind. Before he was allowed to leave Basil, he was compelled to make a retraction of his errors. This was done in the preface of a little work which he published at that time.3 He humbly asks pardon for the offence which he had given, and retracts all that he had said, not however as being erroneous but as childish and imperfect. With characteristic impudence, how. ever, he proceeds in the work to repeat the same sentiments with some little modifications of form. Mosheim says : Servetus did not even change or improve his doctrines in any respect, but merely repeated what he had said before and defended himself against the objections which had been urged against him by Oecolampadius and others. His idea of justification which he gives in the latter part of this little volume, is about midway between that of the Catholics and Lutherans. Good works, he maintained, will

! In a letter to Oecolampadius he says : Aliter propriis auribus a te declarari audivi, et aliter a Doctore Paulo et aliter a Luthero et aliter a Melanchthone.Mosheim Gesch. 393. * His words are: Dignum esse, qui avulsis visceribus discerperetur.

Dialogorum de Trinitate libri duo ; de justitia Regni Christi Capp. Quatuor. Per Michaelem Servetum alias Reves ab Arragonia Hispanum.

• Gesch. des. M. Serveto, 145, 6.

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