Michael Servetus: A Unitarian Martyr in Trinitarian, Medieval Europe

Book Review: Out of the Flames – The Remarkable Story of a Fearless Scholar

Book by Lawrence & Nancy Goldstone
Review by BiblioHistoria

This is a very interesting book – but it is not for light reading. If you are religious, you do need to be very open minded. This book is about a medieval-era book that argued against the Trinity simply because the Trinity is NOT mentioned in the Bible. Just so you know where I am coming from, I hold myself to be Humanist. I was raised a Protestant, but no longer belong to any organized religion.

This book (Out of the Flames) turned out to be a lot more scholarly than I anticipated. Not that it was boring mind you, because it wasn’t. But I am just warning you, that it is packed full of interesting and very well researched information about Reformation history. It has taken me a week to get through it.

Michael Servetus was born in Aragon, Spain in 1511. He grew up to become a theologian, physician, and a Humanist. In 1517 Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle church in Wittenberg and sparked the Protestant Reformation. Miguel had an ear for languages and learned Greek, Latin and Hebrew as well as Spanish and French. He later also learned Arabic and German.

At age thirteen (1524), Servetus entered the service of a Franciscan friar by the name of Juan de Quintana,(who was a secret Humanist) and read the entire Bible in its original languages from the manuscripts that were available at that time. He later attended the University of Toulouse in 1527 where he studied law. There he came under suspicion for participating in secret meetings and activities of Protestant students.

Because Servetus had read the Bible in the original languages, he was disturbed to note that there was NO mention of the Trinity within its pages. In 1530 Servetus visited Johannes Oecolampadius in Basel, staying there for about ten months, and probably supported himself as a proofreader for a local printer. In 1531-32 Servetus wrote and published 3 books.

De trinitatis erroribus (“On the Errors of the Trinity”).
Dialogorum de Trinitate (“Dialogues on the Trinity”)
De Iustitia Regni Christi (“On the Justice of Christ’s Reign”).

In these books, Servetus built a theology which maintains that the belief of the Trinity is not based on biblical teachings but rather on what he saw as the false teachings of (Greek) philosophers. Servetus may also have hoped that the dismissal of the Trinitarian dogma would also make Christianity more appealing to Judaism and Islam, which had preserved the unity of God in their teachings, whereas trinitarians, according to Servetus, had turned Christianity into a form of “tritheism”, or belief in three gods.

In 1533 Servetus enrolled at Paris university under the name of Michel de Villaneuve. Shortly after he left Paris and moved to Lyon where he worked as a proofreader and editor for a new edition of Ptolemy’s Geography. In 1536 he enrolled again at Paris University and began studying medicine. After he graduated, Michel opened his own business as a Physician in the town of Vienne, not far from Lyon where he lived quietly for 15 years.

In January 1553 Servetus published yet another religious work with further Anti-Trinitarian views. It was entitled Christianismi Restitutio, a work that sharply rejected the idea of predestination and the idea that God had condemned souls to Hell regardless of worth or merit. Servetus insisted that God condemns no one who does not condemn himself through thought, word or deed.

In the middle of this book was a few short paragraphs describing the flow of blood through the heart and lungs. Prior to this, blood was beleived to enter the heart, cross the ventricle wall and then travel back out to the body. There was no explanation for the change in the blood colour. Servetus wrote that the blood goes from the heart up to the lungs and receives some sort of energy before going back to the heart and then out to the rest of the body. This was the FIRSTcorrect explanation of the circulatory system. In 1628 Dr William Harvey, Physician to King Charles I of England, has always been credited with this discovery.

To John Calvin, who had written the fiery Institutes of the Christian Religion, Servetus’ latest book was a slap in the face. In March 1553 Servetus was betrayed to Calvin as a heretic so he left Vienne and headed for Naples. Instead of taking route around the Alps (in Savoy) and down the coast of Italy, he headed north up the Rhone and then crossed into Geneva where John Calvin lived. There Servetus was arrested, and thrown into jail. In the summer of 1553,having spent several months in prison without any change of clothes and very little food, Servetus was brought to trial as a heretic. Mostly he was questioned about the Trinity.

Prior to the Council of Nicea (in 325 CE) no doctor of the church had used the word Trinity. If the fathers did acknowledge a distinction in the Divine Essence, if it was not real, but formed…the persons were nothing more in truth than dispensations or modes, not distinct entitites or persons in the accepted meaning of that word.

On October 27, 1553 Michael Servetus was burned at the stake as a heretic. Calvin also demanded that every single copy of his latest book Christianismi Restitutio be destroyed.

Fortunately 3 copies of this book have survived. The Goldstones have tracked them down, and told the stories of the books travels from 1553 to the present day – the people who owned them, the places they went to, and where they are located now.

Today the last three copies of Christianismi Restitutio can be found at the Osterreichische National-bibliothek in Vienna, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris and the Library of the University of Edinburgh.

Here are some websites about Michel Servetus and Humanism if you are interested in more information.

Michel Servetus Institute
The Humanist Institute

1 reply

  1. Review from Amazon

    Michael Servetus is one of those hidden figureheads of history who is remembered not for his name, but for the revolutionary deeds that stand in his place. Both a scientist and a freethinking theologian, Servetus is credited with the discovery of pulmonary circulation in the human body as well as the authorship of a polemical masterpiece that cost him his life. The Chrisitianismi Restituto, a heretical work of biblical scholarship, written in 1553, aimed to refute the orthodox Christianity that Servetus’ old colleague, John Calvin, supported. After the book spread through the ranks of Protestant hierarchy, Servetus was tried and agonizingly burned at the stake, the last known copy of the Restitutio chained to his leg.

    Servetus’s execution is significant because it marked a turning point in the quest for freedom of expression, due largely to the development of the printing press and the proliferation of books in Renaissance Europe. Three copies of the Restitutio managed to survive the burning, despite every effort on the part of his enemies to destroy them. As a result, the book became almost a surrogate for its author, going into hiding and relying on covert distribution until it could be read freely, centuries later. Out of the Flames tracks the history of this special work, examining Servetus’s life and times and the politics of the first information during the sixteenth century. Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone follow the clandestine journey of the three copies through the subsequent centuries and explore its author’s legacy and influence over the thinkers that shared his spirit and genius, such as Leibniz, Voltaire, Rousseau, Jefferson, Clarence Dorrow, and William Osler.

    Out of the Flames is an extraordinary story providing testament to the power of ideas, the enduring legacy of books, and the triumph of individual courage.

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