Michael Servetus as Pastoral Theologian?

Michael Servetus was a Spanish theologian who was executed under the auspices of the Council of 200 (as well as his long-time adversary John Calvin) in Geneva, Switzerland on 27 October 1553. Having produced several theological works offering correctives on the classical understanding of the Trinity, Servetus was burned alive as his own books provided the kindling under his feet. Though we might be quick to condemn Servetus and his heretical views as malicious in nature, we might first try to understand why he held these views.

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During Servetus's early years, there were historical events taking place in Spain which would influence him for the rest of his life. First, an agenda of religious uniformity was being executed by Ferdinand and Isabella, both Catholics, in an effort to secure political unity. Earl Morse Wilbur, a Unitarian scholar and historian, is exceptionally clear on this point: “In 1492, for refusing to deny the faith of their fathers and profess Christianity, 800,000 Jews had been banished from the kingdom. In the same year the Moors had been overthrown in Granada, and although for a few years they were granted toleration, they were soon compelled too chose between abandoning their Mohammedanism [sic] and being driven from Spain. In both cases it was the doctrine of the Trinity that proved the insurmountable obstacle for races which held as the first article of their faith the undivided unity of God. Within the generation including Servetus’s boyhood, some 20,000 victims, Jewish or Mohammedan [sic], were thus burned at the stake.” [1] These events were evidently impactful for Servetus in an extreme way and were thus the likely catalysts for what would become the utmost passion in his life, viz. dismantling the then-contemporary doctrine of the Trinity. Now, Servetus’s trinitarianism is very complex and we are not afforded the space here to explore it in detail. But we can at least see from the historical account above that Servetus was shaped by the world around him, as well as what he found in the Bible which he understood to be contrary to popular understanding of the Trinity.

History often characterizes certain figures in particular ways shaped after the event. Such as in the Servetus-Calvin case, Servetus is often held up as a great martyr for religious toleration and Calvin is viewed as a power-hungry tyrant. However, these caricatures don't always prove accurate. It is quite clear from Servetus’s writings that he was not concerned with advocating for religious toleration in a modern sense. He was not advocating for his right to quietly believe what he wanted to believe. And faiths outside the Abrahamic tradition were completely off his radar. But he was carrying out a theological debate which he believed would widen the scope of the Christianity in which he so fervently believed. Also, Calvin, though pressured by geopolitical factors, was still a pastor advocating for the truth he found in the Bible. He feared that the dismantling of the doctrine of the Trinity at the hands of Servetus would destroy the Reformation efforts and lead to even wider Protestant-Catholic divides and conflicts.

Scholarship on Servetus varies even to the current day, but one aspect of his thought is almost systematically passed over, viz. the pastoral shape of his theology. Though not a pastoral theologian proper, his concerns are wholly pastoral. As a theologian, he is extremely concerned with the salvation of souls, which every good theologian should be. This concern is manifested in his rejection of the Nicene Trinity because of the great stumbling block it is to adherents of the other two Abrahamic faiths. Servetus dreamed of a Christianity which might graft in both Jews and Muslims, the parties he saw continually persecuted, exiled and killed as a young man in Spain over the issue of the Trinity. The answer, for Servetus, was not to wholly reject the Trinity, but to return to the scriptural, pre-Nicene Trinity void of philosophical terminology and concepts. Servetus did not acquiesce in dry, lifeless, academic debates. Instead, he understood theology as inherently holistic. For Servetus, the doctrine of the Trinity (which he believed to be a doctrine of dead orthodoxy anyway) was not just another statement of belief; it was the cause of death and oppression for thousands. Servetus went so far as to speak of the Trinity as a “monster with three heads,” making explicit reference to the Greek mythology of Cerberus, the three-headed beast which guarded the gates of the underworld.

Matthew Pereria’s characterization of Servetus in his final days seems an apt way to end our discussion of Servetus, the radically innovative thinker who took his beliefs to the stake: “While tragic, it is also seemingly heroic, that Servetus died as a true believer in the Jesus he encountered in the Scriptures. During his final days in jail, one may imagine Servetus as fervently praying to his Jesus for strength and comfort; this Jesus was his Lord and Savior and so much more, but he was certainly not a hypostasis or an imagined part of any ‘three headed monster.’” [2]

[1] Earl Morse Wilbur, Our Unitarian Heritage: An Introduction to the History of the Unitarian Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 1925), 53.

[2] Matthew J. Pereira, "In the Name of the Three Headed Monster: The Contours of the Judicial Process in Servetus's Trial." Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 3-4 (2007), 34.



Thanks for this, JT. Despite my love for Calvin, and insistence that the way the story of Servetus's execution usually gets told is vicious calumny (as Calvin might say), I really like this piece.

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