Michael Servetus 

Freedom of Conscience John Calvin
Et Tu Three-Headed Cerberus
Eternal Son Ye Are Gods
Pantheism Grieving the Spirit
In the Stars The Unlettered Prophet
The Logos Christian Nation

Michael Serveus, by Christoffel van the Elder Sichem
Michael Serveus, by Christoffel van the Elder Sichem

Freedom of Conscience

Michael Servetus, burned at the stake in Calvin's Geneva, holds a place of honor in the history of religious liberty, because his death was not unremembered nor unmourned. The Protestant Reformers had made eloquent, even stirring pleas for freedom of conscience on their own behalf: 'Here I stand, I can do none other,' etc. But when faced with inhabitants within their jurisdiction who seriously did not agree with them, they collapsed and reverted to the old ways. Can this possibly be all these fine words mean: 'Here I stand, you stand over there, in the fire'? Surely so it seemed, when Calvin said, "But we muzzle dogs, and shall we leave men free to open their mouths as they please?" (quoted in Standford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus?, Kindle location 1498). Some observers could no longer see much distinction between Calvin and the Pope:

"If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new Pope, but one who burns men alive, while the Pope at Rome at least strangles them first." (Sebastian Castellio, Against Calvin's Book, quoted in Zagorin, id., at 116, quoted Kindle location 5179, Standford Rives, Esq., Did Calvin Murder Servetus?).

They used to tell the joke, during the Cold War, of a monologue on Radio Hungary which explained, 'Under capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it is exactly the other way around.' In this matter of freedom of conscience, there was for a time less daylight visible between the Protestants and the Catholics than might have been expected, given the Protestant Reformers' earnest plea for freedom of conscience. . .on their own behalf! However the leaven of this teaching had begun to work its way through the loaf, as even during Servetus' trial voices were raised in protest, for example from the Dutch Anabaptist David Joris:

"I hope that the bloodthirsty counsel of the learned will not weigh with you. Consider rather the precepts of our only Lord and Master Christ, who taught not only in human and literal fashion in Scripture, but also in a divine manner by word and example that we should crucify and kill no one for his faith, but should rather be crucified and killed ourselves." (quoted Kindle location 3019, Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic, Kindle edition).

Burning heretics finds no foundation in the Bible, and indeed simply cannot be reconciled with the Lord's instructions to His flock. The Lord's parable of the Wheat and the Tares was understood by Servetus's contemporaries to require tolerance of heretics:

  • “Another parable He put forth to them, saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went his way. But when the grain had sprouted and produced a crop, then the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants said to him, ‘Do you want us then to go and gather them up?’
  • “But he said, ‘No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’. . .
  • “Then Jesus sent the multitude away and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.”
  • “He answered and said to them: “He who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, the good seeds are the sons of the kingdom, but the tares are the sons of the wicked one. The enemy who sowed them is the devil, the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are the angels. Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age. The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
  • (Matthew 13:24-43).

See, for example, Balthasar Hubmaier's interpretation of this parable:

"Heretics are those who wickedly oppose the Holy Scriptures. . . Those who are such one should overcome with holy knowledge, not angrily but softly, although the Holy Scriptures contain wrath. But this wrath of the Scriptures is truly a spiritual fire and zeal of love, not burning without the word of God. If they will not be taught by strong proofs or evangelic reasons, then let them be, and leave them to rage and be mad. . .The law that condemns heretics to the fire builds up both Zion in blood and Jerusalem in wickedness. . .This is the will of Christ who said, 'Let both grow together till the harvest, lest while ye gather up the tares ye root up also the wheat with them.'" (Balthasar Hubmaier, 'Concerning Heretics and Those who Burn Them,' quoted pp. 57-58, Henry Clay Vedder, Balthasar Hubmaier, The Leader of the Anabaptists).

John Huss had earlier questioned the death penalty for heresy: "So completely, in truth, was the Church convinced of its duty to see that all heretics were burned that, at the Council of Constance, the eighteenth article of heresy charged against John Huss was that, in his treatise de Ecclesia, he had taught that no heretic ought to be abandoned to secular judgment to be punished with death." (A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Acts, Volume I, Henry C. Lea, Kindle location 9619).

The problem with mainline Protestantism is not that no one had ever said these things, but rather that those who said them kept getting burnt at the stake, as happened to Balthasar Hubmaier several decades before Servetus, and thus their kindly and civic-minded words were drowned out by the roar of the fire and their own tortured screaming.

New Testament Early Church
Albigensian Crusade Waldensians
What Went Wrong? Canaan
Constantine No True Scotsman
Pagan Intolerance Atheist Mass Murder
Islam The Crusades
All or Nothing Iraq

What seems clear from the parable of teh wheat and the tares is that ultimately the Lord will know His own; it is not left up to the church in its present configuration to mark and expel the outsider. While measures of church discipline are made available in the Biblical church order, there is no mandate for human agency to effect the separation which will usher in the eternal state. Thomas Aquinas and other medieval thinkers had argued in favor of burning heretics, not on the basis of any New Testament evidence; the New Testament recommends severing fellowship with the heretic, not killing him. See, for example:

"A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself." (Titus 3:10-11)

Simiple ostracism, recommended here, never killed anyone. The Christian Church began its earthly career as a persecuted minority. But once it became the majority religion, the church did not, unfortunately, resist the temptation to turn persecutor in its turn. In the process, it was necessary to discard the New Testament's recommended course of conduct for dealing with heretics, in favor of the Old Testament theocracy. Judaizing, or imposing Moses' law indiscriminately on Christian believers, is ruled out by Paul; but in this case, they seized the opportunity.

The church also accused the heretic of soul murder. It seems rather that the persecutors are guilty of that offense, because where there's life there's hope. Some come to saving faith at the eleventh hour: "And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing idle, and said to them, ‘Why have you been standing here idle all day?’ They said to him, ‘Because no one hired us.’ He said to them, ‘You also go into the vineyard, and whatever is right you will receive.’ (Matthew 20:6-7). Who is to say whether Miguel Servetus, left alone as the New Testament recommends, might have seen the light and been saved? They were taking away that possibility when they killed him. When he was executed at Geneva, they opened up a trap door beneath him leading straight to hell; whereas if they had followed the New Testament regime, who is to say whether he might have been saved in the end:

"I pray now, lastly, proceed to the author’s reason why Christ’s disciples should be so far from persecuting:—that they ought to bless them that curse them, and pray for them that persecute them, because of the freeness of God’s grace, and the deepness of his counsels, calling them that are enemies, persecutors, no people, to become meek lambs, the sheep and people of God, according to 1 Pet. ii. 10, You which were not a people, are now a people, etc.; and Matt. xx. 6, some come at the last hour, which if they were cut off because they came not sooner, would be prevented, and so should never come." (Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience Discussed, Chapter LIII).

The legal basis for persecuting heretics in Christendom took a somewhat serpentine, circuitous route; Priscillian was executed for witchcraft, against which laws were already on the books. There were two specific offenses in the Old Testament Mosaic law code, blasphemy and witchcraft, which received capital punishment, and which seemed somewhat similar to heresy if not quite the same. In addition, the medieval thinkers who laid the groundwork for the Inquisition offered a natural law argument asserting that social harmony was essential and could only be obtained by religious uniformity, thus leaving the secular authorities free to eliminate dissenters. There is no Biblical basis for this latter idea.

John Calvin's modern-day defenders allege it was a case of inertia, of the momentum of mistaken ages rolling blindly onward:

"Notwithstanding all this I not only deplore that one stake, but I unconditionally disapprove of it; yet not as if it were the expression of a special characteristic of Calvinism, but on the contrary as the fatal after-effect of a system, grey with age, which Calvinism found in existence, under which it had grown up, and from which it had not yet been able entirely to liberate itself." (Abraham Kuyper, Six Lectures Delivered in the Theological Seminary at Princeton, p. 87.)

This is a common defense. Faced with the indefensible, Calvinists stand up and resolutely condemn. . .somebody else. But this history is not quite accurate. The dark past was not unbroken and uninterrupted; the Protestant reformers were well aware that the early church had not persecuted heretics, and expressed the same intention themselves:

"We should vanquish heretics with books, not with burning; for so the ancient fathers did. If it were a science to vanquish the heretics with fire, then the hang-men would be the most learned doctors on earth; we should no longer need to study, but he who overcame another by force might burn him at the stake." (Martin Luther, An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, Part III, Section 24, 1520).

When it came time to live up to their good intentions, they failed. People who want to defend the indefensible keep bringing up the excuse that others at the time also thought it proper to burn heretics. But far from exonerating those who burnt Michael Servetus, this lays up another charge against them, because the Bible says, "Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shalt thou speak in a cause to decline after many to wrest judgment:. . ." (Exodus 23:2). If they were, indeed, following a multitude to do evil, then so much the worse for them and their cause.


The Ptolemaic System of Astronomy

John Calvin

Michael Servetus's nemesis was John Calvin, author of the still widely read 'Institutes of the Christian Religion' and at that time leading pastor of Geneva. In many respects, the Institutes is a brilliant synthesis of Christian thought up to the author's time. However there is one glaring exception. This sixteenth century author's understanding of predestination, which still has many adherents to the present day, is controversial on the grounds that, among other things, it makes God the author of moral evil, or so Wesley's mother alleged: "'. . .it [Calvinism] charges the most holy God with being the author of sin.'" (quoted p. 141, Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism):

T - Total Depravity U - Unconditional Election
L - Limited Atonement I - Irresistible Grace
P - Perseverance of the Saints

Neither in principle nor in practice was John Calvin any 'liberal' in the matter of religious liberty:

"Capital punishment shall be decreed against adulterers; but shall the despisers of God be permitted with impunity to adulterate the doctrines of salvation, and to draw away wretched souls from the faith? Pardon shall never be extended to poisoners, by whom the body alone is injured; and shall it be sport to deliver souls to eternal destruction?" (John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, Volume 2, Four Last Books of Moses, Judicial Supplements, Deuteronomy 13:5, Verse 5).

"And since we are created to no other end, and live for no other cause than that God may be glorified in us, it is better that the whole world should perish, than that men should enjoy the fruits of the earth in order that they may contaminate it with their blasphemies." (John Calvin, Harmony of the Law, Volume 2, Four Last Books of Moses, Judicial Supplements, Deuteronomy 13:12, Verse 12).

In the case before us, John Calvin was no innocent by-stander, but the motive force behind the prosecution of Servetus, as the latter states in his appeal to the Council of 200: "'I petition you that my case be referred to the Council of Two Hundred with my requests, and if I may appeal there I do so ready to assume all the cost, loss and interest of the law of an eye for an eye, both against the first accuser and against Calvin, who has taken up the case himself. Done in your prisons of Geneva. September 15, 1553.'" (Michael Servetus, quoted in Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic, Kindle location 2901). By his own admission he wanted Servetus dead, though he would have preferred the more humane execution technique of beheading to burning.

Some people defend John Calvin by pointing out that, at this stage in Geneva's evolution from a democracy to a totalitarian police state, he was not all-powerful; there were people active in public life who owed nothing to him, and even opponents. The trial and burning of Michael Servetus was a step on the path leading to a different order of things. In the process, Genevans discovered what they had not heretofore known, that heresy was a capital crime, and what was heresy? Whatever John Calvin said was not orthodox. Luckily, there was an expert in-house! Ultimately he would decide his doctrine of predestination, a clear innovation, was orthodoxy and that those who could not agree to it ought to clear out of Geneva.

The book by Standford Rives on Servetus' trial contains much interesting legal information, but is distinctly less insightful on the theology side. One assertion this author makes is that John Calvin was essentially a fellow-traveller with Servetus down the anti-trinity road: "Thus, Calvin never did strongly disagree with Servetus' views on the error in portraying God as a trinity." (Standford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus? Kindle location 3458). To help the reader judge the merits of this claim, I have excerpted a portion of the Institutes containing Calvin's clear and well-balanced discussion of the issue:

John Calvin
On the Trinity (ICR)

One major issue of controversy with 'Calvinism,' as his 'doctrines of grace' are conveniently known, is creaturely free will. Even during his lifetime John Calvin was accused of denying free will altogether, and reviving the ancient pagan doctrine of fate:

"In 1552, Melancthon (Luther's closest aide) aptly commented on how these episodes proved a 'madness' was raging in Geneva where Calvin became a new Zeno. He wrote to Camerarius: 'See the madness of the age! The Allobrogian (the Genevese) controversy on the stoical doctrine of Fate rages to such a degree, that people are cast into prison if they do not hold the same views on the subject as Zeno.'" (quoted Standford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus? Kindle location 6232).

Since Calvin's first published work was a commentary on Seneca, he did have means, motive and opportunity. Did Calvin revive the Stoical doctrine of fate? On what possible basis? Scripture breathes no hint of such a doctrine:

"For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it." (Deuteronomy 30:11-14).

Certainly many of his modern-day followers believe that he did. To analyze this problem, we can inspect a hard case, knowing that hard cases make bad law: the sinner who repents and turns to Jesus. Can a wicked plant bring forth righteous fruit? Yet here we see this wicked sinner turning away from evil, a wholly good rotation. How does he have it in him to do good, before he has been made good? Even the Arminians admit there is a miracle of God in this, which they call preventing grace.

Since this is a hard case, albeit the most important transaction in life, let's look instead at an easy case: a regenerate man who is deciding whether to enjoy a tuna sandwich or a frozen burrito for lunch. While in any given case man's status may be difficult to discern, let us stipulate ex hypothesi that our luncheon diner is born again. The hungry man feels the subjective impression that it is all up to him; he can choose the tuna or the burrito. The regenerate man is specifically described, in God's word, as free, not enchained: "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." (John 8:36). The choice is morally neutral: the tuna is not good nor the burrito evil. If we are to claim, contrary simultaneously to the man's cafeteria consciousness, to the promise of God's word, and to logic, that he is not free to make this decision, which instead is made by God who engrafts into his mind the mere illusion that he has chosen, we find ourselves in agreement with today's Calvinists, but not with the Bible.

As Anglican critic of Calvinism William Hull pointed out, this inward consciousness that we are free, and not only in matters morally indifferent, is not present in the heart of this regenerate man for no reason; rather, God has implanted it there:

"He feels, he knows, that he is free. The exercise of the moral sense, the judgment which the mind pronounces on its own good or evil movements, the conviction of having done or neglected a duty, the calm satisfaction of the virtuous mind, and the fierce or sullen remorse of the criminal, are associated with the insuppressible persuasion of liberty. Destroy this persuasion, and virtue is despoiled of its loveliness, vice of its deformity. But it cannot be destroyed. It is the voice of nature." (William Hull, On Calvinism, Kindle location 126).

It if difficult to fathom why, if it is an illusion, a holy God would implant such a sense within us:

"The entire history of providence and redemption, as given in the Bible, proceeds on the principle, not of fate, but of freedom; and if we are not free, we are reduced to the suspicious and unworthy conclusion, that the secret and the revealed will of God are at variance with each other; that we are deceived by a scheme of things designedly arranged to convey false impressions of truth, and that while God treats us now as though we were accountable beings, He fixes our final destinies without any regard whatsoever to our imaginary freedom and pretended responsibility." (William Hull, On Calvinism, Kindle location 553).

We are getting more and more into gnostic territory if, as they claim, God is a deceiver, who plants fallacies into our very heart; even our regenerate man's conscience is corrupt and unreliable at its core, because he imagines,— how can he not?— he holds the power to go with the burrito. True enough, on the one central decision of any human life,— what will you do with Jesus,— 'free will' seems, not so much the wrong answer, as an answer to the wrong question. However, today's Calvinists discard human freedom altogether, not only in the singular, life-changing decision by which a human being turns away from sin and towards God, where it may indeed seem of little force, utility or benefit, but also in such morally indifferent choices as what to eat for lunch or what color socks to wear. I cannot verify that Calvin himself ever went so far,— he realized he was obliged to affirm Adam's freedom in the garden, at a minimum,— but this conception is certainly popular amongst his followers today. It is putting it mildly to point out that it lacks any Biblical foundation.

To the extent there is a bridge between burning Michael Servetus and these novel doctrines, perhaps it is found in the cold and astringent character of the man. He argued himself into this cul-de-sac: a man cannot be saved by merit (true), because all the merit he can muster is a gift from God; nevertheless, God, as judge, can take no notice of any human characteristic except merit (where does this come from?); therefore, in spite of considerable Bible teaching as to who is saved and why, we must profess utter ignorance as to this great mystery. God cannot be moved by anything one might call 'sentiment,' because this man was not; God cannot pity because he had no pity.


Et Tu

Some people bring up the case of Servetus as a perfect and complete refutation of Calvinism. They explain this is a case of judging the tree by the fruit:

“For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil.” (Luke 6:43-45).

This is certainly true, but the only Speaker for whom the indicated test worked one hundred per cent, one hundred per cent of the time, is He who first spoke it. Certainly the crime of executing Servetus is a stain on Calvin's reputation which cannot be removed by any of his followers' dogged if tone-deaf efforts to palliate it. But John Calvin is not the only sinner who ever trod this earth.

To make the tree symmetrical by pruning off the unwanted branches is a rewarding and fun way to while away an afternoon; it is something anyone can do. Thus latter-day Anabaptists trim off the Munster communards; who wouldn't? While some heritages are more reputable than others, there is sadly none in this sin-stained world which is impeccable. So the conclusions derived from fruit-inspection must remain relative.

Whenever I see Baptists celebrating their Anabaptist heritage, observing Radical Reformation Day and the like, I always make the charitable assumption that they mean the good Anabaptists, and not the bad ones. Everybody knows there are bad ones, such as those who imposed a theocratic totalitarian regime on the German town of Munster:

  • “Prefiguring the actions of communist Cambodia in the 1970s, all non-Anabaptists, including old people, invalids, babies, and pregnant women, were driven into the snowstorm, and all were forced to leave behind all their money, property, food, and clothing. The remaining Lutherans and Catholics were compulsorily rebaptized, all those refusing being put to death. The mass expulsion of non-Anabaptists was enough for the bishop, who began a long military siege of Münster the next day.

  • “With every person in the city drafted for siege work, Jan Matthys launched his totalitarian-communist social revolution. The first step was to confiscate the property of the expellees. All their worldly goods were placed in central depots, and the poor were encouraged to take "according to their needs," the "needs" to be interpreted by seven appointed "deacons" chosen by Matthys.

  • “When a blacksmith protested at these measures imposed, particularly gallingly, by a group of Dutch foreigners, Matthys arrested the courageous smithy. Summoning the entire population of the town to be witness, Matthys personally stabbed, shot, and killed the "godless" blacksmith, and then threw into prison several leading citizens who protested his treatment. The crowd was warned to profit by this public execution, and they obediently sang a hymn in honor of the killing.

  • “A crucial part of the Anabaptist reign of terror was their decision, again prefiguring that of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, to abolish all private ownership of money. With no money to purchase any good, the population became slavishly dependent on handouts or rations from the power elite.”
  • (Murray N. Rothbard, The Takeover of Munster, excerpted from An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought).

Murray N. Rothbard is a libertarian political theorist with an axe to grind, but the fact that the Munster Communards used violence to quell dissent is beyond dispute. There are good Anabaptists, and bad Anabaptists. If their modern-day heirs feel free to drop the bad and embrace the good, why will they not allow the same liberty to modern-day Calvinists? In the end Calvinism must be evaluated, like every other Bible theory, according to its concordances, and its departures, from scripture.


Three-Headed Cerberus

Michael Servetus condemned the Trinity as a three-headed pagan monstrosity which, except in the case of William Lane Craig, is generally diagnostic of anti-trinitarianism, and was in turn condemned by the court for so doing: "Moreover he wrote a letter to one of our ministers in which, along with other numerous blasphemies, he declared our holy evangelical religion to be without faith and without God and that in place of God we have a three-headed Cerberus." (Standford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus? Appendix B: The Verdict, Kindle location 6906). His exact words are as follows:

  • “Your gospel is without the ONE God, without true faith, without good works. Instead of the one God you have a three headed Cerberus; instead of true faith you have a fatal delusion; and good works you say are empty shows.”
  • (Michael Servetus's letter, quoted in Kindle location 4259, Standford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus?).

To Servetus, trinitarians were atheists: "Truly all the trinitarians are atheists" (Servetus, Restoration, 44, quoted in Standford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus?, Kindle location 9356). We now know what he wasn't, but what was he? What were Michael Servetus' own views on the nature of God? Here this protean heretic confuses his readers mightily, because he seems to be everything at once. Michael Servetus is claimed as a martyr by multiple anti-trinity heresies; the Socinian Unitarians and modalists both say, this is their guy: "Today, Servetus's ideas are the foundation of the Unitarian churches worldwide." (Michael Servetus, Heretic or Saint?, Radovan Lovci, Kindle location 219). Close study of both views reveals the differences between the two viewpoints may be more verbal than real. Sometimes Servetus makes orthodox-sounding avowals of the divinity of Jesus Christ, which, however, are often coupled with un-reassuring claims that, just like Christ, we are all gods. And if, as it turns out, Servetus was a pantheist who believed that you, me, that manhole cover over here, and everything else besides, is God, then the question whether he confessed Jesus as God may be somewhat beside the point.

Some readers see modalism in Servetus' preference for the word 'disposition' over 'person:'

"Because there are three wonderful dispositions of God, in each of which his divinity shines forth; and from this you might very well understand a Trinity." (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book I, p. 45, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur).

In his circuit of touching all the bases, Servetus gives a nod to the 'Son' = 'Flesh' theory which was popularized by a third century pope or anti-pope, Callistus, and is the dominant view amongst contemporary 'Oneness' Pentecostals:

". . .for when I say Son, I refer to the flesh, and I do not say that he who was in the Son suffered, but that the Son suffered. Just as it is an affair of the flesh to be born, so it is an affair of the flesh to suffer, to be scourged, to be crucified, to die, and to rise again; nor do these things in any wise pertain to the spirit." (The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Michael Serveto, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book III, pp. 118-119)

This author is reminiscent of Charles Taze Russell, in his categorical statements of what scripture never says,— but it does,— his general confusion, and his propensity to change course without notification of error. In his later writings, he takes a different tack on some of these issues, explaining that earlier he was offering milk to babes. But since he never retracted the earlier teachings, they are still on the table. So there is also the suggestion that 'the flesh,' the human nature, of Jesus did not come into existence at Bethlehem, but pre-existed:

"I, however, say that if you are a Christian you must needs grant that this flesh came down from heaven." (The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Michael Serveto, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, Dialogues on the Trinity, Book the First, p. 200).

This is not normally 'Oneness' Pentecostal belief. What it is supposed to mean is far from clear, but apparently others in the period believed the same thing; speaking of the mystic Schwenkfeld, Charles Hodge says, "Christ is not, even as to his human nature, a creature. His body and soul were formed out of the substance of God." (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Kindle location 1787). As noted, Servetus does confess the deity of Jesus, albeit in a less than robust manner; it turns out Jesus is a 'god' by privilege, not by nature:

"Rejecting these quibbles, then, we with a sincere heart acknowledge the real Christ, and him complete in divinity. But since this divinity of his depends upon the Mystery of the Word, let us for the present say roughly that God can share with a man the fulness of his deity, and give unto him the name which is above every name. For if we admit as touching Moses that he was made a God to Pharaoh, much more, and in a way far more exceptional, was Christ made the God, Lord, and Master of Thomas and of us all." (The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Michael Serveto, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book I, p. 19).

This tactic is familiar to any who have disputed with Unitarians: to freely concede Jesus' divinity, then to rhapsodize about how his is actually a characteristic we share with him, because deity, it turns out, is no exclusive club but available to all comers. Michael Servetus, though wrongfully convicted and murdered, was, without controversy, a heretic on the trinity. He was a heretic from the standpoint of 'mere Christianity:'

"Michael Servetus has the singular distinction of having been burned by the Catholics in effigy and by the Protestants in actuality." (Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus 1511-1553, Roland Bainton et al, Kindle edition, Kindle location 496).

While not a hair on the man's head should have been touched, defending his orthodoxy, as some do, is ill-considered. He is admittedly difficult to classify: "Regarding the Trinity, Servetus was not a Unitarian but had a strange view of the Trinity in a great measure peculiar to himself." (Laurence M. Vance, The Other Side of Calvinism, p. 91). It is not uncommon for Socinian Unitarians to offer willing assent to the deity of Jesus Christ, while whittling away at what that means. Others, to be sure, deny outright:


Sowing Darnel, John Everett Millais

Eternal Son

Michael Servetus did not ascribe eternity to 'the Son,' believing rather in an incarnational Sonship; he preferred to call the pre-incarnate Christ 'the Word,' though he claimed to confess the divinity of Christ. He died with the cry on his lips that Jesus was, not the eternal Son of God, but the son of the eternal God:

"When the executioner brought the fire before his face he gave such a shriek that all the people were horror-stricken. As he lingered, some threw on wood. In a fearful wail he cried, 'O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have pity on me!' At the end of half an hour he died.
"Farel noted that Servetus might have been saved by shifting the position of the adjective and confessing Christ as the Eternal Son rather than as the Son of he Eternal God." (Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic, Kindle edition, location 3096).

What saith the scriptures? Certainly Jesus is the eternal Word. But is His title 'the Son' a reference to the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth, or has the Son enjoyed a fellowship of love with the Father from all eternity? Is the concept of the eternal Son an invention of the church, or is this terminology Biblical?:

The Vineyard Without beginning of days
From Everlasting The Same Yesterday, Today and Forever
Behold, I come With the Father
Eternal Life Son of God
By Him all things were created In the Beginning
Thy throne Mind in Christ
Before me My Redeemer
First and Last Before Abraham was
Enduring Love Downward Mobility
Beginning Where He was Before
Came down from Heaven In the Wilderness
Temple Vision The Firstborn
The Word Stands Forever From the Womb
At the Beginning of His way The Reproach of Christ
Root and Offspring Sons and Slaves
This Day I am Come
The Ending of the Sonship?

Philo Judaeus is a first-century Jewish author who is counted as inspired by neither synagogue nor church. His theology falls short of the Christian understanding of the nature of God; he knew of God's word, but had no realization that the Word had taken on flesh. Still, Philo knew that the Word of God is also the first-born Son of God. If heretics fall short, not only of the New Testament revelation of God, but even of the Old Testament revelation which was all that was available to Philo, then Philo is sufficient to chastise them:

  • “Thus, indeed, being a shepherd is a good thing, so that it is justly attributed, not only to kings, and to wise men, and to souls who are perfectly purified, but also to God, the ruler of all things; and he who confirms this is not any ordinary person, but a prophet, whom it is good to believe, he namely who wrote the psalms; for he speaks thus, 'The Lord is my shepherd, and he shall cause me to lack nothing;' [Psalm 23:1] and let every one in his turn say the same thing, for it is very becoming to every man who loves God to study such a song as this, but above all this world should sing it.
  • “For God, like a shepherd and a king, governs (as if they were a flock of sheep) the earth, and the water, and the air, and the fire, and all the plants, and living creatures that are in them, whether mortal or divine; and he regulates the nature of the heaven, and the periodical revolutions of the sun and moon, and the variations and harmonious movements of the other stars, ruling them according to law and justice; appointing, as their immediate superintendent, his own right reason, his first-born son, who is to receive the charge of this sacred company, as the lieutenant of the great king; for it is said somewhere, "Behold, I am he! I will send my messenger before thy face, who shall keep thee in the road." [Exodus 23:20.] Let therefore all the world, the greatest and most perfect flock of the living God, say "The Lord is my shepherd, and he shall cause me to lack nothing," and let every separate individual say the same thing; not with the voice which proceeds from his tongue and his mouth, extending only through a scanty portion of the air, but with the wide spreading voice of the mind, which reaches to the very extremities of this universe; for it is impossible that there should be a deficiency of anything that is necessary, where God presides, who is in the habit of bestowing good things in all fulness and completeness in all living beings. ”
  • (Philo Judaeus, A Treatise on the Tilling of the Earth by Noah, Chapter XII).

Servetus would be indignant at Philo's identification of God's right reason (logos) as God's first-born, because he says, "But I dispatch the matter in a very few words, and say that the flesh is begotten in the natural way, but the Spirit is not begotten at all; for to say that the Word is begotten is a mere dream, and a great misuse of words." (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book I, p. 62, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur.) He does not really explain why the Word cannot be begotten, other than to point out, as the Muslims do, that it takes two to tango: ". . .for the meaning of the word does not allow that one be called a father apart from a mother." (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book I, p. 62, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur).


Ye Are Gods

Michael Servetus did not start small with his perception of human stature by nature: "'For,' declared Servetus, 'our soul is a certain light of God, a spark of the spirit of God, having an innate light of divinity.'" (Michael Servetus, quoted in Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic, Kindle edition, location 1947). Regeneration turns the dimmer switch up another notch, building the glory. He didn't so much compress the Trinity as enlarge it, after the Mormon fashion; he thought all believers are gods. Jesus' quote of Psalm 82 was his proof-text, to Calvin's sputtering indignation:

"He [Servetus] says that we become gods by regeneration, but gods are those 'to whom the Word of God came' [John 10:34-35, Psalm 82:6]...It is one of his delusions to imagine deity in believers; but this is not the place to examine it. However, to twist a verse of a psalm [Psalm 82:6] into such an alien meaning is an act of abandoned shamelessness. Christ says that kings and magistrates are called 'gods' by the prophet because they bear an office divinely enjoined upon them." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book IV, Chapter XVI, 31).

There seems to be more going on here than the predictable Socinian effort to 'scale down' the meaning of Jesus' great titles of deity by spreading them abroad:

"...indeed, he [Servetus] particularly states that the spirits of believers are coeternal and consubstantial with God, although he elsewhere assigns a substantial deity not only to the soul of man but to other created things." (Institutes, Book I, Chapter XII, 22).
"But before we go farther, we must confront the delusion of the Manichees, which Servetus has tried to introduce once more in this age.  Because it is said that God breathed the breath of life upon man's face [Gen. 2:7], they thought the soul to be a derivative of God's substance, as if some portion of immeasurable divinity had flowed into man...Meanwhile, to tear apart the essence of the Creator so that everyone may possess a part of it is utter folly. Therefore we must take it to be a fact that souls, although the image of God be engraved upon them, are just as much created as angels are." (Book I, Chapter XV, 5.).

Servetus cites Jesus' repeating the language of Psalm 82, 'Ye are Gods,' in his cause:

"Our inward man is truly heavenly, has come down from Heaven of the substance of God, of the divine substance of Christ, not of the blood, not of the will of the flesh but of God. Our inward man is God as Christ is God and the Holy Spirit is God. As the psalmist said, foreshadowing this truth, 'I have said, ye are gods.' As the one God in many makes them Gods, so the one Christ in many makes them both Christs and Gods.'" (Michael Servetus, Christianismi Restitutio, quoted Kindle location 2144, Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic, Kindle edition).

Why does the Bible say, 'Ye are Gods?:'

Legal Defense A Fortieri
Polytheism Weak Link
Elohim Family Portrait
God's Hands Mighty Ones
Theoi Church Fathers
Magistrates Zeus and Hera

  • Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods? If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?
  • (John 10:32-36)

Using this verse either to 'scale down' the Lord or to scale us up is unwarranted. The Lord is referring back to Psalm 82:

  • I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
  • But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
  • Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.
  • (Psalm 82).

In this Psalm, the psalmist calls unjust judges 'gods.' The point the Lord was making is not, 'You know those unjust judges of Psalm 82? I'm a 'god' in just the same sense as they!' Rather He was offering an a fortieri argument: if those people can be called 'gods' without blasphemy, then how much more One to whom the title naturally clings?


Peripheral Issues

Several side issues were raised during the trial, including certain annotations which Servetus as editor had made to Ptolemy's 'Geography.' This issue faded when it became clear that Servetus had not authored this scathing note, but had only incorporated it from an earlier commentator. The text of the offending note, referring to Palestine, reads as follows:

"Nevertheless be assured, reader, that it is sheer misrepresentation to attribute such excellence to this land which the experience of merchants and travelers proves to be barren, sterile and without charm, so that you may call it in the vernacular the 'promised land' only in the sense that it was promised, not that it had any promise." (quoted in Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus, Kindle edition, location 1583.)

To see what is the problem here, consider the use the atheists make of the present infertile condition of the Holy Land:

  • “Where were these people going? They were going to the Holy Land. How large was it? Twelve thousand square miles—one-fifth the size of Illinois—a frightful country, covered with rocks and desolation. There never was a land agent in the city of Chicago that would not have blushed with shame to have described that land as flowing with milk and honey.”
  • (Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, Lectures of Robert Ingersoll, Lecture on the Mistakes of Moses).

Was it possible that adherence to the Copernican system was any part of Servetus' wrongs? Leaving Ptolemy's 'Geography' and turning to his 'Astronomy,' we find in John Calvin a staunch believer in the geocentric system, although he himself seems to realize it would take a miracle to make the system work physically: "The heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion — no disturbance in the harmony of their motion. The sun, though varying its course every diurnal revolution, returns annually to the same point. The planets, in all their wanderings, maintain their respective positions. How could the earth hang suspended in the air were it not upheld by God's hand? By what means could it maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it?" (John Calvin, Commentaries, Psalm 93). This however does not seem to have come up in the controversy. While Servetus' defenders are justified in mourning his death as a loss to science, his persecutors were not motivated by any rage against modern science. In some of these cases it's difficult to know where to draw the line. Giordano Bruno, for instance, was a Copernican. But this is probably not why he was burnt at the stake. He was also an atomist; but, again, it is likelier his pantheism did him in with the Inquisition, though no exact record survives of his trial. One would hope the elders of Geneva were more open-minded on issues of modern science than were the Inquisitors, but they may not have been.

Moving on to other theological issues, like today's Baptists, Michael Servetus did not find any profit in infant baptism:

"But he admitted without reservation his severest strictures on infant baptism. 'It is an invention of the devil, an infernal falsity for the destruction of all Christianity.'" (Michael Servetus quoted Kindle location 2771, Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic).

Though the main accusation for which he was burnt was anti-trinitarianism, his Anabaptist views were mentioned in the charges against him. Unlike the 'annotations to Ptolemy' charge which dropped out, this one remained to the end. 'Anabaptist' is not the name of a self-recognized denomination, but rather a grab-bag term incorporating people of various tendencies whose sole point of contact is in rejecting infant baptism. This is one point on which he was right, but then, even a stopped clock is right twice a day:



Like fellow martyr to free thought Giordano Bruno, Michael Servetus offers a grand theory of everything which divinizes matter.

"This is my fundamental principle that all things are a part and portion of God and the nature of things is the substantial spirit of God." (Michael Servetus quoted by John Calvin, cited Kindle location 2763, Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic).

But the Bible is clear on the distinction between the creature and the Creator:

“Know that the Lord, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100:3.)

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1).

“The word which came to Jeremiah from the Lord, saying: ‘Arise and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will cause you to hear My words.’ Then I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was, making something at the wheel. And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.
“Then the word of the Lord came to me, saying: ‘O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?’ says the Lord. ‘Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel!’ (Jeremiah 18:1-6).

“Who has directed the Spirit of the Lord, or as His counselor has taught Him?
“With whom did He take counsel, and who instructed Him, and taught Him in the path of justice? Who taught Him knowledge, and showed Him the way of understanding?
“Behold, the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales; look, He lifts up the isles as a very little thing.
“And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor its beasts sufficient for a burnt offering.
“All nations before Him are as nothing, and they are counted by Him less than nothing and worthless.” (Isaiah 40:13-17).

“Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not think to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I say to you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones.” (Matthew 3:8-9).

“Then Abraham answered and said, ‘Indeed now, I who am but dust and ashes have taken it upon myself to speak to the Lord: Suppose there were five less than the fifty righteous; would You destroy all of the city for lack of five?’” (Genesis 18:27).

Servetus returns to the old gnostic paradigm of emanation: God, in this system, does not create the world as something extraneous to Himself, but rather emits it in the manner by which a super-nova ejects matter from itself, thus explaining how Christ's 'flesh' can have been pre-existent:

"Therefore the stone which came forth from the mountain was not created out of nothing, but came out of the Substance of God. It is so because even from the very fact that God speaks and says, Let there be light, he does not create the light or the Word, but through the omnipotence of God brings forth from himself both the light and the Logos; so once more, when he causes the light and the Logos to be flesh, the flesh is not created out of nothing, but is brought forth from God, and becomes flesh, and exists in that hypostasis which was the Logos and the light, because the Logos εγενετο, that is, became, and had existence as flesh." (The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Michael Serveto, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, Dialogues on the Trinity, Book II, p. 205).

These people visualized the universe as a great organism, with matter serving as the body and we ourselves part of a 'Borg'-type crowd-sourced, communal mind. This gigantic beast substitutes for the Biblical paradigm of Creator/creature. This view survives in an attenuated form in the 'Gaia' hypothesis which supposes that, not the universe as a whole, but the earth, is in some respects a self-regulating system, as it were a living being. But the Bible is most emphatically not in line with the notion of 'uncreated elements:'

"He [Servetus] compounds Christ out of three uncreated elements to make him begotten of God's essence.  Nevertheless, he imagines him to be the first-born among creatures in such a way that the same essential divinity is in stones according to their degree.  But lest he seem to strip Christ of his deity, he declares that His flesh was of the same substance with God, and that the Word was made man by the conversion of flesh into God. [...] Indeed, he repeats this thought quite often: that the Son was begotten of God by knowledge and predestination, but that he was finally made man from that matter which shone at the beginning in the presence of God in three elements - elements that then appeared in the fist light of the world, in the cloud and pillar of fire." (Book II, Chapter XIV, 8).

"[T]hree uncreated elements"? In the Biblical creation account, there are no constituents of the material world which are not created. The prosecutor's charge against Servetus reveals these to have been fire, water and air, missing only earth of the classical four:

"The Complaint of Nicholas de la Fontaine
Against Servetus, 14 August, 1553
(Hanover Historical Texts Project)
"Nicholas de la Fontaine asserts that he has instituted proceedings against Michael Servetus and on this account he has allowed himself to be held prisoner in criminal process...
XIV. Item, that the flesh of Jesus Christ came from heaven and from the substance of God.
XV. Item, that divinity was imparted to Jesus Christ only when he was made man, and afterwards spiritually communicated to the apostles on the day of Pentecost...
XIX. Item, that the word of God is no other thing than the flesh of Jesus Christ...
XXI. That the essence of the flesh and of the soul of Jesus Christ is the divinity of this word and of the breath which God has breathed forth...
XXV. Item, that the substance of Jesus Christ is that which was in the skies, and that this is the same substance whence proceed the angels and our souls...
XXVIII. Item, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God because he has the elements of the substance of the Father, to wit: fire, air and water...
XXXVIII. Item, the soul of man insomuch as it possesses many divine properties is full of an infinity of Gods."

Though presented under the name of Nicholas de la Fontaine his retainer, John Calvin admitted having drafted this indictment: "In his 'Declaration pour maintenir la vraye Foy,' already referred to, where Calvin is on his defense, he says, 'I will not deny that it was at my instance that he was arrested, that the prosecutor was set on by me, or that it was by me that the articles of inculpation were drawn up.'" (A Tragedy of the Reformation, Being the Authentic Narrative of the History and Burning of the 'Christianismi Restitutio,' 1553, David Cuthbertson, p. 47). John Calvin is a hostile witness, but not a careless or inaccurate one. It is, however, only fair to point out he consigned the works he is quoting to the flames,

"Calvin, having burned the man and his books, has the audacity to refer us to these books, quoting detached passages. It is as if an incendiary, having reduced a house to ashes, were then to invite us to inspect the furniture in the various rooms." (Sebastian Castellio, quoted Kindle location 1567, Standford Rives, Did Calvin Murder Servetus?).

Many of Servetus' ideas, like the full-fledged Godhead of all believers, owe more to Hermes Trismegistus than to anything in the Bible. One can hear such talk nowadays, from the Mormons and New Agers, though likely few of the modern-day folk who sing in Servetus' choir have read his works. Meanwhile, the people who do lay claim to him have good reason not to read him. While they may enjoy picking up scattered remarks of Michael Servetus, it is doubtful 'Oneness' Pentecostals really want to adopt the entire package which will involve adoring the physical universe as uncreated deity.

Pantheism is popular in the present day amongst 'New Age' types, as it is a popular Eastern paradigm: "'For me, everything in creation is God,' she says. 'There is nothing but God. Every single object is a wonder for me.'" (quote of the guru known as 'Amma,' The Hugging Saint, Rolling Stone, August 16, 2012).


Grieving the Spirit

Servetus' teaching on the Holy Spirit falls woefully short of the Biblical evidence:

  • “For by Holy Spirit it means now God himself, now an angel, now the spirit of a man, a sort of instinct or divine inspiration of the mind, a mental impulse, or a breath; although sometimes a difference is marked between breath and Spirit. And some would have the Holy Spirit mean nothing other than the right understanding and reason of man.”
  • (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book I, p. 35, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur).

In the midst of this cacophony, of one man's voice speaking of angels, men, and states of mind, we sometimes discover that the Holy Spirit did not even exist until the Day of Pentecost:

"Hence from the fact that this is the Spirit of the Son, Paul proves to the Galatians by powerful reasons that we are made sons through him. For he stamps upon us the character and sonship of the Son of God, so that, as brothers of Christ, we cry, Abba, Father! Because it was never given to any one under the law, nor before the resurrection of Christ, that he should be a brother of Christ, or that he should be joint-heir to his kingdom; for this Spirit did not yet exist, nor did its power, nor the power of the kingdom of Christ." (The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Michael Serveto, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, Dialogues on the Trinity, Book II, p. 220)

Some modalists believe this. Is it Biblical?

Eternal Spirit Wisdom
Face of the Waters Jawbone
Seventy Elders Gideon
In the Wilderness Fiery Stream
Oil of Gladness Rain
Strife Prophets of Old Time
John the Baptist Simeon
Zacharias Breathe

Holy Spirit is God

Although willing, as shown above, to reduce the Holy Spirit to a state of mind if need be, he was aware many of these Bible references cannot be disposed of so easily. Therefore, in a manner familiar to students of anti-trinitarian heresies, in some cases Servetus denied, not so much the existence nor the eternity, but the personality, of the Holy Spirit:

I Filled with the Spirit
Will Insult
Grief Instructor
He Comforter
Mind Strife

Again, like the unlettered Arabian prophet, Mohammed ibn Abdallah, who mixed up the Holy Spirit with the angel Gabriel,— who, after all, is a spirit and is holy,— Servetus refers to the Holy Spirit as "a ministering spirit:" "Christ also often calls the holy ones angels. If, then, what God employs is a spirit, and a sort of holiness is appropriate to it, why shall it not be called the Holy Spirit? And, to make few words of it, every breath, every breathing and impulse of the mind through which God breathes, is called holy, and accordingly the Holy Spirit, or a holy spirit, or the Spirit of God." (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book II, p. 99, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur). The reader will note, what is found here is not a unitary presentation but a smorgasbord, a buffet from which the inquirer can select what dishes he likes: the Holy Spirit might be a state of mind, an angel, a man, or some other thing. These various improvisations do not really meet the cases they are called upon to address, much less the Bible evidence in its entirety.


In the Stars

Like his fellow Renaissance pantheist Giordano Bruno, Michael Servetus had an intense interest in the natural world. If you stop to think about it, when a pantheist studies the natural order, he is venerating his god. A physician by profession, Servetus made real contributions to the study of the transit of the blood through the lungs. Like Bruno, Servetus was anything but reductive, which is both good and bad; he incorporated pagan elements into his world-system, including astrology:

"He had made the perfectly valid observation that on the night of the 13th of February, 1538 (actually at 13h 9m 21s), Mars, while in the neighborhood of the star called Cor Leonis or Lion's Heart, had been eclipsed by the moon. 'Hence I predicted that in this year the hearts of the lions would be more avidly excited, that is, the minds of princes would be induced to martial enterprises, much land would be devastated by fire and sword, the Church would suffer, certain princes would be killed, pests would ensue, which may God avert.'" (Michael Servetus, quoted location 1796, Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic, Kindle edition).

He seems to be experienced in this business; certain princes being killed is a given, in that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown; he is more prudent than to name them. Like predicting snow in Buffalo in the coming winter, this is pretty likely to happen in any case. Servetus felt that the stars performed no function, unless that of sentinel and harbinger:

"So blind are they that they never lift their eyes to the heavens to behold that this most beautiful mechanism was not established by God in vain. And why have signs been established by the Creator, as Scripture testifies, if not that they may signify something?" (Michael Servetus, quoted Kindle location 1790, Roland Bainton, Hunted Heretic, Kindle edition).

This interest in astrology was not uncommon for the age, but it remains inconsistent with a Christian world-view, as some realized even at the time: "That remarkable character, Michael Servetus, the discoverer of the lesser circulation, when a fellow student with Vesalius at Paris, gave lectures upon judicial astrology, which brought him into conflict with the faculty; and the rarest of the Servetus works, rarer even than the 'Christianismi Restitutio,' is the 'Apologetica disceptatio pro astrologia,' one copy of which is in the Biblioteque Nationale." (William Osler, The Evolution of Modern Medicine, A Series of Lectures Delivered at Yale University, p. 88). These unnamed faculty members, alas, had the goods on this quack. The idea that events here below could be correlated with changes in the heavens entranced many for centuries. Like Freudian psychotherapy, this theory turns out to have too much explanatory power. In Freudianism, any predicted event is self-explanatory, but if the opposite happens, that is 'reaction formation:' any event, or its opposite, is predicted. If nothing happens, then it turns out that was predicted also. Likewise in astrology, if something good happens, that is owing to the influence of the benign stars; but if something bad, why that is owing to the influence of maleficent stars. Since astrology can 'explain' anything that can possibly happen, both good and bad, it explains too much. There really are too many of these comprehensive theories of everything around; they include Darwinian evolution; mankind cannot live at peace with that much explanatory power:


The Unlettered Prophet

Some clarity on the issue of whether Servetus' affinities lie with 'Oneness' or Socinianism may be found in his fulsome praise of the unlettered Arabian prophet:

  • “Furthermore, and worse than all this, how much this tradition of the Trinity has, alas! been a laughing-stock to the Mohammedans, only God knows. . .Hear also what Mohammed says; for more reliance is to be given to one truth which an enemy confesses than to a hundred lies on our side. For he says in his Alcoran that Christ was the greatest of the prophets, the spirit of God, the power of God, the breath of God, the very soul of God, the Word born of a perpetual virgin by God's breathing upon her; and that it is because of the wickedness of the Jews toward him that they are in their present wretchedness and misfortune. He says, moreover, that the Apostles and Evangelists and the first Christians were the best of men, and wrote what is true, and did not hold the Trinity, or three Persons in the Divine Being, but men in later times added this.”
  • (Michael Servetus, On the Errors of the Trinity, Book I, pp. 66-67, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur).

He seems to find Mohammed ibn Abdallah's doctrine of Christ perfectly adequate, though Christians must demur. But certainly no one has ever suggested Mohammed was a 'Oneness' preacher as understood by those who so style themselves.


The Logos

Servetus understood that Jesus was the Word made flesh, which sounds great except that, as with most other Unitarians, his understanding of what that means was rather feeble.

". . .for his very Son, Jesus Christ, is called the Word of the Father, because he declares the Father's mind, and gives knowledge of it." (Michael Servetus, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Book II, p. 74)

". . .since God even from the beginning was speaking of Christ, and was acting by speaking his Word, so that thus all things are said to exist through Christ himself." (Michael Servetus, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Book II, p. 75).

"For the sound teaching of Christ takes it in another sense, that the Word was with God, since this was a mystery hidden from the beginning in the mind of God, until the fulness of time came, and it was then manifested when the Word became flesh." (Michael Servetus, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, The Errors of the Trinity, Book II, p. 79).

This rather vague understanding of the Word, that it is to be taken to mean that God was thinking of something or talking about something, is very familiar to those who dispute with Unitarians. What does the phrase really mean, Biblically?:

The Word was God Identity
Philo Judaeus Creation
Anomalies Life-Giver
Lamp Unto My Feet Interaction
Theophanic Angel God's Reason
God's Wisdom

The reader who is reassured that Servetus safeguards Christ's eternity by identifying Him with the Word, should realize the Word's own continuing existence is rather doubtful to this author:

"Again, John says of this Word, both in his Gospel and in his Epistle, that it was in the past; but it never says of it, It is, which difference and way of speaking you do not notice." (Michael Servetus, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, The Errors of the Trinity, Book III, p. 123).

This is explained, "Reflect upon this continually; for I say that the Word was in the law as a prefiguring of Christ; the Word was the shadow, and Christ is the truth.. . .For we never read of the Word, is, but, was." (Michael Servetus, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, The Errors of the Trinity, Book IV, p. 143). This, incidentally, is not even true, because we perceive One so named coming in judgment, "And he was clothed with a vesture dipped in blood: and his name is called The Word of God." (Revelation 19:13). Elsewhere, however, he suggests that Jesus reverted to being the Word after the resurrection: ". . .he has returned to the original state of the Word. . ." (The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Michael Serveto, translated by Earl Morse Wilbur, Dialogues on the Trinity, Book II, p. 212). So, take your pick. Sometimes in his zigs and zags he even veers toward orthodoxy; nevertheless, while this is a difficult heresy to categorize, it certainly is one.


Christian Nation

One would like to think that the concept of the civil magistrate punishing heretics is over and done with, even for Calvinists. Sadly, this is over-optimistic. There has recently been a best-selling book that puts the task of identifying heresy, sifting between sound doctrine and false teaching, squarely into the hands of the government. Or not at first pass; it is the church which divides between truth and falsity. But which church is to be the state-approved one? It will be up to the government of the New Asgard to decide which sect has ferreted out the truth, so here we go back to the notion of government finding the true path to heaven, then soaking the ground with the blood of those who don't agree. I don't know whether this error is so centrally baked-into the foundation of Calvinism that it can't ultimate be disentangled from it.

The powers this author allows to the "Christian prince" are extraordinary: "The prince should also fund the ministry of the Word and provide schools for theological education. Lastly, he has the power to call synods in order to resolve doctrinal conflicts and to moderate the proceedings. Following the proceedings, he can confirm or deny their theological judgments; and in confirming them, they become the settled doctrine of the land." (Wolfe, Stephen. The Case for Christian Nationalism (p. 313).) We are beyond the territory of excessive entanglement and well into the sphere of Christofascism here. This author, Stephen Wolfe, proposes to deploy the police power of the state gainst heretics and atheists. The "Christian prince" ought to strive to achieve uniformity of worship; in so doing he is not straying outside his mandate, because error is not any part of the kingdom of God: "The prince has civil authority in principle over all outward things negatively, viz., he can eliminate error, even error that purports to belong in Christ’s kingdom, for error is not actually in Christ’s kingdom." (Wolfe, Stephen. The Case for Christian Nationalism (pp. 316-317).)

His argument is that obscure seventeenth century Calvinists did not believe in religious liberty, so why should we? And it's true, even the man himself did not believe in it: "Whoever shall now contend that it is unjust to put heretics and blasphemers to death will knowingly and willingly incur their very guilt. This is not laid down on human authority; it is God who speaks and prescribes a perpetual rule for his Church." (John Calvin, Declaration for Maintaining the True Faith. . .Against the Detestable Errors of Michael Servetus).

Some years ago a Calvinist resurgence began in some American evangelical churches, like the Southern Baptist Convention. I wonder what people's reaction would have been if you had said to them, 'Accept this now and it won't be 20 years before they're doing Servetus all over again'? People would have scoffed. And truth to tell, they do not want our contemporary Servetuses burnt, nor even beheaded, as was Calvin's more humane suggestion. A fine and imprisonment will do. . .for now:


First Amendment Wall of Separation
Ancient Times Pilgrim's Progress
Fundamental Error Theonomy
No Place Like Home Natural Affection
Gynocracy The Lares
Intermarriage Respect of Persons
Temptation in the Desert Heaven
Exiles Tower of Babel
Scatter the Proud