Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective

Reading:  From Michael Servetus’ Christianismi Restitutio [ The Restoration of Christianity]

“Not only because such gifts, but by reason of that one alone who breathes the divine spirit into us, God is said to give us his spirit, Gen. 2 and 6. Our soul is a kind of lantern of God, Prov. 20. It is like a spark of the spirit of God, a reflection of the wisdom of God, created yet very similar to that spiritual wisdom, incorporated in it, retaining the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity. God himself testifies, in chapter 6 above, that the spirit of divinity was innate in man even after Adam’s sin. The dispensation of our life is given and is sustained through grace from his breathe, as Job says, chap. 10 and 32 and following. God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, Isaiah 2 and Psa. 103. God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him, Isaiah 42 and Acts 17. Wind from the four winds and breath from the four breaths gathered by God revive corpses, Ezek. 37. From a breath of air God there introduces the divine spirit into men in whom the life of inspired air was innate. Hence in Hebrew “spirit’ is represented in the same way as “breath.” From the air God introduces the divine spirit, introducing the air with the spirit itself and the spark of the very deity which fills the air.

Michael Servetus

“Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective” by Rev. Fred L Hammond

17 October 2010 © Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa, AL

If I were to ask who Michael Servetus was in the history of Unitarian Universalism, I would probably hear something along the following:  He was a theologian in the 16th century who believed that the Trinity, the belief in a Triune God was not based on biblical scripture. His theology would be described as anti-trinitarian rather than Unitarian. He was burned in effigy by the Roman Catholic Church and burned at the stake with most of his writings in Geneva, Switzerland by John Calvin, another protestant theologian and founder of Calvinism. Following his execution, there was uproar over the punishment of the heretic in which Sebastien Castellion wrote, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.[1]”  And this answer, if given in a classroom setting would give the student a passing grade.

But there is more to Michael Servetus, also known by his Spaniard name as Miguel Serveto and by his French name, Michel de Villeneuve in homage to his hometown in Spain, than his treatises On the Errors of the Trinity and Dialogues on the Trinity. And for us as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century, it is this other aspect of Servetus that I believe is more relevant to us today than his expounding on the errors of trinitarian belief.

I state this because even though half of our name is Unitarian, we are no longer a faith tradition that requires all to profess the creed in the unity of God—God is one.  Some of us may believe in the triune God, God in three persons and some of us may believe in no god.  That creed is no longer necessary for us to call ourselves Unitarian Universalists because we focus more on our character of person, for it is what we do in our actions that reveal the moral character of the person rather than on what we say with our mouth.  There is a scripture verse in the Christian texts that state that if a person confesses[2] with their mouth then they shall be saved.  Unitarians would say that words by themselves are empty and actions speak louder than words.  So the true test of our faith is found in our compassionate, loving actions; whether the inspiration of that action is based in a Unitarian God or a Triune God, or in many Gods, or in no God is immaterial to us as a whole. It is as has been stated many times in a sound bite; “deeds, not creeds.”

In order to get to the aspects of his story that I believe are relevant for us today, I need to tell something of the basic story that is emphasized by Unitarian Universalist historians. Michael Servetus was born around 1509-1511, the exact date is speculated.  What we do know is that his country of Spain had over the centuries prior to his birth become the home of Muslims, of Jews, and of Christians. The culture of the Moors, as the Muslims were known and of the Jews had greatly influenced Spain. The Catholic Church was currently the dominant religious faith.  So Spain was struggling with religious plurality.  ‘Struggling’ probably isn’t the right word, when push comes to shove; a dogmatic inquisition would occur.  Jews and Muslims were given a choice, baptism into Christianity, banishment from the country, or death.  The great inquisitions of Spain occurred before Servetus’s birth but there was this awareness during his lifetime that many had converted to Christianity in name only and not in belief, in particular to the creed of the trinity.

Servetus was a child prodigy by the time he was 13 he could read several languages including Hebrew.  Hebrew was a forbidden language because it meant that one could read the Hebrew Scriptures in the original tongue “without resorting to approved translations[3].” His learning this forbidden language meant that he was most likely   exposed to a secret culture that also existed in Spain that of the Sephardic Jews who became Christian in name only.

It was the belief in the trinity that Michael Servetus saw as the prime stumbling block for true conversions from Jew or Muslim to Christianity.  He thought if this creed, which he discovered had no scriptural basis, could be removed from Christianity then there would be no hindrance for Jew or Muslim to fully embrace Christianity.

You may have heard in the subtext a certain arrogance that pervades Michael Servetus’s personality.  This arrogance would eventually seal his doom.  Authors of Out of the Flames, Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone assert “Servetus was so smart that it never seemed to occur to him that his arguments would be more effective if he didn’t imply that anyone holding an opposing view was an idiot.” He became convinced that the creed of the trinity, codified by a vote of bishops at the Council of Nicea in the year 325 of the Common Era, was the beginning of the corruption of the Holy Church.

He began to hound the protestant reformers of the day regarding this error in theology.  He thought Erasmus would be sympathetic because he had removed the Comma Johanneum from his Latin translations of the First Epistle of John.  This was a phrase not found in the original Greek text which directly referred to the trinity.  Erasmus was not sympathetic; he was merely correcting the facts of the text.  Erasmus attitude was to uphold the church authority and any debate on the validity of the trinity would hold until Judgment Day.

Servetus lived for a time in the city of Basel, Switzerland with a protestant reformer Oecolampadius, who complained to his protestant reformers that Servetus was “of belligerent and persistent temper.[4]”  It was counseled that by any means necessary to squelch Servetus’s blasphemies less they pollute the church.

Servetus took particular haunt of John Calvin.  He sent Calvin his manuscript On the Errors of the Trinity.  They had exchanged heated letters.  This was the experience Servetus had with all of the protestant reformers, even those who were a tad sympathetic to his views, eventually publicly refuted his thesis.

Servetus thought perhaps he had not explained himself well enough. If only he could restate his thesis in another way perhaps others would see.  He then published his Dialogues on the Trinity. But they fell on deaf ears and Servetus then went into hiding in France, taking on the name Michel de Villeneuve and became a doctor of medicine.  His desire to win over John Calvin did not leave him and he would continue to write to him under his nom de plume.  His constancy in pursuing Calvin resulted in Calvin promising that if Servetus ever stepped foot in Geneva, he would not leave Geneva alive; a promise that was kept with Servetus being burned at the stake on October 27 1553.

But it is as a doctor that Servetus made a discovery that was credited to a physician 75 years after Servetus first made it.  Servetus, ever the theologian, described in concept how the circulatory system exchanged blood between the arteries and the veins. He believed correctly that blood traveled from the heart to the lungs where the breath rejuvenated the blood and then sent the blood back into the body.  However, this discovery was lost for many years because of Servetus’ controversial standing and because most of his texts were burned with him, and because he wrote from a theological perspective and not a medical one.

It is this theological perspective that I believe is relevant for us today as Unitarian Universalists living in the 21st century.  In Servetus’s final book “Christianismi Restitutio” [The Restoration of Christianity], “God breathed the divine spirit into Adam’s nostrils together with a breath of air, and thence it remains, … God himself maintains the breath of life for us by his spirit, giving breath to the people who are upon the earth and spirit to those treading it, so that we live, move and exist in him.[5]

This builds on what he had previously written in his Errors of the Trinity, “I say, therefore, that God himself is our spirit dwelling in us and this is the Holy Spirit within us. In this we testify that there is in our spirit a certain latent divinity and it bloweth where it listeth and I hear its voice and I know not whence it comes nor whither it goes. So is everyone that is born of the spirit of God.”

What is remarkable about this is it stands in direct opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination of the elect.  Calvin argued that God from the beginning of the world humanity had two destinations, some he destined for eternal glory and others he destined for eternal damnation.  Only those who were predestined for glory would have the spirit of truth within them. Only the elect were saved.  Servetus is saying that all are among the elect, that all have the nature of the divine within them, the very breath of God itself.

Now this may seem to us as a ‘so what’ since many no longer adhere to a creed of salvation yielding to eternal life or a heaven.  That is indeed the literal reading of Servetus words and in that context perhaps not important. However, in a society where there are forces that insist on focusing on our differences to set us apart and in the extreme, dehumanizes us to the point that violence against one another or even self inflicted violence is seen as viable options, these words are very relevant.

There may not be many people today in Calvinist congregations who believe any longer in predestination, but there are plenty of people in these American states who believe to be indeed among the elect of God.  From the cultish Family on C street who indoctrinates politicians that they are elected by God and therefore can engage in all sorts of indiscretions and make heinous comments against gays and lesbians, against Muslims, and against immigrants without concern of consequence to the privileged corporate bosses at big banks and Wall Street who can break the financial laws of this country and get bailed out for destroying the economy.  This election is also seen in the very fiber of the dominant Anglo culture in this country and is the underlying argument of the Tea Party platform—America for Americans is based in this belief of the elect.

Servetus’s words come back to us and suggest that there is the potential for us to reach the heavenly realms.  In arguing against the trinity Servetus suggested “if Jesus was concluded to be less than divine, he might have been simply a man made divine through faith and acts.  And if that were true, might not that same potential be available to all [people]?[6]

There is within all of us that latent divinity, that creative spirit, that visionary specter, that leading-edge drive to move forward towards creating a world of justice for all.  Imagine if the restrictions on our minds were released and we believed that everyone, regardless of class, education, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity/expression was truly capable of being the next Jesus, the next Sojourner Truth, the next Alice Paul, the next Gandhi, the next Dorothy Day, the next Thurgood Marshall, the next Martin Luther King, Jr., the next Cesar Chevaz, the next reformer for justice. Theologian Cornel West, speaking recently in Arizona said, Justice is what Love looks like in public…When you love folks, you hate that they are being treated unjustly[7]

Servetus’s words of latent divinity are a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the immigrant.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair the immigrant in our neighborhoods with the drug cartels and the violent crimes south of our borders, all the while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear the Muslim seeking to fulfill their religious vows as a peaceful people.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair Muslim Americans seeking the American dream with those who use their bodies as bombs to wreck havoc and chaos, while knowing this is untrue.

This is a message that is timely when forces of injustice are telling us to fear gays and lesbians who seek to live their lives as equal citizens under the law.  Timely message when these forces of injustice pair gays and lesbians with sexual predators of children, while knowing that this too is untrue.

Timely message when forces of injustice can use their guaranteed freedom of speech to spread malicious hateful lies against immigrants, against Muslims, against sexual minorities and fear no consequences while knowing that people will hear and act to embody their lies in hateful actions against immigrants, Muslims, and sexual minorities.

Who amongst us will allow the latent divinity to awaken within and be the next Harriet Tubman to serve tirelessly for freedom of those enslaved by the yokes of injustice?   Who will once again recognize that we all “retain… the innate light of divinity, the spark of that prime wisdom and the very spirit of divinity[8] and therefore are freed to act on behalf of all to create justice once again in this land?  Or at the very least begin to fulfill the call of our Hebrew, Christian, and Islamic teachings to love our neighbors as ourselves.  May it be so.

Benediction: Do not be deceived that because there are those who are privileged in this country, that they somehow are the elect and those who are not so privileged are not among the elect. The spirit of justice, the spirit of truth oft times chooses the least of these to level the playing field, may we seek not after the privileges of the elect but rather after the spirit of justice and truth.  Go in Peace.


[2] Romans 10:9 “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Likewise another verse with a similar meaning:   Philippians 2:10-12that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

[3] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

[4] Roland H. Bainton, Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus 1511-1553

[6] Nancy and Lawrence Goldstone, Out of the Flames

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Published in: on October 17, 2010 at 2:25 pm  Comments Off on Michael Servetus: A Universalist Perspective  
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