When one looks at the many and varied stories on how the many and varied religions of the world came into existence, more often than not there’s a martyr in there somewhere. It’s not the case with all of them, but the narrative of the martyr who died for the faith is a fairly common motif. And yes, we Unitarians do have our own martyr in the person of a one Michael Servetus.
In the course of the sermons I offer during a church year, I like to take a dip now and then into our Unitarian and Universalist histories. So today, as we continue to digest Thanksgiving, and before we plunge head long into the many celebrations of December, we pause for an historical interlude.
In doing so, the first thing to figure out is how to make even remotely interesting an account of a 16th century theological debate that cost a man—our own Michael Servetus—his life.
As I thought on that it struck me that this story could make a pretty decent period piece movie, in the manner of A Man for All Seasons. That one ended with the execution of the protagonist, Sir Thomas More, at the hands of the antagonist, King Henry VIII of England. In our film for today the protagonist is Mr. Servetus, and the antagonist is one of the leading lights of the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin. So, for the next few minutes you are going to witness my extremely short career as a screen writer and director.
In this one I open with an execution instead of holding it until the end. So, we begin with a stark, black screen upon which appear the words: “October 27, 1553. Geneva, Switzerland.” We see daylight just breaking over 16th century Geneva. Move in for a tight shot of a jail from which a bedraggled, chained prisoner is being led forth by guards and a clergyman. The prisoner ignores the clergyman. They proceed to the center of town where a crowd is gathering around a large pile of freshly cut boughs with a stake in the middle.
The prisoner is tied to the stake. His books are tied to his waist. He is given one last chance to recant his heresy. He refuses. The fires are lit. Green wood has been deliberately used so it will burn slowly, so slow that it takes a couple of hours to burn the poor man to death, even though we can’t use up that much screen time. Going by the actual accounts of this incident the condemned man cries out before he perishes, “O Jesus, Son of the Eternal God, have mercy upon me.”
Nest scene: Later that same day. The attending clergyman at the execution and John Calvin are having a conversation. The clergyman recalls Servetus’ final words. Calvin says that if Servetus had called Jesus “The Eternal Son of God” rather than “Son of the Eternal God” he would have saved himself from the flames. For that was indeed Servetus’ capital crime; he believed Jesus to be the Son of God, but not God himself as the Christian Doctrine of the Trinity holds. Unbelievable as it may seem to us, it was Servetus’ unwillingness to rearrange his words in a certain way that cost him his life.
Of course, there was much more to it than that, as would come to be seen in the flashback part of the movie, which now gets underway as the words Michael and John flash up on the screen. I won’t speculate on which actors would play the two major roles. As I go along perhaps you can figure out who could play Servetus and who could play Calvin.
The flashback begins some 30 years earlier in Villanueva, Spain. They show 14 year old Michael, as Miguel Serveto, studying under the tutelage of a Franciscan monk with a possible eye on the priesthood; and have it run from there.
The challenge in making such a film is to put it in the context of its time, so that when we get to the execution the viewers can see the chain of events that led up to it in a way that would make a certain kind of sense—a pretty perverted sense by our standards, but a certain kind of sense nonetheless.
To do this you have to portray a society in which there are no such things as secular democracies as we know them today. Any kind of democracy is still in a very fledgling state at this point. Neither is there such a thing as church/state separation in the way we now know it. In many countries the religious and political orders were far more institutionally linked than they are now, especially where the divine right of monarchs still held sway.
The other major happening at this time is the invention of the printing press. This meant, among other things, that any literate person who could get his hands on a printed Bible could read it for himself (and I’m afraid it was himself in practically all cases). He could draw his own conclusions as to what the text said and meant rather than rely solely upon what the church authorities said it said and meant. This is just what Servetus did, which gets us back to our story.
We now show him leaving Spain, choosing a career in law rather than the priesthood, and going to the University of Toulouse in France. There he obtains a printed version of the Bible, and its contents work their way through his brilliant, precocious, and—by most accounts—his insufferably argumentative mind. What strikes him the most is that he finds no Biblical basis for the Doctrine of the Trinity, as promulgated by the Church. There are plenty of references to God as Father, to Jesus as Son, and to the Holy Spirit; but nothing to support the idea that they are all equally God.
This is important to Michael, because back in his native Spain, even though Catholicism has come to reign supreme, there is still a Jewish and Muslim population that the political authorities more or less tolerate—or they did for a time, anyway. Servetus thinks: You know, the person of Jesus, his life and teachings, would probably be pretty attractive to Jews and Muslims if they weren’t forced to believe his was also God in order to be a Christian. And, he further thinks: Well, why don’t I make that happen.
Servetus was almost as naïve as he was brilliant. He thinks, I’ll become a Protestant. I’ll go sign on with this Protestant Reformation, and then I’ll debunk this notion of the Trinity, and that will make Protestant Christianity so attractive that it will become a universal religion. So, now we have him leaving France for Switzerland where he published, in 1531, a book—which he writes in Latin—called On the Errors of the Trinity. This gets him in as much, ah, deep doo-doo with the Protestants as it does the Catholics. Remember the Protestant Reformation was as much of a protest against certain practices of the Catholic church than it was over doctrine. The Protestants wanted to demonstrate that they were “doctrinally correct” Christians who were questioning some to the institutional excesses of 16th century Catholicism.
So, far from being embraced, Servetus finds himself ostracized by most of the Protestants. Then his book comes to the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, now underway in his native Spain. We work in a scene here where Servetus, in Switzerland, receives an order to go back to Spain to appear before the Inquisition. Servetus responds, in whatever language he’s using, “No [bleeping] way am I going there!” Michael may have been a little crazy about some things, but he wasn’t stupid. Not stupid enough, anyway, to go back to his native Spain to face the Inquisition. At this point in his life he still has enough sense to hide out.
So he changes his name, goes to Paris, and takes up the study of medicine. He reinvents himself as Dr. Michel de Villeneuve. In the course of his medical career he makes some significant discoveries about the circulation of the blood, for which he is given credit to this day in the annals of medical history. It is more or less of a footnote in those annals where it is added that Dr. Servetus, for all of his pioneering work on the human circulatory system, also went and got himself killed over some weird religious matter.
Indeed, one of the mysteries of Servetus’ life is why he didn’t just live it out as a doctor since that was where he finally found his niche. He would have saved himself a lot of grief—to say nothing of his life—if he’d simply stayed in that niche. What drew his back into the religious realm was, in part, his becoming a part of a movement of 15th and 16th century Frenchmen who called themselves humanists. They were coming under the influence of the burgeoning Enlightenment. Theirs was not an anti-religious humanism, however, but rather one that held persons glorified God by celebrating their intellect and fully using their creative powers.
This stance led him to deny the doctrine of original sin for which, as with the Trinity, he could also find no Biblical basis. He just could not leave this religious thing alone. Instead, he writes another book called The Restoration of Christianity. In it he called for a form of Christianity in line with the kind of humanism he’d come to embrace. In this view Jesus was the Son of God because he was the human being who best lived out the Godliness that is in all of us. Servetus became, that is to say, a Christian humanist who wanted to “restore” Christianity to what he regarded as it’s true meaning and purpose. Restore it, that is to say, to the kind of religion Jesus taught and lived out.
It is here that Servetus’ naivete gets the better of him. From Paris he begins a correspondence with John Calvin in Geneva. Calvin has now become the chief architect of the Protestant Reformation. While holding no political office, Calvin—on the strength of his influence—has become the most powerful person in Geneva. His mission was to make of Geneva a model Protestant city as a counterpoint to Catholicism’s Rome. He wanted Geneva to be a demonstration of what a society would look like if it were undergirded and informed by Protestant theology—Calvin’s brand of Protestant theology of course.
But Servetus believed in the power of ideas above all else. He figured that if I can just convince Calvin by the strength of argument and reason, of my brand of Christianity, he’ll see the light and Christianity will become in harmony with Enlightenment principles and values.
Servetus further believed that if I can just go to Geneva and talk this whole thing over with my pen pal John, we can work it out. Big mistake. Huge mistake. Fatal mistake. Servetus may have been smart enough to duck the Inquisition, but he didn’t see the rat’s nest he was riding into now. He was brilliant when it came to theology and medicine, but he didn’t understand politics very well; especially the hard-ball, down-and-dirty politics, which Calvin was not above playing.
Now In our movie we see Servetus riding into Geneva with his books in his saddlebags and full of confidence in his argumentative powers; and then we get a shot of Calvin looking out a window, seeing him coming into town, and saying to an aide: “He’s not getting out of here alive.” It may not have happened exactly that way, but I’m allowed some cinematic license.
What reportedly did take place, however, comes pretty close. When Calvin read some of the correspondence he’d received from Servetus he did say to one of his colleagues that should Servetus ever come to Geneva: “If my authority is of any avail, I will not suffer him to get out alive.”
This is what the Calvin versus Servetus showdown was really all about. It was about Calvin’s political authority and influence as much as it was about his theology; the two were completely intertwined. Hear Calvin’s words again: “If my authority is of any avail, I will not suffer him to get out alive.”
Servetus was doomed as soon as he crossed the city limits. He was arrested, jailed, tried for heresy, and condemned to death in a very expeditious manner. Now technically, none of this was done by Calvin. It was all accomplished by decision of the Council of Geneva, a very early experiment in democracy, no less. This was not a King ordering Servetus’ death with an off-with-his-head pronouncement. Nor was is the act of a religious Inquisition as was happening in Spain. Instead Servetus’ death was at the hands of a body of civic officials in a supposedly enlightened city. And because Calvin commanded the religious allegiance of the overwhelming majority of the citizenry of Geneva, he also represented and embodied the political base of the Council of Geneva, something the Council did not take lightly.
So, Servetus went to an agonizing death and Calvin’s power and his political power base in Geneva remained intact. I’m not sure if Servetus ever even figured out that he was dying as much for political as for theological reasons. Unlike Servetus, Calvin knew his politics as well as his theology, and he played quite skillfully in both ball parks. He was the religious tail that wagged the dog of civil law in Geneva.
As for my movie, then, I’d offer it both as an historical time piece as well as a metaphor for our times. I say metaphor and not replication. No, we do not execute people over obscure points of theology. But the political dynamics that led up to the execution of Servetus have a familiar and recognizable ring to them. For what you had there in Geneva were the political powers that be, and the religious base that supported them, each doing what they had to do in order to stay simpatico with one another.
The Geneva of Calvin’s day was an early attempt at democratic rule in Western culture. But Geneva’s elected officials were playing to a religious base that Calvin more or less controlled. Sound familiar? It should since this dynamic still plays out quite frequently—like, say, right now in, oh I don’t know, the State of Alabama. Rather than alienate a religiously based political base the Governor of that State—and, obstensively, the President of the United States as well—are backing a convincingly alleged pedophile for the United States Senate. I can imagine a good number of the evangelical ministers in that State—and no, not all of them, but many of them—echoing in their own way the words of Calvin: “If our authority is of any avail, we’ll help elect a disgraced and expelled former Federal Judge to the United States Senate.”
A few more points before closing. Why do we as UUs claim Michael Servetus our founder and martyr? Well, he was labeled a “Unitarian” because of his repudiation of trinitarianism. But it’s deeper than that. Most of his theology we would find largely arcane if not incomprehensible.
He was not, by most accounts, a very pleasant person. He loved to argue just for the sake of argument. He was not an especially nice guy. You probably wouldn’t want to invite him to a potluck dinner unless you prepared to argue with him practically any topic that might come up.
But his legacy is important to us for several reasons. As word of his death, and the manner in which it happened spread, a certain revulsion set in among at least some of the Protestant reformers causing them to repudiate the idea that alleged heretics should be punished by the civil magistrates at the behest of a powerful religious leaders. Servetus’ death was one of the factors that led King John Sigismund of Transylvania (now Romania and Hungary) to issue in 1586 an Edict of Religious Freedom, allowing a number of religions to be freely practiced in his realm during his rule.
Not that it did Servetus any good, but Calvin did overplay his hand on this one. And today a statue of, and a memorial to, Michael Servetus stand in Geneva as a tribute to his courage in challenging a prevailing orthodoxy and paying for it with his life.
For us as religious liberals I see his legacy rooted in the moment when he read the Bible for himself and drew his own conclusions, apart from the dictates of any ecclesiastical body or authority. His conclusions are not all the ones we would come to, but his process is important. What Servetus demonstrated is that faith and reason, working together instead of as adversaries, are what best guides our journeys of the mind and spirit.
We most likely do not reach the same conclusions as he did. But, like him, we trust the workings of our minds and our human experience, in tandem with “the wisdom of the ages” in coming to the truths we feel we can live out. This is what Servetus did, and this is why I feel he merits being regarded as our spiritual ancestor and founder.
I end with this: John Calvin, for a number of demonstrable historical reasons, is considered the founder of Presbyterianism. But much of Calvin’s theology probably seems as distant to most Presbyterians as does Servetus’ theology to us UUs. So, please, if you have Presbyterian family members or friends, you really don’t have to go ganging up on them by saying, “Your guy killed our guy.” That’s true, but I think we’ve pretty well gotten past that by now.
Servetus was one of those who provided us with yet another ray of that growing light that continues to inform and guide our journey of the mind and spirit. For this we claim and honor his legacy.
November 26, 2017