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The Servetus Controversy


Michael Servetus

Michael Servetus

The execution of Servetus in Geneva has long caused discussion among scholars and lay people alike. Assessments range from an awareness of historical circumstances that made it difficult for the Genevans to come to a different verdict, to criticism and outrage at John Calvin for his perceived role in Servetus' death.

The penal death of Servetus was an historical event resulting from deeply-held theological, social, and political views which to 21 st century sensibilities may seem extreme or at best strange.

It is true that Calvin and his fellow pastors in Geneva were involved in the death of Servetus. However, it would be difficult to find any church leader in the 16 th century who advocated a more gentle approach. Luther called for attacks on German peasants and wrote an angry tract against the Jews, called ‘On the Jews and their Lies'. Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, supported the execution by drowning of the Anabaptist leader, Felix Manz. Sir Thomas More, England 's Catholic Lord Chancellor, presided over the execution of those he viewed as “heretics” in England during the reign of Henry the VIII. Each country of Europe in the sixteenth century felt that defending its religious views involved taking strong measures against those who disagreed. Toleration and acceptance of doctrinal differences were simply not sixteenth-century concepts.

Watch Dr. Karin Maag briefly discuss Michael Servetus at a panel at Baker Book House on the evening of July 7, 2009:

Watch here

The following material provides an outline of events leading up to Servetus' death, and a bibliography covering the range of views concerning the Calvin-Servetus affair. All the materials, pro or con, are collected in the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and may be used by any interested person.

Outline of Servetus' Life

born in Villanueva , Spain

lived in Basel , stayed 10 months, visited Johannes Oecolampadius - the Basel Reformer - to whom he expressed his views on the Trinity and who counseled Servetus to change his ideas

published De Trinitatis Erroribus (Concerning Trinitarian Errors)

published pamphlet Dialogorum de Trinitate libri duo (Two Books of Dialogue Concerning the Trinity)

May 1532
Inquisition at Zaragoza , Spain takes action against him

June 1532
decree by the Inquisition for his apprehension is issued at Toulouse

in Paris studying medicine and working as professor of mathematics; failed to meet with the young John Calvin to debate theological issues

graduates from the University of Paris after studying geography and medicine

may have earned medical degree from University of Montpellier

edited Pagnini Bible in seven volumes

correspondence with Calvin; manuscript of Christianismi Resitutio (The

Restitution of Christianity) sent to Calvin; Calvin corresponded with Farel, Calvin's long time friend, advisor, and first Reformer in Geneva concerning Servetus' writings

January 3, 1553
Christianismi Restitutio
printed in Lyon ;

February 26, 1553
Through a letter written by the Genevan Guillaume de Trie, a cousin to the printer in Lyon, Servetus is exposed in Vienne, a French city near Lyon ,

March 15-17, 1553
interrogated in Vienne

April 4, 1553
imprisoned in Vienne

April 7, 1553
escapes from prison in Vienne

June 17, 1553
condemned to death (in absentia) in Vienne by the French Catholic Inquisition

August 13, 1553
on route to Italy he lodged overnight in Geneva but was recognized and at Calvin's request was imprisoned by the city magistrates

October 26, 1553
condemned to death by Council of Geneva

October 27, 1553
informed about condemnation and burned at the stake

December 23, 1553
posthumous condemnation of Servetus by the ecclesiastical court and Archbishop of Vienne

February 1554
publication of Calvin's book, Defensio Orthodoxae Fidei (Defense of the True Faith)

Even a cursory reading of Servetus indicates that he was a “Renaissance man” of many interests. Also, it is very evident that he did not accept orthodox Trinitarian doctrine, or the writings of John Calvin. According to Sergio Opi, “ Servetus studied the Holy Scriptures, and as he stated in this first treatise, he did not find any reference to the word Trinity. Hence, he questioned the validity of one of the fundamental dogmas of Christianity: “ We must not impose as truths - contended Servetus - concepts over which there are doubts ”. According to Servetus, in God there is one single person. Servetus was clearly opposed to the splitting up of the divine essence and contented that the persons of the Trinity are rather “forms” that God has chosen to manifest itself. According to Servetus, Christ was made a man by God, and his human nature prevents him from being God and participating in the eternity nature of God. As a result, God was eternal, but Jesus Christ (the Son), since he was begot by the Father, was not eternal .” []

This unorthodox interpretation of the dogma of Trinity led to a common desire on the part of both Roman Catholics and Protestants alike to jail Servetus, to put him to death, and to destroy his writings.


Bainton, Roland H. Hunted Heretic: The Life and Death of Michael Servetus (1511-1553). Boston : Beacon Press, 1953.

Friedman, Jerome. Michael Servetus: a Case Study in Total Heresy . Geneva : Droz, 1978.

Fulton, John F. Michael Servetus: Humanist and Martyr ( New York : Herbert Reichner, 1953.

Goldstone, Lawrence and Nancy. Out of the Flames . New York : Broadway Books, 2002.

Hillar, Marian. The Case of Michael Servetus (1511-1553): the Turning Point in the Struggle for Freedom of Conscience. Lewisburg: Edwin Mellen Press, 1997 .

__________. Michael Servetus Intellectual Giant, Humanist, and Martyr . Lanham: University Press of America , 2002.

Servetus, Michael. Christianismi Restitutio and Other Writings . Birmingham : The Classics of Medicine Library, 1989.

___________. The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity . Cambridge , Harvard University Press, 1932.


Kayayan, Eric. “The Case of Michel Servetus.” Mid-America Journal of Theology 8, no. 2 (1992): 117-46.

Kingdon, Robert. “Social Control and Political Control in Calvin's Geneva .” In Die Reformation in Deutschland und Europa:Interpretationen und Debatten , edited by Hans R. Guggisberg, 521-32. Gütersloh: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1993.

Pettegree, Andrew. ”Michael Servetus and the Limits of Tolerance.” History Today 40 (1990): 40-45.