cum istis, nec cum illis, in omnibus consentio,
out dissentio. Omnes mihi videtur habere parte veritatis,
et partem erroris, et quilibet alterius errorem
displicit et nemo suum videt." (Dialogorum
de Trinitate, 1532)
is an abuse to condemn to death those who are wrong
in their interpretation of the Scriptures. Such penalty
must only be imposed to murderers." (Letter
to Aecolampadious, Calvini, op. VIII, 862)
Servetus was a wandering Aragonese at a time dominated by
the religious fights initially brought about by the Lutheran
Reform. Servetus shook the underpinnings of the Christian
faith of his time with his antitrinitarian and anabaptist
doctrines. As Erasmus of Rotterdam (see his Praise of Madness),
but from a more radial position, Servetus also criticized
the corruption in the Church and proposed a return to the
roots and purity of Christianity. Servetus, however, was
not condemned for his criticisms of the Church, but mostly
for his opposition to the Nicaean interpretation of the
doctrine of the Trinity and his rejection to infants' baptism.
doctrine of the Trinity rests in the belief that God is
a single essence, but the essential unity of the divine
nature is shared between three persons: the Father, the
Son (Logos) and the Holy Spirit. The three persons together
are God, but no one is individually God. Servetus studied
Jewish and Muslim religious texts and reached the conclusion
that the main dogmatic difference between the three monotheist
religions rested in the Christian concept of Jesus Christ
as the eternal son of God. Perhaps guided by an ecumenical
spirit, Servetus studied the Holy Scriptures in depth in
which, according to him, he did not find a single reference
to the Trinity. For Servetus, Jesus Christ was a man to
whom God had infused a divine wisdom and only in this sense
could it be said that he was the Son of God. Nevertheless,
only God is eternal not his Son.
theory makes Jesus Christ a kind of prophet, and in this
way brings Christianity closer to Islam and Judaism. The
doctrine of the Trinity was one of the dogmas in which Catholics,
Protestants and Calvinists agreed upon. For this reason,
any attack on this dogma was considered a serious offence
in the civil and ecclesiastical jurisdictions of practically
all Christian Europe.
before being prosecuted in Geneva, Servetus was persecuted
and condemned to be burnt at the stake by the French Inquisition
in Vienne Dauphiné (France). On July 7, 1553, Servetus
fled from the prison in which he had been confined. Since
they could not burn him in person, the sentence was executed
by burning an effigy of Servetus along with his some of
his heretic books.
wandering from place to place for three months,
Servetus decided to head to the Kingdom of Naples,
controlled by the Hispanic Monarchy, with the intention
of practicing medicine amongst the Spaniards living
there. It is unclear what made Servetus choose the
Genevan route. Whatever the reason was, on August
13, 1553, Servetus was recognized and jailed by
order of Calvin in Geneva.
allegation against Servetus was not submitted by
Calvin in person, but through a front man named
Nicholas de la Fontaine. Calvin decided to act through
an intermediary because, according to the procedural
laws in force in Geneva (i.e. the Carolinus Code),
the plaintiff had to remain imprisoned with the
defendant until the latter was found guilty or innocent.A
detailed analysis of each one of the phases of the
procedure that led Servetus to the stake goes beyond
the scope of this article. Nonetheless, it is interesting
to point out two fundamental aspects of this procedure:
first, the fact that the civil court which judged
Servetus did not have jurisdiction over heretic
offences and, second, the mistake which the judges
of Geneva made when they carried out the legal analysis
of the alleged crimes committed by Servetus.
August 22, 1553, Servetus addressed a writ to the Minor
Council of Geneva, the competent body to judge him, and
asked the Council to dismiss the criminal accusation. Servetus
argued in his defense that the doctrine which advocated
the death penalty for interpreting the Scriptures incorrectly
was not embedded in the doctrine of the Apostles and the
disciples of the first Church. In the same writ, Servetus
requested a lawyer to assist him. The General Prosecutor
refused against both requests. The reason given by the public
prosecutor for turning down Servetus’ request for
legal assistance was that, since Servetus was able knew
to lie so well, he was smart enough to defend himself.
discussion relating to the origin of the criminal accusations
lying in differences in the interpretation of Scriptures
was less frivolous. Servetus argued that during the first
centuries of the existence of Christianity, the Church tried
to solve its internal differences by means of peaceful discussion.
This situation began to change when Christianity became
the official religion of the Roman Empire as a result of
the Constantinus Edict (313). Although the Council of Nicaea
(325) had already condemned the antitrinitarian approach
of Arrius. Religious heresy was not criminalized until the
reign of Emperor Teodosius the Great (379-395).
Code of Teodosius was completed by the Code of Justinianus
(527-534). This latter Code, which was in force in the territories
of the Sacred Roman Empire, prescribed in the chapter "Of
summa catholica Trinitate et fide, hereticis, apostatis"
the capital punishment for those negating the doctrine of
the Trinity and the baptism of infants. The Code of Justinianus
could have constituted the legal basis to issue the judgment
against Servetus. In fact, the Genevan judges asked Servetus
if he knew of the existence of this legal text. Servetus
replied that he did know of the existence, but that, in
any case, its existence did not invalidate his arguments,
since Justinianus did not belong to the primitive Church,
but rather to an era in which “the bishops commenced
their tyranny, and criminal accusations have been introduced
in the Church”. The Code of Justinianus, however,
did not serve as the legal basis of the judgment against
Servetus, since all Canon laws had been abolished by the
Genevan reformers. Therefore, the question which arises
still is: what was the legal basis which allowed the judges
in Geneva to condemn Servetus?.
the judgment finding Servetus guilty does not expressly
mention it, it seems that Calvin and the judges based their
ruling directly on the Mosaic Law, which established that
all those who proffer blasphemies against Jehova shall be
sentenced to death (Leviticus 24:16 and Chapter
XIII of the Deuteronomy).
The arguments of Servetus, in the sense that in the New
Testament it was difficult to find any statements in favor
of punishing through criminal laws facts such as those
with which Servetus was being charged, were outweighed
by the arguments in favor of punishing blasphemers based
on the Old Testament alleged by Calvin during the trial.
confrontation between Servetus and Calvin reflected the
tension between two opposing concepts of understanding Divinity.
Servetus’ vision of God was that of the New Testament
(i.e. a God not related to the vengeful God propagated by
Medieval theologians). It is only by taking into account
this point of disagreement that we can understand Servetus’
reference to religious freedom and religious tolerance.
On the contrary, Calvin, along with Luther, spread the image
of a vengeful God ready for the Final Judgment which can
be found in the Old Testament. Curiously enough, the medieval
concept of God defended by the reformers clashed with the
concept of God which was spread during the Renaissance.
On October 26 of 1553, the Council issued its judgement
against Servetus ordering him to be burnt alive in the hill
of Champel. The judgment stated that Servetus was guilty
for having printed "twenty-three or twenty-four"
years ago a book (“De Trinitatis Erroribus”)
that contained blasphemies against the Trinity and for having
corrupted Christians and spread his antitrinitarian heresy
in a later work (“Christianismi Restitutio”).
Furthermore, the judgment condemned Servetus for opposing
the baptism of infants. It must be noted that the Genevan
judges appear to have intentionally erred in the qualification
of the charges against Servetus. From the records of the
trial and the reasoning of the judgment it cannot be inferred
that the crime of which Servetus was being accused had been
committed in the territory of Geneva.
the most elementary principles of Criminal Law, the judges
should have acquitted Servetus, or simply found him guilty
of attempting to commit that crime and, consequently, they
should have applied a less rigorous penalty such as banishment.
Finally, it is also surprising that Servetus’ request
to have his case brought before the Council of the Two Hundred
(a body in charge of legislating in Geneva and of electing
the 25 members of the Small Council) was ignored by the
Genevan magistrates. This decision of the judges, along
with their refusal to allow Servetus to be assisted by a
lawyer, is another example of the irregularities that vitiated
the process against Servetus and demonstrate the scarce
legal rigor of the Genevan court, most likely due to the
strong influence that Calvin exerted upon the judges.
October 27, 1553 Servetus was led to the hill of Champel.
His body was tied up to a stake with an iron chain
and his neck held with a heavy cord. The executioners
placed on his head a straw crown sprinkled with sulfur.
As usual in these types of executions, a copy of his
“Christianismi Restitutio” was
placed underneath his feet.
execution lasted more than two hours because of the
green firewood used by the executioners. Until the
very last moment, the Genevan reformers tried to convince
Servetus to abjure his doctrines. But all was in vain,
Servetus, in spite of the severe and cruel imprisonment
he had been subject to remained faithful to his doctrines,
not because of stubbornness but because of conviction.
Calvin condemned him, but History, sometimes the most
effective court of appeal, soon acquitted him. His
moral integrity during the process and finally before
the pyre was not overlooked in his time. The heroic
death of Servetus led other humanists to raise their
voices against Calvin and in favor of the freedom
of thought. But the example of Servetus was felt beyond
his time. It seeded the germ of an intense and deep
debate on freedom of religion and conscience that
was further developed by some philosophers of the
XVIII century and which would finally inspire the
democratization processes that took place in Western
societies during the XIX and XX centuries.
TO SERVETUS IN CHAMPEL
(Updated version of the article by Sergio Baches Opi
“Miguel Serveto. Anotaciones actuales sobre un proceso
ignominioso”, published in Diario del Alto Aragón,
Sunday, 16 June 2002, and in Revista Serrablo, Year XXX,
No. 118, December 2000).