TDISH: Scientist and Heretic

On August 13, 1553, an Aragonese (in modern Spain) natural philosopher was arrested in Geneva, Switzerland.  This man, Michael Servetus, was accused by religious leader (and de facto head of the Geneva Republic) John Calvin of heresy.  Servetus was a leading scientific and religious thinker of his time – a period when the two were not thought of as different.  In some of his early work, Servetus questioned a core doctrine of both the Catholic Church and the leading Protestant movements of his time – the eternal trinity.  Servetus argued that since Jesus Christ was God-made-man, he, as the Son, could not have existed eternally.  Rather, he had been part of God (the Father) originally.  As such, the Trinity was flawed.  This belief, which may seem a lot like hair-splitting to a modern audience, led Servetus to question the legitimacy of churches that taught this belief.

Because of this, Servetus quickly came to the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, which no one wants to have happen to them since you never know when to expect them!  Servetus fled to one of the only places in Europe he thought he would be safe – the Protestant haven of Geneva.  While there, Servetus eventually came to Calvin’s attention for teaching ideas that ran counter to Calvinism – Servetus was now a condemned heretic by two Churches!  Before his arrest, however, Servetus was able to publish one last work that would guarantee his place his history.  In his work The Restoration of Christianity, Servetus described, for the first time, the circulatory nature of blood-flow.  Exactly what you were expecting from a theologian, right?  Servetus was executed by burning at the stake in Geneva in October 1553 at only 29 or 30 years of age.

Featured Image. “Michael Servetus.” By Christian Fritzsch (author) born in about 1660, Mittweida, Bautzen, Sachsen, Germany. –, Public Domain.
Source: The Michael Servetus Institute.



One thought on “TDISH: Scientist and Heretic

  1. Sebastien Castellion (1515-1563) – also known by various similar names – was a French proponent of freedom of thought within religion and translator of some important mystical and heterodox texts. He had originally commanded tremendous respect on account of his closeness to Calvin. However, from 1544, the two grew apart over issues of Biblical interpretation. As a result Castellion’s life changed dramatically as he fell into both poverty and homelessness, alongside his eight dependents. However, by the summer of 1553, his fortunes had reversed again as he obtained an important teaching position and became Master of Arts at the University of Basel.

    However, almost immediately Servetus was executed back in Calvin’s Geneva for his repudiation of the Trinity and other heretical ideas. Castellion protested that reason and writing should be fought by reason and writing and not by physical punishment. To cover his back he wrote this under the pseudonym of ‘Basil Montfort’ (perhaps a reference to his position of strength in Basel?) although his writing style and his distinctive opinions must have made his identification relatively easy. Another supporter of religious freedoms operating out of Basel at the time was none other than ‘Jan van Brugge’. Immediately after the incident, Castellion published a Latin translation of the Theologia Germanica (1557 or 1558) and a version in French around a year later. Following his death his body was exhumed and burned. A later monument was destroyed accidentally.


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