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§ 131. The Italian Antitrinitarians in Geneva. Gribaldo, Biandrata, Alciati, Gentile.


See Lit. in § 127, and Sandius: Bibliotheca antitrinitaria. Trechsel (I. 277–390) is still the best authority on the early Antitrinitarians in Switzerland, and gives large extracts from the sources. Fock (I. 134) has only a few words on them.—Comp. in addition, Heberle: G. Blandrata, in the "Tübinger Zeitschrift für Theologie," for 1840, No. IV. Dorner: Hist. of Christology, German ed., II. 656 sqq.


The antitrinitarian leaven entered the Italian congregation at Geneva during and after the trial of Servetus, but was suppressed by the combined action of the Swiss Churches. This constitutes the last chapter of Antitrinitarianism in Switzerland.

Several Italian refugees denounced the execution of Servetus, adopted his views and tried to improve them, but were far inferior to him in genius and originality.

They circulated libels on Calvin, and ventilated their opinions in the weekly conference meetings of the Italian congregation, which were open to questions and free discussions.

1. Matteo Gribaldo, a noted professor of jurisprudence at Padua, bought the estate of Farges in the territory of Bern, near Geneva, and spent there a part of each year. He attended the Italian meetings on his visits to the town. During the trial of Servetus he openly expressed his disapproval of civil punishment for religious opinions, and maintained that everybody should be allowed to believe what he pleased. He at first concealed his views on the doctrine of Servetus, except among intimate friends. After an examination before the Council, he was ordered to leave the city on suspicion of heretical opinions on the Trinity (1559). These opinions were crude and undigested. He vacillated between dyotheism or tritheism and Arianism. He could not conceive of Father and Son except as two distinct beings or substances: the one begetting, the other begotten; the one sending, the other sent. He compared their relation to that between Paul and Apollos, who were two individuals, yet one in the abstract idea of the apostolate.

Before his dismission from Geneva he had, through the influence of Vergerio, received an appointment us professor of law in the University of Tübingen. Passing through Zürich he called on Bullinger, and complained bitterly of the conduct of Calvin. He gained the applause of the students in Tübingen, and was often consulted by Duke Christopher of Würtemberg on important matters.

But rumors of his heresies reached Tübingen, and inquiries were sent to Geneva. Calvin warned his old teacher, Melchior Volmar, against him, and Beza alarmed Vergerio by unfavorable reports. Vergerio informed the Duke of the charges.

Gribaldo was subjected to an examination before the academic senate in the presence of the Duke, and was pressed for a decided answer to the question, whether he agreed with the Athanasian Creed and the edict of Theodosius I. respecting the Trinity and the Catholic faith. He asked three weeks’ time for consideration, but escaped to his villa at Farges, where his family still resided.

There he was apprehended by the magistrates of Bern at the instance of the Duke of Würtemberg, in September, 1557. His papers were seized and found to contain antitrinitarian and other heresies. He was ordered to renounce his errors by a confession drawn up with his own hand, and banished from the territory of Bern; but on his promise to keep quiet, he was allowed to return the following year for the sake of his seven children. He died of the plague which visited Switzerland in 1564, and swept away thirty-eight thousand persons in the territory of Bern, besides seven thousand in Basel, and fourteen hundred at Coire. It was a fatal time for the Reformed Church, for between 1564 and 1566 several of the leaders died; as Calvin, Farel, Bibliander, Borrhaus, Blaurer, Fabricius, and Saluz.954954    Trechsel, II. 356.

2. Giorgio Biandrata (or Blandrata), an educated physician of a noble family of Saluzzo in Piedmont (born about 1515), escaped the inquisition by flight to Geneva in 1557. He agreed substantially with Gribaldo, but was more subtle and cautious. He called Calvin his reverend father, and consulted him on theological questions. He seemed to be satisfied, but returned again and again with new doubts. Calvin, overburdened with labor and care, patiently listened and spent whole hours with the sceptic. He also answered his objections in writing.955955    Ad questiones Blandratae responsum, 1558. See Lit. in § 127. At last he refused further discussion as useless. "He tried," wrote Calvin to Lismann, "to circumvent me like a serpent, but God gave me strength to withstand his cunning."

The spirit of doubt spread more and more in the Italian congregation. One of the principal sympathizers of Biandrata was Gianpaolo Alciati, a Piedmontese who had served in the army, and was not used to reverent language.

Martinengo, the worthy Italian pastor, shortly before his death, begged Calvin to take care of the little flock and to extirpate the dangerous heresy. Accordingly, a public meeting of the Italian congregation was held May 18, 1558, in the presence of Calvin and two members of the Council. Calvin, in the name of the Council, invited the malcontents to utter themselves freely, and assured them that they should not be punished. Biandrata appealed to certain expressions of Calvin, but was easily convicted of mistake. Alciati went so far as to declare that the orthodox party "worshipped three devils worse than all the idols of popery." After a three hours’ discussion, it was resolved that all the members of the congregation should subscribe a confession of faith, which asserted the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, as being consistent with the essential unity of the Godhead.

Six members at first refused to subscribe, but yielded afterwards with the exception, it seems, of Biandrata and Alciati. They felt unsafe in Geneva, and went to Bern. There they found a sympathizer in Zurkinden, the secretary of the city, who engaged in an angry controversy with Calvin.

Biandrata left for Poland, gained the confidence of Prince Radziwill, propagated his Unitarian opinions, and justified himself before a synod at Pinczow (1561). In 1563 he accepted a call of Prince John Sigismund of Transylvania as his physician, and converted him and many others to his views, but was charged by Faustus Socinus to have in his last years favored the Jesuits from mercenary motives. It is possible that the old man, weary of theological strife, lost himself in the maze of scepticism, like Ochino. Tradition reports that he was robbed and murdered by his own nephew after 1585.

3. The peace of the Italian congregation was again disturbed by Giovanne Valenti Gentile of Calabria, a school-master of some learning and acuteness, who was attracted to Geneva by Calvin’s reputation, but soon imbibed the sentiments of Gribaldo and Biandrata. He was one of the six members who had at first refused to sign the Italian confession of faith. Soon after the departure of Biandrata and Alciati he openly professed their views, urged, as he said, by his conscience. He charged the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity with quaternity,—adding a general divine essence to the three divine essences of Father, Son, and Spirit,—and maintained that the Father was the only divine essence, the "essentiator." Both these ideas he borrowed from Servetus. The Son is only an image and reflection of the Father.

Gentile was thrown into prison, July, 1557, by order of the Council, on the charge of violating the confession he had signed. He repeated his views and appealed to the ministers and the Council for protection against the tyranny of Calvin, but he was refuted by the ministers. At last he apologized for his severe language against Calvin, whom he had always revered as a great man, but he refused to recant his views. The Council asked the judgment of five lawyers, who decided that, according to the imperial laws (De summa Trinitate et fide catholica et de hereticis), Gentile deserved death by fire. The Council, instead, pronounced the milder sentence of death by the sword (Aug. 15). It seems that Calvin’s advice, which had been disregarded in the case of Servetus, now prevailed in the case of Gentile.

The fear of death induced Gentile to withdraw his charges against the orthodox doctrine, and to sign a brief confession of faith in three divine Persons in one Essence, and in the unity, coequality, and coeternity of the Son and Holy Spirit with the Father. He was released of the sentence of death; yet in view of his perjury, his heresies, and false accusations against the Church of Geneva, he was condemned by the magistrates to make an amende honorable, that is, in his shirt, bareheaded, and barefooted, with a lighted torch in his hand, to beg on his knees the judge’s pardon, to burn his writings with his own hand, and to walk through the principal streets under the sound of the trumpet. The sentence was carried out on the second of September. He submitted to it with surprising readiness, happy to escape death at such a cheap price. He also promised on oath not to leave the city without permission.

But he was hardly set at liberty when he escaped and joined his friends Gribaldo and Alciati at Farges. Soon afterwards he spent some time at Lyons. He studied the ante-Nicene Fathers, who confirmed his subordinationism, and wrote a book (Antidota) in defence of his views and against the chapter on the Trinity in Calvin’s Institutes. He declared that the orthodox terms of homoousia, person, substance, trinity, unity, were profane and monstrous, and obscured the true doctrine of the one God. He also attacked the doctrine of the two natures in Christ and the communication of attributes as idle speculations, which should be banished from the Church. He borrowed from Origen the distinction between the original God (aujtoqeov"), that is, the Father and the derived or secondary God (qeov", deuterovqeo", eJterovqeo") that is, the Son. The Father alone is God in the strict sense of the term—the essentiator; the Son is essentiatus and subordinate. He spoke most disrespectfully and passionately of the orthodox views. Calvin refuted his opinions in a special book (1561).

Gentile roused the suspicion of the Catholic authorities in Lyons and was imprisoned, but was set free after fifty days on his declaration that his writings were only opposed to Calvinism, not to orthodoxy.

But he felt unsafe in France, and accepted, with Alciati, an invitation of Biandrata to Poland in the summer of 1563.

After the royal edict, which expelled all the Antitrinitarians, he returned to Switzerland, was apprehended by the authorities of Bern, convicted of heresies, deceits, and evasions, and beheaded on the tenth of September, 1566. On the way to the place of execution, he declared that he died a martyr for the honor of the supreme God, and charged the ministers who accompanied him with Sabellianism. He received the death-stroke with firmness, amid the exhortations of the clergy and the prayers of the multitude for God’s mercy. Benedict Aretius, a theologian of Bern, published in the following year the acts of the process with a refutation of Gentile’s objections to the orthodox doctrine.

The fate of Gentile was generally approved. No voice of complaint or protest was heard, except a feeble one from Basel. Calvin had died more than two years before, and now the city of Bern, which had opposed his doctrinal and disciplinary rigor, condemned to death a heretic less gifted and dangerous than Servetus. Gentile himself indirectly admitted that a teacher of false religion was deserving of death, but he considered his own views as true and scriptural.956956    See on this last chapter in the history of Gentile, Trechsel, II. 355-380.

The death of Gentile ends the history of Antitrinitarianism in Switzerland. In the same year the strictly orthodox Second Helvetic Confession of Bullinger was published and adopted in the Reformed Cantons.



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