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§ 140. The Early Life of Servetus.


For our knowledge of the origin and youth of Servetus we have to depend on the statements which he made at his trials before the Roman Catholic court at Vienne in April, 1553, and before the Calvinistic court at Geneva in August of the same year. These depositions are meagre and inconsistent, either from defect of memory or want of honesty. In Geneva he could not deceive the judges, as Calvin was well acquainted with his antecedents. I give, therefore, the preference to his later testimony.10351035    A. v. d. Linde, p. 3 sq., presents the contradictory statements of Servetus in parallel columns.

Michael Serveto, better known in the Latinized form Servetus, also called Reves,10361036    In the title of his first book. "Reves" is an abridged anagram of Serveto. Others derive it from the maiden name of his mother. But we know nothing of his family. The form "Servede" never occurs among his contemporaries, and not before 1697, but is used by several modern writers, as Herzog, Guericke, Hase, Dorner, Harnack. was born at Villa-nueva or Villanova in Aragon (hence "Villanovanus"), in 1509, the year of the nativity of Calvin, his great antagonist.10371037    Place and date are disputed. In the trial at Vienne be stated that he was born at Tudela in the old Spanish kingdom of Navarre, that he was then forty-two years old, which would put his birth in 1511. In the trial at Geneva he declared himself to be "Espagnol Arragonese de Villeneufve," and to be forty-four years old. This is confirmed by the author’s name on the title-page of his first book:, Per Michaelem Serveto, aliàs Reves ab Aragonia Hispanum," by the subscription at the end of his Restitutio " M. S. V." [Villanovanus] and by the name "Villeneuve," under which he was known in France. So also Willis and v. d. Linde. But Tollin decides for Tudela and for the year 1511. See his Servet’s Kindheit und Jugend, in Kahnis’ "Zeitschrift für Hist. Theol.," 1875. He informed the court of Geneva that he was of an ancient and noble Spanish family, and that his father was a lawyer and notary by profession.

The hypothesis that he was of Jewish or Moorish extraction is an unwarranted inference from his knowledge of Hebrew and the Koran.

He was slender and delicate in body, but precocious, inquisitive, imaginative, acute, independent, and inclined to mysticism and fanaticism. He seems to have received his early education in a Dominican convent and in the University of Saragossa, with a view at first to the clerical vocation.

He was sent by his father to the celebrated law-school of Toulouse, where he studied jurisprudence for two or three years. The University of Toulouse was strictly orthodox, and kept a close watch against the Lutheran heresy. But it was there that he first saw a complete copy of the Bible, as Luther did after he entered the University of Erfurt.

The Bible now became his guide. He fully adopted the Protestant principle of the supremacy and sufficiency of the Bible, but subjected it to his speculative fancy, and carried opposition to Catholic tradition much farther than the Reformers did. He rejected the oecumenical orthodoxy, while they rejected only the mediaeval scholastic orthodoxy. It is characteristic of his mystical turn of mind that he made the Apocalypse the basis of his speculations, while the sober and judicious Calvin never commented on this book.

Servetus declared, in his first work, that the Bible was the source of all his philosophy and science, and to be read a thousand times.10381038    Omnem philosophiam et scientiam ego in Biblia reperio .... Lege obsecro millies Bibliam." (De Trinitatis Erroribus, fol. 78b and 79.) He called it a gift of God descended from heaven.10391039    "Datus est de coelo liber ut in eo Deum investigemus, adjuvante ad hoc fide quae non est ille crudus sophistarum assensus, sed motus cordis, sicut dicit Scriptura, corde creditur." (Ibid. f. 107b.) "Figmenta sunt imaginaria quae Scripturae limites transgrediuntur." (Ibid. f. 81b.) Next to the Bible, he esteemed the ante-Nicene Fathers, because of their simpler and less definite teaching. He quotes them freely in his first book.

We do not know whether, and how far, he was influenced by the writings of the Reformers. He may have read some tracts of Luther, which were early translated into Spanish, but he does not quote from them.10401040    Tollin conjectures that he had read the writings of Luther, Melanchthon, and Bucer, and was especially influenced by Erasmus.

We next find Servetus in the employ of Juan Quintana, a Franciscan friar and confessor to the Emperor Charles V. He seems to have attended his court at the coronation by Pope Clement VII. in Bologna (1529), and on the journey to the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, which forms an epoch in the history of the Lutheran Reformation.10411041    See Tollin, Die Beichtvaeter Kaiser Karls V., three short papers in the "Magazin für die Lit. des Auslandes," 1874, and Servet auf dem Reichstag zu Augsburg, in Thelemann’s "Evang. Reform. Kirchenzeitung," 1876, No. 1724. At Augsburg he may have seen Melanchthon and other leading Lutherans, but he was too young and unknown to attract much attention.

In the autumn of 1530 he was dismissed from the service of Quintana; we do not know for what reason, probably on suspicion of heresy.

We have no account of a conversion or moral struggle in any period of his life, such as the Reformers passed through. He never was a Protestant, either Lutheran or Reformed, but a radical at war with all orthodoxy. A mere youth of twenty-one or two, he boldly or impudently struck out an independent path as a Reformer of the Reformation. The Socinian society did not yet exist; and even there he would not have felt at home, nor would he have long been tolerated. Nominally, he remained in the Roman Church, and felt no scruple about conforming to its rites. As he stood alone, so he died alone, leaving an influence, but no school nor sect.

From Germany Servetus went to Switzerland and spent some time at Basel. There he first ventilated his heresies on the trinity and the divinity of Christ.

He importuned Oecolampadius with interviews and letters, hoping to convert him. But Oecolampadius was startled and horrified. He informed his friends, Bucer, Zwingli, and Bullinger, who happened to be at Basel in October, 1530, that he had been troubled of late by a hot-headed Spaniard, who denied the divine trinity and the eternal divinity of our Saviour. Zwingli advised him to try to convince Servetus of his error, and by good and wholesome arguments to win him over to the truth. Oecolampadius said that he could make no impression upon the haughty, daring, and contentious man. Zwingli replied: "This is indeed a thing insufferable in the Church of God. Therefore do everything possible to prevent the spread of such dreadful blasphemy." Zwingli never saw the objectionable book in print.

Servetus sought to satisfy Oecolampadius by a misleading confession of faith, but the latter was not deceived by the explanations and exhorted him to "confess the Son of God to be coequal and coeternal with the Father;" otherwise he could not acknowledge him as a Christian.



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