Obviously, as a good friend said, certain Reformed communities were all about worshiping freely until it came to putting it into practice. To be honest, my jury is still out on the involvement of Calvin in this. Considering he held no political power, he was prevented from stopping this – although he might have stood more firmly against it. He did, however, try to make it as peaceful a death as possible.
Regardless, Servetus stands as a symbol of how not to proceed with religious tolerance. Yes, he have had some error-filled teaching, but did he deserve to die? And should his death at the hands of a Protestant Legal System be whitewashed as saying ‘It was the 16th century, after all?’ Hardly.
Nearly all copies of Servetus’ magnum opus, Christianismi Restitutio, were destroyed by the authorities. Only three have survived (detailed story in “Out of the flames”). Its peculiar, unorthodox trinitarian theology, which made Servetus a hunted man in nearly every country in Western Europe, cannot be summarized simply. Unitarian scholar Earle Morse Wilbur, who translated De Trinitatis Erroribus, found the Restitutio less to his liking and passed over coming to terms with it. John Godbey, a Unitarian Universalist scholar of the Reformation, wrote that “most persons lack sufficient understanding of his views to make defensible statements about him.”
Servetus rejected the doctrine of original sin and the entire theory of salvation based upon it, including the doctrines of Christ’s dual nature and the vicarious atonement effected by his death. He believed Jesus had one nature, at once fully human and divine, and that Jesus was not another being of the godhead separate from the Father, but God come to earth. Other human beings, touched by Christian grace, could overcome sin and themselves become progressively divine. He thought of the trinity as manifesting an “economy” of the forms of activity which God could bring into play. Christ did not always exist. Once but a shadow, he had been brought to substantial existence when God needed to exercise that form of activity. In some future time he would no longer be a distinct mode of divine expression. Servetus called the crude and popular conception of the trinity, considerably less subtle than his own, “a three headed Cerberus.” (In Greek mythology Cerberus is a three-headed dog-like creature of the underworld.)
Servetus did not believe people are totally depraved, as Calvin’s theology supposed. He thought all people, even non-Christians, susceptible to or capable of improvement and justification. He did not restrict the benefits of faith to a few recipients of God’s parsimonious dispensation of grace, as did Calvin’s doctrine of the elect. Rather, grace abounds and human beings need only the intelligence and free will, which all human beings possess, to grasp it. Nor did Servetus describe, as did Calvin, an infinite chasm between the divine and mortal worlds. He conceived the divine and material realms to be a continuum of more and less divine entities. He held that God was present in and constitutive of all creation. This feature of Servetus’ theology was especially obnoxious to Calvin. At the Geneva trial he asked Servetus, “What, wretch! If one stamps the floor would one say that one stamped on your God?”
Calvin asked if the devil was part of God. Servetus laughed and replied, “Can you doubt it? This is my fundamental principle that all things are a part and portion of God and the nature of things is the substantial spirit of God.”
The devil was an important factor in Servetian theology. Servetus was a dualist. He thought God and the devil were engaged in a great cosmic battle. The fate of humanity was just a small skirmish in salvation history. He charged orthodox trinitarians with creating their doctrine of the trinity, not to describe God, but to puff themselves up as central to God’s concern. Because they defined God to suit their own purposes, he called them atheists.
Servetus’ demonology included the notion that the devil had created the papacy as an effective countermeasure to Christ’s coming to earth. Through the popes the devil had taken over the church. Infant baptism was a diabolic rite, instituted by Satan, who in ancient days had presided over pagan infant sacrifices. He calculated that the Archangel Michael would soon come to bring deliverance and the end of the world, probably in 1585.