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History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.
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§ 156. The Character of Servetus.


Servetus—theologian, philosopher, geographer, physician, scientist, and astrologer—was one of the most remarkable men in the history of heresy. He was of medium size, thin and pale, like Calvin, his eyes beaming with intelligence, and an expression of melancholy and fanaticism. Owing to a physical rupture he was never married. He seems never to have had any particular friends, and stood isolated and alone.

His mental endowments and acquirements were of a high order, and placed him far above the heretics of his age and almost on an equality with the Reformers.12001200    Mosheim compares him with Calvin in genius, yet calls his method "a model of confusion." Staehelin (I. 428) likewise thinks that in intellectual endowment he was equal (ebenbürtig) to the greatest men of his great century, even to Calvin, but that he lacked the chief qualification of a reformer—moral character. Tollin puts him on a par with Calvin and Luther. But such exaggeration is refuted by history. The fruits are the test of a man’s true greatness. His discoveries have immortalized his name in the history of science. He knew Latin, Hebrew, and Greek (though Calvin depreciates his knowledge of Greek), as well as Spanish, French, and Italian, and was well read in the Bible, the early fathers, and the schoolmen. He had an original, speculative, and acute mind, a tenacious memory, ready wit, a fiery imagination, ardent love of learning, and untiring industry. He anticipated the leading doctrines of Socinianism and Unitarianism, but in connection with mystic and pantheistic speculations, which his contemporaries did not understand. He had much uncommon sense, but little practical common sense. He lacked balance and soundness. There was a streak of fanaticism in his brain. His eccentric genius bordered closely on the line of insanity. For


"Great wits are sure to madness near allied,

And thin partitions do their bounds divide."


His style is frequently obscure, inelegant, abrupt, diffuse, and repetitious. He accumulates arguments to an extent that destroys their effect. He gives eight arguments to prove that the saints in heaven pray for us; ten arguments to show that Melanchthon and his friends were sorcerers, blinded by the devil; twenty arguments against infant baptism; twenty-five reasons for the necessity of faith before baptism; and sixty signs of the apocalyptic beast and the reign of Antichrist.12011201    Restit. pp. 564, 570, 586, 664, 700, 718.

In thought and style he was the opposite of the clear-headed, well-balanced, methodical, logical, and thoroughly sound Calvin, who never leaves the reader in doubt as to his meaning.

The moral character of Servetus was free from immorality of which his enemies at first suspected him in the common opinion of the close connection of heresy with vice. But he was vain, proud, defiant, quarrelsome, revengeful, irreverent in the use of language, deceitful, and mendacious. He abused popery and the Reformers with unreasonable violence. He conformed for years to the Catholic ritual which he despised as idolatrous. He defended his attendance upon mass by Paul’s example in visiting the temple (Acts 21:26), but afterwards confessed at Geneva that he had acted under compulsion and sinned from fear of death. He concealed or denied on oath facts which he had afterwards to admit.12021202    Tollin (Charakterbild, p. 38) defends Servetus’s veracity by resolving his contradictory statements into innocent errors of memory and comparing them to the variations in the four Gospel narratives! At Vienne he tried to lie himself out of danger, and escaped; in Geneva he defied his antagonist and did his best, with the aid of the Libertines in the Council, to ruin him.

The severest charge against him is blasphemy. Bullinger remarked to a Pole that if Satan himself should come out of hell, he could use no more blasphemous language against the Trinity than this Spaniard; and Peter Martyr, who was present, assented and said that such a living son of the devil ought not to be tolerated anywhere. We cannot even now read some of his sentences against the doctrine of the Trinity without a shudder. Servetus lacked reverence and a decent regard for the most sacred feelings and convictions of those who differed from him. But there was a misunderstanding on both sides. He did not mean to blaspheme the true God in whom he believed himself, but only the three false and imaginary gods, as he wrongly conceived them to be, while to all orthodox Christians they were the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit of the one true, eternal, blessed Godhead.

He labored under the fanatical delusion that he was called by Providence to reform the Church and to restore the Christian religion. He deemed himself wiser than all the fathers, schoolmen, and reformers. He supported his delusion by a fanciful interpretation of the last and darkest book of the Bible.

Calvin and Farel saw, in his refusal to recant, only the obstinacy of an incorrigible heretic and blasphemer. We must recognize in it the strength of his conviction. He forgave his enemies; he asked the pardon even of Calvin. Why should we not forgive him? He had a deeply religious nature. We must honor his enthusiastic devotion to the Scriptures and to the person of Christ. From the prayers and ejaculations inserted in his book, and from his dying cry for mercy, it is evident that he worshipped Jesus Christ as his Lord and Saviour.12031203    Rest. p. 356: "O Christe Jesu, domine Deus noster, adesto, veni, vide, et pugna pro nobis." P. 576: "O pater omnipotens, pater misericordiae, eripe nos miseros ab his tenebris mortis, per nomen filii tui Jesu Christi domini nostri. O fili Dei, Jesu Christe, qui pro nobis mortuus es, ne moreremur, succurre, ne moriamur," etc. Comp. also the prayer at the beginning of his book, quoted above in § 146.



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