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There is no figure in the freedom of conscience domain that would match the breadth and the scope of Michael Servetus’s outlook and his importance to the evolution of this outstanding concept to understand the development of mankind in Western Europe.

Servetus stands out for having left us two outstanding legacies: the right to free conscience and the freedom of speech, and the use of radicalism as intellectual method.

Recent historical studies reveal that the ideas of Servetus on tolerance marked a turning point in the intellectual discussion which led to the recognition of the freedom of thought and conscience as an inalienable human right.

Frequent mistakes about Michael Servetus
There are still many biographical and conceptual misconceptions about Michael Servetus, especially amongst the average man. These brief lines, drafted in telegraphic style, would like to set aside some errors about Michael Servetus which mislead about his origins and belittle the scope of his thought:

1. The family of Michael Sevetus did not move from somewhere else to Villanueva de Sijena (Huesca) in 1511. To the contrary, the presence of the Servetus’ family in Villanueva de Sijena has been documented before 1511 in several public deeds of that time. The birth house of Michael Servetus was inaugurated by Prince Philip of Spain on July 10, 2002 and it is now the siege of the Michael Servetus Institute.

2. Michael Servetus was not condemned to be burnt at the stake for his discovery of pulmonary circulation. The only testimony which we have about such discovery is found in its “magna opus”, The Christianismi Restitutio. It must be pointed out that his discovery, however important, remained unnoticed until 140 years after his death. It was an English theologian, Willian Wotton, who referred to Servetus as the first scientist who described the pulmonary circulation in Western Europe.

Michael Servetus was condemned for interpreting the dogma of the Trinity in a way opposed to the interpretation of such dogma by the official church since the Council of Nicaea, and for opposing infants’ baptism. His medical practice and his scientific research are unrelated to his death sentence.

3. Michael Servetus was not put on trial in Paris for combining medicine and astrology. The influence of the stars in the human body had been recognized even by the Scholastic theologians. Michael Servetus was accused of practicing judiciary astrology, i.e. astrology aimed at foretelling. Practicing judiciary astrology was a criminal offence punished with death, since it was considered that such practice hindered human beings’ free will.

4. Michael Servetus was neither an atheist nor a pantheist. Nobody that it has at least read the front page of his theological books can have the slightest doubt that Servetus was a fervent Christian, who combined in a extraordinary manner the textual review, the philosophical lucubration and the mystical devotion for Christ. Therefore, Servetus believed deeply in Christ, like the Son of the eternal God.

5. Servetus was not an Anabaptist in the political sense of this term, despite being against infants’ baptism. Although it maintained a very critical attitude towards the Roman hierarchy, and considered that the true restitution of Christianity required, from his point of view, the demolition of the ecclesiastical structures, which he judged impious, and the return to the original evangelical purity, he never intended to create a political movement against the political establishment of his time, as the more radical part of the Anabaptism movement did.

6. Servetus argued in favour of works as a way of salvation, which radically separated him from the postulates of the first generation of the Reformation.

7. Although Servetus did not found any church, it must not be overlook that his Antitrinitarian ideas influenced the creation of the Unitarian churches, initially in Poland and Transilvania, and later in England, the United States and other countries. Churches that today continue existing. Therefore, it is accurate to state that Servetus is the spiritual pioneer of the Unitarian Universalists. The Unitarians Universalists are very liberal in dogmatic questions and insist on the primacy of the ethical aspect of religion, charity and tolerance. As a tribute to Servetus, the First Unitary Church of Brooklyn (New York) has a stain glass window showing his image, along with other stain glass with other pioneers of the Unitarian faith.

8. Scholars and admirers of Servetus do not keep resentment to Calvin’s descendants. The Swiss Calvinists also accept dialogue about Servetus, overcoming old resentments. As a sign of reconciliation Dr Henri Babel, the Pastor at the Cathedral of Saint Peter in Geneva was invited to give a lecture at the Michael Servetus Institute already in 1980. Dr. Babel also attended the events organized by the Government of Aragon, the Michael Servetus Institute and other relevant cultural institutions in Zaragoza and Villanueva de Sijena in October 2003 to conmemorate the 450th anniversary of the death of Servetus.

© 2004 Jaume de Marcos / Sergio Baches Opi


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