Out of the Flames

by Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone

Published by Broadway Books

353 pages, 2002


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Conflict of Thought

Reviewed by Ed Voves

 

In the age-old conflict between freedom of thought and the power of the state, the imagery of pen against sword is frequently evoked. But there is another symbol of this strife, more terrifying because of the harsh reality of its actual use: the spectacle of books and the people who write them perishing in fiery death at the stake.

Out of the Flames recounts one such episode, the notorious execution for heresy of the Spanish scholar Michael Servetus in 1553. A pivotal event in the evolution of freedom of thought in the Western world, the death of Servetus is often mentioned in history textbooks. Detailed examination of the conflict between Servetus and the religious leaders, principally John Calvin, who condemned him, is surprisingly rare. Given the scholarly attention given to the trial of Galileo or the Salem Witch Trials, Servetus' courageous stand for religious toleration should be more than just a footnote to history.

"Rare" is the keynote of Out of the Flames. The authors of this stirring, provocative book, Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, are authorities on the collecting of rare books. As well as investigating the events leading to Servetus' death and surveying the social and intellectual background of this tragic event, the Goldstones literally trace the only three copies of his great theological tract, Christianismi Restitutio to survive destruction at the hands of religious censors. This brilliant sleuthing effort is crucial to understanding how Servetus' ideas cheated the flames and the true extent of John Calvin's relentless effort to destroy him.

In a more tolerant age than the 1500s, Michael Servetus would likely have had a career making him famous in the annals of European thought. Born in the north of Spain in 1511, Servetus demonstrated a precocious talent for languages, becoming fluent in French, Greek, Latin and Hebrew by the age of 13. He was later to display similar proficiency as a theologian, medical doctor and editor of scientific books. During the early 1500s, Spain had yet to pass completely under the domination of the Inquisition. Servetus was able, as a result, to gain the patronage to study in the humanistic centers of Renaissance learning. Provided that he did not openly stray from the orthodox theology of the Catholic Church, a promising future awaited the brilliant young scholar. Yet that dangerous path is the one that Servetus took.

After attending the universities of Zaragossa and Toulouse, the free-thinking Servetus developed a theory of religion completely at odds with the concept of the Trinity upon which the Catholic Church based its theological foundation. Briefly stated, this precept maintains that God is manifest in three equally divine persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

However, where the Church authorities saw an ever-present and beneficent deity, Servetus perceived an oppressive clerical hierarchy masking its power with a theological premise which had no basis in the Bible. Thanks to the invention of the printing press and the related rise of authoritative biblical scholarship, Servetus was able to make a persuasive argument on behalf of his theory. Unfortunately, both Catholic and Protestant church authorities were not easily persuaded.

Servetus understood the danger posed by the Catholic leaders' opposition. He settled in France under an assumed name. Living in Lyon, he opened a medical practice and began to research the human body. A century before William Harvey, he correctly described the pulmonary system. But he continued to develop his religious theories, arriving at a belief that all human beings could become divine without recourse to an established church. In a fatal mistake, he opened a correspondence with the Protestant theologian, John Calvin.

Calvin, Catholicism's most ardent enemy, might have been expected to look with favor on Servetus. In fact, Calvin was a proponent of an even more systematic and rigorous theological system, which naturally was one of his own devising. The correspondence between the Protestant leader, based in Geneva, Switzerland, and Servetus soon degenerated into bitter enmity. Determined to destroy Servetus, Calvin sent excerpts of his views, including a chapter of his anonymously printed book, to French religious authorities. Servetus was arrested, made a daring escape from prison and then made his second fatal error. He sought to reach the relative safety of Italy by traveling through Switzerland.

Servetus was well aware of Calvin's bias towards his theological views. But he obviously had no idea of the unprecedented lengths to which the Protestant leader had gone to destroy him. Arrested when he reached Geneva, Servetus was put on trial for heresy. He defended himself brilliantly but was doomed from the start. Condemned in a show trial, Servetus was burned at the stake with a copy of his book chained to him in mockery. His executioners used green wood to prolong his suffering.

The authors describe this tragic event with narrative power and human insight. But their grasp of the world of rare books is equally impressive as they trace how the three surviving copies of the Christianismi Restitutio kept alive the idea of spiritual inspiration and freedom of thought. Incredibly, one of the copies was the one from which Calvin detached a chapter to send to France in order to incriminate Servetus. A veritable who's who of Western thinkers embraced his ideas including Voltaire, Thomas Jefferson and the great 19th century scientist William Osler. The modern day Unitarian Church embraces Servetus as one of its founders.

"History is an ocean that books help us to navigate," Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone write in the concluding lines of their book. They are referring of course to Michael Servetus and the Christianismi Restitutio. The same can be said of Out of the Flames. In an era of revived religious intolerance and danger to civil liberty, the Goldstones' eloquent and stirring book is more than a much needed biography of Michael Servetus. It is a tribute to the power of ideas and a reminder of the price of freedom. | January 2003

 

Ed Voves is a news researcher for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News. He frequently reviews books on a wide range of topics, chiefly history and the life sciences, and has interviewed many writers including Maurice Sendak and Umberto Eco.