2020-09-09

UU Minute #11

UU Minute #11: Transylvania, part 1



In 16th century Europe, the ideas of anti-trinitarianism and religious freedom went together – and they began to pop up in the thinking of a number of writers. We’ve mentioned the 1527 book by Martin Borrhaus’ De Operibus Dei, the first open questioning of the doctrine of the trinity in print in Europe – and the 1531 publication of Miguel Serveto’s On the Errors of the Trinity -- and Sebastian Castellio writing that “To kill a man is not to protect a doctrine. It is to kill a man.”

A smattering of other intellectuals of the time – especially after Miguel Serveto’s execution in 1553 -- were also writing to either criticize trinitarianism or advocate religious freedom – and whichever one of those two a writer might primarily emphasize, there would usually also be at least sympathy for the other one. These ideas began to find a home in two places: Transylvania and Poland.

Transylvania. It’s in what is now Romania. Here’s a map of Romania showing Transylvania as a central and western district.

And here’s a map showing how the Carpathian mountains curl around and provide a natural protection to Transylvania on three sides.

After the fall of Rome, various barbarian tribes lived and moved through there. Then the Magyars, Hungarians, conquered the region in 1003, and for 500 years it was part of Hungary. In 1526, Ottoman Turkey defeated Hungary and was content to allow the Transylvanian region be an independent country – a buffer between Hungary and Turkey.

Transylvania was an autonomous state for about a century and a half before being reabsorbed into Hungary and later Romania. During that brief time, autonomous Transylvania created and gave to Europe two amazing things: Unitarian churches and the first government edict of Religious Toleration.

2020-09-08

UU Minute #10

UU Minute #10: Serveto's Double Legacy



The roots of Unitarianism in Europe lie in two ideas:
  • Critique of the Doctrine of the Trinity, and
  • Support of religious toleration. 
Those two ideas are the double legacy of Miguel Serveto. First, he called into question the doctrine of the trinity. He paved the way for a Unitarian theology of the Unity of God, and also advanced the Universalist notion of the universal divinity of humanity. Second, his persecution and death sparked a movement toward tolerance and religious freedom.

On October 27, 1553, Miguel Serveto was burned at the stake in Geneva, Switzerland, with a copy of his book tied to his arm. Thousands of people have been put to death as heretics in Europe. In particular, the Anabaptists were slaughtered by the hundreds, and they too, rejected the doctrine of the trinity. What made Serveto so special?

For one thing, he argued his side with such evident intelligence. If the fervid passions of the generally lower-class Anabaptists could be written off as the spell of Satan, Serveto’s detailed rational argument, combined with the fact that it came from a respected medical doctor of an upper class family, landed differently. And so it was that from the crowd that watched him die, there arose the conviction that this should not be. Before his ashes were cold, cries for religious tolerance began to be heard. Calvin fell under criticism.

Though Calvin had convinced most of Christendom of Serveto’s error, he faced a growing feeling that that error did not warrant the stake. Books arguing for the toleration of heretics began to appear.

Sebastian Castellio’s booklet, "Against Calvin," notably declared, “To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, but to kill a man.”

UU Minute #9

UU Minute #9: Miguel Serveto (Michael Servetus), part 3



1553. Miguel Serveto is arrested in Vienne, but manages to escape from jail. He plans to flee to Naples, Italy. Yet he shows up in Geneva, which – as you can see – is not along the route from Vienne to Naples. Why he would make this little detour remains a mystery. The Geneva of that time was essentially a theocracy ruled by Protestant Reformer John Calvin. Serveto was recognized and arrested. The trial lasted two months. John Calvin was chief prosecutor, though usually only Calvin’s proxies were present at the trial.

Serveto defended his views on the Trinity, repudiated the charges of being a pantheist and of denying immortality, and admitted without reservation his condemnation of infant baptism. From prison, during the trial stoppages, Serveto carried out in writing a theological debate with Calvin. Serveto was convinced that Calvin’s doctrines of predestination, original sin, and total depravity reduced people to mere objects like logs and stones. Calvin was convinced that Serveto’s doctrine of human divinity reduced God to the level of human sinfulness.

The written records of the trial and of this correspondence were shared with other Swiss cities, and the deliberations of their councils were sought. The responses that came back were unanimous: Serveto was guilty of grave heresies which, if left unchecked, threatened to undermine the whole Reformation. Zurich’s reply was typical:
“We judge that one should work against him with great faith and diligence, especially as our churches have an ill repute abroad as heretics and patrons of heretics.”
To protect the image of the fledgling Protestant Reform movement, Serveto must burn.

UU Minute #8

UU Minute #8: Miguel Serveto (Michael Servetus), part 2



Miguel Serveto – also known as Michael Servetus – wrote a book, On the Errors of the Trinity, published in 1531, the year he turned 22. He argued that Jesus’ human nature and Christ nature came into being at the same time – in other words, that the Son was not co-eternal with the Father.

Miguel Serveto was bright, and young, and cocky and he seems to have imagined that he would explain to his elders the errors of their thinking, and they would say “Oh, thank you. Yes, I see I was mistaken.” Instead, reaction was rather negative.

The Catholics were deeply invested in Trinitarian orthodoxy, as they had been ever since 325 and the Council of Nicaea. The Protestants weren’t AS invested in the Trinity, but what they were invested in was not having any more fights with the Catholics than they had to. Protestants were dealing with harsh backlash as it was – they didn’t want to also be tarred as anti-trinitarian – which in the minds of the authorities of the time meant, at best, being guilty of the Arian heresy, or, at worst, of abandoning Christianity and reverting to Judaism, as the case of Katarzyna Weiglowa seemed to confirm. So Protestants were actually more virulent than Catholics in denouncing Miguel Serveto and his book.

Serveto changed his name to Michel de Villaneuve, fled to Paris, then to Vienne, France, where he led a quiet life as an editor and a doctor of medicine for 22 years. Then the bug for theology got into him again, and in 1553 he published Restitution of Christianity. It was published anonymously – without identification of either the author or the publisher. But the authorities began digging, and soon deduced that the author of Restitution of Christianity, Michel de Villaneuve, Miguel Serveto, and the author of On the Errors of the Trinity, were all the same person.

UU Minute #7

UU Minute #7: Miguel Serveto (Michael Servetus), part 1

Unitarianism in Europe is rooted in two ideas. One of them was critique of the doctrine of the trinity – and that’s the idea we are named after. The other is critique of religious intolerance – and that’s the idea that’s more central to what it means to be Unitarian. Both of those ideas got a significant boost from a man that I grew up calling Michael Servetus.

He went by a lot of names, but the name he and his family probably knew him by best was Miguel Serveto. That’s what he seems to have been called most in his childhood and youth, as he was born and raised in Spain, so that’s what I’ll call him.

Miguel Serveto was born in 1509, was eight-years old when -- 2,000 kilometers away in Wittenberg, Germany -- Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation by nailing 95 theses to the church door. Serveto was a brilliant student: earned a BA at age 14, and MA at age 15. He eventually became a leading scholar of his time in a number of fields: mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, geography, human anatomy, medicine, pharmacology, jurisprudence, poetry, and Bible studies.

In Catholic Spain, Protestant books were strictly banned. Young Miguel might have first had access to forbidden Protestant writings at age 18, when he went to France to study at the University of Toulouse. What Miguel Serveto would end up meaning for Unitarianism we will see in future episodes.

UU Minute #6

UU Minute #6: Katarzyna Weiglowa



As women stand up threatening patriarchy and orthodoxy, let’s remember that our Unitarian heritage includes courageous women who have been doing that for almost 500 years.

In 1527, ten years after Martin Luther had nailed 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, thereby launching the Protestant Reformation, another German Protestant theologian, Martin Borrhaus, published De Operibus Dei -- Work of God -- the first open questioning of the doctrine of the Trinity in print in Europe. Borrhaus went quiet on the subject thereafter and was able to live out his life.

Katarzyna Weiglowa, a Polish woman in her late 60s when Borrhaus’ book came out, was less fortunate. Influenced by that book, she began professing nontrinitarian views. The pockets of Arian Christianity in Europe had long since been suppressed, so an adherent of the God of the Hebrew Bible who did not regard Jesus as co-equal and co-eternal with that God could only turn to Judaism – which Katarzyna Weiglowa adopted, though we don’t know if she ever sought to become part of any actual Jewish community.

The Christian world regarded her as theirs, and beginning in 1529, when she was 70 years old, she appeared several times before the church court in Krakow. Pressed to abandon the “mistakes of the Jewish faith,” she refused. So she was charged with heresy and imprisoned in Krak√≥w. She spent 10 years in prison, maintaining her profession of the unity of God, rejecting the trinity, and refusing to call Jesus the Son of God. In 1539, at the age of 80, she was burned at the stake, loudly proclaiming her faith until the end.

For both Unitarians and Jews, Katarzyna Weiglowa’s name is remembered and honored as a martyr.

UU Minute #5

UU Minute #5: Pandemics, Printing Presses, and Protestants



Pandemics are nothing new. They have been a periodic part of human life ever since we’ve had cities. The Bubonic plague in the middle-1300s killed one third of Europe’s population, creating labor shortages, which created pressure for innovation. For instance, as long as there were plenty of people to copy things by hand, it didn’t occur to anybody that a printing press sure would be handy. Even so, it was a century after the worst plague year before Gutenberg’s printing press with movable type came on line. Some sixty years after Gutenberg’s press, in 1517, Martin Luther launched the Protestant Reformation. Coincidence? Hardly.
  • For one thing, the Catholic Church jumped on the printing press to crank out the certificates for indulgences – confirmation of going to heaven for those willing to pay enough to the church. Increased traffic in indulgences highlighted the corruption in the Church that motivated Luther’s reforms.
  • Second, the printing press produced Bibles in the vulgar tongues. Suddenly more or less ordinary people – if they were literate – no longer had to rely on what Priests reported the Bible said.
  • Third, Luther’s complaints about the church echoed complaints that others had been making for centuries – but those others didn’t have this new printing press contraption. The 95 theses that Luther famously nailed to the church door in Wittenberg were also taken to the Wittenberg printer, where they became a pamphlet that spread through Europe* – so Luther’s theses had an influence far greater than previous church critics had. 
Unitarians emerged from the radical wing of the Protestant Reformation. Pandemic led to printing press, which led to Protestant Reformation, which led to us. I wonder: to what will our current pandemic lead?

*The 95 Theses were nailed to the church door on Oct 31, 1517. By Nov 17, broadsheet copies of Luther's document were being printed in London, over 1,000 land-kilometers, plus an English Channel, away. Luther followed-up that document with Europe's first media blitz: from 1518 to 1525, Luther’s writings accounted for a third of all books sold in Germany. His mastery of the new technology allowed him to succeed where Jan Hus (1369-1415) a century before had met with execution.