Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

August 30, 2006

 “On the Errors of the Trinity”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

As most of you know, I was in Ireland for the first two weeks of August. It was a wonderful trip, organized by a non-profit group called Global Exchange. They describe themselves as an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. I spent most of my time in Northern Ireland, learning about the centuries-long Irish struggle for independence from Britain, especially “the Troubles” of recent decades. I am glad to say that the Peace Process appeared to me to be firmly in place and both sides appear to be committed to making it stick.

While I was there, I got a chance to break away from the tour and drive (on the wrong side of the road, of course!) down to the far south of the Republic of Ireland to where my great-grandfather grew up before coming to New York as a young man around the turn of the century. On my way down south, I stopped to see some of the sites related to Saint Patrick in County Down. I collected my water for the Water Communion from a well that was a pagan sacred well, but which Patrick blessed, so that Christians have also used it over the centuries for healing.

Another part of the natural world associated with Ireland and with Saint Patrick is the shamrock, or clover. Shamrocks have been considered by the Irish as good-luck symbols since earliest times, Patrick is said to have used these three-leaf clovers to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity is a uniquely Christian understanding of God, and for most Christians it is what defines one as a Christian. It is the doctrine by which Unitarian Universalists are excluded from the National Council of Churches. The doctrine of the Trinity states that the God of the Bible is both a single god, undivided, and yet consisting of three persons. If you are wondering how a god could be both three and one, then you could use Saint Patrick’s example of the clover to understand it. Is the clover a trinity? or a unity? Well, it is both at the same time. In the same way, Christians traditionally understand God as having three natures, these natures being the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Essential to the notion of the Trinity is that God the Son (or Christ) is fully, completely God; God the Father (or Creator) is fully, completely God; and God the Holy Spirit is fully, completely God. Yet there is only one God. All three, as the one God, have all always existed and will always exist.

The idea that God exists as three persons developed over several hundred years. In the year 325, the Council of bishops that met in Nicaea declared that Jesus Christ was of the same substance as the father. This decision had been made because the emperor Constantine, who had converted to Christianity, was confused by all the different opinions Christians had about Jesus’ relationship to God. Some taught that Jesus was God; others taught that he was lesser than God, although specially sent to be the savior. Constantine, as a good administrator, wanted all of the bishops to be “on message.” He told them to get together and make up their minds. The decision was a democratic vote and not a consensus; the orthodox position became that the Christ was one with the Father, even though a huge number of Christians at the time continued to believe otherwise and to feel that the wrong decision had been made.

This decision—that the Christ was the Father come down to earth in the person of Jesus—was the beginning of the development of the Trinity. Christians still had to account for the many references in early Christian writings to the work of the Holy Spirit. For instance, in the Biblical story about the conception of Jesus the Christ, an angel announces to Mary: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God" (Luke 1:35). The Holy Spirit is understood to be God as that invisible, internal presence. God the Father is understood as the Creator of the universe, the Judge and the giver of the Law The Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity and is the aspect of God that came to earth as a human being named Jesus of Nazareth, who saved our souls by becoming the final sacrificial offering to God. The Holy Spirit became defined as that aspect of God that comes upon us in quiet moments, that stirs our conscience, and whose work is visible through the collective work of faithful groups of people. Over the two or three centuries following the Council of Nicaea, the doctrine of the Trinity—incorporating all three of these aspects of God—was developed.

When the Protestant Reformation began in the early 16th century, many of the teachings that had been handed down as Christian tradition came under scrutiny. One of the most important rules that reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin used to determine whether a teaching of the Roman Catholic Church was legitimate or not was whether the teaching was clearly taught in the Bible.Michael Servetus was a young man from Spain who studied law in France, where he became acquainted with Frenchman John Calvin. Michael was a brilliant student who read the entire Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek by the time he was 15 years old. Like Calvin, he was part of the growing number of scholars and divines who were inspired by Martin Luther’s protests and questioned much of what the Roman Church taught.Servetus debated with his fellow scholars his own interpretations of the Bible and his own understanding of the relationship of the Messiah (or Christ) with God. These conversations had seemed safer to him than they, in fact, were. There were pockets of rebel theologians, but their ideas were considered truly dangerous to the Catholic Church. In the summer of 1531—exactly 475 years ago—nineteen year old Michael published a long, scholarly work entitled, “On the Errors of the Trinity.”

Servetus explained in that treatise that contrary to the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, Christ did not exist eternally from the beginning of time. No one argued, of course, that Jesus of Nazareth was obviously a human being who began his bodily, incarnate existence at a certain time and died thirty-three years later, but the doctrine of the Trinity holds that that was just a bodily manifestation of the Christ, who has existed through all eternity from the beginning with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Freed from centuries of tradition to reconsider the nature of Jesus’ ministry, based only on what was written in the New Testament, Servetus reached the conclusion that Jesus’s human nature and his Christ nature came into being at the same time. In theological language, the Son was not co-eternal with the Father.

In making this claim, young Michael was clearly guilty of heresy. Back in the sixteenth century, people were quite touchy about heresy. And Michael Servetus—a true pre-cursor to today’s UU’s—managed to fit in neither with the Catholics nor the Protestants with his opinions. This young man had probably fantasized that everyone would see the light once he’d laid out for them his well-reasoned argument with all of its supporting facts. But, no. Servetus had chosen to question a doctrine that Protestants by and large weren’t going to touch then, and don’t touch today either. Somewhat cowed by the strength of the attacks he received from all sides, Servetus modified his theology in subsequent books. Nevertheless, he continued to assert his basic premise: that the doctrine of the Trinity was wrong.

Many of you bought the t-shirts that were sold by Ian Maher back in April with a picture of Servetus and the logo “Celebrating 450 Years of Heresy.” Michael Servetus is one of the great heroes of Unitarian Universalism. He was the first of the Protestants to take the Reformation to its logical conclusion of questioning the very un-Biblical doctrine of the Trinity. Although the word “Unitarian” was not coined during his lifetime, he can nevertheless be called the first Unitarian of the modern age. In this 475th anniversary of his treatise, it is not only what he said that matters, but his courageous determination to say it that matters. What makes him a unitarian in the strictest sense is the fact that he believed God to be a unity and not a trinity. But what makes him a Unitarian Universalist hero is not the fact that he held the doctrine of unitarianism, but that he allowed the principle of reason to carry him to a conclusion that others feared to reach. In an effort to survive in the theological environment in which he found himself, he chose to backtrack on some of the arguments he made that people found offensive, but on the essential point that the doctrine of the Trinity was flawed, he never budged. He made accomodations for his own survival, but, in the end, stood with reason and truth against politics, fear, intimidation and doctrinalism.

Even five centuries ago, it turns out, unitarians sometimes stated their views with a bit too much self-assurance. Michael didn’t mince words in that first edition of his treatise. He might have guessed that it wouldn’t go over well to say, “They have contrived an imaginary Trinity, three beings, all shut up in one jar. In reality three Gods are foisted upon us under the pretence of a Unity.”

In the sixteenth century, you just didn’t go around questioning the Trinity, and as a 19 year-old hot shot, you didn’t accuse people of being polytheists for believing in the Trinity. Protestants were just as upset at Servetus as Roman Catholic Church was. There were a number of secret societies of theology students who were developing doctrines contrary to Rome. But this fellow had taken it too far even for these rebels. Michael Servetus went into his own 16th century version of a witness protection program. He went back to France, where he’d studied law, took the name Michel de Villeneuve, studied medicine and became a physician. As brave as he’d been, he got a scare bad enough that he began a whole new existence. He rose quickly in this new career, becoming the physician to an archbishop and to one of the king’s lieutenant governors. Servetus even made history in the field of medicine: he was the first European to recognize that blood was carried from the heart to the lungs and back to the heart.

After fifteen years in hiding, Michael couldn’t resist: he began a correspondence with his old theological rival, John Calvin, who was based in Geneva. He’d had his period of safety; he’d built an inoffensive and respectable life for himself. But he knew that he had been right all those years ago about the true nature of God. He must have been influenced in his passion against the Trinity by his respect for the Jewish and Muslim faiths. I don’t suspect that he respected those faiths in the way we might hope of ourselves today. He certainly believed that Christianity was the one true religion, and that Jesus was the Christ, or Messiah. But as Mary read for us earlier, Servetus saw what an obstacle the Trinity was to those who were Jewish or Muslim, and he respected the people of those faiths enough to feel the sting of their laughter. How they must laugh at Christian notions of a God who is one and yet three!

And after a decade and a half, his passion to convince other Christians of the error of their ways drove him out of the safe haven he’d created for himself. John Calvin was by then a powerful theologian in Protestant circles, second only to Martin Luther. Servetus felt compelled to take up the argument again with this man whom he’d known so many years ago. He felt that itch, that nagging feeling, that discomfort with sitting around and letting someone else define what is true or untrue of God. He had to speak the truth of his heart and mind about the ultimate nature of reality, of the universe, of the creator and the creation. Michel de Villeneuve, not content to be a successful physician, had to be Michael Servetus again, no matter what the cost.

But he began with some caution, perhaps even trepidation. He wrote Calvin, but using his adopted French name. Calvin responded, explaining why, in fact, the doctrine was Biblical. After all, the gospel according to John has many instances of Jesus saying things like, "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30) or "He who has seen Me has seen the Father" (John 14:9) or "He who beholds Me beholds the One who sent Me." Servetus replies with less and less diplomacy with every passing correspondence. The truth was so obvious to Michael and he had no patience for Calvin’s inability to see the light. It wasn’t long before the pretense could not be sustained. Calvin knew perfectly well who his challenger was.

Over the course of a couple of years, the debate became more bitter as each became more strident. In 1553, Servetus published another anti-Trinitarian treatise named “Christianity Restored.”

That did it. Calvin informed the French Inquisition of where the infamous, heretical, and long-sought Michael Servetus could be found. He was quickly arrested but managed to escape. The Catholic authorities burned him in effigy along with as many copies of his books as they could get their hands on.

Servetus—obviously courting disaster—went to Geneva to hear his enemy Calvin preach. He was recognized, seized, jailed, put on trial and sentenced to death. Legend has it that when he was condemned, he declared: "I will burn, but this is a mere event. We shall continue our discussion in eternity." As he burned in the flames, defiant to the last, he cried out not to Jesus the Eternal Son, but to Jesus the Son of the Eternal Father.Was he foolishly stubborn? Yes. Was he looking for a fight? Yes. In these respects, he’d be indistinguishable from many UU’s today. But the sacrifice he made 475 years ago imposes upon us some obligation as his religious heirs. He died specifically because of his particular stance on a particular point of Christian theology. He went to his death because believed so firmly that God’s nature had been mis-characterized. He believed that Christianity had been sullied and distorted; molded by the philosophizing of Greek academics who loved their own obtuse theories more than they loved truth. But Michael Servetus’ death means far more for us than the right to believe as he did about the unity of God. His death, as a unitarian martyr, is a lesson for us about how precious is this community we have found and which we nurture, where we struggle, against all odds, to create an environment where we genuinely engage with one another in our theological diversity.

The sacrifices of those who have gone before us are calls not to believe as they believe, nor to do as they did, but to be most fully who we are called to be.

Michael Servetus tried, for a while, to play the game. He gave up being Michael Servetus, theologian, and became Michel de Villeneuve, physician. And he did a darned good job of it. He was successful. He had a good gig. He lived in a good part of town and had powerful friends. He made genuine contributions to science. But he was not being Michael Servetus. He had to be Michael Servetus, come what may.

And we must be who we are called to be, come what may.