The Trinity and Soteriology: The Case of Michael Servetus

In a recent post, our good friend Nick Norelli underscored (quite rightly) the centrality of the Trinity to our salvation with the following words: “One need not get caught up in the esoteric matters of Trinitarian theology to explain the Trinity, but explain it we must because the Trinity is the God who saves” (emphasis mine). There I reminded him of the well-known dictum of Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky (perhaps quoting Fr Paul Florensky; Lossky’s text, or else his translator, is not entirely clear on this point): “Between the Trinity and hell there lies no other choice”1. This brief exchange came to mind a couple of days ago as I read a very able analysis of the thought of the controversial Reformation-era figure Michael Servetus that concluded thus:

“It is obvious that Servetus’ understanding of Christianity was quite unusual. Had Servetus accepted a more orthodox notion of original sin, human depravity, and captivity to evil, he would also have necessarily accepted a partially human Christ to atone for a fallen mankind. In turn, a human Christ would have necessitated some conventional concept of the Trinity to account for how the same Godhead could consist of an unseen Father, a human Christ, and a phantom Spirit. Servetus’ great departure from orthodoxy was that man did not need atonement but a divine ritual and a celestial Christ to transform man into God. Consequently, the key to Servetus’ thought was soteriological and not theological; an elevated view of man simply made the Trinity unnecessary”2.

In Servetus’ case his anti-Trinitarianism was the end result of a fatally flawed soteriology; it stands to reason, then, that the reverse is also true: anti-Trinitarianism, an effective denial of the God who saves, must result in a fatally flawed soteriology. This is why the whole structure and content of Christian theology properly so-called is, and must be, Trinitarian.

ADDENDUM (7/19/2010): Over the past few days I have had occasion to revisit Jaroslav Pelikan’s first published work, From Luther to Kierkegaard: A Study in the History of Theology (St Louis: Concordia, 1950). In his discussion of the  natural theology of the last great dogmatician of the period of Lutheran orthodoxy, David Hollaz (also Hollatz or Hollatius), he notes that

[o]n the basis of several New Testament passages and of the Athanasian Creed, Hollaz concludes that “he who does not honor the Triune God is an atheist” (page 67)3.

Even if one cannot grant Hollaz’s broader arguments on natural knowledge, his conclusion here is nevertheless true. If the Most Holy Trinity is the One True God (and rest assured that this indeed is the case), then to deny the Trinity is to deny that God exists. As such, then, the anti-Trinitatian is in the end an atheist. Their atheism is not irreligious, however, but rather idolatrous, because it leads the anti-Trinitarian to replace the One True God, who has revealed himself, with a monistic god of their own making.



1 Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1976), 66.

2 Jerome Friedmann, “Michael Servetus: Advocate of Total Heresy,” in Hans-Jürgen Goertz (ed.), Profiles of Radical Reformers: Biographical Sketches from Thomas Müntzer to Paracelsus (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1982), 251-252.

3 The citation given by Pelikan in his endnote points to Hollaz’s Examen theologicum acroamaticum I, 379. In spite of my best efforts, I have been unable to locate the Latin text of this work, and thus can’t provide the quotation in the original or even verify the particulars of the translation.


15 responses to “The Trinity and Soteriology: The Case of Michael Servetus

  1. I think Paul articulated a pretty good soteriology, and the primitive church had not developed anything like the trinitarian theology of the fourth century.

    Is this allowed, or does it have to be an “amen” comment? :)


  2. Which of the suggested soteriologies of St Paul do you have in mind, Vlad? For he himself didn’t systematically present one. The field of “systematic theologies of Paul” is apparently what they call a “growth field” these days, judging from what I’ve seen.

    And while the precise understanding of the Trinity as defined in later theologians and synods was not so defined in the first centuries of the Church, the evidence of belief in the Trinity itself is found in Trinitarian formulations, in the great commission (Matthew 28.19), and even in Paul (2 Corinthians 13.14), quite plainly.

    This is no different than recognizing that the sun exists and gives light and life despite not understanding thermonuclear fusion and photosynthesis.


  3. Vlad: I don’t know, there seems to be a distinctly Trinitarian shape to Paul’s soteriology in a number of passages. See e.g., 1 Thessalonians 1:4-6; 2 Thessalonian 2:13-14; and Ephesians 2:18.

    Kevin: Preach it brother!


  4. Esteban,
    Maybe you’ve done this before, but I’ve just missed it. You obviously know the evangelical world very well, and know the writings of evangelical theologians more than most of us who are still in the evangelical world. Where would you suggest that an evangelical like myself begin studying Orthodox theology (ala the last 1000 years or so, I’m decently well read in the Eastern Fathers)? Unfortunately, we in the West know Catholic and evangelical scholars well, but have such little knowledge of the great Orthodox theologians that its depressing.


  5. Stefan,

    Ran into The Shack the other day… hoped you had heard of it and were planning to review it. Looks awful, but interesting as a #1 NY Times Bestseller because it’s (at least supposed to be) about the Holy Trinity.

    – isaac


  6. Thanks, Nick, Geoff, Andrew and Manuel!

    Vlad> Comments of the "non-Amen" variety are of course allowed, but the poster must beware, lest they be taken to the woodshed! ;-)

    Kevin> Indeed! Much in has been spilled in the search for the "center" of St Paul's theology (perhaps as much, I'd venture to say, as in the search for the "historical Jesus"!), with very little agreement in the end. And in turn, there are as many Pauline soteriologies as there are proposed centers of St Paul's theology, because each of these affects the final shape of the a reconstructed Pauline theology in a different way.

    (All that said, however, I am quick to note that while St Paul did not himself present a "system" anywhere, this does not mean that his thought wasn't systematic: as Silva notes, the fact that any number of doctrines can convincingly be argued to be the coveted "center" of his thought, and that the material responds to any number of such arrangements, rather demonstrates that the Apostle's thought did function as a coherent whole–something not so readily granted by some scholars!)

    Ranger> I have not, in fact, ever offered such recommendations here, so I welcome the chance to do so now.

    The finest introduction to Orthodox Christianity in the English language James Payton's Light from the Christian East, and I highly recommend that you read this before anything else. Two further volumes that will undoubtedly build upon and expand on the good foundation laid by Prof. Payton are Fr John Meyendorff’s Byzantine Theology: Historical Trends and Doctrinal Themes and Vladimir Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. (Note that Lossky also has a smaller book entitled Orthodox Theology: An Introduction, which might also be profitable at this point.) And after this, well, read anything by Father Georges Florovsky and Vladimir Lossky that you can find! Sadly, Fr Florovsky’s books are mostly out of print and are therefore very hard to come by; fortunately, many of his articles are widely available on the internet. A few of them can be found (together with a few by Lossky) in Daniel Clendenin’s useful anthology, Eastern Orthodox Theology: A Contemporary Reader. But note that not all the articles in this anthology are created equal: Weber and Nassif can be altogether ignored, Lossky and Fr Florvosky are essential, and the others fit somewhere in between.

    But so much for “academic” sorts of things! I have found no better introduction to the “ethos” of the Orthodox Church than the wonderful book Shepherd of Souls, a life of Elder Cleopa of Romania (1912-1998). Here you will find a vivid (and unapologetic) portrait of Orthodox faith and life as it is meant to be lived and believed. I would put it in the hands of our catechumens and say, "This is what you are about to embrace in becoming Orthodox."

    Anyway, I hope these recommendations are helpful to you!

    Zac> I haven't heard of this so-called "Shack," so you should call me sometime and fill me in! ;-)


  7. One of the things I’m learning from my reading of Neusner is a whole lot about Paul. (If “a whole lot” is really singular, that is.) It will be productive. Suffice it to say, I think everything I’ve read on Paul has missed him wildly by the investigators lacking a deeper foundation in the Rabbinic Canon or Oral Torah. As it is, it is not just a set of texts, a compilation of laws, narratives and quips, but a system of thought based in and expressing the systematization of Scripture. In both direct and indirect connections it makes Paul and the rest of the New Testament come alive in a way that appeals to other forms of thought most certainly does not. The two corpora spring from the same roots, after all. And Paul is often in dialogue directly with those roots. As are Matthew and James and John and the rest. They were all onto something that hasn’t been explored in precisely the right way at all. I’ll be digesting it all and then I’ll have more to say on it. But it’s an extraordinarily beneficial experience, a real epiphany.


  8. Kevin> I have been following your blog series on Neusner's "Oral Torah" with increasingly greater interest precisely because I perceive its great relevance for Pauline studies, which is one of my chief areas on interest. I often bemoan my pitiable lack of competency in Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism because I have always very keenly that I am missing something pivotal to my chosen field of inquiry; after reading your ongoing series, that sense is now proven beyond doubt. And as you rightly say, it isn't only Paul: the same is true of the whole New Testament. I can only hope that this will be incentive enough to remedy my inexcusable deficiencies!


  9. It’s good to hear my posts are of benefit, and that you’re seeing some of the same thing I have. I’ll have my notes on the chapter on sin up tomorrow.

    I’d recommend the whole book, though, for the full benefit. You can find copies very inexpensively through AddAll (starting at $11.70!) and Bookfinder. It’s huge (well over 600 pp) because he quotes the documents extensively, which is very helpful.


  10. Kevin> Your posts are indeed most beneficial, and we are all in your debt for making your notes available.

    Unfortunately I'm not in a position to buy any books for some time, but I've already made the decision to find a copy of this volume by Neusner as soon as I possibly can. I am relieved, of course, to hear that the damages won't be to great! :-)


  11. What a wonderful addendum. The irony is that early Christians were branded as atheists for denying the gods of the Græco-Roman pantheons and worshipping the One True God, the Most Holy Trinity. But as we well know… God is not mocked!


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