A Heretic Everyone Can Agree On…Except Unitarians

**This book is about the life of a condemned 16th century heretic. With that information, I can’t imagine there are any spoilers left, but for what it’s worth, this review may contain spoilers**

My knowledge of Reformation history is woefully inadequate. I, of course, know the religious, historical and political importance. But as to what actually happened from Luther’s 95 theses to Jefferson’s Deceleration of Independence is a bit sketchy. I know Henry VIII was in there somewhere but I digress.  All of that to say, I enjoyed Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone’s leisurely walk through the 16th century in Out of the Flames.

Using the life, thoughts and written works of Michael Servetus, the authors paint a particularly irreligious picture of the 1500’s, citing a struggle for power and politics as the main motivation for the Reformation. I can see this book ruffling the feathers of a practicing Catholic or Calvinist; being neither, however, I took no offense. Rather, I saw it as both sides simultaneously being insulted. Beginning with (the surprisingly sad story of) Gutenberg and the rise of printing presses, the story follows the Spaniard Servetus as he studies theology, promotes similar ideas to Arius and spends the rest of his life assuming identities running from Catholics and Protestants alike all over Europe. Despite being hunted as a heretic, Severtus enrolls and studies medicine as a fugitive with an assumed name. His final published book Christianismi Restitutio directly opposed John Calvin and the Holy Trinity. Sandwiched in this heretical work, used as a simile for the Holy Spirit, is a most profound and groundbreaking medical discovery. Up until this point, the prevailing ideas regarding blood flow were, among other things, incorrect. With his image of the Holy Spirit flowing like blood through the capillaries of the heart, Michael Servetus showed the world a new understanding of anatomy. Alas, after his book’s publication, Servetus was once again on the run and finally crossed swords with John Calvin in Geneva. His  prolonged imprisonment ended when he was burned as a heretic along with his books.

After the death of Servetus and the supposed destruction of every copy of his last book, Out of the Flames continues, following the three very rare surviving copies of Christianismi Restitutio . Through the ages they pop up around eastern and western Europe in the most elite personal libraries, influencing the most influential. His book was appreciated in different times for it’s theological and medical significance. Servetus’s heretical brand of antitrinitarianism takes hold in varying degrees of popularity all throughout history. Eventually it became what we now know as Unitarianism and attracted the likes of Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson. History has even attempted to now credit him with the initial discovery of the true nature regarding the human cardiovascular system.

All in all I enjoyed Out of the Flames a great deal. It was a compelling and very readable account of history. While the authors do make a bit of a hero out of Servetus and villains out of every other Christian (except Ignatius Loyola interestingly enough), I did enjoy reading a historical account that wasn’t obviously biased toward one side or the other, Catholic or Protestant. Now that I’ve finished the over three hundred pages, I can say I benefited from the brevity of the text. The book didn’t just follow Michael Servetus, but rather painted the full picture of the 16th century– religion, economics, academics, medicine etc. Often that meant meandering through tangential biographies and minor historical achievements but I can say now that I have a much better and fuller picture of Reformation history.

Recommendations based on this book: The History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom and The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester


2 thoughts on “A Heretic Everyone Can Agree On…Except Unitarians

  1. Pingback: Used and Rare: Travels in the Book World | Being the Carruths

  2. Pingback: The Chips are Down on 2013 | Being the Carruths

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