[K:NWTS 21/1 (May 2006) 3-10]

Trinitarian Confession of the Italian Church of Geneva (1558)

James T. Dennison, Jr. and George C. Young II

Assisted by Francis X. Gumerlock and Andrea Rafanelli

On May 22, 1558, John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote a letter to Peter Martyr Vermigli (1500-1562) detailing the troubles in the Italian congregation of Geneva over the doctrine of the Trinity.1 The ghost of Michael Servetus (1511-1553),2 as it were, reappeared in the several Italian heterodox refugees huddled in Geneva against the Catholic Inquisition and other threats. Among the agitators were Giorgio Biandrata/George Blandrata (1516-1588), Matteo Gribaldi/Matthew Gribaldi (1506-1564), Paolo Alciati/Paul Alciati (ca. 1515-1573) and Giovanni Valentino Gentile/John Valentine Gentile (ca. 1520-1566). Of Gribaldi, Calvin remarked to Vermigli that he "had been scattering the seeds of his errors" on the Trinity in the Italian congregation.3

Gribaldi's opportunism was emboldened by the death of the pastor of the Italian church, Celso Martinengo (b. 1515), in July 1557.4 Lattanzio Ragnone (d. 1559) succeeded as pastor of la Chiesa degli Italiani and inherited the brewing firestorm. Gribaldi was reinforced by the arrival of Biandrata in 1557. Over the next year, Biandrata sought a number of personal interviews with Calvin in order to present his novel views on the Trinity. Calvin courteously heard him out several times, but finally realized he was incorrigible and broke off the meetings.5 Pastor Ragnone summoned Biandrata, Alciati and Silvio Tellio before the consistory of the Italian church in May 1558. Remembering the fate of Servetus, Biandrata saw the handwriting on the wall and fled to Berne. Calvin joined Ragnone on May 16, 1558 in a petition to draft a confession of faith on the Trinity for the Italian congregation. The confession was quickly drafted and read to the church on May 18. In the process, Calvin entertained a three-hour discussion in which open expression of opinion was guaranteed. Alciati was present for this exchange, but Gentile was absent. At the conclusion of the open interaction, the congregation was asked to sub-scribe the confession. All but seven agreed.6 On May 19, the seven who de-murred were summoned before Ragnone and given yet another chance to subscribe. On May 20, the congregation formally endorsed the confession with only two refusals—Alciati and an unnamed confederate. Even Gentile attached his signature.7

However, within a few weeks, Gentile had second thoughts about the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He was seized, in turn, and imprisoned on July 9. Distancing himself from Servetus's merely economic Trinity, Gentile suggested a Trinity of persons of decreasing potency from the Father to the Son to the Holy Spirit. Realizing his cause was hopeless, he agreed to recant and was publicly humiliated.8 In a short time, Gentile abandoned Geneva sojourning in Farges (an estate near Gex), Lyons and Grenoble before being arrested in Gex (Bernese jurisdiction) in 1561. He had already attacked Calvin's doctrine of the Trinity, detailed in the latter's 1559 edition of the Institutes, with his infamous Antidota (no longer extant). The authorities in Gex demanded that he publish his views in a Confessio which was released in Antwerp in 1561. The following year Gentile emigrated to Poland with Paolo Alciati where he settled in Cracow before moving on to Pin´czów. Two years later, he was in flight again for Moravia, Vienna and Savoy. Returning to Gex in 1566, he refused to recant his anti-Trinitarian views (as he had in 1558) and was beheaded September 10.

Poland, Hungary and Transylvania would become the hotbed of anti-Trinitarianism after 1558. Because of religious tolerance prevalent in these regions, Biandrata, Gentile, Alciati and the Socinian duo (uncle, Lelio [1525-1562] and nephew, Fausto [1539-1604]) insinuated the ancient Arian heresy and worse into Protestantism, giving birth to the modern Unitarian movement.

Our translation is based on the side-by-side Italian-Latin version found in Ioannis Calvini Opera quae Supersunt Omnia, ed. by G. Baum, E. Cunitz and E. Reuss (1870), 9:385-88. The Italian text has been translated by George C. Young II with the help of Andrea Rafanelli. The Latin text has been translated by James T. Dennison, Jr. with the help of Francis X. Gumerlock.

Confession of Faith set forth in the Italian Church of Geneva May 18, 1558

Italian Version

Although the confession of faith contained in the Apostles' Creed should suffice for ordinary Christian people, nevertheless because some, by their curiosity, having deviated from the pure and true faith, have disturbed the union and harmony of this church, and have sown false and erroneous opinions, to obviate all the craftiness of Satan and to be armed and prepared against those who would seduce us, and to show that we believe with one heart and speak with one mouth, and similarly that we refute and detest all heresy against the pure faith, which until now we have held and which we wish to follow to the very end, we have resolved to make the declaration which here follows, as to the one and simple essence of God and the distinction of the three persons.

We declare therefore that God the Father has even generated [generato] from all eternity his Word and Wisdom, that is his only Son, and that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both, since there is but one sole and single essence of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: and this, that the Father is distinct from the Son, and the Holy Spirit from the one and the other, in respect to the persons.

Therefore we condemn and detest the error of those who say that the Father simply, as far as his essence, and as He is the one true God (as they say), generated [generato] his Son: as if the Divine Majesty, Glory, essence, and in sum the true Divinity, belonged to the Father only, and that Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit were divine beings proceeding from Him, and that hence the unity of the divine essence were divided or separate.

So, confessing that there is but one God, we acknowledge that all that is attributed to the Divinity and to His glory and essence, is as fitting to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, when one speaks simply of God without making comparisons between one person and the other. But, when making the comparison between the persons, one from the other, it is fitting for us to recognize that which is proper to each, to make the distinction that the Son is not the Father, nor is the Holy Spirit the Son.

As to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, other than having been generated [generato] from all eternity by God His Father, and being a person distinct from Him, we believe that in his human nature, in which he clothed himself for our salvation, he is still the true and natural Son of God, having thus united the two natures, that there is none but one mediator alone, God manifest in flesh, still preserving the properties of each of the two natures.

Furthermore, making this declaration we declare and upon the faith which we owe to God, we promise and we obligate ourselves to follow this doctrine, and to persevere in it, without contravening it either directly or indirectly, or with any malice, that would nourish any dissent or disagreement that would divert us from this accord. And in general to shut the door on any future discord, we declare that we want to live and die in obedience to the doctrine of this church, and, as much as we are able, to resist all sects which may rise up. And so we approve, accept and confirm it, under penalty of being held perjurers and ones lacking in faith.

Latin Version

A Brief Explanation of the impiety and threefold perfidy and perjury of Valentine Gentilis, about which the Senate of Geneva became aware, described from the Public Acts.

When four years before, the elders of the Italian church which is among us had perceived (as by scent), that among some of the flock perverse words were being spoken against the first head of our faith concerning the three persons in the one essence of God, it seemed to them that there was no better remedy than that a confessional formula be drawn up to disclose whether that poison lay hidden. This we have inserted here rendered word for word in Latin, to which all should subscribe.

Confession of Faith set forth in the Italian Church of Geneva May 18, 1558

It is indeed necessary to all sober Christians that the confession of faith comprehended in the Apostles' Creed be sufficient. Yet because some, whose curiosities have seduced certain ones from that pure and true faith, having sown certain false opinions and errors, have disturbed the peace and concord of this church, it seemed [necessary] to us to publish the present confession of faith concerning the one and simple essence of God and the distinction of the three persons, both in order that we may meet all these subtleties of Satan, and also in order that we may be sufficiently instructed against these imposters, and in addition in order that we may demonstrate, that we believe the same in one heart and speak with [one] voice, and at the same time reject and detest all heresies contrary to this pure faith which thus far we have retained and have decreed to follow up to the end.

Therefore we profess God the Father even to have begotten [genuisse] his Word or Wisdom from eternity [ab aeterno], who is his only Son, and the Holy Spirit thus to have proceeded from them both since there is one sole and simple essence of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Moreover [we profess] that the Father is distinct from the Son, and the Holy Spirit is distinct from both, that being granted in respect of persons.

Thus we condemn and detest the error of those who affirm the Father simply with respect to his essence, and that (as they say) he is the only and true God, having begotten [genuisse] his Son, as if by divine majesty, glory and essence; accordingly that true deity is proper to the Father only, or Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit are divine beings proceeding from him, and hence the unity of the divine essence is divided and separated.

Also since we confess one God only, we acknowledge that whatever is attributed to his deity, glory and essence, is suitable as much to the Son as to the Holy Spirit, since it is said of God simply, without mutual comparison of persons among themselves. But on the contrary, as the persons are compared among themselves, they are to be marked by individual properties, by which they should be distinguished in this manner: that the Son is not the Father, neither is the Holy Spirit the Son.

What belongs to the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, other than [the fact] that he has been begotten [genitus est] from all eternity [ab omni aeternitate] by God the Father, and is a person distinct from him, we also believe that he, in his human nature which he assumed for the sake of our salvation, is the true and natural Son of God, because plainly two natures are so joined in one as to be sole mediator, God manifest in the flesh, preserving nevertheless the properties of both natures.

So furthermore we publish this confession, that we may testify and promise in a godly manner, by that faith by which we have been bound by God, that we are going to observe this doctrine and thus persevere in it, [and] that we should never, either directly or indirectly, repudiate it through malice or by a decree that supports any kind of disagreement that can destroy this concord. Finally, in order that we may address all future disagreements, we profess to have determined to live and die according to the doctrine of this church, and against all sects that may rise up. We approve, receive and confirm all these things, with the condition that he who does otherwise is to be considered a perjurer and faithless.

Joh. Sylvester Telius, I approve the above written confession and detest whatever is repugnant to it.

Fr. Porcellinus I receive and approve whatever is encompassed in the above written confession

Joh. Valentinus Gentilis I accept as above

Hippolytus Pelerinus Carignanus I accept as above

Joh. Nicolaus Gallus I accept as above


1 Jules Bonnet, The Letters of John Calvin (1858) 4:421-23. On the history of the Italian church, see James T. Dennison, Jr., "The Life and Career of Francis Turretin," in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (1992-97) 3:360 and notes.

2 The anti-Trinitarian Christology of Servetus is a hodge-podge of chaotically contradictory elements. Stephen Edmondson's "a mélange of elements" is an apt description (Calvin's Christology [2004] 212). Servetus was adamant in what he rejected, if enigmatic in what he proposed—Jesus of Nazareth was not a hypostatic person, i.e., he does not consist in a union of a divine and human nature. Servetus argued that Christ became the son of God at birth by a mixture compounded from the essence of God, a spirit element and flesh. Hence he is more created son of God (from a Logos template) than ontological Son of God. The Platonic influence evident here led the Strasbourg Reformers to state that Servetus posited a verbildung ("pattern") for the pre-mundane Logos. As he rejected the ontic deity of Christ, Calvin vigourouly opposed his confused formulations. It is Servetus's furious repudiation of the Nicene formulation of the Godhead that brings Calvin to its defense in response. Cf. The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, trans. Earl M. Wilbur (1932); but see George H. Williams's summary of his mature anti-Trinitarian thought, The Radical Reformation (1962) 610-12; Calvin, Institutes, II.xiii.22. 3 For surveys of these Trinitarian disputes, see Joseph Tylenda, "The Warning that went Unheeded: John Calvin on Giorgio Biandrata." Calvin Theological Journal 12 (1977): 24-62; G. H. Williams, op. cit., 236ff.; Stanislas Lubienicki, The Polish Reformation and Nine Related Documents (1995) 498ff.; Wulfert de Greef, The Writings of John Calvin: An Introductory Guide (1993) 178-80; Antonio Rontondò, Calvin and the Italian Anti-Trinitarians (1968); as well as the standard biographies of Calvin by B. Cottret, W. Bouwsma, T.H.L. Parker and Fr. Wendel. Cf. the more biased account in Earl M. Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socianism and its Antecedents (1945), 2:97-238.

4 Gribaldi had previously unsettled the congregation by criticizing the doctrine of the Trinity in September 1554. Calvin urged him to appear before the Consistory on June 29, 1555 and subsequently the Council. All of which came to naught as Gribaldi was not a citizen of Geneva, but of the territory of Berne. He professed three distinct and separate beings in the Godhead—hence Tritheism, as Marian Hillar demonstrates, The Case of Michael Servetus (1511-1553)—The Turning Point in the Struggle for Freedom of Conscience (1997) 378-79; cf. also Wilbur, op. cit., 222; Williams, ibid., 625.

5 See Tylenda, 29ff. 6 Tylenda, note 31, p. 31 provides the list.

7 See Calvin's letter to Galeas Caraccioli, Marquis de Vico, of July 19, 1558 in Bonnet, op. cit., 4:440-46.

8 See the text of this public penance in Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography (2000) 255-56.