The Martyrdom of Valentine Gentile

Classical trinitarian views can be found throughout church history, sometimes in positions of prominence, and sometimes persecuted falsely as heresy. Biblical trinitarianism was the orthodoxy of the ante-nicene era, the ecumenical dogma of Christianity for some 20 years from 360 to 381, and the conviction of the Homoians for centuries following that, among the Gothic, Gepid, Vandal, Bergundian, and other barbarian nations of Europe and North Africa as the established doctrine of their churches, and within the bounds of the shrinking Roman Empire, as a persecuted minority. When the Germanic nations, over the course of centuries, one by one either fell to conquest, or their kings, for political and worldly gain, converted to the Roman religion and began persecuting those who held to the faith once delivered to the saints, those who remained committed to a biblical view of the Trinity were forced into secrecy by the harsh persecution of the Roman church.

When the Protestant Reformation came, however, with it, in some places, came a greater degree of liberty; and among Protestants a professed interest in believing what scripture teaches. Therefore it should not be any surprise that we once again see classical trinitarianism re-emerge in this era. It was, for example, one view among several to be found within the Polish Ecclesia Minor, an offshoot of Polish Calvinist churches. However, the magisterial reformers showed themselves to have less interest in what the Bible teaches than in appearing orthodox on the Trinity to the Roman Catholics, and to one another, and they, not without great hypocrisy, put to death, when they could, those who applied sola scriptura not only where is was convenient for them to do so to break with Rome, but to all areas of Christian doctrine, including the Trinity. Such was the case for Valentine Gentile, a former participant in the Polish Ecclesia Minor, who had been forced, with the rest, into exile by government persecution. Upon coming to the Protestant city of Berne, he was put to death for supposedly espousing heresy.

Its noteworthy that Gentile’s doctrine was far from radical from a historical perspective; there was a wide range of views among dissenters within this era, including true Arians, and Socinians, who had revived the heresy of Ebion; and these were quite common. But Valentine Gentile was no such heretic, as he affirmed both the eternal pre-existence of the Son from before the ages, and even went as far as to join in that speculation that the Son was begotten from the substance of the Father, and was of the same substance as Him. But since he affirmed, with so many fathers, only a generic unity of substance, and not a numerical or individual (Sabellian) unity of substance, he, a man seemingly holding no view except that of the ante-nicene and even pro-nicene fathers, was put to death on the false pretense of being an Arian:

“Valentine Gentile, an Italian exile who had to flee Geneva in 1558 to escape suffering the same fate that had befallen Servetus there, only to be executed for his beliefs at Berne in 1567, was present at a synod in Pinczow in 1562, where he affirmed the belief that ‘God in the breadth of eternity had created a certain most excellent spirit, which afterwards in the fulness of time became incarnate’. The language is once again not entirely explicit, but from our knowledge of Gentile’s earlier teaching it seems likely that he is envisaging, as Gonesius had not done in 1556, the existence of a second, distinct but subordinate, pre-existent divine being. Moreover, he himself sees his position on that issue as in agreement with the ante-Nicene writers, particularly Justin Martyr and Lactantius. They, he recognized, had been a source of the teaching of Arius. But the fault with Arius lay not with his kinship with them but in his construction of a dogmatic superstructure on that basis which went far beyond anything that could be justified by Scripture. Despite Gentile’s explicit differentiation of his own position from that of Arius, Aretius, one of those involved in his execution, argues for a significant similarity between the two. He acknowledges that Gentile asserts that ‘the Word was begotten of the substance of the Father, and is consubstantial with him’, whereas Arius describes the Son as ‘made out of nothing’. But both, he argues, are agreed that ‘as to his substance the Son is numerically distinct from the Father’. In this respect, and also in their understanding of the Son’s generation as belonging to the temporal order, the two can, he claims, be said to share the same, wholly unacceptable view. Protestant orthodoxy shared with its Catholic counterpart a strong urge to associate any heretic in the area of Trinitarian doctrine with the name Arius.” (Wiles, Achetypal Heresy: Arianism through the Centuries, pgs 58-59.)

And so we have an example before our eyes of a man martyred for holding no other view than that of the ante-nicene fathers, and expressing it, from what we know, in no other terms than they did. We see something here of the hypocrisy of the early magisterial protestants, who wished to change some things, as they liked and chose, to be more in accordance with the scriptures, while leaving other things unaltered from what they had received from the pope himself, the very man they claimed was the antichrist. If ever one may wonder what the ante-nicenes would have said about the Protestant Reformation, or on which side of things they might have fallen, could they have seen it, let us keep in mind the martyrdom of Valentine Gentile, as an example of how both sides would have dealt with those holy men of the first three centuries.

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