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Theodore Beza (1519-1605)

November 2005 | by Jonathan Moore

Have you ever heard a conversation like this?

Charles:

Hey, Jim, did you know that Theodore Beza died 400 years ago this month?
Jim: Theodore who?
Charles: Theodore Beza.
Jim: Oh, Beeeeeza. Wasn’t he that terrible monster who wrecked Calvin’s Calvinism? Some kind of hyper-Calvinist?
Charles:Yeah, that’s right! Calvin was a really nice guy — you know, warm, dynamic and not too dogmatic. But as for Beza, he was so cold, so rigid, so scholastic.
Jim: What do you mean, ‘scholastic’?
Charles: Well, for example, Calvin was content with paradoxes, but Beza was always logic-chopping trying to make things crystal clear. Disastrous.
Jim: Really? How so?
Charles: Well, Calvin was wonderfully christocentric — just pointed people to Jesus. But Beza was always on about predestination — so the gospel moved from being about Jesus to being about an irresistible divine decree. I mean, how bad is that?
Jim: Sounds like we should be Calvinists like Calvin then, right? And not like Beza?
Charles: Absolutely. But paradoxically, Calvin really is against the Calvinists.
Jim: You’re kidding!
Charles: Not at all. Calvin taught a universal atonement. It was Beza who dreamt up the horrible idea of limited atonement. So today’s ‘Five Point’ Calvinists are really following Beza and not Calvin. You have to feel sorry for them — they completely missed the theological boat and fell off the pier into hyper-Calvinism.
Jim: Wow! That’s a pretty radical claim! Do you think we ought to tell them?
Charles: I’ve been telling them for years, but they won’t listen. I keep saying that what we need is authentic Calvinism — back to the balance of Calvin and escape from Beza’s rationalism. But they are so locked into their logical system that no argument can set them free.
Jim: Seems like Beza has a lot to answer for …

While Calvin is held (in Reformed circles at least) to be an illustrious authority, Theodore Beza, if he is known at all, often elicits a sharp drawing of breath and a slow, sad shaking of the head.

If Calvin has suffered unjustly at the hands of anti-Calvinist detractors, then Beza has suffered tenfold, even in the house of his ‘Calvinist’ friends. In short, our friend ‘Charles’ and those like him have taken many an unsuspecting ‘Jim’ for a ride.

Too much predestination?

So what was allegedly so bad about Beza? The story begins with Beza’s publication in 1555 of a book entitled Summa totius Christianismi (The sum total of the Christian life). Eventually it came to be referred to as Beza’s Tabula Praedestinationis (Table of predestination) because some editions included a diagram presenting the decrees of election and reprobation as a flowchart — moving down the page from God’s double decree in eternity, through its execution in history, to final glorification and damnation.

This kind of theological fare was hugely popular in Beza’s day, and the Tabula went through numerous editions in various languages. However, by the nineteenth century the very idea that double predestination (that is, predestination of some to heaven and some to hell) could be presented in a manual of popular piety was highly distasteful.

A theory arose that while the mature Calvin had dealt discretely with predestination (tucking it away in his Institutes between ‘justification’ and ‘the church’) Beza made it headline news and allowed predestination so to dominate his theological system that Calvinism itself was sent off course.

Beza in context

To understand the flawed nature of this assessment, we need to appreciate something of Beza’s context. He was born in 1519 in Burgundy, France, enjoying a financially privileged background. This allowed him to study Greek and Latin under Melchior Wolmar, one of the best Greek scholars of his day.

It was at this time that Beza, still a Roman Catholic, first met Calvin, ten years his senior, who was also Wolmar’s pupil. In 1534 Beza began legal studies and by 1539 was working as a lawyer in Paris.

It was not until 1548 that Beza, having nearly died of a serious illness, underwent a spiritual awakening and publicly embraced the Protestant faith. As a result he had to flee to Geneva.

Having served the Reformed cause as professor of Greek at Lausanne Academy, Beza was chosen by Calvin to be professor of theology and the first rector of the new Geneva Academy from 1559 onwards. He served as pastor to the church in Geneva until his death on 7 October 1605.

Hand-picked

Not only was Beza hand-picked by Calvin to be his successor, but he was also for many years Calvin’s closest friend and ally in the defence of the Reformed faith. What many do not appreciate is that Beza consulted Calvin before publishing his Tabula, and Calvin approved of it, later warmly recommending the book.

Furthermore, during the repeated and ferocious public attacks that were launched against Calvin’s teaching at Geneva, an interesting pattern emerged. While Calvin issued the opening salvo (a point-by-point refutation of his opponents’ errors) he consciously left the mopping up to Beza — who moved in with the positive, systematic exposition of the doctrines in dispute.

Beza’s phenomenal gifts, acute intellect and biting satire made him a formidable opponent in any debate, and the evidence suggests that Calvin was heartily glad of Beza’s support.

In a controversy with Castellio, Calvin even tightened up his own published predestinarian position — after Beza pointed out how Calvin had left a foothold for his enemies in a draft manuscript. In short, the two were a complementary team.

Christ-centred and practical

It is a complete myth that Beza somehow lost a Christ-centred and pastoral focus. This is clear from his extant sermons and numerous other publications, where predestination often goes unmentioned but Christ is presented in all the beauty of his person.

But even when we take a closer look at the notorious Tabula, we find a book quite different from the caricatures. Beza’s goal is explicitly pastoral and practical. He is adamant that predestination is ‘not curious, or unprofitable, but of great importance, and very necessarie in the Church of God’ (1st English edition, London, 1575).

He argues that ‘we must preache … Predestination, that he which hath eares to heare may heare, and rejoyce in God, not in hym selfe, for the grace of God towards him’. Having carefully demonstrated how Christ ‘is the foundation and very substance and effect of the Elect’s salvation’, Beza moves to practical application.

He first outlines the way in which ministers should preach predestination — not with ‘vayne and curious speculations’ but by sticking firmly to ‘suche phrases and words whiche the Scriptures approve’.

He lamented how some preachers, unduly preoccupied with weak Christians, shied away from teaching predestination and thereby starved strong believers. For Beza, a firm belief in God’s absolute, unconditional and entirely gracious purpose to save his elect was crucial to a vibrant assurance of faith. ‘For seeing perseverance in faith is requisite to salvation, to what purpose shall faith serve me excepte I be sure of the gyft of perseverance?’

Once Beza’s disciples know they have faith, then logically ‘to doubte any more of it, is evill and wicked’. Beza’s predestinarianism was calculated to produce joyfully invincible believers.

A manifold ministry

The truth is that Beza was never narrowly obsessed with predestination, nor was his life and ministry immobilised by his belief in God’s absolute sovereignty. Rather, his theology energised him into a life of ceaseless activity and tireless labour.

Few if any of the Reformers produced a more varied literary output than Beza. Some of his most influential contributions included his groundbreaking edition of the Greek New Testament, his scriptural annotations (which found their way into the Geneva Bible) and many of the French metrical psalms in the Huguenot Psalter.

Beza not only led the model city of Geneva into the seventeenth century, but he was also a widely consulted international leader, presiding over numerous French Reformed synods, and using his legal background and roots in the nobility to engage in diplomatic negotiations in the cause of persecuted minorities.

Conclusion

Whenever, therefore, we consider Beza’s life and work, we would do well to thank God that he raised up such a worthy and faithful successor to Calvin. It is gratifying to see that maturing Reformation scholarship is coming to a new consensus on Beza and freeing him from centuries of misrepresentation.

In terms of spiritual confidence and intellectual credibility, Calvin’s original Calvinism could not have survived the newly emerging threats to the Reformed faith, such as Amyraldianism and Arminianism, had not Beza, with Calvin’s blessing, developed and reinforced its exegetical and theoretical foundations.

That he did so, explains in no small way why biblical Calvinism is still loved throughout the world, four hundred years after Beza was summoned to glory.

Editer note:

This is an historical article and does not give a full exposition of the doctrine of predestination