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Theodore Beza (1519–1605)

September 2019 | by Nick Needham

Theodore Beza
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Theodore Beza is probably unknown, or not well-known outside of scholarly circles. This is a great pity, given his gigantic stature in the history of the Reformed faith. Beza was John Calvin’s most illustrious personal disciple, and indeed Calvin’s successor as the spiritual leader of the Reformed ‘capital city’ of Geneva.

Born five hundred years ago this year into an aristocratic family at Vézelay in Burgundy, Beza had a brilliant education from the great German humanist Melchior Wolmar (1497–1561). Wolmar was one of the leading Greek scholars of that time; he also taught Greek to Calvin himself, and Calvin acknowledged his debt by dedicating his commentary on 2 Corinthians to Wolmar. Wolmar had embraced a Reformation outlook and this had a significant impact on the young Beza.

However, it did not result in Beza’s immediate embrace of Protestant faith. For a number of years, he conformed outwardly to the Roman Catholic Church. Living in Paris as a carefree member of the French nobility, he survived on a private income and devoted himself to the study of classical literature. In 1544, he entered a secret marriage with a woman of much lower social status, Claudine Denoese, promising her a public marriage ceremony when his circumstances would allow one. The complications of social class could be enormous in the 16th century.

It was only in 1548, when recovering from a near-death experience through illness, that Beza (aged 29) became serious about being a Protestant.

Lake Geneva today
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Together with Claudine, he fled from Catholic Paris to Calvin’s Geneva, where the couple were publicly married as Protestants. They then made their way to the Swiss Reformed city of Lausanne, where for the next nine years Beza taught Greek at its academy.

In 1558, the political rulers of the powerful Swiss Reformed canton of Berne imposed a new religious settlement on Lausanne. Although Berne was Reformed, Beza protested at any government dictating doctrine and worship to a Reformed Church. He believed strongly in the independence of the church from state control or interference. Disillusioned, he departed from Lausanne, journeying back to Calvin’s Geneva. This relocation proved to be the decisive event in Beza’s life.

John Calvin
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Beza’s piety and talents swiftly brought him into Calvin’s inner circle and a warm rapport sprang up between the two men; Beza became Calvin’s closest friend and collaborator. When the renowned Genevan Academy (a sort of university specialising in theology) was founded in 1559, Calvin put Beza in charge, a position Beza held for the rest of his life. As well as his wider duties as principal of the Academy, Beza taught the subject of systematic theology there. His energetic commitment to the Academy made it one of the most flourishing Reformed educational bodies of the entire 16th century, blessed with distinguished lecturers and a huge international student body. From the Academy, a steady stream of Reformed pastors, evangelists, and church-planters flowed out into the rest of Europe, especially (but by no means exclusively) into France.

When Calvin died in 1564, Geneva immediately and unsurprisingly looked to Beza for continued leadership. This he provided for the next 40 years. He not only ran the Academy; he became Geneva’s chief pastor and chairman of its ‘company of pastors’, which supervised ministerial training. Much of Beza’s time and energy as a spiritual leader was given to the rollercoaster fortunes of the French Calvinists (Huguenots) during France’s devastating ‘Wars of Religion’ (1562–98). Beza advised the Huguenot nobles; he gave guidance to Huguenot pastors and theologians, especially over matters of church government, where he upheld Presbyterianism (some preferred a more Congregational model, but Beza considered this damaging to French Reformed unity).

La masacre de San Bartolomé by François Dubois SOURCE Wikipedia
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Beza’s political philosophy developed in a more radical direction under the impact of the infamous Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, when a Catholic conspiracy resulted in the slaughter of some 20,000 Huguenots (that’s a conservative estimate). The French crown’s participation in the massacre inspired Beza to write Concerning the Power of Magistrates (1574). Beza argued that if a monarch behaved tyrannically, the lesser political authorities of the realm (e.g. a parliament) could lawfully restrain him, by force if necessary. This became the standard Reformed view and was acted upon not only by Huguenots in France, but also by Dutch Calvinists in revolt against King Philip II of Spain and by Scottish Covenanters and English Puritans in revolt against King Charles I.

Beza’s contribution to Reformed worship was notable. In 1562, he published a French metrical psalter. It had been translated, in part, by Clement Marot (1497-1544); Beza completed it. He was poetically very talented and the new psalter immediately conquered the affections of French-speaking Calvinists across Europe. It formed the basis for English, German, and Dutch Reformed psalters.

Beza was also a prominent textual scholar. He published his own critical edition of the Greek New Testament in 1565, intended as a replacement for Erasmus’ text which Beza considered inadequate. Beza’s version utilised other Greek manuscripts unknown to Erasmus, including one named after Beza, the Codex Bezae. Of French origin, this was given to Beza for safekeeping during the French Wars of Religion, and he in turn donated it to Cambridge University. Beza’s edition of the Greek New Testament went through five editions in his lifetime and had widespread influence on Protestant textual scholarship. It would be a key text used by the translators of the King James Bible.

Beza was the most influential early Reformed theologian to state the doctrine of predestination in its so-called ‘supralapsarian’ form. Most Reformed theologians have been ‘infralapsarian’. The difference lies in the logical order of God’s purposes or decrees. According to the infralapsarian view, in his predestination of the elect to blessedness, God looks upon them in his foreknowledge as fallen in Adam and needing salvation. Election is therefore a decree to save from sin.

According to the supralapsarian view, by contrast, in God’s predestination of the elect to blessedness, he looks upon them simply as persons capable of being created. Election therefore has no link with sin; in his eternal mind, God has chosen the elect ‘before’ he foresees them as sinning and needing to be saved. Beza championed this supralapsarian view.

There has been much criticism of the way that Reformed theology developed, after Calvin, into ‘Reformed Orthodoxy’; Beza has often emerged as a villain in this critique. Post-Calvin Calvinism became ‘scholastic’ (as did post-Luther Lutheranism); and when that word ‘scholastic’ is used by critics in a bad sense, it refers to an undue obsession with logical methodology. Criticism of Beza’s theology as ‘scholastic’ has often focused on his supralapsarian view of predestination, which critics see as an overly logical distortion of a more evangelically-oriented ‘biblical Calvinism’ of Calvin himself.

However, most Reformed theologians did not follow Beza in his supralapsarian view of predestination, but were infralapsarian. Yet they were no less committed to logical methodology. It would therefore seem that a consistent criticism of Reformed ‘scholasticism’ must reject all idea of a logical order in God’s decrees, whether supralapsarian, infralapsarian, or indeed any other sequence. There was certainly nothing in the logical methodology of Reformed Orthodoxy that bound it to Beza’s supralapsarianism.

The only confession of faith with an international character to be produced by Reformed Orthodoxy, or scholastic Calvinism, was actually infralapsarian – namely, the Canons of Dort (1619) which are quite rich in their evangelical flavour.

Beza’s deepest impact on the Reformed faith was the way he helped establish a distinctive Reformed theological identity post-Calvin. Through his various writings, he put clear blue water between the Reformed faith and its competitors in the latter half of the 16th century. Beza engaged with Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Socinians (Unitarians) and even his fellow-Reformed in the shape of Zwinglians on the Lord’s Supper, where Beza rejected Zwinglian ‘memorialism’ (still preferred by a few) in favour of the ‘spiritual real presence’ view that John Calvin had championed.

Beza articulated his theology most fully in his Confession of the Christian Faith, originally published in French (1559), then translated into Latin (1560) and other languages (e.g. English in 1563). It was a Europe-wide best seller. The present writer must confess that in reading it, he has found nothing suffocatingly ultra-logical, but a helpful and pastoral setting forth of the meaning of Christian belief and experience.

I am aware that this may be something of a cliché, but it is nonetheless true: Theodore Beza deserves to be far more widely known among Reformed people today, as one of their fathers in the faith. Without him, humanly speaking, it is by no means certain that the Reformed faith, in the basic shape that we know, would have endured on from Calvin’s time into the 17th century, and from there to the present.

Dr Nick Needham, Pastor at Inverness Reformed Baptist Church, and lecturer of Church History at Highland Theological College.