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Theodore Beza

Never heard of Beza? Don't worry — neither have most 21st century evangelicals. But he is one of the most influential of the Reformers, and may be the clearest proponent of Calvin's teachings after John Calvin's death in 1564.

Theodore Beza (or Theodore de Beza) (1519–1605) was a French Protestant theologian and scholar who played an important role in the early Reformation. As the successor of John Calvin, he was closely associated with Calvinism. He lived most of his adult life in Switzerland.

Early years

Beza was born in Vezelay on June 24, 1519 to Pierre de Besze and Marie Bourdelot. Theodore's mother died when he was only three years old and so he went off to Paris to be raised by a wealthy uncle. It was here that he would receive training from the brightest minds in the city. In 1528, when he was nine, his uncle sent him to Orleans to study under Melchior Wolmar, a notorious Greek scholar who would eventually join the Reformed movement.

But Theodore was intent on a career in law — to that end he began his studies at the University of Orleans and attained his degree (with honors) in 1539 at only twenty years of age. Returning to Paris, he turned his attention to the study of literature and also to romance. He secretly wed Claudine Denosse in 1544, intending to follow up with a public ceremony when the time was right. He was attained a high level of fame, with a much-noticed work of poetry (Juvenilia), and he was everywhere considered one of the best writers of Latin poetry of his time.

But he fell ill and his distress of body, it is reported, revealed to him his spiritual needs. Gradually he came to the knowledge of salvation in Christ, which he apprehended with a joyous faith. He then resolved to sever his connections of the time, and went to Geneva, the French city of refuge for Evangelicals (adherents of the Reformation movement), where he arrived with Claudine on October 23, 1548.

At a loss for immediate occupation, he went to Tübingen to see his former teacher Wolmar. On his way home he visited Viret at Lausanne, who at once detained him and brought about his appointment as professor of Greek at the academy there (Nov. 1549).

While in Lausanne he was petitioned to travel with William Farel to the German Lutheran princes to plead for the Waldenses, who suffered at the hands of an outbreak of persecution in 1557. Beza's noble upbringing gave him an instant credibility with the nobility and they agreed to intervene.

Settles in Geneva

The academy in Geneva was organized in 1558 and Beza now assumed the role of Greek instructor and in March he also assumed the pastorate of a city church. He would also begin to go out and intervene for certain members of the nobility who were being persecuted for their conversion to Protestantism and through his effors he quickly developed a reputation as the most capable spokesman for the French Reformation and second in theological abilities only to John Calvin himself.

Here he occupied at first the chair of Greek in the newly established academy, and after Calvin's death also that of theology; besides this he was obliged to preach. He completed the revision of Olivetan's translation of the New Testament, begun some years before. In 1559 he undertook another journey in the interest of the Huguenots, this time to Heidelberg; about the same time he had to defend Calvin against Joachim Westphal in Hamburg and Tileman Hesshusen.

More important than this polemical activity was Beza's statement of his own confession. It was originally prepared for his father in justification of his course and published in revised form to promote Evangelical knowledge among Beza's countrymen. It was printed in Latin in 1560 with a dedication to Wolmar. An English translation was published at London 1563, 1572, and 1585. Translations into German, Dutch, and Italian were also issued.

As war broke out between the Prince of Conde (Huguenot Protestant) and the Duke of Guise (Catholic), Beza found himself in an odd position. He would serve for seven months with the Huguenot army as almoner and treasurer until Guise was assassinated on February 18, 1563 thus ending the conflict. Beza and his wife returned to Geneva in May of the same year to find John Calvin in poor and declining health. Calvin would die in May of the following year, so the intermediate twelve months were spent in preparation for a transfer of authority from Calvin to Beza. When Calvin did die, Beza performed the funeral and was elected moderator of the local presbytery.

Calvin's successor

Beza was a model of a pastor and theologian who had a deep love and affection for his parishioners — he had a big picture of the sovereignty of God, but he also saw the pastoral implications of such a theology. A great example is in his response to the massacre on St. Bartholomew's day on August 24, 1572. Beginning in Paris, and then spreading throughout France, countless Protestants were murdered or wounded and within a week refugees began showing up in Geneva seeking asylum. Beza urged his parishioners to care for their wounded French brethren and to observe a day of prayer and fasting.

Until 1580 Beza was not only moderateur de la compagnie des pasteurs, but also the real soul of the great institution of learning at Geneva which Calvin had founded in 1559, consisting of a gymnasium and an academy. As long as be lived, Beza was interested in higher education. For nearly forty years the Protestant youth thronged his lecture-room to hear his theological lectures, in which he expounded the purest Calvinistic orthodoxy. As a counselor he was listened to by both magistrates and pastors.

Soon after the death of Theodore's wife, the Lutheran Count Frederick of Würtemberg called a conference at Montbéliard in March 21, 1586 as an attempt to bridge the sharp divide between the Lutherans and Calvinists. Beza had been criticized in his youth for being too accommodating to the Lutheran parties, but here he made clear the Calvinist position. He did still attempt some level of civility, offering his hand to Andreä, the Lutheran delegate, upon departing. But Andreä refused it, and the unresolved tension was apparent. He would also go on to debate the Lutherans at the Bern Colloquy in 1588 and gave a theological thrashing to Samuel Huber, the Lutheran representative.

As Beza's life drew to a conclusion he would lose his hearing and most of his short-term memory. He gave up his daily preaching schedule in 1586 and only preached once a week (on Sundays) until 1600.

Theological works

Although Beza produced numerous secular and historical studies, including a biography of Calvin, they were all surpassed by his theological productions (contained in Tractationes theologicae). In these Beza appears the perfect pupil or the alter ego of Calvin. His view of life is deterministic and the basis of his religious thinking is the predestinate recognition of the necessity of all temporal existence as an effect of the absolute, eternal, and immutable will of God, so that even the fall of the human race appears to him essential to the divine plan of the world. In a most lucid manner, Beza shows in tabular form the connection of the religious views which emanated from this fundamental supralapsarian mode of thought. This he added to his highly instructive treatise Summa totius Christianismi.

Controversial legacy

Beza has often been maligned by modern historians as a cold-hearted scholar who twisted the teachings of John Calvin into rigid "high" Calvinism. But this couldn't be further from the truth. Beza and Calvin shared an incredible affection for one another, such as resembles that of Paul and Timothy or Luther and Melancthon. Beza was an astute theologian and saw the daily implications of his theology — he saw the persecution that the Huguenots were suffering in France and willingly left the comfort of home and friends to intercede for them in the courts of the nobility. And even in his debates with other Protestants (Lutherans), he always saw them as brethren with whom he may have disagreed on certain points, but with whom he shared the bond of Christ. A good example for those of us who consider ourselves to be inheritors of the Reformed tradition in the 21st century.

See also


  • Schaff, Philip, History of the Christian Church, (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems) 1997.

External links