Prof. Hanko is professor of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Few Reformers have been as much maligned as Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva. The slanders against him came in his own lifetime from his Roman Catholic opponents who evidently feared the power of his pen. But, though of a ‘different kind, these slanders have been found in the writings of modem-day “Calvinists” who charge Beza with corrupting Calvin’s pure doctrine and giving Calvin’s teachings new twists which Calvin would have repudiated. Specifically, Beza is charged with altering in significant ways Calvin’s teachings on predestination and the atonement of Christ. While we may dismiss with scorn the Romish charges which were leveled against him in his lifetime, the accusations that Beza altered Calvin’s doctrines of predestination and the atonement are more serious. It is maintained, e.g., that pure Calvinism has been lost since Calvin’s time because the Reformed fathers in Germany, the Netherlands, and America have followed Beza in teaching a view of predestination and the atonement which, Calvin never taught. Gomarus, the Synod of Dort, the Westminster divines, Perkins and Owen in England, Turretin, Abraham Kuyper, and Herman Hoeksema have followed Beza and not Calvin. It is time, so these critics opine, that today’s Calvinistic churches return to pure Calvinism and repudiate Beza’s corruptions of what Calvin taught.1
Who is this Beza who is so widely criticized?
Theodore Beza was born in Vezeley in Burgundy of France on June 24, 1519. He was born of Pierre de Besze and Marie Burderot, from the lesser nobility. His mother, an intelligent and charitable woman, bore seven children, of whom Theodore was the last. She died when Beza was only three years old.
Beza never knew his family home. At a very young age his uncle Nicholas, a member of Parliament in Paris and one who was impressed with Theodore’s intelligence, took him into his own home in Paris to supervise his education. Perhaps part of the reason why Theodore’s father consented to this was the death of his beloved wife.
Protestantism had come into France with the first writings of Luther which were widely circulated and read. As early as 1520 many Protestants could be found in the land, although they were isolated from each other and unorganized. It was to be the lot of Calvin and Beza to provide leadership in France and a haven for the refugees who fled the fierce persecutions of Protestants in that Roman Catholic land.
Beza’s formal education began in 1528, when Beza, scarcely nine years old, was sent to Orleans to study under Melchior Wolmar. Wolmar will be remembered in history as a man of Protestant convictions who had the privilege of teaching both Beza and Calvin. In fact, it is quite possible that the two knew each other already then, for they were together students of Wolmar. Wolmar took Beza into his own family and Beza stayed with Wolmar for seven years.
Although Wolmar made every effort to convert Beza to Protestantism, the young boy resisted strenuously and refused to forsake the Roman Catholicism of his family. As Beza himself later wrote, it was not until much later that God caused the seeds of Wolmar’s teaching to grow and mature in his life.
Nevertheless, the affection between Wolmar and Beza never diminished, and Beza followed Wolmar to Bourges.
In 1534 Wolmar fled to his native Germany during the incident of the placards. Some Protestants had distributed widely in Paris condemnations of the mass, and this brought upon them the fierce persecutions which were to be so much a part of the life of the faithful in France.
Following the wishes of his father, Beza (much like Calvin) turned to the study of law in Orleans. His heart was not in it, though; he far preferred the study of ancient Greek and Roman literature; especially old Latin poets. He was a literary man above all, and he reveled in the writings of these Roman pagans.
Although he did set up a law practice with his uncle in Paris after he completed his studies, Beza spent more time in reading literature and writing Latin poetry than he did in practicing law. He even had many of his poems published in a book entitled Juvenalia, which made a huge sensation in the literary world in Paris. His mastery of the Latin and his elegant style in Latin were so impressive that all his contemporaries agreed that his Latin writings were stylistically more beautiful than his later writings in his native French. The poems, however, were indecent and were to be a source of many regrets in his later life.
Beza was able to enjoy a life of comparative leisure because two benefices were arranged for him which provided him with a steady income of 700 golden crowns a year. Such a handsome income enabled him to live luxuriously in the highest circles of Parisian society, where he wined and dined with the famous literary people of his day. While Beza, in reflecting on this period of his life, admitted sadly to many indiscretions and sins, he steadfastly maintained that he had never fallen into immorality or the more cardinal sins which were so openly practiced in the higher circles of society.
In 1544 Beza was secretly engaged to Claudine Denosse, a girl of the lower class. He insisted on keeping the engagement secret, for to make his engagement public would not only be an embarrassment to his literary friends, but it would also rob him of the income from his benefices. Yet his moral principles left him uneasy even then, and he promised his fiancée that at a proper time he would marry her publicly.
God prepared Beza during these years for greater work in His kingdom. Much like Moses, who was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and much like Calvin, who was educated as a humanist scholar, Beza too, though he did not know it, was being fashioned and formed by his God for crucial labors in the Reformation.
Like Zwingli, Beza was brought to conversion by a serious illness during which he had much time to ponder the inscrutable ways of providence and to remember the faithful instruction of his old tutor, Melchior Wolmar. Humbled and chastised, he recovered from his illness a sound Protestant who now committed his life to the propagation of the gospel.
Because persecution continued in France, he took his fiancée and fled to Calvin in Geneva. Here he was warmly welcomed by his old fellow student and kept his promise to Claudine by marrying her publicly in the church of Geneva.
By means of the influence of Peter Viret, Beza was appointed professor of Greek at the University of Lausanne. Calvin already then showed his high esteem for Beza when he wrote to Farel during a time when Beza was ill with the plague:
I would not be a man if I did not return his love who loves me more than a brother and reveres me as a father: but I am still more concerned at the loss the church would suffer if in the midst of his career he should be suddenly removed by death, for I saw in him a man whose lovely spirit, noble, pure manners, and open-mindedness endeared him to all the righteous. I hope, however, that he will be given back to us in answer to our prayers.
But Geneva needed Beza, and so in 1549 he was called to become professor of theology in the Academy of Calvin. Lausanne was reluctant to see him leave, but Beza felt the urge to work with his beloved Calvin. Beza served as professor in the Academy from 1559-1599 and as rector from 1559-1563, when Calvin refused the position. He was pastor of the church in Geneva from 1559-1605 when old age forced him to retire. And he served as moderator of the company of pastors when Calvin died (1564-1580).
The Academy in Geneva became the one most important school in all Calvinistic Europe. Students from every part of Europe came there to study, and went forth from the Academy to spread the truths of Calvinism into every part of the continent. Among those who studied there was John Knox, who returned to his native Scotland to fight for the Reformation in that land; and Jacobus Arminius, who, although he studied under Beza, never imbibed Beza’s teachings on the truths of Scripture and returned to the Netherlands to spread his poison in the land of our fathers.
Beza will be loved especially by those whose ancestry dates back to the Hugenots (as Calvinists in France were called). It is impossible to relate here how many trips he took to France, how many years he spent among the Hugenots, and what services he rendered for them. When not receiving warmly their refugees in Geneva, he endangered his life by preaching for them, marching with their armies, writing on their behalf and in their defense, and attending their Synods. He presided over the last French Reformed Synod in La Rochelle, before the horrible massacre of Protestants by the Roman Catholics on St. Bartholomew’s eve made further Synods impossible. While engaged in peaceful worship in a barn at Vassy, these hapless Protestants were set upon by the Duke of Guise who butchered hundreds of them.
His greatest service to French Protestants was his attendance at the Colloquy of Poissy on July 31, 156l. This colloquy was called in an effort to bring peace between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Attending this notable conference were 11 Reformed pastors from France, delegates from Switzerland, French Roman Catholic bishops, the king of France (though he was a child), and the queen mother, Catherine de Medici. It was a notable assembly. The discussions, however, went nowhere. As Beza was speaking in defense of the Protestant cause, he was rudely interrupted by the bishops of Rome who were determined not to allow the Protestants to propagate their views. After fruitless efforts to continue the discussion, the assembly was adjourned. Yet the result was that the king and queen mother were exposed to Protestant teaching, Catherine de Medici was impressed with the clarity and boldness of Beza’s presentation, and Protestantism was given some recognition and a measure of freedom. This however lasted but a short time. Cardinal Lorraine, the chief opponent of Protestantism, said of Beza: “I could well have wished either that this man had been dumb or that we had been deaf.”
In a confrontation with the cruel and bloodthirsty Duke of Guise, Beza made his memorable statement: “Sire, it belongs, in truth, to the church of God, in the name of which I address you, to suffer blows, not to strike them. But at the same time let it be your pleasure to remember that the Church is an anvil which has worn out many a hammer.”
The last days of Beza were spent continuing Calvin’s doctrines, quietly teaching, attending meetings, writing and corresponding with Reformers and saints throughout Europe. His wife, Claudine, died in 1588 and Beza married again: a refugee from Genoa, Genevieve de1 Piano. When Calvin died in 1564, Beza preached his funeral sermon, and shortly after wrote a biography of his mentor and dear friend.2
Weary of his many labors on behalf of the cause of Christ, he died peacefully on Sunday, October 23, 1605 at the age of 86. At his request, written in his will, he was buried in the common cemetery where Calvin was buried and near the grave of his wife. He had fought the good fight and had kept the faith, and he then received the reward of the crown of life.
Though not the original thinker that Calvin was, Beza was nevertheless a man of great learning, vast intellect, and deep devotion. His labors and writings are staggeringly great. He wrote dramas, satires, polemical treatises, Greek and French grammars, biographies, political treatises, and theological works. He edited an annotated text of the Greek New Testament which he bequeathed to Cambridge University in England, which text received his name: Codex Bezae. He edited the publication of Calvin’s letters and wrote a defense of the killing of Servetus, the heretic who denied the Trinity and was burned at the stake in Geneva by the order of the Council. He defended Presbyterian church polity against the Anglicanism of the church in England. He refuted the Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, defended predestination against the heretic Castellio, and defended the doctrine of the Trinity against the Italian heretic Ochino. His pen was sharp and often filled with the ink of satire; his enemies feared him.
He attended countless meetings, not the least of which was a meeting with German, French, and Swiss Protestants in an effort to bridge the chasm between Lutherans and Calvinists, in the hopes that German Protestants would aid in helping the beleaguered French Hugenots.
He made explicit some of the key doctrines of Calvinism which were more or less implied in Calvin’s writings: the truths of the particular atonement of Christ, the federal imputation of Adam’s guilt, and supralapsarianism. It is for this that he is charged with altering Calvin’s theology.
His enemies, showing their fear of him, did everything to discredit him. He was charged with immorality and with the gravest of moral faults. Repeatedly the rumors of his return to the bosom of Rome were spread far and wide. In fact, specific efforts were made to persuade him to return to the Romish Church. On one occasion, when Beza was an old man (1597), a certain Francois came to Geneva to do this. He was only thirty, young, zealous, skilful in debate, and the winner of countless encounters with adversaries. But all his skill failed to move Beza. When argumentation failed, he tried bribery and offered Beza in the name of the pope a yearly pension of 4000 gold crowns and a sum equal to twice as much as the value of his personal effects. This Beza could not tolerate. Politely but emphatically Beza told him: “Go, sir; I am too old and too deaf to be able to hear such words!”
That Beza significantly altered Calvin’s teachings is nonsense. They worked together in peace and harmony for many years in Geneva and the Academy. Beza read what Calvin wrote and Calvin read what Beza wrote. Who can know the many discussions they had between them on all matters of the truth? Not one word can be found in all the records that Calvin disagreed with Beza on any one point.
Yet the slander goes on. Even Steinmetz calls Beza the father of Hyper-Calvinism.3 But then, we too are called Hyper-Calvinists. And, if Beza was a Hyper-Calvinist, then so was Calvin himself. It is a slander which is easily refuted. And in any case, sovereign, unconditional, and particular grace, which Beza so ardently taught, is the truth of Scripture.
1. For an example of this thinking, one can consult R. T. Kendall’s monograph, “Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649.” For a detailed discussion of these charges see my articles in The Journal, beginning with the April, 1988 issue.
2. The biography is still available.
3 . David C. Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings (Baker Book House, 1971) p. 170.