Theodore Beza

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“It belongs to the church of God to receive blows rather than to inflict them -- but, she is an anvil that has worn out many hammers.”

Theodore Beza (1519-1605) may not be the first name that comes to mind when you consider the Protestant Reformation. But he was a passionate writer, a gifted translator and teacher, and a tenacious and resolute pastor. He is one of the most important leaders of French Protestants in the 16th century. He left behind a pleasant and secure life in France to join John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland to supporting the burgeoning, but beleaguered Reformation and spread the gospel. He defended the French Protestants and was John Calvin’s successor in Geneva.

Early Life

Theodore Beza was born in Vezelay, Burgundy, France on June 24, 1519, to a distinguished Roman Catholic family. He was the last of seven children. His father, Pierre de Besze, was the Royal Governor; his Mother, Marie Bourdelot, was known for her generosity. She died when Theodore was just three years old. His Uncle, Nicholas Beza, a Member of Parliament, raised and educated him in Paris. At age nine, his Uncle sent him to Orleans to study. There, he studied Law receiving his degree from the University of Orleans, with honors, in 1539. He was 20 years old. He returned to Paris and opened a law practice. He met his future wife, Claudine Denosse, and married her secretly in 1544. He wrote a very successful book of Latin poetry, Juvenilia, a book of romantic even amorous verse. But success as a Latin poet was not God’s will for Theodore Beza. A devastating illness was the catalyst God used to redirect his life.

Conversion

In 1548, Theodore Beza was critically ill. He feared to live to see another day. Until that time, he led a pleasant even leisurely life, writing Latin poetry, enjoying plenty of friends and various interests supported lavishly by two beneficiaries. But the life threatening illness drastically altered the course of his life. Henry Martyn Baird explains the effect on his life and mind: “Hours of enforced idleness, as well as of extreme peril and suffering, were the condition of his gaining the first glimpse of his true character in God’s sight. Past and present alike seemed to arise and accuse him, and their testimony could not be silenced or refuted. Turn his eyes which way he would, he found confronting him the judgment throne of an offended Deity. The agony was sharp and protracted. It was mercifully succeeded by a view of the pardon extended to him no less distinct and beyond the realm of doubt. Abhorrence of his sins was followed by petitions for forgiveness, and these by a full consecration of his powers to the service of his Savior. From extreme darkness verging upon despair, he emerged into a brilliant and enduring light” (Henry Martyn Baird, Theodore Beza, The Counsellor of the French Reformation, 1899)

Later, in 1560, Beza writing to a friend reflected on God using a crisis in his health to change the course of his life: “Behold (God) inflicted a very serious illness on me so that I almost despaired of my life. What should I do in this wretched state, when nothing stood before my eyes beyond the horrific judgment of a just God? After endless torments of mind and body, God, taking pity on his fugitive slave, so consoled me that I no longer doubted that I had been granted forgiveness. Thus in tears I cursed myself, I sought forgiveness and I renewed my vow to openly embrace His true worship and finally, I dedicated myself wholly to Him. And so it came about that the image of death placed before me in earnest aroused in me the slumbering and buried desire for the true life, and that this disease for me was the beginning of true health … And as soon as I could leave my bed, having severed all my ties and gathered my possessions, I once and for all abandoned my country, parents, and friends to follow Christ, and (together with my wife) I retired into voluntary exile in Geneva.”

Geneva

He arrived in Geneva, the city of refuge for Protestants, on October 23, 1548. He was warmly welcomed by John Calvin and spent the next sixteen years serving alongside him. He had renounced his Catholic faith and his birthright to follow his new found faith. He didn’t know where God was leading. On the way home from a visit to an old teacher and friend, he stopped in Lausanne to visit Pierre Viret, a Swiss Reformed theologian. Recognizing Beza as a gifted scholar, Viret hired him as professor of Greek for the new Lausanne Academy founded by Calvin. He taught Greek there happily for nine years writing some of his most important works.

Though he did not always live in Geneva, he became Calvin’s fellow-laborer and right-hand man. Calvin hired him as first chair professor of Greek at the Genevan Academy. “In 1564, after Calvin’s death, he became the chief lecturer in theology, and it was his brand of Reformed theology, influenced by Calvin, that generations of students heard” (R Ward Holder, Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations).

Defending the Faith

In 1554, he wrote a defense of Calvin and the Geneva government in the burning of Michael Servetus, who had denied the Trinity and paid with his life. Michael Jenkins explains Beza’s position: “He maintained that while it is improper for ecclesiastical authorities to wield the sword, they do have the duty to direct the civil authorities to punish persons engaged in serious blasphemy or heresy. And the civil authority is bound to its duty not to bear the sword in vain. Beza, like Calvin, felt that dogmatic purity is essential to the survival of the Church. To allow false doctrine to flourish is to sanction the Church's downfall. Thus even capital punishment was justifiable, in their view, to preserve the purity and vitality of the Church's dogma” (Michael Jenkins, The Evangelical Quarterly, https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/eq/1992-2_131.pdf).

In 1557, Calvin asked Beza to go with William Farel, a fellow missionary in Geneva, to the German princes and plead for the Waldenses (a Christian movement originating in France in the 12th century, named for Peter Waldo.) Beza described them as “the very seed of the primitive and purer Christian church…”. His noble upbringing endeared him to the German nobles and they agreed to help. “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 efforts, he quickly developed a reputation as the most capable spokesman for the French Reformation and second in theological abilities only to John Calvin himself” (https://www.theopedia.com/theodore-beza).

Beza wrote On the Rights of the Magistrate, in 1574, defending “the right of revolt against tyranny.” While John Calvin supported obedience to all civil authority, Beza changed his position after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24th, 1572, a plot by Catherine DeMedici and the nobles, where many Protestants were killed. It was a milestone in Reformation theology.“Beza’s book overthrew the earlier Calvinist doctrine of obedience to all civil authority and subsequently became a major political manifesto of Calvinism” (https://www.britannica.com/biography/Theodore-Beza).

Calvin’s Successor

When war broke out between the Prince of Conde, a Huguenot Protestant and the Duke of Guise, a Catholic, in 1562, Beza served as almoner distributing church resources to the poor, and treasurer until the war ended when Guise was assassinated on Feb 18, 1563. After the war ended, he returned to Geneva to find John Calvin in declining health. Beza and Calvin spent the next twelve months planning the transfer of authority from Calvin to Beza. Of his co-laborer and friend, Beza said, “I have been a witness of him for sixteen years and I think that I am fully entitled to say that in this man there was exhibited to all an example of the life and death of the Christian, such as it will not be easy to depreciate, and it will be difficult to imitate.”

Calvin died the following May, and Beza performed his funeral. After Calvin’s death, Beza was elected moderator, the highest position in the reformed church. There he served as city pastor and continued to defend the Reformation with his pen and by preaching the truth every day.

Works

Beza’s statement of his confession was originally printed, for his Father, to explain why he had left Roman Catholicism and become a Protestant. Later, it was revised and printed in Latin, in 1560. An English translation was published at London 1563, 1572, and 1585. It was also translated into German, Dutch, and Italian.

Though he was a prolific and scholarly writer, including a biography of John Calvin, it is theology where “Beza appears to be the perfect pupil or 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” (https://www.theopedia.com/theodore-beza). His works include The Greek New Testament, Anti-Catholic tracts, and Ecclesiastical History of the Reformed Church in the Kingdom of France.  

Later Years

Theodore Beza never had any children. His wife died, in 1588, after forty years of marriage. He married Catharina del Piano, a Genoese widow, on the advice of friends to help in his old age. His health began to decline after age 56. He had trouble hearing and struggled with short term memory. In 1586, he was forced to reduce his daily preaching schedule to once a week, on Sundays. He taught until January 1597. He died in Geneva on October 13, 1605, in Geneva. He is buried in the monastery of St. Pierre.

Though it was reported that Theodore Beza, on his deathbed, had returned to the faith of his youth, The Catholic Church, this was a rumor spread by the Jesuits in a letter which began: “Geneva, mother and refuse of heresies, now at length that Beza is dead, embraces the Catholic faith” (Baird, 1899). This was a lie! Theodore Beza once converted to the gospel of Jesus Christ never wavered in his stalwart faith and spent every day of his life preaching the truth and defending the Reformation.