Theodore Beza

Who is Theodore Beza?

Theodore Beza (1519 – 1605) was a French Protestant Christian theologian and scholar who played an important role in the Reformation. A member of the monarchomaque movement who opposed absolute monarchy, he was a disciple of John Calvin and lived most of his life in Switzerland.

Theodore Beza was born at Vezelay, in Burgundy, France. His father, Pierre de Beze, royal governor of Vezelay, descended from a Burgundian family of distinction; his mother, Marie Bourdelot, was known for her generosity. Beza's father had two brothers; Nicholas, who was member of Parliament at Paris; and Claude, who was abbot of the Cistercian monastery Froimont in the diocese of Beauvais.

Nicholas, who was unmarried, during a visit to Vezelay was so pleased with Theodore that, with the permission of his parents, he took him to Paris to educate him there. From Paris, Theodore was sent to Orléans in December 1528 to receive instruction from the famous German teacher Melchior Wolmar. He was received into Wolmar's house, and the day on which this took place was afterward celebrated as a second birthday.


Young Beza soon followed his teacher to Bourges, where the latter was called by the duchess Margaret of Angoulême, sister of Francis I. At the time, Bourges was the focus of the Reformation movement in France. In 1534, after Francis I issued his edict against ecclesiastical innovations, Wolmar returned to Germany. Beza, in accordance with the wish of his father, went back to Orléans to study law, and spent four years there (1535–39). The pursuit of law had little attraction for him; he enjoyed more the reading of the ancient classics, especially Ovid, Catullus, and Tibullus.

He received the degree of licentiate in law August 11, 1539, and, as his father desired, went to Paris, where he began to practice. To support him, his relatives had obtained for him two benefices, the proceeds of which amounted to 700 golden crowns a year; and his uncle had promised to make him his successor. Beza spent two years in Paris and gained a prominent position in literary circles. To escape the many temptations to which he was exposed, with the knowledge of two friends, he became engaged in the year 1544 to a young girl of humble descent, Claudine Denoese, promising to publicly marry her as soon as his circumstances would allow it.

In 1548 he published a collection of Latin poetry, Juvenilia, which made him famous, and he was widely considered one of the best writers of Latin poetry of his time. Some cautioned against reading biographical details in his writings. Philip Schaff argued that it was a mistake to "read between his lines what he never intended to put there" or to imagine "offences of which he was not guilty even in thought."

Shortly after the publication of his book, he fell ill and his illness, it is reported, revealed to him his spiritual needs. Gradually he came to accept salvation in Christ, which lifted his spirits. 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.

Teacher at Lausanne

He was received by John Calvin, who had met him already in Wolmar's house, and was married in the church. Beza was at a loss for immediate occupation, so he went to Tübingen to see his former teacher Wolmar. On his way home he visited Pierre Viret at Lausanne, who brought about his appointment as professor of Greek at the academy there (Nov., 1549). Beza found time to write a Biblical drama, Abraham Sacrifiant, in which he contrasted Catholicism with Protestantism, and the work was well received. In June, 1551, he added a few psalms to the French version of the Psalms begun by Clément Marot, which was also very successful.

About the same time he published Passavantius, a satire directed against Pierre Lizet, the former president of the Parliament of Paris, and principal originator of the "fiery chamber" (chambre ardente), who, at the time (1551) was abbot of St. Victor near Paris and publishing a number of polemical writings. Of a more serious character were two controversies in which Beza was involved at this time. The first concerned the doctrine of predestination and the controversy of Calvin with Jerome Hermes Bolsec. The second referred to the burning of Michael Servetus at Geneva Oct. 27, 1553. In defense of Calvin and the Genevan magistrates, Beza published in 1554 the work De haereticis a civili magistratu puniendis (translated into French in 1560).

Journeys on behalf of the Protestants

In 1557, Beza took a special interest in the Waldensians of Piedmont, who were being harassed by the French government. On their behalf, he went with William Farel to Bern, Zürich, Basel, and Schaffhausen, then to Strasburg, Mömpelgard, Baden, and Göppingen. In Baden and Göppingen, Beza and Farel made a declaration concerning the Waldensians' views on the sacrament on May 14, 1557. The written declaration clearly stated their position and was well received by the Lutheran theologians, but was strongly disapproved of in Bern and Zurich.

In the autumn of 1558 Beza undertook a second journey with Farel to Worms by way of Strasburg in the hopes of bringing about an intercession by the Evangelical princes of the empire in favor of the persecuted brethren at Paris. With Melanchthon and other theologians then assembled at the Colloquy of Worms, Beza proposed a union of all Protestant Christians, but the proposal was decidedly denied by Zurich and Bern.

False reports reached the German princes that the hostilities against the Huguenots in France had ceased and no embassy was sent to the court of France. As a result, Beza undertook another journey with Farel, Johannes Buddaeus, and Gaspard Carmel to Strasburg and Frankfort, where the sending of an embassy to Paris was resolved upon.

Settles in Geneva

Upon his return to Lausanne, Beza was greatly disturbed. In union with many ministers and professors in city and country, Viret at last thought of establishing a consistory and of introducing a church discipline which should apply excommunication especially at the celebration of the communion. But the Bernese would have no Calvinistic church government. This caused many difficulties, and Beza thought it best (1558) to settle at Geneva. Here he was given chair of Greek in the newly established academy, and after Calvin's death also that of theology. He was also obliged to preach.

He completed the revision of Pierre 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. At about the same time, he had to defend Calvin against Joachim Westphal in Hamburg and Tilemann Heshusius. 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 actions 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.

Events of 1560-63

In the mean time things took such shape in France that the happiest future for Protestantism seemed possible. King Anthony of Navarre, yielding to the urgent requests of Evangelical noblemen, declared his willingness to listen to a prominent teacher of the Church. Beza, a French nobleman and head of the academy in the metropolis of French Protestantism, was invited to Castle Nerac, but he could not plant the seed of Evangelical faith in the heart of the king. In the year following (1561), Beza represented the Evangelicals at the Colloquy of Poissy, and in an eloquent manner defended the principles of the Evangelical faith. The colloquy was without result, but Beza as the head and advocate of all Reformed congregations of France was revered and hated at the same time.

The queen insisted upon another colloquy, which was opened at St. Germain Jan. 28, 1562, eleven days after the proclamation of the famous January edict which granted important privileges to those of the Reformed faith. But the colloquy was broken off when it became evident that the Catholic party was preparing (after the Massacre of Vassy, Mar. 1) to overthrow Protestantism.

Beza hastily issued a circular letter (Mar. 25) to all Reformed congregations of the empire, and went to Orléans with the Huguenot leader Conde and his troops. It was necessary to proceed quickly and energetically. But there were neither soldiers nor money. At the request of Conde, Beza visited all Huguenot cities to obtain both. He also wrote a manifesto in which he argued the justice of the Reformed cause.

As one of the messengers to collect soldiers and money among his coreligionists, Beza was appointed to visit England, Germany, and Switzerland. He went to Strasburg and Basel, but met with failure. He then returned to Geneva, which he reached September 4. He had hardly been there fourteen days when he was called once more to Orléans by D'Andelot. The campaign was becoming more successful; but the publication of the unfortunate edict of pacification which Conde accepted (Mar. 12,1563) filled Beza and all Protestant France with horror.

Calvin's successor

For twenty-two months Beza had been absent from Geneva, and the interests of school and Church there and especially the condition of Calvin made it necessary for him to return. For there was no one to take the place of Calvin, who was sick and unable longer to bear the burden resting on him. Calvin and Beza arranged to perform their duties jointly in alternate weeks, but the death of Calvin occurred soon afterward (May 27, 1564). As a matter of course Beza was his successor.

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 he lived, Beza was interested in higher education. The Protestant youth for nearly forty years 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. Geneva is indebted to him for the founding of a law school in which François Hotman, Jules Pacius, and Denys Godefroy, the most eminent jurists of the century, lectured in turn (cf. Charles Borgeaud, L'Academie de Calvin, Geneva, 1900).

Course of events after 1564

As Calvin's successor, Beza was very successful, not only in carrying on his work but also in giving peace to the Church at Geneva. The magistrates had fully appropriated the ideas of Calvin, and the direction of spiritual affairs, the organs of which were the "ministers of the word" and "the consistory", was founded on a solid basis. No doctrinal controversy arose after 1564. The discussions concerned questions of a practical, social, or ecclesiastical nature, such as the supremacy of the magistrates over the pastors, freedom in preaching, and the obligation of the pastors to submit to the majority of the campagnie des pasteurs.

Beza obtruded his will in no way upon his associates, and took no harsh measures against injudicious or hot-headed colleagues, though sometimes he took their cases in hand and acted as mediator; and yet he often experienced an opposition so extreme that he threatened to resign. Although he was inclined to take the part of the magistrates, he knew how to defend the rights and independence of the spiritual power when occasion arose, without, however, conceding to it such a preponderating influence as did Calvin.

His activity was great. He mediated between the compagnie and the magistracy; the latter continually asked his advice even in political questions. He corresponded with all the leaders of the Reformed party in Europe. After the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), he used his influence to give to the refugees a hospitable reception at Geneva. In 1574 he wrote his De jure magistratuum (Right of Magistrates), in which he emphatically protested against tyranny in religious matters, and affirmed that it is legitimate for a people to oppose an unworthy magistracy in a practical manner and if necessary to use weapons and depose them.

To sum up: Without being a great dogmatician like his master, nor a creative genius in the ecclesiastical realm, Beza had qualities which made him famous as humanist, exegete, orator, and leader in religious and political affairs, and qualified him to be the guide of the Calvinists in all Europe. In the various controversies into which he was drawn, Beza often showed an excess of irritation and intolerance, from which Bernardino Ochino, pastor of the Italian congregation at Zurich (on account of a treatise which contained some objectionable points on polygamy), and Sebastian Castellio at Basel (on account of his Latin and French translations of the Bible) had especially to suffer.

With Reformed France Beza continued to maintain the closest relations. He was the moderator of the general synod which met in April, 1571, at La Rochelle and decided not to abolish church discipline or to acknowledge the civil government as head of the Church, as the Paris minister Jean Morel and the philosopher Pierre Ramus demanded; it also decided to confirm anew the Calvinistic doctrine of the Lord's Supper (by the expression: "substance of the body of Christ") against Zwinglianism, which caused a very unpleasant discussion between Beza and Ramus and Heinrich Bullinger.

In the following year (May, 1572) he took an important part in the national synod at Nîmes. He was also interested in the controversies which concerned the Augsburg Confession in Germany, especially after 1564, on the doctrine of the Person of Christ and the sacrament, and published several works against Westphal, Hesshusen, Selnecker, Johannes Brenz, and Jakob Andrea. This made him, especially after 1571, hated by all those who adhered to Lutheranism in opposition to Melanchthon.


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