Theodore Beza (1519-1605)
Born: Vezelay, Burgundy (France)
Roles: Pastor; theologian; university professor; Reformer; Calvin’s biographer and successor in Geneva
Theological emphases: (Double) Predestination; supralapsarianism, Reformed sacramentalism
Protested against: purgatory, monastic vows, pilgrimages, Catholic prohibition of marriage, Catholic food prohibitions, ceremonial observance of days, auricular confession, indulgences
Beza’s involvement in the Protestant Reformation is inseparably tied to Jean Calvin. The two became personally connected in the 1540s and not long after Beza’s conversion to Protestantism he became (with the backing of Calvin and other key Reformation figures) the professor of Greek at the Lausanne Academy – an institution for the preparatory training of gospel ministers. During these years – until the end of Calvin’s life – Beza served as his offsider, aiding him in disputations, defending his theology and actions and working together for continued Reformation in Europe.
Beza was definitively Calvinist in his theology, but he was not factious or irreconcilable towards Christians of different theological persuasions. He demonstrated genuine love and concern for other Christians in his persistent advocacy for the Waldensians – the religious minority of Peter Waldo’s followers in Southern France who were being ruthlessly persecuted by Catholic authorities – and a desire for unity amongst Protestants in his dealings with Lutherans and Zwinglians.
Not long before Calvin’s death, Beza became the inaugural rector of the newly established University of Geneva (which continues today) and when the Genevan Reformer died in 1564, Beza succeeded him as head of the movement. Beza’s biographer, Baird says:
Calvin saw in Beza not the slavish copy of himself, but a scholar of greater polish and wider knowledge of polite society, better capable of dealing with courts, with a stronger physical constitution, and therefore having the promise of being able to accomplish much that was denied to his own enfeebled health.
This capacity for scholarship was on display when in the year following Calvin’s death, Beza published an important edition of the Greek New Testament, based on the earlier works of Erasmus and Estienne and also based – in all likelihood – upon the Greek manuscript which bears his name Codex Bezæ. Along with his Latin translations from the Greek, these works played an important part in biblical scholarship in this period.
His role as Calvin’s successor was on display in 1571 when he presided as moderator over the Synod of all French Protestant churches – a meeting which was attending by numerous Protestant royals and luminaries and which affirmed the doctrinal standards of the French Reformation. The atrocious St. Bartholemew’s Day massacre occurred the following year and Beza found himself welcoming Protestant survivors and Huguenot pastors to Geneva as refugees fleeing Catholic aggression. He was an ally and encourager of Protestantism in Britain, especially Presbyterianism and the emerging Puritan movement.
Beza’s life and ministry highlights the need for faithful and suitable succession to Christianity’s great leaders, thinker, movers and shakers. Beza would have no significance to our history if it were not for Calvin and yet our appreciation of Calvin would likely be significantly less if it were not for the work of Beza. As Calvin’s biographer and the man who laboured hard to see his theology established in European churches and the institutions he founded prosper, Beza could be called the Calvinist of Calvinists. Yet, as we have seen he did not promote this theological disposition from a place of arrogance or contempt for other Christians.
Beza devoted himself to the teachings of Calvin insomuch as he believed Calvin had devoted himself to the teachings of Christ and the apostles. In so doing, he provides a model for today’s Christians of how we might faithfully promote the theological heritage we’ve received (as far as we believe it to be in harmony with Scripture), without sacrificing our love and goodwill towards those who share our evangelical faith while differing on secondary matters of doctrine.
You can read a fuller treatment of Beza’s life and ministry here.
Robert Letham, “Beza” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals
Theodore Beza @ wikipedia