On September 9, 1561, King Charles IX and the queen mother, Catherine de Médicis, convened French nobilities and Catholic prelates for a national synod at Poissy to address a religious crisis. They waited in silence as a man stood on the floor to defend Reformed doctrines. The tension of distrust between the Protestants and the Catholics was already being felt by everyone present.
The man explained the principal tenets of the French Confession. As he got to the section on the Lord’s Supper, he made the bold claim that “Christ’s body is as far removed from the bread and wine as is heaven from earth.” Instantly, there was an uproar and Catholic attendees began yelling out the charge of blasphemy. Although the Colloquy ended in chaos, the queen mother took notice of the man’s courage and brilliance such that she invited him to be the chief Protestant minister of the royal court in Paris.
A few months later, when the religious war became inevitable, this Protestant minister wrote a letter to Calvin: “I am forced not only to be a spectator, but an actor in this horrible tragedy.” He took up the role of mobilizing troops with the Protestant duke and marched onto the battlefield with the Protestant army. His leadership was also demonstrated when he was elected as the moderator of the national synod at La Rochelle in 1571, which ratified the French Confession of Faith and Church Discipline. He was without question the greatest leader of French Protestantism in the late sixteenth century.
Now, who was this man? His name was Theodore Beza (1519-1605). The name may not ring a bell for many of us. When I tell people about him, I often get as a response like: “Theodore who?”
It is true that today he is not as well-known as men like Martin Luther and John Calvin. Interestingly, part of the reason for this is because he has been marginalized by some modern historians who blame him for deviating from Calvin’s theology. Even though studies have proven this accusation false, Beza stills remains a figure in the margins. He is not very well-known and his legacy is still hurting from the wrong label. But when one starts reading him, one finds that his passion and zeal for the gospel burn no less fervently than the Reformation heroes we do know. I want to briefly share the life and work of this man as we remember the Reformation history today.
Beza was born on June 24, 1519 in Vézelay, Burgandy. He was raised as a member of the elite and high class of the French society. In 1539, he completed his degree in law at Orléans and had a very promising life ahead of him. He enjoyed a life of prosperity, studying classical literature and languages, which he loved to do. But in 1548, he fell seriously ill and thought this was God’s judgment on him for pursuing his own idol instead of the cross. Determined, he abandoned the fame, the connections, and the fortune he had and joined Calvin in Geneva on October 23, 1548 with his wife Claudine.
From then on, he made his name as a Reformed theologian/pastor and began writing his own theological works. He wrote in defense of Calvin on topics such as predestination and Lord’s Supper, and produced his own Confession of Faith (1559) to be used as a handbook for the Bible and to provide sound theological content for pastors. The Confession had a salvific focus, emphasizing the role of Christ as the sole mediator.
Calvin and Beza became best friends in their endeavor for Reformed faith. They also shared the status of being French exiles. Beza knew what it was like to be a foreigner. To raise support for French Protestants from the Lutherans, he went on frequent diplomatic missions. He longed for the day that he could go back to his native land to fight for the Reformed churches. So, when the opportunity came, such as the gathering at Poissy, he was ready to defend Reformed doctrines for his country. And considering his aristocratic upbringing, he was the perfect man for the job.
Beza was not only the leader of French Protestantism, but he was also Calvin’s appointed successor in Geneva. He served as the rector of the Genevan Academy for 40 years, one of the first and highest esteemed higher education centers of Reformed theology in 16th century. After Calvin’s death in 1564, he also succeeded him as the chief minister of the main church in Geneva and as moderator of Company of Pastors (a weekly meeting of local pastors and elders to oversee the doctrine and discipline of the city). As Calvin’s faithful successor, he took Calvin’s last instruction to “preserve God’s people in true doctrine” to his heart.
For Beza, true pastors were those who would “teach, exhort, and console their flocks by the living Word of God.” (Sermon sur l’histoire de la passion, 782) He repeatedly challenged the pastors and the students that they were to be first and foremost lifelong students of the Scriptures, studying it diligently day and night. He applied this to his own life by producing important exegetical works, his own Latin translation of the Bible and his annotations, which later influenced the Geneva Bible and the King James Version as well.
Not only was Beza a fine Reformed scholar, he was also a man with great pastoral sensitivity. Although some historians have evaluated Beza to be a speculative and rationalistic theologian (thus a deviation from Calvin), Beza had a pastoral heart with deep concern for the spiritual well-being of his flock. The reason he wrote in defense of doctrines such as predestination was because he saw it as a necessary and pastoral doctrine that comforted the believers, not because he was interested in some philosophical discussion. His doctrines of assurance and good works are also filled with pastoral insights. Here is what I think is his best quote on pastoral ministry. It is from his ending prayer of one of his sermons:
We are able to say, by the grace of God, that we have preached, and continue to preach, the pure truth contained in his holy Word. But alas, at what price? Where is our zeal, our care, and our diligence as pastors? O Lord, support us therefore by your infinite goodness. Preserve in us a good and right conscience. Fill us with zeal for your glory. Increase in us the knowledge, the wisdom, the love, and the endurance required for such a calling. In sum, be pleased to bless our modest efforts. (Sermons sur l’histoire de la resurrection, 568)*
Beza died on October 13, 1605. The night before his death, his friends gathered around his bed. Sensing the end has come, they read to him Romans 5:1. “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This was a concise and accurate summary of Beza’s life and the belief he had treasured in his heart.
So then, how does knowing Beza shape our understanding of our Reformation roots today?
First, we learn from his great theological depth and his defense of Reformed theology. Notice, he outlived Calvin by 41 years. He wrestled with issues like assurance and Lord’s Supper in ways that Calvin had not. Now that these doctrines had been in practice by Reformed churches for some 20-30 years, new pastoral problems were emerging for him. Also, opponents were coming up with new ways to attack Reformed doctrines. As we look at our own churches today, we will resonate with some of the problems that Beza had to face and learn from the ways that he tried to resolve them biblically.
Second, learning about men like Beza helps us to recognize that our Reformed tradition does not lie in the efforts of one big hero, Calvin, but rather in the efforts of many. Reading Beza allows us to broaden our understanding of Reformation history.
Third, in the midst of modern movements for unity and ecumenism, reading Beza allows us to see what doctrines really matter. Beza wrote against the enemies of Reformed doctrines his whole life. But why? To be divisive? Not really. He was in favor of unity when that unity was based on solid biblical teaching. He reminds us what truths are worth fighting for in defense of the gospel. This is helpful for us living in a world where truth is relativized and the call for unity is prevalent.
* Translation from Scott M. Manetsch, “Theodore Beza’s Theology of Pastoral Ministry” in Théodore de Béze (1519-1605) (Librairie Droz: Geneva, 2007), 256.