Faith in Focus

Calvin's other "son"


In the year 1564, the Reformer John Calvin passed from this earthly existence, and went to be with his Lord. He left behind him a rich legacy, having helped shape the Swiss canton of Geneva, and indeed all of Switzerland - both church and state; and even further afield, the whole Protestant Reformation, even down to the present day.

When Calvin died, however, as is often the case when great leaders pass from the scene, the need was felt for someone to take his place. But who could fill the shoes of John Calvin? By popular acclaim, the 'prophet's mantle' fell to Theodore Beza.

The Life and Times of Theodore Beza

Like his mentor, Beza was born in France - only ten years Calvin's junior. In terms of social status, however, Beza was considered to be part of the aristocracy, whereas Calvin was merely raised in aristocratic circles. Both studied law at Orléans, though Beza went on in literature at the University of Paris.

It is not entirely certain when Beza first subscribed to Protestantism. But some time in 1548, during a time of illness, guilt-feelings at hiding his Protestant views caused him to flee to Geneva. There his gifts and training in language and literature were quickly recognized, and he was appointed professor of Greek at the Lausanne Academy, followed by a teaching position in Geneva in 1558. Calvin and Beza grew increasingly close.

Because of his nationality and aristocratic background, Beza was often chosen to represent the Reformed voice in the various councils and colloquies around Europe. He was chosen, for instance, to meet with the Lutherans in order to persuade them to aid the Huguenots in their struggles. He represented the French Protestants against the Roman Catholics at the Colloquy of Poissy (1561), and was often present at the synods of the former - or even with the Huguenot army. He was called upon several times to debate against the Lutherans on doctrinal matters, such as the Lord's Supper, predestination, and the extent of the atonement ('limited atonement'). In addition, he took the time to tackle some of Calvin's arch-rivals (for example, Jerome Bolsec and Sebastian Castellio).

Thus, Calvin and Beza faced many of the same opponents. The correspondence between the two Reformers indicates a high degree of co-operation and interaction. At one point, fearing lest he might unintentionally promote any unbiblical ideas, Beza writes to his mentor, "My father...," asking Calvin to correct any errors that might be present. On the other hand, when Reformed men accused Beza of being too soft and compromising with the Lutherans on the subject of the Lord's Supper, Calvin defended his colleague, pointing out that Beza was simply trying to reconcile fierce men with "studied moderation."

These examples might create an impression of a rather one-sided relationship: 'Father' Calvin, gently correcting and defending his 'son.' But Beza had something to contribute as well. We know that Calvin had a brilliant and systematic mind. Nevertheless, Beza was able to teach his 'father' a few things. When Calvin made some rather loose and concessive statements about predestination, in the debate against Castellio, Beza picked his 'father' up on those matters. Calvin apparently accepted the correction, deleting the offending parts from his written account of the debate. Calvin even recommended to Castellio that he read Beza's work on predestination, written to defend Calvin's views against Castellio and others like him. This demonstrates that Beza himself had an agile and systematic mind, able to raise and explore issues with which Calvin had not dealt adequately. It is not surprising, then, that when Calvin passed away, Beza was hailed as his successor by the Genevan Church.

It is also worth noting that although Beza had to deal with much the same issues as Calvin, he was also ten years younger, and lived another 41 years after Calvin. Each generation has its own problems, and Beza's struggles were not identical to Calvin's. Both men had to contend with Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Libertines, Lutherans, Unitarians (forerunners of modern Liberalism) and semi-Pelagians (fore-runners of the Arminians). But proportionally, Beza spent more time than Calvin on 'Lutheran affairs.' Much of what Beza writes is therefore a polemical response to Lutheran propositions.

More Calvinistic Than Calvin?

Despite the evidence of a close and mutually profitable relationship between the two Reformers, many church historians today have come to the conclusion that Beza departed significantly from the theology of Calvin. It is often said that Beza was more Calvinistic than Calvin. What is meant by this charge is that Beza, like many students, pushed his teacher's views farther than the man himself would have found agreeable. This is a very old accusation, beginning at least in the writings of the French Reformed professor, Amyraut, in the seventeenth century. Amyraut claimed that Beza distorted Calvin's views. Many later theologians have agreed, insisting that Beza went on to influence the whole Calvinistic world, convincing it that his distortion represented Calvin's true views. Calvinism, then, has followed in the harsher footsteps of Beza, rather than in those of the milder Calvin.

To be more specific, Beza is accused of going beyond Calvin on the following issues:

1. Presbyterian Church-Government: Both Calvin and Beza were explicitly Presbyterian in their view of church-government, though Calvin seems to have been willing to allow more room for variations, according to the custom of the place and the time. The test-case was the Church of England. Calvin, writing at a time when the final direction of the Anglicans was not yet determined, seems to have been more tolerant - or at least more cautious in the way he writes of their situation. Calvin had been very hopeful for the Church of England. When John Knox unleashed his aggressive "First Blast on the Trumpet" against the female rulers of Europe, thus angering England's Elizabeth I, Calvin was horrified. Beza, on the other hand, writing after it became clear that the Church of England was going to remain hierarchical, not Presbyterian, is sharper. He claims, for instance, that the Presbyterian system is given by God, the Anglican by man, and the papacy by the devil. It is quite likely that the sharper polemic of Beza was useful to English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians who opposed the episcopal system. In this way, Beza may have helped entrench a system that Calvin certainly held - a system that has come down to us today, and is held by our churches in a fairly strong form.

Also on the subject of the doctrine of the church, there is the question of the marks of the true church. Calvin said there were two: true teaching/preaching; and the proper administration of the sacraments. Discipline was included under the category of the administration of the Lord's Supper. Beza, on the other hand, indicated three marks (like the Belgic Confession), listing discipline along with the other two.

2. Church & State: In terms of civil government, Calvin apparently preferred an aristocracy-democracy hybrid, though again he allowed for variation according to local custom. Beza seems to have been a little narrower in his view, favouring a republic. Beza, more than Calvin, brings out the idea of social consent in the establishing of a government, seen by some as an early form of the 'social contract.' To the extent that Beza spells these things out more openly than Calvin, he is sometimes thought to have influenced modern political theory more than his predecessor. But neither man appears to have had a problem with the politics of the other.

3. Protestant Scholasticism: The term "scholastic" is generally associated with the "Schoolmen" of the medieval church, the theology of the monastic schools and universities of the time. Often, today, the term is used in a negative way, to describe any theology governed by rationalism, speculation, and Greek philosophy. Others define scholasticism in a more neutral manner, as a method which seeks to arrive at precision in systematic theology. Some theologians, taking the first definition, tend to see Calvin as essentially negative towards medieval scholasticism and to the Greek philosophy that often stood behind it. Beza, on the other hand, they regard as more sympathetic to scholasticism - to Aristotle's philosophy and to a rationalistic approach to theology.

In my opinion, both Reformers were equally negative about the (Greek) philosophy that underpinned much of scholastic thinking. Beza says that when you press the philosophers, you find that they "trample all the whole heavenly wisdom under their feet." At the same time, both were willing to use the terminology they had inherited from the Schoolmen, and even in some cases terminology that can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. For example, Calvin seems to be quite comfortable with Aristotle's distinctions in the different kinds of causes - "ultimate"/"proximate," "efficient," "material," "instrumental" and "final" causes.

Both Reformers also reject speculation - that which goes beyond what is revealed in the Scriptures - another feature said to mark the scholastic spirit. This is a danger to one who relies too much on rational argumentation and logic, not enough on exegesis of the text of Scripture. But again, close examination shows Beza providing a wealth of exegetical evidence for each doctrine he propounds. After all, reason, according to Beza, is "stark blind in the matters of great weight." On the subject of reprobation he therefore pleads for moderation, that "The height of God's judgements may at all times bridle our curious fancies." That is not to deny that Beza used logic - also in the form of "syllogistic reasoning" - "If A is true, and B is true, then it follows that...." But his use of logic was nearly always subservient to his Biblical exegesis.

We must remember that Beza lived on many years after Calvin. During that time he would continue to do what he and Calvin had done in the earlier years, while his mentor was still alive: Use the tools of scholasticism - the terminology and the method of argumentation - to answer the critics, and refine the Reformational formulations of the teachings of the Scripture. After Calvin died, Beza would attain even greater precision, further removing remaining ambiguities and inconsistencies. He would improve Calvin's theology, but not alter its substance. As one writer put it, scholasticism provided him with the "precision tools" he needed to do that.

4. Predestination: It is often said that Beza departed from Calvin on the doctrine of predestination, making it overshadow every other doctrine. It is also said that he does not give the Lord Jesus, the Author of our election, a big enough role in predestination. Mind you, Calvin has been accused of both these things as well. As far as I can see, though, there is no significant difference between the two Reformers at this point. Both regard predestination a vitally important doctrine, but neither make it the central doctrine of the Bible, the doctrine of doctrines. And as far as Christ's role in predestination is concerned, both put the emphasis where the Bible puts it: On the Lord Jesus as Mediator, more than on the eternal second Person of the Trinity as the Author of election.

The main reason many theologians have jumped on Beza, I suspect, is due to a couple of things he wrote in 1555: His famous (or infamous) Table of Predestination, showing how predestination relates to other aspects of salvation and damnation; and a letter he sent to his 'father,' seeking his opinion on the matter. There, Beza appears to lean towards what is known as a supralapsarian view of predestination.

Now to many people, supralapsarianism (or the other main alternative, infralapsarianism) is one of those really exciting doctrines that ranks right up there with questions like, How many angels can you fit on a pin-head? It concerns the logical order within God's decree or plan of election and reprobation. It can be put in this form: Did God regard man as fallen when He chose some for eternal life, simply leaving the rest in their sins (infralapsarianism)? Or did He choose some for salvation, and reject others, before regarding them as fallen (supralapsarianism)? In carrying out His plan in time, of course, the Lord first created, then permitted the Fall, then separated men under the two Heads, Adam and Christ. But we are not now considering the chronological order of events, but how the Lord regarded these things in His Mind - a question that appears to me to tread on thin ice. Was the order creation-Fall-election/reprobation, or was it election/reprobation-creation-fall? Beza sounds like he prefers the latter. This is what gets the modern theologians going, because it provides them with further evidence that Beza was more harsh (as they see it) than Calvin. For it places both creation and Fall in a subordinate relationship to God's rejection of certain individuals (as well as to the election of others). Infralapsarianism simply has God rescuing some out of a fallen mass, none of whom deserved salvation anyway.

On close examination, however, things do not seem to have been so cut-and-dried. Beza was worried that his views might do harm to the church, so he writes to Calvin, admitting that the matter is a "difficulty." He defers to Calvin's judgement, lest he plunge himself and others into error. He communicates also with fellow Reformer, Peter Martyr, who feels it necessary to write back to Beza, "Let your mind be at peace." Moreover, Beza's Table of Predestination was published in Geneva after Calvin had read it, and presumably with his permission. Calvin even recommends this work to one of his opponents. Mind you, there are places where Calvin sounds rather supralapsarian himself.

The whole debate is difficult and complex. It is clear from Beza's letter to Calvin that he raised questions that went further than Calvin down the supralapsarian road. What is not entirely clear to me is where Beza ended up. His published statements are rather ambiguous, in my opinion. But even if Beza did end up a fully-fledged supralapsarian, let us keep in mind that this view has always been considered acceptable in Reformed circles, even if it is not the majority opinion.

5. Limited Atonement: Many theologians today believe that Calvin did not teach the doctrine of limited atonement, the view that Christ died with the intention of saving only the elect. Rather, they believe that Beza popularized the doctrine in Continental and English Calvinism.

Actually, neither Calvin nor Beza invented the doctrine of limited atonement. It was held by many people from Augustine on. It is true that Calvin does not deal often with the subject. And when he does deal with it, he does not generally state it in the clear, unambiguous manner of Beza. Perhaps Beza's contribution here is the precision with which he stated the doctrine of limited atonement. This is seen in his reaction to Peter Lombard's twelfth century formulation of the doctrine, the "common solution." Perhaps you have heard it: Christ died sufficiently for all, efficiently only for the elect.

Long before the sixteenth century, problems arose with this formula. Did it mean that Christ died for all without exception, with the intention that His death would somehow cover all - but then His universal saving work was only applied to the limited number who actually had faith? Or did it simply mean that the power of His death was sufficient to have covered all, if He had so intended - but He never so intended, He intended to save only the elect, and thus sent His Spirit to apply His death only to the elect. The first interpretation opens the door to what we now call Arminianism - that Christ makes all savable, but only applies His death to those who come to Him of their own free will. The second interpretation is what we now call Calvinistic.

Because of the ambiguity, Beza rejected the common solution. He believed it was capable of a good interpretation, but too ambiguous to be very useful. There is good evidence that Calvin saw it the same way. Beza, however, spells out the issues more clearly than Calvin. The Synod of Dort did not follow Beza in this, preferring to use the formula - carefully defined so as to distinguish the inherent power of the atonement from Christ's intention in dying. So today our churches still use the common solution. But we may be thankful that Beza's sharp treatment of this subject reminds us to define it carefully, lest we concede too much to Arminianism.

6. Faith & Assurance: Some have argued that Calvin and Beza held different views of faith and assurance. I would rather say they had different emphases. Calvin appears to focus more on the danger of works-righteousness and "foolish security"; whereas Beza deals more with the doubting elect, especially those who struggle with what he calls the "temptation of particular predestination" - those who have a strong view of predestination, but perhaps because of that strong view, begin to question whether they are, after all, elect. In other words, Calvin stresses the danger of false assurance, Beza the danger of false doubt.

It is at this point that we see Beza's warm, pastoral heart. Far from being a cold, harsh hyper-Calvinist, spending his life writing treatises on abstract and speculative subjects, Beza is concerned about the struggles of the man in the pew. In fact, an unusually large proportion of Beza's writings deal with this subject of faith and assurance, and how we can deal with our doubts.

Beza's detractors, however, are not satisfied even with this. They accuse him of inventing the "practical syllogism." A syllogism, you will recall, is a particular form of reasoning. In this case, the argument goes as follows: "All the elect do good works. I do good works. Therefore I am of the elect." Some have felt that this syllogism encourages us to look to ourselves, our good works, for our assurance. It is seen as a departure from Calvin, who insisted that we must look to Christ and His Word for our assurance.

Again, the difference between the two men is exaggerated. Both Reformers recognize that our works have a part to play in gaining assurance - they do use the practical syllogism, though in a very heavily qualified way. For the role of works in assurance is very much secondary. After all, how do you know your works are good? Only the works of the Christian are acceptable to God, no matter how good our deeds may be in themselves. There is a circular argument here: How do I know I'm elect? Because I do good works. How do I know my works are good? Because I know I'm elect. Both Calvin and Beza insist that works can give no assurance unless they are already testified to by God Himself, and seen in connection with Christ's merits. That testimony comes primarily from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, in connection with the promises of Scripture concerning Christ. God must speak about us first, before we speak about ourselves and our works. Our works only confirm our faith, as effects of the proper cause or ground. The ground of our assurance is Christ alone, not our sight of our works as such.

My conclusion is that Beza's contributions to the Reformation lie mainly in his precision and clarification, especially in regard of a few matters on which Calvin was vague. Beza's treatment of the doctrine of limited atonement is perhaps the most significant of these. Similarly, Beza's precision probably helped the Reformed Churches to take a stronger stand on the doctrines of limited atonement and church government than they might otherwise have done. On the side of pastoral care, Beza's treatment of the doctrine of assurance is, in my opinion, some of the most helpful to come out of the Reformation.

It's hard to be famous, living in the shadow of a man like John Calvin. If Beza alone, not Calvin, had ministered in Geneva, who knows, we might now be calling ourselves Bezists today. For this man was no slouch, not in Biblical exegesis, and not in theology either. It may even be that, after Calvin, Theodore Beza is the greatest theologian of the Reformed Churches in the sixteenth century. But we don't need to decide on that. All we need to know is that the Lord used this man greatly for consolidation and clarification, his understanding of the Bible, as well as his willingness to stand up for the truth, helping to make our churches what they are today.

Dr P.N. Archbald is the Minister of the Reformed Church of Masterton and has recently completed his PhD thesis on Beza through the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revised January 1999 / Copyright 1999