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
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
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
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
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
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
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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