Birth Pangs of Reformation: Theodore Beza and the Developing Protestant World

Theodore Beza - Unknown Artist - 1605

Theodore Beza – Unknown Artist – 1605

In a chronological history of the reformation, the natural next step would be to take a look at Martin Luther (who is reserved for Reformation Day itself), John Calvin, John Knox, or Ulrich Zwingli, but I have chosen instead to take a step back from the chronological timeline and present Theodore Beza instead. Beza is a man we encounter full of spirit, triumph, and emotion. A quick glance at his life shows us that he is supremely human and just like one of us.

Theodore Beza, born in Vézelay, France (a part of Burgundy) in 1519, grew up with the nobility. His mother died when he was young and he was taken in by an uncle who dearly loved him. According to Phillip Schaff, “Nicolas de Besze [Theodore’s uncle], seigneur de Cette et de Chalonne, and a councillor in the Parliament of Paris, had taken him with him to Paris and adopted him, so great was the love he bore him, and when the time came he was put under the best masters whom money and influence could secure. The boy was precocious, and his uncle delighted in his progress. One day at table he entertained a guest from Orleans, who was a member of the royal council. The conversation turned upon the future of Theodore, whereupon the friend commended Melchior Wolmar, the famous Greek scholar at Orleans, who was also the teacher of Calvin, as the best person to educate the lad. The uncle listened attentively, and sent Theodore thither and secured him admission into Wolmar’s family.” (Schaff)

Theodore de Beze - Öl auf Holz 1577 Musee historique de la Reformation

Theodore de Beze – Öl auf Holz 1577 Musee historique de la Reformation

Beza, unlike Hus and Wycliffe, grew up in a changed world. The Reformation had already started and the slaughter of the Huguenots in France at the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) had not yet occurred. Paris, a large city, housed a vibrant array of new ideas and culture as a result of the dual forces of new protestant ideas and renaissance humanism. Beza studied law, as well as Greek, and Wolmer’s influence certainly provided a protestant backdrop for his life, but not yet the forefront. He loved the Greek and Roman classics. He married a local girl Claudine Denosse in secret in 1544. Four short years later in 1548, while he practiced law, he came out with some erotic poetry called Juvenilia that gained him some fame. His work is described rather politely by the editors of the Encyclopedia Britannica as “a volume of amorous verse that earned him a reputation as a leading Latin poet.” Beza loved life and everything seemed to be going well until a very harsh illness struck him.

Beza’s illness would set the course for the rest of his life. For as he lay there in his bedchamber he began to realize some important truths that his teacher Wolmer had taught him. Schaff relates that, “ [Wolmer] in [Beza’s] tenderest and most susceptible years, had impressed upon him the doctrine of justification by faith in the righteousness of Christ, heard much of the corrupt state of the dominant Church, and was witness to the efforts of that Church to put to death those who differed from her teaching.” This convicted Beza as he realized his need of Christ, the struggles of his friends who were under persecution, and the Spirit most definitely stirred in his heart. Beza left his illness a changed man and decided to join John Calvin in Geneva, Switzerland as it was a refuge for protestants at the time.

While in Geneva, Theodore Beza contributed greatly to the Protestant Reformation. He wrote side-by-side volumes of the Greek and Latin new testament that became the foundation of the Geneva Bible and the King James Version of the Bible. He wrote on the role of civil government and church government. He wrote the defense of the consistory in the decision to burn Michael Servetus which, rather importantly, was an act of the civil government in Geneva, not the church of Geneva whose power was limited to excommunication. In addition, as a successor in Geneva to Calvin, Beza defended the doctrine of predestination that had been recovered thanks to John Calvin’s work in reviving Augustine’s ideas.

On predestination, Beza writes:

So then, do you wish (whoever you are) to be assured of your predestination, … as certainly and surely as if you ascended to heaven itself and understood that secret decree from the very mouth of God? … do not begin at the highest stage, for otherwise you will not endure the immense light of God. Therefore, begin at the lowest stages; and when you hear God’s voice … calling you to Christ, the only Mediator, consider step by step, and inquire carefully if you are justified and sanctified by faith in Christ. For these are the effects, and from them we understand that faith is the cause. – The Table of Predestination (Wright)

Beza, like Calvin saw the doctrine of Predestination as a great comfort in the believer’s assurance of salvation and something that is only seen after the fact. The believer doesn’t arrive at a belief in predestination until after they are already saved. This idea is best captured in the traditional hymn, “I Sought the Lord” which says:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
no, I was found of thee.

Beza’s understanding preserved the integrity of Calvin’s teaching and affirmed the authority of the bible. Beza carried the torch of the Reformation and helped to secure its continuing influence today. This is why we honor him.

Theodore Beza is given a place of honor among those depicted on the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo Courtesy Apostles Creed)

Theodore Beza is given a place of honor among those depicted on the Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland. (Photo Courtesy Apostles Creed)

Schaff, Philip. “Life of Beza to his Conversion.” History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

“Theodore Beza | Biography – French Theologian.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

Theodore Beza, Tabula Praedestinationis, in The Potter and the Clay: The Main Predestination Writings of Theodore Beza, trans. Philip C. Holtrop (Grand Rapids: Calvin College, 1982), 80. Quoted in Wright, Shawn. “The Reformation Piety of Theodore Beza | Founders.” Web. 3 Oct. 2015.

EDIT: 10/05/15 The original title of this post was Full Blown Reformation: Theodore Beza and the New Protestant World. I have changed it to Birth Pangs of Reformation: Theodore Beza and the Developing Protestant World. The reason for this is that the Reformation was still in its early stages and I don’t want to put the cart before the horse.


One thought on “Birth Pangs of Reformation: Theodore Beza and the Developing Protestant World

  1. Pingback: Peter Martyr Vermigli: Reformer of Europe | Continuing Reformation

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