Theodore Beza (Théodore de Bèze or de Besze) (June 24, 1519 – October 13, 1605) was a French Protestant Christian theologian and scholar who played an important role in the early Reformation. A member of the monarchomaque movement who opposed absolute monarchy, he was a disciple of John Calvin and lived most of his life in Switzerland.
Theodore Beza was born at Vezelay, in Burgundy, France. His father, Pierre de Beze, royal governor of Vezelay, descended from a Burgundian family of distinction; his mother, Marie Bourdelot, was known for her generosity. Beza's father had two brothers; Nicholas, who was member of Parliament at Paris; and Claude, who was abbot of the Cistercian monastery Froimont in the diocese of Beauvais.
Nicholas, who was unmarried, during a visit to Vezelay was so pleased with Theodore that, with the permission of his parents, he took him to Paris to educate him there. From Paris, Theodore was sent to Orleans in December 1528 to receive instruction from the famous German teacher Melchior Wolmar. He was received into Wolmar's house, and the day on which this took place was afterward celebrated as a second birthday.
Young Beza soon followed his teacher to Bourges, where the latter was called by the duchess Margaret of Angoulême, sister of Francis I. At the time, Bourges was the focus of the Reformation movement in France. In 1534, after Francis I issued his edict against ecclesiastical innovations, Wolmar returned to Germany. Beza, in accordance with the wish of his father, went back to Orleans to study law, and spent four years there (1535-39). The pursuit of law had little attraction for him; he enjoyed more the reading of the ancient classics, especially Ovid, Catullus, and Tibullus.
He received the degree of licentiate in law August 11, 1539, and, as his father desired, went to Paris, where he began to practice. To support him, his relatives had obtained for him two benefices, the proceeds of which amounted to 700 golden crowns a year; and his uncle had promised to make him his successor.
Beza spent two years in Paris and gained a prominent position in literary circles. To escape the many temptations to which he was exposed, with the knowledge of two friends, he became engaged in the year 1544 to a young girl of humble descent, Claudine Denoese, promising to publicly marry her as soon as his circumstances would allow it.
In 1548 he published a collection of Latin poetry, Juvenilia, which made him famous, and he was everywhere considered one of the best writers of Latin poetry of his time. Among these poems was "De sua in Candidam et Audebertum benevolentia in which the poet compares his passion for two young lovers, Candida and Audebert, and concludes that though he kisses them both he loves Audebert the best. Some have taken this to point to bisexuality or pederasty. For many years afterwards Catholic opponents would hold this work against Beza in particular and against Calvinists in general as a defense of sodomy and proof of moral failing. The Encyclopedia of Homosexuality, however, notes that the poem was influenced by classical authors, who not infrequently demonstrated "pederastic interests and allusions," making evidence for Beza's homosexuality "uncertain at best," and church historian Philip Schaff likewise argued that it was a mistake to "read between his lines what he never intended to put there" or to imagine "offences of which he was not guilty even in thought.
Shortly after the publication of his book, he fell ill and his illness, it is reported, revealed to him his spiritual needs. Gradually he came to accept salvation in Christ, which lifted his spirits. He then resolved to sever his connections of the time, and went to Geneva, the French city of refuge for Evangelicals (adherents of the Reformation movement), where he arrived with Claudine on October 23, 1548.
Beza found time to write a Biblical drama, Abraham Sacrifiant , in which he contrasted Catholicism with Protestantism, and the work was well received. In June, 1551, he added a few psalms to the French version of the Psalms begun by Clément Marot, which was also very successful.
About the same time he published Passavantius, a satire directed against Pierre Lizet, the former president of the Parliament of Paris, and principal originator of the "fiery chamber" (chambre ardente), who, at the time (1551) was abbot of St. Victor near Paris and publishing a number of polemical writings.
Of a more serious character were two controversies in which Beza was involved at this time. The first concerned the doctrine of predestination and the controversy of Calvin with Jerome Hermes Bolsec. The second referred to the burning of Michael Servetus at Geneva Oct. 27, 1553. In defense of Calvin and the Genevan magistrates, Beza published in 1554 the work De haereticis a civili magistratu puniendis (translated into French in 1560).
In the autumn of 1558 Beza undertook a second journey with Farel to Worms by way of Strasburg in the hopes of bringing about an intercession by the Evangelical princes of the empire in favor of the persecuted brethren at Paris. With Melanchthon and other theologians then assembled at the Colloquy of Worms, Beza proposed a union of all Protestant Christians, but the proposal was decidedly denied by Zurich and Bern.
False reports reached the German princes that the hostilities against the Huguenots in France had ceased and no embassy was sent to the court of France. As a result, Beza undertook another journey with Farel, Johannes Buddaeus, and Gaspard Carmel to Strasburg and Frankfort, where the sending of an embassy to Paris was resolved upon.
Upon his return to Lausanne, Beza was greatly disturbed. In union with many ministers and professors in city and country, Viret at last thought of establishing a consistory and of introducing a church discipline which should inflict excommunication especially at the celebration of the communion. But the Bernese would have no Calvinistic church government. This caused many difficulties, and Beza thought it best (1558) to settle at Geneva.
Here he was given chair of Greek in the newly established academy, and after Calvin's death also that of theology. He was also obliged to preach.
He completed the revision of Pierre Olivetan's translation of the New Testament, begun some years before. In 1559 he undertook another journey in the interest of the Huguenots, this time to Heidelberg. At about the same time, he had to defend Calvin against Joachim Westphal in Hamburg and Tileman Hesshusen.
More important than this polemical activity was Beza's statement of his own confession. It was originally prepared for his father in justification of his actions and published in revised form to promote Evangelical knowledge among Beza's countrymen. It was printed in Latin in 1560 with a dedication to Wolmar. An English translation was published at London 1563, 1572, and 1585. Translations into German, Dutch, and Italian were also issued.
In the year following (1561), Beza represented the Evangelicals at the Colloquy of Poissy, and in an eloquent manner defended the principles of the Evangelical faith. The colloquy was without result, but Beza as the head and advocate of all Reformed congregations of France was revered and hated at the same time. The queen insisted upon another colloquy, which was opened at St. Germain Jan. 28, 1562, eleven days after the proclamation of the famous January edict which granted important privileges to those of the Reformed faith. But the colloquy was broken off when it became evident that the Catholic party was preparing (after the Massacre of Vassy, Mar. 1) to overthrow Protestantism.
Beza hastily issued a circular letter (Mar. 25) to all Reformed congregations of the empire, and with Conde and his troops went to Orleans. It was necessary to proceed quickly and energetically. But there were neither soldiers nor money. At the request of Conde, Beza visited all Huguenot cities to obtain both. He also wrote a manifesto in which he argued the justice of the Reformed cause. As one of the messengers to collect soldiers and money among his coreligionists, Beza was appointed to visit England, Germany, and Switzerland. He went to Strasburg and Basel, but met with failure. He then returned to Geneva, which he reached Sept. 4. He had hardly been there fourteen days when he was called once more to Orleans by D'Andelot. The campaign was becoming more successful; but the publication of the unfortunate edict of pacification which Conde accepted (Mar. 12,1563) filled Beza and all Protestant France with horror.
Until 1580 Beza was not only moderateur de la compagnie des pasteurs, but also the real soul of the great institution of learning at Geneva which Calvin had founded in 1559, consisting of a gymnasium and an academy. As long as be lived, Beza was interested in higher education. The Protestant youth for nearly forty years thronged his lecture-room to hear his theological lectures, in which he expounded the purest Calvinistic orthodoxy. As a counselor he was listened to by both magistrates and pastors. Geneva is indebted to him for the founding of a law school in which Francois Hotman, Jules Pacius, and Denys Godefroy, the most eminent jurists of the century, lectured in turn (cf. Charles Borgeaud, L'Academie de Calvin, Geneva, 1900).
As Calvin's successor, Beza was very successful, not only in carrying on his work but also in giving peace to the Church at Geneva. The magistrates had fully appropriated the ideas of Calvin, and the direction of spiritual affairs, the organs of which were the "ministers of the word" and "the consistory," was founded on a solid basis. No doctrinal controversy arose after 1564. The discussions concerned questions of a practical, social, or ecclesiastical nature, such as the supremacy of the magistrates over the pastors, freedom in preaching, and the obligation of the pastors to submit to the majority of the campagnie des pasteurs.
Beza obtruded his will in no way upon his associates, and took no harsh measures against injudicious or hot-headed colleagues, though sometimes he took their cases in hand and acted as mediator; and yet he often experienced an opposition so extreme that he threatened to resign. Although he was inclined to take the part of the magistrates, he knew how to defend the rights and independence of the spiritual power when occasion arose, without, however, conceding to it such a preponderating influence as did Calvin.
His activity was great. He mediated between the compagnie and the magistracy; the latter continually asked his advice even in political questions. He corresponded with all the leaders of the Reformed party in Europe. After the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), he used his influence to give to the refugees a hospitable reception at Geneva.
In 1574 he wrote his De jure magistratuum (Right of Magistrates), in which he emphatically protested against tyranny in religious matters, and affirmed that it is legitimate for a people to oppose an unworthy magistracy in a practical manner and if necessary to use weapons and depose them.
To sum up: Without being a great dogmatician like his master, nor a creative genius in the ecclesiastical realm, Beza had qualities which made him famous as humanist, exegete, orator, and leader in religious and political affairs, and qualified him to be the guide of the Calvinists in all Europe. In the various controversies into which he was drawn, Beza often showed an excess of irritation and intolerance, from which Bernardino Ochino, pastor of the Italian congregation at Zurich (on account of a treatise which contained some objectionable points on polygamy), and Sebastian Castellio at Basel (on account of his Latin and French translations of the Bible) had especially to suffer.
With Reformed France Beza continued to maintain the closest relations. He was the moderator of the general synod which met in April, 1571, at La Rochelle and decided not to abolish church discipline or to acknowledge the civil government as head of the Church, as the Paris minister Jean Morel and the philosopher Pierre Ramus demanded; it also decided to confirm anew the Calvinistic doctrine of the Lord's Supper (by the expression: "substance of the body of Christ") against Zwinglianism, which caused a very unpleasant discussion between Beza and Ramus and Bullinger.
In the following year (May, 1572) he took an important part in the national synod at Nimes. He was also interested in the controversies which concerned the Augsburg Confession in Germany, especially after 1564, on the doctrine of the person of Christ and the sacrament, and published several works against Westphal, Hesshusen, Selnecker, Johannes Brenz, and Jakob Andrea. This made him, especially after 1571, hated by all those who adhered to Lutheranism in opposition to Melanchthon.
When the edition of the acts of the colloquy, as prepared by Jakob Andrea, was published, Samuel Huber, of Burg near Bern, who belonged to the Lutheranizing faction of the Swiss clergy, took so great offense at the supralapsarian doctrine of predestination propounded at Mumpelgart by Beza and Musculus that he felt it to be his duty to denounce Musculus to the magistrates of Bern as an innovator in doctrine. To adjust the matter, the magistrates arranged a colloquy between Huber and Musculus (Sept. 2, 1587), in which the former represented the universalism, the latter the particularism, of grace.
As the colloquy was resultless, a debate was arranged at Bern, Apr. 15-18, 1588, at which the defense of the accepted system of doctrine was at the start put into Beza's hands. The three delegates of the Helvetic cantons who presided at the debate declared in the end that Beza had substantiated the teaching propounded at Mumpelgart as the orthodox one, and Huber was dismissed from his office.
The saddest experience in his old days was the conversion of King Henry IV to Catholicism, in spite of his most earnest exhortations (1593). Strange to say, in 1596 the report was spread by the Jesuits in Germany, France, England, and Italy that Beza and the Church of Geneva had returned into the bosom of Rome, and Beza replied in a satire that revealed the possession still of his old fire of thought and vigor of expression.
He died in Geneva. He was not buried, like Calvin, in the general cemetery, Plain-Palais (for the Savoyards had threatened to abduct his body to Rome), but at the direction of the magistrates, in the monastery of St. Pierre.
Of his historiographical works, aside from his Icones (1580), which have only an iconographical value, mention may be made of the famous Histoire ecclesiastique des Eglises reformes au Royaume de France (1580), and his biography of Calvin, with which must be named his edition of Calvin's Epistolae et responsa (1575).
In the preparation of this edition of the Greek text, but much more in the preparation of the second edition which he brought out in 1582, Beza may have availed himself of the help of two very valuable manuscripts. One is known as the Codex Bezae or Cantabrigensis, and was later presented by Beza to the University of Cambridge; the second is the Codex Claromontanus, which Beza had found in Clermont (now in the National Library at Paris).
It was not, however, to these sources that Beza was chiefly indebted, but rather to the previous edition of the eminent Robert Estienne (1550), itself based in great measure upon one of the later editions of Erasmus. Beza's labors in this direction were exceedingly helpful to those who came after. The same thing may be asserted with equal truth of his Latin version and of the copious notes with which it was accompanied. The former is said to have been published over a hundred times.
Although some lament that Beza's view of the doctrine of predestination exercised too preponderating an influence upon his interpretation of the Scriptures, there is no question that he added much to a clear understanding of the New Testament.