Calvin & Beza

by Joe Morecraft, III
the place of beza
in the 16
th
century
reformation
T
heodore Beza, Calvin’s close friend
and successor in Geneva, was the
quintessence of French politeness. He
was the best fitted of all the Reformers
to stand and defend Protestantism be-
fore the King and Queen of France. He
was not only a Christian gentleman, he
was also one of the most learned schol-
ars of his day. And, he was the last of
the 16
th
century Reformers, living more
than a quarter of a century after the
others had died.
the birth, preparation
and conversion of
beza
Beza was born in Vezelay, France on
June 24, 1519. He went to school at Or-
leans and studied under Melchior Wol-
mar who had such an impact on Calvin
ten years earlier. Now he was the teach-
er of the boy who would be Calvin’s
successor. Wolmar influenced Beza to
read the Bible, thus preparing him for
Protestantism and the Reformed Faith.
Beza was not converted immediately,
but Wolmar’s influence never left him,
keeping him from becoming a man
of loose morals, as were most young
French gentlemen. Wolmar was to Beza
what Wyttenbach was to Zwingli.
John Calvin Theodore Beza
25 Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
Calvin & Beza
God’s providence finally made Beza
bow in submission to Jesus Christ and
His Word. He was greatly affected by
the death of his older brother. Ten he
became seriously ill, so severe that for a
time he thought he would soon die. Re-
membering his worldliness and sinful
condition, he came under deep convic-
tion and out of that he came to Christ.
Like Zwingli, Beza came to Christ after
a serious illness. “Wolmar’s Savior be-
came his.”- Good, p. 88
From that moment on Beza was a
diligent and loving student of the Bible.
As time went on he could repeat from
memory the entire book of Psalms in He-
brews and all of Paul’s epistles in Greek!
the flight of beza
from france and his
role in lausanne
Like Calvin, he had to flee France be-
cause of the “placard incident.” He fled
to Geneva, arriving there October 24,
1548. Because of the influence of Peter
Viret, Beza was appointed professor of
Greek at the University of Lausanne,
where he taught for the next nine years.
Even at this early date Calvin expressed
his high esteem for Beza in a letter to
Farel, when Beza was ill with the plague:
I would not be a man if I did
not return his [Beza’s] love who
loves me more than a brother
and reveres me as a father, but
I am still more concerned at
the loss the church would suffer
if in the midst of his career he
should be suddenly removed by
death, for I saw in him a man
whose lovely spirit, noble, pure
manners, and open minded-
ness endeared him to all the
righteous. I hope, however, that
he will be given back to us in
answer to our prayers.- quoted
by Hanko, p. 182
the long ministry of
beza in geneva
Calvin needed Beza in Geneva. Tere-
fore, in 1559, when Calvin opened his
famous Academy, Beza became its
first headmaster. He taught there from
1559-1599 and was headmaster from
1559-1563. He pastored the church in
Geneva from 1559-1605. From 1564-
1580, was the moderator of the com-
pany of pastors in Geneva after Calvin’s
death. Beza had as his students, both
John Knox and Jacob Arminius, who,
“although he studied under Beza, never
imbibed Beza’s teachings and returned
to the Netherlands to spread his own
poisonous doctrines.”- Hanko, p. 182
the remarkable
ministry of beza
among the huguenots
Beza had a long ministry with the Hu-
guenots in France. It is impossible to
determine how many trips he made to
France, even during dangerous times,
or how many years he spent among
them. When not receiving French refu-
gees into his home in Geneva, he endan-
gered his own life by going to France
and preaching the Reformed gospel,
marching with their armies, writing in
their defense and attending their pres-
byteries. He moderated the last French
Reformed synod in La Rochelle before
the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre,
making further synods impossible.
Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
26
Calvin & Beza
the historic colloquy
of poissy and beza’s
presence
His most important service to the Hu-
guenots, and the greatest event in his
life was in 1561 was also one of the most
dramatic moments in the history of the
Reformation: the Colloquy at Poissy,
near Paris. James Good described this
event in his book FAMOUS REFORM-
ERS OF THE REFORMED AND PRES-
BYTERIAN CHURCHES, p. 88f--
Tis reveals Beza’s missionary
zeal, for he wanted to convert
the court of France to Protes-
tantism in the hope that France
would follow. What a contrast!
Tirteen years before he had
left France for exile, and not it
was the king who invited him to
return. For the king of France
was willing to give Protestant-
ism a hearing. Te Protestants
of France looked around for
a man who could measure up
to such an occasion. Calvin
could have done it, but he was
too sickly to leave Geneva; and
besides, he had so many en-
emies in France that it would
have been [too] dangerous. So
Beza was chosen, and no one
was better fitted by grace, elo-
quence and learning than he.
--…the famous Colloquy took
place September 9, 1561.
No more magnificent assembly
could have been present. Tere
was the boy king, Charles IX,
his mother, later the infamous
Catherine de Medici, and all
the nobles of the court in all
their brilliant costumes. Tere
were also the great dignitar-
ies of the Catholic Church in
their most gorgeous robes. And
there stood Beza, the Christian
courtier, the best apologist of
the Protestants, [along with
Peter Martyr Vermigli]. As
Beza reached the rail before the
gathered court, he and his col-
leagues knelt on the floor and
prayed aloud the beautiful Hu-
guenot “confession of sin.”
1
Its
1. Te Huguenot Confession of Faith (From the
old French Bible of Dr. W. Henry Venable):
“Lord God, Eternal and Almighty Father, we
confess and acknowledge without feigning
or pretense before your Holy Majesty that
we are poor sinners, conceived and born
in iniquity and corruption, inclined to do
evil, useless for all good; and that, of our
vice, we transgress endlessly and ceaselessly
your holy commandments, and by so doing
we acquire by your just judgment, ruin and
perdition upon ourselves. However, Lord, we
are displeased with ourselves and our vices
with true repentance, desire that your grace
may grant us help in our calamity. May you
be willing to have pity on us, God and Father,
Theodore Beza
27 Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
Calvin & Beza
beauty made a profound im-
pression. And then with won-
derful eloquence, grace, and
great ability, he summarized
before the Catholic court the
faith of the Protestants. He was
listened to respectfully until he
came to speak about the Lord’s
Supper, until he happened to
say that “the body of Christ is
as far removed from the Lord’s
Supper as the heavens are from
the earth.” Te Catholic prel-
ates broke out with the excla-
mation, “he has blasphemed,”
and for a few moments there
was much confusion. But the
queen-mother commanded
silence. Having finished his ad-
dress he presented to the King
a copy of the Confession of the
Huguenot Church, the “Gallic
Confession.” Ten occurred an-
other sensation. Te leader of
the Catholics, Cardinal Tourn-
on, asked that Beza’s words
be not accepted, at least until
a day had been appointed in
which they could be answered.
Te queen-mother said, “We
kind and full of mercy in the name of your
son Jesus Christ our Lord: and by erasing our
sins and stains, make us whole and increase
in us from day to day the graces of the Holy
Spirit, in order that, recognizing from our
whole heart our unrighteousness, we may
be touched by displeasure, which cause in us
true repentance, which mortifying us to all
sins, produce in us fruits of righteousness,
which may be acceptable through the same
Jesus our Lord. Amen. (Translated by Maria
S. Venable (Mara), April 9, 2009, Year of our
Lord! Mara is a member of Chalcedon Pres-
byterian Church.)
are here to hear both sides. Re-
ply to the address of Mr. Beza.”
But the cardinal was afraid to
answer Beza, and so the famous
Colloquy closed. Never perhaps
in the history of Protestantism
was such a magnificent defense
made before so magnificent a
court. Beza remained in France
for a year and a half, counsel-
ing the Huguenots in their first
civil war.- p. 89-90
When Beza entered the meeting at
Poissey, the Cardinal of Tournon said,
“Here come the dogs of Geneva.” Beza
replied, “It is necessary that there be
dogs in the Lord’s flock to guard against
the wolves.”
When the Cardinal of Ferrara, the
grandson of Pope Alexander VI, ar-
rived, he entered with an entourage of
600 knights. He came to buy the con-
ference for the pope.
At a private meeting between Beza
and the queen mother, he challenged
the idea that the authority of the church
was superior to that of God’s word. Ver-
Pope Alexander VI
Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
28
Calvin & Beza
migli pled for freedom of doctrine and
practice regarding the Lord’s Supper,
pending the development of a consensus
in an atmosphere of brotherly love. Te
queen agreed! But the situation quickly
fell apart leaving the queen in tears.
Tis conference was “the last great
religious colloquy of the 16
th
century.
Poissey and its failure marked the waning
of moderation and irenicism, the break-
down of communication, the loss of con-
tact, the hardening of religious frontiers,
estrangement.”- Di Gangi, p. 172
Cardinal Lorraine, France’s chief
opponent of Protestantism said of
Beza: “I could well have wished either
that this man had been dumb or that
we had been deaf.” – Hanko, p. 183. In
a confrontation with the bloodthirsty
persecutor of the Huguenots, the duke
of Guise, Beza made this memorable
statement: “Sire, it belongs, in truth
to the church of God, in the name of
which I address you, to suffer blows, not
to strike them. But at the same time let
it be your pleasure to remember that
the church is an anvil which has worn
out many a hammer.”- Hanko, p. 183
the rich legacy
of beza: His “life of
calvin”
When John Calvin died in 1564, Beza
preached his funeral sermon. And one
of the richest treasures Teodore Beza
has left us is his “Life of Calvin,” which
“has a charm and attraction which
is unique. He was one of a handful of
men who knew Calvin intimately over
the last years of his ministry in Geneva.
While there is a certain simplicity, al-
most naivety, about the way in which
he chronicles his hero’s life from one
year to the next, at the same time Beza’s
biography breathes the spirit of an eye-
witness and a personal friend. For that
reason it has unique value both as bi-
ography and history. It has the quality
about it which could only be injected
by a man who had shared in some mea-
sure the conflicts through which God
brought Calvin, and shared with him
too that almost inexpressible sense of
realizing that one is caught up in some
significant work in which God himself
is engaged.”- From the Publisher’s Pref-
ace, of “Beza’s Life of Calvin,” reprinted
by Te Banner of Truth Trust.
Beza’s “Life of Calvin” concludes
with these words: “Having been a spec-
tator of his conduct for sixteen years, I
have given a faithful account both of his
life and of his death. I can now declare
that in him all men may see a most beau-
tiful example of the Christian character,
an example which it is as easy to slander
as it is difficult to imitate.”- p. 68
the productions of
beza’s pen
Beza became famous for his tragic-com-
edy play, “A Tragedie of Abrahams Sac-
rifice,” on Abraham’s sacrificing of Isaac.
29 Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
Calvin & Beza
Calvin enjoyed Beza’s plays and poems
but he encouraged him to dedicate his
talents to the service of the church.
Beza was a prolific writer. His
amount of his daily work and literary
output were straggeringly. He wrote
dramas, satires, polemical treatises,
Greek and French grammars, biogra-
phies, political treatises, commentaries
and theological works. “He edited an
annotated text of the Greek New Tes-
tament which he bequeathed to Cam-
bridge University in England, which
text received his name: Codex Bezae.
He edited the publication of Calvin’s
letters and wrote a defense of the killing
of Servetus, the heretic who denied the
Trinity and was burned at the stake in
Geneva by the order of the [city] coun-
cil. He defended Presbyterian church
polity against the hierarchism of the
Church of England. He refuted the
Lutheran doctrine of the Lord’s Sup-
per, defended predestination against
the heretic Castellio, and defended the
doctrine of the Trinity against the Ital-
ian heretic Ochino. His pen was sharp
and often filled with the ink of satire;
his enemies feared him.”- Hanko, p. 184
His enemies, because they feared
him, did all they could to discredit him,
to this day. Tey accused him of im-
morality, and Roman Catholics made
sure that these unfounded rumors were
spread far and wide. Efforts were made
to persuade him to return to the Ro-
man Catholic Church. In 1597, when he
was an old man, a certain man, named
Francois, came to Geneva for this very
purpose. Although this zealous young
man was skillful and usually successful
in debates, he failed to persuade Beza.
When his arguments did not work, he
tired to bribe Beza to return to Rome
with a yearly pension of 4000 gold
crowns, a sum twice as much as the
value of all Beza owned. Beza could not
tolerate this insult. Politely but emphat-
ically, Beza told Francois: “Go, sir; I am
too old and too deaf to be able to hear
such words.”- quoted by Hanko, p. 185
We are told today by some Refor-
mation “scholars,” that Beza altered
Calvin’s theology. Tis is nonsense.
“Te two men worked together in peace
and harmony for many years in Geneva
and the Academy. Beza read what Cal-
vin wrote, and Calvin read what Beza
wrote. Who can know the many dis-
cussions they had between them on all
matters of the truth? Not one word can
be found in all the records that Calvin
disagree with Beza on any one point.
Yet the slander goes on. Some even call
Beza the father of Hyper-Calvinism.
If Beza was a Hyper-Calvinist, then
so was Calvin himself. It is a slander
which is easily refuted. Sovereign, un-
conditional and particular grace, which
Beza so ardently taught, is the truth of
Scripture.”- Hanko, p. 185
the involvement
of beza in the “war
against idols” and the
nicodemites
Beza stood shoulder to shoulder with
Calvin against the Nicodemites and
in the war against Roman Catholic
idolatrous worship. After Calvin’s death
Beza defended and expanded Calvin’s
answers to idolatrous worship. Beza de-
scribed Nicodemism as follows:
At this time there were some
persons in France, who, having
fallen away at first from fear
of persecution, had afterwards
begun to be satisfied with their
Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
30
Calvin & Beza
conduct as to deny that there
was any sin in giving bodily
attendance on Popish rites,
provided their minds were de-
voted to true religion. Tis most
pernicious error, which had
been condemned of old by the
Fathers, Calvin refuted with the
greatest clearness… Te conse-
quence was that from that time,
the name of Nicodemite was ap-
plied to those who pretended to
find a sanction for their miscon-
duct in the example of that most
holy man, Nicodemus.- quoted
by Eire, p. 236
Some French Protestants agreed with
Calvin’s assessment and the choice he
gave the Nicodemites: leave the Ro-
man Catholic Church at meet for wor-
ship according to the Word of God in
private homes, even at the risk of your
life; or migrate to other countries like
Switzerland and Germany, where Prot-
estants had freedom of worship. Oth-
ers felt he was harsh and insensitive.
Beza gives this report in his book on
church history:
Tere also arose at that time
[1545] a question among some
men of rank in Paris who had
a knowledge of the truth.
Tis was occasioned by the
fact that John Calvin, know-
ing how many people deluded
themselves there about their
infirmities, even to the point of
polluting themselves with the
manifest abominations of the
Roman Church, had burdened
them with a certain treatise
[the EXCUSE] that was too bit-
ter for their taste. Tose there
who would later be called Ni-
codemites maintained that one
could attend Mass, providing
that one’s heart did not consent
to it—and who knows what
other conditions. Te others, in
contrast, said that one should
serve God purely with body and
soul, guarding oneself from all
pollution. Tis disagreement
resulted in the sending of an
emissary not only to Geneva
and Switzerland, but also to
Strasbourg, and even to Sax-
ony; and all these responses
were later published together.-
quoted by Eire, p. 246
Calvin wrote several books and treaties
on this subject which “embroiled him in
a lifelong struggle against compromise
with Catholicism… Calvin’s adamant
refusal to accept compromise helped
establish French Protestantism as a
separatist religion and laid the founda-
tions for a vibrant Huguenot Church.”-
Eire, p. 250
Calvinism strongly opposed the
“idols” of the Roman Catholic Church
and the oppression they came to rep-
resent. Soon was developed a Biblical
and Reformed theory of resistance to
tyranny and idolatrous rule. Te most
famous Huguenot book on the subject
was written by Philippe DePlessis-
Mornay’s book, VINDICIAE CONTRA
TYRANNIS, i.e., THE VINDICATION
OF LIBERTY AGAINST TYRANTS,
written in 1579. It claimed that if a king
“neglects God, if he goes over to the en-
emy, and is guilty of felony [idolatry] to-
wards God, his kingdom is forfeited of
right and is often lost in fact.”- quoted
by Eire, pl. 299
31 Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
Calvin & Beza
Mornay extends this obligation of
the state’s swearing allegiance to God
and His Law to all nations, basing his
argument on covenant theology, that
is, “the people and the king enter a cov-
enant with God to maintain proper or-
der, including, of course, proper order
of worship. Each individual, as well as
the king, is responsible for seeing that
this covenant is fulfilled.”- Eire, p. 299
“Te importance of the worship
issue for Mornay’s covenant theory
becomes apparent when he tries to pro-
vide a historical example. Mornay uses
the case of King Josiah indicating that
the covenant between God and the Jews
stipulated that ‘the king and his entire
people would worship God according to
the prescription of His law as individu-
als and would act collectively to protect
their worship.’ [Mornay] insists that the
same principle apply to his own day, ar-
guing that Christian rulers stand in the
place of the Jewish kings, and that it is
their duty to ensure the fulfillment of
God’s law.”- Eire, p. 299
“Mornay proposes that if the an-
cient Jews were enjoined to resist god-
less rulers, the same must surely hold
for Christians. Mornay stipulates that
it is the duty of the people to safeguard
pure worship.”- Eire, p. 299
Mornay wrote: “A religious people
not only will restrain a prince in the act
of doing violence to God’s law, but will
from the beginning prevent gradual
changes arising from his guilt or neg-
ligence, for the true worship of God
may be slowly corrupted over extended
periods of time. Moreover, they will
not only refuse to tolerate crimes com-
mitted against God’s majesty in public,
but will constantly strive to remove all
occasions for such crimes… It is, then,
not only lawful for Israel to resist a king
who overturns the Law and the Church
of god, but if they do not do so, they are
guilty of the same crime and subject to
the same penalty.”- Eire, p. 299.
He also maintains that “the burden
for maintaining pure religion…rests
not only on every individual, but on the
magistrates who represent the people.”-
Eire, p. 300
We see the roots of VINDICIAE in
John Calvin and especially in Calvin’s
associate, Pierre Viret, who developed a
more aggressive political dimension to
the Calvinist opposition to compromise
with idolatry.
Between Viret and Mornay is Te-
odore Beza’s book, ON THE RIGHT OF
CIVIL MAGISTRATES, published in
1574, in which he “revived the issue of
political resistance in France during a
time of great turmoil.”- Eire, p. 296
Beza makes the point that all civil
authority has its origin in God and that
all obedience is due solely to God. Te
first question he answers is: Should
magistrates as well as God be uncondi-
tionally obeyed? He answered:
Pierre Viret
Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
32
Calvin & Beza
Te only will that is a perpet-
ual and immutable criterion of
justice is the will of the one God
and none other. Hence Him
alone we are obliged to obey
without exception. Princes too
would have to be obeyed im-
plicitly if they were always the
voice of God’s commandments.
But since the opposite too often
happens, an exception is im-
posed upon obedience, when
their commands are irreligious
or iniquitous. Irreligious com-
mands are those which order
us to do what the first table of
God’s Law forbids, or forbid
us to do what it commands.”-
quoted in Eire, p. 299
Beza centers his theory of resistance
on the question of true religion and
purity of worship. In dealing with the
persecution of Christians by the state,
Beza asks: “Do subjects have any rem-
edy against a legitimate sovereign who
has become a notorious tyrant?” His
answer is that:
…the protection and enforce-
ment of true religion is an inher-
ent obligation of the state. When
a king becomes idolatrous and
tries to force his subjects into
idolatry, the people have a right
to rebel through their magis-
trates if “correct” worship has
been guaranteed by public law.-
quoted by Eire, p. 297
Beza also taught it that it was a DUTY
of the lesser magistrates to offer resis-
tance to “flagrant tyranny” by force of
arms, if necessary, until such a time as
the proper legislative power could re-
establish an appropriate government…
All in all, then, Beza’s ON THE RIGHT
OF CIVIL MAGISTRATES was a force-
ful and clearly argued restatement of
Viret’s principles of resistance, and its
major contribution was its presentation
of Huguenot resistance as the defense
of an established right that was sanc-
tioned by law.”- Eire, p. 297-298
the incident called
“the escalade”
Not long before Beza’s death was the
incident called “the Escalade.” Geneva
once belonged to the Duke of Savoy
who had always wanted to take the
city back for himself. Had this hap-
pened, this would have meant the end
of Protestantism in Geneva. As a result
the Genevans were always on guard
against Savor. However, on the night of
December 12, 1602, 8000 of the Duke’s
soldiers secretly advanced on Geneva,
encouraged by the Jesuits. Tey put lad-
ders against the walls of the city. Two
hundred had scaled the walls. Tey had
gotten to the city gates which a traitor
had promised to open for them, when
a sentinel saw the invading soldiers and
fired a warning shot to wake up the
populace. Te woke up the Genevese,
who fully armed rushed by the thou-
sands into the streets. Te soldiers of
Savor were driven back to their ladders;
but before they could reach them, one
33 Counsel of Chalcedon • Issue 4 • 2010
Calvin & Beza
of the men of Geneva fired a cannon,
which, guided by the providence of God
in the darkness, hit through all their
ladders and destroyed them. As a result
the Savoy soldiers were trapped like rats
in a trap and could not escape. Te Ge-
nevans killed many of them and those
who were captured were beheaded as a
warning to the Duke of Savoy.
As soon as the battle was over,
the people streamed to the Reformed
church, where Beza held a thanksgiving
service. Psalm 24, translated by Beza
from Hebrew to French, was sung, and
every year since, on that day, a com-
memorative service is held in Geneva,
and that Psalm is sung. (At least this
was so until 1916.)
the last days of beza
Beza lived longer than any of the Re-
formers. He was 86 years of age when
he died on Sunday, October 23, 1605. At
his request he was buried in the com-
mon cemetery where Calvin was buried
and next to the grave of his wife. His
last words were: “Is the city in full safety
and quiet?” His friends around him as-
sured him that it was. He immediately
sank down and in a few moments died
in peace with his friends praying around
his bedside. Beza lives on today in the
hearts of French Reformed churches
more by his metrical translation of the
Psalms than by anything else.
A BIBLIOGRAPHY OF
THEODORE BEZA
1. Good, James I., FAMOUS RE-
FORMERS OF THE REFORMED
AND PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH-
ES, (Philadelphia: Te Heidelberg
Press, 1916).
2. Hanko, Herman, PORTRAITS
OF FAITHFUL SAINTS, (Grand-
ville, Michigan: Reformed Free
Publishing Association, 1999).
3. A TRAGEDIE OF ABRAHAMS
SACRIFICE: Written in French
by Teodore Beza and translated
into English by Arthur Golding,
(Toronto: University of Toronto
Library, 1906)
4. Baird, Henry Martyn, THEO-
DORE BEZA: THE COUNSEL-
LOR OF THE FRENCH REFOR-
MATION, (NY: G.P. Putnam’s
Sons, 1899).
Duke of Savoy
Theodore Beza