Theodore Beza

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Theodore Beza : biography

June 24, 1519 – October 13, 1605

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.

Literary works

Humanistic and historical writings

In Beza’s literary activity as well as in his life, distinction must be made between the period of the humanist (which ended with the publication of his Juvenilia) and that of the ecclesiastic. Combining his pastoral and literary gifts, Beza wrote the first drama produced in French, Abrahm Sacrifiant; a play that is an antecedent to the work of Racine and is still occasionally produced today. Later productions like the humanistic, biting, satirical Passavantius and his Complainte de Messire Pierre Lizet… prove that in later years he occasionally went back to his first love. In his old age he published his Cato censorius (1591), and revised his Poemata, from which he purged juvenile eccentricities.

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).

Theological works

But all these humanistic and historical studies are surpassed by his theological productions (contained in Tractationes theologicae). In these Beza appears the perfect pupil or the alter ego of Calvin. His view of life is deterministic and the basis of his religious thinking is the predestinate recognition of the necessity of all temporal existence as an effect of the absolute, eternal, and immutable will of God, so that even the fall of the human race appears to him essential to the divine plan of the world. Beza, in tabular form, thoroughly elucidates the religious views which emanated from a fundamental supralapsarian mode of thought. This he added to his highly instructive treatise Summa totius Christianismi.

Beza’s De vera excommunicatione et Christiano presbyterio (1590), written as a response to Thomas Erastus’s Explicatio gravissimae quaestionis utrum excommunicatio (1589) contributed an important defense of the right of ecclesiastical authorities (rather than civil authorities) to excommunicate.

Beza’s Greek New Testament

Of no less importance are the contributions of Beza to Biblical scholarship. In 1565 he issued an edition of the Greek New Testament, accompanied in parallel columns by the text of the Vulgate and a translation of his own (already published as early as 1556). Annotations were added, also previously published, but now he greatly enriched and enlarged them.

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 contend that Beza’s view of the doctrine of predestination exercised an overly dominant influence upon his interpretation of the Scriptures, there is no question that he added much to a clear understanding of the New Testament.