Review: Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth by Shawn D. Wright

If a survey were to be taken of Christians in America, a vast majority would probably never have heard of the French Reformer, Theodore Beza (1519–1605). For those actually familiar with him, they would likely fall into one of three camps. For some, Beza would be a hero of the Reformation who labored faithfully as a pastor and theologian during a time of persecution, polemics, and plague. For others, he would merely be “that guy” who followed John Calvin as the spearhead of the Reformation in Geneva, Switzerland. For others still, he would be the terrible, horrible, double-predestinarian scholastic who “invented” Calvinism.

For the first group, Shawn Wright’s book, Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth, provides a helpful reminder of Beza’s life and thought. For the second group, it serves as an insightful introduction to Beza’s biography and his theology. For the final group, Wright’s book gives a more accurate portrayal of the Reformer, his historical context, and his work. For this reason, whichever camp one may be in, or perhaps if one has never heard of Beza, in this book, Wright provides a service to the church.

The Book

The author begins by informing the reader of the book’s purpose: “Given Beza’s prominent role in the historical and theological rise of Calvinism, and given the fact that Beza has almost never been evaluated carefully in these discussions, this book should serve those wanting to better understand what Calvinism is all about.” Wright’s hope is that after reading his book, we will be able to “differentiate the man from the myth.”1 As with many of the Protestant Reformers, Beza has received an inaccurate and incomplete treatment by several historical theologians. Wright states, “For over a century now Beza has been regularly maligned by historians and theologians. The usual tack has been to identify him as the change agent from John Calvin’s biblical orientation to a philosophical and scholastic trajectory that led to ‘Calvinism.’”2

Wright then sets the stage of Beza’s thought by considering his historical context. Beza, like many 16th century Reformers, was raised Roman Catholic only to become a devoted defender of the Reformation and producer of Reformed theology later in life. Beza’s biography includes his Roman Catholic beginnings, his connection with his mentor, John Calvin, his work in Geneva after Calvin’s death, and his support of the Reformation in his home country, France.

Following the contextualization of Beza and an introduction to his works, the author provides several chapters delineating Beza’s theology by way of sampling several of the Reformer’s works. First, he orients the reader with the general framework of all of Beza’s thought. For Beza, regardless of the nature of his writings, whether doctrinal, pastoral, or polemical, he always maintained a thoroughly eschatological vision along with a warm pastoral tone. As Wright puts it,

Beza’s pastoral, or eschatological vision—his “worldview” we might call it—is evident throughout his writings. It permeated all that he did, including his historical, devotional, pastoral, and doctrinal treatises. This pastoral view of reality drove what Beza did as a Christian, as a pastor, and as a professor. It undergirded and fueled everything that Beza accomplished.3

The highlights of the book are contained in Wright’s summaries of several of Beza’s works. In particular, his chapters on Beza’s confession of faith (Confession of the Christian Faith) and his work on predestination (Tabula Praedestinationis).

Beza’s Confession, written in 1559, the same year as his mentor’s Institutes of the Christian Religion was published in final form, had several motives behind it. First, it was an apologetic on behalf of Reformed theology, which he initially wrote with a view to win over his elderly Roman Catholic father.4 Additionally, he wanted this work to serve as a handbook for the Christian faith to laypeople, to serve those who needed to “understand and learn what pastors teach them to be comforted and edified by it,” and also to act as a warning against “false prophets and wolves.”5 Finally, Beza wrote his confession for the sharpening of pastors, so that they would know how to “‘feed their flock with the Word of life’ in a more biblically faithful manner.”6 For these reasons, not to mention its substance, Beza’s Confession is still a valuable resource for the church today.7

After summarizing Beza’s outline of the Christian Faith, Wright then considers perhaps Beza’s most well-known work, his 1555 treatise, the Tabula Praedestinationis, or as it was also called, The Sum of All Christianity. Despite his contemporary (Roman Catholic and Lutheran) and present-day (Arminian) detractors, Beza demonstrates that his view of double-predestination not only had an historical and catholic pedigree, but it was also thoroughly biblical. This is lost on most of its critics, who, Wright posits, seem to focus not on the work itself but on Beza’s chart or visual aid provided at the beginning of his treatise:

With its stark symmetry showing God’s eternal love for the elect worked out in history from their election to their eternal life, on the one hand, and God’s eternal hatred of the reprobate from eternity past to eternal death, on the other hand, Beza’s [treatise] presents a human destiny that is completely under the sovereign control of God. Having taken a quick glance at the chart, many have discounted Beza’s theology as rigid, God-dishonoring, and unnecessarily humanity-shrinking.8

Sadly, those who discount the treatise based on its visual chart miss Beza’s exposition of the doctrine and its nearly-600 biblical proof texts provided in order to “to convince his readers of the truthfulness of his position.”9

After framing it in its historical setting, Wright then goes through the Tabula, highlighting each chapter and thoroughly proving Beza’s predestinarian theology as both biblically and theologically sound. As Beza did in his treatise, Wright encourages readers to allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves when we come to difficult doctrines such as double predestination: “Rather than attempting to re-cast God in our own image, we need to allow Him—through the Bible—to change the way we think about him.”10

Included in Wright’s book are his surveys of several of Beza’s pastoral writings. For example, Beza’s A Learned Treatize on the Plague (1579) is helpful even today, particularly in the wake of—or in the midst of, depending on your location—the civil magistrates’ Covid-19 restrictions on public worship and other gatherings. On more than one occasion, when the Black Death came through Geneva, Beza had to deal with the pressures of being the only professor still laboring at the Academy, the strains of pastoral ministry, and the sad reality of losing loved ones in a legitimate pandemic whereby 25 percent of the population was wiped out.

Indeed, Beza did not write as an outside observer, but as one who, after surviving the Plague, lost both his wife and his brother to it. Beza’s Treatize is well worth the read, for in it, as Wright points out, we see that:

Beza exemplified Christian maturity in being able to stare the reality of the horrendous plague square in the face and not blink. He saw loved ones die from it, and he almost died from it himself, yet he didn’t respond by questioning the goodness of God. Nor did he shy away from seeing God’s sovereign hand controlling something even as devasting as this pestilence.11

Wright then provides a summary of Beza’s 1586 response to a debate on assurance of salvation with Jakob Andreae, a Lutheran who argued that for those struggling with assurance, one must look to their baptism. In his Treatize of Comforting Such as are Troubled about their Predestination, rather than placing one’s trust in the sacrament of baptism, Beza exhorted his readers to look instead to Christ as he is preached in the gospel by their ministers and to the fruit produced by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

Far from being a dry rationalistic scholastic, as he is often portrayed, Beza always had his congregation in mind when writing. As Wright puts it, the treatise “is filled with pastoral reasoning that surprises anyone who is predisposed to assume Beza is a rationalistic Protestant scholastic. Beza’s reasoning is warm, comforting, and hopeful as he points doubters to Christ. Abounding in Biblical principles, it is Puritan-like in being both rigorous and warm.”12

In his final summary of Beza’s works, Wright draws the reader’s attention to Beza’s book of Household Prayers (1597), highlighting several prayers which not only demonstrate Beza’s piety, but also serve to stimulate his readers in the joy of daily prayer. Beza wrote,

Feeling myself toward the declining evening of my days, with a taste of so many solid and permanent joys as are daily to be found in prayer. And withal being inflamed with a desire to finish the rest of my course in this sweet labor, which I find to be accompanied with so large a recompense, I have hear formed for myself, and for any other that lift to read it, this small manual of holy, short, and familiar prayers, grounded upon the texts of the scriptures, such as are indeed to instruct, comfort, and make us perfect in faith, love, constancy, and, to be short, in all Christian life. Be of good cheer then, all godly souls, and let us unite our petitions in this so devout and profitable exercise of all true faithful people.13

Who Should Read This Book?

The author sets out to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the French Reformer, pastor, and theologian. In Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth, Wright accomplishes this in accessible form.

For those who are already familiar with Beza and have read him before, this book will encourage them to pick up and continue to read Beza for his valuable insights. For those who have never heard of Beza, or perhaps have some knowledge of him but are not quite sure who he is apart from Calvin, this book will help orient them with one of the great minds of the Reformation. This book will be particularly illuminating for those who have only read secondary sources on Beza, especially those that paint him in a negative light. Whichever camp one is in, this book serves as a helpful overview and primer of Beza, the man and his thought.

©Scott McDermand II. All Rights Reserved.

Endnotes

1. Shawn D. Wright, Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth (Ross-Shire: Christian Focus Publications Ltd., 2016), 11, 13.

2. Wright, 10.

3. Ibid, 50.

4. Ibid, 71.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid, 72.

7. Beza’s Confession is available in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: Vol. 2, 1552–1566, ed. by James T. Dennison, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2010).

8. Wright, 113–4.

9. Ibid, 156.

10. Ibid, 156.

11. Ibid, 189. A new English translation of the Treatize is available in Eds. Stephen M. Coleman and Todd M. Rester, Faith in the Time of Plague: Selected Writings from the Reformation and Post-Reformation (Glenside: Westminster Seminary Press).

12. Wright, 208.

13. Ibid, 229.

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  • Scott McDermand II
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    Scott McDermand II is pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Bad Axe, Michigan. He graduated from San Diego State University (B.A., History) and earned masters degrees at Westminster Seminary California (M.A., Historical Theology; M.Div). He serves on the board of directors of the Heidelberg Reformation Association as secretary. He has a passion for preaching and teaching the Word of God, Biblical theology, Church History, and enjoying fellowship with the people of First Presbyterian Church, Bad Axe, MI. In his free time, he enjoys baseball, reading, classical music, eating whatever his wife cooks for him, and walking their two dogs.

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