The Reformation Piety of Theodore Beza
Theodore Beza (1519–1605) remains one of the enigmas of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation even though he led the church in Geneva, and its efforts in France, from the death of John Calvin in 1564 until his own death forty-one years later. These were tumultuous years in Geneva’s history, and Beza led a very exciting and busy life at its helm. Though many scholars assume that Beza transformed Calvin’s theology from a humanist, biblical emphasis to the deductive and philosophical emphases of Protestant Scholasticism, we respectfully disagree. Our purpose in this article is modest, to point out the major contours of Beza’s piety.
To understand Beza’s piety we must attempt to enter into his worldview. We will see that Beza had a very supernatural view of reality, complete with God and Satan, heaven and hell. This “eschatological vision,” as I will call it, meant that for Beza the single most important aspect of Christian piety was that a believer might navigate the vicissitudes of life and arrive safely in heaven. With this eschatological vision as the necessary background to Beza’s thought, we shall then note three of Beza’s emphases concerning Christian piety. First, we shall see the importance of the Word of God; second, the reality of difficulties in Christian living; and, third, the hopefulness of God’s sovereignty to Christian piety. These components together comprise Beza’s realistic, yet ultimately optimistic, view of the Christian life.
Beza’s Eschatological Vision
Contrary to many historians’ evaluations of Theodore Beza, I do not think Beza was primarily a scholastic logician. Instead, I believe that a careful reading of his works shows that he was fundamentally an affectionate follower of Jesus Christ, who yearned to be with Christ, but who viewed the Christian’s life as a struggle. The hardships of the Christian life were the result of a battle raging between Satan and God. Although the outcome of the struggle for Christians was sure (i.e., they would certainly arrive in heaven), hell was a reality that was to be avoided at all costs. Here we will briefly outline the contours of Beza’s eschatological vision.
The Fact of the Spiritual Battle
Beza depicted Satan as active in the world, indefatigably trying to harm Christians. So he indicted Satan as the foremost of “my enemies” in his meditation on Psalm 102. The devil was “that great devouring lion, who has spoiled, torn, and swallowed so many” Christians “from the beginning of the world.” Satan was the deadly aggressor in the spiritual battle.
Satan’s schemes took many forms. In the first place, he incessantly troubled Christians in tempting them to sin, lying “in wait to hurt us, seeking principally to make a breach into our hearts when we stand least upon our guard.” He made more trouble when they attempted to pray, “for besides that the devil at all times lies in wait, to seduce us, so does he, especially, at such times, seek to creep into our minds, to divert our thoughts elsewhere, that they may be polluted with many blemishes.” One of the prerequisites of fervent prayer was thus to abandon “Satan with all his baits.”
Only God could make Christians strong for the combat. The omnipotent God would protect His children. “Does Satan amaze you?” Beza asked his listeners when the Genevans feared a Catholic attack in 1587. If so, believers need not worry, for their Lord has vanquished Satan, forgiven their sins, given them His righteousness, and made the sting of sin into a door to life. “Behold then all your enemies scattered, quite under foot, all such as afflicted you within and without, because the Lord allows you for one of his servants and household.” The battle was real, but “it is not in the power of any to trouble us, except when and how far it pleases God they shall do it.”
The Battle for the Truth
Satan especially sought to destroy the church because God loved it and appointed it the guardian of the truth. The devil attacked the church by trying to foster heretical beliefs in her midst. So Beza warned his listeners to be on “guard here against a great ruse of Satan, pushing us if he can, from one extreme to the other, which are so many precipices. Therefore let us know that those are grandly self-deceived who want to subjugate the word of God to their own natural sense.” Instead believers must lean “on the word of God understood, and not at all on our imaginations, whether they are old or new.”
Biblical truth was essential. If one did not believe certain truths, one would be damned eternally. That is why Beza yearned to remain in the church in the midst of the spiritual battle because “there is not any such mishap, or so much to be feared, as to be out of this holy temple, wherein only abides all light, truth, salvation, and life.” The church was where God’s “truth is lodged.” As such, it was the locus of salvation and life. Though Satan endeavored to destroy the church, the confession of the truth protected her in the midst of the spiritual battle.
The Eternal Stakes of the Battle
Theodore Beza’s eschatological vision was eternal in its scope. He had his eyes fixed on eternity as he lived and ministered in this life. He wanted himself and those under his care to go to heaven and not to have to suffer the perpetual torments of hell.
Beza acknowledged that eternity was an awesome experience to contemplate in this life. In the prayer “upon temporal death,” he recognized that even in the longest and strongest life “death, which as our shadow, follows us at the heels, … laughs at our good devices, until she has scattered them in the wind, and brought us into ashes.” And none is so holy that in himself does not “tremble and quake” at “the tribunal seat of your sovereign justice, where we all, after death, must appear?” God’s indignation and vengeance to the natural specter of death adds “an interior feeling of the curse fallen upon sin, yea even an entry into eternal death, unless there be for us with you our Father, redemption in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Hell’s torments would be excruciating for unbelievers. “These miserable men,” Beza noted, “depart this their earthly habitation, with great grief and trembling.” Their misery and fear on the brink of death foreshadows their eternity, “the proof that they are going to make, of the eternal torments with the devils in the burning lake of fire and brimstone, which is never quenched, given to the soul presently upon the temporal death.” Their “eternal death” is “a death which continues without dying.” Torments of conscience added to those of the body constitute their pain, for “this pain is not the least to the damned, … that they never have any motion of the spirit to repent or convert” to the only and true God. Yes, hell will be for them an eternity of intense emotional, physical, and spiritual pain, because “when they think upon death, they see nothing but fearful, horrible, damnable, all-intolerable pain, without diminution or end,” inflicted by a “a most merciful God,” who will “be as severe and rigorous to them, as he shall be gentle and favorable to his children.”
Lest one argue with the deity that hell seemed an exorbitantly horrendous punishment for finite sins, Beza justified an eternal hell in Anselmian terms, “for your majesty being infinitely offended, ought also in justice to require a punishment without end.”
Conversely, heaven was a wonderful and joyful place, where a Christian would be freed from the trials of his earthly pilgrimage. In heaven, Christians “may once for all, wholly be set free from so miserable bondage of sin” and “they may behold [God] as it were face to face, yea and more rightly serve and honor him, whom all their lifetime they have most earnestly sought.” Thus Beza prayed that the Lord would allow a believer near death to behold “with the eyes of his faith” the eternal blessings reserved “for him in your [God’s] paradise.”
Having an eternal perspective fortified believers for spiritual battle, according to Beza. “To the children of darkness,” he commented, “the uncleanness of the flesh is a pleasant habitation. But to the children of light, to the immortal spirits, to the regenerate hearts, heaven is much more desirable.” He thus prayed “Grant therefore, my God, that as I daily grow towards my end, so I may live the more cheerfully, learning in your school, to prefer your eternal life—before the light of the Sun, the glory of heaven, before the vanity of the earth, the glorious habitation in paradise, [and may I] know how to prepare myself by continual meditation in these excellent Christian consolations, that happy are they that die in the Lord.” Beza’s eschatological vision thus informed all that he did and taught. God would sovereignly bring His people to heaven to be with Him, but the reality of the spiritual battle meant that the believer’s life on earth would be fraught with trials.
The Bible and Christian Piety
To Beza the spiritual battle necessitated sola scriptura. The living God had revealed Himself and His ways, and continued to speak, through His Word, the Bible. But, as Beza repeated continually, the devil vigorously opposed God’s living voice in Scripture. If Christians were to withstand the wiles of the devil, they must be girded by truth from God. Roman Catholic, heretical, and any other human ideas that came between the individual and the Bible must be abandoned. The Bible had to be trusted and proclaimed.
The Sufficiency of the Bible
For Beza, the Bible’s sufficiency derived from its authorship—God’s own voice to His people. “Does the Word contain all that which we must believe and do?” Beza asked at the head of his Petit Catéchisme. “Yes, without having any need to add anything to it or take anything from it.” The Bible’s sufficiency consists of it self-interpretive authority, its compelling picture of Christ the Savior, and the counsel of God “concerning our salvation.” The Bible, Beza affirmed in prayer, is “the image of your glory, the law of your kingdom, the ladder of heaven, the gate of paradise, the trumpet of salvation, to be brief, the treasury of piety, virtue, wisdom, consolation, and perfection.”
God’s active speaking through the Bible explains the usefulness Beza saw for the Scriptures in the church. Satan was active in the world, especially attacking the church. His major ploy was to entice persons to trust their unaided reason. This was a dangerous evil, Beza warned in a sermon to his students. The God-given protection against this demonic scheme, significantly, was found in biblical doctrine. Instead of following Satan’s schemes, believers should “lean on the word of God understood, and not at all on our imaginations, whether they are old or new.”
To Beza, the Bible was of supreme usefulness for God’s people because of its divine origin. It alone contained “heavenly doctrine” from God Himself.
The Bible’s Role in the Spiritual Battle
Beza believed Satan’s machinations prompted Rome’s heretical doctrines. He rebuked the Catholics for “their false and cursed doctrine” which they attempted to cover with “lies and falsehoods.” This practice, he argued, originated with “Satan their father” and was carried on “in the school of these foxes, or rather these wolves, which are the talents and the teeth of that great monster of Rome.” The infallible antidote to such deception, Pastor Beza noted, was to judge everything by the sure rule of Scripture, “to consider well whether it be drawn out of the true vessels of … the writings of the prophets and Apostles, … and so consequently reject and refuse without all exception whatever wine is drawn elsewhere.” According to Theodore Beza the Bible, the Christian’s weapon in the spiritual battle, was essential to Christian piety.
Difficulties of Piety in the Spiritual Battle
As a pastor, and in light of his eschatological vision, Beza focused on assurance of salvation as a pressing need of his people. Christians here merely take pilgrimage; heaven holds their true, eternal rest. Until then, troubles, and occasional doubts, assault them. A wise pastor must find in Scripture the kind of assurance and encouragement that will give a persevering and hopeful, heavenly spirit to his flock. Ultimately, though, Christians would have complete, final assurance only in God’s eternal heavenly presence. Satan’s wiles were too crafty, and their own indwelling sin was too powerful for the case to be otherwise. Beza’s eschatological vision informed his belief in both the urgency and imperfection of Christian assurance in this life.
Beza’s paraphrase of the twenty-seventh psalm showed his readers that Christians’ spiritual “enemies” made assurance necessary. The means of both salvation and assurance include a lively grasp of the power of God as opposed to the empty boasting of Satan, “a continual desire always of the glory of God” by subjection to His Word and church order, and “earnest prayer, with faith and patience.” For refuge from the attacks of adversaries, Christians needed to find assured comfort through the right use of these means.
At this point Beza’ famous Tabula Praedestinationis is put to its most pertinent use. Beza labored to show how one could be assured of his personal interest in the predestining grace of God by asserting a two-pronged basis of assurance: the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit and the external witness of good works. Beza’s pastoral advice arising from such a polemical context, is remarkable:
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.
You will know this partly from the Spirit of adoption who inwardly cries “Abba, Father,” and partly from the power and efficacy of that same Spirit within you – if, … sin, though it “dwells” in you, does not “reign” in you, … Is it not the Holy Spirit who causes us spontaneously not to give free reign to our wicked and depraved desires …? Who else “exhorts us to prayers,” no matter how cold and sluggish we are? Who arouses in us those “inexpressible sighs”? Who implants in us after we have sinned (sometimes intentionally and knowingly) that hatred for the sins that we commit – not because we fear punishment but because we offend our most merciful Father? … Who urges us even to dare entreat God, our God, and still our Father, even after we have offended him? Is it not the Spirit, and he alone …? But if we can infer faith from these effects, we can only conclude that we are efficaciously called and drawn, and … therefore were given to the Son, since we were predestined by God’s eternal counsel, which he purposed in himself, to be adopted in the Son. From this it follows, in short, that since we were predestined by that most unshakable will of God, … and since “no one can snatch us from the hand of the Son,” and since perseverance in faith is necessary for salvation, we have a sure expectation of our perseverance, and consequently our salvation. And therefore it is wicked to have any more doubts concerning that matter.
Consequently, it is totally wrong to say that this doctrine renders us negligent. … [O]n the contrary, it alone gives us access to examine and even understand, by means of his Spirit, the very “depths” of God. … Furthermore, how can anyone remain firm and constant to that end, against so many dangerous internal and external temptations, and so many “strokes of chance,” as the world likes to say, if he has not first established in his mind what is utterly true: that God does all things according to his good will, no matter what, or whatever instruments he uses, in the interest of his own, and that the man who is set in such a plight may number himself among “those in his book”?
Knowing the ordained means of assurance strengthened the Christian “against all the attacks of Satan” and daily to “do battle with the ‘heavenly weapons’ against despair.” Assurance was requisite because of the spiritual battle.
Finally, his published prayers emphasized how the spiritual battle made assurance both necessary and difficult to obtain. In the preface to his Household Prayers, Beza pointed to Satanic opposition and the straying nature of our own flesh as the chief difficulties in prayer. “The devil does at all times lie in wait to seduce us,” Beza warned, by creeping “into our minds, to divert our thoughts elsewhere, that they may be polluted with many blemishes, notwithstanding that they of themselves sufficiently go astray. Yes our vanity, imperfection, and coldness, does many ways betray itself, that we may well say in one word: no man prays rightly, but he, whose mouth and mind Christ directs with his Spirit.” Satanic opposition was real. Prayer was a spiritual weapon to be wielded by believers against the devil.
The Household Prayers also admonished Christians to find comfort in leaning on the love and perfect character of their Heavenly Father in this battle against Satan. Beza prayed, “Strengthen us likewise with your virtue, O almighty God, against the temptations and assaults of Satan, delivering us victoriously, preserving us also from such dangers and miseries, as everywhere follow us at the heels in this life … because we are of the number of your children.”
Beza believed assurance of salvation a necessary weapon in the spiritual battle raging around Christians on their pilgrimage to heaven. The devil made believers question their standing with God. As a pastor sensitive to the spiritual predicaments of his parishioners, Beza encouraged his listeners to seek assurance in Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit would testify to them internally of their salvation, and the good works they produced in response to their salvation would serve as external proofs of the same. Their hope resided thus in God’s character and the grace he had shown them and promised to continue to pour out on them for eternity. But until believers reached their final resting place in heaven, they would not have complete assurance due to the trials that inevitably attended this life.
God’s Sovereignty: Bedrock of Christian Piety
Beza’s eschatological vision—his belief in believers’ pilgrimage through a spiritual battle on their way to the eternal joy and happiness of heaven—informed his pastoral view of reality. The times were precarious. The plague, Catholic armies, Lutheran antagonists, persecution in France, and the instability of Geneva Academy conspired against Genevan Christians. But above and behind all these concerns, Beza perceived a battle between God and Satan, a war which inevitably involved Christians. How could believers have confidence in such dangerous times? Their assurance of salvation and their safety in this world depended on God’s absolute sovereignty, according to Beza. God’s sovereignty at its heart was a pastoral doctrine for Theodore Beza.
Beza’s writings are replete with applications of God’s sovereignty to his listeners and readers. Though he engaged energetically in technical and polemical discussions, his overriding concern remained the comfort and assurance of believers. God’s sovereign ability to keep His promises anchored His hurting people.
So Beza urged Gaspard de Coligny to be “assured of the faithful guidance of such a Guide, who will lead you through the right path, whatever difficulty there is of unknown and inaccessible places.” Even in the face of inexplicable evil, Christians must seek to trust in Him and His providential control over all things. In the midst of oppression, defrauding of rights, loss of equitable treatment, and incurable corruption in high places, Christians should not “to begin to doubt of that providence of God. For however these things seem to be tossed up and down, as if the world had no governor, yet be sure there is one … who has also standing by him innumerable and most mighty ministers, whom in due time he may set a work to execute his decrees upon these proud men.” God, so Beza taught, tempers “the life of man by giving sometimes prosperity, sometimes adversity.” We “are not able to attain to his wisdom” in these matters. The only proper course, and the only avenue open to prospering in adversity, was to rest wholly in God’s wisdom and fall down “before the majesty of God, which we cannot comprehend” and “rest wholly in his will.” God would take care of His people, even when they did not understand His ways.
The schemes of Satan were especially vexing to God’s people. But God in His sovereignty would prevail over Satan and judge the wicked. The devil would leave “no kind of cruelty unpracticed.” He has failed to use “neither fire, nor water, nor air, nor earth, … to suck the life of our poor brethren.” Not only have the hangmen been “wearied with their slaughter, but the people also have been employed to drench themselves with the blood of the poor, meek and innocent, without distinction of age or difference of sex, or any privilege of nature whatsoever.” Even in this observable reality, it is an “irrefragable point and undeniable … that the Lord is never late or slack in coming, that is to say, fails not to come at the point, yea and that leaping over all that which might seem to slack and stay his coming.”
God’s control, Beza asserted, reached right down to ordering the deeds the devil should do. Rather than causing consternation among believers, though, Beza argued that this truth “is full of excellent comfort” for “by the power of our God, the rage of that hungry lion is abated and bridled.” The truth stirs our confidence that “God will never suffer him to do anything against his children, which shall not be to their good and profit.”
Beza argued that God’s sovereignty assured Christians of their salvation. Their Sovereign was the author of salvation from its very beginning until the time He brought His children to be with Him in heaven. As believers held on to this promise, Beza argued, it would produce comfort and joy, even during times of earthly conflict. Thus Beza prayed for the constant flow of God’s grace. For if God did work in us that which He commanded us to do, convert us to believe His word, bring us to Christ and clothe us in His righteousness, give us His Spirit to effect within us His gifts, we “cannot hearken to this voice of the shepherd of our souls, neither in our hearts conceive such and so lively a faith, that all uncertainty be banished.” Without God’s work in us, we can not “feel the peace and joy that true faith brings with it.”
As He had saved them, so God would grant His children the grace to persevere, Beza argued. “He who has obtained the gift of true faith,” Beza urged, “must also be concerned about his perseverance.” Unwaveringly, he should “call on God in every kind of temptation and affliction, with the sure hope of attaining what he asks, at least as far as it is expedient, since he knows himself a child of God, who cannot fail him.”
They would persevere because God who required holiness in His people would sanctify them sovereignly as well. So Beza urged his listeners troubled about their standing to call upon the Lord “which has made us, and who alone can make us anew, by the same power, which is his Holy Spirit, enlightening the eyes of our understanding (Eph. 1:18, Acts 26:18), framing a clean heart within us (Ps. 51:12), creating in us both to will and to do (Phil. 2:13), in a word, making us from the head to the feet new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17)”
The grand result of God’s sovereignty for a believer in this life was assurance of salvation, Beza argued. In the troubles of life, believers could trust that God, in His power, would “settle and engrave in our minds this holy assurance of his mighty power in good will towards us,” and will cause us to “persevere and continue in this holy profession of his truth, as well by mouth, as also by an holy and Christian life” until He finally brings us to enjoy the fruit of “his most holy and most assured promises.”
Ultimately, though, Beza looked forward to heaven’s certainty as the answer to the mutations of the earthly pilgrimage, a certainty because of God’s sovereign action on behalf of His people. He taught his people to pray “always to be content with your will, the sovereign and just cause of all things.” They should see that God determines that “in carrying their cross after your Son” they are freed from the lusts of the flesh and replenished with desires for eternal life.” Such crosses “shall be unto me,” they would pray, “so many blessings and helps from you my Father, to make me go the right way into your kingdom, and increase unto me the price of glory in the same.” The wise, powerful, and loving Father would certainly bring His children to Himself for eternity.
The complete sovereignty of God was the foundation of Beza’s view of the Christian life. Rather than negating Christian piety, God’s sovereignty provided the necessary foundation upon which Christian piety could stand, and hope. The intervening centuries have changed neither the enemies to our hope nor the truths in which its certainty resides.