Bèze, Théodore (Théodore Beza; 1516

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BèZE, THÉODORE (Théodore Beza; 15161605)

BèZE, THÉODORE (Théodore Beza; 15161605), French theologian and poet. Théodore Bèze was born 24 June 1516 in Vézelay,France; his father, Pierre Bèze, was the king's bailiff and a member of the lesser nobility. Bèze received a humanist education in Orléans, where he excelled in Latin, Greek, and poetry. Under the guidance of Melchior Wolmar, he was exposed to the ideas of the growing Reformed movement in France. Bèze finished his legal studies in 1539 in Orléans, where he first encountered John Calvin (15091564), who was briefly studying law there.

In 1539 Bèze moved to Paris to pursue a literary career. There he entered into a clandestine marriage with Claudine Denosse in 1544. Although he had been reading Reformed literature throughout his stay in Paris, an illness in 1548 precipitated a dramatic conversion experience. Abandoning his benefices and birthright, he fled Paris for Geneva and then became a professor at the University of Lausanne in 1549. In 1550 he was condemned as a heretic by the Parlement of Paris and was burned in effigy, so he began his life in exile within the Reformed movement. Calvin's presence in Geneva was the city's primary draw for Bèze. Geneva was also the home of Bèze's friend Jean Crespin (15201572), who had witnessed his secret marriage and who ran a publishing house that held the promise of opportunity. Bèze accepted an invitation from Pierre Viret (15111571) to teach Greek at the Lausanne academy, but at Calvin's request Bèze returned to Geneva in 1557 to assume the position of professor of Greek at the Genevan academy and to join the clergy. After Calvin's death in 1564, Bèze succeeded him as head of the Company of Pastors, making Bèze leader of the Genevan church and the chief counselor to the Reformed churches in France. He became one of the leading forces in the international spread of Calvinism. Bèze represented French Reformed churches in the important colloquies of Poissy (1561) and Saint-Germain (1562) and attended the synods of La Rochelle (1571) and Nîmes (1572). He also served as an adviser to Huguenot leaders such as Gaspard de Coligny (15191572) and Henry IV (Henry of Navarre) (ruled 15891610) during the Wars of Religion. Bèze attempted both in writing and in person to mend the increasing rift and hostility between the Lutheran and the Reformed churches, an effort that began in 1586 with the Colloquy of Montbéliard and ended in 1593 with a treatise on the Lord's Supper. Bèze served as head of the Company of Pastors until 1580; he focused on his position as professor of theology until his retirement in 1599.

Bèze's writings can be divided into three categories: poetic, theological, and polemical-historical. He began his literary career as a poet, producing the collection Juvenilia in 1548 while he was still in Paris. Probably his most important poetic work, undertaken at the urging of Calvin in 1560, was the completion of the translation of the Psalms with commentary, begun by Clément Marot (1496?1544), entitled Les Psaumes de David (1561; The psalms of David) and put into French rhyme. Throughout the collection, the plight of the Huguenots is equated with that of the embattled Israelites, sharing experiences of persecution, displacement, and the role of God's chosen people.

Second only to Calvin in terms of his influence as a theologian of the Calvinist Reform, Bèze devoted most of his work to the defense and expansion of Calvinist doctrine. He is especially known for his exegesis and translations of the Greek editions of the New Testament, which were used to produce later editions of the Geneva Bible.

Bèze's pen was also employed for polemical purposes, producing De Haereticis a Civili Magistratu Puniendis (1554; On the heretics who should be punished by a civil magistrate; published in French in 1560) and Traité de l'authorité du magistrat (1574; On the right of magistrates). On the Heretics Who Should Be Punished by a Civil Magistrate, written in defense of Calvin and the Genevan magistrates for the execution of Michael Servetus (15111553), establishes the right of magistrates to defend the "true" religion, laying the groundwork for his later work on resistance theory. On the Right of Magistrates provided a legal argument for the armed resistance of the Huguenot faction and created a type of constitutionalist doctrine of the state. Written after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, where the king sanctioned the wholesale killing of Huguenots, it legitimates resistance to a tyrant who has turned from God's word. To the question "Do subjects have any remedy against a legitimate sovereign who has become a notorious tyrant?" Bèze responds with a qualified yes. Subjects may rebel through their magistrates. The defense of the "true" religion is the obligation of the state, and if a king represses this practice, then it is up to the lesser magistrates to defend it, with arms if necessary.

In conjunction with his polemical writings, Bèze edited a valuable Histoire ecclésiastique (1580; Ecclesiastical history) and wrote La vie de Calvin (1565; The life of Calvin), which paints a highly sympathetic picture of the reformer with intimate knowledge of the man, arguably the best contemporary portrait left to historians. The Ecclesiastical History had a different function and purpose. Using Eusebius's (c. 260c. 339) Ecclesiastical History as a model, Bèze assembled a collection of accounts sent to him from Reformed communities and churches and placed them in a larger context, creating a narrative of the development and struggle of the faith. This work includes excerpts from Crespin's Livre des martyrs (1554; Book of martyrs) and Regnier de la Planche's L'histoire d'etat de France (1576; History of France) along with some of Bèze's own Life of Calvin and some autobiographical pieces.

Bèze's role in the religious and political struggles of the Reformation was multilayered. A scholar, a religious leader, and a voice for the Huguenot struggle, he left a lasting legacy in both Geneva and France. Bèze died in Geneva on 7 October 1605 at the age of eighty-four.

See also Calvin, John ; Calvinism ; Huguenots ; Reformation, Protestant ; Wars of Religion, French.


Hamon, Léo. Un siècle et demi d'histoire protestante: Théodore de Bèze et les protestants sujets du roi. Paris, 1989.

Kelley, Donald R. The Beginning of Ideology: Consciousness and Society in the French Reformation. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1981.

Kingdon, Robert McCune. Geneva and the Consolidation of the French Protestant Movement, 15641572. Madison, Wis., 1967.

Manetsch, Scott M. Theodore Beza and the Quest for Peace in France, 15721598. Boston, 2000.

Maruyama, Tadataka. The Ecclesiology of Theodore Beza: The Reform of the True Church. Geneva, 1978.

Nikki Shepardson