Theodore Beza at 500

Theodore Beza (1519–1605) was a talented humanist, Protestant theologian, political agitator, and prominent minister of the reformed church in Geneva during the second-half of the 16th century. During his long career, Beza exercised strategic leadership in his efforts to preserve reformed Christianity in Geneva and his native France, as well as to defend the theological legacy of John Calvin throughout Europe. Beza’s diverse literary corpus of more than seventy works demonstrates that he was well-versed in classical literature, skilled in biblical exegesis, and adroit in theological controversy.

More than an ivory-tower theologian, Beza maintained contact with the leading political and religious figures of his day, including Henry IV of France and Elizabeth I of England, as well as John Calvin, Heinrich Bullinger, and Philipp Melanchthon. He also participated in some of the most important colloquies and controversies of his generation, such as the Colloquy of Poissy (1561), the National Synod of La Rochelle (1571), and the Colloquy of Montbéliard (1586). This roll call of eminent people and important events indicates the central role that Beza played in the explosive political and religious controversies that roiled Western Europe during this troubled century.

This edited volume explores neglected aspects of the history, theology, and literary contribution of Beza. The thirteen contributors to this volume are an accomplished group of scholars who specialize in the religious and social history of early modern Protestantism. Theodore Beza at 500 celebrates the 500th anniversary of the reformer’s birth by providing an original, insightful, and multifaceted study of one of the most important leaders of reformed Protestantism after John Calvin.

The publisher was kind enough to provide a copy for review.

As is usually the case these days, the publisher offers potential readers of the text a sample, including the table of contents, the preface, the indices, the contributors, and a sample, which in this particular instance includes the editors introduction.  All of this is available at the link above under ‘leseprobe’.  I mention it so that you can see what the volume contains before proceeding here.

Now that you have, allow me to mention the highlights of the volume:  those are the essays by Manetsch, chapter 3; McNutt, chapter 5; Balserak, chapter 7; Kim, chapter 8; Fehleison, chapter 11; and Engammare, chapter 13.  The others are well written, but these are exceptional.

The occasion for the volume, its provocateur,  the 500th anniversary of Beza’s birth, is certainly a worthy reason for such a work.  Beza, second in fame only to Calvin in Geneva, was that great reformer’s right hand man in the same way that Melanchthon was Luther’s and Oecolampadius was Zwingli’s.  Behind every great reformer is an equally influential theologian who though nearly as important never gained the notoriety that their colleagues engendered.  But that doesn’t mean that they were any less, or are any less important for historical theology and the growth of the Christian church.  Beza is certainly no exception to this rule.

The five parts of this collection reflect the major aspects of Beza’s life and work.  They investigate Beza’s place in history, his skill as textual critic and biblical interpreter (remember do that he even has the honor of having a Codex named after him- Codex Beza; an achievement none of the other reformers accomplished), Beza’s contributions to theological matters like predestination and prophecy, Beza the theological combatant (note: he’s not the sort of guy you’d like to argue with, or ever win an argument with), and finally, and really most interestingly, the memory of Beza as he was recalled in the 17th century, and as a collector of art.

It is the last point that I would like to focus on here, as it is probably the most unfamiliar aspect of Beza’s life: Theodore Beza, Collector of Paintings (Engammare’s contribution).

Included among his private collection, which he had on display in his home, were portraits of himself in various stages of his life, portraits of Calvin, Musculus, and Peter Martyr Vermigli.  The descriptions and details in connection to these portraits are amazingly interesting.  It’s always a strange sensation to discover that people you think you know have little corners of their lives that come as a total surprise.  To find Beza a lover of art and a bit of a narcissist, collecting portraits of himself, sheds more light on the man as a man than we ever discover in his letters or theological works.

This is an incredibly interesting collection of well edited and well presented essays.  Even if the Reformation isn’t ‘your thing’, you’ll enjoy this volume if only for its well written contributions and the human interest aspect unfolded herein of Theodore Beza.

Scott Manetsch and Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht are to be applauded for what they have given us.