EDITOR’S NOTE: In what follows, Shawn D. Wright, associate professor of church history at Southern Seminary, talks about his new book, Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth, with Towers writer Andrew J.W. Smith.
AJWS: What can seminary students learn from Theodore Beza?
SW: I think it’s always helpful to learn from a man who lives in a very different time. I think that’s one of the values of history — that you’re confronted with people just living in eras where there are different assumptions about what truth is and what truth isn’t. And then also, there are different assumptions about what Christian life looks like. While I don’t agree with Beza all the time on condemning heretics and things of that nature, I think he helps us to see better what our own assumptions are so that we can then more circumspectly evaluate them. Regarding Beza in particular, he was humble and brilliant — that’s helpful, to be both of those. He also endured an awful lot in his life, as the book tells briefly. He struggled to maintain leadership after Calvin’s death. He faced the plague; his wife died of it. So I think we can learn a lot from someone like Beza, seeing a model of someone who tried to be faithful in difficult times. He can inspire us hopefully to be faithful as well.
AJWS: What is the most prominent myth that gets propagated about Beza?
SW: Probably the most common myth is that his whole life was fixated on double predestination and that he was the one who charted the course for everything bad after John Calvin — the rigid theological systems. So it ends up, in people’s minds, Beza is distinctly different from Calvin. Even if people don’t like Calvin they tend to say he was trying to be biblical, you know, he had a warm side. Then you get Beza, who’s just a systematician, a logician, and that’s all he cared about. So that’s the myth that I was trying to overcome in the book.
AJWS: Did Beza twist Calvin’s biblical-theological sensibilities into more of a philosophical system after all?
SW: Well, it would be remarkable if he did, because again one of the things that I pointed out in the book was that Beza had no theological training in the schools of theology during his life. So if he had, he would have been self-taught in all things scholastic. So it’s a difficult question to answer. I think the short answer is, if it were a yes or no question, I would choose “no.” And I think that’s largely correct. Certainly, because Beza outlived Calvin by more than 40 years, he lived in different times than Calvin did. Calvin just did not have the security and ease in Geneva that Beza did. So, of course, Calvin brought Beza to Geneva to head up the academy, which became the University of Geneva, where so many pastors were trained. It’s in that school, where Calvin barely taught before his death, that Beza was able for several decades to grow and develop. At the end of the 16th century, you had more and more aggressive Catholic polemics against Protestantism that had to be answered. So I think because of that, Beza’s theological output is on the whole probably more technical than Calvin’s. But I think if you examine doctrine-by-doctrine what was said about various doctrinal points, they’re actually in great agreement with one another.
AJWS: What was Beza’s most significant or enduring contribution to the Reformation tradition?
SW: Certainly the one he’s most known for is the doctrine of double predestination. What do I think is his most enduring contribution? I think it is giving us a model of somebody who in the midst of great difficulty trusted the Lord. That’s based on my own reading of Beza — and I think most people haven’t read Beza very carefully. So that’s why I think they would tend to assert double predestination instead.
AJWS: What was Beza’s contribution on Calvinism as the system as we know it today?
SW: I think that most of what Beza wrote in his theological treatises you can see in Calvin. But I think what he really wanted to do was systematize — maybe even in a way that Calvin couldn’t. Beza adored Calvin, but in treatises of his own on predestination, on the Eucharist, on various other topics, I think you see Beza having a bit more of a systematizer gift, perhaps, even than Calvin, which may be shocking to people. Again, and I think if you compare the text you can see that. There was maybe some slightly different gifting and certainly Beza lived in different times and had opportunities that Calvin didn’t. Calvin was just trying to survive. Beza was certainly trying to survive as well, but he had a little bit more freedom in the latter half of the 16th century.
AJWS: You talk about this in the book, but how was Beza’s pastoral nature demonstrated in how he dealt with the plague during his time period?
SW: Well, you’ll remember Calvin wanted to visit the plague victims, but the Genevans wouldn’t let him, which I think is interesting. You kind of wish that Calvin had ignored their prescription and done it anyway, but he didn’t. But with Beza, there’s a willingness to go and aid and care for them. Beza’s brother, Nicholas, died in Geneva of the plague. His wife of 40 years died of the plague. So he saw firsthand the effects. It was an awful, awful thing. Sometimes it went very quick, but it was very painful to have the plague and die from it. And I think the fact that Beza had led the Genevan pastors to be very willing to go and suffer and die along with the victims of the plague shows his deep concern. He certainly wasn’t thinking, “OK, how can I save myself and write a few more books so that 500 years later people will still be talking about me.” He was willing to put his life on the line. And I commend him for that.
AJWS: What was Beza like as a person?
SW: We don’t know too much about what he was like. We certainly know more about him than we know about Calvin. Calvin spoke about himself about a grand total of about three times. And Calvin did tell us that he struggled with having a short temper and pride. And from the accounts we have of Calvin, I think that is probably a fair assessment. Beza spoke a good bit about himself, but you see it more through his prayers. And I have a chapter on how he prayed and why he prayed and what he prayed about. But as a pastor, compared to Calvin, he was much less determined that he be in charge of everything. Maybe by personality, maybe just because of the state of Geneva during his ministry, Calvin was the man and he was in charge and everybody knew that. Beza was by all accounts much more humble and probably more approachable. But I do think pastoral ministry in the 16th century looked different than the way we might conceive a pastoral ministry in the 21st century. The pastors were largely separate from the people, even in social status. And I think Beza at that point was a man of his times.
AJWS: What started your own interest in Beza? Was it personal or academic?
SW: It was purely academic. When I came to Southern to do my Ph.D., I hoped to write my dissertation on the plurality of elders in Baptist ecclesiology and specifically why Baptists used to have plural eldership but lost it over time. So, I did a semester-long study on that with Timothy George, which was wonderful, and realized there just wasn’t enough material in the historical record (which is still frustrating to me). So I needed another dissertation topic and it was suggested to me by Greg Wills that I study John Cotton, an early English and American Puritan. I realized as I was reading about Cotton and reading Cotton that his favorite theologian was John Calvin. He read a little bit of the Institutes every night before going to bed, saying it was good for his soul. I realized I really need to go back and understand Calvin better in order to understand Cotton. So I started reading Calvin again. I’d read him already, but I started paying more careful attention to him. And then as I was doing that, I saw that this name Beza kept cropping up. And I’d seen the name and I knew vaguely who Theodore Beza was but I read about him and I realized, “My goodness, he’s someone in this little niche of historical study who’s an important person.” So I just started reading Beza for myself, and I realized scholars are misunderstanding him pretty significantly. So I began doing my dissertation, working on it in 1998 or 1999. I’m pretty sure that at that point I had access because we had microfilm and microfiche, where I could see where these holdings were all over the world, and I could have them sent here to our own library. I’ve printed them out and they’re in my office now. I think I have more of Beza than just about anyone has ever had. So I was just able to read Beza a good bit and just sort of let him speak for himself.
AJWS: What are the challenges of writing a book of this length about someone like this based on primary literature?
SW: Oh I don’t know. Writing is just hard work. It’s very taxing. At least it makes me very tired, you know, mentally tired. So I think for me the biggest challenge was having a plan and then just trying to be disciplined and when I was writing, just make myself put something down not on paper but on my computer screen and make sure I backed it up so I didn’t lose it.
AJWS: Did you have a writing routine? What did it look like from day to day?
SW: I’ll get up at like 4 a.m. And my prime time for writing would be 4 to 9 a.m. And then I’m doing more research, which is a little less difficult because I’m reading, I’m not creating. Then I take notes and I try to end the day with a bit of a sketch of what I hope to do the next day. So then I can just get up and make the coffee and get going.