Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth, Shawn D. Wright (Christian Focus 2016, $14.99) 

Despite being one of the great figures of the Protestant Reformation, not much is known about Theodore Beza, French theologian and acolyte of the more famous John Calvin. In fact, what is known is often mythical and exaggerated, such as the erroneous perception that Beza coldly systematized Calvin’s rich biblical-theological legacy.

For this reason, Shawn D. Wright, associate professor of church history at Southern Seminary, wrote his short biography of the Reformer, Theodore Beza: The Man and the Myth. Wright aptly traces Beza’s theological influences, particularly in his leadership of the Calvinist movement after Calvin’s death, shining light upon his pastoral heart and character.

“For over a century now Beza has been regularly maligned by both historians and theologians,” Wright said in his book. “In the process of his gross over-generalization … Beza’s theological and pastoral contributions have almost always been overlooked. The result has been a portrait of Beza that may make sense to his interpreters but which, in reality, is foreign to the man himself.”

Beza served as a professor of Greek for Calvin at the Geneva Academy, and the two developed a close friendship. After Calvin’s death, Beza inherited leadership in Geneva with Calvin’s blessing. Unlike his mentor, who struggled with pride and anger throughout his life, Beza was a remarkably humble man who had much warmer interpersonal relationships in ministry, but that disposition led to a gradual eroding of Geneva’s politics after Calvin’s death.

Although Beza is often criticized for crudely systematizing his mentor’s theology (which later came to be known as Calvinism) and making Calvin sound more “Calvinistic” than he otherwise would have been, Wright opposes such a view. As the argument normally goes, while Calvin was deeply biblical and exegetical, Beza represented a turn toward a philosophical approach that overvalued logical precision. Wright, however, contends that Beza was not all that different from his mentor, and exemplified a certain piety and holistic vision of God’s sovereignty that was neither an exact copy of nor antithetical to Calvin’s own theology.

One of the major benefits of this biography is the brief sketch of Beza’s life found in the chapter “Theodore Beza’s Life and Context,” which many theology students know little about. Beza the man suffered often but consistently demonstrated his absolute trust in God’s purposes. For example, Beza was alive during the spread of the plague, and lost both his brother and his wife to it. While the Genevan pastors had been unwilling to let Calvin visit plague victims, after Calvin’s death Beza convinced them to let him do so, which demonstrated his caring heart and pastoral service.

“Theodore 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,” Wright notes. “May we learn from Beza how to hold tenaciously on to God when things don’t transpire as we expected them to go.”

By his own estimation, Wright accumulated perhaps the largest collection of primary source material from Beza as part of writing his dissertation. Wright argues that many of the misunderstandings of Beza occurred because so few people read him carefully. Based on his own close reading of Beza, Wright reveals a more nuanced portrait of a man who loved the gospel and cared for his people.