translation Canon Tony Dickinson
Pierre-Olivier Léchot invites us here to rediscover “Calvin’s Successor”, the austere elder whose severe gaze even today intimidates the passers-by who linger at the “Wall of the Reformers” in Geneva.
Yet he was a man with a keen sense of humour and a poet.
2019 saw the 500th anniversary of the birth of Theodore Beza (1519-1605). For those who still know his name, the image of Calvin’s “successor” is generally quite negative. The man depicted on the famous “Wall of the Reformers” in Geneva with the features of an august elder is often regarded as the father of Calvinist orthodoxy and the inventor of supralapsarianism – the most radical version of Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination. He was also, among others, the outspoken critic of Castellion, justifying the right of magistrates to persecute heretics. However, Beza was not always the threatening old man with disturbing ideas. A painting on display at the Museum of the History of the Reformation in Geneva represents him, as still a young man, taking a pleasant break with an elegant pair of gloves in his hands. The posture and the style are not those of a theologian but those of a young nobleman, a friend of the Muses. This is the Beza the poet, the historian and the satirist. As a historian, Beza compiled the first history of the Reformed Churches of France, which appeared in 1580. Notwithstanding his firmly fixed theology, he was also an accomplished exegete who sought, out of a humanist respect, to consult ancient manuscripts in order to correct the Greek text of the New Testament. In 1562, as a consequence, he saved from the flames of a convent in Lyons a 4th century codex which he then offered to the University of Cambridge. This manuscript is still preserved there under the title of “Codex Bezae” and is considered one of the most important witnesses to the text of the Greek New Testament. Contrary to his usual image, Beza also knew how to laugh, especially when it came to making fun of “papists”. Hence a young historian from Geneva recently attributed to him an anonymous pamphlet published in 1560 and entitled “The Christian Satyrs of Papal Cuisine”. 21st-century readers still laugh when they explore the store-room of the pontiff’s rotten ready-meals. The fact is that, before being all those things (theologian, exegete, historian), Beza had been a poet – and he remained one. In 1550 he published his “Abraham Sacrifiant”, one of the finest plays of the Renaissance. There he confided: “By natural inclination, I have always taken pleasure in poetry and I still cannot repent of that.” For Beza wrote occasional verses throughout his life. Calvin was not wrong when he entrusted him with the task of completing the translation of the Psalms into French verse begun by Clément Marot. But Beza in fact preferred Latin verse, often profane. It should be said that he had published, at the age of twenty-nine, some Poemata which he never disowned and which he continued to revise until … 1597, when he was seventy-six years of age and had become, in his own lifetime, a “monument” to the Reformation. These Latin poems are not innocuous: inspired by the ancient poet Catullus (author of erotic poetry, inter alia), the young man, who does not yet know that he will become this intimidating figure, the “successor of Calvin “, sings in them about joy and love – including carnal love. Beza, it must be said, knew how to evoke, even fleetingly, shared physical pleasure. Moreover, he was not unaware of the word play to which his name could give rise. So sometimes he would publish an anti-Lutheran treatise under the pseudonym “Nathanael Nesekius”, from the Hebrew nâshaq: literally “kiss” [Beza’s name in French, “de Bèze”, sounds like “baiser”, meaning “to kiss”]. In short, Beza knew how to laugh at himself, which, for a theologian, is not the least of virtues.
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