Assurance of Salvation between Theodore Beza and John Calvin

If you need assurance who would you rather listen to; Theodore Beza or John Calvin? Or neither?

In order to resist this second [temptation], it is necessary to know if we have this faith or not. The means is to ascend (monter) from the effects (effets) to a knowledge of the cause (cause) which produces them. Now, the effects (effets) that Jesus Christ produces in us, when we have apprehended him by faith, are two. In the first place, there is the testimony that the Holy Spirit gives to our spirit, that we are children of God . . . . Secondly, . . . when by faith Jesus Christ has given himself to us eternally in order to dwell in us, his virtue produces and reveals there his powers, which are known in Scripture by the word “regeneration” . . . . This regeneration has three parts . . . . The power of Jesus Christ coming to take possession of us produces three effects (effets) in us: the mortification of this corruption which Scripture calls the old man, his burial, and finally, the resurrection of the new man . . . . To know this regeneration it is necessary to come to its fruits. Thus, . . . the man, being set free from sin . . . begins to do what we call good works (4.13).

Need more:

[Good works] make us more and more certain of our salvation, not as causes of it, but as testimonies and effects (effets) of the cause (cause), that is, our faith . . . . Since good works are for us sure testimonies of our faith, it follows that they also make us certain of our eternal election . . . . So then, when Satan puts us in doubt about our election, it is not necessary to first go and search for the decision of the eternal plan (conseil) of God; his majesty would dazzle us. But, on the contrary, it is necessary to begin with the sanctification which one experiences in oneself, and to climb higher (monter plus haut). Since our sanctification, from which proceeds good works, is a sure effect (effet) of faith, or rather of Jesus Christ is necessarily called and elected by God to salvation, . . . it follows that sanctification with its fruits is the first step (le premeier degre)  by which we begin to ascend (monter) all the way to the first and true cause (la premier . . . vraye cause) of our salvation, that is, our eternal and gratuitous election (4.19).

— Theodore Beza quoted from his, “Confession de la Foy (1558),” in “Adaptations of Calvinism in Reformation Europe,” 64-5 ed. Matt P. Holt

Rest now my weary souls! Look to the decree and find rest. 🙂

How can anyone read this, and say, “yep, this is pure ‘Gospel’ truth?” Let me just say, with all of my attitude in-tact, that I realize folks like Beza & co. were just working with the theological tools they had (they didn’t know any better). What’s your excuse? Have you paid attention to the kind of spirituality that this kind of stuff produced in the ensuing years following?

Contrast Beza with Calvin (and by the way, Beza was Calvin’s successor at Geneva):

Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

— John Calvin, Inst., 3.2.7.

The contrast between these two is rather striking, especially since Beza and Calvin were compatriots.

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8 comments

  1. Hi Bobby,
    This time I find myself in disagreement with you. I am aware of your concerns about the spiritual consequences you detect in certain calvinist circles. I share that concern with you, and I guess we do agree about the remedy, but I don’t agree with your diagnosis, at least in this post.
    In the first place I don’t think that your all too brief summary of Beza’s position (“Rest now my weary souls! Look to the decree and find rest.”) represents what he is saying here. He starts even with stating explicitly that we shouldn’t (the translation “it is not necessary to first go ” is wrong in this case) direct our attention to God’s eternal counsel. Instead, he points the attention of the faithful to the good works as effects of our faith, or rather (he adds) of Jesus Christ, which inhabits in us through faith (“ou plustost de Jesu Christ, habitant en nous, par le foy”). So, he leads them to Christ.
    Secondly, a fair parallel in Calvin is not the quote from Inst.3.2.7., but would be Inst.3.14.19. Calvin is cautious in pointing to ‘works’ as source of assurance, but he admits that it can offer strength to the faithful.
    Thirdly, your interpretation of Beza leaves us behind with an important, but unanswered question. How is it possible that Calvin didn’t notice such a tremendous difference as you suggest, between Beza and him? Either Calvin didn’t judge it to be a real difference, but then he must have erred badly, according to your interpretation. Or he judged it to be quite a difference, but didn’t react… And that seems to be quite out of character for Calvin…

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  2. Hi Arjen,

    You can’t always be right 😉 !

    Seriously:

    1) He leads them to Christ reflexively, not soley or directly. In Beza there is a clear relationship between his inchoate conception of works/assurance and what later was developed as experimental predestinarianism in English Puritanism by folks like William Perkins et al. So I don’t agree with your reading of Beza. And the essay I took this quote from in the Max Holt edited book makes that persuasively clear.

    2) I don’t think the quote I quoted from the Inst is unfair to Calvin’s intention of seeing ‘assurance as the essence of faith’ esp. when that is tied into Calvin’s emphasis upon a Christ-centered view of what faith as knowledge of God entails. Which can be demonstrated over and again from both his Inst. and commentaries.

    3) This point of yours, of course brings us back to the After Calvin debate that Richard Muller and Brian Armstrong are at logger-heads on; and it appears most think that Muller has won! Beza was scholastic/Thomist in orientation, Calvin was not. Was this then merely a disagreement at a formal level or a material difference? Whether or not Calvin himself perceived any distinction between he and Beza at this point is silent. What we do have though are their writings, and we can compare and contrast or correlate those. Based upon Calvin’s conception of election etc. it makes more sense, I would argue to hold that Calvin had more conceptual space to emphasize a direct line instead of Beza’s reflexive/works line to Christ. As Charles Partee has written in regard to Calvin on assurance of salvation:

    The conviction that salvation is not conditional but certain is an almost forgotten mark of the Protestant Reformation. According to Calvin, doubting the certainty of one’s salvation is sinful. We do not understand the goodness of God apart from full assurance (III.2.16). “[F]aith is not content with a doubtful and changeable opinion . . . but requires full and fixed certainty” (III.2.15). If salvation were not certainly known to believers, election “would have been a doctrine not only lacking in warmth, but completely lifeless.” In summary, Calvin insists, “Our faith is nothing, unless we are persuaded for certain that Christ is ours, and that the Father is propitious to us in Him. There is, therefore, no more pernicious or destructive conception than the scholastic dogma of the uncertainty of salvation” (Com. Rom. 8:33, 34). . . . Union with Christ is exactly the direction Calvin’s theology moves. For Calvin certainty is not to be found in a principle or a book but a person. That is, in union with Jesus Christ. Our task is “to establish with certainty in our hearts that all those who, by the kindness of God the Father, through the working of the Holy Spirit, have entered into fellowship with Christ, are set apart as God’s property and personal possession” (IV. 1. 3). . . . Partee, The Theology of John Calvin, 205–6.

    Calvin’s unio cum Christo theology would adumbrate Beza’s methodological syllogism for assurance by, again, starting with Christ (and not me or my works), starting with Christ’s works, and knowing myself from their. Which would also fit more broadly within Calvin’s duplex cognitio Domini (twofold knowledge of God).

    So I don’t think, Arjen, that my contrast between the two is as artificial as you think :-).

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  3. Calvin comments on 1 John 2:3-6: On 3 “But we are not hence to conclude that faith recumbs on works; for though every one receives a testimony to his faith from his works, yet it does not follow that it is founded on them, since they are added as an evidence. Then the certainty of faith depends on the grace of Christ alone; but piety and holiness of life distinguish true faith from that knowledge of God which is fictitious and dead; for the truth is, that those who are in Christ, as Paul says, have put off the old man. (Colossians 3:9.)— On 6 “As he has before set before us God as light for an example, he now calls us also to Christ, that we may imitate him. Yet he does not simply exhort us to imitate Christ; but from the union we have with him, he proves that we ought to be like him. A likeness in life and deeds, he says, will prove that we abide in Christ. But from these words he passes on to the next clause, which he immediately adds respecting love to the brethren.”
    As you read the whole section 3-6 it’s all there and it is all one – faith, knowledge of God, works as evidence, grace, etc. By separating things we run into trouble and diminish the completeness of the Lord’s work.

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  4. Hi Bobby,
    “You can’t always be right.” I like that one!! I’m afraid you’re right, but… I doubt whether it is in this case 😉
    But honestly, I appreciate the effort you made to answer my questions and objections. From that appreciation stems my attempt to react on your comment.
    1) You are right in highlighting the more reflexive emphasis in Beza. I’m not saying or implying that there are no differences between Calvin and Beza. My point was that you seem to interpret this particular passage from Beza in the light of a rather general scheme in which scholastic authors (you name Perkins f.ex.) diverge from Calvin’s theological articulation.
    2) The second point dovetailes with this. In both your quote from Calvin, as the quote from Beza, the context is missing. It is not difficult to provide you with a Beza quote, saying the same thing as this quote of Calvin. But that’s not the point. Beza is dealing in this particular paragraph with the question of the purpose of good works. Well, he says, one of these purposes is that they might be a way of assurance to the faithful. But that is what Calvin, with different words, is arguing in Inst.3.14.19.
    3) I’m aware of the After Calvin debate. But my intention was not to enter into this debate. I posed a methodological question. It seems to me that someone who is claiming important differences between Calvin and Beza, with even worse consequences in the history of spirituality, should explain how it is possible that the two men apparently viewed these differences as insignificant. I am aware that this is asking too much in terms of a blog post. But methodologically, I insist my point is valid and relevant. The burden of proof is with the one who signals the differences, wouldn’t you agree?
    I love Calvin’s emphasis on the ‘unio cum Christo’. But when I started reading Beza’s theology, I was genuinely surprised, he spoke in a similar fashion. I’m not claiming that there are no differences between Calvin and Beza. But there might be more resemblance than you think after all.
    Let me cite for example, from his Confession de Foy, a passage from 4.10 (where he is about to explain three causes or tentations for not wanting to befriended with God). “Against these”, he says, “we find the remedies very nearby, not in ourselves, but only in Jesus Christ; for there is nothing which is more ours, than Jesus Christ and all that He has; provided that we are one with Him and part of Him and share in all his goods”. Calvin could have said it himself…

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  5. Steve,

    Thanks for the quote … a good one! 🙂

    Arjen,

    1) I do think the scholastics diverge conceptually not just formally from Calvin at points.

    2) I will have to corroborate that, Arjen. But again, if Calvin and Beza take a different view on election and the atonement, then there is something equivocal occurring between Calvin and Beza here, and I think that’s the case even in context.

    3) I did take the quote from Beza from an essay that placed his theology and metaphysics in context; and so I will simply assert here, from what I know of Calvin in context, and Beza in context (to a much lesser degree as far as my engagement with primary literature from him), that they are distinct, not just methodologically but materially. And this, Arjen, is exactly the point that drives the whole After Calvin debate; one spawned by Brian Armstrong’s book in particular (and his definition of scholasticism), and Muller’s & co’s response to that. So at the very least the After Calvin thing illustrates the practical reality of your point on methodology and its subsequent implications.

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  6. Bobby,

    Thanks again. It seems then, that we have to postpone a definitve verdict on these matters. I share your worries, like the direction you look for answers (E.C., TFT), but historically spoken I’ve got convinced that matters are more complicated then the Calvin against the calvinist matrix can allow for.

    No doubt, we will meet again, at your blog or mine about these matters. It’s worth discussing!

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  7. Today I read two essays about the topic of Beza and his relation with Calvin and the Calvinists. Might be of help for both of us 😉

    The first was from Michael Jinkins ‘Theodore Beza: Continuity and Regression in the Reformed Tradition’, in: Evangelical Quarterly 64:2 (1992), 131-154. It is online accessible.
    Jinkins has obviously been influenced by James Torrance. It is a good read, in which you will recognize much of your own position.

    My second read was: Joel R. Beeke, ‘Theodore Beza’s Supralapsarian Predestination’, in: Reformation and Revival Journal 12:2 (2003), 68-84. Also online accessible.
    Beeke tries to defend Beza from the sort of accusations we were discussing here, making explicit reference to the Confession de la Foy. It is worth reading as well.

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  8. Hi Arjen,

    Thanks for the recommend on the Jinkins essay. In kind I would also recommend the essay I highlight in this post on Calvin’s hermeneutics and atonement: https://growrag.wordpress.com/?s=atonement+calvin

    I’ll check out Beeke’s essay,thanks. And I would recommend the essay I took the Beza quote from in this edited book: Adaptations of Calvinism in Reformation Europe,” ed. Matt P. Holt

    I realize the Calvin against the Calvinists debate is too reductionistic, Muller demonstrates that well. That said, it is too reductionistic on the other side, or argument of the beard, to not recognize substantial differences, at points, between the whole company of reformers (whether that be Calvin, Beza, Vermigli et al).

    Be in touch, and thanks, Arjen.

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