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Beza on the Trinity

David C. Noe

The following excerpt was translated from Theodore Beza’s The Unity of the Divine Essence and the Three Persons Subsisting in It, Against the Arians’ Homoiousios, published in Geneva, March 19, 1565 (the fourteenth day before the calends of April). It is a five-page introduction to his Theses or Axioms on the Trinity of the Persons and Unity of the Essence, with which it was published. The text is from Tractationes Theologicae Bezae.[1]

A letter to the most illustrious Prince Nicholas Radzvilas,[2] the supreme Marszałek[3] of the great Duchy of Lithuania.

Most illustrious Prince, I received two letters from your Excellency at the same time: one addressed to Mr. John Calvin of blessed memory, and the other to myself. Both of them were written beautifully and with refinement. Because I am replying so tardily, I ask your Excellency not to think this is due to any disregard, nor to any other reason than that there was a shortage of couriers traveling from here to Tubingen, the place where your letters to us originated. These are the reasons why my reply is so brief even though this is a quite serious and urgent matter.

I have read, and not without absolute terror, some comments which Gregorius Pauli,[4] Casanonius, and several others who have been enchanted by Biandrata and Gentile,[5] wrote in different treatises. They are converting[6] the three persons or ὑποστάσεις into three numerically distinct[7] οὐσίας or essences. In their writings I have found so many things that are both opaque and even contradictory that not even at present do I have full clarity as to their doctrinal positions and arguments.

But your letters, although they were written far more lucidly, nevertheless—if I may speak frankly with your Excellency—do not fully make up for my simple mindedness.[8] This is especially the case in your explanation of that third conciliatory statement which, if I understand it correctly, I think is hardly at all different from the position of either Gentile or Pauli.

And so, because there is not yet much agreement between us concerning the substance of these issues, and far less even with respect to the arguments of our opponents, we can’t help but be legitimately afraid that we could seem to be working in vain over these much-disputed topics.[9] Or that we are not adequately precise in attacking our opponents’ position. This circumstance could inflame these already unfortunate debates rather than extinguish them. And furthermore, even the debate itself shows, with so many written documents flying back and forth, that the controversy is increasing rather than diminishing, while each man does not allow what he has just written to be adequately grasped.

Therefore, before I publish a fitting answer to the individual arguments, I demand[10] this from you, your Excellency, in the name of Christ: you must compel[11] those who do not agree with this proposition—Father, Son, Holy Spirit[12] are one and the same God—to do as follows. They must write out, point by point, clearly and distinctly, their own entire dogma both on the essence and on the hypostases,[13] in definite and clear theses. Then they must provide their own positions as derived both from the word of God and from the writings of the Greek and Latin fathers. Finally, if you have no objection, they must supply refutations of our arguments, which they know full well.

Endnotes

[1] Theodore Beza, Tractationes Theologicae Bezae, Volumen I (Jean Crespin, Geneva 1570), 646–50.

[2] Cf. Anatol Lieven, The Baltic Revolution: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and the Path to Independence (Yale University Press, 1994), 47–8.

[3] This is the title of a very high-ranking official in the Polish court, a top adviser to the king.

[4] d. 1591.

[5] Giorgio Biandrata (1515–1588) and Giovanni Valentino Gentile (c.1520–1566), two famous, Italian-born anti-Trinitarians.

[6] Transformantes.

[7] Numero.

[8] Ruditati.

[9] The syntax here is deliberately convoluted as Beza seeks to come to the point without offending the Prince. I have broken up a very long and hypotactically beautiful sentence into manageable English portions.

[10] flagitamus, a very strong word.

[11] adigas

[12] The conjunction here is omitted, a figure of speech called asyndeton, to stress the unity of the persons in the Godhead.

[13] Here Beza uses the Latin instead of the Greek, which he employs interchangeably.

David C. Noe is an elder at Reformation OPC, Grand Rapids, Michigan, and serves as an associate professor and chair of the philosophy and classics department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also serves on the OPC Committee for the Historian. Ordained Servant Online, December 2018.

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