Morality after Calvin

Theodore Beza's Christian Censor and Reformed Ethics

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Kirk M. Summers
Oxford Studies in Historical Theology
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     432 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Kirk Summers’s Morality After Calvin is an introduction to the moral theology of Reformer Theodore Beza. Beza was John Calvin’s successor in Geneva. The surprising and original thesis at the center of Summers’s work is his claim that Beza’s moral theology is best understood by a detailed study of his lesser known works, particularly his poetry. Specifically, Summers argues, one must pay close attention to the Cato Censorius Christianus, “a collection of moralizing poems that warn various types of sinners about the folly of their assumptions and actions” (6). The Cato provides us with an unusual concreteness regarding Beza’s vision for the Christian life. The figure of the “censor” in the Catofunctions in a regulatory manner to reproach sin and rebuke the sinner. This aligns closely with the role that Beza envisioned for the Consistory in Geneva. In the Cato, Beza provides his readers with concrete examples of the problematic effects of sin, namely the isolation of the sinner from the community and the ultimate destiny of the unrepentant sinner (final judgment).

The first chapter introduces the genre of the Cato and provides readers with an introduction to Reformed theological ethics. First, Summers argues that Beza’s Cato belongs to a genre called Disticha Catonis. It was common for students to read the latin works of Cato the Censor as primers in both Latin grammar and morality. Both Catholics and Protestants adopted this trend, replacing Cato’s works with their own collections of poems written in the voice of Cato. Beza’s Cato fits into this genre. However, his own work is clearly written for adults, addressing sins like whoremongering. Second, Summers gives an important summary of recent conversations in Reformed theological ethics, including debates about natural law and union with Christ. Here, we learn that the moral life is a life of return to God’s intentions for his creation. Those who are united with Christ—the elect—receive the law as the means by which they are able to make a journey back to God. Sinners who turn away from this path experience both natural and divine repercussions for their sin. These repercussions are spelled out by Beza in the poetry of his Cato.

Summers explores the poetry of Beza’s Cato in chapters 2 to 7. Each of these chapters addresses a major sin by first introducing a key ethical principle that Beza hopes to instill through his Cato. Each sin is represented by a specific poem. Subsequent sections identify both the pagan and Christian sources that form Beza’s moral vision and locate Beza’s thought in relation to Reformed theologians Calvin and Vermigli before him and Daneau after him. Then Summers identifies case studies in the Consistory records to show how actual sinners were punished in Geneva. Finally, Summers introduces related sins that are represented by poems in the Cato.

So, for example, in his chapter on the ethical principle of vocation (chapter 4), Summers begins with Beza’s poem on the sin of idleness. Then, he attends to case studies, appealing to the Consistory records in order to show that the sin of idleness was concretely associated with begging, gambling, dancing, drunkenness, and the like. In most cases, the idle were “simply rebuked … for their laziness and advised … to stay busy” (172). He further explores the Reformed tradition in order to set the historical and theological context for Beza’s understanding of vocation. In general, it was believed that everyone had a vocation that should occupy their time—even youth, who should put their time to good use instead of loitering. At its heart, the problem with idleness, for Beza, is that a vocation is a God-given calling. Idleness is tantamount to abandoning one’s calling and is therefore disobedience to God. In contrast, the Genevan Reformers valued putting time to good use and taught the stewardship of one’s time—hence, Geneva’s world-famous clockmakers. This view of idleness as sin resonates with pre-Genevan Lutheran and Reformed sources, continues with Calvin and Beza, and lives on in the Reformed tradition. (Indeed, although Max Weber’s treatment of the Protestant work ethic has been problematized, it is not hard to see how the rhetoric of the virtues of work and the vices of idleness, laziness, and begging continues to perpetuate itself in American evangelical Protestantism.) Finally, Summers connects Beza’s treatment of idleness in the Cato with poems on garrulity and frivolity. The sin of garrulousness is essentially the problem of idle chatter while the sin of frivolity is a type of empty work or purposeless busyness. 

Summers’s remaining chapters are thematically representative of what he takes to be the main ethical principles treated in the Cato. Each chapter highlights a basic principle in contrast to its corresponding sin: the principle of listening contrasted with the sin of pride (chapter 2), sincerity and lying (chapter 3), neighbor-love and usury (chapter 5), and finally, marriage and adultery (chapter 6). A seventh chapter treats poems in the Cato that Summers calls “outliers” and focuses more on the sins of people outside the community that can threaten the community if it is not on guard.

The final chapter (chapter 8) considers the end of Beza’s life in conversation with his poetry. At different points in his life, Beza wrote a birthday poem, reflecting on his life to that point and his own mortality. Indeed, the last poem in the Cato is a poem about old age. These poems, Summers argues, suggest that Beza had a retrospective view of the Christian life and moral progress. Looking backwards, he is able to see “that God has continued to bless him even though he has not produced fruits equal to the sacrifice made by Christ on his behalf” (358). Particularly, he can see the continued work of the Holy Spirit in his life.

Summers’s book is a well-researched and carefully-written introduction to the moral theology of Theodore Beza. Its only fault is that Summers is such a careful student of language and history that he is like a tour guide who pauses too frequently and points out too many things. Beza’s own thought sometimes becomes of secondary interest, and Summers’s main thesis regarding the importance of Beza’s poetry for his theological ethics is spread thin between meaty chunks of historical information. In this regard, Summers has over-argued his point, a point that he nonetheless wins.

This book is essential reading for anyone working in Reformation studies, medieval and Reformation church history, and Protestant theological ethics.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David B. Hunsicker is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Azusa Pacific University in Azua, CA.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kirk M. Summers is Professor of Classics at the University of Alabama. He received his PhD in Classical Philology from the University of Illinois in 1993.


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