The Pan-Protestant vision in Beza's Icones

In which I muse on E. J. Hutchinson's comments on Theodore Beza's letter to King James VI about the reign of Christ.

I’ve been dipping into the Beyond Calvin essay collection over the last few months, here a little, there a little. I finished one a little while ago by E. J. Hutchinson on Theodore Beza’s Icones, a little-known illustrated collection of biographies of Reformation heroes.

Theodore Beza, Icones, Geneva, 1580, frontispiece. (Photo courtesy of University of Glasgow Library Special Collections.) Source: ResearchGate.

Hutchinson presents the Icones as, in a way, summaries of the whole vision of the Protestant Reformation. He quotes this from Beza's dedicatory epistle to King James VI:

[…] since you are promoting the reign of Christ among your own Scots with as great a zeal of mind as can possibly occur—and to such an extent that the fame of this exceptional religious faith of yours has flowed forth all the way to the ends of the earth–[and since], moreover, this Genevan church is also a part of this reign of Christ, I thought that it belonged to my duty to add myself to the flock of your peoples and to testify to your royal majesty to the welcome memory of so great a kindness in whatever way I could. [emphasis in original]

Hutchinson then articulates Beza's purpose in writing to James VI as follows:

The Scottish king, it seems, sums up in his person the hopes of the Reformation movement, both theologically and pedagogically, and Beza, through his lavish praise, hopes to stir him up to act accordingly in the realms of letters and religion. Beza construed the movement, and the regnum Christi, as having boundaries somewhat wider than those we tend to conceptualize today, a day in which they are often limited to the institutional church. For Beza, those expansive boundaries encompassed church, school, and government–whether in Switzerland, Germany, France, or Scotland for he believed all to function within a societas Christiana that in certain respects respected national distinctions while at the same time transcending them. [emphasis added]

At least in the corners of evangelicalism that I am most familiar with, the boundaries of the kingdom of God seem to be roughly coextensive with the institutional church–or perhaps, with parachurch organisations included too. The upshot seems to be that endeavours can properly be called Christian only if they aim at the conversion of unbelievers, or perhaps involve some kind of Bible teaching to those that are converted already.

By contrast, Beza sketches a vision of the Christ's visible, actualised reign over all human affairs done within the commonwealth. The works of government, education, commerce, the arts and all manner of other endeavours can be understood to be Christian works because they are done by Christians to the glory of God.

Related to this is the fact that this is a letter to the king. Like the magisterial Reformers generally, Beza is quite happy to call upon the king to aid the flourishing of true religion in society. Because the reign of Christ is a matter of public life, it stands to reason that the sovereign has a significant part to play in making this happen. This is part of the king's duty, commanded by Christ himself. James is thus warmly encouraged to exercise his kingly power to be a nursing father for the church and to promote the spiritual welfare of the society as a whole.

The vision is not merely one of isolated Christian nations, but Beza presents a "pan-Protestant" vision of Christian nations working together to promote the reign of Christ throughout the world.

Each Christian nation retains its own boundaries and has its own sovereign magistrate, who has both the authority and the duty to promote the reign of Christ within his nation. But as each magistrate does this, they encourage and build up not only the churches in their own nation, but those in other nations throughout the broader societas Christiana. James VI, by means of his care for the Scottish church, sends indirect blessings to the church in Geneva as well.

This is a thoroughly Protestant vision of Christian unity. Diverse nations can be brought into cooperation with each other, not by coming under one universal earthly sovereign and thus erasing their national distinctions, but by each embracing the universal reign of Christ in their respective nations.