Response to Campbell's Strictures on Beza

The "Strictures on Beza" included in the tenth "Preliminary Discourse" of George's Campbell's The Four Gospels (London, 1796) are likely to leave readers with a false impression of Theodore Beza's work, and so we reproduce here a response to Campbell's criticism by William Cunningham, from his article "Calvin and Beza," in the Collected Works of the Rev. William Cunningham, D.D., Principal and Professor of Church History, New College, Edinburgh; Edited by his Literary Executors vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1862), pp. 351-358.


Beza was one of the very first who attempted anything in an important department of theological literature, which has since his time received a great deal of attention. We mean what is now usually comprehended under the two heads of criticism and exegesis, — the former including every thing bearing upon the settlement of the true text of the Greek New Testament, or of the actual words which should he held to constitute it, — and the latter including every thing bearing upon the exact grammatical interpretation of all the words and phrases which are found to compose it. And Beza's labours in these departments, including his different editions of the Greek text from MSS. and his translation and annotations or commentary, were such as, — considering the circumstances in which he was placed, and the means and opportunities he enjoyed, — reflect great credit upon his scholarship and critical acumen. A very unjust and unfair attack has been made upon Beza's character and labours, through the medium of his translation of the New Testament into Latin, and his annotations or commentary upon it, by Dr Campbell of Aberdeen, in the tenth of his "Preliminary Dissertations" to his Translation of the gospels; and as we remember receiving from the perusal of this Dissertation in our student days, an unfavourable impression of Beza, which we have been long satisfied was thoroughly unjust, we think it proper to make some observations upon it.

Dr Campbell's Preliminary Dissertations form a work which is in many respects very valuable, — one of the most important contributions, indeed, which have been made by Scotland to a department of theological study far too little cultivated among us, — the critical exposition of the New Testament. It is a work, however, which ought to be read with much caution, as there is not a little about it that is very defective and objectionable, and fitted to exert an injurious influence upon the minds of students of theology. Dr Campbell was a very great pretender to impartiality and candour. But it is very plain, that he had his blinding and perverting prejudices like other men, and that these were not in favour of what we have been accustomed to regard as the most important truths revealed in God's word, or of the men who were most zealous in defending them. We had formerly an opportunity of pointing out * how destitute Dr Campbell was of all adequate sense of the importance of sound doctrine, and how incompetent, in consequence, he was to appreciate aright the most important service rendered to the church by the Reformers. Such a man was not to be expected to have any liking to so able, faithful, and zealous a champion of Scripture truth as Beza was. And accordingly, in the Dissertation formerly referred to, he has made an attack upon Beza's Latin translation of the New Testament, and upon his character generally, which we think belies all his loud and frequent professions of fairness and candour.

The general charge which he adduces against Beza, and which he illustrates by a detail of instances, is that, — under the influence of theological prejudice and partisanship, — he mistranslates a number of passages, and even acknowledges that he had done this in order to promote his own theological views, or to deprive those of his opponents of some appearance of scriptural support. The case is put by Dr Campbell in a very unfair and exaggerated form, and in such a way as evidently to insinuate a charge against Beza's integrity in dealing with the word of God. He has adduced nothing, however, which, — even were it all true and correct, — would amount to a proof of anything like a want of integrity. For there is not the slightest ground to allege, that Beza either introduced into his translation, or brought out in his annotations, any thing but what he honestly believed to be the true and real mind of God in His word. The charge derives its whole plausibility from these two things — 1st, That Beza was not always sufficiently careful to keep distinct the functions of the mere translator and those of the commentator, and did in consequence sometimes deviate in his translation from the literal meaning of the mere words, that he might bring out more plainly and distinctly what he believed to be the true scriptural sense of the passage; — and 2d, that he sometimes assigned, as the reason for this deviation, that a more literal translation of the mere words would seem to contradict some other portion of Scripture, or some truth which he believed to be taught there — a statement on which, wherever it occurs, Dr Campbell puts an unfair and offensive construction, as if it were a confession of a dishonourable or fraudulent motive or purpose. Now, this conduct of Beza indicates, no doubt, a defective and erroneous conception of the precise and proper functions of the mere translator, as distinguished from the commentator; but it should not be regarded as inconsistent with integrity, especially when we take into account the circumstances in which the translation was put forth, and the relation between it and the commentary. Beza's translation of the New Testament into Latin was not published, or intended to be used, separately or by itself, but was printed alongside of the original Greek, while the Vulgate Latin version was also inserted in a third parallel column; and the annotations subjoined at the foot of the page, were intended chiefly to explain the reasons of the translation, which was thus virtually embodied in the commentary as a part of it.

The true state of the case will be better understood by adverting to the instances which Dr Campbell founds upon; some of which indeed are based upon misrepresentation, and others are mere specimens of wire-drawn criticism and special pleading, illustrating nothing but his unfairness and anxiety to make out a case. One is, that in Acts xiv. 23, Beza has translated the words χειροτονησαντες δε αυτοις πρεσβυτερους, "quumque ipsis per suffragia creassent presbyteros;" — and this Dr Campbell represents as an unfair translation of the word χειροτονεω, in order to sanction the doctrine of the popular election of ministers. That Beza believed in the doctrine of the right of the Christian people to the substantial choice of their pastors, and that he regarded this passage as a proof of it, is certain; and no man of good sense and sound judgment, who has deliberately and impartially examined his writings, can entertain any doubt of this. But the unfairness of the version cannot be established; for Beza certainly thought, whether rightly or wrongly, and many other competent judges have agreed with him, that he gave here the most literal and exact rendering of the word χειροτονεω, and that any other version would have come short of bringing out the whole meaning of what was implied in it. On several occasions Beza has translated παντες ανθρωποι , not by omnes homines, but by quivis homines, — that is, men of all sorts and in all varieties of circumstances, without distinction or exception; and Dr Campbell represents every instance of this sort as an unfair perversion of Scripture to serve Calvinistic purposes. Beza, of course, honestly believed that quivis brought out more accurately the real mind of the inspired writer in these passages than omnes did, as it would have been generally understood; and in this we have no doubt that he was right. It would have been more accordant, however, with correct views of the precise functions of a translator, to have retained the word omnes, and explained its sense in the notes as a commentator. But, considering the circumstances, formerly adverted to, as to the object of his translation, and the relation in which it stood to his annotations, it is quite unf air to represent this as a violation of integrity. Perhaps the worst case for Beza which Dr Campbell has adduced is his translation of Heb. x. 38, and in this he has been followed by the authors of our authorised version. In this passage Beza has, without warrant from the original, inserted the word quis, — in our version any man, — to prevent the text from appearing to discountenance the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. This was certainly an unwarrantable deviation from the proper functions of a translator; though it ought to be mentioned, in justice to Beza and our translators, that Grotius (in loc.), who did not believe in the Calvinistic doctrine of perseverance, agreed with Beza in thinking that some countenance is given to the insertion by the passage in Habbakuk, here quoted by the apostle; and that, — as is noticed by Dean Trench, in his admirable work "On the Authorised Version of the New Testament, in connection with recent proposals for its Revision," [2nd ed., p. 199] — the same sense is assigned to the passage upon purely philological grounds by De Wette and Winer, who had no Calvinistic predilections.

The most unwarranted and unjust of Dr Campbell's instances of Beza's alleged unfairness, is that founded on, and suggested by, his translation of 1 John iii. 9 — πας ο γεγεννημενος εκ θεου αμαρτιαν ου ποιει — which he translated — quisquis natus est ex Deo peccato non dat operam. Of course Beza's reason for, and object in, translating the last words of the clause, peccato non dat operam, — instead of peccatum non facit, as the Vulgate has it, — was, as he states explicitly, to avoid the appearance of the passage teaching the doctrine of the sinless perfection of regenerate persons in this life, and thus contradicting many explicit declarations of Scripture. So far, this instance is exactly similar to those already adverted to, in which the proper functions of the translator and the commentator are not kept sufficiently distinct. But Dr Campbell farther makes Beza's translation of this passage, combined with his annotations or commentary on two other passages — Matt. v. 20 and vii. 23 — the foundation of a more general and more serious charge against his character and teaching. He distinctly accuses him of having for his object in these passages, "kindly to favour sinners, not exorbitantly profligate, so far as to dispel all fear about their admission into the kingdom of heaven," and of endeavouring, with this view, to elude the force of our Lord's declaration [Matt. v. 20], and "reconcile it to his own licentious maxims." He supports this very heavy charge by perverting Beza's statements in these passages, in order to extract from them the sentiment, that men need have no doubt of getting to heaven unless they were, and continued to be, gross and heinous sinners. Now this is really, in plain terms, a misrepresentation and a calumny. The passages adduced manifestly afford no ground whatever for the allegation, that Beza intended to teach the doctrine ascribed to him; and we can scarcely persuade ourselves that Dr Campbell himself believed that the proof which he adduced was sufficient to establish his charge. It is perfectly plain that Beza, in the passages quoted or referred to, intended to teach and did teach, this doctrine, and no other, — viz., that the fact that men are still sinners in God's sight, — sinning every day in thought, word, and deed, — was not of itself a sufficient reason why they should conclude, that they had not been united to Christ by faith, and why they might not enjoy good hope through grace; while he has never said anything fitted, and much less intended, as is alleged, to lead men to remain at ease in their sins, because sure of heaven, if only they are "not exorbitantly profligate." Dr Campbell quotes, in the original Latin, a sentence from the middle of Beza's note on 1 John iii. 4, where this matter is most fully explained, and does so, for the purpose of showing that Beza acknowledged, that his object in giving the translation peccato non dat operam, instead of peccatum non facit, was to shut out the appearance of this statement countenancing the doctrine of sinless perfection in this life. But in the sentence almost immediately preceding that which he quotes for this purpose, Beza expressly describes the kind of person to whom his statement applies, whom he regards as unregenerate, and therefore inadmissible into heaven, and shut out from the present hope of it, — not as one who is merely "not exorbitantly profligate," but as one "who does not strive after holiness, that is, in whom sin reigns," — qui sanctitati non studet, id est, in quo regnat peccatum, — referring, of course, to the apostle's description of the distinction between the regenerate and the unregenerate, sin reigning in the latter, and still present and very manifest at least to themselves, though not reigning, in the former. And what makes the matter much worse is, that in the words immediately succeeding the extract quoted by Dr Campbell, Beza has expressly and solemnly protested against this very misinterpretation of his meaning, in the following scriptural and most striking and edifying statement: —

"Why do we say this? Is it to discountenance the earnest pursuit of holiness ? is it to show that men should not every day be growing in grace ? By no means; for we teach that a perpetual progress in holiness is the certain and perpetual effect of faith. Why then do we say this ? It is lest Satan should deprive us of our comfort. For if we can conclude that we are in Christ, only when we shall no longer need to offer the prayer, 'forgive us our debts,' who does not see, who does not feel, who does not experience a thousand times every day, that it is quite in vain that this consolation is offered to us?"

Dr Campbell had no right to distort and pervert the plain meaning of Beza's statements, and to ascribe to him "licentious maxims," which he had not only never countenanced, but had expressly and solemnly disclaimed. Dr Campbell, it is to be feared, disliked Beza's Calvinistic doctrine, and probably disliked still more his strict Calvinistic morality and experimental godliness; and the whole of his remarks upon Beza's translation of the New Testament are characterised by uncandid misrepresentation. It is quite unwarranted to represent Beza's general character as a controversialist, as marked by a want of fairness and candour. There are some controversialists who, — from strong prejudice and impetuosity, from rashness and recklessness, or from something like a sort of natural obliquity of understanding and a deficiency of sense and judgment, — manage their disputes in such a way, that we find some difficulty in determining whether a want of fairness and candour is the worst charge that can be justly adduced against them, and whether we are not warranted in accusing them of a positive want of integrity. But men who are acquainted with Beza's writings, and who can judge of them with anything like impartiality, will have no such difficulty in forming their estimate of his character. They will not only reject the suspicion which Dr Campbell has laboured to raise against his general integrity, but they will be convinced, that, — though he sometimes indulged most unwarrantably in the severity of invective against opponents, which was then so common, — he showed no disposition to take unfair advantages, or to practise the mere artifices of controversy, but manifested habitually no ordinary measure of impartiality and candour; in short, they will probably conclude, that Beza possessed a much larger amount of integrity and fairness than Dr Campbell did, though he did not make so ostentatious a parade of these qualities.

As this is a grave matter, we give Beza's note in full, putting in italics the sentencewhich Dr Campbell quotes from it, and quotes in the original Latin. We are entitled to assume that he had read the whole of what we are about to quote.

"Quisquis operam dat peccato — πας ο ποιων την αμαρτιαν (1 John iii. 4). Dare operam peccato, et purificare se, opponuntur. Itaque ποιειν αμαρτιαν differt hoc loco ab αμαρτανειν simpliciter accepto. Sed de eo demum dicitur qui sanctitati non studet, id est, in quo regnat peccatum. Idque ita esse non modo liquet ex antithesi, sed etiam ex eo quod supra commemoravit (c. i. ver. 8 et c. ii. ver. 1), ex tota denique Scriptura et rei experientia perpetua. Itaque non homines sed monstra hominum sunt Pelagiani, Cathari, Caelstiani, Donatistae, Anabaptistae, Libertini, qui ex hoc loco perfectionem illam somniant, a qua absunt ipsi omnium hominum longissime. Quorsum autem hoc? An ut studium sanctimoniae damnemus ? An ut homines doceamus quotidie non progredi? Minime profecto, quum perpetuum sanctificationis progressum doceamus certum ac perpetuum esse fidei effectum. Quorsum ergo? Nempe ne Satan nobis hanc consolationem nostram eripiat. Nam si tum demum nos in Christo esse colligemus, quum non amplius indigebimus illa precatione, et remitte nobis debita nostra, quis non videt, quis non sentit, quis non millies quotidie experitur, frustra nobis hanc consolationem proponi?" — Theodori Bezae Annotationes Majores in Nov. Test. 1594, p. 609.

* Earlier in the same article (on p. 3) Cunningham wrote: "Dr Campbell of Aberdeen, too, who was a very great pretender to candour, has, in the last of his lectures on ecclesiastical history, made it manifest that he considered the chief benefits which the Reformers had conferred upon the world, to be the setting an example of free inquiry, and the exposing of church tyranny, superstitious and idolatrous practices, and clerical artifices, and that he despised all their zealous efforts and contendings in restoring the pure gospel of the grace of God, the true system of Christian theology, as conversant only, according to the common cant of latitudinarians, with metaphysical subtleties and scholastic jargon."