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Morality after Calvin by Kirk Summers: A Review Article

David C. Noe

Morality after Calvin: Theodore Beza’s Christian Censor and Reformed Ethics, by Kirk Summers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016, 432 pages, $94.10.

The Oxford Studies in Historical Theology series, formerly edited by the late David C. Steinmetz and now helmed by Richard A. Muller, has produced many fine volumes for the benefit of the church and academy. Scott Manetsch’s Calvin’s Company of Pastors, Amy Nelson Burnett’s Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Controversy, and John Owen and English Puritanism by Crawford Gribben are just three noteworthy titles.[1] To these, Orthodox Presbyterian officers should quickly add a fourth, Kirk Summers’s Morality after Calvin. Released in the fall of 2016, the work is a tour de force of classical scholarship, historical and social research, philology, and theological reflection. It is also very edifying.

Before discussing some of the more interesting portions of the volume, I would like to begin with its final page. Here Summers writes:

Through the years some have characterized [Beza] as a sort of Reformed pope, a self-appointed tyrant of mores, the scowling, judgmental face on the Genevan landscape. This reading of Beza seems superficial, however, when we take into account the richness of his ethical convictions. His confident belief in the possibility of mankind’s renewal through the recovery of a certain divinely sanctioned mode of life shaped every facet of his ministry: the controversies, the correspondence and scholarship, the sermons and poems, the daily interactions in Geneva are all expressions of this one central hope. (378)

It is this central insight—that most previous judgments have been superficial, ignoring Beza’s commitment to divine revelation—that animates the whole of Summers’s work in its careful research, sympathetic expression, and conclusive proofs. In many ways this volume, with its core observation, is a companion to the parallel resuscitation of Calvin’s life and work, by placing them both in their proper historical context, that has been recently effected by Richard Muller (The Unaccommodated Calvin), Scott Manetsch (Calvin’s Company of Pastors), and Bruce Gordon (John Calvin: A Biography), among others.[2] And as students of Beza know, such a resuscitation is long overdue.

The introduction and chapter 1, “Cato, God, and Natural Law,” set the stage by explaining to the reader the character of the Roman orator and statesman Cato the Elder (239–149 BC). Appointed to the constitutionally established office of censor of morals, it was Cato’s responsibility to conform Roman society to the traditions of their ancestors. In a clever appropriation and imitation, Beza, as a seasoned poet, published his Cato Censorius Christianus in 1591, a collection of poems modeled after Greek and Roman precedents. This collection was intended to teach morals by lampooning various vices with incisive wit and vituperation. A host of different kinds of men of bad behavior come under scrutiny, including the proud (In Superbos, 82), the ambitious (In Ambitiosos, p. 93), flatterers (In Assentatores, 139), the idle (In Otiosos, 165), the garrulous (In Garrulos, p. 193), and many more. For representations of Beza’s flawlessly executed poems, presented in a variety of meters both familiar (elegiac couplet, In Adulteros, p. 270) and recondite (iambic distich, In Epicureos, p. 323), Summers draws from Beza’s Poemata (two editions, 1597 and 1599) and the Emblemata (1580). He also gives properly idiomatic, and in places compelling English, translations of these gems.

As Summers moves through his various topics, “An Ethos of Listening” (ch. 2), “Living Sincerely” (ch. 3), “The Execution of One’s Calling” (ch. 4), “Usury and the Rhetoric of Mutuality” (ch. 5), “Sanctifying Physical Relationships” (ch. 6), “Outliers” (ch. 7), and “A Retrospective View of Life’s Journey” (ch. 8), it is clear that his erudition is profound and does full justice to his subject. Take page 86, fn 17, for example, in which Summers cites Beza’s translation of James and 1 Peter from his Annotationes to the New Testament. Here he notes how Beza has replaced from his 1582 version the word modestia (which he construes as modesty) with summissione (submissiveness) in the final edition of 1598. And Summers notes that the concept was present in Aquinas, Summa 2,1,q.84. This depth of research and deftness with primary sources is, in the reviewer’s experience, unparalleled in works of this type (note 38 on page 94 is an additional, shining example). I hardly need to mention that Summers’s skill with French, German, and Greek are equally impressive.

Although the work is very even in quality and range of ambition, some chapters stand out more than others for their interest. In chapter 4 on vocation Summers develops the interesting point that Beza and his contemporaries among the Reformed were eager almost above all else to redeem the time:

On the flipside of the vice of idleness one finds the virtue of punctuality, which Engammare views as an original contribution of the Reformed movement. For example, Mathurin Cordier’s pedagogical treatise Colloques emphasizes the need for punctuality in the careful use of time, as did the keen interest in the ringing of bells, clocks, and timekeeping around Geneva. (210)

Nuggets like this abound throughout the lengthy work, and add a great deal of liveliness to Summers’s central argument.

Chapter 5 on usury, for example, is especially helpful in understanding the times and the issues. Summers sets the stage well by taking us back to Ambrose and even before that to the Cappadocian fathers. On page 220 he explains the Ambrosian stance toward moneylending: “a loan is evil that aims at interest,” and shortly thereafter tells us how the Cappadocian fathers din moneylenders for their hypocrisy (232).[3] Their “giving has the appearance of helping but in reality has the purpose of enriching the giver at the expense of the receiver.” From that point Summers develops his argument in the Genevan context, noting especially an apparent discrepancy between Beza and his mentor Calvin on this point. While Beza was (surprisingly?) more stringent than Calvin about acceptable rates of interest, Summers explains this as a consequence of the circumstances in which the former found himself:

[T]he historical realities in Geneva during Beza’s lifetime should mitigate our understanding of his seemingly hardline stance. In practice, Beza did not prevent a market economy from moving forward in Geneva. He and the Company of Pastors understood that Geneva’s financial system required the availability of credit; they were willing to accept this so long as the rate was measured and balanced against the needs of the most vulnerable citizens. When Beza arrived in Geneva in 1559, the rate of interest in private loans already stood around 6.6 percent by law, which he in no way condemned or tried to overturn. (240)

Though canvassing a wide array of sociological and historical sources both primary and secondary for the development of his argument, Summers goes beyond generalities and uses a number of particular cases to maintain his central point of Beza’s unified vision and consistency. The story of Nicholas Colladon, for example, is presented as an illustration of the flexibility Beza could demonstrate while still pursuing his principles. Colladon left Geneva because he thought the 10 percent rate of interest that Beza supported was too high, and because Beza had forced his hand. Both men were given the opportunity to present their case to the city Council, and Beza—as in most things—won out. Although his defense of a 10 percent rate of interest may seem contradictory when read in light of his attack on usurers in the Cato poem (In Foeneratores), Summers shows that this is primarily a matter of genre and circumstance: “Beza represents his Cato censuring sinners, not scrutinizing the problem of usury with the subtleties of scholastic reasoning” (242).

Chapter 6, “Sanctifying Physical Relationships,” is one of the shorter treatments and yet satisfying in its thoroughness. Here as well Summers deals with particulars and relies heavily on the recent work of Robert Kingdon and Philip Benedict, as well as the nineteenth-century efforts of Paul Henry. He also gives us an extensive look at the work of one of Beza’s most important contemporaries, the pastor and jurist Lambert Daneau. Daneau’s Ethices Christianae were more influential than any work of Beza himself for Reformed thinking on practical ethics, and Daneau’s inclusion serves to bring this important scholar to a broader audience.[4] Throughout the chapter, Summers is keen to demonstrate Beza’s highlighting of the natural law basis of the need for fidelity and monogamy, and how fornicators (scortatores) were considered “dangerous to the human race as a whole, because they ignore the institutional order and mutual faith through which God gives increase” (277). Earlier in the same chapter, Summers tells us of the case of Jean Bietrix, who in 1557 sought divorce from his patrician wife Marie de la Maisonneuve. Though they had been married only three years at that point, Jean knew from

numerous witnesses [that] Marie [had] committed adultery with a servant named Rollet des Noyers from the house of the wealthy Mme. de Chamoix. The Consistory and Council exerted much effort on prying these two apart, and the two countered with equally impassioned efforts to continue their communication. In the trial dossier are letters that had been discovered in which the two can be seen engaging in an inversion of social roles, with Marie playing subservient and Rollet assuming the position of master. In some letters she complains about her husband to Rollet. Even though there were lingering doubts about sexual misconduct, her disobedience toward her husband and subversion of domestic order seemed to be evidence enough of her guilt. She was sentencd [sic] to imprisonment for life. (265)

Summers is careful to present such cases in a way sympathetic to differing perspectives on such a practice, and not through the insular lenses of twenty-first century prejudices. In other words, he shows admirable restraint in presenting the issues evenhandedly: Beza is neither blamed for every questionable decision in which he had a part nor exonerated blithely through special pleading.

In the chapter on “Outliers” (ch. 6), we receive a thorough explanation of Beza’s attitude and practical approach toward Geneva’s societal ills of monasticism, gluttony, drunkenness, and other persistent problems. Summers describes persons beset with such woes as

those who abuse their bodies and dull their capacity for reason through the excess consumption of wine. They give themselves over to the appetites within them, like animals or something even more monstrous and demeaning, and ignore their potential to share in the divine image. A more dangerous segment of this class is the Jesuit monks. (294)

The discussion of the relationship between Beza and the Jesuit Counter-Reformation movement as a whole (306–22), and that of the Jesuit pilgrim to Geneva Luca Pinelli (306–10), is itself worth the price of the book.

Though Beza is the work’s central figure, and therefore his perspective on ethics and their cultivation in a society leaving several hundred years of Roman Catholic control is featured, the reader can also gain much knowledge of Daneau and Goulart (already mentioned), Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, and a host of other Swiss Reformers of that time.

Before offering a slight word of criticism and concluding, as well as mentioning a few errors, this reviewer wishes to highlight a remarkable example of Summers’s skill as a translator. On page 317, fn 64, the Latin word Satan is separated by seven lines from the personal pronoun tu with which it is used in apposition. Summers astutely places them together in his English construal for maximum clarity and effect. A lesser translator would never have been able to accomplish such a feat in a way that is both true to the sense and pleasing to the ear. And it is important to note that this is not the main point of the book, i.e., translation of Beza. But Summers’s work here aptly suits the larger argument he is making.

Nevertheless, there are places in the work where Summers’s profound philological erudition likely exceeds the interest and ability of his readers. For example, when Summers is discussing (342–43) the proper understanding of the phrase Ah! quam in Beza’s poem on the hen that produced fifteen chicks (itself a moving comparison of Beza and his unproductive old age to the chicken that surprisingly still lays eggs), those without extensive training in Latin and the tools of philology will soon feel bogged down. Similarly, an argument could easily be made that this work should have been divided into two smaller volumes: one on Beza as poet, theologian of ethics, and continuator of Calvin, and a second on less well-known figures like Daneau and Goulart, and the general social climate of Geneva. It is tempting to think that the scope of Summers’s ambition and skill exceeded editorial restraint.

In closing, that the reader may come away with a good understanding of the importance of this book and the author’s skill in its execution, we return to the conclusion, worth quoting at length:

Beza’s moral indignation is unambiguous and profound. This book has sought to uncover the ideas giving shape to it. What ethical theory organizes and sustains this indignation? What gives it internal cohesion? As we noted in the introduction, the editors of Beza’s correspondence describe his ethics as a “delicate and little-known subject.” Their statement assumes that a set of guiding principles, or what Beza called “heavenly wisdom” lies behind the flurry of disciplinarian moralizing activity at Geneva in this period. Numerous studies have demonstrated the practical mechanisms at work: they have examined, among other things, the functioning of the Reformed consistories, the sociological and political forces behind discipline at Geneva and elsewhere, and the struggles between ecclesiastical and civil authorities throughout the latter half of the sixteenth century. The studies have provided a valuable foundation for our own. Our investigation into the theological and ethical underpinnings of the disciplinary activities of Beza and his colleagues have led us to ask a different set of questions of the evidence available to us. Driving their discussions about discipline and morality are not political theory per se, but a well-conceived theoretical rationale based on their reading of God’s Word. This rationale informs everything these reformed leaders do. If they harbored other motives or what they were trying to accomplish, they never express them, either openly or by implication. (362–63)

This is a well-researched and charitable conclusion. We ought not to read the lives of these men through rose-colored spectacles. But because we understand that they were not congenitally more stupid then we, and indeed in Beza’s case and most of the men of that generation their learning surpasses our own by a laughable margin, we should have the courtesy of saying nothing but good about the dead (nil nisi bonum dicendum est) except when the evidence clearly demands a pointed critique. In the case of Beza, contrary to many years of slander, it does not.

Readers of this review will likely come away thinking that there is almost nothing but good to say about Summers’s work and that they should promptly acquire a copy for themselves and read it. That is the correct conclusion.

However, a number of small errors mar the work, most of which are the fault of the editor. These include: page 85, fn 13, Apoc. 6. c. [sic] 10; page 126, fn 7 imagniariae for imaginariae; page 133, fn 24 “Peccatum Linguae the and …”; page 134 “But Daneau also follows denounces dutiful lying …”; page 159, fn 79 scrarum for sacrarum; page 178, 42 furest for fures; page 268, “Nevertheless, Beza adds, the Pharisees were not asking about divorces on account of adultery specifically, nor was Christ responding to that; they were asking whether divorced [sic] was permissible no matter what the reason”; page 270, “Since adultery deserves death, and God’s law, it follows that adultery can be used used [sic] to dissolve the marriage”; page 333, “In reality, the [sic] say, the so-called creation continues on as it always has, and God never comes; he is not paying attention to it at all”; page 358, “He therefore throws himself on the mercy of the omnipotent, omniscent [sic] God, praying that he will forgive his mistakes and direct his future.”

Other errors, as they concern matters of Latinity, translation, and comprehension, are probably to be laid at the author’s feet. These include: page 81, fn 3 agistis for egistis; page 88, fn 26, irregular comma placement before and after humilitas; page 97, fn 48 potuisse wrongly translated as a present tense, i.e., ‘can’; page 257, fn 116, ἀπόγραθειν for ἀπόγραφειν, while apografein is in the text on page 256; page 350, fn 30: Summers quotes from Beza Tractationes Theologicae, 15: “quoniam electionem necessario consequitur fides Christum apprehendens, per quem iustificati et sanctificati.” This he translates in the body of the text as: “… for a faith apprehending Christ necessarily follows election, through which we are justified and sanctified.” He has misconstrued the antecedent of “quem” as fides, which is a feminine noun. The actual antecedent is the masculine noun Christum. This changes the meaning somewhat.


[1] Scott Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Amy Nelson Burnett, Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Controversy: A Study in the Circulation of Ideas (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Crawford Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism: Experiences of Defeat (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).

[2] Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Scott Manetsch, Calvin’s Company of Pastors: Pastoral Care and the Emerging Reformed Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Bruce Gordon, (John Calvin<: A Biography (New Haven, Yale University Press, 2009).

[3] His citation of Ambrose from De Tobia 3.9–11 as a “for example” gives us the impression that he considers Ambrose a Cappadocian, though I’m sure he does not.

[4] Summers does the same for Simon Goulart (1543–1628), whose ideas are carefully and responsibly assessed.

David C. Noe is a member at Hillsdale OPC and serves as an associate professor of classics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also serves on the Committee for the Historian. Ordained Servant Online, November 2017.

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