Monday, April 03, 2006

Calvin on Tradition

Recently, in my discussion with Fr. Joseph, he said:

"St. Paul saw both the oral and the written tradition as equal in veracity and authority. Calvin saw only the written Tradition as reliable as a rule of faith and practice.”

How would Calvin answer this? Calvin addresses the question, “Tradition Subordinate to Scripture?” in the Institutes IV.8.14. Keep an eye out for Calvin's dreaded pagan philosophy influencing his response and comments- If you find it, let me know. I was never any good at "Where's Waldo Now?"

"Here again they mutter that the church needed to add some things to the writings of the apostles, or that the apostles themselves afterward properly supplied through a living voice what they had not clearly enough taught. For, of course, Christ said to the apostles, “I have many things to say to you which you cannot bear now” [John 16:12]. These, they explain, are decrees which, apart from Scripture, have been accepted only by use and custom. But what effrontery is this? I confess that the disciples were as yet untutored and well-nigh unteachable when they heard this from the Lord. But when they committed their doctrine to writing, were they even then beset with such dullness that they afterward needed to supply with a living voice what they had omitted from their writings through the fault of ignorance? Now, if they had already been led into all truth by the Spirit of truth [cf. John 16:13] when they put forth their writings, what hindered them from embracing and leaving in written form a perfect and distinct knowledge of gospel doctrine? But come now, let us grant them what they seek: only let them point out what ought to have been revealed apart from writing. If they dare attempt it, I shall counter with Augustine’s words, that is, “When the Lord said nothing, who of us may say, ‘These things are or those things are’? Or if one dare say so, what proof does he provide”? But why do I quarrel over something superfluous? For every schoolboy knows that in the writings of the apostles, which these fellows, as it were, maim and halve, there abides the fruit of that revelation which the Lord then promised to the apostles."


a. Claim: The church needed to add some things to the writings of the apostles; or the apostles later supplied through a living voice what they had not clearly enough taught.

b. Reply: Were they so dull that they needed afterward to supply what they had omitted through ignorance?

c. Augustine: “When the Lord said nothing, who of us may say, ‘These things are or those things are’? Or if one dare say so, what proof does he provide?” [Augustine (354-430): But when He Himself was silent about such things, which of us could say, It is this or that? Or if he venture to say it, how will he prove it? NPNF1: Vol. VII, Tractates on John, Tractate 96, John 16:12, 13].

Source: Ford Lewis Battles, Analysis of the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1980). 324

What about Paul's exhortation in 2 Thessalonians 2:15?

So then brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.” (NIV)

Calvin’s comments on this verse:

Some restrict this to precepts of external polity; but this does not please me, for he points out the manner of standing firm. Now, to be furnished with invincible strength is a much higher thing than external discipline. Hence, in my opinion, he includes all doctrine under this term, as though he had said that they have ground on which they may stand firm, provided they persevere in sound doctrine, according as they had been instructed by him. I do not deny that the term parado>seiv is fitly applied to the ordinances which are appointed by the Churches, with a view to the promoting of peace and the maintaining of order, and I admit that it is taken in this sense when human traditions are treated of, ( Matthew 15:6.)

Paul, however, will be found in the next chapter making use of the term tradition, as meaning the rule that he had laid down, and the very signification of the term is general. The context, however, as I have said, requires that it be taken here to mean the whole of that doctrine in which they had been instructed. For the matter treated of is the most important of all—that their faith may remain secure in the midst of a dreadful agitation of the Church. Papists, however, act a foolish part in gathering from this that their traditions ought to be observed. They reason, indeed, in this manner—that if it was allowable for Paul to enjoin traditions, it was allowable also for other teachers; and that, if it was a pious thing to observe the former, the latter also ought not less to be observed. Granting them, however, that Paul speaks of precepts belonging to the external government of the Church, I say that they were, nevertheless, not contrived by him, but divinely communicated. For he declares elsewhere, (1 Corinthians 7:35,) that it was not his intention to ensnare consciences, as it was not lawful, either for himself, or for all the Apostles together. They act a still more ridiculous part in making it their aim to pass off, under this, the abominable sink of their own superstitions, as though they were the traditions of Paul. But farewell to these trifles, when we are in possession of Paul’s true meaning.

And we may judge in part from this Epistle what traditions he here recommends, for he says—whether by word, that is, discourse, or by epistle. Now, what do these Epistles contain but pure doctrine, which overturns to the very foundation the whole of the Papacy, and every invention that is at variance with the simplicity of the Gospel?"

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