Scripture and Tradition Again: What John Calvin Said
I hoped my quarrel with Gerald McDermott had ceased, but apparently that is not the case. I often receive e-mails informing me that he contends in blogs here or there that my view of Scripture and tradition is dangerous. He does not claim that I am liberal but that my view of Scripture and tradition (sola or prima Scriptura) leads down the slippery slope to liberal theology and that evangelicals can only avoid following the path toward liberalism by heeding his method (Scripture and tradition as one united source of truth) rather than mine (Scripture over tradition).
Personally, I think McDermott’s view is slippery as an eel. He pays lip service to Scripture over tradition but then treats The Great Tradition of orthodox Christian doctrine (which I have not yet seen spelled out in detail) as if it were infallible alongside Scripture.
My view is being impugned, if not by McDermott (which I think is the case), by many who are influenced by him. So let me spell out my view this way: It is exactly the same as John Calvin’s!
Please turn with me in your copies of The Institutes of the Christian Religion to Book IV, Chapter IX, para. 8. (Of course, feel free to look around at the surrounding context where Calvin is engaged in a lengthy debate with the Roman Catholic Church about the authority of councils and their decisions.) Here is what Calvin says:
“What, then? You ask will the councils have no determining authority? Yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded, and (as the saying goes) to be canceled at one stroke. But, you will say, you degrade everything, so that every man has the right to accept or reject what the councils decide. Not at all! But whenever a decree of any council is brought forward, I should like men first of all diligently to ponder at what time it was held, on what issue, and with what intention, what sort of men were present; then to examine by the standard of Scripture what it dealt with—and to do this in such a way that the definition of the council may have its weight and be like a provisional judgment, yet not hinder the examination which I have mentioned.”
In Chapter VIII, para. 16 Calvin illustrated his view of the authority of councils and creeds with reference to the Nicene statement that the Son of God is “consubstantial” with the Father. “What else are the Nicene fathers doing when they declare them of one essence but simply expounding the real meaning of Scripture?”
In other words, Calvin accepted SOME declarations and decision of SOME councils BECAUSE they simply expressed what Scripture means. Their authority, then, lies in Scripture and their truth is to be tested by Scripture. And that “examination” is not to be hindered (see above).
I claim Calvin for my view—against McDermott’s and any others’ who elevate any part of extra-biblical tradition to infallibility, incorrigibility or absolute authority.
All I have ever said is that IF someone could bring a convincing case FROM SCRIPTURE that some doctrine of Christian orthodoxy was NOT WHAT SCRIPTURE TEACHES I would have to reject that doctrine. That does not mean, and I have never argued for, holding great doctrines of the Christian faith such as the incarnation or Trinity lightly. That’s idiotic nonsense (if someone claims it). All I have ever said is that Scripture is our norming norm and tradition is our normed norm and that in a doctrinal controversy Scripture alone has absolute veto power while The Great Tradition (orthodox doctrine) has a vote but not a veto. To say it has veto power is inescapably to fall into the Catholic view and deny sola/prima Scriptura.