Scripture and Tradition Again: What John Calvin Said

Scripture and Tradition Again: What John Calvin Said October 30, 2013

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 Yes, indeed; for I am not arguing here either that all councils are to be condemned or the acts of all to be rescinded, and (as the saying goes) to be canceled at one stroke.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.

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  • Rick

    What else has a “vote”, and would you say The Great Tradition’s vote equals more than some others?

    • Roger Olson

      Sure, logic gets a vote.

      • Rick

        You’re sounding like an Anglican :^)

  • Mark K

    Preach it, Brother Roger!

    I’m reading Reformed and Always Reforming now, so this is somewhat familiar to me. It makes perfect sense.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Honestly, I don’t understand what is so controversial about your perspective. It is the one held by almost all protestants, whether they realize it or not (including McDermott from the sound of it. It’s the approach to tradition that I learned in college, it’s the one Martin Luther held, and, as you pointed out, the one Calvin held, also. McDermott’s view, from the sound of it, doesn’t have a foothold in Protestantism in general or Evangelicalism in particular. It most certainly has no place in Calvinism.

    • Roger Olson

      Thank you, Josh. But many evangelicals are being attracted toward Catholicism even as they hesitate to join the RCC. It’s an almost understandable reaction to rampant liberalism in their mainline Protestant denominations. But for him to claim that his creedalism that puts tradition on a par with Scripture (“one source” which is really two equal ones) is the only way to avoid liberalism is simply wrong even if many evangelicals are being attracted to it. I could name names of other evangelicals who have gotten on this bandwagon of paleo-orthodoxy and evangelical catholic-like creedalism but I won’t here. They haven’t attacked me by name in print (recently, anyway). But in certain evangelical circles all you have to do is cry “liberalism!” and many people sit up and get “concerned” and don’t think the issues through for themselves. By publishing his article JETS, in my opinion, contributed to that.

  • Solomon

    I think your last paragraph is pretty clear and I have no problem with it even though I wish free church evangelicalism was a little less wary of the historical creeds. If I hear you correctly, your statement echos the Anglican 39 articles (as another representation of historic Protestantism? Specifically:

    6. …Holy Scripture contains all things necessary for salvation. Consequently whatever is not read in Scripture nor can be proved from Scripture cannot be demanded from any person to believe it as an article of the faith….

    8. …the Nicene Creed, Athanasian Creed, and that known as the Apostles’ Creed, ought to be wholeheartedly accepted and believed. This is because their contents may be proved by definite statements of Holy Scripture…

    21. …General councils …sometimes have erred, even in things elating to God. Therefore anything commanded by them as necessary to salvation has no power or authority unless it can be shown to be taught by Scripture.

    I find that a good balance – respect for tradition and creed, but any authority they have is derived from the Biblical text – the horse remains before the cart.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, the only exception is that I find nothing in the so-called Athanasian Creed (which has nothing to do with Athanasius and we don’t even know for sure who wrote it or when) that adds anything valuable to the Nicene Creed and I disagree with the Athanasian Creed’s making salvation dependent on believing doctrines.

      • Solomon

        I suspect the original intent was not about “believing doctrines” in a modernist sense so much as defining idolatry, that is, worshipping the true God as opposed to a false one. But as I’ve expressed before, there needs to be a mid point between allegiance to a human magisterium on the one hand and “me and my Bible” individualism on the other. The Vincentian approach “seek what was believed always, everywhere and by all” seems the best idea I’ve heard.

  • Steve

    Couldn’t Scripture itself be considered a Tradition? After all, the table of contents of the New Testament is not itself something in an inspired book. Rather it is something which has been handed on through Christian history.

    • Roger Olson

      Yes, of course. But it is inspired in a way extra-biblical tradition is not (so far as we know).

  • John Osborn

    It’s very intriguing that he criticizes the idea of Scripture, which consists of clear canon, being self-interpreting, but there’s no way liberals could possibly distort this amorphous undefined category of the “Great Tradition.” There are valid and strong arguments for this high view of tradition (even though I’m not convinced by them), but what does not make sense is thinking that this view of tradition is entirely separable from the ecclesiology that formed it and was formed by it. In order to think that there is a clear and identifiable tradition, you have to believe that there is a clear and identifiable hierarchy of the one true church that is producing and deliberating upon said tradition. Otherwise there’s no clear reason for saying why the minority side that ultimately lost should be considered heretics and why the winning side should be considered the “Great Tradition.” The churches which hold that the church is defined by being led by Bishops which are in Apostolic succession provide that clear and identifiable hierarchy along with a theological rationale.

    It’s not clear why one would not join one of the churches that can claim continuity with the hierarchy that was supposedly indispensable for interpreting the Scripture infallibly in the 4th and 5th centuries and why they would think such a necessary structure for interpreting Scripture in those centuries is not even more necessary in the 21st century. Do they think all possible heresies that must be authoritatively settled arose in the first four or five centuries? Of course, as an Anglican he could embrace an Anglo-Catholic theory of the Anglican church continuing Apostolic succession and being a third branch of the Catholic church along with the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics. That would be theologically consistent and would make far more sense than his crusade to convince people that his view of tradition is the one true way to be an evangelical. It’s clear to Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians that their ecclesiology is indispensable to the authority they grant tradition, but a few evangelicals seem strangely confused on the connection.

    • Roger Olson

      In my last e-mail to him (we carried on a rather lengthy e-mail “dialogue”) I said to McDermott that I suspect our differences go to ecclesiology and that ought to join the Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodoxy because, without some kind of authoritative magisterium his concerns about the slippery slope to liberalism could never be fully settled. He didn’t respond to that.

  • Didn’t the Quakers have similar troubles with the Puritans? They wouldn’t submit to any sort of ecclesiastical authority. It’s almost as if they read Mt 20:20-28, Eph 4:1-16, and 1 Cor 4:1-5! Then again, that kind of precocious reading might be unacceptable, for it might challenge extant sociopolitical structures which are not to be challenged. At least, without reading them through the right lenses. This reminds me of the admonishments in Ez 18:1-4 and Rom 10:5-13. But surely all extant interpretations of scripture with the Church Stamp of Approval are 100% correct and inerrant!

  • steve rogers

    Does your view not imply that the one council that is not to be questioned is the one that compiled the scripture? If so, then I can only conclude that there is at least one council of tradition that stands equal to scripture in authority. If one, why not several? Both yours and McDermott et al arguments seem circular to me in that they end up giving the authority to whichever source(s) you and they decide to give it making you and they the ultimate authority in the matter.

    • Roger Olson

      Our disagreement is over whether my view leads inevitably to liberal theology. But to answer your question. No, I do not think a council made Scripture Scripture. It was already Scripture and two or three councils finally settled that matter. But I do not accept the canon because of a conciliar decision. I experience Scripture as God’s Word with the rest of Christianity because it bears the stamp of the Holy Spirit and testifies to Jesus.

  • Andy

    Not sure when to insert this comment on your relatively frequent recommendation of Frank Tupper’s “A Scandalous Providence.”

    Amazon had a manuscript form of Tupper’s book, which I bought. But I put off reading it for quite some time, probably because a 4-pound manuscript version (I weighed it) looks ponderous and 4 pounds is too heavy for carry-on luggage!

    I’m only about a third through the book, but this book is good enough to warrant re-reading. I hope they republish this in book form to reach a wider audience. I underline my books when reading (not when borrowing!). But underlining has proven difficult because I find nearly every paragraph significant, inspiring, important.

    So far the book has emphasized our relationship with God as primary over “glory”(your own books have the same emphasis). There is a good section on familial relationship with God vice authoritarian patriarchy.

    Thanks for the recommendation, thought difficult to find.