Do Calvinists place tradition above scripture?

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Do Calvinists exalt the teaching of Calvin above the teachings of scripture? Does the reformed faith tend to put tradition before scripture? These questions amongst others are explored in the following discussion which originally took place on social media. I publish it here for those who are interested in exploring these issues.

Objection to Calvinism

Whatever one’s view on Calvin, there is no doubt that he was one of the most influential theologians of his time. However Calvinism like many theological beliefs and creeds, is not just an expression of biblical interpretation and truth, but also a polemic against specific false beliefs and issues that God’s people faced at that particular time. Calvin was undoubtedly an incredibly gifted biblical scholar and writer of his time but we need to be careful that we don’t elevate his teaching to that of scripture itself. If I have one concern within some parts of the reformed tradition today, it is the tendency for some to quote from the reformers as if their teaching is synonymous with that of scripture. This is somewhat ironic bearing in mind that the reformers themselves taught that only scripture is authoritative and not tradition. So we need to learn from Calvin, but we must also be careful that our theology doesn’t just get stuck in the 16th Century or think that Calvin has the last say on what the bible teaches. Instead we need to come to the bible afresh looking at what it says about the issues we face today and asking God to reveal himself afresh to our own generation in a way that is relevant and meaningful, but also in a way that upholds the integrity of scripture.

Response

Hi, I appreciate this in-depth comment — mind if I respond?

1)      “However, Calvinism like many theological beliefs and creeds, is not just an expression of biblical interpretation and truth, but also a polemic against specific false beliefs and issues that God’s people faced at that particular time.”

This is also true of the New Testament scriptures. The doctrine is embedded in polemics of that era. This does not mean the truths of scripture are time-bound. It just means the truth emerged in a context.

2) “we need to be careful that we don’t elevate his teaching to that of scripture itself.”

Can you show me one reformed pastor or teacher who does this? Calvin’s institutes have NO ecclesiastical authority in the reformed churches. They are a valued resource along with other commentaries and systematic theologies.

3) “If I have one concern within some parts of the reformed tradition today, it is the tendency for some to quote from the reformers as if their teaching is synonymous with that of scripture. This is somewhat ironic bearing in mind that the reformers themselves taught that only scripture is authoritative and not tradition.”

Couple of things:

A) who makes the reformers synonymous with scripture?

B) I think you misunderstand the reformers. The reformers were not ‘anti-tradition’ they were anti-false tradition. Calvin’s institutes are an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, and he quotes the Fathers at length. Why? He was keen to show that the reformed faith was not an innovation but a recovery of the historic Christian faith. Tradition is important for the reformed faith, it prevents us from the modern evangelical tendency to be a-historical.

4) “asking God to reveal himself afresh to our own generation in a way that is relevant and meaningful,”

Sorry, I think that is nonsense. God HAS revealed himself in a way that is ‘meaningful’ and ‘relevant for all peoples in all times and in all places. The cross has said it all. Jesus is the final and last revelation of God. This is why the reformed tradition is essential and it is why evangelicalism is such a mess. The former actually takes seriously the revelation of God, and the need to preserve and proclaim it; the latter needs to re-invent itself every 5 years because it takes its direction from culture.

Objection Two

Thank you, for your detailed response.

In regards to your 1st point, I agree whole heartedly with what you say.

In regards to points 2,3 , what I am referring to is a tendency among some to view the teachings of Calvin as finale rather than approach his teachings with a healthy critical attitude. While I think we should learn from tradition, we must always view tradition through the lens of scripture, rather than view scripture through the lens of tradition. And whilst we may all claim to do the first, the reality is we all (myself included) tend to approach the scriptures with our presuppositions, church traditions, and spiritual and theological blind spots.

That is why reformation needs to be ongoing, and not just stop in the 16th century. For example, in my opinion infant baptism is a tradition which can only survive when one views the scriptures though the lens of tradition, rather than view this tradition through the lens of scripture. The reformers rightly rejected the long-standing tradition of baptismal regeneration. But instead of ridding the church of infant baptism, they attempted to sanitise it by incorporating the tradition into their covenantal theology and morphing it with circumcision. And yet no such practice of infant baptism was taught or practiced by the apostles in the New Testament.

In regards to point 4, I am a bit surprised that you describe my comments as ‘nonsense’. Let me first clarify that I am not suggesting that we simply embrace some shallow popularism, or in the words of Paul in 2 Tim 4:3 “gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”

What I am saying is that we should always come afresh to the scriptures and interpret the scriptures in a meaningful way to that generation while maintaining the integrity of God’s Word. (Liberalism and popularism fails to do the latter)

And is this not what Calvin did? Substitutionary atonement was nothing new. But penal substitution was. Calvin’s doctrine of penal substitution was a refining of Anslem’s satisfaction atonement model.

Anselm’s theological model was interpreted in a medieval culture where the concept of someone dying to restore someone’s honour was commonly understood. While Calvin’s theology was understood within a legal framework. It is no coincidence that he was a lawyer, and he understood the atonement within that perspective. Biblical interpretation can never happen in isolation of the culture and the issues within that culture

 I entirely agree when you say “The cross has said it all. Jesus is the final and last revelation of God”. But fully understanding what happened on the cross and fully understanding all that Jesus taught and what it means is something we will never fully grasp on this side of eternity. Or as Paul puts it “for we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when the perfect comes the partial will pass away”

Response Two

Hi, thanks again for your in-depth (and gracious) response. I’ll try and pick up the main points of difference.

1)      “There is a tendency among some to view the teachings of Calvin as final rather than approach his teachings with a healthy critical attitude. While I think we should learn from tradition, we must always view tradition through the lens of scripture, rather than view scripture through the lens of tradition. And whilst we may all claim to do the first, the reality is we all (myself included) tend to approach the scriptures with our presuppositions, church traditions, and spiritual and theological blind spots.”

I understand this is what you believe, but can you show me examples? I don’t think penal substitution, or infant baptism can be written off so easily. But I’ll respond to that later. I’ll also seek to demonstrate that reformed churches don’t exalt Calvin or tradition above scripture.

2)      “That is why reformation needs to be ongoing, and not just stop in the 16th century. For example, in my opinion infant baptism is a tradition which can only survive when one views the scriptures though the lens of tradition, rather than view this tradition through the lens of scripture. The reformers rightly rejected the long-standing tradition of baptismal regeneration. But instead of ridding the church of infant baptism, they attempted to sanitise it by incorporating the tradition into their covenantal theology and morphing it with circumcision. And yet no such practice of infant baptism was taught or practiced by the apostles in the New Testament.”

I understand this narrative, I used to hold this view. But it is a narrative It is not based on fact. I now hold to paedo/covenant baptism. I used to be a firm credo-baptist. In the end, I was not persuaded by tradition, but scripture. It is impossible to show from the scriptures that infant baptism was not taught or practiced in the early church. You mentioned pre-suppositions and interpretation. I would say that a person can only come to this conclusion when they approach the Bible with a post-reformation, individualistic mind-set that does not take into account the covenant context of the people of Israel in the New Testament text. If Children of believers were to be excluded from the covenant community under the new gospel era – that issue would have been raised. That would make the ‘new covenant’ less inclusive than the ‘old’.

There is more that could be said here, but at the very least, whilst you may disagree with the interpretation of the scriptures that lead paedo-baptists to embrace that view, you should at least represent the view fairly. Paedo-baptist has a strong scriptural foundation. It is not as you suggest a blind tradition.

3)      “What I am saying is that we should always come afresh to the scriptures and interpret the scriptures in a meaningful way to that generation while maintaining the integrity of God’s Word. (Liberalism and popularism fails to do the latter)”

I would be concerned that this could be confusing application with interpretation. Application always needs to be fresh. Interpretation on the other hand, really shouldn’t be “new”. If our interpretation is radically new, it is likely to be false. “Semper reformanda” is about ongoing preservation of apostolic doctrine, not contemporary innovation. Semper reformanda has been hijacked in recent years to bolster various theological innovations.

4)      “Substitutionary atonement was nothing new. But penal substitution was.”

Now I’m surprised that you were happy to jump to the New Testament for your authoritative source for credo-baptism, but you don’t when it comes to penal substitution. Propitiation, like justification by faith alone, may have been obscured throughout the history of the church, but it is clearly a biblical (OT and NT) doctrine.

5)      “I entirely agree when you say “The cross has said it all. Jesus is the final and last revelation of God”. But fully understanding what happened on the cross and fully understanding all that Jesus taught and what it means is something we will never fully grasp on this side of eternity. Or as Paul puts it “for we know in part, and we prophecy in part, but when the perfect comes the partial will pass away””

Again, I think this is to confuse the incomprehensibility of God with the accessibility of the scriptures. We read in scripture that, “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.” Deut 29:29 This is important. We know very little about God. But God has made himself known through the scriptures and his son. To confuse the incomprehensibility of God with the sufficiency of special revelation is to be on a trajectory towards a train wreck. The scripture is not a cryptic puzzle. We need the Holy Spirit’s help to understand it, but it’s not a cryptic puzzle designed to evade us. It is our sinfulness that makes the process more complicated than it needs to be. The Westminster Confession is clear about this, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.” The problem I have with contemporary evangelicalism is the fact that it seeks to make that which is plain obscure.

You keep saying that the reformed tradition exalts tradition above scripture. I would argue that the opposite is true. For Presbyterians, our confessional standard is not Calvin, it is the Westminster Confession, which states:

“The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.”

This is the underpinning doctrine of Calvinism and the Reformed faith. You are arguing that reformed believers exalt tradition above scripture, I would argue that you end up in a situation where individual opinion (“private spirits”) is exalted above the authority of scripture. In your frame-work, all you can ever have is hyper-individualism. Church ‘communities’ where everyone holds their own personal interpretation. Again, this is why evangelicalism is such a mess. It’s undermined its own foundations.