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Institutes 5: Calvin, Scripture, and Tradition (Pt 1)

The other day, I was talking with someone about God. She told me to pray, ask for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and read my bible, and that I would believe what she believed. To a good, evangelical Christian like me, that sounds like some pretty good advice.

The problem was, she wasn’t an evangelical. She was a Jehovah’s Witness.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe something a lot like this old teacher in the third and fourth centuries named Arius. He thought that the easiest way to understand Jesus was to say that there was a time before he existed and at some point God created him.

The Church came together in a council in the early fourth century (325) and condemned his idea as heresy. Christians, according to this council, should confess that Jesus was “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father.”

Arius wasn’t setting out to be a heretic. He thought this is what the bible taught. He had some bible verses to support his views too.

Here’s a problem, though. Many people in my tradition would be quick to say that we don’t need the tradition of the church. They say things like, “We just believe the bible at our church,” or, “We just preach the bible here. That is all we need.”

That’s funny. I thought that Jehovah’s Witness at my door read the bible. She believed it was true, too. What separates her from me is not the Bible; it is the historic interpretation of the bible. It is tradition.

Let me be clear. There is no problem with the Bible. The Bible is true. The Bible is clear. The problem is people like me, who will suppress the truth that the Scripture testifies to. If I interpret this book alone, I will inevitably become a heretic. I need others. I need people that help me read the book right. Because people have been reading the book for a long time, some of those people have already died.

Where do we get this idea? Where do we receive the myth that we only need the bible, and nothing else?

We get it from people like Calvin (and people after him that took some of his statements way farther than he ever intended).

To be fair to John Calvin, it’s not really him. Calvin was a great historical theologian. He cites the early church all over his Institutes. In a later post, I’ll even show how he makes a strong case for relying on the language of church councils.

In chapter seven of the first book of his Institutes, though, he lays out an argument that led many of later products of the reformation to pit Scripture against the tradition of the Church. For Calvin, it seemed ridiculous to somehow subject the Scriptures to the Church. That would be like subjecting God’s words to man’s reason.

That’s not what we’re doing if we trust historical interpretations of Scripture, though. Christians believe that the Spirit of God is at work through his people. This isn’t subjecting God’s word to man’s reason. It is trusting the Spirit to work through his people to help them interpret his words accurately.

Have you ever thought about why you read Matthew and not Thomas (or one of the many other gospels)? The truth of the matter is that the Church decided which books would be in the Bible. This would scare us into uncertainty, except that we know that they did it with the Holy Spirit’s leading. The people of God, led by the Spirit of God, recognized this group of writings to be the very words of God.

They didn’t give us the Scriptures and stop talking either. They also reflected together and helped us understand what these words meant, and how to read the bible like Christians.

What many of us never do well is talk about how it makes sense for us to trust the Spirit’s leading of the Church in the formation of the Scriptures, and then quickly jump ship when the same Spirit-led church begins interpreting them.

What do you believe is a healthy relationship between the Scriptures and Tradition?

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