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Institutes 6: Calvin, Scripture, and Tradition (Part 2)

Many of us who come after the protestant reformation believe that we should read the bible apart from tradition. Allowing tradition to influence our reading of the bible seems like letting man correct God. We don’t like that.

In my last post on Calvin, I shared that I think this is a tragic misunderstanding. I think it doesn’t do justice to the Holy Spirit’s continued working in the Church. We didn’t get the bible from an angel in a cloud. We got it from the Spirit’s work through the tradition of the Church. We don’t get Christian interpretations of those Scriptures from an angel in a cloud either. God’s people have been interpreting the Scriptures for a really long time, and they help us to understand what it means to read the bible like Christians.

I may write some future blogs on why I believe this is so important. For me, this isn’t just a fun, intellectual argument or theological banter. I believe that a healthy understanding of tradition and its relationship with the bible is vital for the future of American Christianity.

For now, I just want to say that I believe Calvin agreed with me about this relationship.

I know. In my last post it may not have seemed like he did. And I do believe that Calvin overstated and even misstated some things when he talked about the Scriptures in chapter seven of the first book of his Institutes. However, despite his overstatements, Calvin had an understanding about the relationship between the bible and tradition that allowed the tradition of the church to inform and guide our interpretation of the bible.

In chapter 13, Calvin deals with the Trinity. Many people in his day were saying Christians shouldn’t use the ancient words of the church councils when talking about God because they couldn’t be found in the bible. They were saying something like, “All we need is the bible. We don’t need these extra words from church tradition.”

Calvin really goes after these people. If you’re interested in hearing it from the horse’s mouth, here it is. This is him applying his belief about the bible and tradition to a situation with Arius, the ancient heretic:

Thus the early Christians, when harassed with the disputes which heresies produced, were forced to declare their sentiments in terms most scrupulously exact in order that no indirect subterfuges might remain to ungodly men, to whom ambiguity of expression was a kind of hiding-place. Arius confessed that Christ was God, and the Son of God; because the passages of Scripture to this effect were too clear to be resisted, and then, as if he had done well, pretended to concur with others. But, meanwhile, he ceased not to give out that Christ was created, and had a beginning like other creatures. To drag this man of wiles out of his lurking-places, the ancient Church took a further step, and declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father, and consubstantial with the Father. The impiety was fully disclosed when the Arians began to declare their hatred and utter detestation of the term ὁμοούσιος. Had their first confession—viz. that Christ was God, been sincere and from the heart, they would not have denied that he was consubstantial with the Father. Who dare charge those ancient writers as men of strife and contention, for having debated so warmly, and disturbed the quiet of the Church for a single word? That little word distinguished between Christians of pure faith and the blasphemous Arians (1.17.4).

In a nutshell, Calvin is saying that the church needed to use new words. Arius could quote the bible as ‘support’ for his unchristian arguments. The problem wasn’t the words of the bible. The problem was Arius’ interpretation was not Christian. Calvin is saying that the church council used these new words to distinguish the faithful, Christian interpretation of the bible from the non-christian ones.

What Calvin is saying is this: The bible was not enough to distinguish the Christian from the heretic. The church that gave us the bible also passes down the Christian interpretation of the bible.

Do you agree with Calvin here?  Do you believe that the tradition of the church is supposed to inform and guide our reading of the bible?

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