December 11, 2009
John Calvin on Tradition
A lively conversation with a "Dead Theologian"--second in a series.
‘Tis the season to think about traditions. Every family has its own non-negotiable holiday rituals. If your family’s like mine, you may have competing visions of the perfect holiday under one roof (or tent, or banyan tree—or whatever your family cohabitates under).
In my experience, churches are a lot like families in that way. Each one has its own immutable ways of doing things (and often enough, every member has a different opinion about whether these ways are right or wrong). And this isn’t the case only around the Christmas season. Churches of all types—even the ones that don’t like formal rituals—form all sorts of traditions.
Earlier this fall, I spoke with a pastor who knows a thing or two about the power of tradition—another former theologian—John Calvin. Brother Calvin died in 1564, but given the recent interest in his theology, I thought I’d get his opinion on the role of traditions in the church today.
Url: I just have to ask: did you really outlaw Christmas in Geneva?
No. But I got blamed for the decision. I only wanted people to celebrate Christmas properly—without all the superstition and idolatry that can come with Christmas celebrations.
So, in fact you were not Dr. Seuss's inspiration for the Grinch.
No, I believe the Grinch was a Baptist.
How does the proper celebration of Christmas relate to the Reformation agenda in general?
Well, the Roman Catholic Church back in our day had developed some traditions—not just Christmas traditions, but all sorts—that were not supported by the Bible. Most ordinary people at the time couldn’t read, and they didn’t have access to a Bible anyway. So they believed all sorts of things. Unfortunately, the Church had a few practices that took advantage of these folks.
So we reformers argued that Scripture alone should be the authority for how we practice our faith. If a practice isn’t justified in the Bible, then we aren’t morally obligated to do it. This is especially important when it comes to salvation. We shouldn’t let our traditions distract us from what the Bible teaches.
So are all traditions bad?
Not at all. Traditions are important. There have been a lot of faithful Christians before us who have prayed and studied and thought hard about what it means to live faithfully as believers in the world. And we can learn a lot from them. Believing that “Scripture alone” is our rule of faith means that we acknowledge that humans make mistakes. If we’re not careful, we can let traditions form in our own churches that lead us away from the gospel and from God’s will for us. Before long, we can think that our opinions come from the Bible. When that happens, it becomes really hard for us to change our traditions.
So traditions are fine as long as we remember that they can be changed?
Exactly. We measure all our practices and opinions against the Bible. And when the Bible tells us we must change things, we change them. The Bible is like a pair of eye-glasses: we can’t see the world or God or each other correctly if we don’t let the Bible correct our vision. And if you need glasses, you can’t just wear them once and expect that your eyes will immediately get better. You have to put them on every morning when you wake up. In the same way, we can’t just look at the Bible once and think we understand it—or that we understand God. We have to keep reading and let the Bible correct our vision.
That sounds like a lot of work.
I suppose it is. Another important phrase for the Reformers was semper reformanda—always reforming. We can never stop thinking about our traditions in the light of scripture.
What about the "Reformed tradition"?
Good point. I certainly don’t want people to believe everything I said just because I said it. I expect folks to examine the Scriptures for themselves. Don’t let my understanding of things become a tradition that keeps you from really understanding what the Bible teaches. When you read for yourself, you just might find that I got some things wrong.
Read Url's previous "Dead Theologian" interview with Jonathan Edwards.