To Serve, and Not to Lord Over Us: Calvin on the Tradition of the Church

From a sociological standpoint, it is a stretch to say that most evangelicals have any relationship to ecclesiastical traditions that extend beyond the past fifty years at all.  Among those who convert to mainline Protestant or Catholic denominations, this is typically the first and primary critique:  evangelicals have no sense of history.

It is a fair assessment, but hardly an argument against evangelicalism per se.  Evangelicals may not have a robust understanding of tradition, but the tradition from which evangelicalism sprang has numerous resources to recultivate evangelicals’s sense of the past.

Consider John Calvin:  while some would not think of him as a father of evangelicalism, his articulation of the Christian life lurks in the background of John Wesley’s theology.  Wesley, I would argue, Arminianizes–to coin a term–Calvin’s understanding of justification and sanctification.

In the “Address to King Francis” that precedes his Institutes, Calvin writes:

Yet we are so versed in [the church fathers’] writings as to remember always that all things are ours, to serve us, not to lord it over us [1 Cor 3:21-22, Luke 22:24-25], and that we belong to the one Christ [1 Cor 3:23], whom we must obey in all things without exception.  He who does not observe this distinction will have nothing certain in religion, inasmuch as these holy men were ignorant of many things, often disagreed among themselves, and sometimes even contradicted themselves.  It is not without cause, they say, that Solomon bids us not to transgress the limits set by our fathers [Prov. 22:28].  But the same rule does not apply to boundaries of fields, and to obedience of faith, which must be so disposed that “it forgets its people and its father’s house” [Ps. 45:10 p.].

Calvin’s approach to tradition is one of respectful appropriation, while occasional separation might be required.  All things are ours, but the obedience of faith occasionally calls us to reject the house of our fathers.  It is one that allows for theological progress–the holy men were ignorant of some things–and places Christ as supreme above all.   We belong to Christ, who is the one Lord over all.  All else, including the tradition of the church, is subservient to Him.

In one of my favorite posts he’s ever written (which is to say it’s remarkably good), Fred Sanders wrote:

Zwemer’s sermon, delivered at the Keswick convention in 1915, is a summons to “enter into the boundless heritage of Christianity.” He doesn’t just mean to read old books or sing old hymns, though that is obviously a good place to start. He also isn’t just asserting that every modern Christian has the right to loot, pillage, and lay claim to whatever they find in anybody’s church. The great tradition of Christian teaching and experience is ours, not because we are postmodern bricoleurs or consumers with a credit line that extends to the past, but because of our real union with Christ and his with the Father. Without this real union, all of us are just squatting on the territory of others, or decorating our houses with antiques to make ourselves feel more authentic. But all things really are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. The “all things” of the great Christian hinterland must become our homeland if we are to be in the company of the saints where our fellowship is with the Father and the Son in the Spirit.

Sanders deploys 1 Corinthians to argue against the fractures between social justice, intellectual engagement, and pentacostalism.  But Calvin’s addition that all things are there to serve us, and not to lord over us is a helpful reminder that though all things are ours, they are ours only insofar as they remain in their proper position in the universe:  below Christ.

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  • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Andrew McKnight Selby

    Nicely put, Mr. Anderson. It’s good to be an evangelical. I’m busy learning about all sorts of great Christian tradition studying at the Toronto School of Theology, perhaps the most ecumenical theological school in North America. I do find it relatively easy to lay claim to those things that believers in Christ have effectively used in service of faith. Thanks for the post.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith E. Buhler

    Good post, Matt.

    Question: isn’t the following dilemma inevitable?

    Either John Calvin, in his deep, intensive, and broad theological work, and in his sanctity of life, attained the position of another Father of the faith; or, he did not.

    If he did not, then I hope it is not presumptuous to ask, Why ought we to listen to him at all? If he is merely a rational external bystander, then surely he is not an authority on matters of interpretation of Holy Writ or proclamation about matters divine.

    If he did attain to the level of a holy Father of the church, then everything he says about (other) holy men takes on a level of irony… For 1) when he says, “They often contradict himself,” he is contradicting another holy father, Archbishop Theophanes, “What was it that above all else struck me in the works of the Fathers? It was their harmony, their wondrous, magnificent harmony. Eighteen centuries, through their lips, testified to a single unanimous teaching, a Divine teaching!” and “‘Their holiness… vouches for their trustworthiness.”
    2) When he says, “pick and choose,” regarding the teaching of earlier fathers, he admits that he himself, as another authoritative father and teacher, ought to be approached by students critically, letting them “pick and choose” from among his own teachings, even (perhaps) rejecting those he considered most sure and precious, such as his views on the proper interpretation of Scripture.

    I see no way out of this dilemma. But from within it, both options have their unappealing implications.

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Keith E. Buhler

    Were the holy fathers ignorant of “many things” pertaining to faith, practice, and salvation? If so, how did they become holy fathers? If not, in what way is it salient to recall their ignorance with regards to the knowledge of the celestial bodies, or knowledge of historical details, or sub-atomic particles?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    Keith,

    Interesting thoughts, as always.

    For one, I am not sure what you mean when you say “father of the faith.” Perhaps it applies to Calvin–perhaps it doesn’t!

    Let’s say under a narrow construal of “Father” Calvin fails to attain the status. Does that entail that we ought ignore him? Does that mean his theological contributions are invalid? “Merely a rational external bystander” (why ‘merely,’ and what does ‘external’ mean?) is not the only option here.

    I think you’re question, in fact, is loaded. It seems to assume that we only listen to those who have authority by virtue of their personage. That is precisely the point in question. While some people may be ‘authoritative,’ I think that the Fathers are authorities only insofar as they align with the councils of Scripture. It is their teachings we appeal to, not their persons.

    However, let’s grant the broad construal of “Father” and say that Calvin attains the designation. He would be, no doubt, thrilled. You point out that he is trapped in irony in that his claim that Fathers contradict themselves is itself a contradiction of another Father. Who can unwind this mess? Doubtlessly his point is proved, then, and we ought question the status of the Theophanes, right?

    In short, I fail to see what is so unappealing about this option.

    Your second purported quandry is a little…..biased. He does not say “pick and choose.” He says that all things are ours, and are to be kept in their proper place. It’s more than a semantic point–your characterization suggests a shopping mall capriciousness about theology and the tradition that Calvin would presumably eschew.

    As to your dilemma that this subjects Calvin’s own theology to the dangers of others accepting only parts of it, I fail to see what is so terrible about this implication or why that would be surprising to Calvin. He makes the best arguments that he can for his positions–but he doesn’t think he’s Jesus or that the Institutes is the infallible word of God. Your dilemma only has force on a very different understanding of tradition, theology, and their authority. I don’t see the problem this poses for Calvin (or Protestants) in the least.

    I’ll quote your third point directly: “Were the holy fathers ignorant of “many things” pertaining to faith, practice, and salvation?”

    Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, the stronger position and say “yes.”

    “If so, how did they become holy fathers?”

    “Ignorance” among the Fathers on matters of salvation is an interesting question. Do I think they were ignorant of the basics? No. Do I think they sometimes got things wrong because they didn’t see all the implications of what they were writing? Yes. Do I think the basic outline is correct? Yes. Do I think that outline can be expanded in different directions theologically? Yes. The Fathers expanded it one direction–through Plato–but there are other ways to go.

    Really the question is one of the possibility of doctrinal development. You have to acknowledge SOME sort of ignorance among SOME of the fathers, I would think. The Apostolic Fathers weren’t quite clear on the nuances surrounding homoousian, for instance. That suggests to me that comprehensive knowledge of the Gospel and its implications is not a requisite to be a Father of the Faith.

    I also don’t think we reached a magical moment where that doctrinal development ended. There are, in other words, still theological questions unanswered.

    “If not, in what way is it salient to recall their ignorance with regards to the knowledge of the celestial bodies, or knowledge of historical details, or sub-atomic particles?”

    I am not sure what you’re driving at here. Are you suggesting their ignorance in these areas is parallel to their ignorance in matters of faith, salvation, etc?

    Finally, one methodological point: I know you like breaking your comments up into multiple posts, but it does make it a touch more difficult to respond to in longer discussions because conversations get intertwined with each other. If we had better commenting software (working on it!) I’d say “go for it,” but otherwise let’s try to keep things a bit cleaner! :)

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