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.

December 11, 2009

Displaying 1–8 of 8 comments


December 25, 2009  10:09am

Derek, I also tend toward commemorating the Festival of Lights, recognizing that Christ our Messiah is the "Light of the world."

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mike rucker

December 19, 2009  8:14am

merry Christmas to all. following my own self-prescribed help-me-stay-sober regimen of dropping in only occasionally here... my only comment on this (did you think i could read it and not comment?): the arguments for 'tradition' - just like the appeals to calvin, spurgeon, edwards, etc - have always seemed to me to come from people i recognize from meetings at work. you know the ones i'm talking about: they pooh-pooh changes and new (and usually better) ideas, claiming, "you can't do that - we've NEVER done it that way!". i think the jews even said that, oh, two thousand years ago. which brings me full circle: merry Christmas to all. mike rucker fairburn, ga

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Ephrem Hagos

December 17, 2009  9:22am

The divine gift of "most sacred faith" (John 1: 50-51; 19: 30-37; Jude 20-23) and man's tradition are contradictions to be kept apart!

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December 15, 2009  3:10pm

What about celebrating the Festival of Lights in lieu of Christmas?

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December 14, 2009  9:35pm

Great post! Witty and insightful, especially the discussion of "semper reformanda". I think too many Calvin reformers today revere the Reformation tradition in a frightfully similar way that Medieval Catholics revered their tradition. As an aside, alas, John Calvin never preached tulip.

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Steve Benedict

December 14, 2009  6:48pm

I still go by the thought of one of my first real Christian mentors. I was managing a Christian radio station in North Dakota ( my penance). We were discussing whether the bible was open to interpretation. His words to me were: " The bible is the inspired and infallible word of God". I believe Calvin went too far in proclaiming his version of the Lord's mission for Christians. I won't be a flame thrower and try to incite pure Calvinists, but I do think he was wrong.

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matt miles

December 14, 2009  12:27am

I can see Calvin claiming Scripture as the ultimate authority and citing theologians and church fathers at the same time. Most evangelicals I know (pastors and laypersons alike) do the same. Everyone has their favorite brand name. But if someone pointed out using Scripture how that Piper or Spurgeon quote was off base, ultimately Scripture would be the guide. I have no doubt this is usually the case.

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An Amused Anglican

December 11, 2009  1:51pm

This is an amusing (and helpful) post, but I could not help but notice a bit of an evangelical slant to the responses. I have been reading the Institutes this year, and have to point out that Calvin cites an awful lot of theologians and church fathers along with scripture! That being noted, I accept your point that scripture was the gold standard by which Calvin ultimately assessed the world and its fallen inhabitants.

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