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The sixth chapter, the summation, shows the paradox that Calvin’s argument against tradition has been accepted at face value, even though Calvin regularly used the tradition in his doctrinal, polemical, and pastoral work. This paradox created both historiographical and cultural consequences. Historiographically, a great number of scholars accepted the false picture of Protestant biblicism vs. Catholic traditionalism, frequently noted by the couplet scripture and tradition or scripture vs. tradition. Culturally, this supplied certain heirs of Reformed thought to believe that their traditions were wholly biblical, and thus neither culturally conditioned, nor open to change. This had disastrous impacts, from racism to sexism to the exploitation of the natural world. The study then examines a variety of theological receptions of tradition to argue for a more nuanced appropriation of tradition.
The opening chapter sets out the various meanings of tradition that are commonly used. These include at least three that the study will consider. First, there is the sense of tradition as a historical trajectory. In this meaning, one might speak of the Augustinian tradition, or the exegetical tradition of interpreting a particular passage. One might argue about details of this, but the sources and evidence would be open to all observers. Second, there is the sense of tradition as the Catholic magisterial tradition as defined by the ecclesiastical hierarchy. This sense of tradition did not accept that those outside certain circles could truly know what was in the tradition – the material handed down was not written. Finally, the modern world has seen an enormous growth in the sense of tradition as considered by philosophical hermeneutics. This sense argued that any act of understanding or interpretation necessarily stood within a stream of tradition that made sense of the foreground structures that allowed sense to be made of reality. The era of the Reformations was heir to a rich landscape of considerations of both the historical trajectory and ecclesiastical hierarchical claims. Their struggles within that historical context necessitate this study.
The fourth chapter considers an area where the intuitive mind would guess that Calvin would eschew tradition. This is the area of his work to create vernacular language resources for believers. Calvin was part of the efforts to make doctrine more readily available for those who could not read Latin, the language of the universities, scholars, and the church. In planning to translate a series of sermons by John Chrysostom, a fourth- and fifth-century Greek writer, into French for the edification of laypeople, Calvin designed an entire project to put the early exegetical tradition before his flock. While Calvin never finished this project, he did take on another, that bore more significant fruit. Calvin translated his Institutes of the Christian Religion into French several times. It would seem that this would have provided Calvin the excuse to cleanse his work of allusions to the tradition. Certainly, his French-reading audience would not know that a certain text from Peter Lombard was a regular feature of an argument on grace. But instead of doing so, Calvin kept a large number of references and discussions of the orthodox tradition in his work, even for his vernacular readers.
The third chapter illustrates the nature of the second through fifth chapters. Each seeks to explore Calvin’s engagement with and use of tradition in different contexts. The third chapter takes up Calvin’s polemics with other thinkers and confessions. Through an odd quirk in the historiography surrounding Calvin, this chapter aligns most with the mainstream of Calvin interpretation. Almost every Calvin scholar or early modern analyst will admit that Calvin and other Reformers used tradition in their polemics – but it frequently is stated either as the exception that proves the rule that Calvin depended only upon scripture, or that it is a case where he and other Reforming writers had to adopt the methods of their foes. But the analysis of the material demonstrates that Calvin turned to tradition whether his foes were orthodox or heretical, Protestant, Radical, or Catholic. Calvin’s dependence on tradition and traditional sources undercuts the customary consideration of this area of his activity.
The second chapter engages an area that should not exist, according to the traditional historiography. If Calvin, as a good evangelical reformer, avoided all entanglements with the tradition by maintaining his sole focus on the scriptures, a chapter that considers tradition and exegesis should be impossible. But the evidence demonstrates that is far from the case. In examinations of Calvin’s Commentaries on Romans and II Corinthians, and his Lectures on Genesis and Daniel, the readers will see an extraordinary array of considerations of the orthodox exegetical traditions. Further, evidence is presented to show moments when Calvin turned away from the plain sense of scripture in order to pursue the “fuller sense” that would allow him to provide the stronger doctrinal teaching – even at the cost of less-strict maintenance of the doctrine of the scriptures. This was carried out across his considerations of both testaments, and in both the earlier and later stages of his career.
Tradition stands as an unexplored and misunderstood segment of humanity’s memory, a moment of déjà vu for the collective unconscious that the twenty-first century strains to escape or resolve. The modern world knows neither whether tradition is necessary for thought to exist, nor whether it is a barrier to true rationalism. Further, struggling over tradition and whether it has a place in our collective consciousness has frequently divided modern Western culture into warring camps. In an attempt to make a contribution to the present situation, the present study examines John Calvin’s engagement with tradition. His day, not unlike ours, was turbulently violent, and the epistemic foundations of truth claims were one of the regularly visited battlegrounds. Calvin lived in a time when the medieval foundations of claims to religious truth were being questioned openly. I argue that this makes him the perfect study to provide a mirror to the present age. For Calvin struggled with tradition – arguing that he did not use it, while turning to it frequently. In so doing, he created a religious tradition in which many modern Christians still stand, that does not know what to do with the orthodox tradition.
The Epilogue offers two different venues where the influence of claims to be able to avoid all tradition to arrive at truer readings are seen in modern society in the United States of America. These two are biblical literalism and constitutional originalism. The study examines a number of cases, both exegetical and legal. In each case, the rules for reading “correctly” and only according to the text are shown to be instead part of a complex reading tradition that foregrounds certain facets of the text while ignoring others. The argument is not that biblical literalists or constitutional originalists are wrong in their conclusions. Instead, the evidence demonstrates that the hermeneutical high ground that claims only to read the text with no further rules, traditions, or caveats – does not exist.
The fifth chapter establishes Calvin’s dependence upon tradition in two different manners. First, it does so by examining those theologians upon whom Calvin relied. The chapter considers Calvin’s use of John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Augustine of Hippo. Each case shows the earlier theologian’s authority for and influence upon Calvin. Then the chapter turns to three different doctrinal loci. These are the establishment of infant baptism, the Trinity, and predestination. In each instance, Calvin had to place his confidence in traditional sources, either to bolster his biblical work, or to replace what was impossible to produce biblically, as in the case of infant baptism.
John Calvin lived in a divided world when past certainties were crumbling. Calvin claimed that his thought was completely based upon scripture, but he was mistaken. At several points in his thought and his ministry, he set his own foundations upon tradition. His efforts to make sense of his culture and its religious life mirror issues that modern Western cultures face, and that have contributed to our present situation. In this book, R. Ward Holder offers new insights into Calvin's successes and failures and suggests pathways for understanding some of the problems of contemporary Western culture such as the deep divergence about living in tradition, the modern capacity to agree on the foundations of thought, and even the roots of our deep political polarization. He traces Calvin's own critical engagement with the tradition that had formed him and analyzes the inherent divisions in modern heritage that affect our ability to agree, not only religiously or politically, but also about truth. An epilogue comparing biblical interpretation with Constitutional interpretation is illustrative of contemporary issues and demonstrates how historical understanding can offer solutions to tensions in modern culture.