Calvin’s Knowledge of Tradition & the Fathers

For context, see the post before the previous one.

Hart’s claim:

John Calvin was trained as a lawyer and a humanist. He was not a theologian who knew Holy Tradition and his writings were of a polemical nature, set to do battle with Roman Catholicism. Calvin admits that his wisdom has nothing to do with the Holy Tradition received from the Apostles.

The quote he then gives from Calvin in no way demonstrates this assertion. In the quoted passage, Calvin asserts that true human wisdom for the most part falls under two heads: knowledge of God, and knowledge of man. He here says nothing at all about how this wisdom is acquired, whether from experience, tradition, or Holy Writ. At the risk of sounding uncharitable, I have to say I am deeply puzzled as to why Hart thought this passage supported his assertion.

Now, I don’t doubt that Calvin did not take the same view of church tradition as Hart does. I do think, though, that Calvin in no way ignored or despised the writings of the Church Fathers or the words of the Councils (the ecumenical ones, at least).

Steven Wedgeworth has a post on John Calvin and the Tradition of the Church Fathers at the Calvinist International that quotes from Calvin’s preface to his Institutes of the Christian Religion, addressed to King Francis I. In the quoted passage, Calvin responds to his (no doubt mostly Roman Catholic) critics who claimed he and his lot had no respect for the Church Fathers. His tone is polemical, but if you look past it, you can see the bones of a coherent, correct position, namely that the Church Fathers were by no means univocal in all matters of dogma; the Roman Catholic church can certainly find support in their writings for its positions, but Calvin and his lot can, too. Maybe you won’t agree with Calvin that he’s picking the right bits out of the Fathers and the Roman church the wrong bits; I’m not trying to convince you of that. My points are that (a) Calvin knew the tradition of the Fathers and could cite them in support of his doctrines; and (b) the Fathers, unlike Scripture, are fallible and contradict one another.

Wedgeworth’s summary of of the views of the “magesterial Protestants” on the Fathers, with which I fully agree:

What one finds among the magisterial Protestants, and especially in the Reformed tradition, is the claim that the church fathers and their tradition is an important form of consensual exegesis used in one’s discovery of the proper reading of the Scriptures and right formulation and arrangement of doctrine. This is both a pious posture of appreciation towards the fathers and a refusal to use them as the standard of doctrine or knowledge. They are thus academic and historical tools rather than a strict interpretative grid or paradigm. In this way, tradition is able to serve as the democracy of the dead, but not the oligarchy of the aged. Church history is both highly valued and subordinated to biblical exegesis and dialectic.

I will be the first to admit that far too many of the reformed corner (which is my corner) do not look at the Fathers this way and do not value them as they ought. That I have read so little of them myself I regard as a real defect and not a virtue.

To back up the contention that Calvin knew & used the Fathers, I looked into the quotation index of the standard edition of Calvin’s Institutes (ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles), and I made rough, conservative counts of the times he cites a few of the better known Fathers and medieval theologians. We all know Calvin was profoundly indebted to Augustine, so I didn’t bother with those counts.

  • Chrysostom: 50+
  • Cyprian: 50+
  • Irenaeus: 15
  • Jerome: 30+
  • Tertullian: 40+
  • Peter Lombard: 75+
  • Aquinas: ca. 100

James McNeill, editor of the now standard edition of Calvin’s Institutes, writes the following in a footnote to Calvin’s preface:

Calvin’s command of the patristic literature was already well developed in 1835 when he wrote this passage, which contains references even to works not generally familiar. At the Lausanne Disuptation on October 5, 1536, Calvin effectively replied to the charge that he and his associates rejected “the holy doctors of antiquity,” claiming for their doctrine of the Eucharist the support of Tertullian, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Augustine (cf. LCC XXII. 38ff). While he recognizes in general the authoritative position of the fathers in Christian thought, this is always under the limitation of their fallibility and mutual divergences, and of the superior authority of scripture.

Perhaps McNeill is a hopeless partisan of Calvin, but given the richness of Calvin’s citation of the Fathers in his Institutes, what McNeill writes here is entirely plausible.

God the Direct Efficient Cause of Everything?

For context, see the previous post.

As far as I know, the mainstream of Calvinism has never asserted that God is the direct efficient cause of everything. Some hyper-Calvinists may have asserted this, but I don’t think you’ll find it in any of the major confessional statements or systematic theologies. God is always understood as working both directly (as in the initial creation, or in miracles) and indirectly (through natural law and men’s actions as proximate causes and instruments). God is understood to be the ultimate cause of everything, the first mover, which I believe was also Thomas’s position. God’s working mediately through proximate causes is often called secondary causation.


I’m quoting the older Beveridge translation, since it is in the public domain and can easily be searched and copy-n-pasted. Pardon my laziness. I encourage you to consult the McNeill/Battles edition instead if you have it.

In the Beveridge translation, the term sometimes used for second causes is ‘inferior causes’. Calvin doesn’t talk about secondary causation as much as I had hoped; he seems more at pains to refute certain views, in which second causes don’t play much of a role. Nonetheless, he clearly affirms that God works through second causes as well as apart from them.

Institutes 1.17.1 (Use to be Made of the Doctrine of Providence):

And it is to be observed, first, that the Providence of God is to be considered with reference both to the past and the future; and, secondly, that in overruling all things, it works at one time with means, at another without means, and at another against means.

Institutes 1.17.6:

The Christian, then, being most fully persuaded, that all things come to pass by the dispensation of God, and that nothing happens fortuitously, will always direct his eye to him as the principal cause of events, at the same time paying due regard to inferior causes in their own place.

Institutes 1.17.9:

At the same time, the Christian will not overlook inferior causes. For, while he regards those by whom he is benefited as ministers of the divine goodness, he will not, therefore, pass them by, as if their kindness deserved no gratitude, but feeling sincerely obliged to them, will willingly confess the obligation, and endeavour, according to his ability, to return it. In fine, in the blessings which he receives, he will revere and extol God as the principal author, but will also honour men as his ministers, and perceive, as is the truth, that by the will of God he is under obligation to those, by whose hand God has been pleased to show him kindness. … Regarding all the aids which the creatures can lend him, as hands offered him by the Lord, he will avail himself of them as the legitimate instruments of Divine Providence.

Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster Confession of Faith is the chief confessional standard for presbyterianism that traces its roots back to roots in the British Isles. Together with the Westminster Larger and Shorter Catechisms, it is the confessional standard for the denomination to which I belong (the Presbyterian Church in America).

Chapter V (Of Providence):

I. God the great Creator of all things doth uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, according to His infallible fore-knowledge, and the free and immutable counsel of His own will, to the praise of the glory of His wisdom, power, justice, goodness, and mercy.

II. Although, in relation to the fore-knowledge and decree of God, the first Cause, all things come to pass immutably, and infallibly; yet, by the same providence, He ordereth them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.

III. God, in His ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against, them, at His pleasure.

Charles Hodge

Charles Hodge was one of the most important American theologians of the 19th century. He is perhaps somewhat out of favor in the American reformed scene these days because his epistemology and apologetic method are at odds with Van Tillian presuppositionalism, which is now the prevailing view. On questions of providence, though, his views are mainstream. His Systematic Theology in many places speaks affirmatively of ‘second causes’. It’s clear that he takes the Westminster view of secondary causation for granted. Here are three examples.

Systematic Theology I.I.X.2

§ 2. Mediate and Immediate Creation.

But while it has ever been the doctrine of the Church that God created the universe out of nothing by the word of his power, which creation was instantaneous and immediate, i.e., without the intervention of any second causes; yet it has generally been admitted that this is to be understood only of the original call of matter into existence. Theologians have, therefore, distinguished between a first and second, or immediate and mediate creation. The one was instantaneous, the other gradual; the one precludes the idea of any preëxisting substance, and of cooperation, the other admits and implies both. There is evident ground for this distinction in the Mosaic account of the creation. … There is, therefore, according to the Scriptures, not only an immediate, instantaneous creation ex nihilo by the simple word of God, but a mediate, progressive creation; the power of God working in union with second causes.

Systematic Theology I.I.XI.

§ 1. Preservation.

Creation and preservation differ, first, as the former is the calling into existence what before did not exist; and the latter is continuing, or causing to continue what already has a being; and secondly, in creation there is and can be no coöperation, but in preservation there is a concursus of the first, with second causes.

Systematic Theology I.I.XI.

§ 4. Principles involved in the Scriptural Doctrine of Providence.


Such are the general principles involved in this most difficult doctrine of Divine Providence. We should be equally on our guard against the extreme which merges all efficiency in God, and which, in denying all second causes, destroys human liberty and responsibility, and makes God not only the author of sin, but in reality the only Being in the universe; and the opposite extreme which banishes God from the world which He has made, and which, by denying that He governs all his creatures and all their actions, destroys the foundation of all religion, and dries up the fountains of piety.

I would be very curious to see how Dr. Hart would characterize the differences between Augustine’s view of God’s sovereignty and Calvin’s.

D.B. Hart on Calvinism

PEG tweeted a link to excerpts from an interview with D.B. Hart in which Hart seemed to me to seriously misrepresent Calvin and the Calvinian view of God’s sovereignty. The two problematic claims are that (a) Calvin had no regard for church tradition, and (b) Calvin (and Calvinists, presumably) held that God was the direct efficient cause of all things.

I tweeted my immediate responses, but really, Twitter is not the right venue to untangle such questions. PEG was conceded he was not an expert in matters Calvinian and assured me that he was interested in hearing what I had to say on the matters. I offer the following informal prolegomena:

  • I do not propose to demonstrate the correctness of the Calvinistic view of the matters in question (though I think it is correct), but only to show good reason to think that Hart was wrong in his assessment of Calvin and Calvinism on the points mentioned.
  • I read and appreciated PEG’s post at Patheos about Honest Ecumenism. I pray that what I write is in the spirit of his post.
  • I proceed from the hopeful presumption that we are brothers in Christ, and that at the return of our Lord we will greet one another with joy and with a full understanding of the truth. By which I do not mean I’ll emerge as having been right in everything all along.

The counter-counterculuture—as much a product of Vietnam and its times as the counterculture itself was—could only recognize threats from a single direction, the left. It had nothing to say about a war that the Republican Party couldn’t manage; it had nothing to say about the housing crises, beyond reflexively fingering some kind of ’60s-style racial agenda; and it had nothing to say about the Great Recession. It still has nothing to say about any of these things, and it broadcasts that “nothing” every day of the week on Rush Limbaugh’s airwaves and through the cable signals that carry Fox News.

The counter-counterculture was never conservative, although by virtue of its opposition to the counterculture it wound up occupying the space that prudent conservatives otherwise might have occupied. The counter-counterculture was not all bad, just as the counterculture itself wasn’t. But neither has any relevance to the strategic and economic problems facing the country today.

Arnold Kling:
What I am suggesting is that libertarians, rather than defining ourselves in terms of what we believe is right, could instead define ourselves in terms of how one should arrive at beliefs about what is right. Our goal should be to rely as much as possible on logic and as little as possible on heuristic biases. If using these methods leads to the conclusions that are traditionally libertarian, fine. If not, then we should change our conclusions, not our methods.

Kling cites a study that concludes that libertarians are slightly more likely than liberals and somewhat more likely than conservatives to rely on logic and inquiry (rather than intuition and heuristics) in making their decisions.

Some notes on his column:

  • Logic alone does not give us the semantics of the world; at most, it gives us the syntax (one part of the grammar) of rational belief structures. Logic does enable us to see what bundles of beliefs are compossible or incompossible.
  • If our rational belief support structures are not to be circular and cannot be infinite, then there will necessarily be some propositions we accept directly from sense perception or intuition, i.e. without rational support from another belief. These beliefs are what Alvin Plantinga calls ‘basic beliefs’. Logic doesn’t help in acquiring these beliefs, only in determining which ultimately supported beliefs are consistent with the basic beliefs.
  • The way lies open to folks of all political persuasions to follow Kling’s advice and rely less on heuristics and more on logic; they will nonetheless start from different basic beliefs and (by rational means) arrive at different conclusions. In fact, one hopes that the best proponents of each of the basic political stances already do this.
  • Overcoming bias is a worthy goal, but logic alone can’t do it. It takes a good deal of self-knowledge, self-discipline, and practice to spot intuitions sneaking into a position or argument as presuppositions and premises.
  • Suppose a person dutifully employing logic arrives at the conclusion that personal liberty and representative government have more bad consequences than good; this person is by Kling’s definition a methodological libertarian, but it seems odd to call him a libertarian.
“As recently as the 1950s, the dominant culture—as expressed in movies, TV shows, music, theater, and news media—was by and for adults. By the 1960s, that had changed, and our culture became a youth culture, one in which the dominant trends are determined by what appeals to teenagers. The youth culture takes its direction from the preferences of young people who are isolated from the responsibilities of the adult world, get status and recognition from one another, and thus are highly manipulable.”

“Alternative Education”, by philo at The View from Alexandria

preciseandtowering (via bluedollar):

Usefulness comes not from pursuing it, but from patiently gathering enough of a reservoir of material so that one has the quirky bit of knowledge about practices of iconography, or Catholic mysticism, or Reformed Christology, or ninteenth-century missions theory, or whatever, that turns out to be the key to unlocking the problem which someone offers. The academic theologian becomes useful to the church and the world by reading widely, and remembering broadly, across the tradition, by being and becoming a catalogue of what has been done before (and by being plausibly imaginative in how the tradition might be used to address contemporary problems.)

On discovering (again) the utility of theology | Steve Holmes @ Shored Fragments


I suspect — I can only guess — that Price’s environment is one in which the narrow-minded anti-intellectualism of Christianity is just part of the epistemic furniture, one of those things that Everyone Knows, in precisely the same way that the white people I grew up among simply knew that Negroes were shiftless and lazy. I find two things especially noteworthy about these things that Everyone Knows: first, they tend to be really nasty-minded; and second, they tend to be equally tidy-minded — that is, they make the world a neat, simple place in which there are ever so many people one needn’t take seriously, or treat with anything other than immediately reflexive contempt, because one knows in advance of any particular encounter exactly what they’re like.

Adventures in Generalization | The American Conservative

ayjay (via pegobry):

I can personally attest that, despite the liberal bias, I was happy in academe. Another Republican-leaning faculty colleague liked to point out that a conservative student was likely to get a better education than a liberal one. Having one’s worldview challenged—rather than affirmed—strengthens one’s ability to think clearly and critically.

Similarly, conservative faculty members learn to be polite and rigorous in defending their perspectives. And while the loudest voices on the campus tend to be the most extreme and intolerant, there are also many liberal faculty members who respect other viewpoints.

So here’s my advice to conservatives and libertarians in academe. Don’t think of yourself as a victim, and don’t use ideological bias as an excuse to stop trying. In my experience, academe is very much a meritocracy despite its liberal bias. It’s OK to express your views, but be nice about it. Some liberals on campus—like the hostile crowd at the D’Souza talk I attended—may choose to abandon civility. You will drive them crazy if you don’t.

— Sita Slavov, “Surviving Academe’s Liberal Bias” (The Conversation - The Chronicle of Higher Education)