For context, see the post before the previous one.
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.