Two weeks ago I referred to navigating between Scylla and Charybdis when it comes to understanding the proper role of traditions in the church today. On the one side there is the Scylla of anti-traditionalism which shuns traditions because they are prone to abuse; on the other side there is the Charybdis of pro-traditionalism which embraces traditions without full recognition of their potential for abuse. I would put much of modern evangelicalism on the Scylla side, and Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism and the Eastern the Orthodox Church on the Charybdis side.

So how ought we as 21st century Christians navigate these treacherous waters?

May I suggest to you that a helpful place to find insight into this question is in the study of the Protestant Reformation. Today we will be looking at a representative debate from that period of church history, specifically a couple of letters penned in 1539 by Cardinal Sadolet and John Calvin, respectively. But before considering these letters and the circumstances that prompted them, let us first consider a panoramic view of the role of traditions in the Reformation.

In one sense, the Reformation may be viewed as a formal repudiation of human traditions that had crept into the church over many centuries; in another sense the essence of the Reformation was the rediscovery of godly traditions recorded in the Bible. Recall our discussion of the passage from Mark chapter 7 in which Jesus rebuked the religious leaders in Galilee for having transgressed the commandment of God for the sake of their tradition (in Greek “tradition of men”). Jesus’ rebuke underscores a key distinction: traditions may originate from a divine or a human source. Purity of doctrine and practice, including our corporate worship, requires that this distinction be understood, and that the lines not be crossed.

The 17th century Puritan heirs of the Reformation understood this well. It is no accident that the first chapter of the Westminster Confession of Faith (entitled “Of the Holy Scripture”) speaks to the supremacy and sufficiency of Holy Scripture: “the whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or…may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men.” These words penned by the Puritan divines serve as a warning against the tendency of human heart to stray from revealed religion to man-inspired traditions that become the trappings of counterfeit religion. (More on the Puritans in the weeks to come from Mr. Bond…)

Returning to the 16th century and the correspondence of Sadolet and Calvin, the situation was as follows: after instituting ecclesiastical reforms in Geneva, Calvin met with opposition from city magistrates and was exiled. He intended to settle down to a life of quiet scholarship in Basel, Switzerland, but the reformer, Bucer, in Strasbourg threatened the divine wrath on his head if Calvin did not accept the call to minister to the French refugee church in Strasbourg. Calvin took seriously such threats, and so he accepted the call.

Cardinal Sadolet, a high ranking and well-educated Roman Catholic cardinal, attempted to take advantage of Calvin’s absence from Geneva by writing a “Letter of concern” to the senate & people of Geneva. In short, he attempted to woo the Genevans back to the see of Rome by portraying Calvin as being schismatic and divisive to the unity of the universal church. Calvin, in spite of his exile from Geneva at the time, was asked to pen a reply, which he did in a letter that nicely summarizes his reform agenda. In the time remaining today, I would like to highlight some of Sadolet and Calvin’s comments relevant to the subject of traditions.

These letters are both apologetical works: on the one hand, Sadolet gives reasons for why the reformers are misguided, and why the people should not heed them but return instead to “the mother of us all, the Catholic Church”. Calvin, on the other hand, argues that it is the Catholic Church, centered in Rome, that is misguided in many of its doctrines, including justification by works, purgatory, the worship of images, and the Eucharist. The main reason that I chose to include these letters in this Sunday school series is that the authors both appeal to tradition as the linchpin of their arguments. I will first summarize Sadolet’s letter, then devote the remainder of our time to Calvin’s reply, and his understanding of the proper role of tradition in the church.

Sadolet begins his letter with flattery towards the Genevese people and expressions of paternal affection—“dearly beloved brethren” in his salutation, for example—although he had not had any prior contact with them, either in person or in writing. He justifies his prior lack of involvement thus: “You never needed my aid, which assuredly would have been most readily given, but hitherto no occasion presented itself to us.”

He proceeds to denounce those whom he calls “certain crafty men, enemies of Christian unity and peace” who had “cast among you, amid in your city, the wicked seeds of discord, [and] had turned the faithful people of Christ aside from the way of their fathers and ancestors, and from the perpetual sentiments of the Catholic Church, and filled all places with strife and sedition…” He goes on to refer to these men as “innovators on things ancient and well established.”

Here, in short, is the accusation against Calvin and his cohorts: they are seditionary tradition-busters who have turned the good people against their spiritual mother, the Catholic Church. Referring to the reaction of the Catholic Church to this sedition, Sadolet lays it on thick when he says “methought I heard the groans of the Church our mother, weeping and lamenting at being deprived at once of so many and so dear children…”

Sadolet then launches into a lengthy discourse on salvation, which, of course, is merit based and not by grace alone as the reformers taught. At the conclusion of this discourse, he concludes in this fashion: “The point in dispute is, Whether is it more expedient for your salvation, and whether you think you will do what is more pleasing to God, by believing and following what the Catholic Church throughout the whole world, now for more than fifteen hundred years…approves with general consent; or innovations introduced within these twenty five years, by crafty…men, but men certainly who are not themselves the Catholic Church?”

To answer his own rhetorical question, Sadolet turns to a judgment scenario in which two hypothetical believers are called to the “tribunal of the Sovereign Judge” and asked to give a “confession of right faith”. The first defendant has been “educated in the lap and discipline of the Catholic Church” and trusts in his obedience to the Catholic Church, the precepts of which he says were “delivered to me by my parents, and observed from antiquity.” Notice the emphasis on tradition: “delivered to me,” “observed from antiquity.” What is this but a laud to tradition?

Sadolet then turns his attention to the other defendant before the tribunal who trusts not in obedience to the Catholic Church, but rather in his own machinations, motivated as they are by his own jealousy and lust for power. Sadolet clearly has Calvin in mind here, which makes this half of his judgment scenario a bold-faced critique of the most contemptible kind. He accuses Calvin and his ilk of nothing less than stirring up sedition in the church out of jealousy towards unworthy prelates who have a higher position of authority in the church than they themselves enjoy.

Sadolet concludes his letter by welcoming the Genevese believers back into the fold of the Catholic Church, which “errs not, and even cannot err, since the Holy Spirit constantly guides her public and universal decrees and Councils.”

No doubt you recognize that Sadolet’s arguments for returning to the Roman Catholic Church are the same as those we hear today. We haven’t time to dissect the arguments in any detail, but suffice it to say here that according to this classic defense of Catholicism, your very salvation depends on it, and those who would draw you away to another “sect” are innovators and seditionists and not to be trusted with your soul.

In point of truth, the reformers—Calvin among them—did not have an itch for schism that resulted in teaching doctrines contrary to Rome; instead, they taught and preached as they did because they believed that the gospel message had been corrupted by accretions of unbiblical traditions that over time had became official church dogma, and thus encumbered the ability of a sinner to enjoy salvation freely offered in Christ.

In his reply to Sadolet, Calvin argues for the primacy of the Word of God in his reform movement, which has as its goal the renewal of “that ancient form of the church”.[1] In reflecting on the pre-Messianic era, Calvin observes that “whenever the Prophets foretell the renewal of the Church, they always assign the first place to the Word. For they tell that from Jerusalem will issue forth living waters…and what these living waters are, they themselves explain when they say, “That the law will come forth from Zion, and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Isa.2:3)[2] By his use of these prophetic passages, it is clear that Calvin viewed his role as akin to the OT prophets who called the people of God back to the revealed Law of God and away from idolatry. Prophets, of course, have never been popular among the established religion of their day, and so it is not surprising that Calvin was treated with contempt by Sadolet.

Calvin refers in several places in his letter to “that ancient form of the church” by which he means the apostolic era. As for the sub-apostolic era—the time of the early Church Fathers—in general he felt that they had faithfully preserved the apostolic traditions but over time these traditions were “sullied and distorted by illiterate men of indifferent character, and afterwards flagitiously[3] mangled and almost destroyed by the Roman pontiff and his faction.” At one point Calvin refers to himself as being “zealous for ancient piety and holiness” and expresses bewilderment that Sadolet would label him an “innovator” and an “enemy of antiquity.” To the charge of being an “innovator”, Calvin denied that the label fit him or his fellow reformers, but instead more accurately applied to leaders in the Catholic Church who had hindered the Word of God from reaching the people, and as a result, “that confident hope of salvation which is both enjoined by the Word, and founded upon it, had almost vanished.”

You will recall Sadolet’s account of the defenses given by two professing Christians standing before the tribunal of the Sovereign Judge: one, an obedient Catholic, the other, a trouble-making usurper of authority. Calvin presents his own pair of defendants pleading their cases before the Judge: one, a serious minded reformer who wishes to restore the glory of God and the “virtue and blessings of Christ”; the other, a disciple of the reformer. This section is my favorite portion of his letter, for in it one gets an autobiographical glimpse into the heart of the reformer and those who sat under his preaching.

I stated earlier that both Sadolet and Calvin appeal to tradition as the linchpin of their arguments.

So what is the main difference in their views of tradition? Simply stated it is this: Sadolet views the Church as inerrant, and as such, whatever traditions accrue over the centuries in the life of the church must be considered as God ordained, for the Church speaks for God as she is perpetually led by the Sprit; Calvin regards the Church as open to error, and as such, vulnerable to corruption by various human traditions that infuse the life of the church in ways that ignore, or even deny, the Word of God. Calvin’s view is not anti-traditionalism, per se. Rather, I would say that it reflects a biblical view of the proper role of tradition in the life of the church, while at the same time retaining an understanding of, and alert for, potential abuses of tradition.

Three years before responding to Sadolet’s letter, Calvin contributed to the church document known as the Genevan Confession of 1536. In chapter XVII entitled “Human Traditions” we read this:

“The ordinances that are necessary for the internal discipline of the Church, and belong solely to the maintenance of peace, honesty and good order in the assembly of Christians, we do not hold to be human traditions at all, in as much as they are composed under the general command of Paul, where he desires that all be done among them decently and in order. But all laws and regulations made binding on conscience which oblige the faithful to things not commanded by God, or establish another service of God than that which he demands, thus tending to destroy Christian liberty, we condemn as perverse doctrines of Satan, in view of our Lord’s declaration that he is honored in vain by doctrines that are the commandment of men. It is in this estimation that we hold pilgrimages, monasteries, distinctions of foods, prohibition of marriage, confessions and other like things.”

In his letter to Sadolet, Calvin picks up on the theme of how human traditions are destructive of Christian liberty. In speaking of indulgences, he says that they “crept in with fearful dishonor to the cross of Christ. We lament, that by means of human traditions, Christian liberty has been crushed and destroyed. Of these and similar pests, we have been careful to purge the churches which the Lord has committed to us.

In conclusion, I wish to suggest to you that Calvin was able to navigate safely through the narrow passage between Scylla and Charybdis. How? By being a dedicated student of the Word of God and of church history. He clearly understood the distinction between divine and human traditions. May God grant us that same insight and zeal for “holy antiquity”.


[1] Dillenberger, John, John Calvin: Selections from His Writings, p.92

[2] Ibid, p.91

[3] flagitious = shamefully wicked