Ward Holder has attempted something ambitious with Calvin and the Christian Tradition: Scripture, Memory, and the Western Mind. Holder’s goal is threefold. First, he offers a close reading of a wide range of John Calvin’s works to demonstrate that he interprets scripture and formulates doctrine through a critical engagement with the orthodox Christian tradition—despite rhetorical rejections of tradition. Second, he attempts to show how Calvin’s ambivalent relationship with tradition has been determinative for the epistemological crisis in modern religious and political thought. Finally, by exploring Calvin’s engagement with the church fathers and medieval writers and the uncertain relationship to tradition that he passed on, Holder suggests what a healthier relationship to tradition might look like for contemporary theological and political reflection. The result is a fascinating study of Calvin’s thought and legacy with contemporary implications that are not always clear.
Before diving into Calvin’s handling of tradition, Holder surveys various concepts of tradition since the Reformation. Calvin’s concept of tradition was crucially linked to historical reception (as opposed to hierarchical authority), and this makes it important for the reader to approach Calvin with a sense of the historical development of tradition. He addresses theological, historical, and hermeneutical approaches to tradition, covering figures like Heiko Oberman, Yves Congar, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Paul Ricoeur. Surprisingly, there is no mention—here or elsewhere in the book—of Alasdair MacIntyre’s understanding of traditioned reasoning. Any contemporary accounting of tradition should surely acknowledge MacIntyre’s work.
Holder continues by exploring Calvin’s engagement with the Christian tradition in his exegetical, polemical, vernacular, and doctrinal works. In this, the core of the book’s argument, Holder is at his best. He builds on his previous work on Calvin (particularly on the reformer’s approach to scripture) to show how tradition functions in his writing and across genres. As an exegete, Calvin appeals to the “orthodox exegetical tradition” for support, both to challenge and help formulate his own questions about the text. He is mostly deferential, treating the church fathers and medieval theologians as respected conversation partners. In his polemical works, even when his appeals to tradition are not explicit, some notion of tradition forms the substructure of his doctrinal reasoning. Even when writing for more popular audiences in his vernacular works, Calvin does not simply rely on his own reading of scripture. Instead, he saw the church’s doctrinal and exegetical tradition as “basic to true religion” (142). Holder’s grasp of Calvin’s body of work is impressive, and he moves deftly between genres in his analysis. In doing so, he sketches a picture of Calvin’s pragmatic use of tradition. He offers nuanced reflections on Calvin’s milieu and engages skillfully with secondary literature.
After establishing the frequency, contexts, and modes of Calvin’s engagement with the orthodox tradition, Holder moves on to discuss what Calvin does with tradition. Here he demonstrates the working features of Calvin’s “programmatic model of considering the tradition as part of the working wisdom of the church” (202). This model bears the marks of historicity, orthodoxy, and transparency, and is grounded in scripture. It is not a model that Calvin states explicitly—in fact, it contradicts some of his explicit statements about the relationship between scripture and tradition. However, it can be discerned from the way that Calvin engages, critiques, and learns from ancient and medieval authorities as he seeks to establish the historic doctrines of the church. In a post-Vatican II world, it requires some imagination to understand just how difficult it must have been for Calvin and the reformers to hold together a humanistic approach to the scriptures with a robust sense of the church’s authority via tradition. True, Calvin’s rhetoric is at times explicitly anti-tradition. When it comes to tradition, Holder suggests that we do as Calvin does, not as he says.
This is precisely where historians of the Reformation have failed in Holder’s estimation. Taking Calvin’s rhetoric at face value and failing to notice Calvin’s deep functional dependence on tradition, a historiographical tradition has arisen which sees the Reformation as a battle of scripture versus tradition. Holder traces this historiography ably. What is more suspect is the move that Holder makes to draw a connection between Calvin’s underdeveloped theory of tradition and the contemporary marginalization of the voices of women and people of color in the Reformed tradition. I do not think there is any doubt that this marginalization is in fact a tragic reality, and I am inclined to believe that Holder is on to something when he links this tragedy to Calvin’s lack of self-awareness surrounding his own historical situatedness. However, it is not clear to me that Holder has demonstrated the connection in any substantial way. Granted, he is only offering suggestions at this point, and further work may well substantiate his intuition.
The epistemological implications of the contradiction between Calvin’s use of tradition and his rhetorical rejection of tradition are teased out in an epilogue that explores the parallels between biblical and constitutional interpretation. Holder applies his reflections on tradition to the issues of complementarianism in biblical interpretation and originalism versus living constitutionalism in legal studies. In doing so, he demonstrates the relevance of those reflections for contemporary theological debate and public life. This epilogue alone is worth the price of the book.
I would have liked to see Holder interact with Roland Boer’s provocative analysis of Calvin in Political Grace: The Revolutionary Theology of John Calvin (Westminster John Knox Press, 2009). Holder repeatedly makes the point that there is a tension in Calvin’s thought, one which sees him reforming the church according to a plain sense of scripture while also being a theologically conservative adherent to tradition. Boer explores this dynamic at length, and not enough readers of Calvin have engaged his analysis of Calvin’s radical edge. That quibble aside, Holder has contributed an important work that helps us better understand Calvin’s thought and his context while also offering constructive reflections for contemporary theology and public life.
Andrew C. Stout is the public services librarian at Covenant Theological Seminary.
Date Of Review:
February 18, 2023
R. Ward Holder is a professor of theology at Saint Anselm College. A recipient of an National Endowment for the Humanities grant for this project, he has written among other works, John Calvin and the Grounding of Interpretation: Calvin's First Commentaries, (Brill, 2006); and edited John Calvin in Context, (Cambridge, 2019).
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