The Protestant Tradition: Calvinism, Catholicism, and the Undoing of Protestantism

Growing up Protestant it was drilled into my head that the problem with Roman Catholicism was its adherence to tradition. By following tradition, instead of Scripture, the Roman Catholics had fallen upon some false doctrine. Us Protestants, specifically evangelicals, were “people of the Book” who looked to Scripture instead of tradition to develop our doctrine. As I’ve grown older and questioned what I’ve been taught, I’ve come to one conclusion concerning this matter: hogwash.

This isn’t to say that we should all go out and join the Roman Catholic Church (I certainly won’t as I don’t believe they actually align themselves properly with Tradition or Scripture, but that’s a debate for another day). It is to point out, however, that Protestants elevate their own traditions to a level almost beyond what any good Catholic would do. I’m not referring to the alter call, the style of music, or having a routine of opening chorus, greet the guest, four more songs, soloist, sermon, alter call, offering, and last announcements. While these are traditions within the Protestant faith, they’re not sacred to the majority of Protestants, especially the “new” evangelicals. Within Protestant theology there are certain elements of tradition that cannot even be questioned or doubted, because if they are your salvation is immediately brought into question.

Take, for instance, the big debate occurring in the Southern Baptist Convention. The debate over Calvinism is being framed as new Baptists (Calvinists) against ‘traditional Baptists’ (non-Calvinists). In other words, some in the SBC want to make it clear that non-Calvinism is a traditional belief within the SBC, and that modern Calvinists are taking it in a new direction. Calvinists, on the other hand, argue that Baptists were traditionally Calvinist. It’s so vitally important that one side prove that they’re more true to the foundation of the Baptist faith than the other. But if only Scripture matters and tradition doesn’t matter, then who cares about the foundational doctrine?

Now, I have no dog in this fight. I am not a Calvinist, but I know my history well enough to know that some of the first Baptists were all Calvinists. I find this to be irrelevant, however. What should matter, if one truly believes in sola scriptura is whether or not the tenets of Calvinism are true. Even if every single founding member of the SBC was dogmatically opposed to Calvinism, would this really matter? What if they were wrong? After all, how many Southern Baptists want to uphold every tradition of the SBC, such as supporting owning slaves or being against desegregation? It would seem that the debate over tradition within the SBC, as well as all other Protestant faiths, is quite superfluous.

Yet, the list goes well beyond Calvinism; Protestants cannot doubt or question the reasoning behind any of Luther’s solas without catching the ire of other Protestants. Even in academic circles, to question a foundational belief is often met with, “Well you could say that, but that’s not a Protestant view.” What if I don’t care? What if I’m only concerned with if it’s true or not? It would seem that doesn’t matter.

In all of this, I’m making the point that Protestants haven’t rejected Tradition, they’re simply choosing what they will call Tradition. The classic retort is to point out that Protestants don’t really have a problem with Tradition so long as that Tradition can be validated by Scripture, but this begs the question; such a belief is actually a part of tradition, as nothing in Scripture says that every tradition must be validated by Scripture (though this was taught in the Early Church).

Thus, if we truly reject Tradition, then we must reject traditional interpretations of Scripture. We are left to question the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the Incarnation, salvation through Christ alone, and so on. In other words, liberal Protestants are just consistent Protestants; they’ve questioned everything in Tradition, not just the things the Reformers threw out.

Ultimately, Christians must recognize the importance of Tradition. They must look to the traditional interpretation of passages concerning the realities of God and see if the modern interpretations match up with the ancient ones. Obviously this does not apply to the scientific interpretations of Scripture (such as the earth being planted and the sun rotating around the earth) since these do not deal with the realities of God. But things such as how we ought to live, what happened on the cross, who Jesus was, and so on do matter.

Thus, for the SBC the question shouldn’t be, “What did Southern Baptists believe 150 years ago,” but instead should be, “What did Christians believe 2,000 years ago?” The goal for any Protestant denomination shouldn’t be to adhere to their distinctives, but to adhere to Truth, and to do so requires them to look back to Tradition, to how those in the past viewed Scriptural passages, and see if our views line up.

4 thoughts on “The Protestant Tradition: Calvinism, Catholicism, and the Undoing of Protestantism

  1. Much like you, I don\’t really care what Baptists were doing 150 years ago. In fact, I have very little care about what Christians were doing 2k years ago. If tradition is to be the guide for orthodoxy, we are once again dependent on subjective interpretation of Scripture. The major question, therefore, is can we know the Truth revealed in Scripture, or do we need someone to tell us what it means?

    1. Dr. Williams, I think you’ve highlighted to biggest problem: we are always dependent upon a “subjective” interpretation. The question becomes a matter of who do we trust. Do we trust our own private interpretation or do we align ourselves with a tradition (which may, in the end, turn out to be a tradition rooted in the organic working of the Holy Spirit)? I, for one, do not trust myself enough to rely solely upon my own interpretation to lead me to the Truth; and I would hope that the God of infinite love would provide a means for me to find the correct interpretation here on earth.

    2. I think there is a non-sequitur in the statement, “If tradition is to be the guide for orthodoxy, we are once again dependent on subjective interpretation of Scripture.” The implicit assumption is that “all tradition must have originated from some Christian’s subjective interpretation”. But by definition, tradition is that which is received from someone else and handed on.

      So I think it matters a lot what Christians did/believed 2K years ago (especially if you discover they had the same view about tradition itself, which I think can be demonstrated, or about how to settle disputes and controversies that would inevitably arise), since they were the ones who first received it from Christ, or received it from someone else who received it directly from Christ (I’m thinking of people like Clement of Rome or Ignatius of Antioch for example).

      The Scriptural response I’d offer is that:
      1. “Sola Scriptura” isn’t in the Bible anywhere (emphasis on the word “sola”). It’s not part of the Tradition, either, but a relatively recent development (now Protestant tradition, as the article points out).
      2. Tradition, however, is in the Bible. e.g., “Stand fast and hold to the traditions you received from us, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thes 2:15).

      So I would argue that if you really want to follow the Bible, then you must follow the tradition as well. To reject the Tradition is to reject a portion of Scripture (and that ain’t in the Tradition!).

      God bless you all!

  2. I agree with your take on Protestantism and Tradition completely, and have written as much before (for example, here). I chose to go with the Catholic Church (I do think it reflects the Apostolic Tradition), but more than anything I wish more Protestants would realize what you’re realizing,

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