Divine Tradition in Calvin’s Geneva

The next Reformed confession in our series on tradition is the Genevan Confession of 1536. This was written by John Calvin, but it shows an affinity with the Tetrapolitan Confession, particularly in its section on human traditions. In its 17th chapter, the Genevan Confession says:

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 comprised 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 honoured in vain by doctrines that are the commandments of men. It is in this estimation that we hold pilgrimages, monasteries, distinctions of foods, prohibition of marriage, confessions and other like things.

Here we see good tradition and bad tradition. The description of “human” tradition seems to be reserved for the bad, those things invented by man in order to bind the conscience and act as divine “law” but without actual divine command. These are rejected as legalistic and indeed sinful. Jesus’ condemnation of the traditions of man is invoked, and certain practices associated with Rome are named as examples of this error.

However, just like the Tetrapolitan Confession, the Genevan Confessions denies that certain traditions are “human” traditions. If a tradition is founded on the Pauline instruction to maintain decency, and if its goal is peace, honesty, and order, then such a tradition is allowed and even considered “divine.” It is divine, not in itself, but insofar as it is an application of a divinely-inspired direction.

The terms “peace” and “order,” again leave us with questions. What might be included? In this case, we have help. Calvin discusses this point in more detail in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

In Book 4, chapter 10 of Calvin’s Institutes, he discusses the role of human law and tradition in the life of the church. There too, Calvin has “good tradition” and “bad tradition.” Starting around section 28 he explains the difference:

We have, therefore, a most excellent and sure mark to distinguish between those impious constitutions (by which, as we have said, true religion is overthrown, and conscience subverted) and the legitimate observances of the Church, if we remember that one of two things, or both together, are always intended—viz. that in the sacred assembly of the faithful, all things may be done decently, and with becoming dignity, and that human society may be maintained in order by certain bonds, as it were, of moderation and humanity. (Institutes 4.10.28)

“Legitimate observances of the Church,” he says, can be identified by their intention. If they are designed to secure decency and dignity and used to maintain order, then they are permissible. Calvin goes on to say that decency and order are clearly different from a law which is said to be “necessary to salvation.” Such a claim would then make the tradition impious and legalistic. These are the same categories that we see at work in the Genevan Catechism, as well as some of the other Swiss confessions.

This section of the Institutes is extremely important for understanding Calvin’s meaning behind terms like “order” and “decency.” He goes on to offer even more, writing:

But it may be proper to explain more clearly what is meant by the decency which Paul commends, and also what is comprehended under order. And the object of decency is, partly that by the use of rites, which produce reverence in sacred matters, we may be excited to piety, and partly that the modesty and gravity which ought to be seen in all honourable actions may here especially be conspicuous. In order, the first thing is, that those who preside know the law and rule of right government, while those who are governed be accustomed to obedience and right discipline. The second thing is, that by duly arranging the state of the Church, provision be made for peace and tranquility. (Inst. 4.10.29)

“Rites” may be used to “produce reverence in sacred matters” and to instill piety, modesty, and gravity. This is what Calvin means by decency. Order, on the other hand, has to do with the use of government and discipline to maintain peace.

Calvin has more to say about the category of decency or fittingness. “Decency,” he says, applies to “that which, suited to the reverence of sacred mysteries, forms a fit exercise for piety, or at least gives an ornament adapted to the action” (4.10.30). Certain ceremonies or actions that meet this criteria are headcoverings for women, kneeling in prayer, and “solemnity” in funeral rites. Again, we are reminded of the Tetrapolitan Confession, which also mentioned headcoverings as a “divine tradition” because of its connection to Paul’s instruction to do things decently.

Calvin devotes an extended explanation to kneeling in prayer, saying “that it is human, and that at the same time it is divine” (4.10.30). As an application of decency, it qualifies as a “divine tradition” in the sense of the Genevan Catechism. He adds that individuals are not at liberty to neglect this custom. Readers familiar with Calvin’s writings on customs in general, especially in the context of 1 Cor. 11, will understand this point rather quickly. If proper authorities within the church establish a custom for the sake of decency or order, then individuals must submit to it, not out of direct necessity, but of their proper obedience to authority.

Calvin fully acknowledges that “decency and order” is a general category. This is quite distinct from what is “necessary” and what is considered “worship” in the proper sense:

the whole sum of righteousness, and all the parts of divine worship, and everything necessary to salvation, the Lord has faithfully comprehended, and clearly unfolded, in his sacred oracles, so that in them he alone is the only Master to be heard. But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe (he foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages), in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency. (4.10.30)

Since the category is general, Calvin allows for diversity in customs. From time to time, or between differing regions, churches may chose to end some ceremonies or institute new ones. This is their right, so long as they follow the law of charity.

As we can see, Calvin and the Genevan Catechism demonstrate a category of appropriate tradition in the church. This sort of tradition is invested with real authority, even while it is not strictly binding on the conscience. Among such “divine tradition” are things like headcoverings and kneeling in corporate prayer. This tradition is “divine” rather than “human” because it follows from principial instructions which are found in Holy Scripture and is not man-made worship. Rather, it is good and appropriate.


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