31 Days, 31 Books
Today is a busy day with a sermon being finished and TaraJane’s birthday being celebrated. So, I will mention a short book that is suited to the busy days of our lives. I refer, of course, to John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s Institutes, along with Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, have all been considered the three key works from the time of the Protestant Reformation.
Calvin’s Institutes are a mere 1000 to 1200 pages. At age 26, he first published the Institutes as a primer for the many people who were being saved and changed by the “new teachings” on Justification by Faith and other Biblical doctrines. Through the years, Calvin continued to expand his work, but the intent was always the same. Calvin was a teacher and preacher to God’s flock. He was not primarily a theologian addressing theologians or a scholar writing for an academic audience.
Reading Calvin is quite shocking for many people. Because of the caricatures and misrepresentations of Calvin and because of the tendencies of all too many who call themselves Calvinists, people expect certain things from Calvin’s writings. First, they expect him to be Johnny Calvin One Note. They expect Calvin to be constantly proclaiming predestination and election. As Mark Twain noted of one preacher, he thinned the elect down to a number so small as to hardly be worth the saving. In like manner, both friend and foe expect Calvin to wring at least one point of Calvinism from every verse of Scripture. Second, they expect to find him cold, academic, scholastic, and harsh. After all, some book we read somewhere said that.
Surprise, surprise. Calvin sounds more like a devotional writer than an academic scholar. He talks far more about Jesus and the Holy Spirit than he does about election and predestination. He speaks with great intensity about personal holiness and seeking after Christ. And for some reason, he never tells us that wealth is a sign (or the sign) of election!
The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life is, perhaps, the best place to start when reading Calvin. It is an excerpt from The Institutes. It is a short series of exhortations on living day by day as a believer. Notice that Calvin is no health and wealth preacher. Nor is he writing about theological speculations or solving theological conundrums. He is pointing out to his brothers and sisters in Christ how they (we) should live.
This short work is very reminescent of another devotional classic, On the Imitation of Christ by Thomas a’Kempis. On the Imitation of Christ was a late Medieval devotional that was assembled by a’Kempis who was a student of Gerhard Groote. Groote had started a series of Christian schools and Christian communities. These Christian schools were known as “Brethren of the Common Life Schools.” The best of Medieval thinking found its way into these schools. The students were grounded in the fundamentals of the faith; that is, they were being catechized in the doctrines and teachings that were so often lost in the larger Catholic culture of the age. Rome was corrupt and the papacy was rent with schism, but here and there in small Christian academies, the faith was being taught to young students.
John Calvin was educated in a Brethren of the Common Life School. So were Martin Luther, Philip Melancthon, Martin Bucer, Ulrich Zwingli, and Theodore Beza. The Medieval, Brethren, a’Kempis/Grote strain in Calvin’s Golden Booklet will not lend comfort to our 21st century Christian expectations. But Calvin never sought us to find comfort in our times. Our comfort, rather, would come in knowing Jesus Christ.