Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

There are two types of Christians who need to read deeply from Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  The first type are those Christians who have a dislike of Calvin, who have read a few caricatures in history texts, or who have bumped heads with a few overzealous (usually young and newly convinced) Calvinists.  These are Christians who would presuppose that from page 1 to 1000 that Calvin would, to borrow from Mark Twain, cut, slice, and pare down to an elect so small that it would hardly be worth the saving.  They would also picture Calvin as the stern, harsh, tyrannical ogre who personally peered into the hearts and lives of the poor souls of Geneva and punished every infraction from smiling to dancing to theater going with whippings, beheadings, and burnings.  They would imagine the Institutes as one unending discourse on the 5 Points of Calvinism, with glee over uncovering man’s total depravity and determination to drive the stake of limited atonement into the heart of every evangelistic meeting.

Amen and amen to myself for saying that.  Those Arminians, especially those who don’t even know they are Arminians, need a forced march through the pages of the Institues.

That said, I will now address the other group that even more desperately needs to read Calvin’s Institutes.  Calvinist folk need to read Calvin.  Reformed Christians,  whether Presbyterian and other varieties, need pure and undiluted Calvin.  They will be, as I once first was and continue to be, shocked at how Calvin seems to miss the essentials of Calvinism (emphasis on the word “seems”).  Calvin is incredibly Christ-centered in his writings.  His book reads more like a devotional than a theological text.  Granted, Calvin is heavy devotional reading.  Calvin is also painfully Bible-centered.  By direction and example, he points the reader back to the Bible itself.  He wrote the Institutes as a study manual, as a guide for preachers and laymen, as an exposition on the most basic doctrines of the faith.  Calvin writes humbly with a strong call for self-examination and reliance on the Holy Spirit.

Calvin, unknowingly, rebukes us Calvinists.  He chastizes us for not praying, witnessing, and living as we ought.  He calls us short for our lack of devotion and zeal.  He calls us to have hearts and minds atuned to Christ.  He strips away the false pride that we accrue to our own selves due to our supposed grasp of Calvinism.  He sends us scurrying to our Bibles, which we too often neglect.  He calls upon us to embrace Christ, first and foremost, and not some theologian or theological paradigm.

I recently started teaching a portion of Calvin’s Institutes to my Humanities class.  This semester, we are studying the Modern World, which began around 1500, the time of the Reformation.  I wish we had enough time to read a couple of hundred pages of Calvin, but we have only been able to sample his writing.  We read from the first section which deals with the knowledge of God.  It begins with that powerful statement that

“The whole sum of our wisdom–wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured–broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”  (from the new Banner of Truth edition, page 1)

Call it epistemology, if you wish, but this whole question of how we know God, ourselves, and anything is a fundamental starting point in all life and thought.  Calvin does not begin by seeking to make a case for the existence of God, but rather presupposes that God is and that we are aware of Him.

Our other classroom sampling of Calvin has been from a long portion on prayer.  It is there that Calvin says,

“It is not for his sake that he has ordained prayer but for ours.”

I have read 4 or 5 good books on prayer during the past year or two, but everything they say, Calvin has already said.  This section reminds us how to pray, as well as, how not to pray.  Calvin gently addresses the error of praying to the departed saints.  The larger portion of this section is an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer.

In a short lecture on Calvin’s Institutes, I emphasized to my class–made up of Reformed, partially Reformed, and non-Reformed Christian students–three points about this classic of theology. First, Calvin’s Institutes is not about the 5 Points of Calvinism.  Historically, that is a different and later development.  I do believe that those doctrines related to salvation are found in Calvin (and Luther, Augustine, Whitefield, Spurgeon, and many others).  I know there is intramural debate about definite (also called “limited”) atonement.  The landmark book of this past year, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson, should settle that skirmish.  But the 5 Points has always been too narrow a scope to link to Calvin and Reformed theology.

Second, I emphasized that Calvin’s Institutes is not about Presbyterian distinctives.  Calvin does address church government and infant baptism, but that is a portion, and not the whole, of his writing. (It was not in the purpose of our class to deal with church government and the sacraments.) I could have added that Calvin does not present Christian worldview thinking of the sort that Abraham Kuyper expounds in his landmark work Lectures on Calvinism.  You can build a Christian worldview or various models of worldview thinking from Calvin.  He devotes a chapter to civil government.  He interacts with the classic authors of antiquity and the early church.  He applies the faith to all areas of life, but all these things are woven into the fabric and are not the fabric itself.

Third, as stated above, Calvin was laying out the essentials of the Christian faith.  He faults the Roman Catholic Church at many points.  He cites the Church Fathers both when he thinks they are rights or are off base.  He lays out the battle plans for the Faith as it was being confronted in his time.  Continually, Calvin is calling believers to know God, know the Bible, and to pray and live as people of faith.

In our class, we are using the Henry Beveridge translation of Calvin.  This translation has lots of outlines, summaries, and helps for the reader.  It also has the school budget benefit of being really inexpensive.  While our few copies are paperback, it has been recently published in a hardback version as seen above.  Granted, there is lots of really small print in the chapter outlines.  Many Reformed believers have grown to know and love Calvin through this translation.

My biggest complaint is that it is an 1845 translation.  I train my students to read older texts.  I want them to plod through Walter Scott and James Fenimore Cooper.  I seek for them to understand older versions of English usage.  So, we read Shakespeare and Spenser.  I want them to read both fast and slow.  I want them to get the general gist of a book or idea, but to also zoom in on the world-changing notions.  Beveridge is wordy in the mid-19th century mode of wordiness.  I personally find Beveridge slow going.  Rewarding, for he is translating Calvin, but slow.

The best known 20th century translation of Calvin’s Institutes is the two volume Ford Lewis Battles version.  This was part of a magnificent series called the Library of Christian Classics series, edited by John T. McNeill.  I have about 10 volumes of that series and wish I had them all. Ford Lewis Battles was the pre-eminent Calvin scholar of his day.  He translated various Calvin works, including the earliest and much shorter edition of Calvin’s Institutes.  In 2009, P & R Publishing reprinted Battles’ book The Piety of John Calvin, which covered his hymns and poems, as part of its Calvin500 series.  I like this translation, but being in 2 volumes, it is more pricey.

All of this now brings us down to a new translation of Calvin’s Institutes.  This new edition is published by Banner of Truth Trust.  I have long loved Banner of Truth.  Their books are of great quality in both the physical materials of the books and the content.  I was, therefore, doubly excited last year when I learned of this new edition of Calvin.

This translation was done by Robert White, and it is based on the last edition of Calvin’s Institutes, which were in French (Calvin’s own language).  This book is a nice one volume (albeit a fat volume) hardback book of the finest quality.  And, it is very readable.  As Dr. White emphasized in his preface, he sought to make the English readable, but still the words and flow of thought of Calvin.

I am not a Calvin scholar.  I have never–sad to admit–read the entirety of the Institutes.  I have read portions of Calvin’s work four or five times.  I have taught portions of the Institutes, learned from others who have written or spoke on the book, and referenced him frequently.  That said, I am still an amateur.  If I had the money, I would have my class use this new translation.  I would like to see my goverment students read Calvin on civil government.  I would like to see my next year’s theology class read some larger portions of Calvin.

This book retails for $38.  Lots of paperback books of 200 pages or less sell for $15 to $20 dollars.  So, it is a bargain.  Moreover, it is a blessing.

Post Script:  A few resources to help students of all ages in negotiating their way through Calvin’s Institutes.

Douglas Wilson wrote A Study Guide to Calvin’s Institutes several years ago.  This book consists of questions and answers to each portion of the book.  This book is helpful for both teachers and readers.  It is not a commentary, and it requires looking back in the Institutes frequently.  It is an easy to use resource.

Another great volume from the P & R Publishing Calvin500 series is A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.  This volume is edited by David W. Hall, one of the best Calvin scholars of our day, and Peter A. Lillback, President of Westminster Theological Seminary.


Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Alexander Solzhenitsyn was one of the great men and writers of all times.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970.  One might think that being published internationally and winning the Nobel Prize would secure a writer’s fame and reputation.  But many Nobel Prize winners are quickly forgotten.  Some are unknown at the time of winning the prize.  Some are thought unworthy of the honor.  And, many great writers never earned the honor of a Nobel Prize.

I recently acquired a wonderful older set of books called The Nobel Prize Library.  It consists of 20 volumes, each containing 2 or more authors’ shorter works and acceptance speeches.  This set only goes up to 1970.  I was amazed at how many winners were completely unknown to me.  Can you name the winners from the last ten years?  Or five years?  I have become familiar with Canadian short story writer Alice Munro who won the prize in 2013, and I enjoy the work of Seamus Heaney, who won in 1995, but those two are among the very few recent winners that I know.

The Nobel Prize Winners Library Bookshelf. This set was published in 1970. I wish there were a better quality and more up-to-date set of books like this.


But Solzhenitsyn stands above even his peers in the realm of Nobel Prize winners.  In many cases, the lives of writers are relatively dull stories.  A writer, by definition, has a life-long love affair with a typewriter.  He or she is an observer.  The writing craft is solitary and the confrontation with the world and events happen primarily in the writer’s mind and imagination.

Solzhenitsyn was one writer, however, whose life story is as fascinating, adventurous, and dangerous as the greatest thriller novels of all time.  He was a soldier in World War II, a prisoner in the Soviet prisoner camps, an exile within his own country, a published author whose first book created a sensation, a covert smuggler of critical information (one could say, state secrets), a watched man, a cancer survivor, a man who loved and lost and loved again, a religious believer in an atheistic world, a religious pilgrim, an exile from his own country, a reclusive author in a foreign land, a center-point of political controversy, a cultural critic, a returning hero, and an overlooked and often forgotten author.

He survived ordeals that destroyed many others along the way.  And he kept on writing.  Many of his writings have yet to appear in English.

He was a novelist and a poet.  But Solzhenitsyn was also a moral and political philosopher,  a historian, and, in a certain sense, a prophet and preacher.  While writers commonly create imaginary worlds, Solzhenitsyn stands alone for having destroyed a real and ugly world.  Solzhenitsyn joins a handful of people, such as Pope John Paul II, Harry Truman, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan, who clearly saw the issues of the Cold War and the evils of Communism and who acted to bring down the Soviet Empire.

Too many of Solzhenitsyn’s beliefs are rooted in tradition, morality, moral absolutes, “old verities” (to use Faulkner’s words), and Christian doctrine to please the modern world.  Some of the more liberal folk who protested in his behalf, and liberals were once strong defenders of the written word, shied away from the Solzhenitsyn who spoke critcally to the West and its decaying values.

Invited to Harvard in 1978 to give a commencement address, Solzhenitsyn gave a defining speech called “A World Split Apart.”  That world split even more as many distanced themselves from his pronouncements.  A few years earlier, the opportunity arose for President Gerald Ford to invite Solzhenitsyn to the White House so to honor this opponent of Communism.  Ford quaked at the political ramifications of appearing with the Russian exile.

The world of literature, especially the subset of literary critics and scholars, have all too frequently ignored, misrepresented, or attacked Solzhenitsyn.  He was not an easy man to peg, define, or limit.  He was wordy and nuanced in his ideas.  He wrote literature, not bullet points.  So, he was accused of being a Czarist and a proponent of the worst of Old Russia.  He was thought to be against progress, modernity, and new ideas.  It was implied that he was anti-Semitic.  He was, undoubtedly, strongly Christian in his fundamental worldview.

The misconceptions, falsehoods, and distortions compelled Daniel J. Mahoney to write The Other Solzhenitsyn:  Telling the Truth about a Misunderstood Writer and Thinker.  This book is published by St. Augustine Press, one of my favorite publishers.  There have been some fine biographies written about Solzhenitsyn.  A worthy lengthy one is by Michael Scammel, and the best discussion of Solzhenitsyn’s faith can be found in Joseph Pearce’s Solzhenitsyn: A Soul in Exile.

Mahoney’s book, however, is not a biography.  It is a study of the Solzhenitsyn’s writings and thought.  It is an answer to his critics and a call to read the man’s writings.  This book provides commentary on Solzhenitsyn’s works and motivation for those like me who need to read more of him and re-read what I have already read.  The book ends with a talk that Solzhenitsyn’s widow, Natalia, gave.  From beginning to end, this is a powerful and inspiring book.

I must admit that when I started reading The Other Solzhenitsyn, I found it hard to get into.  Then I started reading two books by Solzhenitsyn.  One is a shorter work titled The Russian Question of the Twentieth Century.  The larger portion of that book is a survey of Russian history where Solzhenitsyn discerns trends and faults in the country he loved so dearly.  That is followed by an address given to the International Academy of Philosphy in 1993.  The speech deals with the spiritual and moral crises of our times.  (It is a good window into Solzhenitsyn’s thought.)

The other book I read is called Apricot Jam and Other Stories.  Several of his stories appear in this posthumous book for the first time.  Like so much of his writing, these stories echo the pains, failures, and survival of humans caught in the Russian Civil War, the years of Stalinism, and the corruption of post-Communist Russia.  These are painful stories in many cases, but a testament to the soul and survival of man.

Both of these books helped me navigate back into the ideas of Solzhenitsyn.  Both Solzhenitsyn books helped me understand the book The Other Solzhenitsyn, and that book helped me understand Solzhenitsyn writings.  It was like having Dr. Mahoney in my living room explaining to me what I was reading.  One could also read some of Solzhenitsyn other works, such as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich or A World Split Apart for the same effect.

At this point, my next goal will be to tackle one of the longer Solzhenitsyn works that have too long occupied the shelves unread.

Teaching the Reformation

 Teaching the Protestant Reformation keeps getting harder and harder.  There is a point in learning history where teaching reaches a high point.  That point occurs when the teacher becomes familiar enough, comfortable enough, and knowledgeable enough about the subject to take off and run with it.  It is that point where the teacher knows the big stories and the little stories that highlight the overall event.  There are then the background causes, the immediate events, the key characters, the conflicts, and the long-term effects.

At that point, the textbook becomes simply a resource rather than the main source.  The teacher interacts with the textbook instead of parroting it.  It is at this apex when teaching is at its best.  I suspect no teacher reaches this level with all of his subjects.  I also suspect that most of us who teach begin skipping past the parts of history we don’t know so that we can wax eloquent on our favorite topics.

I have felt that kind of high freedom and exaltation over the Reformation during my years of teaching.  My notes included the background causes, such as the corruption of the Popes during the late Middle Ages, and the figures such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus who were forerunners of the Reformation.  Luther’s life story is great drama as the two great film versions of his life attest.

Calvin, Zwingli, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Philip Melancthon, and others add to this star-studded cast.  The story of the Reformation in England, moved along not so much by theology as by Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce, is an incredible story in and of itself.  Then there is the battle across Europe for the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people.  Reformation then poured over into areas such as government, family life, economics, art, and literature, as well as church life.  Nor can the Anabaptist contributions and detractions be ignored.

The 16th Century was the opening of a series of movements that continued on for another century with the Puritans and Covenanters in Britain, the settling of the British colonies in America, the Huguenots in France, and the Dutch wars for independence from Spain.

In Francis Schaeffer’s indispensible work How Should We Then Live?, he devotes a chapter to the Reformation which is followed by a chapter called “The Reformation Continued.”  As he points out at the beginning of the book, this work is not a history textbook. He skims and highlights some key events and critiques the failures of the reforming of Christendom as well.

The teacher moves from the stage of “What shall I teach?” to the stage of “What shall I leave out?”  As Solomon lamented, study leads to sorrow and weariness.  The best of men, such as Luther and Calvin, were still men.  Their flaws, failings, and misunderstandings dimmed the luster of the gold they refined.  Some of the lesser known figures, such as Bullinger, were not pale lights, but key figures in their time.  Some of the bad guys, usually meaning the Catholics, were not corrupt or godless.  The Peasants’ War in Germany was a disgrace.  The Thirty Years War was insane.  The Protestant Reformation was more complicated, complex, and multifaceted than we could have imagined when first discovering Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms.

This year, my teaching on the Reformation is further hampered by having only one semester to cover all of modern history.  The first semester was consumed, as in, eaten up, by teaching a world history class that covered the beginnings up through the Middle Ages.  So, my students are getting the Readers’ Digest version of modern history.  As always, this involves a survey of books and sources, some of which are assigned and some of which are for my own studies.


I recently received the book titled The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe, edited and compiled by Kenneth R. Bartlett and Margaret McGlynn.  It is published by the University of Toronto Press.  This 288 pages work is a collection of primary sources on the time of the Renaissance and Reformation.  Its price and content limit it to largely being a text for upper level college courses, but it is a great source of information.  Of course, anyone who studies that time period will quibble about what is left out, included, or overly condensed.  But, it is a great survey of the main figures, the scope of theological, political, and literary issues, and the actual feel of the times.

As expected, there are selections from Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Melancthon, and Knox.  But there are also selections by such important figures as Sir Thomas More,  Montaigne, Shakespeare, Columbus, Cervantes, and Queen Elizabeth I.  The Reformation didn’t happen in a corner and the times were bigger and more detailed than just the story of Luther.

Here are the major subject areas of the book:

The Background of Reform.  Selections here include writings of Wycliffe and Thomas a Kempis.

Early Northern Humanism.  Here are found some writings of More and Erasmus.

The Reformation.  Luther, Calvin, and others.

The Catholic Reformation.  Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila are included here.

Social Relations.  Ranging from Luther to Shakespeare, this section gives insight into family and other issues.

Discovering New Worlds Abroad.  We cannot overlook the fact that the age of Columbus and the age of the Protestant Reformation were heavily overlapping times.

Imagining New Worlds at Home.  This section focuses on the literary and scientific works of the time.

Renaissance and Reformation Politics.  This is a whole world of study in itself.  On the one side, there are selections from Charles V and Elizabeth I and on the other, selections from John Knox and Theodore Beza.

One vital aspect of learning is realizing how little one knows.  Surveying the contents of this book is just such a reminder.  My students will be reading some large chunks of Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  A knowledgeable student should have a least a cursory knowledge of those two texts, along with a familarity with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

We are all limited by time, money, and mind.  This book is a great help in that regard.  It would be a great main text for a college course at the undergraduate or graduate level.  It is very useful as a resource for teachers and students.

Gleaning from the Puritans

A selection of Banner of Truth Puritan publications.


There has been a revival of Puritan literature and studies for at least 40 years.  There are more Puritan books in circulation now than perhaps at any time in history.  More, I suspect, than during the Puritan eras of England and America.  Reprints abound.  Puritan books can be found in formats ranging from easy to read paperback extracts from larger works to hard to read, small print facsimile editions to beautifully bound collections.

Many pastors and theologians have combed through their favorite Puritans and are able to sprinkle Puritan quotes throughout their writings.  Jerry Bridges, John MacArthur, R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, and numerous other writers both reference Puritans and echo their theological insights.  Quite a few scholars and preachers have assembled anthologies of Puritan writings on particular topics.  Whole publishing houses, such as Banner of Truth, Soli Deo Gloria, and Reformation Heritage Books, have reprinted lots of sets and individual volumes of Puritan theology and history.

I have quite a few such books, but no where near all of the Puritan books available.  As is often the case, I would love more Puritan books.  But I am relatively satisfied with my current collection.  Puritans didn’t have all the answers, and for our times, they didn’t know all the questions.  But there is a richness, a level of devotion, an intensity found in Puritan theology that is humbling to us modern Christians.  It is no wonder that many have seen them as giants and seen ourselves as dwarfs, theologically speaking.

I recently read two small Puritan books.  They went into the reading stack for two reasons.  One was for my morning reading, which centers on theology, Bible study, and devotion.  The other reason was because of the upcoming need to teach on the Puritan era of English history.

Puritan Evangelism: A Biblical Approach is by Joel R. Beeke.  Joel Beeke is one of the best students, promoters, and teachers of Puritan theology today.  Some of his weightier, meaning, much bigger, books include the following:


    Meet the Puritans, which Beeke compiled along with R. J. Pederson, is a biographical introduction to a large number of Puritan preachers and writers.  It is both historically helpful and spiritually useful.  It is a great resource.

    A Puritan Theology:  Doctrine for Life, compiled by Beeke and Mark Jones, is the best collection of Puritan theology around.  This is a massive book, but easily broken down into readings by topic.

   Puritan Reformed Spirituality includes more than just the Puritans, but it too is a good collection of Puritan works devoted to the soul.

All of this is to say, that any book by Beeke on the Puritans is worthwhile.  Puritan Evangelism was given as a series of talks.  The book focuses upon the content of Puritan preaching, with additional sections on catechism instruction and prayer.  Since the English communities were largely Christianized, it was the pastoral visits and family instruction in the catechism that they used for evangelism.  As has often been noted, evangelism really begins in the church.

This is a very easy and readble book.  Don’t neglect the footnotes.  They include lots of references to Puritan works and studies done on Puritan preaching and theology.

The second book I recently read was The English Puritans: The Rise and Fall of the Puritan Movement by John Brown.  It is published by Christian Heritage.  The author, John Brown, lived from 1830 to 1922.  He was a respected Congregational pastor, author, and historian in England.

I expected this book to be another light read and another book simply devoted to praising the Puritans.  Instead, this book is a weighty, but small history of the movement.  (I should have read the subtitle more carefully.)  Puritan Christian had to fight for their convictions.  As much as I admire the reign of Queen Elizabeth (and she was an improvement on her sister and father), her opposition to the rising Puritan movement was brutal at many points.  Puritans went to prison and sometimes death over convictions.  One might question some of their particulars regarding the rituals of the Anglican Church or the vestments required for clergy.  I agree with the Puritans on these matters, but not sure if I would see them as “the line in the sand.”  It was, however, the doggedness of the Puritans, their unswerving commitment to Scripture, that kept the pressure on the state church.  They paved the way for the religious freedoms we enjoy today.

I will only give a brief mention of The Theology of the Family right now and give a more extensive review in a later post.  This is a hefty book of some 700 plus pages.  It is edited by Jeff Pollard and Scott T. Brown and is published by The National Center for Family-Integrated Churches.  This book is a gold mine of Puritan selections along with lots of preachers and writers in the following centuries.  The sub-title is Five Centuries of Biblical Wisdom for Family Life.  As it states on the web-site, this book features some fifty-six authors, including John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, William Gouge, Matthew Henry, Martin Luther, A.W. Pink, J. C. Ryle, R. C. Sproul, Charles Spurgeon and Thomas Watson. This massive hardback book is on sale for $21.95 on the link given above.  Once you scan the table of contents, you will quickly see that this is a great bargain and blessing.