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.


One thought on “Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

  1. Just a minor correction – the 1541 French version of Calvin’s Institutes is not the last edition of the Institutes. The last editions were the 1559 Latin text and 1560 French text. This is as per Robert White’s Translator’s Introduction on page vii of the book.

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