Reading Calvin’s Institutes: Introductions
This week I am embarking on a long-term reading project: John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is, of course, one of the great texts of the Christian theological tradition, and while in the past I’ve spent a good amount of time on Calvin’s chapters on Scripture, justification and atonement, and Christology, I have to confess that my exposure to the rest of the Institutes has been of the “hunt and peck” variety. So I’m reading the whole work cover-to-cover — four parts published today in two volumes.
I’ll be casually blogging as I go, reading Calvin slowly and under no compulsion to conquer a certain amount each week. I’d love to have some discussion — especially from those familiar with the bigger picture of Calvin’s work and historical context. And if you’d be willing to read the Institutes along with me, there might be a cookie waiting for you at the end. (Legal Disclaimer: There will be no cookies.)
For reference, I’m using the edition edited by John T. McNeill and translated by Ford Lewis Battles, published by The Westminster Press (Louisville, KY) in 1960 and reissued by Westminster John Knox Press in 2006. (An older translation done by Henry Beveridge in the 19th century is widely and more inexpensively available, as it’s in the public domain. In fact, it’s on CCEL. McNeill-Battles is much to be preferred both in terms of quality and readability.)
The Institutes of the Christian Religion was completed in 1559, five years before Calvin’s death at the age of 54. This was the fourth edition of a project that Calvin began more than 20 years earlier, and which he had continued to revise and expand.
We begin with Calvin’s own prefatory matters: the Institutes opens with brief comments to the reader (pp. 3-5), in which he writes of the somewhat surprising success that the book had found in the 23 years since its original publication. It’s that reception that prompted him to treat the subjects contained within in some greater detail. “Although I did not regret the labor spent,” he confesses, “I was never satisfied until the work had been arranged in the order now set forth” (3).
Calvin suggests here that the Institutes in its final form exists for two main purposes. First, it stands against those who have falsely accused him of defecting from the cause fo the Reformation to the papacy. The work is to be a true account of John Calvin’s thought and teachings — and so we should expect it to include key theological principles of the Reformation. But this was not the reason why it was written.
Second, and more significantly then, the work was produced to serve as a tool for the instruction and preparation of “candidates in sacred theology” — which I take to be both those studying for ecclesiastical orders and those studying for letters to teach in the universities — “in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling” (4). Calvin intends the Institutes to be a manual for learning theology, arranged systematically for comprehensiveness and ease of reference. To that end, I think it wise for us to pick it up and read it to learn theology afresh with Calvin today.
Finally, we should remember at every point that Calvin abhorred excessive speculation and did not believe “sacred theology” to be a discipline with autonomy from biblical studies. Calvin sought ever to be a biblical theologian, and his hope for the Institutes is that it will point us to Scripture — to see that what he has said is true, and to understand the work of God still more deeply than any human-made theological treatise can get at. Thus this great work of systematic theology was intended to be read along with Calvin’s many volumes of commentaries on Scripture, and of course foremost with Scripture itself.
This brief preface is followed by an equally brief “Subject Matter of the Present Work” (pp. 6-8), published with the French translation in 1560. Calvin states that Holy Scripture “contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom” (6). The purpose of a theology such as this, then, is to serve as a guide: to point in the right direction and keep the path clear, so that those who are called by the Holy Spirit may not lose their footing. It is the duty of those who have walked the path and learned the landmarks to point them out to those who are coming along. And yet any praise for the helpfulness of the work must be rendered to God.
The subsequent Prefatory Address to King Francis I is a bit longer, so I’ll save it for the next post.
and learn as they write.” (Augustine, Letters cxliii.2)
Outline of the Institutes:
Book I: The Knowledge of God the Creator (18 chapters)
Book II: The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers Under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel (17 chapters)
Book III: The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ: What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow (25 chapters)
Book IV: The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein (20 chapters)