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Reading Calvin’s Institutes: Introductions

February 13, 2014

Institutes of the Christian Religion (John Calvin)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).

John CalvinCalvin 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.

“I count myself one of the number of those who write as they learn
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)

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 13, 2014 1:16 pm

    Excellent project! I’ll look forward to future posts.

    A few comments b/c I can’t resist… 😉

    “which I take to be both those studying for ecclesiastical orders and those studying for letters to teach in the universities”

    In context, these are not different things. We might ask, Which universities? In fact, there are extremely few Protestant universities and in the context of Calvin’s Switzerland (and some “free” imperial cities like Strasburg), the “academies” are closely connected to the church and do not really have mechanisms for advanced study beyond that expected of pastors. As far as I can tell in the Protestant context, you could get your arts MA from a uni, and then you had to do your theological training in a more informal way.

    “this great work of systematic theology was intended to be read along with Calvin’s many volumes of commentaries on Scripture”

    Taking this point further, it was a sort of theological Reader’s Digest. He didn’t want to clutter his commentaries with theological excurses, so he put it all in the ICR. The biblical references in the ICR are thus cross-references to commentary discussions, not indications of “proof-texts.”

  2. February 13, 2014 2:01 pm

    Brilliant Darren. From March I will be leading a café theos at Carey through the Institutes this year, with a small group of my students. So this will fit in really well! As an aside, I happen to think the Beveridge translation reads far better in many places than the Battles, but, alas, Battles has won the day so we too shall be using that translation.

  3. February 13, 2014 2:12 pm

    Looking forward to reading your thoughts, Darren. I first read Calvin’s Institutes cover-to-cover in high school (though I did not thoroughly understand all of it). Read it again in college with a group, which was a lot of fun. I am quite fond of Calvin.

  4. February 13, 2014 2:51 pm

    Thank you, everyone! Glad to know this’ll be of some interest.

    Travis: All very helpful, thanks. It’s interesting to think of mashing up Calvin’s Institutes with his commentaries. One might end up with an opus much closer to the length of Barth’s — though much, much heavier on the exegesis.

    Myk: Great timing! I’m sure if I get a head start now, your group will pass me by April.

  5. February 15, 2014 6:38 pm

    Sweet, Darren!

    TFT used the Beveridge translation (as I recall), but, indeed, Battles has won the day. I’ll read along too–I have the Battles translation.

  6. February 15, 2014 7:09 pm


    I submit that you and I meet either monthly or bi-monthly in Kelso at the Starbucks right off of the freeway there, and talk about our readings in the Institute. If not in Kelso, I’m willing to come as far as Centralia and meet up somewhere there. What do you think? No obligation, of course. If you say no you won’t hurt my feelings too bad ;-).

  7. February 15, 2014 9:16 pm

    Bobby, that would be fun if I could justify the time and expense … and if I could promise that I’ll actually be keeping up with any remotely consistent reading schedule!

  8. February 16, 2014 5:25 pm

    Okay, how about we meet at least once in the next 6 months. And we can talk about our Calvin reading, incidentally among other things. Like I’d like to talk about Barth and Christology with you for example :-).

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