Calvin wrote as a fugitive. Exiled from France, he eventually settled in Basel where he found enough leisure to put together the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.
The first edition debuted in March of 1536 and was a relatively short book—nothing close to the 1000-plus pages of the final edition. The first edition was designed to be small enough to fit into a minister’s coat pocket so it could be carried and referenced at any time in any place.
He would later write, “All I had in mind was to hand on some elementary teaching by which anyone who had been touched by an interest in religion might be formed to true godliness. I labored at the task especially for our own Frenchmen, for I saw that many were hungering and thirsting after Christ and yet that only a very few had any real knowledge of him.” Amazing that this elementary teaching would grow into one of the most important books in the history of the church.
Three years later in 1539, now in Strasbourg (having been exiled from Geneva—we’ll get to that story in due course!), Calvin saw fit to make updates and produce the second edition of his Institutes.
The first two editions appeared in Latin. But in 1541, Calvin himself translated the second-edition Latin into his native French. From then on, translating new editions into French became his practice for each following publication of the Institutes until his death.
The third edition came in 1543, then a fourth edition seven years later in 1550.
During the Winter of 1558, Calvin’s health was rapidly deteriorating, and he thought himself at death’s doorstep. (He would actually recover and live until 1564.) So once again he undertook the significant task of revising his Institutes. Anticipating that this was his last edition, he poured all he had into making it the final and definitive edition. His French translation came out in 1560, and Calvin’s Institutes was complete.