Introducing the ‘Institutes’

A Guide to Reading Calvin’s Classic

John Calvin (1509–1564) is one of those historical figures people have strong opinions about — sometimes even when those opinions are not based in reality. I have heard people malign Calvin because, they said, all he taught was double predestination and the rightfulness of executing heretics like Michael Servetus. As if that’s all Calvin believed! Others fall prey to believing Calvin was simply a disembodied brain sitting on a shelf, trying to figure out how he could get as many people into hell as possible. As if he had no friends or feelings! More often, though, people view Calvin as more philosophical than biblical and refuse to read him for this reason. As if Calvin’s thought is not punctuated with biblical and pastoral reflection!

If these are some of your concerns or fears about Calvin, fear no more. Read the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin’s magnum opus, to understand him and his thought for yourself. You can do it. And you will profit from it by being encouraged by one of Christ’s gifts to his people. Most significantly, I think, you will grow to know God better through the writing ministry of John Calvin.

To Know and Love God

Why do we sometimes fear reading older books? C.S. Lewis pointed out that, due to humility, students regularly read commentaries on the classics rather than going back to the original sources themselves. He then remarked, “The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator” (Introduction to On the Incarnation).

I agree with Lewis in the case of Calvin. “The great man, just because of his greatness,” is intelligible.

“Only in knowing God will we know ourselves; only in knowing who we really are will we be able to know God.”

Once a reader is oriented to Calvin’s intention in composing the Institutes, he can readily understand almost all of it without needing recourse to a commentary or guide. Why? Largely because Calvin was a Christian writing to Christians about the most important reality in the universe to them: God, and our need to know him and enjoy him. Calvin desired his readers to know and love God through reading his book, a desire that’s a timeless longing for God’s people — whether persecuted sixteenth-century French Protestants or twenty-first-century Christians trying to navigate the upheavals of our world.

Seven truths orient us to reading and understanding the Institutes. The last one is the most important.

1. Title

Institutes is a translation of the Latin Institutio, which means “instruction.” Calvin, then, was writing to instruct people in the Christian religion. His book is not as extensive as Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae (“summary of theology”) or Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology, which were meant for advanced students. Calvin wrote in a simple fashion so that normal Christians could understand him. This comes through even in English translation. Try it and see for yourself!

2. Audience

In fact, Calvin had two audiences in mind when he composed the Institutes. He first wrote and published the book in Latin, the language of scholarship in his day. No matter their country of origin, European theological students and the educated class would be able to read him. But as Calvin revised and expanded the book, he usually translated the Latin editions into French so that his native countrymen would be able to read his work in their heart language. His audience was largely the persecuted church, since Protestants in France and the rest of Europe lived in precarious conditions. The Institutes therefore has an earnestness that differentiates it from much modern theological writing. I think you’ll find your heart warmed by reading it.

3. Attention to Detail

John Calvin was extraordinarily driven to get everything just right. He published the first edition in 1536. It was about one-fifth as long as the final edition. Soon followed the 1539 edition. Between 1543 and 1550, Calvin released other revised editions similar to each other. Finally, the 1559 edition was published just five years before his death.

“Calvin wrote in a simple fashion so that normal Christians could understand him.”

By the time he died, Calvin had lectured, preached, or written commentaries on almost all the books of the Bible. In this final edition, then, he brought to bear all the biblical exposition he’d done as well as the pastoral wisdom he’d gained in his decades of shepherding the church in Geneva. Commenting on previous editions of the Institutes, Calvin wrote in 1559, “I was never satisfied until the work had been arranged in the order now set forth” (“John Calvin to the Reader”).

Ours is a fast-paced world. Sometimes the books that we read have been written quickly, and they have not yet passed the test of time. Will they be worth reading in one hundred years? Well, Calvin constantly revised his book until he got it just the way he wanted it. And now more than 460 years later, it’s one of the most important books of the sixteenth century. Read it and benefit from Calvin’s attention to detail. (Among the several excellent books that will help modern readers understand the historical and theological context out of which Calvin wrote, see David B. Calhoun’s Knowing God and Ourselves, David W. Hall and Peter A. Lillback’s A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, Anthony N.S. Lane’s A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, and François Wendel’s Calvin.)

4. Theological Balance

Unfortunately — and incorrectly — some people assume that Calvin’s magnum opus must be the bedrock of the so-called “five points of Calvinism” and that Calvin must have used his book largely to defend his “Calvinism.” That’s not correct. The first sentence of the Institutes orients us to its two great themes: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes 1.1.1). Calvin’s desire — which he comes back to time and time again — is this reciprocal knowledge. Only in knowing God will we know ourselves; only in knowing who we really are will we be able to know God.

This orientation led Calvin to be balanced in his treatment of material throughout the book. So, for instance, he doesn’t address the doctrine of predestination (which one might think he would lead off with if he were expositing “Calvinism”) until near the end of the third of the book’s four divisions (3.21–24).

The Institutes contains many gems. It has a lengthy discussion of the biblical understanding of faith, since this is central to the New Testament and was a hotly debated topic between Protestants and Catholics in Calvin’s day (3.2). It also includes a meaningful section on living the Christian life, the only part of the Institutes that Calvin allowed to be excerpted and published on its own during his lifetime (see the recent publication A Little Book on the Christian Life). One of its longest — and most glorious — chapters is Calvin’s wonderful exposition of prayer in the Christian life (3.20).

How Calvin arranged his material may help us to see the balance he obtained in this book. Scholars still debate exactly why Calvin arranged the material of the Institutes as he did. His four-book division is viewed by some as following the general flow of the Apostles’ Creed: Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and Church. That is certainly possible. It seems, though, that Calvin was actually following the lead of the Lutheran Philip Melanchthon, whose Loci Communes (“Common Places”) followed the arrangement of Paul’s exposition in his epistle to the Romans. I think Calvin was largely adhering to Paul’s order in the Institutes, for he, like almost all sixteenth-century Protestants, believed Romans offered the key to rightly understanding all of Scripture.

“Calvin wanted his readers to come away from his book filled with a passion to know their Lord.”

This is why Calvin said, in the introduction to the 1560 French edition of the Institutes, that his book offered “a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture” (“Subject Matter of the Present Work”). (Readers may appreciate some of the thoughtful essays about Calvin’s arrangement of material in the Institutes in Richard A. Muller’s The Unaccommodated Calvin.)

In other words, Calvin was largely balanced because he sought to adhere to the outline of Scripture.

5. Biblical Boldness

Calvin can be quite straightforward in his words, in a way that may feel a bit off-putting to some modern readers. For example, he offers these two definitions of predestination. Simply, it is that “by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death.” More extensively, he wrote,

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death. (3.21.5)

Some may flinch at Calvin’s willingness to be so stark in asserting the double nature of God’s predestinating activity, eternally determining the state of both the elect and the non-elect. But Calvin considered that he was following the teaching of Paul in Romans 9, among other biblical passages.

6. Historical Distance

One advantage of reading older books is that their authors lived in different times, with different pressures and temptations, and sought to answer different questions from our own. Sometimes this can be frustrating since we might find little that we can immediately apply from these books to our own experience. But if we are patient, we can learn from the past by seeing how myopic our concerns and questions sometimes are.

Because he’s speaking from a different era, Calvin is not asking the same questions you and I are. We may learn from him what sorts of questions we should be asking of Scripture — and we may realize that some of the questions we ask are less important.

7. Knowledge of God

I said I would end with the most significant orientation you should have in reading the Institutes. Calvin, like Scripture, highlights for us the importance of knowing God intimately (Jeremiah 9:23–24; John 17:3). Calvin wanted his readers to come away from his book filled with a passion to know their Lord. This desire drives much of the Institutes. For example, Calvin pushes his readers to develop what he calls “piety,” which is

that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him — they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him. (1.2.2)

If you want to revere and love God, to rejoice in the benefits he’s given you in Christ, and to be happy in him, then let John Calvin be your guide as you read his Institutes of the Christian Religion.