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Calvin's Institutes: A Brief Introduction

Calvin’s Institutes: A Brief Introduction

The Institutes of the Christian Religion (Christianae Religionis Institutio) was written by John Calvin (1509-64), the French Reformer who spent most of his life faithfully preaching and teaching God’s Word in Geneva, Switzerland. First published in Latin in 1536 - its final major revision in 1559 - the Institutes became the most influential theological work of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Although Luther’s writings had a colossal impact on western-European society, it was Calvin’s Institutes that systematized Protestant theology, providing a lucid summary and defense of the Faith. Thus Calvin’s magnum opus became a kind of theological textbook or systematic theology for Reformed Protestants the world over - and it continues to be to this present day. According to one Calvin biographer, the Institutes were a “compendium of the Christian faith to teach those hungering and thirsting after Christ the way of salvation. The sum of what he has said ... is that in Christ God has set before us, who in ourselves are empty and poor, the treasures of his grace. We must turn to him, begging him to supply our needs.” (T.H.L Parker, John Calvin, 61)

To the Reader (1559)

Calvin’s purpose for writing the Institutes was to “prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance without stumbling.” Calvin wanted to arrange his teaching “in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents.” (4) This summary of the Christian Faith would serve to train and disciple thousands of ministers and laypersons the world over. In this regard, Calvin’s prayers were certainly answered “above and beyond” anything he could have imagined.

The Prefatory Address (1536)

Calvin dedicated his Institutes to King Francis I of France. He wrote a prefatory address urging the French Catholic King to take seriously the theological principles of the Protestant Reformers. He offered it to the unsympathetic King as a kind of Protestant confession of faith. In this rather lengthy prefatory address Calvin spells out the unfair treatment that they were receiving at the hands of the Roman Catholic Church. “For the sake of this hope [the Gospel] some of us are shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed [condemned], some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee.” (Institutes, Prefatory Address, 14) He pleads with the King to give them a fair hearing. “It is sheer violence that bloody sentences are meted out against this doctrine without a hearing.” (10) In addition, Calvin juxtaposes Roman Catholic doctrine with Protestant doctrine, clarifying that Scripture must be the sole rule of faith and practice (sola Scriptura). To be sure, tradition (i.e. councils and the writings of the Church Fathers) are not to be ignored. But they do not have the same authority as that of Scripture. Calvin says that their Roman Catholic persecutors “unjustly set the ancient fathers against us ... these fathers [i.e. Church fathers] have written many wise and excellent things. ... The good things that these fathers have written they either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. You might say that their only care is to gather dung amid gold.” (18) In other words, Calvin is stating that tradition is good, as long as it is in conformity with God’s written Word. The French Reformer concludes his address by urging King Francis I to “give a hearing to the actual presentation of our case” and not to believe the slanderous lies of their incredulous enemies. One should not pass over this stirring address when coming to the Institutes. Indeed, it provides a historical context that sets the stage for the Christ-centered theology that follows - a theology that led many to lay down their very lives for the sake of the Gospel.

The Form and Contents

The Institutes of the Christian Religion is divided into four books or sections. Book one expounds upon God the Creator. Book two brings instruction on Christ the Redeemer. Book three deals with the nature of grace and its means of appropriation (i.e. by Spirit & Word). In book four Calvin sets forth a Reformed ecclesiology, explicating the doctrines of church, ministry, and sacraments. Reading Calvin’s Institutes is not for the fainthearted. However, I warmly commend it for your encouragement, spiritual growth, and godly piety. Let me close with these words about the Institutes from T.H.L Parker in his new biography on Calvin:

“Here was a theology treading confidently, yet never brash; a theology in which was nothing common or mean, yet whose sublimity was firmly related to the needs of ordinary Christians; a theology whose horizons were as wide as those in the English Fens and whose solid earth was overarched by the high heavens; a theology reaching back into the early centuries of the church with a certain air of permanence about it. Calvin had done what it is now clear no other theologian (not even Melanchthon) was capable of doing at that time. He had not only given genuine dogmatic form to the cardinal doctrines of the Reformation: he had moulded those doctrines into one of the classic presentations of the Christian Faith.” (Parker, Calvin, 72)

- Pastor Jon