The Counterintuitive Calvin

The "Institutes" are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read

When Calvin comes to his well-known doctrine of predestination, it is important to see where he places it. He does not deal with the doctrine under Book 1 where he treats God, or even Book 2 where he addresses sin and Christ. He waits until Book 3, which is about “How We Receive the Grace of Christ” through the Holy Spirit. Calvin insists that the opposite of the doctrine of predestination is not the idea of free will but the teaching that we are saved by our good works.


So what did I do last summer vacation? I continued to do something that I started January 1 of this year. Late last fall I came upon a plan for reading through all of John Calvin’s Institutes—his four-volume, 1,500-or-so-page systematic exposition of the teachings of the Christian faith—in one year. Calvin and Martin Luther together were the two leading lights of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Today, however, Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold, and cerebral dogmatician.

I knew much of this image was caricature, and, while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.

True Work of Literature

First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.

Second, it is nothing if not biblical. Even if you don’t agree with what Calvin is saying, you will always have to deal with one or two dozen texts of Scripture, carefully interpreted and organized as he presents his case to you. To describe these volumes as “theology” or “doctrine” is almost misleading—it is mainly a Bible Digest, a distilled readers’ guide to the main teachings of the Scripture and how they fit together.

Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are not truly converted by merely understanding doctrine, but by grasping God’s love so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart are changed.

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