Works like Calvin’s masterpiece don’t belong to a small subset of trained pastors and theologians, much less to the secular academy. They belong to the church. And reading them ties the church of this century to all of those that have come before.
In his recent book Breaking Bread with the Dead [read TGC’s review], Alan Jacobs offers advice for achieving a “more tranquil mind”—a thing devoutly to be wished. At the heart of the book is the following insight: the more substantially we’re in touch with the past, the more effectively we’ll avoid being “trapped” in the “social structure and life patterns” all around us (14).
Like C. S. Lewis, who famously urged us to “keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” by reading old books, Jacobs argues that “you can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion” unless you regularly step away from it (23). For Christians, this means attentively reading (and rereading) the great works of the church’s history.
But, let’s face it, reading Augustine’s City of God, Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Milton’s Paradise Lost can be hard work. Helpful resources exist for potential readers, of course. You’re more likely to hang in there with the great, big books if those who have gone before us can reduce the friction (as it were) by telling you what to expect.
In that spirit, I’d like to point out some landmarks from a recent reading of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1559), one of those great works of the Christian past and a daunting tome to encounter. Think of the following as lessons learned—things I wish someone had told me before I took the plunge.
1. Calvin had a vast knowledge of Scripture.
Calvin often used the Institutes to address issues that didn’t fit into his sermons or commentaries. Scholars suggest interacting with all three genres—Institutes, commentaries, and sermons—to get the full picture. No doubt they’re correct, but Calvin’s interaction with the Bible bleeds over from his exegetical labors into the Institutes. Watch for his wide and deep knowledge of Scripture. Seeing it operate in a work of this scale is marvelous to behold.
2. Calvin engaged church history deeply.
Calvin understood that being a Christian meant being connected to all Christians who had gone before. In addition to theologians of his own day, Calvin read (widely) among the church fathers and (not quite as widely) among the medievals.
This allowed him to bring the debates of the past into conversation with the controversies of the present and, by considering how the church and her theologians had previously engaged those issues, to move his readers through confusion toward conclusions.