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.
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.
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.
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!
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.