Friday, August 9, 2013

John Calvin - Institutes of the Christian Religion

John Calvin
The church is not just us, the current generations of believers world-wide, but includes all the believers who lived and died before us. Christians of the past are our spiritual family, too; we come from them. In eternity we will live with them in the same way we live with our physical families now. Reading from dead theologians is one way to connect with this part of our family.

During this month we've set aside for reading the dead guys, I'm becoming acquainted with John Calvin by reading from the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin first published this work when he was in his twenties, but that edition wasn't quite like the big book we have now. It was much shorter—one piece I read called it "rudimentary"—and he revised and added content over the next twenty-four years, increasing the length from six chapters in the first edition to eighty in the final one. Calvin worked on his Institutes throughout most of his adult life—in an on and off way, I'm guessing, because he did so much other writing, too.

I've dipped into this book previously to read what Calvin wrote on this or that subject, but I've never read through it. My plan is to read from beginning to end—a long-term project—starting now.

The Institutes is a systematic theology arranged like the Apostles Creed. This creed, you remember, has four parts, starting with a statement on God the Father, and continuing with statements on the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the church. The four books included in the Institutes correspond, more or less, with these four creedal statements.

The first chapters concern the knowledge of God, and what I've read so far discusses how all people in every corner of the world know of God. "[T]here exists in the human minds," Calvin says, "some sense of Deity. . . ." God himself,
has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. [Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 1]
That human beings are universally religious is a "tacit confession" that every heart is inscribed with the knowledge of God.
[E]ven idolatry is ample evidence of this fact. For we know how reluctant man is to lower himself, in order to set other creatures above him. Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a Deity must be; since it is more difficult to obliterate it from the mind of man, than to break down the feelings of his nature,—these certainly being broken down, when, in opposition to his natural haughtiness, he spontaneously humbles himself before the meanest object as an act of reverence to God. [Book 1, Chapter 3, Section 1]
In addition to this heart-inscribed knowledge of God, the natural world around reveals some of God's attributes, like wisdom, for instance:
[N]one who have the use of their eyes can be ignorant of the divine skill manifested so conspicuously in the endless variety, yet distinct and well ordered array, of the heavenly host; and, therefore, it is plain that the Lord has furnished every man with abundant proofs of his wisdom. [Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 2]
The natural world teaches of God's power, too, and along with his power, all these:
From the power of God we are naturally led to consider his eternity since that from which all other things derive their origin must necessarily be self-existent and eternal. Moreover, if it be asked what cause induced him to create all things at first, and now inclines him to preserve them, we shall find that there could be no other cause than his own goodness. But if this is the only cause, nothing more should be required to draw forth our love towards him; every creature, as the Psalmist reminds us, participating in his mercy. “His tender mercies are over all his works”.  [Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 6]
It sounds like Romans 1, doesn't it?  Romans 1 also teaches us that all people suppress this universal knowledge of God and his attributes. Calvin writes of this too.
[N]o sooner do we, from a survey of the world, obtain some slight knowledge of Deity, than we pass by the true God, and set up in his stead the dream and phantom of our own brain, drawing away the praise of justice, wisdom, and goodness, from the fountain-head, and transferring it to some other quarter. [Book 1, Chapter 5, Section 6]
The Institutes of the Christian Religion is easier to read than I expected, considering it was written more than 450 years ago. If you've read anything by John Owen or Jonathan Edwards, you'd probably find Calvin's writings a walk in the park in comparison. You'll find the Institutes online at Christian Classics Ethereal Library, or better yet (Who can read something so dense on a screen?) buy a real book.


  1. I started reading the Institutes in January, a little at a time, I'll finish when I finish.

    C. S. Lewis, in his introduction to Athanasius's On The Incarnation says that modern people have this misconception that original sources are hard to read, hence, they choose to read modern books which are meant to explain the original sources. In Lewis's opinion, which I have found to be true, the original sources are actually less difficult.

    Thanks for the post Rebecca, hope you gain much from your reading. :-)

  2. Strangely, Calvin seems easier to read than John Murray!