An Intro to the Institutes
by Derek Thomas
The opening sentence of John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion alone is worth a lifetime’s contemplation: ‘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.’
What is it about Calvin that so inspires me? This: his disciplined style, his determination never to speculate, his utter submission to Bible words as God’s words, his submission to Christ’s Lordship, his sense of the holy, his concern to be as practical as possible; the fact that godly living was his aim and not theology for the sake of it. In a forest of theologians, Calvin stands like a Californian Redwood, towering over everyone else.
The Institutes begins with an introductory, “To the Reader” making references to the unexpected “success” of “the first edition” (1536), the “summary” nature of its contents, the publication of further editions (in Latin: 1539, 1543, 1550 and 1559; and in French: 1541 and 1560), and the hope that in this (1559) edition he has “provided something that all of you will approve,” written in the winter of 1558 when in the grip of a fever which he believed threatened his life and a rumor that he had defected “to the papacy.” His aim throughout, he tells us, is “to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness” and providing “the sum of religion in all its parts” arranged in such a manner so as to indicate what is fundamental in doctrine.
Calvin saw the Institutes as a handmaiden to his commentaries; the latter, as he explains in the Epistle Dedicatory to his commentary on Romans, written with “lucid brevity.” The exegete cannot interpret soundly without the control of systematic theological formulation. The part cannot be understood without a firm grasp of the whole. Readers of Calvin’s commentaries need to have a copy of the Institutes at hand.
The Institutes as we now have it is the product of a lifetime’s thought and reflection by one of the greatest theologians the church has known. In part, as it grew from six to eighty chapters, it reflects Calvin’s own growth in his understanding of the Christian life. In all of its pages it reflects, as the preface to the first edition had indicated, not so much (as in Aquinas) a sum of all theology (summa theologiae), but a sum of all piety (summa pietatis). Theology and ethics have a symbiotic relationship.
Although The Institutes itself grew five-fold from its first to the fifth edition, the contents of the Preface written to King Francis I remained largely the same. Precedent for publishing an introductory theological essay to the King had been set by both Guillaume Farel and Huldrych Zwingli in 1525. Thus, in 1536, at the occasion of the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin wrote what was in effect a letter (a “Prefatory Address”) to the King, which was included in all succeeding editions, both Latin and French. Though minor changes were made, reflecting historical developments in the 1550s in France and elsewhere, Calvin retained the original date at the close of the Address: “At Basel, on the 1st August, in the year 1536.”
The occasion – false and base rumors concerning evangelicals which no doubt the king was disposed to believe – required from Calvin both firmness and finesse in persuading His Majesty to examine the accusation justly – indeed it will be the measure of his leadership that he do so! Calvin’s case is that all matters be judged according to the “analogy of faith,” that is, according to what the Scriptures teach (rightly interpreted). For this cause, “shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee. All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders, and treated in most shameful ways.” As Calvin commented on 1 Peter 1:11: “the Church of Christ has been from the beginning so constituted, that the cross has been the way to victory, and death a passage to life.”
Rome’s antagonism towards the Reformers, and Calvin in particular, was that what they taught was “new” and “of recent birth.” To this charge Calvin responds with evident feeling: “First, by calling it “new” they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. Indeed, I do not at all doubt that it is new to them, since to them both Christ himself and his gospel are new. But he who knows that this preaching of Paul is ancient, that “Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification” [Romans 4:25], will find nothing new among us.” For Calvin, an appeal to Scripture is itself an appeal to something ancient! But Calvin’s point remains vulnerable to the charge that the Reformers were disregarding church teaching – teaching which had fifteen hundred years precedence.
The charge may be brushed aside lightly in an age when modernity is valued above antiquity, but it was a serious and potentially deadly accusation in the mid-sixteenth century. The Reformers did not see themselves as the Anabaptists did in forming a new church. They saw themselves in the line of the ancient church and the early church fathers, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the church of the medieval period.
Calvin was unmoved by the charge–not because he saw the issue as irrelevant but rather because he knew antiquity lay on his side: “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory–to put it very modestly–would turn to our side.” It is almost unimaginable that such a thing could be said of evangelicalism five hundred years later.
So, how is the true church to be known? Calvin’s response in the preface to The Institutes is clear: it is known by “the pure preaching of God’s Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments.” Contrary to Roman insistence that the church is always marked by great pomp and is always visible, Calvin (perhaps to the encouragement of beleaguered evangelicals in France secretly meeting is small numbers and without outward show) reminds King Francis that the church often appeared in less than glorious form to the human eye, both in the Old Testament and in church history.
It is important to see this emphasis on the church in Calvin. He commented on psalm 115:17, “The whole order of nature would be subverted, unless God preserved the church. For the creation of the world would serve no purpose if there were no people to call upon God.” And it is well to remember that Calvin was, at every point in his adult life and ministry, a pastor as well as a theologian.
The rancid tone of these sections of the preface, aimed as they are against the bishops and prelates of the Roman Church, are not an indication of Calvin’s low view of the church and the ease with which one could criticize or leave it. On the contrary, Calvin viewed schism as “the worst and most harmful evil in the church of God” (Commentary on John 9:16), and warned in Book 4 of the Institutes “it is always disastrous to leave the church” (4.1.4). In the words of Charles Partee, “Calvin insisted that the Protestants were reformers of the church, not its deformers.” (The Theology of John Calvin [Westminster: John Knox Press, 2008], 267).
“Catabaptists” is Calvin’s term for “Anabaptists” – the sixteenth century radicals who basically wanted nothing to do with the earthly state, and did not encourage concern for the office of a magistrate or (in this case) the monarch. Calvin is keen to demonstrate to the King that Protestants, whilst critical of religious matters, are of a different stripe. Protestants prove loyal citizens, regularly pray for the King, demonstrate courage and fortitude as both citizens and soldiers and are the salt of the earth. Calvin is speaking of himself in these closing lines of the preface; speaking, let it be said, with uncharacteristic personal reference and self-defense. Employing a touch of irony, Calvin concedes: “We are, I suppose, wildly chasing after wanton vices!” since this is, presumably, what some had been saying to the King.
In truth, he and his fellow-evangelicals were doing nothing of the sort. Nevertheless his colleagues were being treated brutally, some (as the five prisoners of Lyons could testify) unjustly imprisoned and facing martyrdom. It is Satan’s work: “when the light shining from on high in a measure shattered his darkness, when that “strong man” had troubled and assailed his kingdom [cf. Luke 11:22], he began to shake off his accustomed drowsiness and to take up arms.”
The preface has grown into what now looks like a “full-scale apology,” and Calvin pleads with the King hoping that by these words “we may regain your favor, if in a quiet, composed mood you will once read this our confession, which we intend in lieu of a defense before Your Majesty.”
Whether or not King Francis ever viewed Calvin or his Institutes in a better light as a result is doubtful. Nor can we be sure if he ever read this preface. Those of us, on the other hand, who have (or are committed to doing so on this, on the quincentenary year of his birth) will discover a mine that “keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith” (J. I. Packer, Foreword, Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, Eds. David Hall and Peter Lillback [P & R, 2008], xiii).
*This post by Dr. Derek Thomas is a compilation of posts that originally appeared as part of the Ref21 series, “Blogging the Institutes,” published in 2008.