As I come from a non-Calvinist tradition I have never read the foundation of the Reformed tradition, Institutio Christianae Religionis, or Calvin’s Institutes. My theological training was biblical studies, history, and literature, so I never spent much time in Calvin beyond his commentaries. As I am halfway through a PhD in theology, I thought it was time to read one of the most influential thinkers of the West, and one of the seminal minds behind the American religious scene today.
One of my teachers, J.I. Packer, used to chide students into getting over their prejudice of these old, foundational books. C.S. Lewis calls us to read old books in order to have an informed conversation with culture that won’t be in danger of getting lost in today. Actually, when it comes to John Calvin, Lewis pressed the point further: “And tho’ I’m no Calvinist I wish people who write about Calvin wd. read the Institutio first” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers, July 4th, 1957). So, thinking of Tyndale and my teachers, I put my hand to the plough.
John Calvin, a French lawyer, was one of the earliest of the great theologians to break from Roman Catholicism (in 1530, 13 years after Luther’s 95 Theses). He wrote many commentaries, sermons, and letters, but his magnum opus was the Institutes. He spent 25 years writing this book, beginning as a pamphlet in outline and finishing as a complete Protestant primer by 1559 (in Latin; 1560 in French). At the time, Latin was the lingua franca of Europe, used for trade, scholarship, and religious debate. Though Calvin’s French version was as foundational to the development of Modern French as the King James Bible was to English or Luther’s Bible was to German, and though it is still quite readable in the 21st century to a basic French reader like me, I chose to read an English translation of the Latin by Henry Beveridge (1845)—mostly because I had a copy and was too cheap to buy a new one.
Calvin is really offering a third way.
Some critical thinking could have led me to guess this was the truth, but I think I had reduced Calvin to an anti-Catholic writer in my head. Calvin was trying, though, to chart a complex centre line through the controversies of the first generation of Protestants. In many issues, there are “two classes of opponents to be guarded against…” (IV.14)—here speaking of those who undervalue the sacraments and those who attribute too much to the sacraments. Calvin’s reformation is against Catholicism, but he is also trying to avoid what he sees as excesses among Anabaptists, Millenarians, Unitarians like Servetus, and radical folks like Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt. While the Intistutes might seem to us super strict, they were partly written to reduce unnecessary rigour and what Calvin saw as overly selective readings of Scripture.
Calvin was attempting an Augustinian recovery.
Often, Calvin will list his argumentative pattern like this: This proof is confirmed by examples and passages of Scripture, by reason, and by the authority of Augustine. While Calvin is less interested in a balanced “three-legged stool” of Scripture, tradition, and reason—as, say, Anglicans are—he calls upon Augustine and the fathers of church tradition on nearly every page. Calvin’s admiration of Augustine is no secret, and part of his restoration is to point out that with critical exceptions, Augustine’s reading of Scripture and theology is both a true and helpful critique of the Western church.
Some of this might be a rhetorical tool, using the greatest Catholic theologian against Catholics. But Calvin did not use all those rhetorical tools. Despite writing what looks to me like a scholastic book in the spirit of Aquinas, Ockham, and Duns Scotus, Calvin speaks often of the “errors of the Schoolmen.” Augustine was particularly important to Calvin, and one of the reasons that all kinds of evangelical thinkers are returning today to Augustine is because Calvin has opened that door so widely. I don’t think there can be anything more precise than this:
“Augustine … we quote more frequently, as being the best and most faithful witness of all antiquity…” (IV.14).
One of my great disappointments in writing a thesis on antisemitism was deep-seated prejudices against Jewish people in the context of the period and in the reformers’ writings. Luther himself gives a pretty good outline of how to perpetrate ethnic cleansing against Jewish people, and the perpetrators of the Holocaust had good support from Luther in building the antisemetic attitudes of Germans. While the Holocaust was not a Christian event—Hitler drew on popular science, Nietzsche, folk tales, Norse mythology, pagan intimations, and ideas of the Christian west—European Christians have a great deal of blood on their hands for the fate of the Jews.
Calvin, though, is not especially responsible for this blood-guilt. There are some tiresome stereotypes and clichés in Calvin, such as the Catholic/Jewish legalistic parallel, and the idea of Jewish corruption at the time of Christ. Despite this, Calvin affirms again and again that the Hebrew covenant was based upon God’s grace.
Moreover, most of the truly vociferous ideas about Jews are absent in Calvin. And while he does so ignorantly, Calvin makes generous connections between the church and synagogue that would have made some reformers and 19th century liberal theologians uncomfortable. Unfortunately, though, Calvin never took the time to understand the world of Second Temple Judaism, and so understand exegesis within the emergence of Christianity from Judaism.
If you read his other works, you will see that he did not have a very high view of Jews of his world. In the classic text of the Institutes, however, he chose not to seal in that experience to the degree that others of his day did.
Calvin was a better lawyer than pastor, and a better polemicist than anything.
Calvin was a great polemicist, and his writings are a significant foundation of slam poetry of later ages. Perhaps his best drop-the-mic moment is at the end of his chapter on civil government (IV.20), where he ends this way: “I have, in some measure, deprived these asses of their lion’s skin.”
Bam! Calvin was great at this, equating those who disagree with the minions of Satan and the doctrines of sacrament different than his as “made void by the infidelity or malice of men” by those who “ignorantly and erroneously … cast forth the body of Christ to be eaten by dogs” (IV.17).
Not a terribly subtle fellow. At least he makes these insults in high fashion: “in the present day so many dogs tear this doctrine with envenomed teeth, or, at least, assail it with their bark” (I.17). That is some fine use of imagery right there.
Being a great polemicist does not make Calvin a great pastor. Providence and predestination are pastoral doctrines, but the way that Calvin wields the swords of pen, church discipline, and statecraft serve to sever rather than repair the bond of Christ. As he admits himself, complexities can be “a Gordian knot, which it is better to cut than to lose so much labour in untying” (IV.19). One of Calvin’s great mistakes, I think, is that of human psychology. The way he treats his opponents—and here I mean more than fine words, but his comfort with capital punishment against ideas—shows the need for redemption in his pastoral theology.
Polemicists play an important role in working out straight thinking across time and space, but it is up to Calvinist pastors today to reshape their pulpit ministry as a partial critique of Calvin.
This is a thick book. My copy is a thin 944 pages of smallish type, but Goodreads editions run up to 1822 pages and usually in 2 or 4 volumes. Besides a number of prefaces and a postlude of 100 aphorisms, there are 84 chapters divided into four books. In English, there are about 700,000 words—longer even than any Stephen King book or The Lord of the Rings (with Silmarillion and The Hobbit). To read this book in 3 months—a chapter a day—it would require on average an hour a day. However, some of the chapters are much longer: II.8, III.2, III.4, and IV.17 are all 2-3 hour reads. Calvin’s chapter on prayer—which is, incidentally, my favourite non-controversial chapter and a good treatise on the topic—took me well over three hours.
Yet, Calvin apologized a number of times for being too brief, culminating around the 350,000th with the audacious claim that he has a “natural love of brevity”–and, even more–“perhaps, any attempt of mine at copiousness would not succeed” (III.6).
No, Calvin, you would not be successful in trying to write a long, detailed, complete treatise.
Calvin was funny, but not very often.
It took until the last lines of the super long chapter of III.4 before I had any evidence that Calvin had a sense of humour. The chapter is cleverly titled, “PENITENCE, AS EXPLAINED IN THE SOPHISTICAL JARGON OF THE SCHOOLMEN, WIDELY DIFFERENT FROM THE PURITY REQUIRED BY THE GOSPEL. OF CONFESSION AND SATISFACTION.” In this chapter (which is as long as some books), he takes a pretty critical dig at a Pseudo-Augustinian work which some were passing off as authentic and building doctrine upon this “book absurdly compiled by some rhapsodist, alike from good and bad authors.” Then he says,
“Wishing to save my readers trouble, they will pardon me for not searching minutely into all their absurdities. For myself it were not very laborious, and might gain some applause, to give a complete exposure of dogmas which have hitherto been vaunted as mysteries; but as my object is to give useful instruction, I desist.”
After 545 pages that struck me as funny. Not very funny, though. Really the funniest parts are the insults throughout and his own sense that he was being brief (see above).
There is quite a debate about “Calvin vs. Calvinism,” and I must admit that a lot of my reaction against Calvinism was due to his earliest followers and some recent public Calvinists. The idea of TULIP, though, is there in the Institutes—though not in a clever, memorable form. Calvin was, for the most part, a Calvinist.
And, yet, I still liked reading this book better than reading Charles Hodge, B.B. Warfield, John Piper, and Wayne Grudem. Even then, it was a long dry book, which is probably why I turn to Calvinists like J.I. Packer, Stanley Grenz, Marilynne Robinson, Dallas Willard, and Eugene Peterson more often. Perhaps the really interesting point here is not about Calvin but about me: it looks like I prefer literary, apologetic, communal, and pastoral theologies to systematics. That’s probably true.
I chose to read a cheap public domain edition, but if I ever do so again it will be a more contemporary translation. The standard edition today was edited by John T. McNeil and translated by Ford Lewis Battles—an Oxford student that impressed C.S. Lewis. J.I. Packer summed up the major translations:
“No English translation fully matches Calvin’s Latin [1560[; that of the Elizabethan, Thomas Norton , perhaps gets closest; Beveridge  gives us Calvin’s feistiness but not always his precision; Battles  gives us the precision but not always the punchiness, and fleetness of foot; Allen  is smooth and clear, but low-key.”
I will miss the feistiness of Beveridge, but would like to sit with a pencil in hand and enjoy it next time without thinking about all those obscure -ate verbs we lost long ago in verb form (like arrogate, abominate, irradiate, obviate, vitiate, actuate, inculcate, supplicate, promulgate, propitiate, intimate, abrogate, expiate, execrate, extenuate, expostulate, derogate, vacillate, and, of course, predestinate). And the word concupiscence, which I had to look up.
I agreed more with Calvin than I thought.
I speak of rereading this text—a thought that never entered my skull until the fourth book. My disagreement with Calvinism runs deep, and has to do with hermeneutics, exegesis, a philosophy of time, and a psychology of the human person. I think Calvin is a pretty consistent systematician based on his understanding of how to read the Bible and his ideas about the world. It is there where we disagree, so much of what he says I disagree with.
And yet this reading was valuable. His Augustinian recovery is essential, and he can help evangelicals re-remember sacramental theology. A number of the chapters should be assigned reading in theology programs outside of the four- and five-point Calvinist schools. He is a great thinker with a broad and lively mind.
Moreover, he is lacking almost any subtlety whatsoever. There is nothing cloaked in Calvin. I am not a convert, but I am one who thinks this is an important text to read—even for Catholics and non-Calvinist Protestants. It is also important to recognize that in God’s wisdom Calvin’s work looks little like Scripture itself, and we are called to work in a complex book of diverse voices and ages. Taken critically, Calvin can be one of our guides in this project and I was pleased to submit my mind to his teaching for a little while.