On Reading Calvin’s Institutes as a Non-Calvinist

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.

Here are the more surprising lessons I learned as a non-Calvinist reading this great (in most senses of the word) book of theology.

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).

Calvin isn’t as antisemetic as some other reformers, but he has little understanding of the Jewish context of the 1st century Christian emergence.

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.

Against every possible evidence to the contrary, Calvin thought the Institutes was a brief book.

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).

I still like Calvin better than Calvinism.

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 should have bought a modern translation.

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 [1561], perhaps gets closest; Beveridge [1845] gives us Calvin’s feistiness but not always his precision; Battles [1960] gives us the precision but not always the punchiness, and fleetness of foot; Allen [1813] 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.

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About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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12 Responses to On Reading Calvin’s Institutes as a Non-Calvinist

  1. salooper57 says:

    Brenton, I enjoyed and appreciated the essay on Calvin, but was surprised to find you including Dallas Willard in the Calvinist fold. While Willard sometimes commented favorably on something Calvin wrote, he could be critical of Calvinism. Willard, I think, was quite right when he wrote that the acid test of any theology is whether or not the God it presents can be loved with all our heart, soul, strength and mind. It seems to me he thought later Reformed theology presented a God who can’t be so loved. He further complains that some of Calvin’s descendants (as well as other evangelicals) substituted a form of doctrinal correctness for a life of love and holiness.
    Shayne Looper

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    • Hi Shayne, I”m not trying to set up an artificial “the only Calvinist I like isn’t a Calvinist!” It could be my ignorance on the issue, but as a Southern Baptist there is a definite tang in that group for Reformed thinking–if not for 4- or 5-point Calvinism explicitly. I’ve seen those critiques of Calvinism, but I didn’t know if they were a rejection of it. But I’m not hung up on the point: I still like reading Willard better than Calvin!

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  2. wanderwolf says:

    Great feedback to Calvin. If I ever am looking for something to read, I think I’ll pick it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. robstroud says:

    “After 545 pages that struck me as funny. Not very funny, though.”

    Now, that, is funny!

    Yes, he was a champion of insults. It was a primary skill for polemicists, and he mastered it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I probably should have noted above that polemics then didn’t mean necessarily what they mean today. At least in the medieval world, to be insulated well by a philosopher meant that at least you were in the conversation.

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  4. Thanks for your post. As you may recall, I’m also reading through Institutes. I’m up to Book IV in the Battles translation. I would like to add a few observations. FWIW, I would say that I land in Particular Baptist territory along the lines of the 1689 London Confession. So there would be much on which I would agree with Calvin.

    Regarding the speaking of brevity, I have not researched it but I believe that some of that may have been left in from his earlier revisions – the 1536 was around 200 pages so that would have been brief. It could be that he’s also speaking of only making the “book” (as there are 4 Books) brief. Augustine has the same type of statements littered throughout City of God. (I’m also reading through a lot of Augustine – over 60% of CoG and 5 other works so far this year). I’m glad that you pointed out his reliance on Augustine – Calvin is quite clear that he was indebted to Calvin in addition to citing him throughout.

    I would also argue that, excepting book IV as much of it is written against the Catholic church’s unbiblical practices, there are far more non-controversial chapters in books I-III than there are controversial ones. Much of Institutes should be required reading in seminaries, as you also stated.

    One of the assertions of yours that I would like to interact with is this:

    “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.”

    I believe that you are missing out on much of Calvin’s life if you are going to accuse him of poor pastoral theology because of what Geneva did to Servetus. Where, specifically, in the Institutes did Calvin show “comfort for capital punishment against ideas”? Or in his other writings? I’m sure that you are aware that before Servetus was executed (1) The Catholics were trying to kill him, (2) Calvin urged him not to even come to Geneva, (3) Calvin pled with him until the final hours to believe in the Triune God of Scripture because without this faith in God’s nature he would be separated from God for eternity in Hell, and (4) Calvin asked that the Genevan leaders only have Servetus beheaded instead of burned. There are some good resources out there on Calvin’s pastoral theology. http://equip.sbts.edu/wp-content/uploads/2010/01/02sbjt-v13-n4-wright.pdf and http://www.desiringgod.org/books/with-calvin-in-the-theater-of-god may be good places to start from some more recent resources. Although he wrote often with a polemical tone in Institutes, he cared greatly for the souls of those who would read his works.

    Another statement that you made is possibly just as polemical as anything that Calvin would write:

    “Luther himself gives a pretty good outline of how to perpetrate ethnic cleansing against Jewish people”

    As a fan of Luther as well (I run @LutherDaily on Twitter), this is not only highly reductionistic but it is an affront to anything that Luther would have wanted done – he would have been appalled at what Hitler and the Nazis would do 400 years later partly under his name. To say that Luther was giving an outline on how to kill off a race of people is wrong. Did Luther write (and say) some bad things about those people who had the law, prophets, and promises of God (the first parts of Romans 3 and 9 outline their benefits) but denied them and attempted to kill off those who were the first followers of Christ (as Paul himself had set out to do)? Certainly Luther did say many things that we shouldn’t repeat to this day. And not to excuse it, but the Germans had a long history before Luther of anti-semitism and it would continue even after Luther to culminate in perhaps the greatest atrocities that mankind has ever seen. But to lay that at Luther’s feet is wrong – as you said, Hitler drew upon many other ideas to get to where he would arrive and being able to have the statements of Luther in his back pocket was just another one of the things that he could use. I’m sure that nobody would argue that Hitler would not have perpetrated his ethnic cleansing had Luther not written what he did.

    Thanks for all you do here, Brenton. I hope that I don’t sound too negative here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Chris for taking the time to engage with this post, which is brief and sort of flippant. It was meeting folk that you that challenged me to read Calvinists and Calvin himself. The Psalms commentary is something I use from time to time.
      I’m pleased you are reading Battles.
      The “brief” thing is just funny, and really betrays our culture of impatience and inability to read long texts.
      On Luther, I am not saying he gave the outline but his comments on Jews are a primer for the night of broken glass. The difference is subtle but here is what Luther wrote in what is now vol 47 of the Works:
      What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews?
      Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we cannot tolerate them. . . .
      First, their synagogues. . . should be set on fire. . . .
      Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed. . . .
      Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds. . . .
      Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under threat of death to teach any more.
      Fifthly, passport and travelling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to the Jews. . . .
      Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury. All their cash and valuables of silver and gold ought to be taken from them. . . .
      To sum up, dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains, if this advice of mine does not suit you, then find a better one so that you may all be free of this insufferable devilish burden—the Jews.

      — this is a terrifying statement in view of history. Of course, Luther didn’t have that history, and he was thinking of consequences in his own realm in his own time. This is the outline of what ethnic cleansing looks like–whether of Jews in Germany, or the Yazida or Iraqi Christians under iSIS, or Mennonites in Europe, or whomever.
      Yes, German antisemitism goes much earlier (I trace it to the first crusade, along the Rhine). And Luther was far more level-headed than most in his generation. Still, there is this. I didn’t see this sentiment anywhere in Calvin (though there are bad things about jewish people).

      Liked by 1 person

      • 😀 Don’t blame me for your reading Calvin!! You were predestined to read it… 😉 haha!

        But, seriously, thank you for the kind words. He did have much benefit to give to the Church universal. I probably had my copy of Battles for 10 years before I decided to plug through it over the course of a few years now (too much Tolkien, Lewis, L’Engle, and Rowling has been distracting me!) I do fear for the next generations who do not know how to interact with long texts, especially of a technical level like theology.

        I’m not really sure why Luther ultimately had that diatribe. It’s sad and, unfortunately, it is a stain on his contribution to the Church. From some of the other statements of Luther in the same work, there was a lot of hatred towards the Jews in Germany who were taking their money through usury and other business dealings as well. So it wasn’t even solely on the basis of their faith that he was so upset. I would be interested in some of your research on that – it sounds fascinating to trace that back. And you are right, Calvin does not take it to that level, thankfully. Thanks for the reply!

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  5. river42song says:

    When I saw the quote “…deprived these asses of their lion’s skin”, I immediately thought of Puzzle and Shift, and then wondered: Could this line be a source of inspiration for Lewis as he wrote “The Last Battle”? ​

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  6. Pingback: I ate verbs – Idiosophy

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