John Calvin and the 'Institutes of the Christian Religion'

To mark the quincentenary of Calvin’s birth on 10 July 1509

John Calvin was French. He was born a generation after Martin Luther, in Noyon, north of Paris. Calvin was eleven in 1520 when Luther’s writings put a match to the dry tinder of Europe and the Reformation fire took hold.

Luther called for a return to the Bible which alone is the unerring Word of God, a casting off of unbiblical tradition, and a rediscovery of the heart of the biblical gospel: faith alone in Christ alone as the ground of our salvation. All our religion and good works count for nothing on the Day of Judgement. We cannot save ourselves. God in his grace saves us.

This is the heart of the message of the Reformation. It became the heart of the teaching of John Calvin, as of all the great Reformers. Calvin had no desire to be original. He took hold of the baton handed to him by the first generation Reformers. He became the leading spokesman and teacher of the second generation. But essentially the message was the same. It was the message of the Bible. It was the gospel.

By the time he was twenty-three, Calvin had thrown in his lot with the ‘evangelicals’, who were increasingly regarded as subversive by the secular and religious authorities in France, and therefore liable to persecution, arrest and imprisonment.

One night in 1534 evangelical posters, proclaiming a reforming manifesto, were pasted up in key locations throughout France, including, somehow, in the antechamber to the King’s bedroom. The King was not pleased. He ordered thirty-two evangelicals to be burned to death. Calvin, by this time a marked man, had fled Paris only hours before his accommodation was raided by the police and his personal papers seized.

The details of Calvin's conversion from Catholic academic to fugitive reformer, totally committed to the evangelical cause, are obscure. Many years later, in a rare autobiographical passage, he wrote about that time:

So it came to pass that I was withdrawn from the study of arts and was transferred to the study of law. I endeavoured faithfully to apply myself to this, in obedience to my father's wishes. But God, by the secret hand of his providence, eventually pointed my life in a different direction.

At first, I was so obstinately devoted to the superstitions of the Papacy (and more stubbornly so than was right for someone of my age) that I was not easily extricated from so profound an abyss. Then God, by a sudden conversion, changed and shaped my heart towards being more receptive.

Having received some taste and inkling of the true piety, I was immediately stirred to enthusiasm for it and, although I did not immediately put to one side all my other studies, I pursued them more spasmodically. But I was amazed to discover that, within a year, all those around with a similar yearning for the pure doctrine, came to me for assistance, even though I was only a novice myself.

For my part, being rather shy and preferring tranquillity and repose, I began to look for some quiet retreat from them. But no sooner had I found what I wanted than, on the contrary, these places of retreat turned into public schools. Despite my wish always to live in obscurity and retirement, God so moved and transformed me through a variety of experiences and never left me in peace anywhere until, contrary to my natural inclinations, he brought me towards enlightenment and, so to speak, forced me into the open.

That is worth quoting at some length for its intrinsic interest, but also because it illustrates important characteristics of Calvin.

First, the sovereignty of God, which is so central to his thinking, is not for him a theoretical and remote piece of abstract theologising. It is a practical biblical truth, which works itself out in the providential control of everything that happens, not least conversion. God converted him.

Secondly, his faith - his knowledge of God - was an affair of the heart, and not only of the intellect. “Then God”, he says, “by a sudden conversion, changed and shaped my heart towards being more receptive.” By “heart” he means his will, emotions, mind, indeed the whole of his being. Faith for Calvin is something all consuming. It is a fire raging in the soul, fuelled by the Spirit of God through his Word. No dry academic he, not any longer.

Thirdly, his exceptional gifts of leadership and teaching were evident to those around him from the start. He was not left alone. Whatever his personal and temperamental preferences, he came to realise that his God-given calling was to leadership in the church as a minister of the Word.

Fourthly, he was by temperament rather withdrawn and shy. The last thing he wanted was the limelight. Left to himself, he would have chosen a quiet life of scholarship. He had none of the ebullient wit and gregarious affability of Luther. But this does not mean that he was personally cold and unfeeling. He cared deeply for people, as his letters reveal.

A close friend of his, Etienne de la Forge, an evangelical in whose home he had lodged in Paris, was burned at the stake. He, like the other evangelicals who died, had been accused of being a radical anabaptist, politically motivated and with the intention of subverting the state and destroying the political order. Calvin was outraged by these suggestions that evangelicals were politically rather than spiritually motivated. “And”, he later wrote, “this was what incited me to publish my Institutes of the Christian Religion.” The book was completed in 1538. Calvin was twenty-nine.

It was not, except in outline, the book that it later became. This first edition was a relatively short handbook of the Christian faith from an evangelical perspective. It was intended both to show the untrue nature of the charges against the evangelicals in France, and also to be a useful summary of the basics of Christian faith and life for the believer. He says in the Preface addressed to the King of France,

I am not afraid, in fact, to confess that here is contained almost the sum of that doctrine which they proclaim must be punished by imprisonment, exile, proscription, burning and extermination by land and sea.

The book was quickly taken up as a valuable and well-written book that met the need, in a way that no other book did, for a portable but comprehensive and profound account of evangelical faith. It was a book, as T.H.L.Parker puts it, “whose sublimity was firmly related to the needs of ordinary Christians”. It sold out within a year.

For Calvin, it must be remembered, the persecution and suffering of the disciple of Christ for the sake of the gospel, warned about and exemplified by the apostles in the New Testament, was an ever-present reality. From the comfort of this country, we wonder how we would withstand open persecution if it ever came. For Calvin no imagination was needed. He felt very deeply particularly for his suffering compatriots in France.

All of his teaching needs to be seen in this light, not least his polemical writing against Catholicism and his concern that the doctrine of predestination should be taught to believers. For Calvin, a proper understanding of election and providence – God’s unchangeable choice of the believer, and its outworking in every circumstance of life - was a powerful source of solace to the hard pressed disciple. To soft pedal such teaching, or to neglect it altogether, was to deny the believer a major biblical source of comfort and strength.

Calvin continued to write prolifically throughout his life. His complete works run to fifty-five substantial volumes, of which the Institutes (in their final and greatly expanded form) are just four.

His first commentary was on Paul's Letter to the Romans. Why Romans to start with? He says in his introduction:

... if we have gained a true understanding of this epistle, we have an open door to all the most profound treasures of Scripture.

His Preface takes the form of a letter to a friend, Simon Grynaeus. In it he sets out key principles for biblical interpretation. He writes:

I remember that three years ago we had a friendly discussion about the best way of interpreting Scripture... Both of us felt that lucid brevity constituted the particular virtue of an interpreter. Since it is almost his only task to unfold the mind of the writer whom he has undertaken to expound, he misses the mark or at least strays outside his limits, by the extent to which he leads his readers away from the meaning of his author. Our desire, therefore, was that someone might be found, ... who would not only study to be comprehensible, but also try not to detain his readers too much.

He is very appreciative of the efforts of others, such as Martin Bucer, the leading reformer and Calvin’s mentor, but he says of him:

Bucer is too verbose to be read quickly by those who have other matters to deal with ... he does not know when to stop writing.

One might think that Calvin was not entirely immune from that charge himself. It has to be said, however, that he lives up to his own principles to an extraordinary degree. His target audience is always the ordinary Christian. His commentary is clear and sticks to the point, which is simply to clarify the meaning of the biblical text.

Eventually, Calvin settled in Geneva, where he stayed for the rest of his life. He did not find it easy. From his return in 1541, after a few years of enforced absence, up to 1555 he was in almost continual conflict in one way or another, attempting to reform the church and establish appropriate structures as he saw fit, but facing opposition on the city council much more powerful than he. Only in his last years was he invited to become a citizen of Geneva. For most of his ministry he was a resident alien, unable even to vote in council elections, let alone stand himself. What power he had lay only in persuasion.

Only after 1555 did he have consistent support, which came not least from the thousands of evangelical refugees who settled in Geneva as a haven of security and a centre of Reformed teaching. Then he was able to turn his mind more away from local concerns, to the wider needs of the Reformed cause in Europe, and especially in his native France.

Pastors were trained in Geneva and sent undercover into France to minister to the many Reformed congregations that were springing up despite the danger of persecution. By 1562 over two thousand French Reformed (otherwise known as Huguenot) congregations had been planted. Alongside all his other work, Calvin sustained an extensive correspondence with these churches, which were so close to his heart, as well as with a wide range of others across Europe, as his reputation as one of the leading teachers of the Reformation spread.

Let me give two snippets. In 1556 he wrote to a French church:

I have heard that some are debating among themselves whether, if an atrocity is committed against them, they would resort to violence rather than allow themselves to be hunted down by brigands. I beseech you, beloved brethren, to abandon any such notions for they will never obtain God's blessing and will never succeed…”

In 1561 he wrote to John Knox in Scotland, after Knox had returned from his exile in Geneva to lead the reformation there:

... I am delighted, as you can easily imagine, that the gospel has made such rapid and easy progress among you. That violent opposition should have been stirred up against you is nothing new... With regard to ceremonies, I trust that you will moderate your rigorous attitude, even if you cause displeasure to many... You are well aware that certain things should be tolerated as exceptions even if you do not quite approve of them.

Calvin's European-wide reputation and influence was founded above all on his greatest work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. This book, which expanded so much over the years, was completely recast by Calvin in 1559, into its final form. He reorganised the material and divided it into four books and eighty chapters from the previous twenty-one chapters. The first edition had six chapters! He also subdivided the chapters. So the book was given a much clearer structure and made easier to follow.

It opens famously with these words:

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.

Rather like the chicken and the egg, which of those comes first is hard to say. We cannot begin to know God if we do not have some idea of our own plight. And we cannot see ourselves clearly unless we have first “looked upon God's face”, as Calvin puts it. The rest of the Institutes unfolds what the Bible teaches about God and us.

Book One is entitled “The Knowledge of God the Creator”; Book Two, “The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ, First Disclosed to the Fathers Under the Law, and Then to Us in the Gospel”; Book Three, “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ; What Benefits Come to Us from It, and What Effects Follow”; and Book Four, “The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein”.

It is helpful to see the Institutes as having a Trinitarian structure. So Book One concerns God the Father; Book Two, God the Son; Book Three, God the Holy Spirit; and Book Four deals with the Church. The structure broadly follows that of the creed. Alternatively, it is striking to note that Calvin was rewriting the Institutes at the same time that he was writing his commentary on Romans. If you know the flow of the argument of Romans, then the structure of the Institutes will have a certain familiar ring to it.

It is important to realise what Calvin is trying to do in the Institutes. It is intended as a guide to reading the Bible. So Calvin says in introducing it: “I can at least promise that it can be a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture”. But he not only wants it to be a guide to Scripture, he wants it to be tested by Scripture. So he says: “Above all, I must urge [the reader] to have recourse to Scripture in order to weigh the testimonies that I adduce from it.”

J.I.Packer, in the Foreword of Bruce Milne's summary of Christian Doctrine called ‘Know the Truth’ says:

For years I have been getting help from Calvin's 1559 Institutes of the Christian Religion [1500 pages], which from its second edition on was explicitly tailored to help Bible students and teachers in living and witnessing for God. It still does the job marvellously for those who can take it, but there is no denying that not all Christian stomachs can digest so mountainous a meal.

It is hard to argue with that, though I would want to add two comments.

First, for its length, it is not on the whole at all difficult to read. Indeed, I have yet to find anyone who writes about Calvin's theology as lucidly as he writes himself. I agree with Alister McGrath: “To understand Calvin it is necessary to read Calvin.” Perhaps the marvellous chapter on prayer would be a good place to start. It has recently been published separately in a handy (and inexpensive) format by St Matthias Press.

Secondly, though I do not underestimate the task, I do not think anyone would regret time spent getting to grips with the Institutes.

It is built on Calvin's understanding of the Bible as the Word and (despite some modern claims about him to the contrary) the Words of God. “The apostles”, he says, “were sure and genuine scribes of the Holy Spirit, and their writings are therefore to be considered oracles of God”. But we cannot understand the Word without the help of the Holy Spirit. I quote:

Indeed, the Word of God is like the sun, shining upon all those to whom it is proclaimed, but with no effect among the blind. Now, all of us are blind by nature in this respect. Accordingly, it cannot penetrate into our minds unless the Spirit, as the inner teacher, through his illumination makes entry for it.

How can we sum up the teaching of the Institutes? Its teaching is, at the very least in intention, the teaching of the Bible. And how does Calvin sum up the message of the Bible? In these words:

This is what we should in short seek in the whole Scripture: truly to know Jesus Christ, and the infinite riches that are comprised in him and are offered to us by him from God the Father.

Calvin's Institutes went through over fifty editions in six languages before the end of the sixteenth century. It is the most influential single work to come out of the Reformation.

In his last address to the ministers of Geneva, Calvin said:

I have had many infirmities that you have been obliged to bear with, and what is more, all I have done has been worth nothing... I have written nothing out of hatred of anyone, but I have always faithfully propounded what I esteemed to be for the glory of God.

In his final letter, he wrote to his long time friend Farel:

I draw my breath with difficulty and expect each moment to breathe my last. It is enough that I live and die for Christ, who is to all his followers a gain both in life and in death.

He died at 8 o'clock in the evening on 27 May 1564. He was buried in an unmarked grave, as he himself had wished.

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