I read John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (this edition) in 2019. My Worship Pastor, an elder, and I read it together and shared our insights via a text message thread. Our reading plan made this task manageable over the course of the entire year, breaking the two-volumes down into five weekly readings.
The Institutes – as they are commonly referred to – are his magnum opus. He wrote it as the Reformation surged throughout Europe. In it he outlines his theology, as formed by Scripture.
Calvin has his fans and his haters. What you think of Calvin usually indicates your theological convictions. However, most folks with an opinion of Calvin – one way or the other – have never read his most important work. People love to toss around Calvin’s name and share his quotes, but few have scaled his greatest work. Like people who pretend to be familiar with Shakespeare because they have a faint idea of Romeo and Juliet, we pretend to be familiar with Calvin’s writings while never actually reading it.
Over the course of the year, as I spent every week with Calvin, I was surprised by what I found and didn’t find. Here are five surprising take-aways I had from reading Calvin’s Institutes:
1. Calvin is very pastoral.
There is a warmth and affection in his writing. He interacts with the works of scholars, but he is not writing his work for them. It is clear he has a pastoral heart and isn’t in an ivory tower sheltered from the world in theological reflection. His theology is for everyday Christians who are living their lives to honor the Lord Jesus. Calvin is deep enough for the academic types to enjoy, but pastoral enough for all to read.
2. Calvin is funny.
This was a shocker to me. He had a sharp wit and knew how to use his pen to cut his opponents. He typically aimed his verbal jabs at those who taught absurd views that Scripture didn’t support. But he also used humor to communicate points. One of his most famous remarks:
“I consider looseness with words no less of a defect than looseness of the bowels.”
You must admit that is funny.
3. Calvin wrote about more than predestination.
John Calvin writes about predestination and believed Scripture taught it. However, he doesn’t talk about predestination as much as fans and critics would lead you to believe. If you didn’t know better, you would think arguments for predestination fill the pages of his book. They don’t. Calvin does not address predestination until after he has covered union with Christ, faith, and justification. Even when he addressed predestination, he warned that our beliefs should only go as far as God reveals in Scripture.
4. Calvin loved Augustine.
To read Calvin’s Institutes is to read a lot of Augustine. He quotes him throughout the book on nearly every subject. I understand why so many have commented, “If you are a Calvinist, you are an Augustinian.” Calvin uses Augustine to prove that his positions are not new. In fact, it shows that Calvin’s (and the Reformers) views were very much historic Christian views of doctrine and Scripture.
5. Calvin addressed the issues of his day.
Much of the Institutes is Calvin’s addressing errors in Roman Catholic teaching. He refutes their teaching on justification. He goes after their views of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. The focus of the book is justification by faith. He establishes the Bible’s teaching on this subject. But he also goes through each argument his opponents offer of their views. Something we discussed in our text-thread was how Calvin typically addresses his opponents arguments first, before he ever presents a positive case for his view. It is a very effective strategy for arguing. This is not a surprise when you remember that Calvin was first a lawyer before becoming a pastor.
After spending a year with Calvin, I am thankful for this man’s commitment. He loved the Scriptures and was unwavering in his devotion to them. I did not agree with every interpretation of Scripture he presented, nor with his positions on every topic (e.g. infant baptism). But I came to realize that if I disagreed, I could not flippantly dismiss his arguments. He lays out his case with Scripture, and if I do not agree, I have to show the fault in his interpretation and/or make a counter argument from other passages of Scripture. This sharpened my views. I am grateful for that challenge.
I recommend people read Calvin’s Institutes. It is not always an easy read. Sometimes the topics he addresses are not front-burner issues we are currently fighting. But the overall scope and message of the book will help any Christian strengthen their theological beliefs and sharpen their handling of the Scriptures. That alone is worth a year with the Institutes.