Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Review
By Daniel Pentimone
The Institutes of the Christian Religion is a theological treatise by John Calvin (1509-1564). Calvin originally planned to be a reclusive scholar, studying and writing about theology from a quiet corner of the world. As Providence would have it, however, Calvin actually ended up in the center of world events. This did not keep him from writing about theology, however, and the Institutes is Calvin’s magnum opus.
Philip Schaff, church historian, wrote, “As a classical production of theological genius it stands on a level with Origen’s De Principiis, Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, and Schleiermacher’s Der Christliche Glaube.” The edition I reviewed was translated from the Latin in 1845 by Henry Beveridge. In this review I will first give the main point of the book and how the book is divided; then I will discuss its strengths, followed by certain weaknesses. Finally, I wish to answer the most important question for the reader of this review: should I read John Calvin’s Institutes?
A Summary of the Institutes
Calvin’s pressing question is, what do we need to know if we are to have true wisdom? His simple answer to this question is “we need to know God, and we need to know ourselves.” Calvin does not stop there, though. He argues that God has revealed himself to us, but we are so stupid that we cannot recognize God. Even his natural revelation is not sufficient, and we think ourselves great, when we are foolish. Because of this, the Scriptural revelation of God is absolutely essential to learn who he is and who we are.
What then do we learn in Scripture? We learn about God, and we learn about ourselves, and then (learning about Christ as God) we recognize that we must look to Him for mercy, if we wish to be rescued from the horrific condition that we are in. The Scriptures teach us that through Christ, man can be right with God. Our lowly condition and God’s greatness combine in Scripture to press home the fact that it is God, not man, who controls salvation.
Having learned, then, who God is and what we are, we trust Christ, and then the Scriptures show us what that leads to – living according to God’s righteous law in the community called the church. This is an institution created by God for the benefit of his people. The state is also a God-given institution for the benefit of the righteous, although it is quite separate from the church.
To cover all this ground, the Institutes is divided into four books. Book I deals with the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self. Book II addresses the person, necessity, history, and work of Jesus Christ. Book III tackles man’s relationship with God and how one acquires a right relationship through Jesus Christ. Book IV covers the church’s character, government, ministry, and relation to secular authority.
Strengths of the Institute
Calvin’s work displays a number of strengths. Foremost is its Biblical reasoning. Calvin starts with the Word of God. His views are based on Scripture. Even if Calvin misses something or gets a doctrine wrong, I believe even his critics who read his work would have to admit that he is starting with the foundation of Scripture and trying to figure out what it says.
On top of this, the Institutes gives thought-out arguments. It deals with everything thoroughly and extensively. Calvin’s discussions of the Trinity, or of Christology, for example, are ones that I will refer to again and again as careful, thoughtful, well-laid-out studies of the topics. Another proof of the book’s thoroughness is its length – 988 pages of deep, thought-provoking text. Even when one disagrees with Calvin – as I did on more than one occasion – one cannot avoid being challenged to reconsider their beliefs, for he seems to lay out all his arguments, and answer every single objection posed to them.
Finally, I would say that the Institutes deserves praise for its devotional quality. While it often dives into deep theological waters, it returns to worship. As the preface of my copy says, “Calvin used two key phrases to describe the Christian life: that faith is the “principal work” of the Holy Spirit; that prayer is the “principal exercise” of faith. All of life was to be lived before God as prayer – as dialogue with a personal God. Within this life of prayer, in gratitude for the gracious gift of salvation, believers would live orderly, socially redemptive lives.”
Weaknesses of the Institutes
While I have much to praise about Calvin’s work, I cannot deny that it has its weaknesses. From time to time, Calvin makes faulty assumptions. He seems at times too simplistic, too minimalistic in his doctrines. I could go into particular examples, but my point in this review is not so much to judge the theology that Calvin advances, as to review the strengths and weaknesses of his book. I do not believe that most of the time Calvin is making faulty assumptions. But I think that from time to time, it becomes evident.
I would also have loved to have seen more Biblical quotations throughout the text. Don’t get me wrong – Institutes is steeped in Scripture. At the same time, it is also steeped in Patristic quotations. To some extent this is understandable, since a primary goal of the author was to show that the doctrine he advances is not only Biblical, it is also in line with early Christianity. Still, for a modern audience that is unfamiliar with the early church, having more references to church fathers than apostles and prophets can limit the value of the work.
Calvin also writes with little sympathy for those who disagree with him. His tone often sounds condemnatory and strikingly harsh to our modern ears. He says of Catholicism, for example, “But the Roman authorities (who think that nothing is to be cared for in religion but their belly) consider the first title to be a revenue adequate to their support…” (4.5.4) Later, “What can you accuse in these venerable fathers save that, by indulging in such sacrilegious sport, they shamelessly laugh at God and man?” (4.5.5). But if you are a conservative evangelical who believes in justification by faith alone as the only way to God, you will probably, like me, find yourself agreeing with his language, for generally it is used only against true heretics.
What about Calvin’s views on Anabaptists? He certainly uses this same harsh language against them. But my contention is that the Anabaptists that Calvin was familiar with were very different from modern Baptists, as you will pick up if you read the Institutes. In sum, I almost (though not always) believe that Calvin’s harsh language was justified, as he was attacking perversions of the gospel.
Finally, one of the Institutes great weaknesses is its length. Many people either do not have the time or inclination to read through an almost-thousand page book. While its length allows it to cover many topics in depth, Calvin could certainly have been more concise at times.
Having considered the main message of the book and its division; the strengths of the work; and the weaknesses of the Institutes, I need to address the question – should you read this book? Certainly, read the Bible before any man-made book. Calvin, I am sure, would agree, since he says that the Scripture is the way we learn about God and about ourselves.
Do you still have the time to read this book? If so, I would certainly advise you to read the first of the four books. It is not nearly as controversial, but it pushes home the reality of God’s greatness and man’s foolishness, as well as giving you an introduction to Calvin’s writings. For those who are still interested, read the whole book. If you think you will have significant differences with Calvin, all the more reason to read the book. I found that when Calvin disagreed with a doctrine I held, it was quite challenging and profitable to examine my beliefs since he is so thorough.