“Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”
Thus, begins John Calvin’s magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion. And with a precision that betrays tremendous erudition, the greatest of the Protestant Reformers dissects from the Scriptures what is necessary to know about God and man. It would not be an understatement to say this book changed the course of Western civilization. Yet despite its reputation as one of the most influential books in world history, due to increasing secularization and a ubiquitous suspicion of all things “Calvinism,” it has fallen into relative obscurity.
Though we know the work and the man by name, most heirs of the Protestant Religion have not bothered to dig beneath the surface. Like the gossipy housewife, we peer over the fence in suspicion while never seeking to get to know our neighbor. While this is not the medium for an exhaustive defense and explanation of the work, I do hope to inspire those who have not read the Institutes to do so, as well to give fresh insight to those who have. I seek to do that by highlighting five of the greatest features of the book:
Doxological in Nature
Many today believe the Reformation was fought over justification by faith alone according to the Scriptures alone. After all, we have synthesized the entire corpus of reformation teaching into the five solas. While the solas are a foundational element, the reformers, and especially Calvin, were enamored with one thing: restoring true spiritual worship to the Church of God.
This focus seeps into every pore of Calvin’s Institutes, and one cannot read more than a few pages without Calvin bringing doctrine to doxology. Take this quote on the knowledge of God:
Such is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed by the Law.
Or this quote on the first commandment:
The glory of his Godhead must be maintained entire and uncorrupt, not merely by external profession, but as under his eye, which penetrates the inmost recesses of his heart.
Calvin was zealous to guard the honor of God, impressing upon his readers the importance of worship toward God from the heart in accordance with God’s word. Calvin’s writing cannot fail to direct our hearts and minds toward God as a reminder that truth must necessarily inflame our hearts with love for our triune God.
Biblical in Nature
In contradistinction to Rome’s insistence there exist three ultimate sources of ecclesial authority, the reformation championed sola scriptura, which does not deny the legitimacy of authorities besides the Scriptures but establishes that all authority is ultimately derivative of and subservient to the Sacred Scriptures. There is only one rule for faith and life, one authority which can bind the conscience of man and obligate him to obedience, that being the holy written Word of God. While Calvin was not afraid to quote the Early Church Fathers or the councils and creeds of the church to prove a doctrine he was asserting, he recognized the dogmatic tradition of the church was not a source of authority in itself but was subject to the scrutiny of the Holy Bible.
It is for this reason that Calvin tests every doctrine against the Scriptures. He recognized the modus operandi through which God delivered His will to the church was the Scriptures.
But what kind of Spirit did our Savior promise to send? One who should not speak of himself, but suggest and instill the truths which he himself had delivered through the word. Hence, the office of the Spirit promised to us, is not to form new and unheard-of revelations, or to coin a new form of doctrine, by which we may be led away from the received doctrine of the gospel, but to seal on our minds the very doctrine which the gospel recommends.
Historical in Nature
It is quite common to hear that Protestantism was conceived and born in the 16th century. It has even been said that to read church history is to cease to be Protestant. While modern-day evangelicalism has certainly in large part become ahistorical, it was not so from the beginning. The Protestant movement from the beginning established historical rootedness. The Reformation was not an attempt at novelty but was a call to the church to return to the true and pure gospel worship that characterized the early church. The Reformers did not see themselves as establishing a new church. Rather they saw themselves as participating in the church catholic.
It is for this reason that Calvin quoted the Early Church Fathers and ecclesial creeds so consistently. He sought to prove that it was not the doctrine of the Reformers that was novel, but the worship and practice of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, to establish historical precedent regarding his view on the role of good works in salvation, Calvin quoted both Augustine and Bernard of Clairvaux. When he sought to prove his hard predestinarian belief, he repeatedly and prodigiously quoted Augustine. He quoted a sermon of St. John of Chrysostom to demonstrate early church belief that all formulations of doctrine need arise from the Scriptures and cannot be declared absent from the assent of the Scriptures.
Polemical in Nature
The Protestant Reformation was not a good-natured battle between chums and kindred. Both sides believed they were doing battle for the true gospel. When waging war on that battleground tongues tend to be quite sharp. While rarely being ungracious, Calvin’s breadth of knowledge and mastery of language enabled him to land some devastating blows against his opponents. Here is Calvin on indulgences:
Indeed, the fact that indulgences have so long stood safe and with impunity, and wantoned with so much fury and tyranny, may be regarded as a proof into how deep a night of ignorance mankind were for some ages plunged. They saw themselves insulted openly, and without disguise, by the pope and his bull-bearers; they saw the salvation of the soul made the subject of a lucrative traffic, salvation taxed at a few pieces of money, nothing given gratuitously; they saw what was squeezed from them in the form of oblations basely consumed on strumpets, pimps, and gluttony, the loudest trumpeters of indulgences being the greatest despisers; they saw the monsters stalking abroad, and every day luxuriating with greater license, and that without end, new bulls being constantly issued, and new sums extracted.
Many today mistake compromise for civility, so shrink at such language. But when the true gospel is at stake, we ought to speak with clarity, force, and boldness in order to break down all strongholds against Christ and establish the truth of God.
Pastoral in Nature
Though he spoke to his opponents with a razor-sharp tongue, towards the Reformation churches he spoke with great pastoral care and sensitivity. Consider this immaculate passage concerning the totality of our salvation and Christian experience being found in Christ:
When we see that the whole sum of our salvation, and every single part of it, are comprehended in Christ, we must beware of deriving the minutest portion of it from any other quarter. If we seek salvation, we are taught by the very name of Jesus that he possesses it; it we seek any other gifts of the Spirit, we shall find them in his unction; strength in his government; purity in his conception; indulgence in his nativity, in which he was made like us in all respects, in order that he might learn to sympathize with us; if we seek redemption, we shall find it in his passion; acquittal in his condemnation; remission of the curse in his cross; satisfaction in his sacrifice; purification in his blood; reconciliation in his descent to hell; mortification of the flesh in his sepulcher; newness of life in his resurrection; immortality also in his resurrection; the inheritance of the celestial kingdom in his entrance into heaven; protection, security, and the abundant supply of all blessings, in his kingdom; secure anticipation of judgment in the power of judging committed to him. In fine, since in him all kinds of blessings are treasured up, let us draw a full supply from him, and none from any other quarter.
Calvin recognized that everything in the Scriptures was written for our benefit, so there was nothing written in the Word of God which could not be used for pious application. Even with such a difficult doctrine as predestination, Calvin deftly brings application to bear upon the Christian conscience:
But Scripture… enjoins us to think of this high mystery with…reverence and religion…For it does not remind us of predestination to increase our audacity, and tempt us to pry with impious presumption into the inscrutable counsels of God, but rather to humble and abase us, that we may tremble at his judgment, and learn to look up to his mercy. This is the mark at which believers will aim…If the aim of election is holiness of life, it ought to arouse and stimulate us strenuously to aspire to it, instead of serving as a pretext for sloth.
A reader need not agree with Calvin on everything in order to profit much from him. I recently listened to a Roman Catholic podcast that recommended the Old Testament commentaries written by Calvin. If the Romists can read Calvin profitably, how much more can we Protestants? Let this stand as an encouragement to read John Calvin, theologian, polemicist, and pastor. His contributions to the church of Christ have been most valuable, and it is our great loss to ignore him.