Institutes of the Christian Religion

While he was still in University, John Calvin’s early pro-protestant writings were discovered… and promptly burned.  Sensing that he would share the same fate, Calvin fled France (an escape that involved a disguise and being smuggled in a basket).  Not everyone made it out, as he did.  That same year, about two dozen French protestants were burned.  In response, Calvin began Institutes of the Christian Religion as an apologetic piece to King Francis I.

  “They maintain that it is new, only recently invented.  They attack it as doubtful and uncertain.  They ask by which miracles it has been confirmed.  They question whether it should rightly prevail over the consensus of so many of the ancient Fathers, and over such long-standing custom.  They insist that we admit that it is schismatic, since it makes war on the church, or that we answer that the church itself was dead for many long years during which nothing was heard of it.  Lastly, they contend that there is little need for proof, since it is by its fruit that our teaching is to be judged.  That is, it produces such a host of sects, so many tumults and seditions and such brazen acts of evil.  It is of course easy for them to get the better of a cause which seems forlorn and abandoned, especially when it is a matter of convincing ignorant and credulous common folk.  But if we too were given room to speak, I wager that the wrath which they so fiercely heap upon us would cool a little.” Prefatory Letter to Francis I 

  Institutes of the Christian Religion was a book I’ve heard mentioned as a must-read.  But when I got it as a gift (thanks, Brother!) I was little afraid of it, at first.  I had no idea it was so huge.  Heavy in subjects and heavy in size, I didn’t know if I could get through this mountain of a manuscript.  I was then perplexed to glance at a friend’s shelf, and see that her copy of the Institutes looked only about the size of a novella.  After some research, I found that the first edition—the 1536 Latin version for Francis I—was only six pages.  Eleven more chapters were added three years later.  Then in four more years four more chapters.  The final edition in 1559 exploded to eighty chapters.  My version is the 1541 edition, which is basically the one with seventeen chapters, but in the vernacular rather than Latin.  At that point the book was moving from an apologetics piece for one man, to a systematic theology textbook for many. 

“In the long run, Scripture will suffice to give us a saving knowledge of God once its certainty is buttressed by the inner conviction of the Holy Spirit.  Human proofs which serve to confirm Scriptures will be effective only when, as secondary aids and means which help us in our weakness, they follow that principal and supreme proof.” The Knowledge of God

Calvin’s age was different from mine. The Baptism chapter was interesting, but awkward.  From what I gather, Calvin only knew credo-baptism from the Anabaptists—who sometimes tended to be unorthodox not just in behaviour but also in belief.  It makes me wonder what the chapter would have looked like if the Particular Baptists had come about a century earlier.  But it was interesting to note that modern Roman Catholicism still makes some of the same objections that the pre-Trent, pre-Vatican II Roman Catholicism did (see Prefatory Letter quote).  Humans don’t really change, and God never does, so it’s no surprise that I came across many quotable sections that still remain relevant even after all these years. 

“For it is not small gain to be free of the self love which blinds us, in order rightly to appreciate our weaknesses; to keenly feel them, in order to learn how to distrust ourselves; to distrust ourselves, in order to transfer our trust to God; to lean on God with heartfelt trust, in order to continue, with his help, victorious to the end; to stand firm in his grace, in order to know that he is true and faithful to his promises; to rely on the certainty of his promises, in order that our hope may be made strong.”  Christian Life

Whether read for history or for theology, whether the edition be brief or behemoth, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is indeed well worth reading. 

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