The Counterintuitive Calvin

So what did I do last summer vacation? I continued to do something that I started January 1 of this year. Late last fall I came upon a plan for reading through all of John Calvin’s Instituteshis four-volume, 1,500-or-so-page systematic exposition of the teachings of the Christian faith—in one year. Calvin and Martin Luther together were the two leading lights of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. Today, however, Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold, and cerebral dogmatician.

I knew much of this image was caricature, and, while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.

True Work of Literature

First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.

Second, it is nothing if not biblical. Even if you don’t agree with what Calvin is saying, you will always have to deal with one or two dozen texts of Scripture, carefully interpreted and organized as he presents his case to you. To describe these volumes as “theology” or “doctrine” is almost misleading—it is mainly a Bible Digest, a distilled readers’ guide to the main teachings of the Scripture and how they fit together.

Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are not truly converted by merely understanding doctrine, but by grasping God’s love so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart are changed.

So in Institutes I.3.1 he argues that, while you may know a lot about God you don’t truly know God until “reverence [is] joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. . . . Unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him.” In other words, you don’t have true saving knowledge of God until you long to obey him, out of a desire to please and delight him because you are pleased and delighted with him for his grace. Calvin adds that in a Christian soul “this restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but because it loves and reveres God as Father. . . . Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him.” (I.3.2 )

When Calvin comes to his three chapters on what it means to live a Christian life (III.6-7), again grace is at the forefront. He taught that the briefest statement of the Christian life is this—“You are not your own; you were bought with a price.” (1 Cor. 6:19-20) Because you were saved by sheer grace (“you were bought with a price”), now your new principle of life is “you are not your own.” You no longer live for yourself, but for God and for your neighbor. All of the Christian life is the working out of that verse, that grace, and that new principle of joyful self-donation.

When Calvin applies this principle of gracious self-donation to our relationships with other people, he argues that we should treat even those who deserve nothing but disdain as if they were the Lord himself.

Say [about the stranger before you] that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits which God has bound you to himself. . . . You will say, “He has deserved something far different from me.” Yet what has the Lord deserved? . . . Remember not to consider men’s evil intention but to look upon the image of God in them, which cancels and effaces their transgressions, and with its beauty and dignity allures us to love and embrace them.” (III.7.6)

When Calvin comes to his well-known doctrine of predestination, it is important to see where he places it. He does not deal with the doctrine under Book 1 where he treats God, or even Book 2 where he addresses sin and Christ. He waits until Book 3, which is about “How We Receive the Grace of Christ” through the Holy Spirit. Calvin insists that the opposite of the doctrine of predestination is not the idea of free will but the teaching that we are saved by our good works. He argues forcefully that, unless you see your saving faith is a gift from God to you, not from you to him—you have not yet grasped how free his grace is. You will ever so slightly believe that you are a Christian because you were more humble, open, and repentant than those who have not believed. But, Calvin reasoned, if you see your salvation is 100 percent by grace you will embrace and be both humbled and comforted by the truth of predestination.

Astonishing Doxology

Last (and here our modern evangelical terminology fails us) Calvin’s writings are astonishingly “doxological.” We might be tempted to say “inspirational” or “devotional” or “spiritual,” but to use such Hallmark greeting card phrases doesn’t do them justice. Calvin’s writings don’t read at all like a theological treatise, but like a man’s meditating on the Scripture before God. The language is filled with reverence and awe, and often tenderness. That means that, despite the close reasoning of so many parts of the material, Calvin was all about the heart.

Indeed, he taught that our biggest problem is there. “For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart . . . the heart’s distrust is greater than the mind’s blindness. It is harder for the heart to be furnished with assurance [of God’s love] than for the mind to be endowed with thought.” (III.2.36)

To furnish our hearts with more of that assurance is the ultimate purpose of the Institutes, and I can say, personally, that it is fulfilling its purpose in me this year.

This article originally appeared in Redeemer Presbyterian Church’s monthly Redeemer Report.

  • Wesley

    Appreciate this post so much – if not only for the fact that i am seeking to read through the Institutes myself as well – but also for its service in smashing away at the stereotype and caricature many try to place on Calvin and Calvinism as a whole. Also got mad love for TKO (Keller) as well so that may have something to do with it as well ;)

  • Pingback: The Counterintuitive Calvin – The Gospel Coalition Blog | Christian Dailys()

  • Emmanuel

    The institute is a beautiful book. Interestingly, it wasn’t available in modern French until 2009. Before that you had to go through the old version with modernized spelling, and use the lexicon at the end of the last volume to understand words that had become obsolete. Althought I am a native French speaker, I first read it in English, because It was so much easier. But the modern French version changed everything. the language is flowing, the clarity of Calvin’s thought comes out beautifully. I want to read it again now.

    I think I remember seeing that plan online as a pdf to print: there’s one here:

    And Justin Taylor had written about why and how to read Calvin’s Institute a few years ago:

    • Mark Troughton

      Greetings Emmanuel, I’m reading the Kerygma edition of 1978 (4 volumes) and despite the occasional flick to the back I don’t find it that dissimilar to modern French, though words like ‘mansuetude’ are pretty uncommon in my experience, especially in French-speaking Switzerland where we were for 9 years. Though I disagree with his views on church government and baptism, the rest is wonderful, especially the 3rd volume chapters 7-10. This ought to be printed separately as it was in Calvin’s day – does it exist today in mdern French?

      Que le Seigneur vous benisse, votre labeur dans le Seigneur n’est pas en vain,

      • Emmanuel Durand

        Hi Mark

        Yes, Paul Wells and some other people published a modern French version in 2009. It’s much easier to read. The 1978 edition had been slightly “modernized”, but remains difficult. recently, I’ve been reading one of Calvin’s letters to “Renée de France”, in the original old French, and it is very different from modern French. Someone who makes the effort would understand it, but it’s not the way we speak or write.
        We’ve never met, but I was thinking about the church in Martigny recently, does it still exist? (reply in a private message:

        • Mark Troughton

          Hi Emmanuel,
          Good of you to reply. Paul’s a friend of mine too! Yes, the Martigny church has amalgamated with the Action Biblique in Monthey. We had the joy of seeing 7 new members come into fellowship a few years ago. I will check out the new trans of L’institution’ though the older one has sentimental value for me.
          Si on se gardait le contact par email, cela eviterait le Blog bouchon?
          Ton frere dans le Seigneur,

          • Emmanuel Durand

            yes, send me an email so that I can have your contact. We have other friends in common.

  • Pingback: Have you read Calvin’s Institutes? | Keloù Mat()

  • Pingback: First Links — 11.15.12 » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog()

  • Bliss Spillar

    If anyone is interested. There is a large group of us reading through the Institutes in 2013. Join us!!

  • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

    Next time anyone casts Calvin as a stern, graceless curmudgeon ask them if they’ve read the Institutes. They’ll always say they haven’t.

  • Derek Rishmawy

    Thanks so much for this post. When I went through the Institutes a couple of years ago I had the same experience. Now I find myself constantly going back to them for reference and comfort. Truly brilliant.

  • Craig Hurst

    I remember my church history professor asking our class if we had read the Institutes and no one had. He said that was typical of most Christians. I took that as a challenge (and bookworm) and decided to read through the long edition. Took me the better part of two years but it was one of the best books I have ever read. I hope to do it again soon!

  • Matti

    I think Keller is right in asserting that Calvin’s Institutes is more spiritual and devotional than just try theological treatise. That’s why even a Molinist like me can enjoy reading it while not agreeing with Calvin on everything. It’s just a piece of classic Christian literature.

  • David Denis

    What edition do you recommend?

    • Wesley

      For what it’s worth, i’m reading the Beveridge translation, all four books in a single volume put out by Hendrickson Publishers (brownish hardcover edition with light brown sketch of Calvin in his library). This has very few footnotes and just Calvin’s words which i feel is best, especially the first time through, to get an unbiased read of his thought.

    • Matt Smethurst

      Keller believes Battles is the best edition for students. We linked to it in the post.

      • Wesley

        I’ve heard the english is more fluid/easier to read in the Battles edition for sure. Good way to go.

    • Shaan
    • Mark G

      I’ve read through the Battles edition and would highly recommend it. I agree with this article to talk of the Institutes as if predestination was the center of Calvin’s theology completely misses the boat. His concern with predestination is that if grace is not sovereign it is not grace. His concern is grace. Calvin was obviouslyu brilliant but I also found him to be warmly pious. His letters are also informative on this. The Institutes is an important piece just in terms of western literature. It is among the earliest scholarly works to be written not only in latin but also in the native language of the people. It takes some discipline to read it clear through but it is a great read, certainly among the great, if not the greatest, theology books.

  • Sam

    My favorite bible studies, my most treasured moments of learning with other Christians is when I got to actually battle with scriptures from the heart.

  • Michael Hyam

    At the Bible College that I attended in Sydney (Moore College) each summer vacation we had some Calvin to read. It was great reading it over summer, a little bit each day. I think we read 500 pages approx. a summer which was just enough :)

    It’s shame more Christians today don’t read more primary documents like Calvin, Luther et al.

  • Pingback: Tim Keller on Why Read Calvin’s Institutes « Theology for the Road()

  • Aimee Byrd

    I think part of the bad stigma is in the title: “Institutes.” It sounds cold, but it is such a delight to read. I am challenged now to read them all the way through, though. I’ve only delved into a section here and there, depending on what I am studying.

  • Pingback: That Was The Week That Was « The Pietist Schoolman()

  • jeff weddle

    I read the Institutes a couple years ago and was surprised by two things:
    1) How much I agreed with what he said, but how vehemently I disagreed when I disagreed
    2) How much of it was a quotation of Augustine. He does quote Scripture a lot, but Augustine was a very close second. The Institutes seemed more to me a classification of Augustinian thought than anything original to Calvin

  • Pingback: On Reading Calvin's Institutes - Wesley and Spurgeon | Scripture Zealot()

  • Pingback: Christian response to Immigration; Tim Keller on Idolatry and Calvin; Bono; Michael Breen; Sharia and British Law; « ChosenRebel's Blog()

  • Pingback: Reading the Institutes « In the Theatre of God()

  • Pingback: The Counterintuitive Calvin()

  • Mark G

    Another thing that strikes me having read the Institutes is that I would not call Calvin a “5 point Calvinist.” Certainly these doctrines are in Calvin’s theology but to view these as primary misrepresents Calvin. Calvin’s greater concern was a biblical understanding of God’s grace; i.e., sovereign grace.

  • Pingback: Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 51 (December 2012) | Quaerentia()

  • Pingback: Two big reading projects for 2013 « A Happy Abiding()

  • Pingback: 6 Reasons to Dig Into Calvin’s Commentaries – The Gospel Coalition Blog()

  • Pingback: Six Reasons to Dig Into Calvin’s Commentaries | The Log College()

  • Pingback: 6 Reasons to Dig Into Calvin’s Commentaries (TGC) | Reformedish()