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If you haven’t yet read C. S. Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, I’d highly recommend it.

He wants to refute the “strange idea” “that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.”

Lewis finds the impulse humble and understandable: the layman looks at the class author and “feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him.”

“But,” Lewis explains, “if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”

Lewis therefore made it a goal to convince students that “firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”

I suspect this holds true with respect to evangelical Calvinists and Calvin’s Institutes. Are we in danger of being a generation of secondhanders?

Let me forestall the “I don’t have time” objection. If you have 15 minutes a day and a bit of self-discipline, you can get through the whole of the Institutes faster than you think. Listen to John Piper:

Most of us don’t aspire very high in our reading because we don’t feel like there is any hope. But listen to this. Suppose you read about 250 words a minute and that you resolve to devote just 15 minutes a day to serious theological reading to deepen your grasp of biblical truth. In one year (365 days) you would read for 5,475 minutes. Multiply that times 250 words per minute and you get 1,368,750 words per year. Now most books have between 300 and 400 words per page. So if we take 350 words per page and divide that into 1,368,750 words per year, we get 3,910 pages per year.

The McNeill-Battles two-volume edition (for now the generally accepted authoritative standard) runs about 1800 pages total—so you could technically read it twice in one year at just 15 minutes a day!

Three reasons why this book in particular should be a particular object of serious study:

1. The Institutes may be easier to read than you think.

J. I. Packer writes, “The readability of the Institutio, considering its size, is remarkable.”

Level of difficulty should not determine a book’s importance; some simple books are profound; some difficult books are simply muddled. What we want are books that make us think and worship, even if that requires some hard work. As Piper wrote in Future Grace, “When my sons complain that a good book is hard to read, I say, ‘Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.'”

3. The Institutes is one of the wonders of the world.

Karl Barth, the most influential theologian of the 20th century, once wrote: “I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”

Packer explains that Calvin’s magnum opus is one of the great wonders of the world:

Calvin’s Institutes (5th edition, 1559) is one of the wonders of the literary world—the world, that is, of writers and writing, of digesting and arranging heaps of diverse materials, of skillful proportioning and gripping presentation; the world . . . of the Idea, the Word, and the Power. . . .

The Institutio is also one of the wonders of the spiritual world—the world of doxology and devotion, of discipleship and discipline, of Word-through-Spirit illumination and transformation of individuals, of the Christ-centered mind and the Christ-honoring heart. . . .

Calvin’s Institutio is one of the wonders of the theological world, too—that is, the world of truth, faithfulness, and coherence in the mind regarding God; of combat, regrettable but inescapable, with intellectual insufficiency and error in believers and unbelievers alike; and of vision, valuation, and vindication of God as he presents himself through his Word to our fallen and disordered minds. . . .

3. The Institutes has relevance for your life and ministry.

It can be read as simply an exercise in historical theology, but it should also be read to further your understanding of God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s ways. Packer writes:

The 1559 Institutio is great theology, and it is uncanny how often, as we read and re-read it, we come across passages that seem to speak directly across the centuries to our own hearts and our own present-day theological debates. You never seem to get to the book’s bottom; it keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith.

Do you, I wonder, know what I am talking about? Dig into the Institutio, and you soon will.

If you are persuaded, here are a few resources you might want to consider:

As mentioned above, the McNeill-Battles two-volume edition is the most referenced standard edition. The one-volume Beveridge translation is much cheaper, and can also be found online. If you want the cheapest print option and want to get a good feel for the Institutes without reading the whole thing, consider this abridged version by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne.

But I would recommend the full McNeill-Battles version, along with Tony Lane’s reader’s guide to the Institutes. In the introduction he explains the various options for using it:

The Institutes is divided into thirty-two portions, in addition to Calvin’s introductory material. From each of these an average of some eighteen pages has been selected to be read. These selections are designed to cover the whole range of the Institutes, to cover all of Calvin’s positive theology, while missing most of his polemics against his opponents and most of the historical material. My notes concentrate on the sections chosen for reading but also contain brief summaries of the other material.

Readers have four options:

  1. Read only the selected material and my brief summaries of the rest.
  2. Read only the selected material and use Battles’s Analysis of the Institutes as a summary of the rest.
  3. Concentrate on the selected material but skim through the rest.
  4. Read the whole of the Institutes.

The notes guide the reader through the text and also draw attention to the most significant footnotes in the Battles edition. At the beginning of each portion is an introduction and a question or questions to focus the mind of the reader.

If you want to do more inductive work, or to use Calvin’s work in a small-group or classroom setting, you might want to consider Douglas Wilson’s Study Guide for Calvin’s Institutes. (You can read the preface and a chunk of this online for free.) Wilson explains how this book can be used:

I would suggest reading the appropriate section in Calvin, then looking at the questions in the study guide, and writing down Calvin’s answers in a separate notebook. The reader can then compare his answers with those that are provided in the guide. . . .

Another possible use is for a leader to utilize this guide for a group study. He can assign a reading, give the questions to the participants beforehand, and then use the guide to help conduct the discussion. The same can be done for classroom use.

For those who want to explore certain sections of the Institutes in greater depth, a fine collection of essays can be found in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis , edited by David Hall and Peter Lillaback.

Finally, here is a schedule of reading through Calvin’s Institutes in a year.

Tolle lege!

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28 thoughts on “Why and How to Read Calvin’s Institutes”

  1. Justin, I have access to a yearly reading plan through the Institutes. It even includes the opening letter.
    Let me know if you would like it. I will have to dig a little to find it and get the link.


  2. ukrainiac says:

    A yearly reading plan through the Institutes would be awesome. Plan to dig into the Institutes in 2012…

  3. Here is the link if anyone wants it. Its based on McNeill-Battles two volume edition:

  4. Geoff says:

    Justin, another resource (one that you were part of) is Zeal for Godliness put out by the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It contains daily devotions for reading through the Institutes in one year, and was created from when ref21 blogged through the Institutes in 2009.

  5. My church is reading through it now. It makes so much more sense than it did in High School. It should never be relegated to just professionals, or we risk not understanding our own theology.

    I like the idea of the devotional but up till now didn’t have a link. Thanks @Geoff!

  6. It was Calvin’s Institutes more than anything else that sparked my interest in theology. I had found many more recent works dry and dusty by comparison. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to better understand God’s truth.

  7. If one has not read Calvin’s Institutes, when they do (if they are zealous for exegetical support in their theology) they will be shocked to discover how little thorough exegesis there is and how heavy it is on rationalism with eisegetical tendencies or at least the practice of importing foreign texts in order to determine the meaning of a the text at hand.

    This is not to say there is no exegesis but comparatively it is far less than one would expect from such an exalted work. Nor is this to say it does not contain enlightenment but still, even at that, its level of engaging in rationalism in order to expound upon the meaning of texts is alarming.

  8. I read an abridged version a few years back, but tackling the whole 9 yards has been on my to-do list. Thanks for the post, maybe now 2012 will be the year!

  9. John says:

    Read Calvin’s commentaries alongside the Institutes. They provide the exegetical underpinning for the theological summary which is the Institutes.


    1. Alex Guggenheim says:


      Calvin’s later works were more exegetical but these works were ones where the exegesis was done to validate the rationalism of his Institutes.
      I much prefer heavy exegesis to precede doctrinal conclusions instead of following.

  10. Ian Jemmett says:

    Justin – thanks for this. I think the first part of your post – encouraging readers to get to grips with the Institutes directly – is very useful. If I may say so, I’m not sure the second part is entirely consistent with the first part.

    I am currently leading a small group of people through the Institutes. In the spirit of your post I think getting to grips with Calvin’s text directly is the most useful thing to do. To that end I prepare Q&A files on the portion to be studied that particular month. Most of the questions are answered with direct quotations from the Institutes & I give the page and line No (McNeill edition) where the answer can be found.

    If anyone would like to receive the Q&As as I send them out (irregularly) my email is

    I don’t always cover all that we will be looking at in a particular month due to pressures on my own time but I cover as much as I can. I plan to go back & fill in the gaps later.

    For a high-level, thematic overview of each section, I recommend the members of the group to go to ‘The Worldwide Classroom’. There’s a course on the Institutes there written & presented by Dr David Calhoun.

    @ Alex Guggenheim – The Institutes is only part of what Calvin did. According to Dr Calhoun, he saw his major calling to be a commentator and wrote the Institutes to give readers of his commentaries a systematic theological statement that set out the theological system behind his exegesis. I don’t agree with Calvin’s interpretation of every scripture that he cites but I would refute the charge that eisegesis predominates. These things are easy to allege but can you bring forth the evidence – and you would need more than isolated incidents – to subsantiate this charge against the work as a whole? What you describe as “the practice of importing foreign texts in order to determine the meaning of a the text at hand” is the normal method of expounding a text in the light of one’s theological system or, as it is also known, the analogy of faith. The author of the letter to the Hebrews in particular does it all the time.

    If I may be permitted a comment of my own, the main obstacle that we encountered at outset (and the reason I started preparing the Q&As) was what Battles calls Calvin’s ‘Antithetical style’. Calvin is very direct and will frequently approach a topic from the standpoint of its application, getting straight into argument and going stright to the heart of the matter. Once understood, this method enables Calvin to cover a lot of conceptual ground in comparatively little space. But it does put the burden on the reader to think hard, in order to keep up. I have concluded that we need to bear in mind that the continual revision of these themes in Calvin’s mind enabled him, by the time of the 1559 edition, to boil down much of what he had to say to its essence.

    1. Alex Guggenheim says:

      Granted allegations are easy without due process and a bad conscience of which neither are true in my case. But as you know a blog comment section is unfriendly to such substanative rebutals. I suggest readers of CI simply keep this in mind and may it be I will get time to blog on it more thoroughly. As to Hebrews, the use of other texts are not at the expense of the meaning and exegesis of another text. Yes, thelogical conclusions do have bearings but not at the expense of exegesis or as a replacement for it which I believe one may observe Calvin practicing in some places in his Institutes.

  11. Does anyone recommend the Kindle versions out there?

    1. Michael L. Johnson says:

      I inquired from Presbyterian Publishing Corporation (publisher of the McNeill/Battle version of Calvin’s Institutes) about when/if they plan on an e-book version. Here’s their reply:

      “Thank you for your email. At this time, there are no plans for an E-Book for the Calvin Institutes. We are slowly moving in that direction, but this title is not currently on the list. Thank you.”

      Until then, their are more than a few kindle versions of the Beveridge translation (although I haven’t done a comparison of all of them).

      Hope that helps!

  12. Vermonster says:

    I would love to look at the Institutes in Latin and in French. Any online sources for these?

    1. Dan says:

      Vermonster, look here for the Institutes in French and/or Latin.

  13. Alex Guggenheim,

    Everyone maintains the people them disagree with are basing their views on rationalism and practicing eisegesis. You are correct that this is an issue that cannot be resolved in this sort of a forum. But does it not seem a bit simplistic to claim that if others just examine the facts they will see you are right. You are the one you is making dogmatic assertions in a context in which you cannot be easily proved or disproved.

    1. “Everyone maintains the people them disagree with are basing their views on rationalism and practicing eisegesis.”

      You said you are concerned with dogmatic assertions which cannot easily be proved or disproved? The above fits this. While it might be true this is the case sometimes(that objections are based in rationalism or eisegesis) but often enough it is not. I happily will show you will I disagree with certain views based exegesis or simply misunderstanding the context.

      “But does it not seem a bit simplistic to claim that if others just examine the facts they will see you are right.”

      I made no such claim, rather I suggested readers keep in mind my view as they read CI to test this premise themselves.

  14. Alex Guggenheim,

    I hardly think the an unprovable assertion. Anyone who has been involved in much theological controversy has seen it on both sides.
    But your idea that anyone who will read the Institutes with their eyes open will reach your conclusions are very clear.

    1. Alex Guggenheim says:

      Feel free to prove your absolute assertion that “everyone”, when there are theological disagreements, charges the other with rationalism or eisegesis. You do know that to prove this would require you to have knowledhe of everyone’s objections or the ability to prove these are the only two possible causes for objections. Best wishes proving either.

      More importantly and again, I did not state nor intimate that “if only one wouls read with their eyes open they would see this” I clearly only suggested that to test my premise one keep it in mind as they readCI. I made no suggestion what the outcome must be.

  15. Doug Perry says:

    Read through Calvin’s Institutes twice and have referenced the Beveridge online version several times for prooftexts in papers I’ve written. I would concur and highly commend the Institutes to all. Even the abridged Lane and Osborne version is worth a look (as they take out a considerable amount of the arguments directed specifically toward the practices of the Roman church at the time. They help first time readers get to the meat/gist of Calvin’s theses).

    Now, my negative comment, Justin, is that I absolutely do NOT recommend Douglas Wilson’s guide to the Institutes!! Doug’s paedocommunion, theonomic, reconstructionist, Roman-friendly slant comes pretty through heavy in this guide, and as a result greatly misrepresents Calvin, IMO. I respect much of Mr. Wilson’s work, but guys need to know that he was been deemed relatively out of bounds on a good number of historically Calvinistic doctrines.

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Justin Taylor, PhD

Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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