Rev. Kleyn is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Edgerton, Minnesota.
An outstanding aspect of the work of John Calvin was the fact that he wrote voluminously. His writings include his exegetical commentaries on most of the books of the Bible, his Institutes of the Christian Religion, his sermons and homilies, various catechisms and confessions, numerous polemical documents against opponents and errors, a number of apologetic writings in defense of specific truths, his ecclesiastical and liturgical writings, some minor treatises, and many letters.
Without a doubt, the most important writing of John Calvin was his theological work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. As soon as it was published it was recognized as a most significant work. Even Calvin’s main opponents, the Roman Catholics, realized its significance and immediately labeled it as heresy, ordering that it be burnt. But especially significant is that the Reformed understood its importance. They praised it as being the clearest and most powerful defense of biblical truth since the time of the apostles.
The influence of the Institutes at the time of the Reformation was powerful. And its influence has lasted. Ever since the time of Calvin this work has had a significant impact in practically every age of the church’s history in the world. Through it Calvin, by God’s providence, laid the foundation for all subsequent Reformed theology.
John Calvin published the first edition of the Institutes in 1536. He referred affectionately to it as his “little book.” This “little book,” however, grew considerably throughout his lifetime as Calvin continued to edit and expand this work.
In all, five editions were published: in 1536, 1539, 1543, 1550, and 1559. Each new edition involved changes in size, in content, and also in the arrangement of the material. Calvin not only expanded on what he had already written, but also included new material that he had not previously treated. Calvin considered the 1559 edition, which was approximately five times the size of the original, the definitive and authoritative one.
These revisions did not come about because of changes in Calvin’s thinking and doctrine. Rather, they are a result of development in Calvin’s understanding of the truth. This development came through his continued reading of the church fathers, his involvement in various doctrinal controversies, and his continued study and exegesis of the Scriptures.
The various editions of the Institutes were also translated into other languages. Calvin wrote the originals in Latin, the language of the learned of his day. But Calvin himself also translated each edition, except for the first, into French. He did this because he wanted the common people, his fellow countrymen, to read and profit from what he had written.
Translations soon followed in nearly all the languages of Europe. This included various English translations, among which are the well known ones by Henry Beveridge (1845), and by Ford Lewis Battles (1960). Both of these are good translations and readily available today. They include detailed tables of contents as well as various indices (topical, textual, and authors quoted). These indices are certainly useful means for looking up and reading what Calvin has to say on specific truths.
By means of these many translations, the work received a large audience and was able to give positive direction to Reformed theology throughout the world. It was used by God both to preserve as well as to spread the truths of the Reformed faith.
The significance and value of the Institutes can be seen by considering the purposes Calvin had in writing this work. Calvin had especially two purposes.
One purpose was that the Institutes be a defense of the Reformed faith. The work is polemical. Calvin writes in order to expose errors and to answer accusations against the truth. This defense of the truth was needed in light of the severe persecution the Reformed received. Calvin therefore shows throughout the Institutes that the Reformed are not extreme. They are not heretics. They are not those who rebel against God-appointed rulers. They are to be distinguished from Roman Catholicism on the one hand, and from Anabaptism on the other. The Institutes demonstrate that what the Reformed believe and confess is soundly and thoroughly biblical.
Calvin’s main purpose, however, was that the Institutes be a book of instruction.
Calvin discusses this purpose in his preface to his commentary on the book of Psalms. In this preface he speaks at length concerning his Institutes. He mentions that many, on account of their desire for pure doctrine, continually came to him in order to learn from him. Calvin admits that he preferred solitude and was but a novice in the faith. But the fact that so many came to him with the earnest desire to grow in their knowledge and understanding of the truth led Calvin to set it forth in writing so that others might learn it.
The title of his work is also significant as regards his purpose. The full title is as follows: Institutes of the Christian Religion: Embracing almost the whole sum of piety, and whatever is necessary to know of the doctrine of salvation: A work most worthy to be read by all persons zealous for piety, and recently published.
The word “Institutes” in this title means “instruction.” That was Calvin’s purpose. He wrote the work with the idea that it would serve as a means to educate others in the truth.
In the rest of the title, Calvin indicates that his work is a comprehensive summary of the main truths of salvation. It sets forth what is necessary for the child of God to know and believe “of the doctrine of salvation.” Calvin’s purpose was to give instruction in all the fundamental truths of the gospel.
In this sense the Institutes can be considered a dogmatics, or a systematic treatment of doctrine. The contents demonstrate this, for Calvin writes concerning all the main doctrines of Scripture. Interestingly, he does not treat these doctrines, as most do, according to the six loci of Reformed dogmatics (Theology, Anthropology, Chris-tology, etc.). Instead he uses a Trinitarian approach, similar to that which is found in the Apostles’ Creed.
This was not true of all editions of the Institutes. In the earlier editions he dealt with the truth under such sections as the law, the Apostles’ Creed, prayer, the sacraments, and the church. In the final edition, however, he made a significant change in structure, dividing the truth into the following four books: Of the knowledge of God the Creator; Of the knowledge of God the redeemer in Christ; Of the mode of obtaining the grace of Christ, the benefits it confers, and the effects resulting from it; Of the holy catholic church. The last two books really belong together as the truths concerning the Holy Spirit and His work. In this way Calvin divided and treated the doctrines of Scripture according to the three persons of the triune God.
On account of this purpose, there is much value and profit in reading and studying the Institutes.
That profit consists first of all in this work being a means to know and to be well grounded in the Reformed faith. Calvin was, by the grace of God, an outstanding leader in the Protestant Reformation. To know what Calvin taught and believed is to know what it means to be Reformed—to be a Calvinist. The Institutes are an important part of the heritage of the Reformed faith.
That profit also consists in the fact that by reading the Institutes one can come to a better understanding of the Scriptures. Calvin was thoroughly biblical in his writings. In the providence of God, he was a masterful exegete of Scripture. And that exegesis is present not only in his commentaries, but also throughout the Institutes. In fact, Calvin himself, in his commentaries, often directs the reader to his doctrinal work for a further and more detailed discussion of certain truths. Anyone who desires, therefore, to know what the Scriptures teach and what the child of God must believe unto salvation does well to read the Institutes.
This is especially important and necessary because of the days in which we live. Not only is there doctrinal ignorance, but we also constantly hear the cry for compromise of the truth. On account of these things, the danger is real that we too depart from the truth. We need, therefore, to be well read and well grounded in Reformed doctrine. The Institutes can help in that. Not only is it a tool to help us positively to know the truth, but it is also a tool that, on account of its polemical nature, can help us know and be able to combat errors.
The profit of reading the Institutes, however, is due especially to the fact that Calvin was interested in instruction in “piety.” He uses this word in his title, and does so deliberately. He does not call his work a “sum of doctrine” or a “sum of the truth,” but a “sum of piety.” By this term he refers to “godliness,” or the “fear of God.” Calvin understood that true doctrine and true piety are inseparable—true doctrine produces true godliness; true godliness is grounded in true doctrine.
Calvin did not view doctrine as mere cold and abstract propositions, but as the truth that is vital to godly living. It is the truth that shapes believers to true godliness. Calvin writes the Institutes from that perspective, which contributes to making this work most beneficial for and applicable to all. It is a work not only for theologians, but for all believers.
Interest in Calvin’s Institutes seems to be waning. We live in a time of doctrinal indifference, a day in which many are ignorant of and have departed from the truths of Scripture and the Reformed faith. What contributes significantly to this is that few are interested in reading, let alone in reading good, solid, Reformed literature.
The Institutes ought to be read by us. We must remember that Calvin intended that all read it. He wrote it as a book of instruction for all believers, and placed priority upon translating it into the language of the common people. He had every believer in mind when he wrote it. We would do well, therefore, to read the Institutes of the Christian Religion.