The History of Calvin’s Institutes

Princeton’s new series of biographies of famous books includes a splendid history of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion by Bruce Gordon. To tell that story requires competency at many levels and Gordon exhibits those competencies in spades. Succinct and well-written, the book skips along with insight and perspective.

The Institutes is a book to be lived (xiii).

The Institutes is an extended hymn of praise by an exiled Frenchman to a saving God he believed never abandoned the faithful. It was deeply personal. Faith, Calvin writes, is to know that God is Father (12).

I read Calvin’s Institutes as a college senior in the Spring semester — I savored it, studied it, marked the copy thoroughly, and found the book profoundly doxological. Calvin could not do theology without drawing one’s attention to the praise of God (and to the denunciation of his enemies!). I have never read it cover to cover since, but I have used that marked up copy my entire career. The architecture of Calvin’s theology is brilliant even if at times (or more often than even that) I disagree, and what I most dislike about the Institutes is the tone of Calvin toward others — whom he turns into enemies in his passion to defend and declare the truth.

Having said that, I found Gordon’s biography of Calvin’s Institutes delightful. Calvin’s famous work had its ups and downs — at times, as with some in our day today, it has been all but revered while at other times it was next to forgotten, and Gordon sketches various episodes in how that book has been read and treated.

First, the book had these editions: 1536 (Latin), 1539 (Latin), 1541 (French), 1543 (Latin), 1545 (French), 1550 and 1559 (both Latin), and 1560 (French).

It pulses with life, a mixture of elegant prose and pugnaciousness (4).

Gordon lays down this important reminder:

Our obsession with great figures, usually great men, seriously distorts our understanding of the Reformation by suggesting that Calvin and his Institutes of the Christian Religion dominated the age and that they pushed other reformers and their works into the shade. That view says more about us than about the sixteenth century, when Calvin lived and worked as part of a network of scholars and churchmen whose influence on him was decisive. Without Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, there would have been no John Calvin as we know him; without the partnership of his near contemporary Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich, Calvin might well have been thrown out of Geneva a second time. 7-8

Stereotypes abound about Calvin and Calvinists:

If Doctor Frankenstein were to create a Calvinist monster out of the enduring cliches, what would emerge from the laboratory? Probably a self-righteous, wealthy workaholic, who thinks everything is to be exploited for profit, and, driven by guilt, feels himself superior to others but cannot decide whether God loves or hates him. 9

Those images are chased away with this:

Contrary to long-standing reputation, Calvin’s God was inviting and hospitable, drawing the faithful to experience him in a relationship. God had surrounded his people with the wonders of creation, in which his craftsmanship, glory, and love would have been visible if only women and men had not fallen. Sin obscures reality, requiring the spectacles of faith, that metaphor we have just encountered, to restore vision. All that humans can know of God has been revealed in scripture, and, mired in the bog of sin, the lost have no other support to grasp. 21

In French the book was wildly popular but “it was also the most hated” book of the Reformation (33). The troubles began immediately and they have never let up: the problem, of course, is the God of Calvin and the implication of God in what happens when one believes — as Calvin did — in meticulous providence and sovereignty. Eventually one either implicates God in evil or one simply stands up and denies as a declaration that God is implicated. Predestination, Gordon observes, was Calvin’s way of preserving humans from any implication in their own redemption. A profound decision is forced: either one implicates God or one implicates humans in their redemption.

In his own day Calvin’s words were not red-letter words as they are today among some. His words were scorned by some in the Enlightenment and all the way into our world, while with others they shuffle from the formative and important to the nearly-inspired. Somewhere between the two fall both Schleiermacher and Barth, both of whom have been instrumental in the revival of interest in Calvin. The Princeton-Mercersburg struggle, Gordon contends, were also decisive in raising the importance of the Institutes.

Notice, too, that Calvin’s Institutes were both formative for the apartheid-forming group as well as for the liberationists who turned Calvin against them.

No matter how one explains it, Calvin will remain connected to Servetus even if some of Calvin’s admirers would like to forget the connection.

On October 17, 1553, Miguel Serveto Conesa, better known in English as Michael Servetus, was burned at the stake in Geneva with his offensive book chained to his leg. John Calvin was not present, but his colleague, Guillaume Farel, reported the events to him. Calvin had petitioned that Servetus be decapitated rather than suffer a horrific fate in the flames, but the magistrates were determined to impose their will. There was no doubt, however, that the reformer thought the heretic and blasphemer should die. Servetus was accused of denying both the Trinity and infant baptism. He was put to death under the Edict of Theodosius (380 CE), which made second baptism (Donatism) and anti-Trinitarianism (Arianism) punishable by state execution. It was a sensitive subject for Calvin, because when during the 1530s he was accused of being anti-Trinitarian, it raised the real possibility he might be executed on these grounds. 223

 

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