Kyle's Reviews > Institutes of the Christian Religion

Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin
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Aug 11, 2011

really liked it

The 1536 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion or his “little book” as he calls it is an excellent introduction to Calvin’s thought in its earliest form as well as a nice alternative for those who find the much thicker 1559 edition to large and daunting of a prospect.

The structure of the book is simple: it is divided into six chapters with an epistle dedicatory to Francis, the King of France. The opening epistle serves as both an apologetic defending the bourgeoning Protestant movement against seven charges as well as a preface to the catechetical nature of the rest of the book.

Calvin begins the Institutes proper with a chapter on Law. While mostly an exposition on the Ten Commandments, this chapter is noteworthy in that it provides a positive basis for a Christian appreciation and appropriation of the Law. Unlike Luther, Calvin goes beyond recognizing the Law as a vehicle that 1) convicts humanity of sin and 2) constrains human propensity and inclination towards evil, Calvin posits a third and more positive function 3) guidance as to behavior God deems as good and pleasing.

The second chapter titled “Faith” is an explanation of the Apostles Creed. Of note is his introduction which proposes the Word of God, that is Jesus Christ, as both the object and target of our faith. This type of faith is more than a mental exercise acknowledging the existence of God and Christ but a whole-life orientation and obedience to God in life and death.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Calvin devoted a chapter on prayer. Following the pattern established in the first two chapters, beginning with an introduction to the subject-matter at hand followed by an exposition of a significant pillar of the Christian faith, this time the Lord’s Prayer. For Calvin there are two major rules of prayer: 1) to abandon all pretense of our own glory and 2) to sense our own insufficiency as we turn toward God to meet all our needs. In this attitude of prayer, there are also two parts: petition and thanksgiving both of which Calvin finds expressed in the Lord’s prayer.

Considering it was the issue du jour, it is not surprising Calvin spends two chapters on the Sacraments: first he his understanding of the two Sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Then he devotes an entire chapter to Roman Catholicism’s “Five False Sacraments”. As someone both unfamiliar and uninterested in such debates I found the later chapter tedious. However for someone interested in such questions, it is a gold-mine of material on a 16th century Protestant critique of Roman Catholic sacramentalism. As a Presbyterian, I found his chapter on his understanding of the Sacraments to be enlightening and rewarding as one can trace a direct link from Calvin’s views on the Sacraments to many of the views expressed in both the Book of Confessions and the Book of Order. It bears mentioning Calvin’s wonderful definition of a sacrament: “An outward sign by which the Lord represents and attests to us his good will toward us to sustain the weakness of our faith.” (If you want to know more about Calvin’s view on the Sacraments, particularly the Lord’s Supper – I have written a paper on it.)

Perhaps my favorite chapter is the final: “Christian Freedom, Ecclesial Power, and Political Administration”. For Calvin, Christian freedom consists in three parts: 1) “the consciences of believers, while having to seek assurance of their justification before God, should rise above and advance beyond the law, forgetting all law-righteousness.” That is to say that through the atoning work of Jesus Christ we have imputed righteousness. Thus, the Christian freedom is a freedom from – freedom from a binding and strict obedience of the law. Still the second part is dependent on the first, 2) “consciences observe the law, not as if constrained by the necessity of law, but that freed from the law’s yoke willingly obey God’s will.” This is to say that Christian freedom is a real freedom in that it is bound by God’s will for humanity. The Christian freedom is true humanism in that it frees the human to be who he or she is created to be. This type of freedom moves beyond a freedom from but to a freedom to – a freedom to God and His law. 3) In Christian freedom “we are bound before God by no religious obligation to outward things of themselves ‘indifferent,’ but are permitted to use them, sometimes to leave them, indifferently.” In this, Calvin lays the boundaries of Christian freedom. As a true freedom Christian freedom is more than unbridled libertinism, but is bound by duty toward God and within that freedom to keep in mind the conscience of the weaker brother or sister in Christ.

Part two, “Ecclesial Power” is intriguing in that it is only here that Calvin truly laws down and early form of a doctrine of revelation. Specifically, knowledge of God comes from knowledge of the Son. “God has so fulfilled all functions of teaching in his Son that we must regard this as the final and eternal testimony from him.” Thus in matters of ecclesial disputes our authority comes primarily through Jesus Christ as he is attested in Scripture. This stands in contrast to appeals only to either the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit or Church councils. This is not to say Calvin did not find value in either. It is to say that they are secondary sources of authority to knowledge of God through the Son in the Spirit as witnessed in Scripture. One might argue that this is primarily a call to the final authority of Scripture in faith and practice.

Political theorists will probably most enjoy the final subsection: “civil government”. For Calvin the Christians first source of authority is of course God. However, the Christian also submits to the civil government “which pertains only to the establishment of civil justice and outward morality.”


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