In 1611, the Hungarian reformer Paul Thuri lauded John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion in this now-famous distich: Praeter apostolicas post Christi tempora chartas, huic peperere libro saecula nullam parem. He did not exaggerate. For intellectual breadth, spiritual passion, exegetical skill, and systematic genius, No generation after the time of Christ, except for the writings of the apostles, has ever produced the equal of this book. The prerequisite legal training, mastery of the Bible's content and internal coherence, pastoral zeal, and political savvy, as well as the boldness to free the study of God's Word from the interpretive grid of the Schoolmen united in Calvin to produce the most important theological work since the writing of the New Testament. Its importance may be seen from the energy with which Calvin's friends have heaped the highest accolades, and his enemies the most virulent execrations, upon it. Theologians of all persuasions feel compelled to interact with it, even if they despise its author's system.
One cannot assess the Institutes properly without addressing its purpose. As a result of the conflagration caused by the posting of numerous pro-Reformation, anti-Romanist, and anti-Sorbonne placards throughout Paris , King Francis I began systematically purging the French Protestants. Some of Calvin's close friends were martyred, and many were forced into exile. Calvin was roused to action; the Institutes is his response to the crisis in Paris . In the preface, which is unsurpassed in the history of polemics, he explains his two fundamental purposes for writing. First, the Institutes serves as an apology for his persecuted brothers by setting forth a clear statement of Reformed doctrine and practice. Calvin took great pains to separate the Reformers from the Anabaptist radicals, who only the year before had instituted a reign of terror in Muenster , Germany that shook the crown heads of Europe . That uprising gave European governments a convenient justification for unflagging opposition to Reformation movements. Yet Calvin demonstrated that the Reformers were not seeking to overturn governments. In fact, their doctrines and practices are friendly to civil rulers, for they lay a foundation for a truly Christian state in which men may enjoy liberty and justice in submission to Jesus Christ and His Word.
Second, the Institutes provides a systematic overview of Reformation theology. Melchanthon had made an earlier attempt in his Loci . Calvin was the first Reformer, however, to produce a volume that set forth not only the letter of the Reformation's doctrines but also its foundations, implications, and spirit, i.e ., its worldview. Calvin wrote the Institutes as an introduction to Scripture, so that those unacquainted with its system and contents might have a guide in their pursuit of truth. The end product has been described as a theological treatise with a political point. Calvin set forth not only the Biblical justification for the Reformation of the church and its essential agreement with the best of the church fathers, but he also laid the foundation for a truly Christian commonwealth. This commonwealth was to purge the poison of Romanism, the glosses of medieval theology, and the tyranny of papacy-controlled monarchs and to embrace the authority of Scripture alone, and a civil government dedicated to the preservation of the Christian church. Calvin understood that civil justice requires theological orthodoxy, a point forgotten by the majority of the visible church today and increasingly ignored by contemporary Reformed believers.
The greatness of the Institutes lies first in its logical arrangement, which came to its fullest and most precise development in the final 1559 Edition. One illustration will suffice. Calvin begins the Institutes with an epistemological statement, which is the genius of his approach as well as one of the leading causes for the abiding relevance of his work. Man can neither know God nor himself in the abstract or in isolation from the other. Man can know God only as he knows himself in his weakness, fallen condition, and utter helplessness. Only then will he bow before the majesty of God, pursue faith in Christ, and dedicate himself to a life of piety. Man can know himself only as he sees himself as God's creature, understands the dignity with which he was originally formed, and apprehends the restoration that he may obtain through faith in Jesus Christ and submission to His Word. Everything in the Institutes flows from this foundation. It leads to the necessity and authority of Scripture, for fallen man always perverts the natural knowledge of God with which he was originally endowed. A proper view of Scripture leads to an acceptance of the creation of the world by God, His providence and sovereignty, even in His decrees unto election and reprobation, the authority of His law, and His saving provision through Jesus Christ. In turn, this leads to a discussion on faith, which must be implicitly Christ-centered rather than church-dominated, a proper view of justification by the imputed righteousness of Christ, the chief hinge upon which true religion turns, and sanctification, a distinct yet inseparable aspect of genuine faith. In the final chapters, Calvin insists that faith can flourish only as men make a right use of this life and its blessings, are organized and governed by legitimate church government, and are protected by a Christian magistrate, who does not usurp the prerogatives of the church but views himself as a servant of the King of kings and supporter of His church. The Institutes is a large work, but its marvelous organization enables the reader to understand his place in the work itself, and more importantly, in the overall system of doctrine revealed in Scripture.
A Glorious Past
For the first hundred years after the Institutes was published, theological education was dominated by its study. It passed through numerous revisions and editions, was translated into the leading languages of Europe , and served as the catechism of the Reformed churches. It exerted a direct impact on the thinking of the English Pilgrims and Puritans, who brought to this shore the system of doctrine contained in the Institutes , a view of civil government shaped by Calvin's understanding that a Christian magistrate supported but did not rule the church, and a form of church government and worship that closely resembled the model Calvin set forth in his Institutes and endeavored to implement in Geneva. It is not an overstatement, though it is undoubtedly a despised one, to designate John Calvin and his Institutes as the true founding father of the United States of America.
In the four hundred and fifty years since Calvin wrote the Institutes , theological science has passed through numerous phases that have gradually led to the demise of Calvin's influence: the various critical theories, the rise of theological specialization, Modernism, and now Postmodernism. The Institutes is rarely studied in its completeness. It is read haphazardly in the theological curriculum, even of Reformed seminaries, generally to supplement newer though obviously inferior texts. The order should be reversed. Theological inquiry, while it has continued to progress since the days of Calvin, has not come close to surpassing him in genius, passion, and orthodoxy. In fact, a strong argument might be made that as Reformed theology has gradually abandoned its study of Calvin's Institutes, it has manifested sterility, incoherence, and compromise. Failing to see the glorious forest that blazed brightly in the light kindled by that little Frenchman, it misunderstands the trees, cannot relate them to the forest, and has now begun to doubt the existence of the forest itself. Metaphors aside, it is past time for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, especially its purest historical expressions that adhere to the system of doctrine set forth by Calvin's Institutes , to return to the fountain from which flowed not only the greatest reformation to date in the history of the church, but that also satisfied for a regrettably brief moment, the desire of God's people for purity of worship, order in church government, passionate preaching and theological treatises, civil justice, and religious liberty.
There may come a day in which a new Institutes shall be written. Our veneration for Calvin's monumental labor does not entail idolatry, fear of progress, or paralyzing nostalgia. The people of God will thankfully receive such a work. When it is produced, it will be marked by Calvin's commitment to the details and system of Scripture. It will manifest Calvin's awareness of the reality, power, and glory of God. It will display the gospel of our Savior in its historical and theological context. Such a work will grip the spirit as well as the mind of the Christian man, not because it is a contrived display of the author's creativity, but because it presents the truths of Scripture in their life-changing significance. Until in God's providence such a work arises, the church must continue to read and study the Institutes . It not only reminds us of a purer day, but it also calls us to labor for the continuing and inevitable reformation of the world according to Scripture, energized by the presence and glory of God and dedicated to the idea that every area of life must be pursued in self-conscious submission to His all-sufficient Word.