The Surprising History of Calvin’s Institutes

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John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is among the most important works of theology in church history. It’s a central text for Protestantism, especially the Reformed tradition, and continues to be read and referenced widely today, just as it was in Calvin’s day.  But it was a long and winding journey that led to the version of the Institutes we now know.

The first edition of the Institutes was published in Latin in 1536 when Calvin was only 27 years old. He was in exile in Basel at the time, having fled Paris during a tumultuous period of persecution. (Certain Reformers had placed placards around the city attacking the Mass.) Calvin chose Basel because it had recently declared itself Reformed with the First Basel Confession—the same event which caused the Catholic Erasmus to move from Basel to Freiburg.   

Calvin boldly included an address to the King of France in this first (very slim) edition of the Institutes. He hoped to provide a statement of the beliefs of the persecuted French Protestants which would refute the misunderstandings and untruths that were being spread about them and prove his case that the Reformers were legitimate heirs of the Church fathers. 

An ever-changing work

In 1541 he published a version of the Institutes in his native French. This edition became famous for its lively prose. It sold well and was read widely—so much so that it played a role in shaping and standardizing the French language.

These early editions of the Institutes are direct, pastoral accounts of Reformed theology. While Calvin is remembered as a deeply serious man and complex thinker, the first renderings of his Institutes show he had a pastor’s heart and explode the stereotype of Calvin as a severe, dour man. These early versions are not widely read or known but they are still wonderfully effective at their intended purpose: instructing the believer in how to live out the truths of the Christian faith.

Calvin continued to revise and supplement the Institutes throughout his life, writing five Latin editions and four French translations. The final Latin edition of 1559 was almost five times as long as the original version. This is the edition upon which all of the common English translations have been based. Despite all this added material the final edition of the Institutes does not stray from the heart of the earlier editions. This progression shows how Calvin devoted his whole life to exploring the depths of the basic truths of the faith which had moved him so powerfully as a young man. With his man revisions to the Calvin supplemented and refined the practical, pastoral book he first composed as a young man.
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For the first time, modern English translations of two of these earlier drafts of the Institutes will be made available in Logos. A translation of the 1536 Latin text by Ford Lewis Battles (well known for his translation of the definitive 1559 Latin Institutes) and a recent translation of the 1541 French edition are available on Pre-Pub. Pre-order them now!