Calvin’s Aim in Writing Institutes

In the prefix to the 1545 French edition of Calvin’s Institutes, Calvin seeks to explain to his readers why he wrote Institutes to begin with. While he goes into more detail, the third paragraph has some amazingly interesting nuggets of insight for the reader. I will include it with my observations below.

Seeing, then, how necessary it was in this manner to aid those who desire to be instructed in the doctrine of salvation, I have endeavoured, according to the ability which God has given me, to employ myself in so doing, and with this view have composed the present book.

Calvin wrote Institutes in order to instruction people “in the doctrine of salvation.” It is interesting to note this because many today are intimidated by Institutes. The shear size of the volume and the weight of Calvin’s name often make people feel like this is a book for scholars. However, Calvin wrote it simply for those wanting to know the doctrine of salvation. As I’ve told many people, Institutes seems to me one of the most approachable systematic theologies I’ve ever read.

And first I wrote it in Latin, that it might be serviceable to all studious persons, of what nation soever they might be; afterwards, desiring to communicate any fruit which might be in it to my French countrymen, I translated it into our own tongue.

This was really cool to read. Calvin wrote it in Latin so that it might have the most broad reach. That it might make it to all the learned persons of any country and they would be able to read it (and by inference, teach it rightly to others). Then, because of his love for his homeland, he also wrote it in French, so that all his countrymen, scholar and non, would have access to the volume. This speaks highly of his passion for the spread of the gospel around the world and specifically to his country.

I dare not bear too strong a testimony in its favour, and declare how profitable the reading of it will be, lest I should seem to prize my own work too highly.

There is no doubt that by the final edition of Institutes Calvin knew how important his book had become. It is nice here to seem him attempt to keep his pride in check, despite the obvious success and impact that this volume had, even in his own short life.

However, I may promise this much, that it will be a kind of key opening up to all the children of God a right and ready access to the understanding of the sacred volume.

So beautiful is the fact that one of his main goals in writing Institutes is to help God’s children to open and understand the Bible.

Wherefore, should our Lord give me henceforth means and opportunity of composing some Commentaries, I will use the greatest possible brevity, as there will be no occasion to make long digressions, seeing that I have in a manner deduced at length all the articles which pertain to Christianity.

This final note in the paragraph is interesting because it helps inform the reading of any of his commentaries. For those who access any of Calvin’s commentaries, he makes the point that having read Institutes is a key in getting the most out of his other works. I just think that is fascinating and wonder how many who consult his commentaries have actually read through Institutes.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, vol. 1, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), 30.

Enjoying the Family of God

When a child of God is adopted, his allegiances change. The devil is no longer his father, but God is His Father through Jesus Christ, and he leaves the sinful family behind and joins the family of God. In his Sermons on Micah, Calvin poses the question,

“For who are we, that God should honor us by taking us into his own house? For when God decided to adopt us as his children, that already constituted an honor that overshadowed all the possible honors of this world.”

This new family or “dwelling place of God’s children is more to be desired than anything else in the world.” The church is part of the family of God and takes a prominent place in Calvin’s theology. If God is the believer’s Father, then the church is the believer’s mother, the arena in which the believer is conceived, given life, and nourished. The church is where God’s children receive God’s fatherly love and the “especial witness of the spiritual life.”

Calvin’s doctrine of adoption shows the privilege of belonging to God’s family both on a vertical plane, having God as Father, and a horizontal plane, being joined to the church and the family of God. The third part of the framework in which Calvin develops the doctrine of adoption is centered on the Spirit and his role in adoption. The Spirit cannot and must not be divorced from the doctrine of adoption, and Calvin develops this third section in a biblical manner, drawing out the beauty and assistance that the Spirit offers to the believer as an adopted child of God.

The Cause is Worthy

In his prefatory address to his last edition of Institutes, Calvin pens a letter to the King of France. While this prefatory letter contains many great statements, one line in particular stood out to me as I read:

Your duty, most serene Prince, is, not to shut either your ears or mind against a cause involving such mighty interests as these: how the glory of God is to be maintained on the earth inviolate, how the truth of God is to preserve its dignity, how the kingdom of Christ is to continue amongst us compact and secure. The cause is worthy of your ear, worthy of your investigation, worthy of your throne.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, vol. 1, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), 6.

Besides the shear beauty of the sentence, I believe Calvin’s call to the seriousness of the need for all readers to carefully consider the doctrines of God. Not just for the sake of it being a good endeavor for one’s soul, but that the cause is “worthy.” All that Calvin poured over into Institutes, the laying out of layer upon layer of systematic doctrine, is worthy of your ear, your investigation, and while I doubt any royalty will stumble upon this blog post, it is worthy of your very life, your throne.

From the outset of Institutes, Calvin reminds all readers, including the King, the there is something greater out there that has worth beyond ourselves and it is becoming of us to seek to know and understand it.

The Wonderful Exchange Through Christ

In Nigel Westhead’s article, “Adoption in the Thought of John Calvin,” he lists this wonderful exchange as part and parcel of adoption. The substance of this exchange is best seen in Calvin’s own words in discussing the fruits of the Lord’s Supper:

This is the wonderful exchange which, out of his measureless benevolence, he has made with us; that, becoming Son of man with us, he has made us sons of God with him; that , by his descent to earth, he has prepared an ascent to heaven for us; that, by taking on our mortality, he has conferred his immortality upon us; that, accepting our weakness, he has strengthened us by his power; that, receiving our poverty unto himself, he has transferred his wealth to us; that, taking the weight of our iniquity upon himself (which oppressed us), he has clothed us with his righteousness.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion, Institutes IV, xvii, 2–3. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

This is the wonderful exchange that the believer enjoys as part of being an adopted child of God.

 

Changing the 5 Points of Calvinism

Despite the popular misconception, John Calvin never wrote the five points of Calvinism, also know as TULIP. These however were five points that were drawn up some time after his death in an effort to summarize the key doctrines for which Calvin and the Reformed faith stood. While anyone who is well read in Calvin will attest, these five points are probably a very narrow view of Calvin’s theology, none-the-less, they can be helpful in thinking through some of the key points of the Reformed faith.

The other day I began reading a book by Roger Nicole entitled, Our Sovereign Saviour. In chapter 4, Nicole seeks to reword the five points in an effort to, in his words, “prevent misunderstandings.” I found his rewordings and thoughts interesting and thought I’d share them briefly here (please note the paragraphs quoted after each section are but a small part of Nicole’s argument, but I thought they best captured his intention):

Total Depravity Radical and Pervasive Evil

May I suggest that what the Calvinist wishes to say when he speaks of total depravity is that evil is at the very heart and root of man. It is at the very foundation, at the deepest level of human life. This evil does not corrupt merely one or two or certain particular avenues of the life of man but is pervasive in that it spreads into all aspects of the life of man. It darkens his mind, corrupts his feelings, warps his will, moves his affections in wrong directions, blinds his conscience, burdens his subconscious, afflicts his body. There is hardly any way in which man is called upon to express himself in which, in some way, the damaging character of evil does not manifest itself. Evil is like a root cancer that extends in all directions within the organism to cause its dastardly effects

Unconditional Election Divine Initative

What we need to recognize here is that the sovereign initiative in salvation is with God. It is not with man. It is not by virtue of something that God has foreseen in a man, some pre-existing condition which is the source or root of the elective purpose of God, that God saves him. God in his own sovereign wisdom chooses, for reasons that are sufficient unto himself, those who shall be saved. We may, therefore, much better speak of ‘sovereign election and preterition’.

Limited Atonement Particular Redemption

We ought rather to talk about ‘definite atonement’. We ought to say that there was a definite purpose of Christ in offering himself. The substitution was not a blanket substitution. It was a substitution that was oriented specifically to the purpose for which he came into this world, namely, to save and redeem those whom the Father has given him. Another term that is appropriate, although perhaps it is less precise than ‘definite atonement’, is ‘particular redemption’. For, the redemption of Christ is planned for particular people and accomplished what it purposed. The only alternative is that Christ redeemed no one in particular.

Irresistible Grace Effectual Grace

We ought not to give the impression that somehow God forces himself upon his creatures so that the gospel is crammed down their throats, as it were. In the case of adults (those who have reached the age of accountability) it is always in keeping with the willingness of the individual that the response to grace comes forth. This is surely apparent in the case of the Apostle Paul, for whom God had perhaps made what might be called the maximum effort to bring him in. He resisted, but God overcame his resistance. The result is that Paul was brought willingly and happily into the fold of the grace of God.
What we mean here is not ‘irresistible’—it gives the impression that man continues to resist—but ‘effectual’. That is, the grace of God actually accomplishes what he intends it to accomplish.

The Perseverance of the Saints Perseverance of God with the Redeemed

The advantage of this formulation is that there is, indeed, a human activity in this process. The saints are active. They are not just passive. In a true sense they are called upon to persevere. But there is a devastating weakness in this formulation in that it suggests that the key to this perseverance is the activity of the saints. It suggests that they persevere because they are strong, that they are finally saved because they show that kind of stability and consistency which prevents them from turning back into their original wickedness. This is never the case. The key to perseverance is the preservation by God of his saints, that is, the stability of his purpose and the fixity of his design. What is to be in view here is not so much the perseverance of those who are saved, but the perseverance of God with the sinners whom he has gloriously transformed and whom he assists to the end. We ought to talk about ‘God’s perseverance with his saints’. That is the thing that we need to emphasize.

Taken from, Roger Nicole, Our Sovereign Saviour (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2002), 47-54.

The Conformity of the Believer to the Image of Christ

The Apostle Paul speaks about Christ being the prototype of all the sons of God, “For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29 AV). Calvin highlights this as being one of the greatest privileges that the believer enjoys as being an adopted son of God. He writes,

“God had so determined that all whom he has adopted should bear the image of Christ…that he might teach us that there is in Christ a living and conspicuous exemplar, which is exhibited to God’s children for imitation.”

Elsewhere he writes that,

“. . . the final end of our adoption is, that what has in order preceded in Christ, shall at length be completed in us…we have eyes prepared to see God.”

This conforming to Christ’s image will prepare the believer to behold Christ in his glory, removing impurities, weaknesses and sin.

 

Calvin: On The Importance of The Community of Believers

Cog 2003 03 WikiIn his stirring commentary on Psalm 16 (Psalm 16:3) Calvin remarks:

This passage, therefore, teaches us that there is no sacrifice more acceptable to God than when we sincerely and heartily connect ourselves with the society of the righteous, and being knit together by the sacred bond of godliness, cultivate and maintain with them brotherly good-will. In this consists the communion of saints which separates them from the degrading pollutions of the world, that they may be the holy and peculiar people of God.

The community serves, it seems, the dual purpose of knitting believers together in godliness and sanctity and in separating believers from the ‘degrading pollutions’ of the world.  Calvin may well be on to something here that modern Christianity might need very much: i.e., the community as refuge.  Christianity has never been, and never can be, an individual concern.  It is a community of saints, believers gathered together not simply for worship but for fellowship, mutual encouragement, and mutual edification.

In our over-individualized culture what we need, perhaps more than anything, is the security which the communio sanctorum alone offers.  Calvin, it is my opinion, understood this and in putting thought to paper has allowed us all to see the value of it as well.

 

Calvin Didn’t Master the Languages

It seems to be the common opinion that John Calvin was neither a master of Greek or Hebrew, yet he passionately perused them and encouraged and instructed all pastors to do the like. I find encouragement in the fact that Calvin wasn’t a master of the languages. It helps me see that some things were hard work for Calvin, yet he persisted because the worth of the goal was great. He believed in the importance of the original languages and it showed in all he did.

Calvin firmly believed in an educated pastorate, and part of this eruditio was mastery of the languages of Scripture. Prudence and fairness requires us to agree with the assessment of David Puckett when he concludes that Calvin ‘probably should not be regarded as a expert Hebraist, as was Münster, but he did know the language a great deal better than the seventeenth-century Roman Catholic scholar Richard Simon believed.’ Basil Hall perhaps provides an accurate judgment when he says that Calvin was ‘competent in Hebrew without being a distinguished Hebraist’ and that he was an ‘homme trilingue, a worthy representative of French biblical humanism.’ The reality is that ‘there is scarcely a Reformed exegete of the sixteenth century who did not have a good knowledge of Hebrew and was passionately concerned to establish the hebraica veritas.’ Calvin was an excellent Greek scholar, yet, again, he was not alone. Indeed, Reformed interpreters of the sixteenth century were masters of the Greek language, and men like Beza even surpassed Calvin in it.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 77-78.

Adoption being a Major Role of Calvin’s

The doctrine of adoption plays a major role in Calvin’s tracts, letters, sermons, Institutes, and most importantly, his commentaries. Timothy Trumper states on this matter, “It is increasingly apparent that the commentaries are indispensable to an appreciation of Calvin’s theology of adoption.” When one considers Calvin’s development of adoption he begins by stating that it is motivated by the Father’s electing grace in Christ.  This is best seen through Calvin’s own words:

“It is not from a perception of anything that we deserve, but because our heavenly Father has introduced us, through the privilege of adoption, into the body of Christ. In short, the name of Christ excludes all merit, and everything which men have of their own; for when he says that we are chosen in Christ, it follows that in ourselves we are unworthy.”

Calvin saw that adoption was designed for the glory of God, in that those saved by the gospel are then to live for the glory of God in holiness, purity, and doing every deed in obedience to honor their heavenly Father. To Calvin, adoption was not just a blessing; he knew that the privileges that were given to the believer upon the act of adoption came with responsibilities. Calvin saw adoption not only as a promised inheritance for believers, but also as a way in which believers are to think, live, and transform their new life according to the Word of God.

Quotes take from; Dr. Timothy Trumper, “An Historic Study of the Doctrine of Adoption in the Calvinistic Tradition” on page 47 and John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries on Ephesians, page 198.

Calvin’s Thoughts on Seminary

John Calvin’s aim of the Genevan Academey is inspiring and should most certainly be applied, or should I say adopted, by more seminaries today:

The creation of the Academy was perhaps Calvin’s crowning achievement. However, it needs to be noted that Calvin’s purpose in establishing this enterprise was not merely to produce scholars. In reality, ‘one of its chief titles to renown has always been, up to very recent times, that of having formed a body of pastors provided with a high degree of intellectual culture.’ His aim in the schola publica was to raise up and train pastor-scholars. These were men who could work well with the original languages of Hebrew and Greek, who could perform proper exegesis of a text, and who understood theology and philosophy; yet, they could take all that intellectual work and translate it to the masses. These were pastor-scholars who did not stay in the ivory tower, but they sought to find the truth and then apply it to the people. The purpose of the academic work was to affect the church and the world with the truth and power of the Word of God.

John D. Currid, Calvin and the Biblical Languages (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus Publications, 2006), 60.