Book Review: The Institutes of Christian Religion (John Calvin)

John Calvin
John Calvin

In The Institutes of the Christian Religion, 16th century theologian John Calvin presented the systematic explanation of his reformation theology. In this modern edition, editors Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne seek to re-present Calvin’s Institutes in an easy-to-access book for non-specialist readers (Baker Book House: Grand Rapids, 1995.). In redacting portions of Calvin’s extensive work, Lane and Osborne offer readers unwilling to engage the totality of Calvin’s work the “highlights tour” of the Institutes, retaining the most important passages for understanding his reformation theology and development of thought. In this review we will consider the outline of Calvin’s work, as well as some of the issues that he raises, before turning to some brief critiques of the presentation of Calvin in this work. Overall it will be argued that this edition of the Institutes provides non-specialist readers with an excellent introduction to Calvin’s work.

The first of the fourteen sections in The Institutes deals with “Knowing God and Ourselves”, where Calvin argues that an appeal to conscience and the innate knowledge of God in each person allows for all humanity to know God, thought ultimately faith in God is necessary to truly see God at work in His creation (21, 29, 34). Calvin almost immediately begins to critique scholastic forms of theology as he writes that “attempts to discover the essence of God [are] fruitless speculation” and generally opposes ritualized practice that he writes allows for little sincerity of heart (25, 27). Calvin’s argument in this first section offers much for consideration in our modern context, as questions concerning both natural revelation and humanities ability to recognize God as well as concerns with ritual and sincerity of heart in worship abound in many churches and contexts even today. In the second, third, and fourth sections, Calvin writes concerning the relationships of God, concerning Word, Spirit, the Trinity, and His Creation. Here he argues for the necessity of scripture as a guide and teacher for understanding the world,  as well as a typically Western conception of the Trinity (39-40, 51, 55). Concerning God’s relationship with humanity, Calvin writes that regeneration restores humanity to its original relationship with God, namely a free existence and argues that God is sovereign creator and sustainer of the universe, and that everything that happens has been allowed by God (63, 69, 81). While he writes that, “Everything is controlled by God’s secret purpose, and nothing can happen except by his knowledge and will”, Calvin pushes back against a totally fatalistic process of events in human history (77). Anyone remotely familiar with Calvin (or his present-day followers) is well-aware that Calvin’s conception of God’s total control over the world, which seems almost to assign every action as commanded by God, has long been subject to discussion and debate. While Calvin argues that his conception of God’s omnipotence and omniscience does not dictate that Jehovah be necessarily deterministic, his argument here appears to be only a nuance away from such a deterministic position. 

The Institutes, CalvinIn part five of The Institutes, Calvin outlines his doctrine of man’s sin. For Calvin, the “whole man is in himself nothing but lust” (91). All humanity is totally depraved from birth to death, and as everything that comes from man is entirely damnable and post-lapsarian man has lost his freewill, man can do no good before God (87-88, 90). At this juncture Calvin begins an examination of God’s Law and work of Jesus Christ. Whereas the Law functions as a mirror to show human sinfulness, to demonstrate God’s goodness, to control evil, and to demonstrate God’s will to believers, Christ’s life, death, and resurrection has superseded the law (105-112). Arguing that Christ alone is necessary for salvation, Calvin centers the ultimate fulfillment of the law in the love of Christ demonstrated in love of God and fellow mankind (119); additionally, Christ exists as the sole mediator and reconciler of man to God whose death was the atoning sacrifice that is effected in faith upon believers by the Holy Spirit (125, 133, 143). In these sections too Calvin addresses a number of topics in manner that allows for continued reflection upon theological issues, such as the nature of man, the importance of Christ alone for salvation, and theories of atonement. In a world of increasing syncretism and postmodern ideology, Calvin’s reflections upon the primacy and singularity of Christ’s work in the salvation provides a standout example of traditional Christian doctrine.

The importance that Calvin assigns to a Christians certainty concerning their salvation demonstrates that he was no Martin Luther. While he allows for a certain amount of doubt, and even indicates that “falling away” is possible, Calvin ultimately argues for a highly secure form of faith in Christ (147, 149-51). Unfortunately, Calvin fails to provide a clear indication of how one can have certainty concerning salvation at this junction, instead beginning an extensive section on the role of the believer in Christian life. Though he argued that justification before God occurs by faith alone, Christian holiness remained vitally important for Calvin’s theology (151). True Christian repentance involved the whole act of turning toward God following conversion, and while sin remains in the life of the believer, it no longer may reign in the life of the Christian. Calvin builds upon this idea in his writing about the “Christian Life” in section nine, demonstrating by his care in this section that his theology is not all about double predestination and the importance of being one of the elect, but involves the disciplined Christian life that leads to holiness (163). The reformer stresses the doctrine of faith alone through the work of Christ, but reflects a great deal upon the importance of justification enacting a life-long righteousness that stresses Christian virtues of self-denial, love of others, and use of heavenly gifts for God’s purposes on earth (163f). Calvin’s conception of freedom, which he believes to allow the Christian to rise above worrying about keeping the law, permits voluntary obedience to God and His law, and grants freedom to not worry about regulations, and his emphasis on the centrality of prayer further cements the importance in his theological system for the importance of good works in the Christian life (196-8). In these sections one can see Calvin dealing with common theological concerns regarding certainty of salvation, post-baptismal sin, and the importance of Christian works by focusing his theological construction on the work of Christ and the proper response of Christians to the gift of faith.

In part twelve of The Institutes Calvin penned his doctrine of God’s election and man’s predestination, the facets of this thought which have become his theological legacy (though too often these points are not read within his broader theological context and system). In his doctrine of double predestination, Calvin argued that God has predestined some to salvation while simultaneously predestining others to destruction, moving further than other ‘radical’ conceptions of God’s power and election such as the interpretations of Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther (213). This conception of God’s total sovereignty has long raised questions concerning the justice of God, especially concerning his damnation of some while apparently arbitrarily choosing others for salvation. Calvin argues that scripture clearly indicates that God is not obligated to save any sinner who transgresses his law and that anyone is saved is tremendous gift (213-4, 217). In the overall scope of The Institutes, Calvin devotes precious little time to this doctrine of predestination, as he does not provide at any great length a justification for this doctrine, either rhetorically or even scripturally. Thus, while Calvin raises questions concerning double predestination that have shaped the theologies and theological debates of countless Christians over the past five hundred years, he spends rather little time explaining this doctrine in The Institutes.

In the final sections of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes concerning his doctrines of the Church and the Sacraments. Regarding is sacramental theology, Calvin retains high importance for baptism and the Lord’s Supper while rejecting all other sacramental claims as unfounded in scripture, writing that, “Along with the preaching of the gospel, the sacraments are a great strength to our faith” (253). Sacraments are not for Calvin a special dispensation or ritual dependent on human action, but instead depend upon the faith of recipient for the efficaciousness (256). Calvin retains infant baptism as a sign of cleansing, and while rejecting the Roman doctrine of transubstantiation, modified the Zwinglian memorialization of the Lord’s Supper (256, 260). For Calvin, the Lord’s Supper contained a spiritual reality for the feeding of souls, and involved physical signs accompanied by a spiritual truth, making his doctrine concerning the Lord’s Supper closer to Luther’s consubstantiation (though without a real physical presence) than either Roman transubstantiation or Zwingli’s memorial supper (268-9). Regarding sacraments, we see that Calvin sought to maintain their spiritually nourishing function, as well as the Church’s connection to the State and citizenship through the baptism of infants.

The Geneva Bible (Sponsored by Calvin)
The Geneva Bible (Sponsored by Calvin)

Having surveyed the contents of Calvin’s Institutes and commented on some of the issues that his writings raised, both in his context as well as ours, let us now briefly consider the presentation of this material and offer some comments on the whole of Calvin’s theological program found in this project. First, in the preface the Lane and Osborne note that they have removed sections of The Institutes that are explicitly focused on attacking and critiquing Roman theology. Given the removal of this material, we must ask about the importance of Calvin’s critique of the Roman Church in his theological constructions. It may be that a doctrine such as double predestination, considered from Calvin’s position as both critiquing the corruption of Rome and constructing a scripturally based theology, makes more sense in light of a critique of the Roman reading of Paul and his language of ‘election’ and ‘predestination’ in his letters. In other writings (I’m thinking here of Calvin’s interactions with the Catholic Bishop Sadaleto), Calvin’s theological constructions appear to be directly tied into his critiques of existing structures. Given the importance of a context of critique in understanding Calvin’s writings in The Institutes, this reader would certainly have appreciated at least some of Calvin’s critiques of Roman doctrine in this edition. Second, though this edition of Calvin’s is focused on providing a non-specialist edition, the very fact that large portions of Calvin’s writing have been redacted by the editors should give rise to a certain amount of caution in treating Calvin’s program and theology. Though a reader of this edition should be free to question aspects of Calvin’s theological program, such as the differences between his pre- and post-lapsarian anthropologies and their implications for Calvin’s wider theology, the very fact that we do not have the totality of Calvin’s work in The Institutes of the Christian Religion should dictate that critiques of Calvin based upon this work be tempered.

Finally, we must ask about the center of Calvin’s theology as presented in The Institutes. Often a consideration of Calvin’s theology focuses on the lightening rod of his program, namely, double predestination. However, as noted above, to assume that the most famous (or infamous, depending on one’s position) aspect of Calvin’s theology was the basis for his whole program seems presumptuous as best. As notes, Calvin spend a great deal of time considering the proper role and actions of the Christian life and the importance of Christian holiness following justification. Between the care that Calvin exerts in presenting the importance of the Christian life as one of service and self-denial and his general failure to provide a strong backing, exegetical or otherwise, for his doctrine of double predestination seems to indicate that the theology of John Calvin as presented in The Institutes of the Christian Religion was far more focused on empowering and enabling Christian love and service than on debating theological nuances of a doctrine of double predestination and how one can know the status of the elect. The simple fact remains that one could easily read the current edition of The Institutes as Calvin arguing for justification by faith alone in Christ but with a strong reminder of the vital importance of Christian love and service as a result of the gift of justification and salvation.

As this review has demonstrated, John Calvin’s Institute of the Christian Religion is a classic theological work that provides modern readers with opportunities for theological reflection upon a number of topics, ranging from the nature of humanity to the importance of Christian holiness. While Calvin wrote for a specific time and place in the history of Christianity, his work in The Institutes can provide thought-provoking and meaningful reflection in today’ context, though not without the possibility of critique upon a fully informed contextual reading on his work and concerns. As argued above, this reader affirms a cautious reading of the current edition. While Lane and Osborne appear to have done an admirable job at providing an entry level introduction to Calvin, further inquiry remains a necessity before substantial criticism of Calvin’s theology can be undertaken. Finally, this reader argues caution in considering Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination as the center of his theological construction, instead arguing that Calvin remained concerned with the holiness of the Christian following a believer’s justification by faith in Christ alone. As noted above, this edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion provides non-specialist readers with an excellent introduction to the theology of John Calvin and is thus highly recommended.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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