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.  Continue reading