John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
In September 1982 I set about reading the Institutes in John T. McNeill’s edition. A visit to L’Abri the previous year had introduced me to Reformed theology and I began reading Dr Lloyd-Jones and Puritan paperbacks.
A friend obviously decided that something more demanding was required and bought me the two volumes of Calvin. At the measured pace of fifty pages a week the reading was completed by about June 1983. An abundance of underlining, marginal notes and question marks bears witness to my attempts to take it in.
The change effected in me by the study was not sudden; the Copernican revolution in my thinking had already taken place over the preceding months. Reading Calvin, however, had rather the same effect on me as Calvin himself had on the Reformation: he expanded, systematized and established a revolution that had started earlier.
A ‘change’ implies that one is not the same after reading the book. The features of the Institutes that most affected me were as follows.
First was Calvin’s insistence on ‘piety’ (‘reverence joined with love of God’) as a prerequisite for the knowledge of God. He makes it clear that theology is not just ‘the intellectual side of being a Christian’ but is inseparable from worship.
Theology is work for a renewed heart that loves God. Reading this book thrilled me and led me naturally to worship the God whom Calvin proclaims. Furthermore, Calvin insists, knowledge of God and the knowledge of self are ‘mutually connected’. A greater self-knowledge therefore accompanies worship.
Secondly, the idea of ‘system’ changed me. I had read ‘systematic theology’ before but only in its component parts. Calvin led me into a new appreciation of the unity of truth.
From the knowledge of God the Creator unfolds the knowledge of God the Redeemer. This leads on to ‘the way in which we receive the grace of Christ’ and finally the ‘external means of grace’, the church.
Coming from a background of well-intentioned but intellectually incoherent Arminian Evangelicalism, I found Calvinism spiritually energising and intellectually liberating.
Thirdly, I had never before been made to think about the Christian faith in such a consistently God-centred way. Calvin begins with the knowledge of God. He never allows God to become a mere object of analysis; all his theology is set in this relational context.
The first shock was to realise that this knowledge of God was not available for me to investigate with my own capacities. God is only known when and to whom he cares to reveal himself in Christ. Such an apparently simple truth is shattering to a ‘pelagianised’ mind.
The fourth cause for excitement was the way in which Calvin made the walls between the sixteenth and twentieth centuries, and between the Bible and the twentieth century, seem ‘paper thin’.
There is an immediacy and directness about Calvin, a lack of stuffiness and a raciness that survive the ravages of time and translation. He addresses the reader personally. He grabs you and makes you feel that what he has to say (and what the Word of God has to say through him) is vital.
The fifth life-changer was more to do with style than content. Calvin writes as a preacher of Christ. He demonstrates that theology can be powerfully written and that beauty in style helps communicate content.
Calvin should, and could, be more widely read. A passage on self-denial illustrates the point: ‘We are not our own: let not our reason nor our will, therefore, sway our plans and deeds. We are not our own: let us not therefore set it as our goal to seek what is expedient for us according to the flesh. We are not our own: in so far as we can, let us forget ourselves and all that is ours.
‘Conversely, we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him. We are God’s: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions. We are God’s: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only lawful goal’ (III. 7.1).
Finally, the abiding impression of Calvin’s writings is one of overwhelming majesty. This is surely because God is utterly central to all his thought. Yet the believer’s sense of awe is infused with a tender love for God.
The pious mind ‘restrains itself from sinning, not out of dread of punishment alone; but, because it loves and reveres God as Father, it worships and adores him as Lord. Even if there were no hell, it would still shudder at offending him alone.
‘Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence, and carries with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed in the law.
‘And we ought to note this fact even more diligently: all men have a vague veneration for God, but very few really reverence him; and wherever there is great ostentation in ceremonies, sincerity of heart is rare indeed’ (I.2.2).
Even dipping into Calvin as I write, light and warmth break forth in equal measure.