By David Woollin
In this research paper the intention is to examine the motivation and purpose of John Calvin when writing his Institutes of the Christian Religion (also known as simply ‘Institutes’ or ‘Institutio’), and to analyze their background, and their development between the first Latin edition in 1536 and the final edition in 1559, as well as their continuing legacy. All this will support the thesis that once Calvin was enlightened to Reformed truth, his theology did not shift significantly, rather it grew, it gained depth, as he was affected by the events of his day, and his continued study and preaching.
It must be acknowledged that there is at least one commentator who at first glance seems to think this thesis does not stand up to interrogation. Athough translator Ford Lewis Battles admits that there is a ‘long held notion that Calvin’s views never really changed and that what he wrote in the final edition of 1559 of the Institutes of the Christian Religion applies more or less indiscriminately to his whole Christian life’, but he then goes on to categorically state in the next breath that ‘this is simply not true’ thus seemingly disagreeing with the thesis of this paper. He then goes on to clarify what he means whilst slightly back tracking from his original dogmatic statement when he tells us that ‘Great consistency there is throughout his literary expression of the faith, but also much movement, reconsideration and recasting of his thought.’ Regrettably and unhelpfully Battles does not provide evidence to back up or explain exactly what he intends by ‘much movement’ leaving us wondering what he means by using this subjective phrase, which he sees as self evident.
However, buttressed by the views of other theologians, Calvin’s opinion of his work, and our own investigation into the development over the five editions and twenty-three years it took to develop them, we will find that this project grew, evolved, and deepened, but did not fundamentally change in Reformed theological orthodoxy. This is a conclusion we can be confident that Battles would be sure to agree with.
Firstly then we look briefly at the man, secondly his motivation, then on to each of the five editions of the Institutes, before considering their legacy and drawing our conclusion.
John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) was born on July 10th, 1509 in Noyon, in province of Picardy in northern France, and ‘went to God’ during the evening of May 27th, 1564, just a month and a half before his 55th birthday. Biographer Theodore Beza comments that ‘at the very same moment that day, the sun set and the greatest light that was in the world for the good of the church of God was taken away to heaven.’
From an early age Calvin showed great potential and was sent to study law, no doubt training his mind in logic, reason, and debate, giving him many skills that would be clearly evident later in his life. He eventually turned his attention to study theology, then in the providence of God came to repentance and saving faith, and ultimately discovered the life changing truths of the Reformation. Describing his own conversion Calvin said, ‘God by a sudden conversion subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness, I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, yet I pursued them with less ardor.’
Herman Selderhuis paints a picture of a transformed man who has been fundamentally changed by the grace of God when he tells us that ‘Calvin became God’s advocate. He would devote every minute of the rest of his life to the defense of God and his cause.’ What we find is an example of God’s truth burning so deeply into a man’s heart that everything else becomes insignificant. History tells us that being an openly protestant Christian during the period Calvin lived almost guaranteed direct persecution, and Calvin witnessed many pay for their faith with their lives. As a result he left France in 1534 and arrived in Basle, Switzerland in January 1535. We do not know exactly when Calvin began to formulate his Institutesm yet we do know that it was during the time living as a fugitive in Basle that after much work Calvin produced the first of five editions, which was published in 1536 when he was only twenty-six years old and had not been a Christian for long.
Why Did John Calvin Write the Institutes?
Before considering this book and it’s development we need to first ask questions such as ‘Why did Calvin originally feel the need to write this?’ and ‘What was he trying to achieve?’ Thankfully we are not left in the dark and we actually find a number of different reasons and motivations from the pen of Calvin himself particularly in the initial preface to King Frances I of France. What we find is that on one level Calvin clearly wants this to impact the lives of many people, especially his fellow Frenchmen when he says that, ‘My purpose was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness. And I undertook this labor especially for our French countrymen, very many of whom I knew to be hungering and thirsting for Christ; but I saw very few who had been duly imbued with even a slight knowledge of him.’ Here he has identified a knowledge gap that needs to be addressed, and he believes his efforts will contribute to doing that.
It is interesting to note that at the time the word ‘Institutio’ was commonly used for a ‘manual or summary of instruction’. That is what we find when we look at the end result. It is an instructional and practical handbook for the Protestant Reformation. As Gamble informs us this was built on the work of others as we find that, ‘Throughout the Institutes, Calvin sought to continue and complete the work begun by Luther and other Reformers.’ Hall agrees and says that ‘he intended both as a defense of the Protestant Reformation movement, begun by Martin Luther less than two decades before Calvin’s first edition, and as an instruction to followers of the Reformers in the basic tenets of the Christian faith, so that they could study the Bible with greater facility.’ He notes elsewhere that, ‘The practical discipling purpose runs all through the Institutio’, whereas Battles and Walchenbach see a pastoral intention growing alongside this when they say ‘the Institutes would increasingly become, from beginning to end, a work of truly pastoral theology.’
But that was not all. Calvin also goes on to show that another intention is to answer false accusations and put the record straight in writing an introduction to, and apology for the protestant faith. This was also an appeal to the king, answering many objections and accusations against himself and those who held to the protestant position, ‘who were being identified with the Anabaptist rebels and were being severely persecuted.’ His intention is ‘to inform the king about the motivation of those disposed to the Reformation’. In his own words he says, ‘My objects were, first, to prove that these reports were false and calumnious, and thus to vindicate my brethren, whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord; and next, that as the same cruelties might very soon after be exercised against many unhappy individuals, foreign nations might be touched with at least some compassion towards them and solicitude about them.’
Finally, not long before his death John Calvin composed his will and reflected back on the intention of his whole ministry, including the writing of the Institutes, which he himself ‘rightly understood to be his most important book.’ In that document he states that his desire was ‘to teach his Word in all its purity, whether by sermons or in writing, and faithfully expound Holy Scripture.’
As we progress through the different rewrites and updates of the book, we will see that Calvin finds motivations in other areas too as he writes each new edition.
1536 – First Edition
As we have noted above, the purpose of the first edition was ‘both apologetic and instructional’. This initial Latin release in March 1536 was small in comparison to the final version, at approximately fifteen percent of the size. It was pocket sized at five hundred and twenty pages long and had six chapters and an index. These practical chapters covered the law in the Ten Commandments, a summary of faith using the Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the sacraments of the medieval church, Christian liberty and responsibility. Interestingly De Greef tells us that ‘Calvin follows Luther’s Small Catechism of 1529 in the design of the book, particularly in the sequence of the first four chapters.’ He then goes on to argue that ‘The 1536 edition was a catechetical handbook, in which he was concerned primarily with the instruction of the common people.’ Duffield notes that this general pattern remains for the 1537, 1539, and 1541 editions, before a reorganization of the final 1559 edition.
The subtitle of the first edition is telling. It says ”Embracing almost the whole sum of piety, and whatever is necessary to know of the doctrine of salvation: A work most worthy to be read by all persons zealous for piety.’ However, Gervase E. Duffield and Benoit agree that this subtitle was more than likely added by the publisher as it does not accurately describe the first edition but rather the later versions.
This first edition then is in a catechism question and answer format and from this starting point, according to Battles, it grows in subsequent versions into an apology, and ‘in every subsequent one the work has received some improvement.’
1539 – Second Edition
The second edition was released just three years after the first and significantly expanded in size, content, and organization. It was no longer a pocket book, but rather a seventeen chapter work which was beginning to look much more like the work we have available to us today. Peter Barth says that this version is ‘distinguished from all others by a peculiar liveliness and freshness in the management of the thought…It proceeds upon the fundamental theological lines which were to be followed in all subsequent editions of the Institutes.’ We note that it is influenced by and develops with the issues of the day. Calvin was continually dealing with the authorities, and refuting heretics, Anabaptists, and of course the Roman Catholic Church. This 1539 edition was therefore increasingly polemic in nature. For example, we find that Calvin addressed the relationship between the two Testaments in order to refute the Anabaptists, as well as sections on Peadobaptism and Millenarianism. Most notable however are the expanded sections on the Trinity, justification, and repentance, the latter two becoming chapters in their own right and were thus given ‘A fuller, individual treatment’.
Two of the additional chapters specifically cover the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man. Some suggest these were added specifically to counteract the issue of humanism.
The preface to the English translation of the 1541 French edition tells us that ‘the 1539 edition is particularly important for additions related to such vital topics as justification by faith and grace alone, in keeping with the fact that Calvin was expounding the Epistle to the Romans in these years.’ This leads us to another interesting influence on the development of this book through the years. Calvin seemingly learned as this project grew and as he preached and wrote commentaries on a variety of Bible books. It is important to note that his commentaries are not divorced from the Institutes. Some theologians such as John K. Mickelsen see a very close relationship and correlation indeed. Lane also sees the link and states that ‘The Institutes and the commentaries are designed to be used together: the Institutes to provide a theological undergirding for the commentaries, and the commentaries to provide a more solid exegesis of the passages cited in the Institutes.’
The preface for this updated edition gives us a glimpse of Calvin’s developing intention when he explains that ‘My object in this work was to prepare and train students of theology for the study of the sacred volume, so that they might both have an easy introduction to it, and be able to proceed in it, with unfaltering step. I have endeavoured to give such a summary of religion in all its parts.’ This book was therefore ‘Mutated into a sort of summa theologiae, a theological student’s preparation and vade mecum for Bible study, and this trebled the books length.’ As a result Calvin now believes that the book lives up to its subtitle on the 1536 edition.
At the same time it developed more of a pastoral emphasis as a result of the increased experience in the work of the ministry. One writer asserts that this is now reflecting ‘the work of a young minister who had experienced something of a baptism of fire in his first practical church service and knew at first-hand what challenging issues people-in-the-pew can raise.’
It is clear that he has also not forgotten his own countrymen back in France. Although some disagree it is thought that this 1539 edition is the first to be translated by Calvin himself into ordinary French and at a more popular level. In this French version we can see many more explanatory notes for the benefit of the common reader.
1543 – Third Edition
What follows in the third and fourth editions are all variations of the second edition with a little added and edited here and there, but nothing too significant. We could simply conclude that the ‘amplifying process continued.’
In the third edition in particular we note that a further four chapters are added where ‘the chief focus of the additions is the doctrine of the church, including practical expansion of the teaching on ministries, in part through the influence of Martin Bucer.’ We could summarize these as ‘Ecclesiastical additions’. De Greef agrees and notes that ‘The new material included a chapter on vows and monasticism; a more detailed treatment of the article on the church, included in the exposition of the Apostles’ Creed (now treated in four chapters); and an extensive section on the theological foundations of the offices.’
As a result of this extra material Hall asserts that “It was now a full -scale declaration of biblical Christianity as Calvin saw it-who and what God is, and what he was, is, and will be doing in and for the human race, according to his Word.’
1550 – Fourth Edition
In this fourth edition very little of note seemingly changes, but once again the content expands and we find further improved organization of the material ‘adding, among other things, a discussion of the conscience.’
1559 – Final Edition
During the year 1558 Calvin was in a lot of pain but continued to work at home putting in place the last edits and additions to the final version of the Institutes in both French and Latin editions, which would be produced the following year. Calvin himself in the preface to the work looks backwards and reflects on the previous editions and then forwards to this one and says that ‘Though I do not regret the labor previously expended, I never felt satisfied until the work was arranged in the order in which it now appears.’ After decades of evolution and continual improvement, this version therefore we can conclude is his magnum opus, the definitive edition which was later described as ‘one of the wonders of the literary world’, and ‘the most famous book of Reformed theology ever written.’ Reist agrees when he says that ‘The 1559 Latin edition is the definitive edition of the Institutes, not because it represented the last word Calvin had to say on the matters at hand, but because he did not live long enough to write another one.’
The changes on this occasion were substantial, resulting in a book that was now more than five times its original length including eighty chapters, and as De Greef informs us ‘The material has increased to such an extent that it can almost be spoken of as a new work.’ Calvin agrees and as a result gives the modified volume an updated title and subtitle of ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion, Now First Arranged In Four Books And Divided By Definite Headings In A Very Convenient Way : Also Enlarged By So Much Added Matter That It Can Almost Be Regarded As A New Work.’
It was now soteriologically arranged after the rediscovery of the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. Its primary focus became gospel salvation particularly related to the Trinity and the threefold office of Christ. Various parts such as providence, predestination, the church, and the Christian life were moved around to accommodate this new structure. It was here that Calvin left the pattern of following the catechism of Luther, and rather moved towards the Apostles Creed as a model with the order of the book of Romans in the background. This creed says ‘I believe in God the Father….Jesus Christ….the Holy Ghost…the holy catholic church’ It is therefore under these four headings in four separate books that he now gathers together his biblical teaching:
Book 1 – God the Father: Calvin here is showing us that we need to understand God as creator, looking in particular at the providence and sovereignty of God in and over everything. He also examines mans position and considers how, in his helplessness, he can know God.
Book 2 – Jesus Christ: The second volume looks at the fall of man, his sin and the answer to the problem though the redemption achieved by the work of Christ the mediator.
Book 3 – The Holy Ghost: Here we find an in depth explanation of how the Holy Spirit applies this redemption to fallen humanity by his saving, justifying and sanctifying work. 
Book 4 – The Church: Finally we find an examination of the church which is both positive and negative. Calvin examines the sacraments as means of grace in strengthening the faith and assurance of believers, whilst emphasizing the Christian’s duty as a result of the Gospel. His work shows us how we can know about God and know God in a way which is completely based on Scriptural truth.
Gaspar Olevian summed up the final arrangement by describing the soteriological timeline now presented, saying:
‘Man being at first created upright, but afterward being not partially but totally ruined, finds his entire salvation out of himself in Christ, to whom being united by the Holy Spirit freely given without any foresight of future works, he thereby obtains a double blessing, i.e., full imputation of righteousness, which goes along with us even to the grave, and the commencement of sanctification, which daily advances till at length it is perfected in the day of regeneration or resurrection of the body, and this, in order that the great mercy of God may be celebrated in the heavenly mansions throughout eternity.’
As with any writing it is not written in a vacuum, but rather, Calvin was clearly influenced by the times in which he lived and his own experience. De Greef says ‘We can detect …all the influence of the doctrinal debates in which Calvin had been engaged….the Lord’s Supper;…the image of God, the work of Christ, and justification;…the merits of Christ and the bodily resurrection from the dead.’ Above we considered the brief description of Calvin’s conversion which also has relevance here as commentator O. R. Johnston concludes ‘It is surely no exaggeration to see chapters 3-5 of Book III of the Institutes as an extended biblical commentary on Calvin’s experience…because this has been burned in upon his own heart by the Holy Spirit.’ What we have then is an experiential piece of this man and his life in print. Further, throughout the Institutes Calvin showed the concern of a true pastor giving essential pastoral wisdom, and continually pointing people away from himself to check all that he has written against infallible Scripture.
The Legacy of Calvin’s Institutes
J.I. Packer asks the important question ‘What was the greatest thing that Calvin ever accomplished?’, and concludes that ‘Our answer must, I think be; he wrote a book – the Institutio. He never did anything greater or more significant for the cause of God and the welfare of the church than that….Calvin was essentially a one book man.’ Calvin had a remarkable and prolific literary output, but this is the cream that rises to the top. This book is an extraordinary study of Biblical theology, ‘a summary statement of biblical theology and biblical religion, presented in order from the Bible’s own point of view.’ It is anything but inaccessible dry theology, but rather it is a binding together, a consolidation, and synthesis of biblical truth from that developed by the earlier Reformers. As De Greef says ‘it may be regarded as a prime source, easily accessible to anyone.’
John Calvin was a judicious and wise commentator for his age, however, much of his influence through the writing of the Institutes has happened since his death. This book which was described by William Cunningham as ‘the most important work in the history of theological science.’ ‘would later become a classic work of Reformed Theology’, and was rightly called a ‘jewel’ by Thomas Norton who first translated it into English in 1561. Calvin produced one of the great classics of Christian theology, a veritable compendium of Christianity, which defends orthodox Protestant theology and relates it to practical Christian living, with a particular emphasis on encouraging duty, godliness and piety. It was a handbook on how to live the Christian life. Packer describes its development and tells us that ‘it became, as well as a handbook for the Christian, a textbook for the theological student, an introduction to Calvin’s own commentaries, and an apologia for every aspect of the Reformation.’
It is true that he was writing in a context of error and heresy, with which we may not be familiar. Nevertheless, this is easily related to our own times as we observe him refuting others with clarity and precision, whilst being jealous for Biblical truth. Hall agrees and explains that in the book ‘We come across passages that seem to speak directly across the centuries to our own hearts and our own present-day theological debates.’ It is therefore still useful today even if he was addressing issues of his own time, as there are new and repeated errors even now amongst our generation.
What wonderful and inspiring lessons we can learn as individuals, leaders, and churches as we witness the incredible zeal of a man living for his Saviour in difficult circumstances. As a result, his writings have ‘permeated millions of hearts’ with a Biblical doctrinal system embracing the doctrines of grace, which would later became known as Calvinism. Hall again gives the highest recommendation when he says ‘The Institutio is also one of the wonders of the spiritual world – the world of doxology and devotion, of discipleship and discipline, of Word-through-Spirit illumination and transformation of individuals, of the Christ-centered mind and the Christ-honoring heart.’ Whereas Battles and Walchenbach highlight the ultimate result, both now and then, in that ‘He wrote the Institutes to draw Christians to the Scriptures.’
As Theodore Beza expressed ‘it has pleased God that Calvin should continue to speak to us through his writings, which are so scholarly and full of godliness, it is up to future generations to go on listening to him until the end of the world, so that they might see our God as he truly is and live and reign with him for all eternity.’
So what of the thesis that once Calvin was enlightened to Reformed truth, his theology did not shift significantly, rather it grew, it gained depth, as he was affected by the events of his day, and his continued study and preaching?
Our strongest witness must surely be Theodore Beza who witnessed all these events and knew the man personally. Importantly he agrees with our thesis and says that ‘he never changed his basic theology’. In more modern times, in the preface to the English translation of the 1541 French edition, Elsie Anne McKee shows us that even through all the intermediate stages that ‘Calvin’s thought did in fact grow and develop, if not actually change.’ Lane compares Calvin to a great theologian of the past and says ‘Like Augustine, he was one of those who write as they learn and learn as they write.’
In this brief paper we have seen what motivated Calvin to write the Institutes, how it developed over time in a limited way, and how God has used and continues to use it. Calvin had an eye on the normal Christian and on the student of theology. He desired peace to worship freely, and for others to see the riches of the Reformed faith, and all the time his desire was to ‘promote only God’.
Theologian J.I. Packer tells us that ‘He worked steadily on the Institutio for nearly a quarter of a century, from the first edition of 1536 to the sixth edition in 1559, revising, augmenting, rearranging, perfecting. All that he knew went into it…The final product is a supreme masterpiece of theological and expository writing.’ Here then we see why and how this book evolved into what it has ultimately become. We observed how his preaching and commentary writing impacted each subsequent edition, and that the prevailing issues and heresies of the day also had an impact. Battles and Walchenbach confirm that change ‘was in dynamic response to the incessant theological debate of the time.’
What results is an outstanding, heart searching, inspiring and thought provoking book that provided a clear teaching of the truly Reformed faith for the first time. May many more both now and in the future experience the same as John Cotton who said ‘Because I love to sweeten my mouth with a piece of Calvin before I go to sleep.’
Through this one remarkable book ‘theological giant’ John Calvin truly ‘changed the course of the Christian church’. We can therefore conclude that in his brief life, Calvin remained firm and grew in his Reformed faith, had a immeasurable impact, and in the providence of God sowed many seeds that, through the power of the Holy Spirit are still bearing fruit today in the twenty-first century.
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RESEARCH PAPER SUBMITTED TO PURITAN REFORMED THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY (WILLIAM VanDOODEWAARD) FOR REFORMATION CHURCH HISTORY
GRAND RAPIDS, MI, USA