Institutes of the Christian Religion is John Calvin's seminal work on Protestant systematic theology. Highly influential in the Western world and still widely read by theological students today, it was published in Latin in 1536 and in his native French in 1541. The book serves as an introductory textbook on the Protestant faith for those with some previous knowledge of theology and covers a broad range of theological topics from the doctrines of church and sacraments to justification by faith alone and Christian liberty. It vigorously attacks teachings which Calvin considered unorthodox, particularly Roman Catholicism to which Calvin says he had been "strongly devoted" before his conversion to Protestantism. The overarching theme of the book-and Calvin's greatest theological legacy-is the idea of God's total sovereignty, particularly in salvation and election. Institutes of the Christian Religion is highly-regarded as a secondary reference for the system of doctrine adopted by the Reformed churches, which is commonly referred to as Calvinism.
Exegetical in substance - Calvin has been called the "father of modern exegesis" and rightly so. He pioneered the literal-historical-grammatical method of exegesis. This is especially true of his excellent commentaries, but also reflected in the Institutes. The final court of appeal for Calvin is Scripture. His arguments are laced with quotations from the Bible and one senses that Calvin was very hesitant to go further than Scripture in his surmizings.
Christ-centered in focus - This has really struck me in my reading Calvin (I'm now in volume 2 of this edition). Calvin's Christology was robust and it pervades virtually every page of the Institutes. This is especially true in Book III, which is especially rich.
Worshipful in tone - Despite what some people may think, Calvin is not a dry theologian. Some Calvinists could benefit from soaking in their fore-father - perhaps picking up some of his reverence and humility. Seriously, this book lifts my gaze to God. That's good enough reason to recommend it.
Polemical in style - Along with everything above, Calvin was a polemicist, no doubt about it. This book is saucy! Calvin didn't hesitate to call his adversaries by name AND call them names. That may seem harsh to modern readers and leave a sour taste in some mouths. But even Jesus could call the Pharisees vipers and Calvin doesn't stray too far from his master in this regard. We should also remember the turbulent times in which Calvin wrote. He says in his preface that one of the reasons he wrote the Institutes was to make clear what young French pastors who were being martyred were dying for. Remember that his friends were being killed for their convictions before getting too critical of Calvin's language.
This edition is probably the best available with helpful notes and an excellent team of scholars under J. T. McNeil behind the text. Calvin's quotations are documented and the text is keyed with symbols showing the development of the Institutes from its initial version in 1536 through its five reprints (the final in 1559).
An excellent read for anyone interested in Reformed theology, historical theology, systematic theology or . . . just theology!
Calvin’s work highlights the main doctrines and key Biblical concepts that encompass the principles necessary for Christian vitality. In this condensed version of his Institutes, the brilliant reformer effectively expounds on all the important aspects of Bible doctrine. Calvin was not one to shy away from the controversial elements of Biblical Christianity. Throughout the Institutes, God’s sovereignty is a focal point of Calvin’s commentaries. The glory of God, His mercy and grace towards helpless sinners and the substitutionary work of Christ the Savior are some of the important truths documented by this immensely gifted theologian!
John Calvin was a significant theologian and scholar. I recommend his work for anyone who is looking for a deep study of reformed theology. Anyone who cast Calvin off for his work is missing out on the writings of an astute theologian that they could greatly benefit from. Calvin himself writes later in the Institutes, “Doctrine is not a matter of talk but of life. It is not grasped by the intellect alone, like other branches of learning. It is received only when it fills the soul and finds a home in the inmost recesses of the heart” Above all, the Institutes is a book about the Christian life. Now I venture to read the 2 Vol. original work by Battles.
Despite the many weighty topics Calvin addresses, he writes with a deeply devotional style. He is witty and clever, and to his opponents, acerbic. Calvin reserves little patience for those who blaspheme God through human traditionalism or faulty reasoning.
The only difficulty one would encounter when reading Calvin is his references to his contemporary events, but this should not deter any reader.
When I started reading the Institutes I was fresh out of Seminary. I didn't have the opportunity to take a course on Calvin, so I thought that this would round out my education. Another reason I tackled Calvin was my (former) love for systematic theology. I thought that there was nothing more sublime than a cohesive logical understanding of scripture.
The more I pastored and studied scripture for myself, the more I became disillusioned with systematic theology. No matter whose system you chose, the emphasizing of some passages over others always felt arbitrary.
Take the Calvinist/Arminianist debate with respect to Philippians 2:12-13. It's all a matter of which side you emphasize: "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Calvinism) "for it is God who works in you" (Arminianism) (ESV).
Systematic theology is like a bit-mapped picture. If you have a sufficiently detailed resolution (or nuanced systematic method), you can reproduce a pretty accurate picture of the original. But why not just enjoy the original? Scripture is the story of God's relationship with his people. There is a reason love letters don't look like bullet lists in a PowerPoint presentation. Narrative trumps systems. Every time.
The logic of Calvin's systematic theology is highly nuanced and quite brilliant. I learned a tremendous amount from his encyclopedic knowledge of scripture. (This 1,700 page edition of the Institutes is rather small compared to his Commentary on the entire Bible!) When he speaks about the role of faith in the believer's life and the nature of prayer, his work is inspiring. The problem comes when he follows the logic of his system to the end and is left with with double predestination, for example. (If scripture says that God predestined believers for glory, then logically, He must have predestined souls for hell, right?)
Here is where systems fail and narrative comes to our rescue. The Bible is more of a library than a book. Each author has his own understanding of scripture, as inspired by the Spirit of God. True, the books and stories fit together in amazing ways, but that doesn't take away from their own character. Read Ecclesiastes beside Song of Songs and you'll see what I mean.
I started the Institutes as a systematist. While I still appreciate and respect this discipline, I am now wholeheartedly a Biblical theologian. For example, I would much rather work at bringing out what John meant in his Gospel than spend my time trying to reconcile the date of the crucifixion with Mark's account.
Let scripture speak in all of its sundry glory.
It is not inspired, of course. There are many places where I would part company with Calvin. That doesn't mean that we cannot learn from his insights and wisdom, especially because he is so rooted in the Scripture as he writes about them. I would recommend this book to any Christian who is serious about following his Lord.