I am trying to get settled back into what I call my “daily disciplines.” At this moment for me, these include prayer, the somewhat slow reading of a Psalm, Greek translation of one chapter in John’s Gospel, German translation of Bultmann’s commentary on John (at a very slow pace, I might add), an hour of Hebrew grammar and vocab, and some reading from J.N.D. Kelly’s Early Christian Doctrines. I am excited about adding a new one—working through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. This “discipline” will take place early in the mornings with coffee in the mug. Yeah, the mug (I think God has given me the best coffee mug every crafted… I just can’t believe it).
I have read chapters of the Institutes, but I’ve never started in the beginning.
What I missed was the editor’s account of Calvin’s historical background, as well as the narrative surrounding the text and its subsequent editions. I also missed “John Calvin to the Reader,” a foreword of sorts the great Reformer penned for the 1559 version. And I missed the “Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France.”
These are not to be missed.
The more I study Scripture, the more historical context registers in my mind as absolutely essential for understanding a text… any text. The Institutes are no different, of course. John T. McNeill (the editor of the copy I am reading) writes, “…at many points the work itself is alive with realization of the historic crisis amid which it was written” .
For most of us Protestants, what we know about Reformation history is a well-wrapped package of oversimplified notions. Our impression of the Catholic leadership of the day is caricatured, and our impression of the noble Reformers is perhaps a bit too shiny and polished. The religio-political scenes of Calvin’s day are largely unknown and therefore have no assistance in our reading. For instance, who in the world is King Francis I? Why was he persecuting the reform movement? Who was whispering and shouting in his ear? The Institutes so cherished by evangelical Protestants today did not arise out of a vacuum… and certainly not out of a sociocultural environment like the one in which unpersecuted, democratic Westerners work, pastor, and write theology today. We will fail to hear Calvin’s words with their intended force and richness without growing in knowledge of the swirling flux of religious ideas and political stratagems of his times. I have a lot of work to do….
On these series of posts on Calvin over my coffee (in the mug), I will be reporting some of the glorious (and perhaps disturbing) findings. For this first post, I will just provide a few interesting facts about the Institutes and then offer comment on Calvin’s motivation for writing.
Curiosities from the Editor’s Introduction
Calvin wrote the Institutes in Latin.
Copies of the French edition were burned in front of Notre Dame on two occasions—1542 and 1544 (the Institutes were violently controversial from the get-go!).
Having fled the repressive regime in France (where many were burned to their death), Calvin finished the 1st edition in Basel, Switzerland.
In its final form, the Institutes is about the length of the Old Testament plus Matthew, Mark, and Luke.
Why Calvin wrote Institutes
This is even more interesting to me. His motivation for writing the work was to provide his readers a theological background suitable for understanding Scripture. Calvin specifically tells us that he wrote these beloved chapters to enable us to better read our Bibles:
“…it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling.”
He has offered his Institutes as “a necessary tool” by which we may read Scripture.
So which comes first—the Bible which defines Theology, or Theology by which we understand the Bible?
A fitting question for the 100th blog post here at Hopeful Realism.
The answer? I go with this one: neither. It has to be circular. And I will leave it at that…
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John T. McNeill; tr. Ford Lewis Battles; Library of Christian Classics vols XX and XXI; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).