John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
January 7, 2019
“John Calvin to the Reader”
· Calvin mentions his desire to “carry out this task for God’s church.” (p. 3) Deep theology is for the church—her edification; not merely for those who love abstractions.
o “God has filled my mind with zeal to spread his Kingdom and to further the public good… I have had no other purpose than to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness.” (p. 4)
§ Deep theology promotes pure doctrine of godliness. Good doctrine promotes godliness. There ought to be good fruit in the lives of the saints because of the doctrines they imbibe.
· Another purpose of the Institutes is to train candidates for ministry.
o “Moreover, 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 both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling.” (p. 4)
· Calvin speaks of the commentaries he is to publish. These commentaries will be succinct without lengthy doctrinal discussions because he has put forth the sum of the theological discussions in the Institutes. He speaks of the “godly reader” as approaching “Scripture armed with the knowledge of the present work, as a necessary tool.” (p. 5)
o As will be seen below, this does not make the Institutes a higher authority than Scripture.
“Subject Matter of Present Work”
· On the relationship of Institutes to Scripture
o “Although Holy Scripture contains a perfect doctrine, to which one can add nothing, since in it our Lord has meant to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom, yet a person who has not much practice in it has good reason to look for it in, in order not to wander hither and thither, but to hold to a sure path, that he may always be pressing toward the end to which the Holy Spirit calls him.” (p. 6)
o This is to help “simple folk” understand “the sum of what of what God meant to teach us in his Word.” (p. 6)
o “It is very necessary to help in this way those who desire to be instructed in the doctrine of salvation.” (p. 7)
o “Nevertheless, I can at least promise that it can be a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture.” (p. 7)
o “Thus, I exhort all those who have reverence for the Lord’s Word, to read it, and to impress it diligently upon their memory, if they wish to have, first, a sum of Christian doctrine, and, secondly, a way to benefit greatly from reading the Old as well as the New Testament… Above all, I must urge him to have recourse to Scripture in order to weigh the testimonies that I adduce from it.” (p. 8)
§ This last sentence shows Calvin’s understanding of the authority of the Word. The reader is called to look to Scripture to “weigh” what Calvin claims to “adduce from it.” He is not setting himself as a Protestant Pope or his writings as the ultimate authority. He believes he is faithfully reflecting the teaching of Scripture and is looking to Scripture as the ultimate authority since it is the very Word of God.
Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France
· Note that it is addressed to the King of France. Calvin is seeking to gain a hearing for the evangelical cause and to answer charges of his Roman Catholic opponents who are attempting to lead King Francis to further attack the evangelicals and their message.
o We are reminded of the historical interplay of the State and Church in this time.
· “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. This book witnesses that this was my intention, adapted as it is to a simple and, you may say, elementary form of teaching.” (p. 9)
o Again, for the church.
o “Simple… elementary form of teaching.”
· The King is urged not to “close your ears” to the defense Calvin is offering. (p. 11)
· “Indeed, this consideration makes a true king: to recognize himself a minister of God in governing his kingdom. Now, that king who in ruling over his realm does not serve God’s glory exercises not kingly rule but brigandage. Furthermore, his is deceived who looks for enduring prosperity in his kingdom when it is not ruled by God’s scepter, that is, his Holy Word…” (p. 12)
o The king as a “minister of God in governing his kingdom.”
o The king is to be ruled by God’s “scepter”—his Holy Word.
· “But our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed King to ‘rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth’ [Ps. 72:8; 72:7 Vg.].” (p. 12)
o King Francis is reminded that there is another King above him who is to rule over the entirety of the world (Psalm 72).
o Psalm 72 is utilized to speak of Christ’s kingship.
· “Besides, what is better and closer to faith than to feel assured that God will be a propitious Father where Christ is recognized as a brother and propitiator? Than confidently to look for all happy and prosperous things from Him whose unspeakable love toward us went so far that ‘he… did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ [Rom. 8:32]? Than to repose in certain expectation of salvation and eternal life, when we meditate upon Christ, given by the Father, in whom such treasures are hidden? Here they seize upon us, and cry out that such certainty of trust is not free from arrogance and presumption. But as we ought to presume nothing of ourselves, so ought we to presume all things of God; nor are we stripped of vainglory for any other reason than to learn to glory in the Lord [cf. 2 Cor. 10:17; 1 Cor. 1:31; Jer. 9:23-24].” (p. 13)
o Here is a concentrated outward-looking gaze upon what God has done in Christ—the gospel! The focus is on him—his love, his propitiation.
o Calvin’s opponents find this certainty of faith to arrogant and presumptuous. Calvin’s answer is that we look to nothing in ourselves but we “presume all things of God.” What God has revealed of his love in Christ can be relied upon to the uttermost.
· Calvin delineates the kind of charges brought against the evangelical faith and the Reformers.
1. “They call it ‘new’ and ‘recent birth.’”
a. It might be new to RCC but it is the ancient gospel!
b. “Now when it is restored to us by God’s goodness, its claim to antiquity ought to be admitted at least by right of recovery.” (p. 16)
2. “They reproach it as ‘doubtful and uncertain.’”
a. We seal its certainty with our blood—martyrs.
3. “They ask what miracles have confirmed it.”
a. The ancient gospel was confirmed by the miracles of that time. We don’t need new miracles to confirm our doctrine.
b. Since miracles are seals of the gospel then we ought to find the real gospel when new alleged miracles are happening. Since the Reformers don’t’ find the real gospel in RCC their miracles are suspect.
c. Satan has his miracles as well.
d. “Well, we are not entirely lacking in miracles, and these very certain and not subject to mockery.” (p. 17)
4. “They inquire whether it is right for it to prevail against the agreement of so many holy fathers and against most ancient custom.”
a. “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory—to put it very modestly—would turn to our side.” (p. 18)
b. Calvin points to church fathers who affirmed things very specifically in contradiction to RCC’s teaching
i. Eating meat on Friday
ii. No images of Christ or saints in church buildings
iii. Eucharist—no transubstantiation
iv. Eucharist—both bread and cup to be taken (RCC denied cup to laity)
v. Clear witness of Scripture needed to decide “obscure” matter
vi. Marriage should not be forbidden to ministers
vii. Clarity of Scripture over “speculative theology”
viii. “But my discourse would overflow its proper limit if I chose to review how wantonly they reject the yoke of the fathers, whose obedient children they wish to seem.” (pp. 22-23)
5. “They urge us to acknowledge that:
a. it is schismatic because it wages war against the church,
b. or, that that the church was lifeless during the many centuries in which so such thing was heard.”
· Note: this is an attempted dilemma. Either your doctrine is schismatic—which is sinful separation from the church or there was no church—which is against Christ’s word to build his church.
i. “Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire. Rather, it has quite another mark: namely, the pure preaching of God’s Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments.” (pp. 24-25)
1. Note: Did Calvin over speak here? Can the church exist without any visible appearance?
ii. Calvin appeals to times in the Bible when the people of God but a small remnant (1 Kings 22.12; Jeremiah 18.18). Interesting to see how for Calvin there is an organic connection between the Church in the New Testament and the Old Testament. He writes, “the church was on the side of Micaiah.” (p. 26)
6. “Finally, they say that there is no need of many arguments, for one can judge by its fruits what it is, seeing that it has engendered such a heap of sects, so many seditious tumults, such great licentiousness.” (p. 15)
a. Appeal, again, is made to both OT and NT examples of godly men causing division because they stood for truth—Elijah, Jesus, and Apostles.
b. “What were the apostles to do here? Ought they not to have dissembled for a time, or, rather, laid aside that gospel and deserted it because they saw that it was the seedbed of so many quarrels, the source of so many dangers, the occasion of so many scandals?” (p. 29)