Friday, December 28, 2018

On John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion

* A short section from T. H. L. Parker's biography of John Calvin regarding Calvin's most influential work Institutes of the Christian Religion.

"The book was therefore on the one hand a confession of faith.  But it was also institutio christianae religionis, instruction in the Christian religion; and that, not as a textbook about an abstract body of truths, but as the teaching of 'godliness', of the faith that is believed with mind and heart, upon which a man is bold to base the conduct of his life, to which he dares to commit himself in life and in death.  Calvin intended it to be elementary.  When I wrote this book, he told the king in the opening paragraph,
all I had in mind was to hand on some rudiments by which anyone who was touched with an interest in religion might be formed to true godliness.  I laboured at the task for our own Frenchmen in particular, for I saw that many were hungering and thirsting after Christ and yet that only a very few had even the slightest knowledge of him.  The book itself betrays that this was my purpose by its simple and primitive form of teaching.
 He was writing, then, for the baptized, for those who took their religion seriously, who desired to be good Christians but were disturbed at their lack of success, who above all were distressed that their religion brought them no peace of conscience.  By their baptism the guilt of their inherited sin had been forgiven.  But they had sinned since their baptism, making shipwreck of their faith and thus of their standing with God.  Now they clung desperately to what old St Jerome called the second plank, the sacrament of penance.  They were sorry for their sins, or rather, the more they were in earnest the more they realized that they ought to be sorry for their sins and wished that they were more sorry.  They knew God to be a stern judge who would exact vengeance for their sins.  They made confession, aware of the promise 'whoseoever sins you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven'.  But where was the peace that should follow?  Had they confessed all their sins?  Had they forgotten any?  Only confessed sins are forgiven.  They performed the enjoined satisfactions for their sins.

They did more; they went on pilgrimages, not for a jolly Chaucerian holiday, but always seeking, always grasping after that which lay just beyond their grasp; they gave alms so far as they could afford; they practised self-denial and mortification.  Meanwhile, they attempted to follow their conscience and the Law of God to the best of their ability, trusting God's grace that he would, of his free mercy, reward them for their efforts with such an outpouring of grace as would turn their will away from sin to love God with all their being.  And again, instead of the looked for peace, anxiety: had they really striven to the utmost?  They could not tell; it was impossible to know.  But if they had not done what they could, God had not rewarded them.  The Institutio was addressed to men suffering under the pastoral cruelty of the medieval church." (pp. 42-43)