Why Pastors Should Engage Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian ReligionAugust 07, 2018
by Peter Lillback
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is the classic Reformation handbook for understanding the theology and key teachings of Scripture. After nearly five centuries since its first appearance in 1536, it has withstood the test of time and remains a must-have resource for pastoral teaching and leadership in the Protestant and Reformed traditions.
There are several reasons for this: 1) the talents of Calvin; 2) the training of Calvin; 3) the historical moment of Calvin; 4) the purpose of the Institutes; 5) the structure of the Institutes; 6) the sources Calvin used for the Institutes; 7) the impact and abiding influence of both the Institutes and Calvin’s writings and ministry; 8) the excellent translations of the Institutes; 9) the outlines, indices, and commentaries available in support of studying Calvin’s magnum opus; 10) the impact that Calvin’s theology as articulated in the Institutes has had on the drafting and interpretation of the Reformed confessions. But above all is the biblical fidelity of Calvin’s theology.
Let’s address each of these points briefly and explain why they lead to the conclusion that serious pastors, as well as scholarly theologians, should engage Calvin’s Institutes.
1. The talents of Calvin. By any standard, John Calvin was a remarkably gifted thinker and author. His mastery of language, logic, rhetoric, and his cultural milieu not only created a theological vocabulary and theological structure for the Reformed tradition but helped to create the modern French language. Coupled with this was his personal and academic discipline that enabled him to work long hours and write, preach, and teach with scholarly consistency multiple times each week. The Institutes are the fruits of this discipline and talent. Calvin’s penetrating exposition, exegesis, analysis, and presentation clarify the teachings of the Bible, instructing and encouraging Bible-based preaching by pastors even today.
Calvin’s original intention for his work is still relevant for Bible students today.
2. The training of Calvin. Calvin is able to teach us well even today through his magnum opus due to his outstanding education. His training included Catholic religious practice, jurisprudence, and the original biblical languages of Greek and, to some extent, Hebrew. He immersed himself in the literary style and analysis of classical literature resulting in a mastery of Latin that reflected the best of the nascent humanist tradition of his day. Calvin’s scholarship shaped by this training has endured, providing a standard of theological excellence for pastors and preachers wishing to proclaim the Word of God in their generation.
3. The historical moment of Calvin. Along with Calvin’s remarkable talents and well-rounded education, divine providence allowed Calvin’s maturity as a pastor-scholar to develop in the early part of the second generation of Reformation leadership. This meant that he benefited by the writings of Erasmus, Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bucer, and Bullinger as well as other first-generation Reformers who established the basic patterns of Reformation thought. Calvin not only built on their substantial contributions, but he also challenged it and perfected it, making the Institutes a much stronger work. Moreover, as Calvin’s ministry unfolded, he continued to improve and expand his work until finally in 1559, more than two decades after its first edition in 1536, he produced a final edition with which he was satisfied. Calvin’s reformation freshness was joined with deepening theological insights. He was afforded the privilege of standing on the shoulders of theological luminaries, thereby advancing their theological contributions. Thus the Institutes provide great vistas of biblical thought from which we can learn and benefit from as we, in turn, stand on his sturdy theological shoulders.
4. The purpose of the Institutes. The reason that Calvin wrote the Institutes is captured in the word “institutes” itself, meaning, namely, instruction. He intended that the Institutes would be the go-to book to answer the inevitable thorny questions that arise when one studies the Bible. He intended that it would provide correction for many theological errors propagated by historic medieval Catholicism, heretical movements such as anti-Trinitarians as well as other competing Protestant and Reformation theological movements such as Anabaptists and Lutherans. Calvin’s original intention for his work is still relevant for Bible students today. Pastors preaching difficult texts and doctrines will find helpful guidance from Calvin’s theological reflections in the Institutes. . . .
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