A Calvinist Reads Calvin: Of Kings, Apologetics, and Introductions
As recounted in my last post, there is real value in exploring your tradition’s response to theological questions. This being the case, I thought that I should take a dose of my own medicine. To this day, despite my Reformed leaning, I have never actually spent any serious time reading Calvin. After challenging you all to spend more time studying the theologians that have impacted your beliefs, it seemed only right that I would begin reading Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. And, since a little accountability is always good, I thought it would be a great idea to share the journey with you all. As an ongoing series of posts, you all will track my exploration of the Institutes. Because this is an initial reading, this series will probably not read as a scholarly/academic interaction with Calvin’s thought. Instead, it will be an ongoing set of notes, detailing what strikes me as important and how it interacts with my current understanding of Scripture.
That being the case, we could do much worse than starting at the beginning. In my edition (the 2008 printing from Hendrickson), the very first words from Calvin are a letter written to the King of France when the Institutes were first printed. In this letter, we have an apologetic for the rest of the book. Not an apology mind you; Calvin fully stood behind his words. Rather, in the letter we find a series of arguments for the king’s consideration of the Institutes. Calvin explains his goal for the Institutes by saying that “I thought it might be of service if I were in the same work both to give instruction to my countrymen, and also to lay before your Majesty a Confession, from which you may learn what the doctrine is that so inflames the rage of those madmen who are this day, with fire and sword, troubling your kingdom.”1 Reading the letter, one is struck by at least two things. First, Calvin’s respectful call for the king to seek the truth. Similar to the prophets in the Old Testament, Calvin’s letter clearly sets out what it means to rule well. Consider this excerpt: “The characteristic of a true sovereign is, to acknowledge that, in the administration of his kingdom, he is a minister of God. He who does not make his reign subservient to the divine glory, acts the part not of a king, but a robber.”2 While not directly condemning the king, Calvin doesn’t leave any grey areas for him either. In this, Calvin sets an example worth observing and following. If there is one thing that becomes clear reading the Old Testament prophets, it’s that God hates injustice.3 As servants of Christ, it is imperative that we fight against evil in the world around us, which includes holding our governments to God’s standard for justice.
Equally striking, if not more so, are some of the invectives directed towards Calvin’s opponents. Consider our opening quotation. “. . . inflames the rage of those madmen . . .” is a rather picturesque depiction for the temperament of the opposition. While, describing the opposition’s reading of the Church Fathers, Calvin states that, “these pious sons, forsooth, with the peculiar acuteness of intellect, and judgment, and soul, which belongs to them, adore only their slips and errors, while those things which are well said they either overlook, or disguise, or corrupt, so that it may be truly said their only care has been to gather dross among gold.”4 Subtlety doesn’t seem to be Calvin’s aim here. Sanctified sarcasm seems to be closer to his goal. Growing up, I was always told to be nice with my words. Calvin’s scathing denunciations, however, do raise the question of whether there are times when nice is woefully inadequate. My inclination is to say yes, that there are times where the only response to the circumstances around us is to verbally torch evil. God probably wasn’t holding his nose when the Imprecatory Psalms were included in Scripture.
Moving from the letter though, my edition includes introductions to the four editions that Calvin released during his lifetime. As short as they are, these introductions are instructive for our continued reading. Specifically, they give us Calvin’s goal for the Institutes: “so to prepare and train candidates for the sacred office, for the study of the sacred volume, that they may both have an easy introduction to it, and be able to prosecute it with unfaltering step . . .”5 This future ease of Bible study comes from the fact that the Institutes provide “a summary of religion in all its parts.”6 Specifically, Calvin follows the arrangement of the Apostle’s Creed7 as he communicates his theological positions. While there isn’t anything particularly earth shattering about this arrangement, it is helpful to know ahead of time the logic behind a presentation of ideas. Of more interest perhaps is Calvin’s greater goal, to prepare others to minister. This tracks with the Great Commission, to “make disciples of all nations.”8 Again, our service to Christ demands this mindset from us. Following Christ involves actively working to help others follow him.
As I prepare to tackle the next portion of the Institutes, there are a couple different ideas I am taking with me. First of all, the importance of reading introductions.9 Knowing what motivated an author to write and what he is trying to accomplish provides valuable context for the content that will follow. Additionally, in several ways, Calvin pushes us to engage with the world around us. In each of his interactions with his readers, we have seen Calvin seeking to bring Christ’s rule to bear on the people around him. Whether he pursues this well is a point I expect will be debated. That it should also be our aim, though, is beyond question.
What theological books are you planning on reading in the coming year?
What is the balance between the meek and militant aspects of Christianity? Or, is this a false dichotomy?
2. Ibid, xxii.
3. This fact was pointed out by Kevin Bywater during my time at the Summit Oxford Study Centre (Hilary Term, 2014).
4. Calvin. Institutes, xxv.
5. Ibid, xxxvii.
7. Olevian, Gaspar. “Method and Arrangement, or Subject of the Whole Work” in Institutes of the Christian Religion trans. Henry Beveridge (Hendrickson: Peabody, 2008), xxxviii.
8. Matthew 28:18. Scripture quotations are from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
9. Well, at least the introductions written by the author. Introductions added in after the fact aren’t always as helpful.
Photo Courtesy of Sylvian Guiheneuc