Institutes Of The Christian Religion, by John Calvin
I likely would never have read this book, despite my considerable curiosity about Calvin and his religious system , had this book not been included as one of the twenty five books that all Christians supposedly should read. I also must state that I appreciated this book a great deal more than I expected to. That is not to say that this was an easy book to read or that I read it quickly–it took me more than a month to read this book all the way through and at times was a very difficult book to read, yet I felt it necessarily to read it honestly and fairly, and I think that Calvin comes off as a far more sympathetic writer than many of his followers do. Part of this has to do with the fact that Calvin is a much more honest writer than many of his followers are. If you read Calvinist works, you will often find in them a sense of arrogance about being biblical in their nature, but John Calvin makes it clear that he is writing as a Hellenistic Christian with a high degree of dependence on early Church fathers (especially, but not only Augustine) and is not pretending to follow the apostolic Jewish Christianity of the most primitive times.
Indeed, this book makes that very clear on several grounds. First, Calvin himself freely quotes a diverse variety of sources that are collected in one of the book’s several indices. A partial list of these sources is instructive, as it includes Augustine, Ambrose, Athanasius, Bernard, Pope Calixt, John Chrysostom, Cicero, Cyprian, Pope Gelasius, Gregory the Great, Hilary of Poitiers, Jerome, Juvenal, Origen, Ovid, Plato, Plutarch, Tertullian, Virgil, and Xenophon, and many, many others both famous and obscure. There are pages that go by with scarcely any biblical citation, and the author is clearly one of those who wishes to plunder the heathen by showing a command of wordly philosophy (especially political philosophy) even as he attempts to demonstrate his own views as more closely biblical than that of his papist opponents, even as he shows a great deal of scorn and sarcasm towards more pietistic opponents with whom I would find a much greater agreement in terms of our doctrinal positions. This last is likely the least sympathetic aspect of the book, but even here one can sense that Calvin’s hostility is borne out of rivalry, and one is seldom charitable or just to a rival.
In terms of its structure, this book is about 1000 pages in length, and divided into four books. Calvin’s mind is never more orderly than it is here, as the author spends teh first book dealing with the knowledge of God the Creator in eighteen chapters that take up almost 150 pages. The author then examines the knowledge of God in Christ in seventeen chapters that take up a bit more than 200 pages. This is followed by twenty-five chapters that address the issue of the grace of Christ, and twenty chapters that examine the issue of the holy Catholic Church. After this there are 100 short precepts drawn from the work as well as a variety of indices. The chapters themselves are organized with various bullet points that discuss one matter or another, as well as looking at objections made to the author’s views and his answers to those objections. In the author’s own mind, certainly, this work is a decisive one and even for a reader like me who has a great deal to dislike about the author’s arguments, this book is certainly a worthwhile one to read even where there is broad and extensive disagreement with its contents.
Indeed, there are parts of this book which, contrary to all expectations, are even comedic in their approach. At one point towards the end of the book the author includes only a single example of something in order to, in his words, avoid being prolix. Of course, when one writes a book as long as this one, being prolix is already a given. One would have had to have stopped far earlier than 1000 dense pages of small-text print in order to avoid being prolix, but I suppose the author was reasonably concise in his own mind, if not in the mind of anyone else reading this book. Other comedic moments come from the author’s sarcastic sense of humor and from the footnotes with their comments in French. Assuming you have the stomach for reading a long and impenetrably dense example of legalistic arguments from somewhat unsound and unbiblical premises, there is a great deal that one can find in this book, including the attraction of many people to the orderliness of Calvin’s thinking, even if Calvinists in general are not an appealing lot when it comes to their belief system and ability to get along with others. Otherwise, you will probably never pick up this sort of book to begin with.
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