Why and How to Read Calvin’s Institutes
If you haven’t yet read C. S. Lewis’s introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation, I’d highly recommend it.
He wants to refute the “strange idea” “that in every subject the ancient books should be read only by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books.”
Lewis finds the impulse humble and understandable: the layman looks at the class author and “feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him.”
“But,” Lewis explains, “if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.”
Lewis therefore made it a goal to convince students that “firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.”
I suspect this holds true with respect to evangelical Calvinists and Calvin’s Institutes. Are we in danger of being a generation of secondhanders?
Let me forestall the “I don’t have time” objection. If you have 15 minutes a day and a bit of self-discipline, you can get through the whole of the Institutes faster than you think. Listen to John Piper:
Most of us don’t aspire very high in our reading because we don’t feel like there is any hope. But listen to this. Suppose you read about 250 words a minute and that you resolve to devote just 15 minutes a day to serious theological reading to deepen your grasp of biblical truth. In one year (365 days) you would read for 5,475 minutes. Multiply that times 250 words per minute and you get 1,368,750 words per year. Now most books have between 300 and 400 words per page. So if we take 350 words per page and divide that into 1,368,750 words per year, we get 3,910 pages per year.
The McNeill-Battles two-volume edition (for now the generally accepted authoritative standard) runs about 1800 pages total—so you could technically read it twice in one year at just 15 minutes a day!
Three reasons why this book in particular should be a particular object of serious study:
1. The Institutes may be easier to read than you think.
J. I. Packer writes, “The readability of the Institutio, considering its size, is remarkable.”
Level of difficulty should not determine a book’s importance; some simple books are profound; some difficult books are simply muddled. What we want are books that make us think and worship, even if that requires some hard work. As Piper wrote in Future Grace, “When my sons complain that a good book is hard to read, I say, ‘Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves; digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.’”
3. The Institutes is one of the wonders of the world.
Karl Barth, the most influential theologian of the 20th century, once wrote: “I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.”
Packer explains that Calvin’s magnum opus is one of the great wonders of the world:
Calvin’s Institutes (5th edition, 1559) is one of the wonders of the literary world—the world, that is, of writers and writing, of digesting and arranging heaps of diverse materials, of skillful proportioning and gripping presentation; the world . . . of the Idea, the Word, and the Power. . . .
The Institutio is also one of the wonders of the spiritual world—the world of doxology and devotion, of discipleship and discipline, of Word-through-Spirit illumination and transformation of individuals, of the Christ-centered mind and the Christ-honoring heart. . . .
Calvin’s Institutio is one of the wonders of the theological world, too—that is, the world of truth, faithfulness, and coherence in the mind regarding God; of combat, regrettable but inescapable, with intellectual insufficiency and error in believers and unbelievers alike; and of vision, valuation, and vindication of God as he presents himself through his Word to our fallen and disordered minds. . . .
3. The Institutes has relevance for your life and ministry.
It can be read as simply an exercise in historical theology, but it should also be read to further your understanding of God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s ways. Packer writes:
The 1559 Institutio is great theology, and it is uncanny how often, as we read and re-read it, we come across passages that seem to speak directly across the centuries to our own hearts and our own present-day theological debates. You never seem to get to the book’s bottom; it keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith.
Do you, I wonder, know what I am talking about? Dig into the Institutio, and you soon will.
If you are persuaded, here are a few resources you might want to consider:
As mentioned above, the McNeill-Battles two-volume edition is the most referenced standard edition. The one-volume Beveridge translation is much cheaper, and can also be found online. If you want the cheapest print option and want to get a good feel for the Institutes without reading the whole thing, consider this abridged version by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne.
But I would recommend the full McNeill-Battles version, along with Tony Lane’s reader’s guide to the Institutes. In the introduction he explains the various options for using it:
The Institutes is divided into thirty-two portions, in addition to Calvin’s introductory material. From each of these an average of some eighteen pages has been selected to be read. These selections are designed to cover the whole range of the Institutes, to cover all of Calvin’s positive theology, while missing most of his polemics against his opponents and most of the historical material. My notes concentrate on the sections chosen for reading but also contain brief summaries of the other material.
Readers have four options:
- Read only the selected material and my brief summaries of the rest.
- Read only the selected material and use Battles’s Analysis of the Institutes as a summary of the rest.
- Concentrate on the selected material but skim through the rest.
- Read the whole of the Institutes.
The notes guide the reader through the text and also draw attention to the most significant footnotes in the Battles edition. At the beginning of each portion is an introduction and a question or questions to focus the mind of the reader.
If you want to do more inductive work, or to use Calvin’s work in a small-group or classroom setting, you might want to consider Douglas Wilson’s Study Guide for Calvin’s Institutes. (You can read the preface and a chunk of this online for free.) Wilson explains how this book can be used:
I would suggest reading the appropriate section in Calvin, then looking at the questions in the study guide, and writing down Calvin’s answers in a separate notebook. The reader can then compare his answers with those that are provided in the guide. . . .
Another possible use is for a leader to utilize this guide for a group study. He can assign a reading, give the questions to the participants beforehand, and then use the guide to help conduct the discussion. The same can be done for classroom use.
For those who want to explore certain sections of the Institutes in greater depth, a fine collection of essays can be found in A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis , edited by David Hall and Peter Lillaback.
Finally, here is a schedule of reading through Calvin’s Institutes in a year.