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Why Pastors Should Engage Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion

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.

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.

5. The structure of the Institutes. Calvin modeled his Institutes by the Trinity and the grace that the Triune God brings to His Church. So in four distinct books, Calvin treats the knowledge of God the Father, the knowledge of God the Son, the knowledge of God the Holy Spirit and the Church and Sacraments that the Triune God has established and redeemed. His Trinitarian theology, coupled with his recognition of the significance of the church to the Triune God, create the heart of the Reformed and Presbyterian system of theology and ecclesiology, providing guidance for any church community that celebrates the saving grace of God and the centrality of the Christian Church. Calvin’s theology and theological churchmanship guide biblically motivated pastors in their quest to build up congregations that love God and wish to have God-centered worship.

6. The sources Calvin used for the Institutes. Calvin’s great work is useful for pastors because it is first and foremost an intense attempt to explain the leading and foundational truths of the Bible. Reading the Institutes will consistently drive pastors back to the Scriptures. Calvin equips pastors to be expositors of the Scriptures rather than mere analysts of culture, entertainers or pop-psychologists. Calvin’s efforts to understand the word of God will induce careful readers to desire to preach the Scriptures more faithfully, deeply and carefully. Calvin equips pastors to be expositors of the Scriptures rather than mere analysts of culture, entertainers or pop-psychologists. Click To Tweet

7. The impact and abiding influence of both the Institutes and Calvin’s writings and ministry. Is it not remarkable that after all this time and in spite of the changes in the theological world and the restless global contemporary culture that Calvin’s teachings are relevant, remaining in print and translated into languages throughout the earth? This means that a pastor who assimilates the theology of the Institutes enters into a global community of theological scholarship and biblical pastoring that has withstood the shifting sands of human ideology and theological opinion. This in itself argues that a pastor would do well to engage Calvin’s work that has such staying power and such universally recognized value for the church.

8. The excellent translations of the Institutes. In the English language as well as other major languages, there are excellent scholarly versions of the Institutes that provide readable versions of his work. This means that although his writing was done centuries ago in a historical and cultural context quite different from the pastor reading Calvin today, Calvin’s language and arguments are generally accessible to a serious reader of his work today. A pastor who reads Calvin will find his theological vocabulary and theological accuracy substantially enhanced by the work of regularly reading Calvin as part of his sermon preparation or as an aspect of his teaching within his church communities.

9. The readily available outlines, indices, and commentaries available in support of studying Calvin’s magnum opus. In several major languages, many useful supporting tools are available to assist a pastor who chooses to read and to study Calvin’s theology. In the English language, the translation by Ford Lewis Battles is a magisterial tool for mastering Calvin. Therein, the Institutes are outlined throughout all four books. The indices include a full biblical apparatus as well as an outstanding index of the theological authors that Calvin referred to and in many cases depended upon and utilized to make his points. Calvin’s primary use of Scripture is manifestly evident as well as his deep respect for St. Augustine’s theology. A pastor would do well to consult the biblical index in the Institutes on a passage he is preparing to preach or teach to gain additional insight into the text. It is also a helpful exercise to see how Calvin interprets a text in his commentaries and then consider the additional emphases he offers on the passage in the Institutes. The discipline of consulting Calvin’s writings concerning a specific text will pay dividends for applications of the text and enable further mastery of its greater theological significance, thereby making the pastor a more effective preacher and expositor of Scripture.

10. The impact that Calvin’s theology in the Institutes has had on the drafting and interpretation of the Reformed confessions. The Reformed tradition has sought to organize and codify its faith by summarizing its theology in confessions and catechisms. Calvin’s Institutes was a rich source of theological insight for the authors of these great theological tools that remain in use for reformation- minded churches in the Reformed tradition. Reading the Institutes by pastors will often clarify and corroborate for them emphases found in these confessional documents. Pastors who love the confessions of his church will find help in teaching these documents more effectively by mastery of Calvin’s theology.

But finally and above all, we must recognize the biblical fidelity of Calvin’s theology. Calvin was committed to a reformation according to the word of God. Thus the Institutes leads its reader to a love for Scripture and a desire to obey Scripture “promptly and sincerely” as Calvin’s personal motto puts it. A pastor wishing to be a faithful man of God, faithfully preaching the Scriptures to his congregation, will be greatly assisted in this aim by keeping Calvin’s Institutes a regular part of his spiritual and theological disciplines.

Peter Lillback

Peter Lillback (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is president and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary. Dr. Lillback is the co-editor of Thy Word is Still Truth: Essential Writings on the Doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to Today

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