John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion


John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
By Bruce Gordon
Princeton University Press – £19.95

With what clear manifestations his might draws us to contemplate him!
(Institutes 1.5.6)

That Calvin never outgrew the limits of this book, which was almost his first, and which though greatly enlarged later, was never modified, is evidence of the stiffness and limitation of his own mind.
Prophet of Modernity – Prince of Tyrants

These twelve chapters are best described as something a theological journey through the ages, stopping off here for considered reflection, thus enabling both author and reader to re-collect their thoughts by way of embracing – or not, as the case may be, all that which has gone before. Which, in the interest of full disclosure, really is none of the following: a theology of John Calvin, a history of Calvinism, or an overview of scholarship on the Frenchman and his most famous theological creation.

As Bruce Gordon makes clear: ”a short book of this sort could never hope to address such enormously complex topics, and I am the wrong person for all three. My goal is rather different, though equally quixotic. I intend to take the reader on a journey from the desk of the young John Calvin in Basel in 1536 to our world of social media religion by following the lives of one of the great books of the European Reformation, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. My investigation makes no pretence of exhaustive coverage, and the narrative is necessarily selective, privileging certain characters and events, yet mindful of omissions and silences.”

Being ‘mindful of omissions and silences’ is an interesting premise from which to further investigate the narrative; a narrative, that to all intents and purposes, once again traverses the enormous chasm betwixt a certain longing for diversity and change (”I do not insist that the moral life of a Christian man breath nothing but the very gospel”), yet nevertheless does so, amid a cloying undercurrent of gloom riddled guilt (”let us look toward our mark with sincere simplicity and aspire to our goal: not fondly flattering ourselves, nor excusing our own evil deeds”).

What evil deeds?
Indeed, why always evil deeds?
Why, amid the predominantly Christian faith, are we always deemed to be evil?

Almost five hundred years after John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
came to light, it may well be easy to question some of its deeply entrenched writings, that in all honesty, appear to have meandered very little since. Yet the world has changed a great deal since, and to accommodate said change, ought we not to be approaching Calvin’s manifesto from that of a slightly different perspective?

Much as we do the many great plays of William Shakespeare for instance?

As Williston Walker stated in the afore-quoted Prophet of Modernity – Prince of Tyrants ”John Calvin’ was not a pleasant man, and his biography is not pleasant reading.” Not that this should have any bearing on the writing itself – although ”the reviewer continues to consider the book, the content of which is not referred to, as a symbol of the reformer.”

Having ”embraced the sum of religion in all its parts,” it could, perhaps wrongly, be assumed that many of these 218 pages (excluding an Afterword, Note on Translation Used, Introduction, Appendix 1&2, Notes and Index), merely promote Scripture as being the only true and translucent way. Although something tells me it’s not.

David Marx


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