An Intro to the Institutes

Calvin saw the Institutes as a handmaiden to his commentaries

“The Institutes as we now have it is the product of a lifetime’s thought and reflection by one of the greatest theologians the church has known. In part, as it grew from six to eighty chapters, it reflects Calvin’s own growth in his understanding of the Christian life.”

 

The Institutes as we now have it is the product of a lifetime’s thought and reflection by one of the greatest theologians the church has known. In part, as it grew from six to eighty chapters, it reflects Calvin’s own growth in his understanding of the Christian life. In all of its pages it reflects, as the preface to the first edition had indicated, not so much (as in Aquinas) a sum of all theology (summa theologiae), but a sum of all piety (summa pietatis). Theology and ethics have a symbiotic relationship.

Although The Institutes itself grew five-fold from its first to the fifth edition, the contents of the Preface written to King Francis I remained largely the same. Precedent for publishing an introductory theological essay to the King had been set by both Guillaume Farel and Huldrych Zwingli in 1525. Thus, in 1536, at the occasion of the first edition of the Institutes, Calvin wrote what was in effect a letter (a “Prefatory Address”) to the King, which was included in all succeeding editions, both Latin and French. Though minor changes were made, reflecting historical developments in the 1550s in France and elsewhere, Calvin retained the original date at the close of the Address: “At Basel, on the 1st August, in the year 1536.”

The occasion – false and base rumors concerning evangelicals which no doubt the king was disposed to believe – required from Calvin both firmness and finesse in persuading His Majesty to examine the accusation justly – indeed it will be the measure of his leadership that he do so! Calvin’s case is that all matters be judged according to the “analogy of faith,” that is, according to what the Scriptures teach (rightly interpreted). For this cause, “shackled with irons, some beaten with rods, some led about as laughingstocks, some proscribed, some most savagely tortured, some forced to flee. All of us are oppressed by poverty, cursed with dire execrations, wounded by slanders, and treated in most shameful ways.” As Calvin commented on 1 Peter 1:11: “the Church of Christ has been from the beginning so constituted, that the cross has been the way to victory, and death a passage to life.”

Rome’s antagonism towards the Reformers, and Calvin in particular, was that what they taught was “new” and “of recent birth.” To this charge Calvin responds with evident feeling: “First, by calling it “new” they do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. Indeed, I do not at all doubt that it is new to them, since to them both Christ himself and his gospel are new. But he who knows that this preaching of Paul is ancient, that “Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification” [Romans 4:25], will find nothing new among us.” For Calvin, an appeal to Scripture is itself an appeal to something ancient! But Calvin’s point remains vulnerable to the charge that the Reformers were disregarding church teaching – teaching which had fifteen hundred years precedence.

The charge may be brushed aside lightly in an age when modernity is valued above antiquity, but it was a serious and potentially deadly accusation in the mid-sixteenth century. The Reformers did not see themselves as the Anabaptists did in forming a new church. They saw themselves in the line of the ancient church and the early church fathers, and perhaps to a lesser extent, the church of the medieval period.

Calvin was unmoved by the charge–not because he saw the issue as irrelevant but rather because he knew antiquity lay on his side: “If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory–to put it very modestly–would turn to our side.” It is almost unimaginable that such a thing could be said of evangelicalism five hundred years later.

So, how is the true church to be known?  Calvin’s response in the preface to The Institutes is clear: it is known by “the pure preaching of God’s Word and the lawful administration of the sacraments.” Contrary to Roman insistence that the church is always marked by great pomp and is always visible, Calvin (perhaps to the encouragement of beleaguered evangelicals in France secretly meeting is small numbers and without outward show) reminds King Francis that the church often appeared in less than glorious form to the human eye, both in the Old Testament and in church history.

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