How To Read Calvin’s Institutes and Why You Should Seriously Consider It

The continuing relevance of Calvin’s Institutes for life and ministry.

“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.” J. I. Packer

 

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 one of the great theological classics: 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.’”

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