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‘Eminently Readable’: Martin Williams on Calvin’s 1541 Institutes

Category Book Reviews
Date June 7, 2023

A review by Martin Williams of Robert White’s translation of the 1541 edition of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.1

C. S. Lewis once wrote:

There is a strange idea abroad 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. Thus I have found as a tutor in English Literature that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about ‘isms’ and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said … It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.2

I feel the same way about Calvin. On the one hand there are many who claim to be ‘Calvinists’ and yet have never read Calvin himself; and on the other hand there are many who despise Calvin and yet they have also never read Calvin for themselves but only rely on what others say about him (and many of those people have also not read Calvin either!).

What can be done to redress this situation? Robert White and the Banner of Truth Trust have provided the answer in the form of this handsome volume which describes itself as ‘Calvin’s own “essentials” edition’ of his justly famous Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin’s Institutes is a monumental work of biblical and spiritual theology that stands among the greatest works of Christian theology and Western literature. The Institutes was first published in Latin in 1536 and set out in its final form chosen by Calvin in 1559 (a French edition made by Calvin appeared in the following year in 1560). White describes the Institutes ‘in its final, definitive form’, as ‘a work of rare brilliance, providing as they do a wide ranging introduction to biblical theology and an authoritative statement of Reformed doctrine’ (p. vii). In between these two editions, three intervening editions of the Institutes appeared: 1539, 1543, and 1550 (the changes made in the 1550 edition have to do more with formatting than the addition of much new material). In all, the Institutes passed through six Latin editions and three French translations made by Calvin before receiving their final form (viii).

This present volume by Robert White is a translation of Calvin’s own 1541 French translation of his 1539 Latin edition of the Institutes. White formerly taught in the department of French studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, and has a special interest in the Reformation in French-speaking areas of Europe. He is the translator of Calvin’s Sermons on the Beatitudes,3 Songs of the Nativity,4 Faith Unfeigned,5 and A Guide to Christian Living,6 all of which have also been published by Banner of Truth (from the blurb on the inside jacket cover). Robert White is thus ideally suited to translate this book.

But the question that has to be asked is this: Why would someone want to read this earlier edition of Calvin Institutes (1539/1541) when the later, definitive edition of 1559/1560 is available? There are a number of reasons why I highly recommend this edition.

(1) It is less polemical than the final 1559 edition. The final edition (1559/1560) can be somewhat overwhelming for the modern reader with its very rich but tightly packed presentation and constant engagement with heresies and controversies of the sixteenth century. The 1541 edition, however, is largely (though not completely, see, e.g., pp. 353-58) free of polemic and devotes itself to a clear exposition of the ‘Christian Religion.’

(2) It was written for the common people in everyday French. As White points out in the Introduction,

The success of the 1536 Institutes and the Reformer’s own desire for a fuller exposition of the faith accounts for a second, much enlarged, Latin edition of 1539, and for the decision to publish, in 1541, a French version intended no longer for educated Latin speakers, but for a much bigger audience of Calvin’s countrymen, in order to enable them to ‘further profit in God’s school’ [Calvin] (p. viii).

White explains his desire ‘to allow the author of the Institutes to speak as naturally in English as he does in French’ (p. xii). He has achieved his goal admirably. White’s own skilful English translation preserves Calvin’s desire for an eminently readable edition of his Institutes that will be warmly welcomed by all.

(3) It has a more conversational, pastoral quality, as it was written during Calvin’s first real pastorate in Strasbourg. By the time this edition was published in 1541, Calvin had completed his fourth year of pastoral ministry to French-speaking religious refugees in a German-speaking land. Calvin’s work is thus not the product of an ivory tower theologian but rather that of a pastor-theologian who shared in the daily lives of those who had fled persecution in their homeland. Thus this book is just as much for the person in the pew as it is for the preacher in the pulpit.

(4) This was the first time that Calvin introduced an extended discussion of the doctrine of justification by faith and grace alone, in keeping with the fact that Calvin was working on his Romans commentary at the very same time (see chapter 6, ‘Justification by Faith and the Merit of Works,’ pp. 351-428). Calvin begins by noting that it is ‘the chief article of the Christian religion’ (p. 351). Calvin then defines justification in the following terms: ‘That man is justified before God who in God’s judgement is reckoned to be righteous and who is acceptable to his righteousness’ (p. 352). That person is accepted as righteousness when he ‘grasps by faith the righteousness of Jesus Christ; when clothed with it he appears before God’s face not as a sinner but as righteous’ (p. 352). This righteousness becomes ours, says Calvin, because of our union with Jesus Christ (commenting on 2 Cor. 5:21): ‘We observe here that Paul situates our righteousness not in ourselves but in Christ, and that righteousness is ours for no other reason than that we share in Christ, for in possessing him we possess along with him, all his riches’ (p. 360). The other two key elements of justification that Calvin discusses in this chapter are the forgiveness of sins (pp. 358-60) and the importance of affirming that justification is ‘by faith alone’ (pp. 356-58).

(5) The Institutes exhibit a beautiful blend of exegetical insight and theological reflection. In our own day there still exists a big divide between the disciplines of biblical studies and systematic theology, a divide that was unknown to Calvin (and should be resisted today). Calvin’s commentary writing continued alongside of his continual revision and translation of his Institutes so that the one fed into the other. In the introduction to this edition of the Institutes Calvin writes (p.xvi):

This, however, I can promise: it can serve as a key and opening, allowing all God’s children access to a true and proper understanding of holy Scripture. In future, therefore, if our Lord gives me the means and opportunity to write commentaries, I will be as brief as possible. There will be no need for lengthy digressions, since I have here provided a detailed explanation of almost all the articles which concern the Christian faith.

Where is this ‘detailed explanation of almost all the articles which concern the Christian faith’ to be found? Answer: The Institutes. The Institutes provided the reader of his commentaries with a doctrinal key for interpreting Scripture and a more systematic treatment of theological issues raised in his commentaries.

(6) The Institutes deal not just in doctrinal matters but also in the cultivation of true ‘religion’ or ‘piety.’ The post-Enlightenment split between the study of the Bible as an academic discipline and the reading of the Bible as spiritual nurture was foreign to writers like Calvin. In fact I have been reading a few pages of this edition of the Institutes during my morning devotions with much spiritual benefit. The opening chapter of the Institutes demonstrates that true knowledge (that is, ‘the knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves,’ p. 1) is not merely intellectual but also experiential, personal and relational:

The purpose of the second [knowledge of ourselves] is to show us our weakness, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him is found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived. (p. 1, emphasis added)

This knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves comprises not just the acquisition of theoretical knowledge but should ‘kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him is found all that is good.’ Again Calvin writes:

Thus in recognizing our lowliness, ignorance and vanity, as well as our perversity and corruption, we come to understand that true greatness, wisdom, truth, righteousness and purity reside in God. Lastly, we are impelled by our miseries to reflect on the Lord’s good gifts, and we cannot sincerely yearn for him until we have first begun to cease being pleased with ourselves. (1, emphasis added)

Thus for Calvin, the knowledge of God is not just knowledge about God but a personal knowledge of God, a ‘yearn[ing] for him,’ a seeking him, and a finding of all our good in him (see also pp. 8-9).

Calvin then proceeds logically and methodologically from the knowledge of God (ch 1) and man (ch 2) to the law (ch 3), faith (with an explanation of the Apostle’s Creed, ch 4), repentance (ch 5), justification by faith (ch 6), the relation of the Old and New Testaments (ch 7), predestination and the providence of God (ch 8), prayer (cf. 9) the sacraments (ch. 10), baptism (ch 11), the Lord’s Supper (ch 12), the powers of the church (ch 15), civil government (ch 16) and the Christian life (ch. 17). There is such a rich feast here!

The appendix then provides a very helpful Thematic Outline which correlates the principal topics which appear in the present 1541 edition with those of the 1560 edition, showing where the same topics appear in both editions.

I cannot more highly recommend this eminently readable, beautifully bound, theologically profound, spiritually uplifting translation of Calvin’s monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion. And please don’t be put off by its size. If you read just two pages a day you will have read it in a year! More than that, you will be the richer and better for it. It is a book that will not only inform your mind, but under God transform your life. Take up and read!


Buy Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541), recently reissued with a new cover design.

This piece was taken with permission from Vox Reformata and first appeared on this site in July 2015. Rev. Dr. Martin Williams is Head of Theology and Lecturer in New Testament at the Reformed Theological College in Melbourne, Australia, and editor of Vox Reformata.


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