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‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ – A Review by Barry Shucksmith

Category Book Reviews
Date April 2, 2015

A review by Dr J. Barry Shucksmith of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Robert White.1

John Calvin was the most eminent of all the 16th century Reformers. He was born at Noyon, 10th July, 1509. He trained to be a lawyer but being convinced of the errors of Rome, he turned his attention to more important matters. At Orléans, he studied under Peter Stella and then moved to Bruges, where Andrew Alciat filled the chair of law. While there, perhaps more significantly, Melchior Wolmar, the Reformer, taught John Calvin Greek. It was while at Bruges he became convinced in the biblical doctrines of the Reformation and became a kind of itinerant preacher – spreading the Word of God around the villages. But his father lay dying in Noyon and he felt he needed to return ‘home’. After a short period attending to family affairs, Calvin moved to Paris, and in 1532 he published commentaries on Seneca’s two books, De Clementia. From this time he began to write more fully on matters of ‘divinity’.

In 1533, Calvin challenged Cop, the rector of the university of Paris, to declare his views on the new doctrines of the Reformation. The hearty debate following brought them both into disrepute with the Sorbonne. They had to flee the city which set Calvin on a general tour eventually ending, for a while, in Angoulême, where he lodged and taught Greek, by courtesy of Louis du Tallet, a canon of Angoulême. It was while here, that John Calvin composed the greater part of his INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION. In Paris, while under protection of the favourable Queen of Navarre, sister to Francis I, who recognised Calvin’s considerable academic and reformatory abilities, he continued to work. He stayed long enough to publish his work Psychopannychia – confuting the error of soul-sleep – before quitting France altogether. It was in Basle (1536) he published the first edition of the Institutes – the biblical-doctrinal-expository-seedbed, from which all else grew and progressed rapidly.

The design of the Institutes was to exhibit a full view of the doctrines of the Reformers. Its popularity was considerable because it was the first real public statement of a full theology. No quarter was given to the enormity of the medieval Roman errors. It almost immediately went into several editions and was translated by Calvin himself into French. It has been widely and rightly described as a Christian book ‘which has changed the face of society.’ One has to remember also that the first edition of his work was published when he was only twenty-seven years of age. Such unique men, like our own Sir Winston Churchill, seem to be given by Almighty God, only every four or five centuries! This alone is an argument for the Institutes of the Christian Religion to be found in every home, and tackled by every literate believer. Even more this should be emphasised. John Calvin set his life’s career in the direction of understanding, interpreting, and setting forth the marrow of biblical theology.

We now have a new translation from the French, published by a highly-respected and visionary Christian Trust – the Banner of Truth. Robert White’s new translation from the 1541 French edition is a great achievement. His diligent and demanding work must have been a singular labour of love for many years. It reads well, it flows readily, it captivates and holds the reader so easily, and it leaves no excuse for competent ministers, or informed lay people, to go on neglecting one of the greatest and most godly minds of Christendom. John Calvin is Himalayan among theologians, more than equal to Augustine, whose doctrines he expounds with fresh clarity and fervent conviction. And this precious ‘incomparable stuff of history’ is as relevant and desperately needed as it was in 1541. How wonderful it would be – just as the present generation of Calvinistic Christians move speedily upwards to glory – a great and gracious God would replace them with a youthful energetic visionary generation – freshly inspired by Robert White’s great gift to us.

As dinosaurs, some of us may be wedded to the Ford Lewis Battles translation (2 Volumes; 1754 total pages), or to the more popular Henry Beveridge translation (recently published by Hendrickson, Massachusetts, USA; 1059 total pages). Robert White’s fresh, contemporary, beautifully-produced, timely volume is only 882 pages! As I keep saying to new Christians, it’s so easy to read the most concentrated of volumes – read a few pages each day. When we do – to quote Dr R. C. Sproul – ‘Everyone’s a Theologian’. Yes, and every biblical Christian should be, because the Bible is not only historical and devotional – it is profoundly theological – all the way from Genesis to Revelation. If we are to stand up to the pathetic Liberals, the persistent Ritualists, the paternalistic Romans, the permanent Secularists, and, most difficult of all, the practising Pagans of the 21st century, we need to stand on Calvin’s shoulders – as he stood on Augustine’s and St. Paul’s!

Calvin takes us all the way through. He is both systematic and devotional. The knowledge of God, the knowledge of Man and Free Will, and the Law is his opening volley. With his Faith, an explanation of the Apostles’ Creed – there is an urgent reminder – we belong to an historic universal Christian Church, so easily forgotten by nonconformist Independents. Repentance, Justification, the merits of works, they’re all here – the repeated errors, and misunderstandings, not only to be found in Arminian circles but all around us. Evangelical churches today are becoming Marcionite . . . there is a total discontinuity between Old and New Testament. Calvin points up the similarity and difference between the Old and New Testaments. When did you last hear the Old Testament preached on in a systematic manner?

John Calvin rescues us from the growing heresies of 2015 – Pelagianism for example – England’s great weakness of self-salvation. The same is true of predestination and the providence of God. Professing Christians have become navel-gazers, slaves even. They seem held bound by anthropocentric obsessions. They think Christianity hovers around them, – begins and ends with their puny actions and worthless deeds! They rarely seem to have heard about predestination, providence, purpose, the God of the whole earth at work – choosing to save sinners before its foundation – upholding all things by the Word of his power (Heb. 1:1-3).

Do Christians – if they are found at the mid-week prayer meeting – know how to pray today? Calvin’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer is a classic in its own right, and – with Robert White’s masterly paragraphing – furnishes the preacher with material sufficient for at least 20 sermons, or the house group leader with stimulating pre-prayer preparation, for many weeks to come.

The sacraments, Baptism, The Lord’s Supper, the Five ceremonies falsely called Sacraments – some nonconformists are desperately weak in these areas. Unlike Anglicans they have never faced exposure to the theory and practice of erroneous sacramental views. Strange ideas on transubstantiation and the presence of the Lord in the Sacramental Act of Remembrance are still around, and prevail in the minds of the untaught. Here is some of the finest work in Calvin’s Institutes:

We observe that the holy bread of our Lord’s supper is spiritual food, sweet and savoury to those whom it allows to claim Jesus Christ as their life, whom it prompts to thanksgiving and who find in it an incentive to mutual love. Conversely it becomes a deadly poison for those who do not learn faith from it and who are not aroused by it to praise and love. For just as physical food on entering the stomach full of bad humours itself goes bad, and having gone bad does more harm than good, so also this spiritual food, coming into a soul defiled by malice and wickedness, brings down worse destruction on it. This is not its fault; it is because nothing is pure to those who are sullied by unbelief, even though the food itself is hallowed by God’s blessing.

– such a penetrating French translation, so vividly and effectively portrayed by a seasoned word-smith.

Christian freedom, the Power of the Church, Civil Government, and the Christian life – all are burning issues of the day. Thanks to Mr White, we can think and meditate upon them in a refreshing, newly-defined, more typical book-style, rather than systematic theology-layout, than previously. The book includes the Translator’s Introduction, an Outline of the present contents, the Prefatory Letter to Francis 1st, and an Appendix, a Comparative Table of the 1541 and 1560 Institutes, with a Large Index of Scriptures (34 pages). All these facilitate easy access for topical sermon themes. Included for the student’s benefit, is an Index of Names and a separate Index of Principal Subjects.

The individual numbered paragraphs, as in previous translations, have been removed and replaced with sub-headings. This may attract divided opinion, depending on whether you are a minister hurriedly preparing a sermon, or a lay person, reading mainly for personal pleasure and devotional stimulation. I was weaned on both ‘Battles’ and ‘Beveridge,’ yet I consider White to be equal to them, and unhesitatingly prophesy – this rendering will sit rightly beside them as a primary Calvin presentation. Robert White, who formerly taught in the Department of French Studies in the University of Sydney, Australia, should have the last word …

Nor is Scripture a convenient peg on which doctrine may be hung, more or less at will; it is the indispensable foundation on which the doctrine rests, the standard by which it is judged and the rule by which it is corrected.

Could anything be more incongruous than a 21st century reviewer – a spiritual pigmy – commending a theological-biblical giant of the 16th century, whose writings are as relevant today as when first written? I hope, somehow, I’ve communicated my personal feelings and deep admiration, however inadequately, into print. Snap up the bargain while it’s there! You’ll never regret it. It’s a classic in the making. Thank you Banner of Truth and thank you again Robert White!


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      A review by Dr J. Barry Shucksmith of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated by Robert White.1 John Calvin was the most eminent of all the 16th century Reformers. He was born at Noyon, 10th July, 1509. He trained to be a lawyer but being convinced of the errors of Rome, he turned […]

From English Churchman (6 & 13 March 2015), with permission.

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