Reviewed by Andrew Ballitch
Table of Contents
Introduction to the Institutes
- Knowing God in Creation – ‘The Mirror of Divinity’
- Knowing God in Scripture – ‘Spectacles’
- God – ‘Three Persons in One Essence’
- Creation – ‘A Spacious and Splendid House’
- Providence – ‘God’s Ever-Present Hand’
- The Fall and its Consequences – ‘The Curse…A Burning Furnace’
- Redemption in Christ – ‘The Only Door’
- The Ten Commandments – ‘The Law of Grace’
- The Old and New Testaments – ‘Dawn…Noonday’
- The Person of Christ – ‘The Bright Mirror’
- The Work of Christ – ‘Prophet, King, Priest’
- The Holy Spirit – ‘The Bond’
- Faith – ‘A Palm Tree’
- Repentance – ‘A Race’
- The Life of the Christian – ‘Example and Pattern’
- Justification – ‘The Main Hinge’
- Prayer – ‘The Chief Exercise of Faith’
- Election – ‘The Book of Life’
- The Resurrection – ‘Promised Glory’
- The Church – ‘Mother and School’
- The Church – ‘The Body of Christ’
- The Roman Catholic Church – ‘A Half-Demolished Building’
- The Sacraments – ‘Ladders’
- Baptism – ‘Symbol of Adoption’
- The Lord’s Supper – ‘The Wonderful Exchange’
- Civil Government – ‘Another Help’
Calvin intended the Institutes to be a guide for reading Scripture and as a theological companion to his exposition in his sermons and commentaries. While an educated man with incredible intellectual gifts, Calvin was not an academic. He was a pastor. A pastor who wanted his readers to respond to biblical truth with love for God and obedience. With piety as Calvin’s larger goal, Calhoun (Emeritus Professor of Church History at Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis) asserts that “Reading the Institutes devotionally is not merely one way of reading Calvin’s book. It is the only way to read it” (x).
Calhoun’s purpose in writing is to help students of Calvin’s Institutes, especially students just starting out, to better understand what they are reading and persevere through this important and challenging book. He accomplishes this aim by walking his readers through the Institutes devotionally. The corresponding sections of the Institutes, both in the McNeill-Battles edition of the 1559 publication and the 1541 French version translated by Robert White and published by Banner of Truth, are included at the beginning of each chapter. The front matter of individual chapters also includes a quotation that states something important about that section of the Institutes, a key Scripture text, a striking and memorable quote from Calvin that illustrates the main theme of the chapter, and one of Calvin’s many surviving prayers. The most helpful tool at the beginning of each chapter is the “a look back and a look ahead” segment, which briefly reviews what Calvin has already covered and prepares the reader for what comes next. Each chapter ends with short application and meditation on Calvin’s content. All of this makes Calhoun’s work a useful companion to Calvin’s magnum opus.
Reading Calvin’s work from beginning to end is essential to truly understanding the flow of his thought with its many connections. Only with the bigger picture of his theology in view can one properly grasp the parts. Calhoun does an excellent job of continually forcing the reader to zoom out and see the panoramic view. The Institutes consist of four books in which “Calvin’s thought unfolds in a great spiral: all that goes before depends on what is coming up next” (257). Book 1—The Knowledge of God the Creator—would do us no good without Book 2—The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ. And yet knowledge of Christ does not benefit us without the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ, which is the topic of Book 3—The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ. Book 4—The External Means or Aids by Which God Invites Us Into the Society of Christ and Holds Us Therein—then is on the church, the “external means” the Spirit uses in salvation. With the scaffolding in place, Calhoun ably escorts the student through the particular themes of Calvin’s theology.
Calhoun states up front that he focuses on Calvin’s work, not what scholars have written about him. Yet he does employ a significant amount of Calvin scholarship. Calhoun’s emphases, in the absence of footnotes, reveal an awareness of the secondary literature and debates. For example, he deals with Calvin’s hesitancy to use creedal language in discussions of the Trinity early on in his career. He argues that Calvin goes no further than Scripture in his handling of God’s sovereignty and the reality of evil and suffering. He highlights Calvin’s understanding of law and gospel in Scripture and the law’s three uses. He recognizes the centrality of the Holy Spirit and union with Christ, with its double grace of justification and sanctification, in Calvin’s theology. He explains Calvin’s ordering of sanctification before justification in Calvin’s pedagogy, as well as his placement of election. He elucidates the relationship of faith and assurance in Calvin’s thinking. He puts Calvin’s doctrine of Christ’s real spiritual presence in the elements of the Lord’s Supper in historical context. The immense body of Calvin scholarship is in the background of this work. However, the absence of David Steinmetz and Richard Muller in the bibliography is a bit glaring, though he does interact with at least Steinmetz in the body of his work. There are some other editing issues as well, for instance, the content in chapters seems a bit choppy at times, but rarely are they distracting.
Calhoun largely succeeds in his goal of helping those who want to persist in working through Calvin’s Institutes. The fact that he debunks many of the common misconceptions surrounding the Genevan reformer is an added benefit. Whether the pastor or interested church member agrees with Calvin’s soteriology or not, his theological companion to biblical interpretation is a treasure trove. The doctrine of predestination actually only accounts for a small percentage of the work. While challenging, the Institutes is of immense benefit for the church today and Calhoun is a faithful guide.
Andrew Ballitch is Associate Pastor at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and a PhD candidate in church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally