A Brief Summary-Review from Books At a Glance
Today we offer a Bonus Book Summary again in celebration of this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation. Biblical Chrisitanity is an abridgement of Calvin’s landmark Institutes of the Christian Religion that we are currently offering here at Books At a Glance in larger summaries. We add this very brief summary-review as a bonus overview for our members.
Reviewed by Jenny-Lyn de Klerk
The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin is one of the most important systematic theologies in all of church history. Not only was Calvin one of the most influential Protestant Reformers, but his Institutes is his own summary (refined several times) of his theology in systematic form. Furthermore, because Calvin was influenced by other important Reformers and because he himself had great influence on fellow Reformers, the Institutes represent Protestantism as a whole during its first, and thus formational, years. In his Institutes, Calvin organizes all topics of systematics under the categories of knowing God the Creator, knowing God the Redeemer, and the benefits and effects of Christ’s grace (as well as a fourth section on the church that is not included in this abridgement). This abridgement presents the basics of Protestant thought in a way that is accessible for lay people, which was Calvin’s own pursuit during his lifetime, but should not be used as the standard text for academic studies.
Overview / Summary
In part one, Calvin explains knowing God the Creator. He begins by showing how the knowledge of God and the knowledge of humanity are interconnected—when one thinks about one’s life, one is immediately drawn to the idea of God, and to know human beings, one must know the God who created them. To truly know God, one must see that one does not have any righteousness, wisdom, power, or truth in oneself but only in God. The thought that there is a God is in every mind; God gives this instinct to all people. Those who deny this still have thoughts about God. Those who say that belief in God is a crutch to help the weak or a means of gaining power over others only prove that everyone does believe that there is a God.
However, knowledge of God has been corrupted by sin. Though God shows his existence and glory in the universe (and the existence of the human soul and human reason shows that there is a Creator), knowledge of God from creation is not enough and one needs Scripture to truly know God. The Holy Spirit (rather than the church) guarantees the authority of Scripture. One cannot convince another of the authority of Scripture by reason alone; only the Spirit can bring certainty in this belief. However, once the Spirit brings certainty, rational proofs that affirm Scripture’s truthfulness are useful. Scripture is powerful and can penetrate one’s inmost being. There are several proofs of the authority of the Old Testament and New Testament. For example, Moses did not complement his own family in his writings and no one in Moses’ time disagreed with what he wrote, and many people’s lives were changed in the New Testament in stories about Jesus. It is against God’s will to look for new revelations apart from Scripture. Furthermore, it is useless because the Spirit always agrees with Scripture.
Both creation and Scripture show that God is a loving Father who punishes offenders. It is wrong to make an image of God because it always distorts his glory and causes one to worship the false image instead of God himself. God gave the ten commandments to prevent false worship. God is one essence and three persons. As one, he is infinite and a Spirit, which means that one cannot fully describe him—his infiniteness cannot be measured and his being cannot be described in earthly terms. Though he is three distinct persons, with each person having a separate personality or subsistence and distinct work, he is simple, or cannot be divided into parts. This means that one should not apply different acts of God to the wrong person. The divinity of the Son is seen in the fact that he fulfilled Old Testament prophecies and did miracles in his own name. The divinity of the Spirit is also attested to throughout the Old and New Testaments, such as in Genesis when the Spirit moved on the face of the waters. Scripture calls him God. The Trinity is a great mystery that must be discussed with reverence. There is real distinction, without division, and real unity. In general, the Father begins the work, the Son in his wisdom does the work, and the Spirit by his power acts in the world; however, this generality should not be overemphasized.
Nothing created, including angels, demons, the physical world, and humans, can have God’s glory. Angels are glorious but are not divine; rather, they serve the Divine One. Though one may find comfort in the fact that they watch over humanity, one must not put one’s trust in them but rather in God. Demons were made by God and therefore, though they oppose God, they can only fight against him with his consent. God allows demons to test believers in order to refine them; when one fights against the devil, one fights for God’s honour.
Human beings are the best example of God’s power and goodness in creation. Society has become so obsessed with material things that they have forgotten that human beings have immortal souls that will live on after the body dies. This soul contains the conscience that responds to God’s law. Human beings must have souls because they can think of heaven and earth, past and future, and God. Human beings are made in the image of God; God’s glory is seen partly in the body but mostly in the soul.
God maintains and cares for everything in the universe; good things do not come about by chance but by God’s providence. This comforts Christians because it shows that God can make good out of evil, though that does not make evil good in the first place. God’s providence does not excuse sin or discount the good that people can do, but rightly understands second causes and God’s overarching control. Passages that say God changed his mind are anthropomorphic—they attempt to explain God using human language, which falls short of what he really is (as seen in other passages that clarify that God is not ignorant, evil, or weak). Passages about God controlling evil people and Satan are difficult to understand, but it is certain that God is not the author of evil. Some have good wishes that are against God’s will and some have bad wishes that are in line with God’s will, but that does not mean that the latter please him and the former displease him; rather, it is the opposite. Sometimes God uses evil to bring about his will but he would not allow evil to happen unless he were able to turn it into something good.
In part two, Calvin explains knowing God the Redeemer. He begins by showing why human beings need to be redeemed. Though human philosophy claims that human beings are essentially good, the Bible asserts that God made human beings good but Adam sinned and this sin nature has been passed down to each human being. Because God made human beings good, people have not completely lost their sense of right and wrong. Human beings can still. . .[To continue reading this summary, please see below....]
Buy the books
Biblical Christianity: The Institutes of the Christian Religion