Reading John Calvin’s Institutes
after seminary, in the midst of some trials, was easily one of the most theologically formative seasons in my life. Finally encountering the titan’s thought face to face (so to speak) after years of only encountering the stray quote, paean of praise, or jeremiad of condemnation was eye-opening as well as spiritually comforting as he pointed me, page after page, to the goodwill of my fatherly God in Christ. At a less personal level, the four books of the Institutes
impressed me in terms of their economy, depth, clarity, scope, scriptural insight, and continual pastoral relevance. I’m probably preaching to the choir here.
But Calvin fans, old and new, don’t always appreciate that the Institutes form a relatively small portion of his corpus. A brilliant systematician and teacher, he was first and foremost a biblical commentator who produced nearly verse-by-verse commentaries on the majority of the books of the Bible.
Recently, I’ve set myself to the task of slowly reading through some of Calvin’s commentaries as part of my devotional time, commenting on them week by week. After a few months, I’ve become convinced it would be a tragedy if these texts were neglected, especially by younger newcomers to the Reformed tradition like myself. They are a treasure trove for the life and ministry of the pastor as well as the lay believer.
Tim Keller gave us a few reasons
to read through the Institutes
a few months ago, and I couldn’t have agreed more. I’d like to simply piggy-back off of that and offer six reasons why you ought to dig into Calvin’s commentaries as well.
1. Calvin wants you to.
Calvin didn’t intend for the Institutes to stand alone. He meant it to be a guide to the main message of Scripture as well as the place where he could enter into sustained discussion or engaged polemics over specific doctrinal issues. This focus enabled him to avoid bogging down his commentaries with such issues. In that sense they can stand alone.
That said, as many times as he edited and reworked them, the Institutes don’t exhaust his thought on any subject, or certainly on any text cited. For instance, if you think you’re getting “Calvin on the Decalogue” by only reading the Institutes, you’re missing out on the expanded treatments he gives to each command in his “Harmony of the Law.” Or for Calvin’s most beautiful meditations on the uniqueness and sufficiency of Christ, yes, the Institutes have some fabulous sections, but try engaging his work on the Christ hymn in Colossians 1:15-20 or on the Johannine discourses.
2. They’re still good (and free).
Although characterized as a cold, logical systematician, Calvin was a humanist scholar trained in the classics. He heard the Renaissance cry “Ad Fontes!”
and had a sensitive eye for literary and textual interpretive issues, making comments on the Greek and Hebrew text that are still academically useful. While historical scholarship has moved forward quite a bit since the 16th century, if you’re in a pinch and looking for some scholarly resources on the text for cheap (and by cheap I mean free online
), Calvin can offer plenty of help. His approach is especially helpful in light of renewed academic focus on the way literary and rhetorical form shapes the theology
of, say, a Pauline epistle.
3. They’re theological.
Speaking of the academy, before pure “exegetes” took over, people actually tried to get some theology
done in their reading and commenting on Scripture. But for many years now that approach has been deemed quaint, unscholarly, and to be avoided as much as possible. Thankfully, renegades like Kevin Vanhoozer
and J. Todd Billings
have been leading the way back to such use of the text in recent years. They suggest we recover our ability to see the text through theological eyes by engaging with the great virtuoso commentators of the past such as Augustine, Aquinas, or Chrysostom. Calvin can stand toe to toe with any of them, in part because he was a good student of the Fathers. Again, watching Calvin at work with trinitarian and Chalcedonian issues in the Johannine discourses is a model of responsible, theological interpretation of Scripture.
4. They’re pastoral.
Beyond their scholarly usefulness, Calvin’s commentaries are actually pastoral. Nowadays you might find a commentary with all of the scholarly graces of precision, text-critical apparatus, and exhaustive documentation of various theories on offer without the slightest hint that these texts might actually be used in a pulpit someday. As a doctor of the church of Geneva involved in the weekly teaching and preaching duties of the pastorate, Calvin was keenly aware of the needs of pastors on the front lines. While he may have eyed key debates raging in the intellectual world, this view was never divorced from a churchly context. As one of the theological resources of the burgeoning movement of reform, he sought to produce commentaries that would edify the body, not earn academic accolades. All of that means his commentaries are actually useful for preaching and teaching, not just for writing grad papers in seminary.
5. They’re “devotional.”
As mentioned, I’ve been reading the commentaries partially for my own devotional time. I don’t know about you, but seminary took a toll on my ability to read the Scriptures devotionally. What’s more, many devotional materials lack depth of insight. Calvin’s commentary on the biblical text, however, is usually broken up into helpful, two-to-four-page chunks that can be studied bit by bit, morning by morning. I can testify that watching Calvin closely examine the texts and wring every bit of doxological value out of them has been helpful—not just for my preaching and teaching, but for my own soul.
6. They’re catholic.
The commentaries are, in the best sense, little-c catholic. While the commentaries still have plenty of sections explaining the deficiencies of a “papist” interpretation of a given text, the Institutes are by nature a little more difficult to stomach for the non-Reformed. And let’s be honest, do Reformed types really need any more encouragement to be polemical? The commentaries, on the other hand, have broader appeal. I’ve had numerous non-Reformed friends comment on posts involving Calvin’s scriptural insights along the lines of, “Aside from his views on predestination, he’s got some really good stuff.” Exactly. That’s what we’ve been saying.
I could say more, but I’ll leave my final commendation to Jacob Arminius, who famously wrote about Calvin:
After the Holy Scriptures, I exhort the students to read the Commentaries of Calvin. . . . I tell them that he is incomparable in the interpretation of Scripture; and that his Commentaries ought to be held in greater estimation than all that is delivered to us in the writings of the ancient Christian Fathers: so that, in a certain eminent spirit of prophecy, I give the preeminence to him beyond most others, indeed beyond them all. I add that, with regard to what belongs to common places, his Institutes must be read after the Catechism, as a more ample interpretation. But to all this I subjoin the remark, that they must be perused with cautious choice, like all other human compositions.
Arminius gets it. What are you waiting for?