J. I. Packer on 3 Reasons You Should Read Calvin’s Institutes

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Not everyone finds reading John Calvin a spiritually profitable experience.

The great literary critic and professor Alan Jacobs recently wrote, after returning to Calvin’s Institutes:

I consistently find him to be dour, rigid, cold, insensitive to the human condition, and prone to make vast theological generalizations from a handful of biblical passages while ignoring the greater part of the biblical witness.

(Jacobs confesses that his unpleasant interactions with Calvinists over the years has probably influenced his reading.)

But not everyone agrees with Jacobs.

Karl Barth wrote to his friend Eduard Thurneysen in 1922:

Calvin is a cataract, a primeval forest, a demonic power, something directly down from Himalaya, absolutely Chinese, strange, mythological; I lack completely the means, the suction cups, even to assimilate this phenomenon, not to speak of presenting it adequately.

What I receive is only a thin little stream and what I can then give out again is only a yet thinner extract of this little stream.

I could gladly and profitably set myself down and spend all the rest of my life just with Calvin.

Eugene Peterson, writing in Books & Culture and reflecting back to the early 1960s,

Although I had been a pastor for a couple of years, I had little interest in theology. It was worse than that. My experience of theology was contaminated by adolescent polemics and hairsplitting apologetics.

But after hearing a memorable lecture on Calvin, he went to the library to get the two-volume Institutes.

I read them through in a year, and when I finished I read them again.

I’ve been reading them ever since.

Tim Keller explained that he spent the year 2012 reading through the entire Institutes.

Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold and cerebral dogmatician.

I knew much of this image was caricature, and while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.

First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.

Second, it is nothing if not biblical. Even if you don’t agree with what Calvin is saying, you will always have to deal with one or two dozen texts of Scripture, carefully interpreted and organized as he presents his case to you. To describe these volumes as ‘theology’ or ‘doctrine’ is almost misleading—it is mainly a Bible Digest, a distilled readers’ guide to the main teachings of the Scripture and how they fit together.

Third, the Institutes are, I think, the greatest, deepest, and most extensive treatment of the grace of God I have ever read. I was struck by how many times Calvin tells us that the foundation of real Christian faith is both grasping with the mind and sensing on the heart the gracious, unconditional love of God for us in Jesus Christ. Over and over again he teaches that you are not truly converted by merely understanding doctrine, but by grasping God’s love so that the inner structure and motivation of the heart is changed.

J. I. Packer once articulated three reasons why he thinks modern readers should avail themselves of Calvin’s classic.

1. The Institutes may be easier to read than you think.

Packer writes:

The readability of the Institutio, considering its size, is remarkable.

C. S. Lewis opened his famous introduction to Athanasius’s On the Incarnation by encouraging average readers to return to the originals, which are often easier to understand than their interpreters:

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. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator. The simplest student will be able to understand, if not all, yet a very great deal of what Plato said; but hardly anyone can understand some modern books on Platonism. It has always therefore been one of my main endeavours as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.

2. The Institutes is one of the wonders of the world.

Packer:

Calvin’s Institutes (5th edition, 1559) is one of the wonders of the literary world—the world, that is, of writers and writing, of digesting and arranging heaps of diverse materials, of skillful proportioning and gripping presentation; the world . . . of the Idea, the Word, and the Power. . . .

The Institutio is also one of the wonders of the spiritual world—the world of doxology and devotion, of discipleship and discipline, of Word-through-Spirit illumination and transformation of individuals, of the Christ-centered mind and the Christ-honoring heart. . . .

Calvin’s Institutio is one of the wonders of the theological world, too—that is, the world of truth, faithfulness, and coherence in the mind regarding God; of combat, regrettable but inescapable, with intellectual insufficiency and error in believers and unbelievers alike; and of vision, valuation, and vindication of God as he presents himself through his Word to our fallen and disordered minds. . . .

3. The Institutes has relevance for your life and ministry.

It can be read as simply an exercise in historical theology, but it should also be read to further your understanding of God’s Word, God’s work, and God’s ways. Packer writes:

The 1559 Institutio is great theology, and it is uncanny how often, as we read and re-read it, we come across passages that seem to speak directly across the centuries to our own hearts and our own present-day theological debates. You never seem to get to the book’s bottom; it keeps opening up as a veritable treasure trove of biblical wisdom on all the main themes of the Christian faith.

Do you, I wonder, know what I am talking about? Dig into the Institutio, and you soon will.

For a couple of resources to get you started, you could pick up a copy of Calvin along with Anthony N. S. Lane’s guide to the Institutes. 

Or if you aren’t ready for that step yet, get a copy of an excerpt from book 3, packaged in a pocket-sized edition: A Little Book on the Christian Life.

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