First published in English: I. John Hesselink, 1965. ‘Development and Purpose of Calvin’s Institutes.’ The Reformed Theological Review 24 (3): 65–72.

Published originally in Japanese in Calvin Studies (Vol. I), Tokyo, 1965.

The author, whose doctoral dissertation on ‘Calvin’s Concept of the Law’ is scheduled shortly for publication, contributed the section, ‘The Law of God,’ to Guilt, Grace and Gratitude (The Half Moon Press, New York, 1963, ed. D. J. Bruggink), a Commentary by scholars of the Reformed Church in America on the Heidelberg Catechism commemorating its 400th Anniversary (See our XXII/2/63). Dr. Hesselink, who studied with Dr. Emil Brunner at Tokyo and Dr. Karl Barth at Basel, mediated in the notable encounter of the two Swiss theologians at Basel on November 19th, 1960. (See his article, ‘The Elephant, and the Whale’ in The Reformed Journal (XII/4/4-7:1962) Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan.)

John Calvin was by temperament quiet and shy. When he had to flee from his homeland in 15 34, one of the reasons he chose Basel as a refuge was because it was a centre of learning. Not unrelated to its humanistic background and academic atmosphere was its renowned printing presses. In the sixteenth century, only Vienna rivaled Basel for its publishing facilities; and in those days where there were printing presses there were also writers. Here in Basel Calvin hoped he would be able to lead a peaceful existence as a scholar and writer. It first appeared that he would realize this dream, for here, withdrawn from the world, he wrote the first edition of the Institutes.

But God had other plans for him. As Calvin put it, ‘God thrust me into the game.’ His quiet, scholarly existence in Basel lasted less than two years. In July1536, only a few months after the appearance of the Institutes, Calvin found himself—not by chance—in Geneva as the leader of its reformation. Until a few years before his death, Geneva was quite literally a battle ground. Foes from within and without threatened Calvin’s mission and existence. Contrary to his personal desires and natural inclinations, he was soon forced onto the stage of world history. In addition to his role as teacher, preacher and organizer of the church in Geneva, he was also recognized as the leader of the reformation movement (outside of Lutheran circles in Germany) throughout Europe. His calling required that he counsel and advise, write commentaries and countless letters. He became, in effect, a world statesman.

Yet, despite all this activity and the unending demands for his services, Calvin did not become a mere activist or busybody. Be never forsook his role as theologian; nor did he forget his Institutes. In all his variegated activities he continued to work on his magnum opus, which has been hailed as one of the books that have profoundly changed the course of history.1John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, p. 119.

His whole life was spent on revising and enlarging this great work, for like a true scholar, he was never quite satisfied with his previous efforts. It is rather hyperbolic to claim that ‘the whole of Calvinism is in the Institutes’2So Imbart de la Tour, quoted in the Wendel Calvin, p. 111. for the commentaries, sermons, treatises and letters of Calvin tell us much that is not explicit in the Institutes. Here we see a more pastoral, practical and irenic side of Calvin’s character and writing not always apparent in the sometimes rather dogmatic, polemic sections of the Institutes. And yet Wendel is right when he observes ‘that not only do the Institutes occupy the central place in Calvin’s literary productions so abundant in other directions;  this is also a work which, during his whole career as a reformer, he methodically set down all the problems that were presented to his reflection, or that a deepening of his own thought led him to examine more closely.3Ibid.

1. The Growth of the Institutes

We are rightly impressed and amazed when we learn that Calvin composed the first edition of the· Institutes when he was a mere 26 years old. But we must remember that the Institutes of 1536 is but a shadow of the final 1559 edition. The first edition consisted of only six chapters, a small volume of some 516 pages (so Wendel; McNeill submits 520 pages. It takes up only 243 pages in Vol. I of the Opera Selecta). The important second edition of 1539 was already three times the size of the original. The final edition of 1559 is almost five times as large as the first edition, consisting of four books with 80 chapters.

In the course of its development the scope and purpose of the Institutes had changed and Calvin had matured. Even so, there is a remarkable unity in the succeeding editions. Many of the sentences in the first edition survive almost verbatim in the last. Although Luther’s influence is particularly pronounced in the 1536 edition, with Calvin becoming increasingly independent and original in the later editions, the basic position remains the same.

Many of the sentences in the first edition survive almost verbatim in the last.

‘What Calvin believed in 1536, he still believed in 1559—or to shift the emphasis—what he believed in 1559 he already held in 1536. But in fact, although he does not change, he continually develops. He sees that he has treated ideas true in themselves too briefly or without weighing the objections sufficiently, or that he could strengthen an argument with this or that patristic authority. In successive editions we see him at work, building up the Institutes until he is at last satisfied that in subject and form he has given a ‘Comprehensive summary and orderly arrangement of all the branches of religion’.’4T. H. L. Parker, Portrait of Calvin, p. 39.

For some scholars this striking unity in his thought throughout the years is a sign of his real genius; for others it is indicative of a dogmatic mind incapable of growth. In any case, it is a remarkable and noteworthy feature of Calvin’s mind and scholarship.

2. The Purpose of the Institutes

For many readers of Calvin, even most Calvin specialists, the purpose or aim of the Institutes is not considered a problem. They think of the Institutes as essentially a dogmatic or systematic theology. For Karl Barth, however, this is a crucial question which affects Calvin’s basic theological approach. More specifically he questions the way in which Calvin begins his discussion in the first chapters of Book I. In a seminar on the first ten chapters of the Institutes held in 1959–1960, Barth was constantly troubled because Calvin chose to discuss God the Creator apart from the Covenant and Jesus Christ. Calvin does not base his argument in the first five chapters primarily on Scripture but on the evidence of creation, experience and the witness of pagan writers and philosophers. More than once he expressly says that he is deliberately not yet considering Jesus Christ and the true knowledge to be found in Him. He reminds his readers, for instance, in Chapter X (Section one) that ‘we are still concerned with that knowledge which stops at creation of the world and does not mount up to Christ, the Mediator’ (cf. 1.6.2). Also in discussing the knowledge of God the Creator, which is the theme of Book I, he says almost at the outset; ‘I do not yet touch upon the sort of knowledge with which men apprehend God the Redeemer in Christ the Mediator; but I speak only of the primal and simple knowledge to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright’ (1.2.1; of II.1.1).

Calvin discusses the knowledge of God and ourselves in the first five chapters—but without reference to Christ.

‘If Adam had remained upright’ (si integer stetisset Adam). How much depends on this little ‘if’! Adam, of course, did not remain upright. So one can ask, as Barth often did—why does Calvin bother discussing this hypo­thetical natural knowledge of God since it nowhere exists? Calvin does recognize a certain vague apprehension of God, a ‘sensus divinitatus’ in man which is sufficient to render him inexcusable. Yet Calvin also discusses the true knowledge of God and ourselves in the first five chapters—but without reference to Christ. If Calvin’s aim were apologetic, there might be some reason for this, but the Institutes is primarily designed for Christians, not unbelievers and skeptics. It is a sort of apology for the Protestant faith (see Prefatory Address to King Francis) but it is not an apologetic as such.

Such, in any case, were some of Barth’s questions. (Barth has also expressed himself on this subject in the Church Dogmatics III, 2, p. 73; and IV, 1, p. 367.) It should be pointed out, on the other hand, that some of Barth’s difficulties stem from his own peculiar and radical Çhristo-centrism. Some who do not accept Barth s unusual exegesis of Romans One and Two find in these opening chapters a magnificent ‘treatment of God’s self-disclosure in nature, history and the Bible on the basis of those two important chapters in Romans’.5Hendrik Kraemer in Religion and the Christian Faith, p. 376.

The question Barth has raised, however, is still an important one and deserves more attention than it has previously received. Nevertheless, even for Barth the problem is primarily only methodological. In what is probably his last utterance concerning Calvin he eulogizes ‘the greatness, of Calvin’s conception of theology which is an explication of the thesis that the sum of all wisdom consists in the true knowledge of God and of ourselves’.6’Zum 400. Todestag Calvins.’ Evangelisehe Theologie, Mai 1964, p. 226.

3. The Original Intent

Part of the difficulty may lie in the fact that Calvin’s original intent in writing the Institutes was soon modified. The modest first edition was designed as a manual for religious inquirers, a sort of catechism. Calvin himself, in fact, later called it a Catechism. It covered the traditional catechetical themes: the Law, the Apostles’ Creed, The Lord’s Prayer and the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the same order as Luther’s Catechisms. Then he added two chapters of a more polemic nature in response to two problems that then were acute.7See Wendel, op. cit. pp. 112, 145.

The first edition, therefore, had a double purpose.

The first edition, therefore, had a double purpose. It was a confession in the sense of an apology and a book of instruction for religious inquirers. But the principal aim was practical and edifying. This is also apparent in the main part the title of this edition: ‘The Institute(s) of the Christian Religion, containing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the doctrine of salvation.’

No translation of the first edition is available, but we are fortunate in having an English translation of his first Catechism, Instruction in Faith, which was written in French the following year. Here we have a beautiful positive expression of the theology of the ‘early Calvin’. The editor and translator of this version, Paul T. Fuhrmann, maintains that ‘this treatise presented to the common people the essence of the Institutes in 1536. It is indeed Calvin’s own popular Compendium of his earliest Institutes.’8Op. cit. Forward, p. 8.

4. Subsequent Editions

Calvin never forgot ordinary believers who were not specially trained in theology.

In the second edition (1539) Calvin has already modified his original intention somewhat. ‘He is not concerned to give the learned a succinct exposition of the Reformed doctrine, but a properly dogmatic introduction to the reading of Holy Scripture. Calvin no longer seems to have in view the original mass of the partisans of the Reform or of the merely curious; he is directing his work more especially to students of theology.9Wendel, op. cit., pp. 146. He states this in his preface to the 1539 edition and repeats this in similar words in his note to the reader in the final edition. ‘Moreover, it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling. For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all of its parts, and have arranged it in such an order that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what he ought to relate its contents. However, Calvin never forgot ordinary believers who were not specially trained in theology. This is why he continually published French translations of the various editions. Moreover, as he states in his preface to the French edition of 1560, ‘It (the Institutes) can be a key to open a way for all the children of God unto a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture.’ But now he clearly has another purpose in mind as well.

5. The Problem of Classification

How then shall we classify the Institutes? Calvin has given us at least three purposes, all of which to some extent are combined in the final edition which at last satisfied him. After the first edition, his efforts were directed especially toward theological education. But the Institutes is no dogmatics or ordinary systematic theology. It does represent considerable systematic genius, but it is not as systematic or logical as Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Schleiermacher’s Der Christliche Glaube or Barth’s or Tillich’s Dogmatics. It is not, moreover, as has been asserted so often in the past, a speculative system of theology deduced from some overruling principle such as predestination or the glory of God.

Note that Calvin did not say he was writing a self-contained dogmatics for theological students. He wanted to give them something to help them in their study and understanding of the Bible. Note also that although in its final form it was divided into four books which follow generally the topics of the Apostles’ Creed: the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit and the Church, Calvin’s great theme is the knowledge of God the Creator and God the Redeemer.10E. A. Dowey’s book. The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, is a brilliant defence of this thesis.

Pietas is the prerequisite for the true knowledge of God and the source of all true religion.

The very first sentence in all the editions of the Institutes is very important in this regard. For immediately Calvin shows that his fundamental interest is in the realm of epistemology; the knowledge of God from which cannot be separated the knowledge of ourselves. The practical, existential character of the Institutes, therefore, continues to be a dominant motif. A further clue as to the peculiar nature of this classic is in the title of the original edition. There he refers to the ‘whole sum of piety’ (totam pietatis summam). After this part of the title, already cited earlier, he added, ‘A Work Well Worth Knowing by all Persons Zealous for Piety.’ From 1539 on the titles were simply Institutio Christianae Religionis, but the ‘zeal for piety’ (or godliness, another possible translation of ‘pietas’) so characteristic of Calvin himself, continued to be one of the goals of this work. Not only does this word recur with great frequency in the Institutes; ‘pietas’ is, according to Calvin, the prerequisite for the true knowledge of God and the source of all true religion.11See 1.2.1; I.4.4. and the comments in the LCC translation of the Institutes, pp. li. f. and the note on pp. 39, 40.

Calvin explains in his introductory note to the Reader, ‘Since I undertook the office of teacher in the church, I have had no other purpose than to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness’ (sinceram pietatis doctrinam). As over against the philosophers and dilettante theologians, Calvin’s great concern was consistently ‘the upbuilding of godliness’ (ad aedificandam pietatem, 1.15.6).

These clues suggest that the Institutes is above all a book about religion (or piety) which for Calvin comprehends a vital knowledge of God combined with gratitude, love and obedience. It has nothing to do with the vagaries associated with ‘pietism’. Calvin, in the best sense of the word, was a pious man. That is, he was consumed by a passion to serve God without reserve in every sphere of life. His literary efforts, including the Institutes, reflect this total involvement. This is why this renowned classic defies classification. It is a means of instruction which is at the same time a theological manual. It is also frequently apologetic and devotional. But it is neither an apologetics nor a dogmatics in the usual sense. It is an aid to understanding the Scriptures and the Christian faith, with the ultimate purpose of challenging the whole man to give himself wholly to God and his church.

The Institutes has this peculiar existential quality about it because it reflects so vividly the faith and concerns of Calvin himself. John T. McNeill has described this quality of this classic beautifully in his Introduction to the edition of the Institutes in the ‘Library of Christian Classics’: ‘One who takes up Calvin’s masterpiece with the preconception that its author’s mind is a kind of efficient factory turning out and assembling parts of a neatly jointed structure of dogmatic logic will quickly find this assumption challenged and shattered. The discerning reader soon realizes that not the author’s intellect alone but his whole spiritual and emotional being is enlisted in his work…He was not, we may say, a theologian by profession, but a deeply religious man who possessed a genius for orderly thinking and obeyed the impulse to write out the implications of his faith. He calls his book not a ‘summa theologiae’ but a ‘summa pietatis’. The secret of his mental energy lies in his piety; its product is his theology, which is his piety described at length.’12Op. cit. p. li.

The French Calvin scholar, Jean-Daniel Benoit, expresses this same truth in somewhat different terms. In the Institutes, he points out, we have a book of profound and solid learning which has a decided appeal to the intelligence. ‘But what’, he then asks, ‘does this work have to do with the heart, the needs of souls, with that holy service which consists of the tact and concern (sollicitude) required for spiritual guidance? And yet, the Institutes is a religious book, in a certain respect, a book of piety perhaps more than a dogmatic treatise. It has nourished the spiritual life of many generations whose taste has not been dulled by daintiness (fausse par des mievreries) and who were not afraid of strong nurture…The Institutes is not only the book of a theologian; it is the book of a man who even before he became a pastor was haunted by a concern for souls.’13Calvin Directeur D’Ames, p. 14.

Calvin’s key text in this regard was Romans 12:1, 2. Here he finds the rule for the Christian life. ‘The great thing’, he says, is this: ‘we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may hereafter think, speak, meditate, and do nothing except to his glory…We are not our own…we are God’s: let us therefore live for him and die for him…Let this therefore be the first step, that a man depart from himself, in order that he may apply the whole force of his ability in the service of the Lord’ (III.7.1).

Toward this end, Calvin contributed the Institutes. It is only one of his many achievements, but one which continues to instruct and inspire, challenge and edify. Consequently, whatever his particular purpose may have been, his intention has been realized.