A Classic I Could No Longer Ignore
I used to carry a book with me everywhere. I would casually read, be interrupted, and read more. However, as I age I find that approach no longer sustainable. Something about reading a book over an extended period of time no longer works for me. I find now I enjoy having several hours to sit down and plow through a book.
I have tried several times to take the slow approach to Calvin’s Institutes. It just never worked for me and I don’t think that’s changing anytime soon. That’s why when I saw Banner of Truth’s new translation—a handsome, single volume edition of Calvin’s Institutes—I knew now was the time to move beyond my patchwork reading of Institutes and read the entire volume.
My approach will be one hundred pages plus per week until the end of the year, which leaves me time to do other reading projects and writing. My hope is to offer bi-weekly posts to highlight sections that are interesting in hopes of encouraging more of you to pick up this classic work of theology and read it. I won’t have a specific format for these posts. They won’t be a traditional book review or a more focused post. They will be more of a rambling commentary. Without further ado.
It starts, “The whole of our wisdom—wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured—broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves” (1).
Calvin starts the Institutes in a very Greek way. The phrase know thyself has origins in Greek literature and philosophy. If you’ve read Oedipus you know the importance of knowing yourself. But how does this Greek idea translate into Christian theology? Calvin lays hold of it and puts it on its head. There is no more quest to know yourself. There’s no more striving after an inner knowledge—without first striving after God. Calvin points toward the Triune God revealed in Scripture and says, “Know him and you will know yourself.”
Such a huge concept is distilled into such a short sentence to start a classic work. The gospel itself is nothing less than seeing God and knowing yourself. Once you see yourself in light of who God is, you are ready to hear the good news of Jesus Christ.
Many who don’t see the value in the old books assume these dusty books have nothing to say for us today, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Calvin addresses several topic like atheism and idolatry in false religion that are pinpoint relevant for the Church in America.
On atheism Calvin says, “For although in former times there were some, and today many, who deny the very notion of deity, they must continually sense, whether willingly or no, what they prefer not to know” (5). On the previous page, he said, “[I]n the heart of every human being is stamped a feeling for divinity” (4 cf. 6 “spark of truth”).
This section on atheism and human kind’s natural knowledge of God is bursting with truth for our current generation and for the now somewhat leveled out new atheism. He shows for instance that same objections being brought forward today were offered then. Calvin says some say “religion was forged in olden times by the craft and cunning of a few” (4) then goes on to show that, even if this were true, the tactic could not have been successful had there not already been a longing for God in man’s hearts (4).
Later on religion and idolatry, “Once we desert him, all that remains is accursed idolatry” (7). Calvin here wrestles with religion separated from truth (“religions of their own devising” 7). So much of the Church’s struggle in America is due to deserting God and the remaining idolatry. We have fashioned God into an American patriot, or Republican, Democrat, or an angsty millennial, or a young restless and reformed. When we do that we lose God. We also lose perspective on ourselves and our weakness, which only encourages what C. S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery.”
Many complain that Reformed theology values sovereignty over love, but this is not so. God’s covenant love for his people is prominent in Reformed theology and love plays a crucial role in Calvin’s Institutes early on. “If, besides, we ask the cause which led him to create all things at one stroke,“ asks Calvin, “and to preserve them once they were created, we will find no other cause than his goodness which, if it were his only attribute, should be more than enough to draw us to his love. For as the prophet teaches, there is no creature on whom he has not poured out his mercy (Psa. 145:9)” (11). Calvin often describes God’s love through out in terms of his goodness and mercy. He describes God’s love to win the affection of his readers.
Ultimately, Jesus Christ
Calvin ends chapter 1, “However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith” (28). For Calvin, knowing God then ultimately is looking at the face of Jesus Christ in faith.
Mathew B. Sims is the author of A Household Gospel: Fulfilling the Great Commission in Our Homes and a contributor in Make, Mature, Multiply (GCD Books). He completed over forty hours of seminary work at Geneva Reformed Seminary. He also works as the managing editor at Gospel-Centered Discipleship and the assistant editor at CBMW Men’s Channel. He regularly writes for a variety of publications. Mathew offers freelance editing and book formatting. He is a member at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Greenville, SC.