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Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Calvin's Institutes

I have slowly been making my way through Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion' (slowly means I started a year and a half ago and am not quite halfway through). I do not count myself equal to writing a review, or even an opinion, of Calvin's magnum opus worth anyone else's serious attention. I thought, however, that I might share small selections of his work. Here is a paragraph I read this evening:

"That God has promised to be with believers in tribulation they experience to be true, while, supported by his hand, they patiently endure--an endurance quite unattainable by their own effort. The saints, therefore, through forbearance experience the fact that God, when there is need, provides the assistance that he has promised. Thence, also, is their hope strengthened, inasmuch as it would be the height of ingratitude not to expect that in time to come God's truthfulness will be as constant and firm as they have already experienced it to be. Now we see how many good things, interwoven, spring from the cross {the Christian bearing the cross, that is}. For, overturning that good opinion which we falsely entertain concerning our own strength, and unmasking our hypocrisy, which affords us delight, the cross strikes at our perilous confidence in the flesh. It teaches us, thus humbled, to rest upon God alone, with the result that we do not faint or yield. Hope, moreover, follows victory in so far as the Lord, by performing what he has promised, establishes his truth for the time to come. Even if these were the only reasons, it plainly appears how much we need the practice of bearing the cross." Book III, chapter VIII, section 3.

This passage is poignant to me at this time because of my decreasing ability to serve my family on account of my increasing pregnancy. This cross certainly is striking at my perilous confidence in my flesh.


  1. I was just thinking something similar this morning. I think God allows us to fail so often because He is not so interested in seeing us successful as in seeing us clinging to Christ. Or maybe being successful and clinging to Christ is the same thing. Hmm.
    I also was just reading Letters to a Young Calvinist, in which the author expresses the opinion that Calvin's Institutes is dry and intellectual compared to Augustine or Edwards, who convey more enjoyment of God. Have you read enough to have an opinion on that?

  2. Yes, it must be that for the Christian true success is clinging to Christ. I do not think that's often what we mean when we speak of success, though.

    I have not read 'Letters to a Young Calvinist,' or much about it, and so can't have an informed opinion about its viewpoint. I have not read any Edwards either. However, I have read some Augustine in the past, and am currently reading some Augustine.

    I think Augustine is more intellectual. I don't find either Augustine or Calvin dry. I think their purposes in writing are different, and that is conveyed partly by a difference in style. One thing that has stood out to me as I've read Calvin is how much he quotes and admires Augustine. Augustine appears on nearly every page of Calvin!

    As I've been reading Calvin I have often thought how far removed he and his writing are from the popular caricature of him.

    Perhaps the author's opinion which you mention resembles a distinction many people make between the Heidelberg and Westminster catechisms, i.e., that the Heidelberg offers more pastoral comfort than the Westminster does. But I disagree with that understanding of the catechisms. I believe there is great comfort to be found in the Westminster catechism.

    But my daughter's need to use the computer now will prevent me from being more prolix than this. Do you have an opinion on the matter?

    Thank you for asking the question.

  3. The author of Letters to a Young Calvinist does make the distinction you mention between the Heidelberg and Westminster catechisms. I have never seen the complete Heidelberg catechism, so I don't have an opinion there. I also have never made it all the way through the Institutes, although at one point I was reading a little every day--somehow that plan fizzled. I have read very little Augustine-which work of his are you reading now? Sounds like I should add Calvin, Augustine, and Heidelberg to my already ambitious summer reading list. I would love to hear more specifically about what comforts you from Westminister and Calvin when you have time.

  4. Ah, I opened my computer intending to post a couple other thoughts about your question and, lo and behold, found your response.

    I was going to say that Calvin's writing reminds me of a lawyer's writing: he's very precise and thorough. If that is what the author has in mind when he says dry and intellectual, I can understand. I think that Calvin is very passionate, too, though, and when I think of dry and intellectual I don't think of passionate going along with them. Calvin's subject matter leads a believer to fall on his face and worship and praise the Creator. Calvin's lawyerly precision and thoroughness do not, for me at any rate, stifle the worshipful response. I have found my reading of Calvin to be a very devotional experience, though I did not pick it up with that in mind.

    I'm reading Augustine's "Confessions," even more slowly than "The Institutes." "Confessions" reminds me of nothing so much as an extended metaphysical poem. Augustine was in the school of Donne hundreds of years before Donne came along! I submit to you that it takes a very intellectual person to write something like an extended metaphysical poem.

    The other two works of Augustine which I have read I read a long time ago and in great haste (I was assigned to read "City of God" in one week, for instance). I don't feel capable of giving a sound opinion of those works.

    As for the Westminster catechisms, and confession, too, I couldn't do better than commend Jim Dennison's class on the subject to you. If you ever get the chance to attend his class, do so!

  5. Thanks for your thoughts. I see what you mean about Calvin. I have trouble reading Augustine fast as well, but I had never made a connection between his writing and Donne's. Now I want really want to go back and try Augustine again!

  6. Shirley, tell me what you think when you return to Augustine.