Calvin’s Aim in Writing Institutes

In the prefix to the 1545 French edition of Calvin’s Institutes, Calvin seeks to explain to his readers why he wrote Institutes to begin with. While he goes into more detail, the third paragraph has some amazingly interesting nuggets of insight for the reader. I will include it with my observations below.

Seeing, then, how necessary it was in this manner to aid those who desire to be instructed in the doctrine of salvation, I have endeavoured, according to the ability which God has given me, to employ myself in so doing, and with this view have composed the present book.

Calvin wrote Institutes in order to instruction people “in the doctrine of salvation.” It is interesting to note this because many today are intimidated by Institutes. The shear size of the volume and the weight of Calvin’s name often make people feel like this is a book for scholars. However, Calvin wrote it simply for those wanting to know the doctrine of salvation. As I’ve told many people, Institutes seems to me one of the most approachable systematic theologies I’ve ever read.

And first I wrote it in Latin, that it might be serviceable to all studious persons, of what nation soever they might be; afterwards, desiring to communicate any fruit which might be in it to my French countrymen, I translated it into our own tongue.

This was really cool to read. Calvin wrote it in Latin so that it might have the most broad reach. That it might make it to all the learned persons of any country and they would be able to read it (and by inference, teach it rightly to others). Then, because of his love for his homeland, he also wrote it in French, so that all his countrymen, scholar and non, would have access to the volume. This speaks highly of his passion for the spread of the gospel around the world and specifically to his country.

I dare not bear too strong a testimony in its favour, and declare how profitable the reading of it will be, lest I should seem to prize my own work too highly.

There is no doubt that by the final edition of Institutes Calvin knew how important his book had become. It is nice here to seem him attempt to keep his pride in check, despite the obvious success and impact that this volume had, even in his own short life.

However, I may promise this much, that it will be a kind of key opening up to all the children of God a right and ready access to the understanding of the sacred volume.

So beautiful is the fact that one of his main goals in writing Institutes is to help God’s children to open and understand the Bible.

Wherefore, should our Lord give me henceforth means and opportunity of composing some Commentaries, I will use the greatest possible brevity, as there will be no occasion to make long digressions, seeing that I have in a manner deduced at length all the articles which pertain to Christianity.

This final note in the paragraph is interesting because it helps inform the reading of any of his commentaries. For those who access any of Calvin’s commentaries, he makes the point that having read Institutes is a key in getting the most out of his other works. I just think that is fascinating and wonder how many who consult his commentaries have actually read through Institutes.

John Calvin and Henry Beveridge, vol. 1, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2010), 30.

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