Best Books: The Institutes of the Christian Religion

The next work on my list of books everyone should read is The Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin.

Inconsistent theology, and theology inconsistent with practice, are arguably major causes of many of the problems that have plagued the Church, the nation, and the world in recent times. A first step toward a better state of affairs is to get our thinking right (nd I don’t mean mere intellectual assent!). “Once the” head and heart “are put right, the rest will follow.”

And to put our thinking right, it’s very helpful to read—to study—to work through—a book of systematic theology. In former times the Church has often been brought through the issues and convicted by the truth through the preaching of influential ministers of the Word, through strong catechesis, through the extensive and routine memorization of Scripture, and through the singing and hearing of substantial hymns—but nowadays all of these have largely fallen by the wayside, so we must turn to the wisdom that those previous generations have handed down to us.

We now live in an age, as Calvin did, when fundamental truths—to say nothing of subtler and more difficult teachings—are in dispute, and under outright attack. Calvin’s response to the charges against his community—to expound the truth, at whatever length necessary, rather than answering the particular slanders directly—is worth studying as well as imitating.

I’m sorry to have to admit that I haven’t finished the Institutes, and that it’s been several years since I last seriously tried to study them (though I pulled them out to start again when I came to them on the list). But one of the surprising things I seem to remember from the year I spent so much pare time in their pages was how enjoyable that was, despite the very slow going. But this shouldn’t have been surprising; for the believer, spiritual nourishment—truth—is as necessary as food, and just as eating can be pleasurable (when not ravenously hungry), immersion in this sort of concentrated truth should also give particular and special enjoyment. And I’ve always loved “the classics” in any case.

One point in my justification of this choice that I haven’t made yet is why the Institutes, as opposed to some other work of systematic theology, or to something like Calvin’s Commentaries. My answer is that, while those might well be fine additions to the list, another endemic problem of our age is an apparently deliberate neglect of the forms of true worship and religion. A few churches (denominational branches) still hold to the “outward form,” the set prayers and the liturgies handed down through and developed over the centuries, but for the most part those churches have rejected the “inner form,” obedience to the clear teaching of the Word of Truth. Yet by contrast, so much of the parts of the Church that still hold (eve loosely) to even the parts of the Truth least popular nowadays have let the outward form of their worship become deliberately inane. And a large fraction of the “visible church” has abandoned both. To address these maladies, we need a renewed attention to Calvin’s nominal topic: the institutes—basic principles and commands—of the Christian religion; the working-out of the truth in the world.

While Calvin’s day was much like our own, in several important respects that I’ve alluded to above—and, then as now, many of the most powerful figures in the Church and in the secular realms had vested interest in suppressing the truth and promulgating corruption in its place—at that time, for the first time in centuries, the true Gospel—and the truth more generally—was proclaimed widely, and much of “the world” was then being transformed by it, while today, as I said, inanity and apathy blight the vines in this part of the vineyard. Considering what Calvin has to say invites us to “remember the height from which [we] have fallen,” and to begin to return to the duty we have so long neglected.

We hear calls for “Unity!” from nearly all quarters nowadays. But it is useless to stand united on an unstable foundation. What we truly need is to unite on the sole firm foundation, the unchanging Word of God—whose principles and implications Calvin expounds so explicitly, so ably, and in such detail that the false unity of good grapes growing entwined with thorns becomes much less plausible.

So for edification and (eventually) delight, I contend, everyone ought to read John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion.

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