Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1541

Article by   December 2014
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John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, translated from the first French Edition by Robert White. Edinburgh and Carlisle, Pa., Banner of Truth Trust, 2014, pp. xxxvi + 882.

Not only is there the much-publicized question of Calvin and the Calvinists, there is also that of Calvin's development. How did Calvin himself become a 'Calvinist'? The plotting of Calvin's own personal trajectory after that fateful stay-over in Geneva in 1536 helps us to put that question more precisely, and to frame answers to it.  A good way to do this is to examine the series of editions of the Institutes. Now Anglophones have the advantage offered by this new English translation of the 1541 French edition of the Institutes, which will provide considerable help. When B.B. Warfield wrote his masterly review of the literary history of the Institutes his eye was on the 1559 edition throughout, as (in a way) Calvin's own eye was. It was the last set of the match. The earlier sets along the way, even 1541, are passed over. At least, 1541 is passed over theologically, though Warfield, like most other commentators, notes its important place in the development of vernacular French into a sophisticated written language.  

I fancy that the Banner of Truth Trust's interests in this project lie less in the 'academic' side of things, whether the academic project lies in estimating Calvin's theological development, or in the history of the French language, than in the 'pastoral' advantages of this book over the 1559 Institutes that was at the apex of Calvin's development. Whatever may be the answer to this, between them Robert White the translator and the Trust have provided us with a handsome volume. But it is by no means 'Calvin lite', and to describe it as Calvin's own 'essentials', as it does on the cover, makes it sound rather like a promotion from Boots or The Body Shop. The book weighs several pounds and is nearly 900 pages.

But it never rains but it pours. Who would have thought that the Christian public, after waiting since Thomas Norton's English translation in 1561 of the first English translation of the 1559 edition, would have to wait until now for the first translation of the 1541 edition, and then be favoured with two English versions of that edition within five years?  In 2009, as part of marking the 500th anniversary of Calvin's birth, a translation by Elsie Ann McKee, the Professor of Reformation Studies and the History of Worship at Princeton Theological Seminary, appeared. (Eerdmans, 2009). If Robert White was daunted or otherwise discomfited by this news as he went about his own work of translation he certainly does not show it. (White's review of McKee's translation may be found in the Banner magazine for October 2010.) 

The French version of the 1541 edition represents a distinct achievement. The Latin edition of 1539, the second edition of the Institutes, of which the 1541 edition is Calvin's translation, was in effect a new book. The first edition, a modest catechetical manual, was recast into a volume of theological topics and became many times larger than its predecessor. That is significant enough. But its translation shows something else, that within the space of a few years, Calvin was thinking on a different scale. William Farel may have constrained him to stay in Geneva, but by now he was beginning to see himself as a Reformer with an international reach. It was Farel's words to him ('As if God from on high stretched out his hand to stay me!') that had kept Calvin in Geneva when what he was after was the quiet retreat of a student. The first edition of the Institutes was published in 1536. Calvin had an earlier intention for a translation of this edition, but it never came to anything. The edition of 1539 in Latin, and then in French, is the first full-length version of the Institutes, in which the thirty-something Calvin stretches his wings and provides his readers no longer with a brief pocket-book, but with an Institutes of developed theological principles, a 'Christian philosophy'. A theological work not only restricted to those with Latin, but a Reformed theology for the French. 

So where was Calvin at the time he revised (or put to one side) the brief catechetical pocketbook that was the first edition of the Institutes, and wrote this substantial work in Latin and then in French?  Quarrels with the city authorities over the independence of the church led to the exile of both him and Farel. He left Geneva in 1538, and spent until 1541 in Bucer's Strasbourg. It proved to be a productive time. In Strasbourg, as pastor of a church of French exiles, he learned much about the organizational side of the work of reformation. The 1539 Institutes was published there. He taught the New Testament there, and published his commentary on Romans. 

It was at this time that he saw the function of his Institutes changing from a mere catechetical handbook to that of the doctrinal key to what he evidently envisaged as a growing shelf of Calvin commentaries. 
This, however, I can promise: it can serve as a key and opening, allowing all God's children access to a true and proper understanding of holy Scripture. In future, therefore, if our Lord gives me the means and opportunity to write commentaries, I will be as brief as possible. There will be no need for lengthy digressions, since I have here provided a detailed explanation of almost all the articles  which concern the Christian faith. (p.xvi)
An international theologian producing biblical commentaries in a new, brief style, that were intended to be read outside as well as inside the walls of Geneva, to which he returned in September 1541. If these were to be written in a new, more accessible, style, then the lengthy doctrinal excursuses which routinely interrupted the exposition of the text had to be dropped. But where were they to be found? Answer: the Institutes were hereafter to be the doctrinal framework for his commentaries.

It is plausible to suppose that he had arrived in Geneva at the first with the ambition of being a doctor of the Church, someone set apart in the peace and quiet of scholarly reflection and writing. But as we have seen he had had his nose rubbed in pastoral realities both in Geneva and then in Strasbourg. By this time it seems that he was coming to terms with the fact that his life was going to be that of a public activist. And he was coming to think that part of this activity would be spent in preparing biblical commentaries, that on Romans being the first. So the new edition of the Institutes was developed into a full dress theological handbook, a theological key for the readers of commentaries yet to be written. The reader of his commentaries were recommended to have the open Institutes on the desk. 

So what does all this tell us about Calvin? The French translation surely shows us a continued concern for his native country and a rising interest in Reform among French families. What about the French refugees in Strasbourg and Geneva? What influence were they having in Calvin? Though once more in Geneva, never to return to France, Calvin was not of Geneva, but a man whose distinctive voice and style would reach to France, but then quickly to England and Scotland, to the Low Countries, and to the western world more generally. 

The scholarly value of the 1541 edition apart, for us in the twenty-first century this edition also serves other uses. For those who want a straight read of the mature theology of Calvin have their needs met in this translation. The chapters are by and large distinct loci, though there is now and again a sign of the interweaving of themes that is so characteristic of the 1559  edition. The topics are distinct but not separate, as Calvin himself might have put it. The bondage and liberation of the will, providence and predestination, justification and sanctification, the life of faith, Christian liberty - the well-known Calvinian themes. His style is clear, confident, and unflinchingly dogmatic. Only rarely do we read of some false view in which there is 'some truth', or that some figure in the past is 'half right' in what he says. In all this Calvin's interest is more in religion than in theology, but doctrine matters a great deal in the cultivation of 'true religion'. So many of Calvin's distinct doctrinal touches, familiar to the reader of the 1559 edition, can be read here. The overarching theme of religion consisting in the knowledge of the triune God and of ourselves, making its appearance at the start and then later on (e.g. p.429). Christ as the bestower of two distinct yet inseparable gifts, reconciliation and sanctification (p.351);  Christ as the mirror of election (p.487), the view that repentance is born of faith (p.295), and so on. Many such passages were incorporated verbatim into later editions. But other themes such as the union of the children of God with Christ, lie relatively undeveloped. The warnings against speculation, and a full account of the church, have to await the later editions.

And there is nothing of the polemic with living opponents that Calvin's theology led to, and which is such a feature of the last edition. Well not quite nothing, if Robert White is correct when he thinks that there are in places in the book some signs of Calvin's opposition to Michael Servetus (p.212 fn.16). And there is plenty of polemic against the errors in doctrine and practice of the unreformed church that surrounded the city-states which were citadels of the Reformation. So the Sorbonnistes suffer at his hands, as do the various groups known these days as 'Anabaptists' and 'Libertines'. Calvin himself held that such polemics were essential for a full apologia for the Reformation. The faithful theologian must say what God is and does, and also what he is not and does not do. But in 1541 there was no combat with Pighius or Osiander or Castellio, say. This is not the Institutes in their final form, in which Calvin lays out the Christian faith in contrast to the brilliance and the blindness of the Classical thinkers, and he displays the genius of Augustine, and identifies the full extent of the errors of the church of Rome, and responds to the Reformation's contemporary opponents. 

Robert White says in one of his helpful footnotes that Calvin's relations with scholasticism was ambivalent (p.47). Yet if one attends to the treatment of the Patristic and medieval figures that Calvin cites, which come over prominently in this edition, the book reads as a medieval document in which Calvin was interrogating the tradition. Augustine, Lombard, Bernard of Clairvaux, Hilary of Poitiers, Chrysostom, and so on, all take their place in the witness stand. Especially Augustine, of course, though less copiously so than later on. Here is a series of medieval disputationes in which the authorities, including of course Scripture, are cross-examined on a particular question, which Calvin then adjudicates. This format is only just below the surface, hidden somewhat by the provision by the translator of section headings which will no doubt be a help to some readers but which the purist would say are intrusive. 

There's another, very good feature of White's restrained footnotes. Unlike those in the Battles/McNeill translation of the 1559 edition they seem devised to stand the test of time, not to become dated, as theirs have, by the introduction of a number of 20th century figures. White's footnotes will prove to have a permanence. The reader is left to decide whether or not all the footnotes are White's. I think they are.

So the book has one readership today, the Christian teacher and preacher and person in the pew who wishes to have the full-orbed teaching of Reformed theological principles. And then there is what the existence of this book tells us about Calvin. If writing the successive editions of the Institutes represents a theological journey, then this translation is a vantage point on that journey, a ridge with good all-round views. From it, the student of Calvin, looking back, can see the humble beginnings of Calvin's theology; and peering forward he can discern the outlines of what later became 'Calvinism'. He sees the author's confidence in biblical truth, and a seemingly effortless mastery of the text of Scripture. Time and again he cites apposite textual evidence from unlikely places to support a point, showing himself to have a thorough facility in providing biblical evidence from the sixty-six books of Scripture, which he sees as one word of God to humankind. Unlike ourselves, he is not distracted by allegedly different 'theologies' in Scripture. Though he refers to the different individual human writers, the diversity is within the unity of Scripture. 

This new translation is attractive. Robert White, who taught French studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, has worked with skill, and his editorial work is unobtrusive. The chief evidence of it is in supplying section heads to the chapters, and the addition of some brief footnotes. At the end he has provided a Thematic Outline correlating the matter of the present book with that of the first French translation (1560) of the final edition of the Institutes, and Indices. These all add to the book's usefulness.


Paul Helm was Professor of History and Philosophy of Religion, King's College, London, 1993-2000


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