John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is considered a classic by most theologians. Regardless of whether one is Reformed or not, Calvin is one of the greatest theologians that the Reformation produced. His influence spans from the realm of theology to economics. When former President Bill Clinton was asked by CNN’s John Roberts, “Could you ever see yourself as a househusband?”, Clinton replied, “No. I’m too much of a Calvinist. I have to go to work every day.” Granted, Clinton’s understanding of John Calvin proved to be lacking, but one can’t help but chuckle at Calvin’s influence on Western society!
This past year was Calvin’s 500th birthday, and to commemorate such an event, I read through Randall C. Zachman’s John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian (which is quite fantastic and highly recommended). Zachman is helpful in pointing out the “requirements” for reading Calvin, based upon what Calvin revealed about his audience. He writes,
“From the second edition of 1539 to the final edition of 1559, Calvin wrote the Institutes “to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology,” which more than likely meant those who were preparing to be pastors in the evangelical churches. Calvin assumes several characteristics of his intended readers. Such readers are expected to be pious, which means for Calvin that they already trust in, obey, pray to, and seek to glorify the one true God and Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. Such readers would not be seeking to read the Institutes in order to ask fruitless speculative questions, but would rather be seeking sound teaching by which to build up their piety. Calvin also expects that his readers will be modest and teachable, not proudly contending with teaching drawn from Scripture, but reading it attentively and reverently. They will willingly submit to and obey teaching drawn from Scripture and not be proud of their own learning. Calvin wants his readers to be sober and moderate, seeking to know no more and no less than what God through the Holy Spirit teaches them in Scripture, being content with the measure of faith that God has given them and not seeking to venture boldly beyond these limits. Calvin expects his readers to be prudent and sane, meaning that they will not hallucinate like people who have lost their minds, but will rather demonstrate the ability to make proper judgments and distinctions and will be able to discern when certain teachings are beyond controversy. Finally, Calvin assumes that his readers have already experienced the power of the realities he is describing and explicating in the Institutues. “I speak of nothing other than what each beleiver experiences within himself – though my words fall far beneath a just explantion of the matter.” – Zachman, 79-80
Calvin’s characteristics seem to be well considered and will certainly guide theological students through any other reading that they may do!