Calvin's Theology: The Aim & Purpose of the Institutes

Posted at The Place for Truth:

It would be difficult to underestimate the impact John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion have had on the Church. Yet while Calvin’s most significant theological work has been highly valued as a theological exposition of the Christian faith, his magnum opus was not conceived from the outset as a systematic theology text. Calvin had other purposes for his small work; his two-fold aim was education and apologetics. Dismayed by the biblical ignorance of his fellow countrymen, and anxious to defend them from the attacks of “certain wicked men,” Calvin declared in his dedication to King Francis I, ruler of France, “…it seemed to me that I should be doing something worthwhile if I both gave instruction to those I had undertaken to instruct and made confession before you with the same work.”[i]

Calvin’s declared intent to “transmit certain rudiments”[ii] of doctrine as a basis for instruction in the true faith is seen in the content of the first edition (published 1536) of the Institutes. There he followed the traditional catechetical content of expositions of the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. These three categories of Law, Faith, and Prayer were sufficient in Calvin’s mind to represent the bare minimum of biblical teaching “by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[iii] In his French edition of 1541, Calvin is even more explicit about his educational purpose: “Although the teaching contained in holy Scripture is perfect and cannot be added to, since there our Lord has chosen to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom, nevertheless someone who is not well trained in it needs a certain amount of guidance and direction in order to know what to look for, what mistakes to avoid and what path he may safely keep to; that way he will be sure of attaining the goal to which the Holy Spirit is calling him.”[iv]


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