John Calvin's 'Institutes of the Christian Religion'

A Biography

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Bruce Gordon
Lives of Great Religious Books
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Bruce Gordon, a leading North American scholar of the European Reformations and the author of the noted biography Calvin (Yale University Press, 2011), explores in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion the many lives of one of the most influential books in the history of Protestantism, the Institutes. This book can be considered as a biography of the Institutes or an introduction to the reception history of the Institutes. Gordon’s brief and selective narrative of the lives of the Institutes, however, is not so much straightforward as it is complex and multi-dimensional, and this is primarily due to Gordon’s careful attention to the nature of the Institutes. The Institutes, according to Gordon, is not a book of academic theology and it has never been regarded independently from its author, John Calvin. Gordon believes that the modern conception of the Institutes as a textbook of systematic theology simply misunderstands the symbiotic relationship between Calvin and the book. From Gordon’s perspective, the Institutes is first and foremost Calvin’s spiritual and intellectual autobiography, and its long evolution—from 1536 to 1559—reflects the author’s ongoing concern with finding the right order of fundamental Christian teachings.

Beginning by elaborating Calvin’s personal relationship with the Institutes, Gordon constantly reminds the reader that the Institutes is all about “relationships.” The internal flow of the Institutes, according to Gordon, is closely related to a series of theological topics drawn from Calvin’s interpretation of scripture (the commentaries). Calvin utilizes the internal hermeneutical circle between the Institutes and his commentaries primarily to teach God’s relationship with humanity, and humans’ relationship with one another. Gordon argues that the relational aspect of the Institutes is clearly demonstrated by Calvin’s creation of two distinct Institutes, one written in Latin for training students and pastors, and the other in French (and later English, Dutch, German, and other versions) for educating laymen and laywomen. Because of the inseparable relationship between Calvin and the book, the Institutes has never existed as a free entity but has always been dependent on Calvin’s reputation among succeeding generations. Gordon rightly points out that there are two crucial factors which have constantly affected Calvin’s opposing reputations in history: the execution of Michael Servetus in 1553, and the doctrine of predestination. Gordon’s narrative of the lives of the Institutes in history vividly shows that the like or dislike of the Institutes has always been predetermined by either the reader’s admiration of Calvin as a great founder of Protestantism and a prophet of democracy, or the reader’s abhorrence of him as a symbol of religious intolerance and the creator of a tyrant God.

One of the many strengths of Gordon’s work is its emphasis on the particular historical context of the Institutes, as well as the book’s openness to the future. Gordon is right that the Institutes, however much it inspires or horrifies modern day readers, is still a product of the sixteenth-century-European context. It is not written for twenty-first-century global issues, which Calvin would have never imagined. At the same time, Gordon’s work successfully demonstrates that the Institutes has proven its ability to transcend its historical context, and to be a serious dialogue partner for succeeding generations in diverse nations. The power of the Institutes, according to Gordon, lies in its big ideas on “the nature of true wisdom” represented by three of the most important terms in the Institutes: knowledge, religion, and piety. Despite Calvin’s changing reputation and the historical and intellectual chasm between its authorship and its readership, both European and American intellectuals, such as Friedrich Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, Max Weber, Jonathan Edwards, and Abraham Kuyper, have found in the Institutes both significant relevance and disagreement with modernity. Gordon’s biography of the Institutes successfully demonstrates that the Institutes has been related to diverse narratives drawn from historical and theological memories essential to the formation of contemporary identities. Gordon’s description of Calvin and Calvinism’s influence in South Africa and China, and how the Institutes was appropriated by opposing groups with regard to the relationship between state and religion is also fascinating.

Gordon’s John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is a brief and selective biography of the lives of the Institutes from the desk of John Calvin in 1536 to today. Whenever it is necessary, Gordon briefly explains Calvin’s theology, historiography of scholarship, and various theologians’ diverse interpretations of the Institutes. As Gordon says in the preface, the book is not intended to provide a comprehensive and systematic analysis of the Institutes. While Gordon’s book will contribute to scholarship on the Reformation in general, and Calvin and the Reformed tradition in particular, it will be particularly beneficial to students and non-specialists who are interested in Calvin but have never read his opus magnum in its entirety. Gordon’s biography of the Institutes is a welcome addition to the scholarship and I highly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inseo Song is an Adjunct at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California.

Date of Review: 
August 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Bruce Gordon is the Titus Street Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale Divinity School. He is the author of Calvin andThe Swiss Reformation. He lives in New Haven, Connecticut.



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