“Institutes of the Christian Religion” by John Calvin


Institutes of the Christian Religion is a foundational work of Protestant systematic theology, and included in the Great Books of the Western World series, which I’ve been reading and blogging in the past few years.

Ironically, I was called a Calvinist once, at a time when I had no idea who Calvin was. Now, twenty years later, I’m reading John Calvin’s magnum opus for the first time. One interesting fact is worth mentioning: Calvin wrote commentaries on every book of the Bible, except Song of Solomon and Revelation, the same two books I have the most difficulties with.

There will be a series of posts in which I reflect on Calvin’s theology. I have no affiliation with any churches or denominations, so the views expressed here are merely the musings of an armchair theologian, and do not represent any official position. As I’m ignorant of the history of the Christian Church and theology, I sincerely welcome comments from those who are knowledgable and experienced in those areas. It is far better to learn wisdom than to air one’s own follies, but how can one learn unless his folly is exposed to scrutiny?

The Doctrine of Sola Scriptura Revisited

In the prefatory address to the King of France, Calvin writes to the effect that the Reformation is not a new movement, but a faithful continuation of the Apostolic Doctrine, against the corruption of the Papacy. In the Institutes, he quotes frequently from the Church Fathers, Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, Chrysostom, Bernard, and Pope Gregory I, etc., to demonstrate this inherent continuity of the Church.

I’m both impressed and surprised by Calvin’s erudition, how well-acquainted he is with the writings of not only the Church Fathers, but also the pagan Greek and Latin writers. The fact that he makes numerous references to them seems to undermine the doctrine of sola scriptura (Scripture alone), which he puts forth in Book I. I’ve heard from both Catholics and Protestants on sola scriptura, and Calvin’s arguments here seem rather flimsy and biased. Although I took it for granted before, now I have to reconsider, for a weak argument strengthens the counter-argument.

1. The Church and the Scripture

Objection: The Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and conceived and written by the saints, that is the Church; the Church regulates which books are to be admitted into the Canon; the Church guarantees that the Scripture come down safe and unimpaired to our times, and persuades us to receive the Scripture with reverence.

Calvin’s refutation (1.7.2): These ravings are admirably refuted by a single expression of an apostle. Paul testifies that the Church is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” (Eph. 2: 20.) If the doctrine of the apostles and prophets is the foundation of the Church, the former must have had its certainty before the latter began to exist.

Note how Calvin adds the word “the doctrine” to the verse he quotes, and somewhat distorts its meaning to suit his purpose. Paul says “apostles and prophets” are the foundation of the Church, not “doctrine” or “Scripture”. The New Testament didn’t yet exist when the epistle was written.

If Calvin argues for precedence, whether the Church or the Scripture comes first, he cannot deny that the apostles and prophets, that is, spiritual authorities, are part of the Church, and the Scripture is produced by the Church. Therefore, the Church has precedence over the Scripture. In fact, if we look into the context in which Paul refers to the apostles and prophets, in all instances without exception, he speaks of the unity of the Church, the body of Christ, and the apostles and prophets as members.

“Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually. And God has appointed these in the church: first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, varieties of tongues.” (1 Cor. 12:27-28)

“Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone,” (Eph. 2:19-20)

“And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:10-12)

2. The Spirit and the Letter

Objection: For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

Calvin’s refutation (1.9.3): It is clear that Paul is there arguing against false apostles, (2 Cor. 3: 6,) who, by recommending the law without Christ, deprived the people of the benefit of the New Covenant.

The context shows that Paul is contrasting the New Covenant with the Law of Moses, the ministry of the Spirit and the ministry of death. Surely Calvin is not saying that Moses is a false apostle? Either he is confusing the context of 2 Cor. 3: 6 with Galatians, in which Paul does argue against the false apostles, or he is misinterpreting the Scripture here.

While I wholeheartedly agree with Calvin that the Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit must be and are in harmony with one another, it is worth emphasizing that, without the working of the Spirit in the inner man, the Scripture alone doesn’t give life, but kills. The Holy Spirit does not minister to believers as individuals in isolation, but as members of the Church, the body of Christ, through the ministry of the apostles and prophets and the mutual faith of believers. The unbelievers cannot understand the Scripture without the teaching of the Church, “the pillar and ground of the truth”(1 Tim. 3:15). As St. Augustine wrote, “For my part, I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church”[1].

The doctrine of sola scriptura, can be very misleading and even pernicious, if used to pit the Scripture against the Church, when they are in truth intimately bound with one another.




2 thoughts on ““Institutes of the Christian Religion” by John Calvin

  1. Thanks for this, Nemo. I have a hulking copy of Calvin’s Institutes awaiting reading. I have a feeling that your refutation of his arguments is correct. What we need to regain, regardless of denominational affiliation, is a sense of the coinherence of the Scriptures and the Church as the sources for faith and life.

    1. “Coinherence” is a good word. I agree, though I don’t fully understand it, yet.:)

      In his preface to the reader, Calvin writes, “I had, for the greater part, performed my office perfunctorily, as is usual in trivial undertakings.” Perhaps we shouldn’t take his “trivial undertaking” as doctrine, but as an invitation to delve deeper into the Source.

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