Institutes of the Christian Religion, by John Calvin, tr. Henry Beveridge , at sacred-texts.com
By The Rev. John Murray, M.A., Th.M.
THE publication in English of another edition of the opus magnum of Christian theology is an event fraught with much encouragement. Notwithstanding the decadence so patent in our present-day world and particularly in the realm of Christian thought and life, the publishers have confidence that there is sufficient interest to warrant such an undertaking. If this faith is justified we have reason for thanksgiving to God. For what would be a better harbinger of another Reformation than widespread recourse to the earnest and sober study of the Word of God which would be evinced by the readiness carefully to peruse The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
Dr. B. B. Warfield in his admirable article, “On the Literary History of the Institutes,” has condensed for us the appraisal accorded Calvin’s work by the critics who have been most competent to judge. Among these tributes none expresses more adequately, and none with comparable terseness, the appraisal which is Calvin’s due than that of the learned Joseph Scaliger, “Solus inter theologos Calvinus.”
It would be a presumptuous undertaking to try to set forth all the reasons why Calvin holds that position of eminence in the history of Christian theology. By the grace and in the overruling providence of God there was the convergence of multiple factors, and all of these it would be impossible to trace in their various interrelations and interactions. One of these, however, calls for special mention. Calvin was an exegete and biblical theologian of the first rank. No other one factor comparably served to equip Calvin for the successful prosecution of his greatest work which in 1559 received its definitive edition.
The attitude to Scripture entertained by Calvin and the principles which guided him in its exposition are nowhere stated with more simplicity and fervor than in the Epistle Dedicatory to his first commentary, the commentary on the epistle to the Romans. “Such veneration,” he says, “we ought indeed to entertain for the Word of God, that we ought not to pervert it in the least degree by varying expositions; for its majesty is diminished, I know not how much, especially when not expounded with great discretion and with great sobriety. And if it be deemed a great wickedness to contaminate any thing that is dedicated to God, he surely cannot be endured, who, with impure, or even with unprepared hands, will handle that very thing, which of all things is the most sacred on earth. It is therefore an audacity, closely allied to a sacrilege, rashly to turn Scripture in any way we please, and to indulge our fancies as in sport; which has been done by many in former times” (English Translation, Grand Rapids, 1947, p. 27).
It was Calvin preeminently who set the pattern for the exercise of that sobriety which guards the science of exegesis against those distortions and perversions to which allegorizing methods are ever prone to subject the interpretation and application of Scripture. The debt we owe to Calvin in establishing sound canons of interpretation and in thus directing the future course of exegetical study is incalculable. It is only to be lamented that too frequently the preaching of Protestant and even Reformed communions has not been sufficiently grounded in the hermeneutical principles which Calvin so nobly exemplified.
One feature of Calvin’s exegetical work is his concern for the analogy of Scripture. He is always careful to take account of the unity and harmony of Scripture teaching. His expositions are not therefore afflicted with the vice of expounding particular passages without respect to the teaching of Scripture elsewhere and without respect to the system of truth set forth in the Word of God. His exegesis, in a word, is theologically oriented. It is this quality that lies close to that which was par excellence his genius.
However highly we assess Calvin’s exegetical talent and product, his eminence as an exegete must not be allowed to overshadow what was, after all, his greatest gift. He was par excellence a theologian. It was his systematizing genius preeminently that equipped him for the prosecution and completion of his masterpiece.
When we say that he was par excellence a theologian we must dissociate from our use of this word every notion that is suggestive of the purely speculative. No one has ever fulminated with more passion and eloquence against “vacuous and meteoric speculation” than has Calvin. And no one has ever been more keenly conscious that the theologian’s task was the humble and, at the same time, truly noble one of being a disciple of the Scripture. “No man,” he declares, “can have the least knowledge of true and sound, doctrine, without having been a disciple of the Scripture. Hence originates all true wisdom, when we embrace with reverence the testimony which God hath been pleased therein to deliver concerning himself. For obedience is the source, not only of an absolutely perfect and complete faith, but of all right knowledge of God” (Inst. 1, 6, 2). In the words of William Cunningham: “In theology there is, of course, no room for originality properly so called, for its whole materials are contained in the actual statements of God’s word; and he is the greatest and best theologian who has most accurately apprehended the meaning of the statements of Scripture—who, by comparing and combining them, has most fully and correctly brought out the whole mind of God on all the topics on which the Scriptures give us information—who classifies and digests the truths of Scripture in the way best fitted to commend them to the apprehension and acceptance of men—and who can most clearly and forcibly bring out their scriptural evidence, and most skillfully and effectively defend them against the assaults of adversaries . . . Calvin was far above the weakness of aiming at the invention of novelties in theology, or of wishing to be regarded as the discoverer of new opinions” (The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, Edinburgh, 1866, p. 296). As we bring even elementary understanding to bear upon our reading of the Institutes we shall immediately discover the profound sense of the majesty of God, veneration for the Word of God, and the jealous care for faithful exposition and systematization which were marked features of the author. And because of this we shall find the Institutes to be suffused with the warmth of godly fear. The Institutes is not only the classic of Christian theology; it is also a model of Christian devotion. For what Calvin sought to foster was that “pure and genuine religion” which consists in “faith united with the serious fear of God, such fear as may embrace voluntary reverence and draw along with it legitimate worship such as is prescribed in the law” (Inst. 1, 2, 2).
The present edition is from the translation made by Henry Beveridge in 1845 for the Calvin Translation Society. The reader may be assured that the translation faithfully reflects the teaching of Calvin but must also bear in mind that no translation can perfectly convey the thought of the original. It may also be added that a more adequate translation of Calvin’s Institutes into English is a real desideratum. In fulfilling this need the translator or translators would perform the greatest service if the work of translation were supplemented by footnotes in which at crucial points, where translation is difficult or most accurate translation impossible, the Latin text would be reproduced and comment made on its more exact import. Furthermore, footnotes which would supply the reader with references to other places in Calvin’s writings where he deals with the same subject would be an invaluable help to students of Calvin and to the cause of truth. Admittedly such work requires linguistic skill of the highest order, thorough knowledge of Calvin’s writings, and deep sympathy with his theology. It would also involve prodigious labour. We may hope that the seed being sown by the present venture may bear fruit some day in such a harvest.
Professor of Systematic Theology,
Westminster Theological Seminary.