The following is a summary of and reflection upon an abridged version of Calvin’s Institutes produced by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne (see it here on Amazon). I should note that I did not read the final book, Book IV: Outward Means by which God Helps Us, in its entirety; and therefore, it was directly not taken into consideration in the writing of this review.
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Calvin’s understanding of how men know God, know themselves, and the relationship between these two types of knowledge is seemingly foundational to the entirety of his theology (1:1:1). For Calvin, knowledge of self is intrinsically linked to knowledge of God while knowledge of God results in proper assessment of self (1:1:1). Genuine knowledge of self necessarily assumes knowledge of God. One cannot fully grasp the existence of the creature apart from his fundamental relationship to his Creator and Sustainer (1:1:1). Comprehension of man’s falleness assumes an ideal, one that is rooted in God’s creative-design; transgression implies the reality of Judge (1:1:1). On the other hand, without knowledge of God, no one ever truly knows himself (1:1:2). Lacking insight into the purpose for which He was created, ignorance of his original nature and its divine intent flourish. Unaware of God’s standard of righteousness, man consequently assesses his moral condition inaccurately (2:1:1).
The paradoxical nature of acquiring this knowledge of God and self—one is unable to attain knowledge of one without first possessing the other (1:1:1); and yet we lack both and therefore are unable to attain either—leaves room for and requires the sovereign grace of God to intervene (1:6, 7). Without spiritually enlightened eyes of faith, creation and natural law, although revealing God to a partial extent, are an insufficient means of actualizing valid knowledge (1:5:14; 2:8:1). Any knowledge that is obtained is merely sufficient to condemn, not restore. In man’s fallen condition, such knowledge is futile apart from a savior (2:6:1). God delivers knowledge through His law whereby he definitively demands reverence for His majesty and explicitly exposes our inability and transgression (2:8:1). Nonetheless, the impotence of the Law to bring about perfection merely makes us more culpable apart from grace (2:7:3). In God’s mercy, all men possess a sensus divinitatis (sense of the divine) (1:3; 1:4). But, as is the case with all other samplings of knowledge, man desperately needs God’s “inner revelation” in order to know rightly and rightly use such knowledge (1:5:14). Such revelation occurs by means of the Spirit in conjunction with God’s Word (1:6, 7). In sum, Calvin’s epistemology of self and God is intimately coupled with a vivid understanding of the necessity of God’s sovereign grace in light of man’s absolute fallen condition. Correspondingly, Calvin’s theology exhibits a tremendously high view of God and displays an extremely desperate view of sinful man.
In the course of The Institutes, Calvin systematically articulates several doctrines; and in so doing, his theology exemplifies some distinguishing qualities worth noting. Although recognizing reason and natural revelation’s compatibility with special revelation (contra. fideism), Calvin devalues its usefulness (e.g., in establishing scripture’s authority) due to the fallen condition of those who employ it. Calvin establishes scripture as the par excellence authority. It is needful as the foundation for true knowledge; yet, it is only accepted through the Spirit’s “hidden witness” (1:6, 7, 9). For Calvin, God’s providence is neither a passive, mechanistic determinism nor a general, ambiguous oversight. It is God’s constant caring involvement and definitive guidance in every particular detail of His creation in accordance to His eternal decree (1:16). In Calvin’s theology, sin penetrates and pollutes every part of man resulting in absolute corruption of nature—total depravity (2:1:8). Man retains his will, but it is enslaved and necessarily only sins (2:3). Consequently, salvation occurs due to God’s efficacious grace, not by man’s cooperation (2:3:10). For Calvin, the moral Law serves three purposes: (1) displaying God’s standard of perfection and therefore exposes man’s need for salvation, (2) restraining sin in society, and (3) providing guidance for those enabled by grace to obey (2:7:6-12). In distinguishing between Law and Gospel, Calvin nonetheless carefully clarifies that they harmoniously affirm the same plan of salvation centered in Christ (2:9). Calvin presents Christ’s person and saving work in terms of three mediatorial offices—prophet, priest, and king—in which Christ secured the entirety of the elects’ salvation through His active obedience, penal substitutionary death, resurrection, and ascension (2:12-16). Central to this salvation is the justification of the believer, where by faith one takes hold of Christ, receives remission of sins, and is imputed Christ’s righteousness (3:11-19). Although imperfect, this faith is granted by the Spirit, consists of a certainty of God’s favor in Christ, produces assurance (3:2), and is logically followed by repentance (3:3). And of course salvation from beginning to end originates in and is guaranteed by God’s unconditional, sovereign predestination. In God’s sovereign grace and goodness, He chose to save some, while rejecting all others (3:21-24).
Calvin’s incredibly reverent posture towards the Godness of God and his related sober assessment of the human condition provides a refreshing, potentially uncomfortable, but needed assessment for our contemporary Christian climate. Calvin’s vision of God would serve as a helpful recalibration for a Christian community that is all to ready to fashion a god in its own image. Calvin’s perspective challenges us to reevaluate our view of God—is our understanding of God too human and creaturely?—and our corresponding response to Him. This challenge is needful in a Christian culture that at times may reflect a view of a God who is whimsical, needy, only moderately holy, exists merely to serve people’s wants and desires, and ultimately is accountable to man. Likewise, Calvin’s unapologetically straightforward view man is corrective to our inclination towards pride, a sense of self-dependability, and ingratitude for God’s grace. We are completely dependent on God down to our very existence. Consequently, we are unable to manipulate or barter with God. And concerning our merit, Calvin reminds us that the entirety of our salvation originates in God’s unconditional election, is solely accomplished by the mediatorial work of Christ, and is realized apart from any of our contribution or assistance. We think far too highly of ourselves because we measure with a faulty yardstick (1:1:2). From this dual knowledge of God and self, Calvin would rightly have us hate sin, cherish God’s law, and fear and adore Him.
For Calvin, theological truth is intimately tied to the practical nature of the Christian life (1:2; 3:6:4). For example, genuine comprehension of the doctrine of God necessarily results in humility, reverence, and worship (1:2:1). God’s providence provides comfort in the midst of all circumstances, no matter how desperate they may seem (1:17). The doctrine of justification with its freely offered righteousness of Christ serves as the ultimate basis for the Christian’s assurance of God’s favor and escape from a guilty verdict (3:14:19-20). That same union with Christ that results in one’s justification inevitably results in his sanctification as well (3:16:1). Correctly understood, the doctrine of election promotes humility (3:21:1). And the resurrection provides a final hope amidst life’s struggles (3:25). Running contrary to many common contemporary perspectives, Calvin insists that theology can never be divorced from practicality. And conversely, Calvin would likely argue that application can never exist without a theological basis—application assumes the application of something, that being theology.
Theological truth informs us about reality. Thus, theology is inherently practical because it provides us the proper lenses with which to live in correspondence to reality. But for Calvin, because of God’s gracious disposition towards humanity, God’s revealed truth is not merely true, but its nature is such that it provides guidance, comfort, and encouragement. And because theological truth is ultimately revelation about God, complete theological inquiry is not possible apart from reverent worship of and humility before God (1:2). In conclusion, as ministers of the Gospel, we would do well to learn from Calvin’s example by utilizing the practical riches within storehouse that is theology.