Last year Banner of Truth released a new translation of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion 1541 edition in French translated by Robert White. This is subtitled Calvin’s Own ‘Essentials’ Edition. This is one volume and about 800 pages. The McNeill (ed)/Battles translation of the 1559 Latin edition is 2 volumes and 1,500 pages. So, this is a significantly shorter edition of Calvin’s Institutes.
This is a very readable translation. I generally enjoyed the translation and preferred the typesetting over the McNeill edition. It was easier to read. It was like a different book because so many familiar sections were missing since Calvin himself was in an earlier stage of his ministry and theological development. As a result, I would recommend owning, and reading, both editions.
This edition does not follow what would become standard systematic categories in its approach to explaining the Christian faith, and distinguishing the views of the Reformation from Roman Catholicism as well as Anabaptism (the radical reformation) as well as popular contemporary heresies. In this way, it is obviously a product of its time. Our theological struggles can be different though sometimes they are the same struggle with a different name. Calvin frequently interacts with earlier theologians so there are plenty of references to Augustine, Cyprian, Aquinas, Chrysostom and more. Keep in mind he didn’t have the internet or a computer to run a search in a book for a quote. He was well read.
One of Calvin’s commitments is to revealed theology, not speculative theology. It is alleged, and oft repeated by me, that his favorite verse was Deuteronomy 29:29.
29 “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Surely it was one of his favorite passages, and fundamental to his theological method. His understanding of salvation was found in another of his favorite verses from 1 Corinthians 1:
30 And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
That focus on union with Christ is not as prevalent in this edition as in book 3 of the 1559.
He does begin this edition in a similar place: the knowledge of God. By this he doesn’t mean theology proper, but how we come to know God. He moves on to discuss, in one of the largest chapters, the knowledge of man and free will. He takes a number of difficult issues right off the bat.
He moves to the Law and then Faith. The chapter on faith explains the Apostles’ Creed. As a result, this is where the theology proper and Christology resides. If you simply look at the chapter titles you may think he doesn’t cover these things, but he does them in the context of the Creed. There is a method to this “madness”: he’s showing the king of France our continuity with historic Christianity.
From there Calvin moved into distinctive views that set the Reformation apart from contemporary Catholicism and other views of his time: repentance, justification, predestination and providence, prayer, the sacraments, Christian freedom, the power of the church, civil government and the Christian life. His style of writing is very much caught up in these controversies. And the “spirit” of his age. While not as colorful as Luther, he still offends our modern sensibilities (and makes the politically incorrect among us laugh). There are a number of significant ideas here. I’ve blogged on some of them, and hope to get back to some more in the future. I think this is an important read to understand the Reformation, particularly the magisterial branch that was rooted in Geneva but spread through the continent, over to the British Isles and eventually the new world. Invest the time in one of the classics.