The Institutes of Christian ReligionThe Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many wicked lies get mixed up with the tiny particles of truth in the writings of these philosophers.

I am here writing a review of John Calvin’s most famous book, but I can’t say I’ve actually read it. I have read an abridged version, one that preserves about 15% of the original. This is still a fair amount, considering that the unabridged version runs to well over 1,000 pages; but there is so much I missed that I feel a bit self-conscious writing a review.

John Calvin is arguably the most important Protestant theologian in history. Karl Barth once called Hegel the ‘Protestant Aquinas’, but the title seems more apt for Calvin, whose Institutes put into systematic form the new theology and dogma of the budding faith. Calvin begins with knowledge of God, then moves on to knowledge of Christ, the Christian life, justification by faith, prayer, election and predestination, the church and the sacraments, and much more along the way.

Calvin was a lawyer by training, and it shows in his style. Unlike Aquinas, who made careful arguments and addressed objections using logic, Calvin’s primary mode of argument is to quote and interpret scripture, in much the same way as a lawyer might argue from legal precedent. You can also see his legal background in Calvin’s combative tone; he attacks and defends with all the cunning of a professional debater, and will use any rhetorical device available to win his case.

The two biggest theological influence on Calvin, it seems, were St. Paul and St. Augustine, both of whom were rather preoccupied with evil and sin. The gentleness of the Gospels seems totally absent from Calvin’s worldview. Perhaps this is due as much to his personality; he struck me as rather saturnine and bitter, a man disappointed with the world. His mode of argument and cutting tone—treating all his interpretations of the Bible as self-evident and obvious, and his enemies as wicked deceivers—also made him, for me, a rather authoritarian guide through theology. And his zeal was manifested in deed as well as word. It was Calvin, after all, who oversaw the auto-da-fé of Michael Servetus, a Unitarian who believed in adult baptism.

Besides being a powerful thinker, Calvin was a powerful stylist. This book, in the French translation, remains one of the most influential works of French prose. He can swell into ecstasies as he describes the goodness of God, the mercy of Christ, and the bliss that awaits the elect in the next life. At other times, he can rain down fire and brimstone on sinners and reprobates, accusing humanity of universal sin and condemning human nature itself. One of his most characteristic moods is a powerful disgust with sin, which he sees as an inescapable part of earthly life, a pervasive filth that clings to everything. This quote gives a taste of his style:

Even babies bring their condemnation with them from their mother’s womb; they suffer for their own imperfection and no one else’s. Although they have not yet produced the fruits of sin, they have the seed within. Their whole nature is like a seedbed of sin and so must be hateful and repugnant to God.

The most controversial part of this book is the section on predestination. Before even the creation of the world, God knew who would be saved and who would be damned. Our salvation is not ultimately due to any choices we make; we are entirely helpless, completely dependent on God’s grace. By ourselves, we earn and deserve nothing. Human nature can take no credit for goodness. The reason why some are saved and others damned is entirely mysterious. You can never know for sure if you are among God’s elect, but there are certain signs that give hope.

One thing I do admire about Calvin’s argument for predestination is that he achieves a brutal kind of consistency. God is all-powerful, and thus responsible for everything that happens; he is all-knowing, and so was aware of what would happen when he created the world; and he is infinitely good, so all goodness resides in him and not in us.

The only problem with this doctrine is that, when combined with the doctrine of heaven and hell, it makes God seem monstrously unjust. A God who creates a world in which the majority of its inhabitants will be inescapably condemned to everlasting torment is even worse than a man who breeds puppies just to throw them in the fire. Calvin makes much of the “inscrutability of God’s judgment”; but this is as much to say that you should believe him even though what he’s saying doesn’t make sense.

Calvin perhaps can’t be faulted too much for reaching this bleak conclusion. Theologians have been trying for a long time to square the attributes of God—omnipotence, omniscience, omnibenificence—with the qualities we observe in the world and the doctrine of heaven and hell. Everlasting punishment can only appear fair if the sinner brought it upon himself with his own free action (and even then, it seems like a stretch to call everlasting torment “justice”).

But how can free will exist in a universe created by an all-powerful and all-knowing God? For if God knew exactly what was going to happen when the universe was created, and is ultimately responsible for everything that happens (since he created the universe with full knowledge of the consequences), then that would make God responsible for the existence of sinners, and thus we get this same absurdity of people being punished for things they were destined to do.

For my part, I find this question of predestination and punishment extremely interesting, since I think we will have to face similar paradoxes as we learn to explain human behavior. As our belief in free will is eroded through increasing knowledge of psychology and sociology, how will it affect our justice system?

In any case, I’m glad I read the abridged version, since I can’t imagine pushing myself through more than 1,000 pages of this book.
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