This article is about John Calvin's view of theology and about his Institutes.

Source: Witness, 2009. 3 pages.

Godliness Necessary for the Knowledge of God The Challenge of Calvin's Institutes

To many in the evangelical world today theology is regarded as a matter for academics. It is considered rather dry and uninteresting and not very practical.

But it all depends on what we mean by theology. In the modern world theology is often used in a comprehensive sense, embracing all the disciplines involved in a university course or in the training of men for the church ministry. It is an academic discipline no longer necessarily located within the Christian community. In fact it may not have any connection with godliness.

When we go back to the roots of our Reformed heritage we find a difference. For John Calvin, to divorce theology from godliness or piety was unthinkable. He was, in the estimation of Philip Melanchthon, the theologian. His Institutes of the Christian Religion is unrivalled as a theological textbook but it is much more than that. The root meaning of ‘theology’, derived from the Greek theologia, is ‘speaking about God’. But Calvin’s view was that this ‘speaking about God’ is not discoursing about Him as the object of speculative thought but as the object of religious reverence. He could agree with Aquinas that ‘theology is taught by God, teaches of God, and leads to God’. Calvin’s Christian life and theology can be summed up under devotion, doctrine and doxology.


In his 1964 Evangelical Library lecture on John Calvin, Professor John Murray declared: ‘Any theologian is unfitted for his task unless he knows the power of the redemption of which Holy Scripture is the revelation’. The Genevan Reformer was fitted for the task by a definite conversion experience. He was brought up a Roman Catholic, and set out to train for the Church. His father redirected him to the study of law. It was during this period of legal training that he underwent a spiritual transformation. Although throughout his life he was very reticent to speak about himself, there is a rare reference to his conversion in the Preface to his Commentary on the Psalms:

And first, since I was obstinately devoted to the superstitions of Popery to be easily extricated from so profound an abyss of mire, God, by a sudden conversion, subdued and brought my mind to a teachable frame, which was more hardened in such matters than might have been expected from one at my early period of life. Having thus received some taste and knowledge of true godliness I was immediately inflamed with so intense a desire to make progress therein, that although I did not altogether leave off other studies, I yet pursued them with less ardour.

We can gather from this account that his pre-conversion condition was marked by a hardened and resistant mind and, by implication, a distaste for true godliness. He was later to speak of the fallen human mind as ‘a perpetual factory of idols’. What he experienced was in effect a conversion from idolatry. It meant a transition from ignorance of the Divine being to a personal knowledge of the only true God. His mind was softened and thus brought ‘to a teachable frame’. God subdued his heart and made it docile. Calvin became, in the words of a biographer, Jean Cadier, ‘the man God mastered’.

In this mastering Calvin was left with no choice but to offer his heart to the Lord. His life’s prayer – ‘I offer my heart to you, O Lord, promptly and sincerely’ – was an unwavering declaration of surrender to the Lord, whom he sought to love with all of his heart, soul, mind and strength. Calvin was converted from the excesses of the medieval Catholic Church of his day and received ‘a taste and knowledge of true godliness’. He identified himself with the emerging Reforming and evangelical wing of the church in France. As a result of the persecution that arose in France, the young Calvin fled to Basel, a centre of the Reformation. There he began writing what was to be the first edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion. It started as a modestly-sized apologia for the evangelical faith that was based on Luther’s Catechism. The work was designed both as a compendium of the doctrines of the Christian religion and as a confession offered to the persecuting French King on behalf of the author’s fellow believers. It became more elaborate as Calvin’s own thought matured through times of conflict, and his desire for order in Reformed theology increased. The Institutes went through several editions, reaching its definitive shape in 1559.


It should not surprise us that the Institutes takes its characteristic form from Calvin’s own experience. Ford Lewis Battles, the translator of the Institutes, in addressing a class of students said:

You are about to share in one of the classic experiences of Christian history ... on the deceptively orderly and seemingly dispassionate pages that follow are imprinted one man’s passionate responses to the call of Christ. If you keep ever before you that autobiographical character of the book, the whole man will speak to you in every truth.

The original title of the work gives us an indication of what Calvin intended:

The Institute of the Christian Religion, containing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever it is necessary to know in the doctrine of salvation. A work very well worth reading by all persons zealous for piety and lately published. A preface to the most Christian King of France, in which this book is presented to him as a Confession of Faith.

John T McNeill, editor of the Battles’ translation, makes this claim about Calvin: ‘The secret of his mental energy lies in his piety; its product is his theology, which is his piety described at length’. His book therefore is not a summa theologiae but a summa pietatis.

In the preface to the last Latin edition of the Institutes, Calvin affirms that in the labour of preparing it his sole object had been ‘to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness’. It has affinities with Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. The two theologians who had the greatest influence on Calvin were Augustine and Luther. Both had conversion experiences related to texts in Romans – Augustine with chapter 13:13 and Luther with chapter 1:17. There are indications that Calvin was affected by Romans 1:18-25 and especially v21: ‘Because that, when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations and their foolish heart was darkened’. This should not surprise us when we discover that the central themes of Calvin’s piety are the honouring of God and being thankful to him. It was the intolerable contrast between God’s absolute perfection and man’s fallenness that initiated Calvin’s religious quest. Book 1 of the Institutes deals with ‘The Knowledge of God the Creator’ and opens with the words,

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

What does Calvin mean by the knowledge of God? It is not rationalistic speculations about the existence or the nature of God: ‘For our understanding is not capable of understanding His essence’. It is a knowledge of what God is in relation to ourselves, the knowledge that brings us to love and fear God and render Him thanks for His benefits. ‘For, correctly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion nor piety’. How does one attain this knowledge of God? ‘No one can have the least taste of sound doctrine and know that it is of God, unless he has been to this school, to be taught by the Holy Scripture’. What should we really be looking for in the Scriptures? It was to give an answer to that question that Calvin wrote his Institutes.

The Scriptures must be read with this intention, that in them we find Christ.

Books 2 and 3 deal with the outworking of redemption in ‘The Knowledge of God the Redeemer in Christ’ and ‘The Way in which we receive the Grace of Christ’. In the outworking of his soteriology it can be said that Calvin was the first 1) to relate the whole work of the Trinity so closely to salvation; 2) to classify it in terms of the threefold office of Christ as prophet, priest and king; and 3) to give the Holy Spirit his proper place in salvation. In Book 3, in the course of five chapters, he gives a brief directory of the Christian life that is balanced, penetrating and practical. It has been published separately as  The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life. In Book 4 he deals with the doctrine of the church, how it is to be governed, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper and finally with civil government.


We have looked at Calvin’s teaching that begins with God and teaches about God. The aim is to direct our hearts and minds back to God according to the way He deserves and demands. Godliness is responding to God’s revelation in trust and obedience, faith and worship, prayer and praise, submission and service. The eternal Gospel is summarised by the angel in Revelation 14.7 as ‘Fear God and give glory to him ... and worship him’. The central focus of Reformed teaching has been the vision of God in His glory. Man’s chief purpose is to glorify and worship God. For Calvin, it was the issue of worship that necessitated the Reformation: ‘The worship of God is to be preferred to the safety of men and angels’. The true knowledge of God leads to right worship, which leads to right living. The Reformation divines preached soli deo gloria in every sphere of life because they first sought it in worship. Religion is not merely a set of doctrines but rather a way of worship and a way of living.

In the teaching of Calvin, the whole of personal and corporate life is to be subjected to God and to His will. This is a most basic fundamental principle that ought to govern all of our living: ‘The divine will is the perpetual rule to which true religion must be conformed’. Reformed theology has consistently sought to order the whole of life according to the requirements of God in Scripture. It has always sought to do justice to the corporate dimension of the glory of God. Strong efforts were made to model civic as well as ecclesiastical life in this way. Calvinism has a comprehensive world-view. As Abraham Kuyper was to declare three centuries after Calvin:

There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ who is sovereign over all does not cry “Mine”.

The translator of the Institutes, F L Battles, maintained that ‘it is a living, challenging book that makes personal claims upon the reader’. Let us pray and seek for that vision of God that leads to religious reverence and godly living. When evangelical theology loses sight of that vision it loses its way, but when it keeps it in sight it stays on the right path and fulfils its purpose.

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