The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Institutes of the Christian Religion, The

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Institutes of the Christian Religion, The
Edition of 1920. See also Institutes of the Christian Religion on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION, The (‘Christianæ Religionis Institutio’), by which John Calvin laid the foundations of Calvinism, stands unique among books that have had immediate, deep, wide, and lasting influence on Christian thought and life not alone for the author's youth, the comparative brevity of the theological studies that preceded it, and the speed at which it was completed, but also for the fulness with which the system it presents was elaborated at the work's first appearance in 1536. For though revised and extended, more logically and inclusively presented, in the edition of 1539, still further revised in 1543 and 1550, and reaching its final form only in 1559, it shows throughout no sign of change of position, still less of retraction. Begun in 1534 when Calvin was barely 25, the book was practically completed when in August, 1535, Calvin addressed the remarkable letter to King Francis I, with which it opens. As this letter shows, the Institutes were composed, or at least completed, to meet a present necessity, to correct an aspersion on his fellow reformers. The French king, wishing to suppress the Reformation at home yet unwilling to alienate the reforming princes of Germany, had sought to confound the teachings of the French reformers with the attacks of Anabaptists on civil authority. “My reasons for publishing the Institutes,” Calvin wrote in 1557, “were first that I might vindicate from unjust affront my brethren whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord, and next that some sorrow and anxiety should move foreign people, since the same sufferings threaten many.” Therefore he wrote in Latin, but he proceeded immediately to translate his work into French, and in both forms it gained quickly wide circulation.

“The hinges on which our controversy turns,” says Calvin in his letter to the king, “are that the Church may exist without any apparent form” and that its marks are “pure preaching of the word of God and rightful administration of the sacraments.” If such preaching bring disorder, the blame is not with it but with Satan. The ‘Institutes,’ in this first form, follow the traditional arrangement, observed also in Luther's short catechism of 1529, and fall into six chapters. The first three, dealing with Law, Faith, and Prayer, and, in the main, the fourth, treating of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper, are expository. The last two were of necessity more controversial, for they dealt with “False Sacraments,” namely Confirmation, Penance, Unction, Orders, and Matrimony, and with Christian Liberty, Ecclesiastical Power, and Civil Administration. The controversial tone, even here, is, however, less pronounced than in later revisions, and what are commonly regarded as the distinctive features of Calvinism are less emphasized.

The ‘Institutes’ in this first form were not merely a logical and felicitous exposition of Reformation doctrine; they proved the inspiration to a new form of Christian life. Their debt to Luther in the treatment of Faith and Sacraments, to Martin Bucer in what is said of Divine Will and Predestination, and to the later scholastics for teaching involving unsuspected implications of freedom in the relation of Church and State, has been clearly traced. Yet the ‘Institutes’ were justly felt to be as a new voice, and before the year was out there was demand for a second edition. This came in 1539, amplifying especially the treatment of the Fall of Man, of Election, and of Reprobation, as well as that of the Authority of Scripture. It showed also a more irenic temper toward Luther in the section on the Lord's Supper. The edition of 1559, claiming to be “almost a new work” is in fact a complete recasting of the old ‘Institutes’ into four books and 80 chapters, on the basis of the Apostles' Creed. In this form the work was translated into French and Dutch in 1560, into English in 1561, into German in 1572, into Spanish in 1597. Seven other editions and four abridgments appeared in English before the end of the 16th century. A judicious summary of the teachings of the ‘Institutes’ is to be found in W. Walker's ‘John Calvin,’ pp. 409-429. No book of its century showed such power to spread ideas and to unify the strivings for reform. That cardinal period in Christian development found in this book the most logical, clear, characteristic presentation of what reformers prized as truth, and, though its teachings are nowhere held to-day in their fulness, the place of the ‘Institutes’ as a Christian classic is secure.

Very important in their apparently unrealized implications were the teachings of the ‘Institutes’ on civil government. They counted it the function of an ideal state to see that no- “offenses against religion break out or be disseminated.” It was, indeed, a duty to submit to rulers negligent in this regard; but “if they command anything against God, let us not,” says Calvin, “pay the least regard to it nor be moved by all the dignity which they possess as civil magistrates” (‘Institutes,’ IV, xx, 32). With the example of church officers responsible to the congregations they served, such teaching could not fail to stimulate the movement toward individual liberty and democratic freedom.

Changes from the teaching of the ‘Institutes’ among those who most cherish Calvin's memory are notable in the matter of church discipline and in regard to the duty of civic rulers to guard the purity of the church. Changes are seen also in the doctrine of the Scripture, of election, reprobation and human depravity. This is natural. The appeal of the ‘Institutes’ was to the intellect, and these very changes are in large part the result of the vigorous thinking which the ‘Institutes’ demanded and of which they were so eminent an exemplar. The standard edition of the ‘Institutio’ is in Calvin's Works, edited by Baum, Cunitz and others (59 vols., Brunswick, 1863-1900); the last volume has a full bibliography. Translations by H. Beveridge (3 vols., Edinburgh, 1845-46) and others. See Rayburn, H. Y., ‘John Calvin, his Life and Works’ (New York 1914); Penning, L., ‘Life and Times of John Calvin’ (New York 1912); Walker, W., ‘John Calvin’ (New York 1906).

Benjamin W. Wells.