WE have seen on a previous page that the inception of the “Institutes” took place in the Angouleme library. Some biographers think that the first draft was written there; others take the contrary view. But we are upon safe ground in tracing the birth of this great work. In his retirement in Basle, Calvin heard of the fierce persecutions of the Reformed in Paris, of the “placards,” and of the burnings. He would remember the martyrs as his brethren. And now also he would hear the bitter and cruel charges that were made against them falsely by their enemies; and his whole great soul went forth to vindicate them and the gospel they loved. Many a noble and beautiful tree has grown from the ashes of the martyrs. One of the most entrancing beauties of nature I have ever gazed upon, and I have seen it more than once, is the sheets of cherry-blossom just outside Coventry, covering some acres of the ground on which God’s witnesses left their ashes and their blood. So the “Institutes” grew out of the fire.
We have his own testimony to this. I quote from his Preface to the Psalms:— “Whilst I lay hidden at Basle, and known only to a few people, many faithful and holy persons were burned alive in France; and the report of these burnings having reached foreign nations, they excited the strongest disapprobation among a great part of the Germans, whose indignation was kindled against the authors of such tyranny. In order to allay this indignation, certain wicked and lying pamphlets were circulated, stating that none were treated with such cruelty but erroneous and seditious persons, who, by their perverse ravings and false opinions, were overthrowing not only religion but also all civil order. Observing that the object which these instruments of the court aimed at by their disguises, was not only that the disgrace of shedding so much innocent blood might remain buried under the false charges and calumnies which they brought against the holy martyrs after their death, but also that afterwards they might be able to proceed to the utmost extremity in murdering the poor saints without exciting compassion towards them in the breasts of any, it appeared to me that, unless I opposed them to the utmost of my ability, my silence could not be vindicated from the charge of cowardice and treachery. “This was the consideration which induced me to publish my Institute of the Christian Religion. My objects were, first, to prove that these reports were false and calumnious, and thus to vindicate my brethren, whose death was precious in the sight of the Lord.
And next, that as the same cruelties might very soon after be exercised against many unhappy persons, foreign nations might be touched with at least some compassion towards them and solicitude about them. “When it was then published, it was not that copious and labored work which it now is, but only a small treatise containing a summary of the principal truths of the Christian Religion; and it was published with no other design than that men might know what was the faith held by those whom I saw basely and wickedly defamed by those flagitious and perfidious flatterers. That my object was not to acquire fame appears from this, that immediately after I left Basle; and particularly from the fact that nobody there knew that I was the author. Wherever else I have gone, I have taken care to conceal that I was the author of that performance.”
Two things are apparent from this noble extract, which I could not curtail: that God had a higher design than Calvin; and that what he so tried to conceal was destined to come to the light. I have counted no fewer than thirty-seven editions of the Institutes in the British Museum catalogue.
The first edition was written in Latin, and was published at Basle, in 1536.
It contained six chapters. The second edition, 1539, comprised seventeen chapters. The edition of 1543 consisted of twenty-one chapters; and the completed edition of 1559, eighty-four.
Speaking of the growth of the book, the author says: — “Though I had no cause to be displeased with my labor in the matter, nevertheless I do confess that I had no satisfaction in it till I had digested it into its present order, which I hope you will approve … I spared myself all the less till I had completed the book, which, surviving after my death, might show how desirous I was to satisfy those who had already found profit in it … I had wished to do it sooner; but it will be soon enough if well enough; and for myself it will suffice that it has borne fruit to the church of God.”
How much fruit, and how rich, only the great day will reveal.
The style is simple, correct, clear, elegant, animated, and varied in form and tone. His pen is ready, flexible, and skillful in expressing all the shades of thought and feeling.
During the remainder of his life, the author devoted himself to the expansion of his work; which thus grew, not like a building, but like a tree.
Twenty-seven years of his life formed the preparation to write it; twentyseven years were employed by him in enlarging and completing it. The first translation was into French; and it was afterwards translated into most of the languages of Europe.
We should expect that the orderly mind of Calvin would produce a book modeled in perfect method. This is so; and, like all sound method, it is simple.
The author divides his work into four parts. The knowledge of God the Father; faith in God the Son as Redeemer; the Person and work of God the Holy Spirit; and the church of God.
The preface is addressed to Francis I., King of France, and is dated “Basle, 1st August, 1536.” A quotation from this preface will be interesting to the reader. “My intention was to furnish a kind of rudiments, by which those who feel some interest in religion might be trained to true godliness.
And I toiled at the task chiefly for the sake of my countrymen the French, multitudes of whom I perceived to be hungering and thirsting after Christ, while very few seemed to have been duly imbued with even a slender knowledge of him. “But when I perceived that the fury of certain bad men had risen to such a height in your realm that there was no place in it for sound doctrine, I thought it might be of service if I were in the same work both to give instruction to my countrymen, and also lay before your majesty a Confession, from which you may learn what the doctrine is that so inflames the rage of those madmen who are this day, with fire and sword, troubling your kingdom.”
From the “Epistle to the Reader,” prefixed to the second edition, published at Strasburg in 1539: “When I perceived that almost all the godly had received it with a favor which I had never dared to wish, far less to hope for, being sincerely conscious that I had received much more than I deserved, I thought I should be very ungrateful if I did not endeavor, at least according to my humble ability, to respond to the great kindness which had been expressed towards me, and which urged me to diligence.”
From the preface to the French edition, published at Geneva, 1545: “And since we are bound to acknowledge that all truth and sound doctrine proceed from God, I will venture boldly to declare what I think of this work; acknowledging it to be God’s work rather than mine. I exhort all who reverence the word of the Lord to read it, and diligently imprint it on their memory. When they shall have done so, they will know by experience that I have not wished to impose upon them with words.”
A brief extract from the “Epistle to the Reader,” prefixed to the last edition that was revised by the author: “Though I do not regret the labor previously expended, I never felt satisfied until the work was arranged in the order in which it now appears. Now I trust it will approve itself to the judgment of all my readers. As a clear proof of the diligence with which I have labored to perform this service to the church of God, I may be permitted to mention that, last winter, when I thought I was dying of quartan ague, the more the disorder increased, the less I spared myself, in order that I might leave this book behind me, and thus make some return to the godly for their kind urgency. … Farewell, kind reader; if you derive any benefit from my labors, aid me with your prayers to our heavenly Father.—Geneva, 1st August, 1 559.
The teaching of John Calvin has been so misrepresented by the opponents of the great doctrines of grace, as well as by the papists, and also so misunderstood even by some who profess to embrace them, that in my judgment it will serve a useful purpose to give a careful selection of Calvin’s own thoughts in his own words. This will answer many questions and instruct the questioners. It sometimes occurs that opposers know very little of what they oppose; and we have very good authority and example for “in meekness instructing those who oppose themselves.”
To prevent the growth of this chapter unduly, I will devote a separate chapter to a concise view of the Institutes.