Reading John Calvin

So the other day I found another podcast worth a regular listen. It’s called Into Theology: Reading Great Works of Theology Together. It grabbed my attention because in the first several episodes the hosts discuss John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. “Aha!” I thought, “Here’s my chance!” Whereas on my own reading the Institutes felt a little intimidating, now I would have some (hopefully!) helpful guides. I took my copy of Calvin off the shelf, blew off the dust, and prepared to dive in.

I’m on the 3rd episode of the podcast and on page 99 of the Institutes (it starts on p. 35 when you skip the intro and Calvin’s “Prefatory Address to King Francis”). Listening to the podcast is helpful, because it gives some context to Calvin that makes him easier to understand. Though he’s certainly not impenetrable as a writer. But it’s not like reading modern theology or any modern prose for that matter. However, when read slowly and thoughtfully, you find little bits that stick out which are simply briliant.

There are a couple of passages that have stuck out to me thus far. The first is how he begins the whole thing. He says:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. In the first place, no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he “lives and moves” [Acts 17:28].

Calvin, Intitutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chap. 3, part 1.

I appreciate how Calvin here talks about how we can’t know ourselves without knowing God and how, when we become self-reflective, our thoughts naturally turn to God. That is, we were made to think about God. Of course, as Calvin goes on to say, quite often human beings do not pursue right knowledge of God and end up creating idols. But I just thought his way of beginning the Institutes was very insightful.

In the other passage he is talking about the relationship and the difference between general revelation in nature (what we know of God through what he has made) and special revelation in Scripture (what we can know because God has directly revealed it to us through his word):

Just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God. This, therefore, is a special gift, where God, to instruct the church, not merely uses mute teachers but also opens his own most hallowed lips. Not only does he teach the elect to look upon a god, but also shows himself as the God upon whom they are to look.

Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chap. 6, Part 1

I love where he says that God opens his own most hallowed lips. What a powerful and wonderful way to describe the inspiration of Scripture.

When you decide to read a great work of theology, you needn’t worry about being a genius who picks up and remembers and absorbs all the details. I certainly don’t! Sometimes it’s simply about immersing yourself in a great thinker’s thoughts enough to have your thinking stretched here and there; and in that way to have your mind, and perhaps your heart, more deeply and fully directed to the One who is the source and subject of that theologian’s work.

So if I manage to keep on going through Calvin, I will probably keep sharing what I find now and then.

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