Calvin's Theology: The Aim & Purpose of the Institutes

It would be difficult to underestimate the impact John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion have had on the Church.  Yet while Calvin’s most significant theological work has been highly valued as a theological exposition of the Christian faith, his magnum opus was not conceived from the outset as a systematic theology text.  Calvin had other purposes for his small work; his two-fold aim was education and apologetics.  Dismayed by the biblical ignorance of his fellow countrymen, and anxious to defend them from the attacks of “certain wicked men,” Calvin declared in his dedication to King Francis I, ruler of France, “…it seemed to me that I should be doing something worthwhile if I both gave instruction to those I had undertaken to instruct and made confession before you with the same work.”[i]

Calvin’s declared intent to “transmit certain rudiments”[ii] of doctrine as a basis for instruction in the true faith is seen in the content of the first edition (published 1536) of the Institutes.  There he followed the traditional catechetical content of expositions of the Decalogue, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer.  These three categories of Law, Faith, and Prayer were sufficient in Calvin’s mind to represent the bare minimum of biblical teaching “by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[iii]  In his French edition of 1541, Calvin is even more explicit about his educational purpose: “Although the teaching contained in holy Scripture is perfect and cannot be added to, since there our Lord has chosen to display the infinite treasures of his wisdom, nevertheless someone who is not well trained in it needs a certain amount of guidance and direction in order to know what to look for, what mistakes to avoid and what path he may safely keep to; that way he will be sure of attaining the goal to which the Holy Spirit is calling him.”[iv]

Calvin’s dedication spelled out the Institutes’ other purpose, a defense of his fellow French Protestants.  The exiled French humanist-turned-Protestant-defender laid his concern before the king that “the fury of certain wicked persons has prevailed so far in your realm that there is no place in it for sound doctrine.”[v]  Calvin went on to assure Francis that the doctrine which his Protestant subjects – and Calvin himself – embraced was neither heretical nor treasonous, and certainly not deserving of harsh measures: “From this [the Institutes] you may learn the nature of the doctrine against which those madmen burn with rage who today disturb your realm with sword and fire.  And indeed I shall not fear to confess that I have here embraced almost the sum of that very doctrine which they shout must be punished by prison, exile, proscription, and fire, and be exterminated on land and sea.”[vi]

We must add a third, unstated purpose for the Institutes.  The content of Calvin’s book also plainly shows that his third purpose was polemics.  Polemics is the other side of the coin of apologetics; if apologetics is the defense of true doctrine, polemics is the attack of false doctrine.  Calvin understood that it was not enough to defend his own views; it was also essential that false doctrine not be allowed to hold the field with impunity.  And so in the 1536 edition Calvin assailed the errors of his opponents by refuting the Mass and attacking “The Five False Sacraments.”  So important was this third purpose, that as his book evolved through five major editions over a span of some twenty four years, the polemical content grew larger.

Apart from the actual content of the Institutes, Calvin’s overall aims for his monumental theological achievement are helpful reminders that for theological knowledge to be truly Christian and truly practical, it’s not enough just to inform our minds with God’s truth; truth must be defended and error defeated.  So armed with this knowledge, let’s commit ourselves to the same relentless pursuit and defense of “Christ’s truth,” while giving error no quarter.  Perhaps Calvin’s words of exhortation can augment his enduring example: “But our doctrine must tower unvanquished above all the glory and above all the might of the world, for it is not of us, but of the living God and his Christ whom the Father has appointed King to ‘rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth’ (Psalm 72:8).’”[vii]

James Rich is the Assistant Pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Harleysville, PA, and holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He taught high school history and Bible and has served as an adjunct faculty member at the college and seminary level.

[i] Preface, Institutes, 1536 edition.

[ii] Preface, Institutes, 1536 edition.

[iii] Preface, Institutes, 1536 edition.

[iv] “Outline of the Present Book,” Institutes, 1541 edition).

[v] Preface, Institutes, 1536 edition.

[vi] Preface, Institutes, 1536 edition.

[vii] Preface, Institutes, 1536 edition.


James Rich