The Institutes and the Reformation

I’ve started reading Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea in my downtime, and just finished reading McGrath’s explanation for why Calvin’s Reformation was more successful internationally than Luther’s or Zwingli’s. One of the answers that McGrath gives is Calvin’s magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Below is just one of the reasons why the Institutes was so successful. I think this lesson from history should be instructive for Protestants: good systematic theology still has a purpose, and arguably the only way Protestantism will be demonstrably a success in history is if something like Calvin’s work can be produced again to take into account all the debates that have happened since his day.

Yet it was not simply the many educational and presentational virtues of the book that propelled it to prominence. It addressed head-on the central weakness of Protestantism up to this point: the problem of the multiplicity of interpretations of the Bible. How can one speak of the Bible as having any authority when it is so clearly at the mercy of its interpreters? Calvin presents his Institutes as an authoritative guide to the correct interpretation of scripture. “My object in this work,” he wrote, “is to so prepare and train students of sacred theology for the study of the word of God that they might have an easy access into it, and be able to proceed in it without hindrance.”

Calvin established the credentials of his interpretation of the Bible not by an assertion of his personal authority or wisdom, but by careful engagement with biblical passages, informed by a good knowledge of how these passages had been interpreted by well-regarded older Christian writers, such as Augustine of Hippo. Readers of the work found themselves presented with reasoned, defended, and superbly presented accounts of central Christian teachings, firmly rooted in the Bible. Calvin presented and critiqued alternatives, reassuring readers of the plausibility of his own preferred interpretations in the face of these rivals. He did not merely defend his ideas; he showed how he derived them in the first place.

So what are the central ideas that Calvin developed? The most important is the fundamental assertion that a consistent and coherent theological system can be derived and defended on the basis of the Bible. Calvin’s greatest legacy to Protestantism is arguably not any specific doctrines but rather his demonstration of how the Bible can serve as the foundation of a stable understanding of Christian beliefs and structures… . 93-94

Calvin’s growing appeal within many sections of Protestantism lay not in his institutional authority—he was, after all, nothing more than a pastor at Geneva, a small city by the standards of the time—but in the growing perception of his widening readership that he was serious, reliable, and trustworthy. It is generally agreed that one of the most important factors contributing to this growing reputation was the Institutes. 96