Institutionalized: Endtroducing Calvin

So in order launch into my reading of the institutes I reckoned it would make sense to read all the various prefaces first. (Well, not all of them, I skipped the 50-or-so pages of stuff from later translators and so on and decided to start with Calvin’s own words of introduction.) Of course the various prefaces that Calvin wrote were completed after the main corpus and comment on the completed work as well as its impact in Europe (hence my DJ Shadow-referencing title for this post). I have to say for prefaces there were already a number of things that stood out to me:

Sufficiency of Scriptures?

This is actually not something particularly unique to Calvin, virtually all Protestant theologians hold to the idea that the text of the Bible is enough by itself. Calvin here is no different, modestly protesting that his own work doesn’t really add anything to what scripture already says. Of course this prompts one to ask the obvious question: why write it? Why not focus on translating and printing as many Bibles as possible in the common tongues of 16th Century Europe? If there were errors in the teachings and doctrines of Rome, then letting everyone have access to the Bible in a language that they understood should, by Calvin’s own admission be enough to correct things. Of course Protestants as a whole have spent a great deal of time and effort translating and distributing Bibles, but at the same many of them publish reams and reams of their own words and ideas. Has anyone else noticed this or thought it curious? It reminds me the quip that, for people who don’t believe words have any meaning, deconstructionists sure like to talk. Likewise, for people who believe that the Bible is a sufficient (or even infallible or authoritative) text, Reformed Christians (and Protestants in general) sure like to write a lot of their own books.

Appreciating the Early Church

In his preface to the King of France, Calvin cites extensively from various church fathers to defend the teachings of the nascent Protestant churches. It is fairly clear that he studied them in some detail since he clearly lived in an age before someone could just google for quotes. This is possibly because Calvin lived right near the close of the age where one could read “everything” – that is to say pretty much all of what one considered Western literature and thought – Ancient Greece and Rome, the Bible, the aforementioned church fathers, some medieval theologians, various epics of one’s own nation. Nonetheless the very fact that Calvin deploys them as evidence for his case (with a disclaimer that they are not on a par with scripture itself) seems to indicate that he took them seriously. This flies in the face of the common evangelical church history narrative (and practice) in which, outside of perhaps Augustine, no one wrote anything worthwhile between the completion the biblical texts and Luther’s 95 Theses. There is no reason why Protestants cannot join with Catholics and Orthodox Christians in learning from these authors.

On Custom

The most arresting aspect of Calvin’s preface has to be his rejection of custom. He appears to regard custom as a repository for bad habits and a justification for doing evil. This is in diametric opposition to the sort of classical Burkean conservative view where custom is general seen as the accretion of good or beneficial aspects of a society, something that is undone at our peril. Here is Calvin unwittingly setting the fuse for the whole of enlightenment rationalism down to the French Revolution. Actually, here’s a point about Calvin that’s often overlooked – he’s French! He’s prepared to tear everything back to the studs and start over again if he thinks something is wrongly constructed, just like Descartes will try to do with philosophy, like the Jacobins will do with the Revolution, like Napoleon will do with law and education and the military. It’s enough to remind me of the ideology of toilets: