Calvin's "Institutes" most important book, after the bible?


My minister, a dear friend, is a big Calvin fan who said to me, during the week, that

This was because I had said, a few weeks earlier, that I wasn’t impressed by Calvin (having just read Talbott’s book).

Today he has lent me his copy of Calvin’s Institutes and suggested I read Book 1:
]Chapter 15: Discussion of Human Nature as Created, of the Faculties of the Soul, of the Image of god, of Free Will, and of the Original Integrity of Man’s Nature/:m]
]Chapter 16: God by His Power Nourishes and Maintains the World Created by Him, and Rules Its Several Parts by His Providence/:m]
]Chapter 17: How We May Apply This Doctrine to Our Greatest Benefit/:m]
]Chapter 18: God So Uses the Works of the Ungodly, and So Bends Their Minds to Carry Out His Judgments, that He Remains Pure from Every Stain/:m]

I don’t want to be inflammatory, but what do others think of Calvin and his works, if you can indeed separate them? Does being Evangelical mean we have to view it as second only to the bible?


I agree that Calvin is very important and up there in Church History with Augustine and Edwards, but I find the Institutes difficult to read sometimes. If you are after a clear, biblical and easy to read Systematic Theology (but also surprisingly comprehensive) try the one by Wayne Grudem.

General Question: Are there any Systematic Theologians who are Universalists?


I can think of at least two offhand who knew they were arriving at something equivalent to universalism (although they denied being universalists): Barth and Balthasar.

Both are regarded among different branches of the Church (mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic respectively) as being the greatest systematic (i.e. exegetical) theologians of the 20th century. Not so much by evangelical branches, obviously. :wink:

I know Grudem’s work is popular, but I can’t say I much appreciate the flagrant circular presuppositionalism with which he grounds his attempts (quite in the mold of Van Till). That doesn’t mean it can’t be useful; just annoyingly crippled. I warn people to disregard the first several chapters of Morey’s book on the Trinity for much the same reason, when recommending that work. (His triumphal oppositionalism, while easy enough to understand, is hard to read through as well.)


I know a very large number of Arminian Evangelicals who would answer with a resounding HELL NO!! :mrgreen:

Calvin was (and is) certainly influential, and I respect a lot of the things that he’s trying to do (and on occasion succeeding at doing). Obviously I disagree with him strenuously at several points; and his attitude toward the propagation of his understanding of Christian doctrine is extremely troublesome.

I’ve been meaning to write a commentary on the Institutes for years; but it remains perennially on my to-do list. :wink:

Perhaps a good project would be to post up those chapters in sequential parts for commentary, Alex? Whether one agrees with his exegesis and metaphysical rationales or not, there are good reasons why Calvin is well worth listening to, and has been so influential on so many subsequent generations: he works hard at hammering down his points as solidly as he can see to do so.


It may not count as systematics, but E. Stauffer’s “New Testament Theology” affirms universalism.

All my systematic’s profs at Fuller were ‘Calvinists’ and we were constantly reading the Institutes, but I remain ignorantly confused about him. I have both the impression that he is brilliant force with which to reckon, and a sense that he was dogmatically incoherent. Much of this may be because my teacher’s consensus on being 'Calvinists" seemed to produce little consensus as to what views correctly represented Calvin’s actual understanding.

And more recently, a course at Regent, Vancouver, on Reformational Anthropology, was taught by a passionate Calvin scholar who did her doctoral dissertation on him at St. Andrews. When I told her that the views of election I was taught at Fuller seemed unBiblical and abbhorent to me, she said, "Well, he is brilliant, but when it comes to salvation, Calvin forgot about Christ, and was not thinking Christologically. She also told me theological reflection on Scripture means for her that her sympathies are with George McDonald and universalism. That’s a Calvinist lover to which I could warm up.


Wow, Bob! It amazes and pleases me to hear that it’s possible for an ardent Calvinist to say this.

I confess I have not read any of the Institutes (except for the occasional quote), nor have I felt any great desire to do so. I sorta feel like I should–just because Calvin is historically such an influential figure–but it’s not high priority on my list.

So, (obviously!) I wouldn’t personally agree that it’s the most important book after the Bible. (But–seeing as I haven’t read it, what do I know?? I might change my mind!)

What is his reason for making that claim, I wonder?



Jason, speaking of Robert Morey, says “his triumphal oppositionalism”…
What is this?


Instead of sticking with the technical issues, he often ad hominems his opponents, attributing bad motivations to them while presenting ortho-trins as being faithfully pure as the driven snow. I could easily see a unitarian or modalist (or other theist, or non-theist) flinging the book away at being told they have cruddy motivations which they themselves realize they don’t remotely have. I can’t really say I’d blame them for that either.

Bowman and Komoszewski, in Putting Jesus In His Place, are much better about not doing that kind of thing. Both are very useful resources I’ve gratefully used numerous times, and each covers some examples not mentioned in the other (I especially love B&K’s H.A.N.D.S acronym for assessing the identity claims of Jesus–whereas in his favor, Morey has a somewhat wider theological scope in view); but I’d hand over B&K’s book first.

(In Morey’s defense, his acrimonious tone isn’t much different from standard classical Christian sources when debating on this topic. sigh. Also, both sets of authors tend to overreach sometimes, Morey I’d say more often than B&K. I’m inclined to attribute that difference to Morey’s presuppositionalistic methodology.)


this may be a bit hasty of me, and poorly reasoned, but one of the things that has kept me from reading or wanting to read much of Calvin as been, well, Calvinists.

i’ve known a few really intense Calvinists, mainly through on-line conversation, and was amazed to see in a few instances that aligning with Calvinist theology seemed to lead to increased excitement, aggression, argumentativity, and extreme focus on ideas, rather than on Christ, the Living Saviour.

of course i suppose preoccupation with any aspect of theology could lead to an aggressive fixation on concepts and their defense, but i’ve seen this a few times especially with devoted Calvinists. what i’ve read of Calvin’s response to Michael Servetus hasn’t really helped me to warm to him, either.

i don’t doubt he was a brilliant thinker, but as far as books being next to the Bible in importance for Christians… i’d personally vouch for the writings of men like Ignatius of Antioch, Isaac the Syrian, or other early Christian writers as candidates.


Sergius Bulgakov (1871-1944) was an Archpriest in the Russian Orthodox Church, and a thorough-going Universalist. He held that the salvation of all creation (including Satan himself) is certain. His systematic theology is his great trilogy, On Divine Humanity:

  1. The Lamb of God (1933) [which covers Christology]
  2. The Comforter (1936) [which covers pneumatology]
  3. The Bride of the Lamb (1945) [which covers ecclesiology and eschatology]


Some of my dearest friends and family are Calvinists, or at least try to be (often they try to say the Calvinistic things but their generous, loving actions tell the real story :stuck_out_tongue:), so I’ll try to say this gently! if God’s end goal for most people is retribution not reconciliation, then I think it’s easier to slip into a “judging/seeking to be right” attitude :neutral_face: Obviously, this isn’t 100% of Calvinists, 100% of the time, but I’ve seen it happen often enough, to think there’s some link.


Alex ~

i’ve noticed the same, too. and i don’t mean to make blanket statements, but there does seem to be this excited, almost angry passion linked to Calvinism. maybe it’s related to the enthusiasm they feel over being so specifically correct in their theology (from their persepctive), and being part of an “elect”.

i think Jason Pratt mentioned something about the possibility of one being both a Calvinist and an Evangelical Universalist, assuming that one sees all as someday being brought into the ranks of the elect.


I asked my friend to expand on why he thought

He replied


Bulgakov’s first book (interesting and helpful though it is in several regards) doesn’t really qualify as the kind of exegesis most of us are thinking of when using the term ‘systematic theology’, though. I haven’t read the sequels yet, but I doubt they’re any more-such like that.

Nor did I find it to be much of a systematic progressing metaphysic, although overall it’s more metaphysical in topic than exegetical.

(I say “overall” because his extensive introductory essay, practically a book in itself, is a fine history of Christological debate in the Patristic Church. But still not a systematic theology.)

I’m not trying to diss him; I’m just warning potential readers ahead of time: I went to him having heard he was a systematic theologian, but came away very disappointed. It could easily be replied that this is an example of big differences between Eastern and Western systematics. I don’t doubt that (based on my experience with Eastern theologians so far; Bulgakov is quite typical in that regard), but it still didn’t provide what I was looking for.


What exactly is meant by “important” in this case? Important in the sense of it’s influence on Protestant thinking?

I can see it as important in that sense. My first reaction when I read the statement was that he was implying that we couldn’t properly understand scripture without Calvin’s commentary–and I’m sure some folks do feel that way. I’d disagree with that; Christ tells us we have One Teacher.

But, in light of the respect Calvin has been held in for so long, I’d guess we’ve probably all, consciously or not, been influenced by him in our thinking and assumptions–the things we just take for granted–and it seems to me that reading his stuff could be helpful in bringing some of those underlying presuppositions and reasonings up to where they can be examined afresh in light of scripture. So in that sense, I can see it as being very important.

(Edited to add the second two paragraphs.)


Sonia ~

i wonder the same. Evangelicals seem to kind of have a tendency to understand Christian history as “there was the Lord and His Apostles, and then 1,400 years of spiritual darkness, and then God sent Martin Luther”. not to be dismissive of Luther, or his contributions, but a rich history of Catholic and Orthodox thinking gets completely ignored. many of us don’t seem to be especially aware of their existences, myself included.


Well while I can, I’m typing it up as I go, to try to help me understand what he’s on about! Here is the first page, about 50 to go :confused:



That’s exactly what I loved about Grudem; his echoes of Van Till. You could say the only alternative to flagrant circular presuppositionalism is obscured foundationless relativism! :sunglasses:


Trying to convince you not to be a universlist is an outworking of my Calvinism! :stuck_out_tongue:


Please could you expand on that?