Humble Calvinism: (3) The Institutes > Intro

Just above my desk in either direction – like birds perched on a ledge – sit my closest theological friends. Within arm’s-reach I can pull down centuries of biblical insight from Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Thomas Boston, Richard Sibbes and Charles Spurgeon.

Each of these men remind me of an era when the word “God” was a noun loaded with absolute truth worthy of fear, worthy of love, worthy of obedience, worthy of life-long investigation. The noun “God” demanded bold, absolute statements found in the preaching and lengthy books now looking over my shoulder.

This is not my era.

In my era, “god” is a subjective verb, a relative feeling or sensation available to anyone with little concern for the scope of biblical revelation. With this cultural shift comes a radical shift in the pulpit. The “god” of the verb is captured by little more than catchy stories and warm illustrations. Divine truth becomes secondary. Hearers believe what they want, take what they will and leave what they don’t fancy. The one heresy that remains is the concept of ‘heresy’ (another no-no noun).

To my generation, cultural relevance seems tied to our ability to disguise the noun with a verb.


Sitting between Edwards and Owen, in a rich blue cloth binding and ornate embossed spine, perch the 2 volume Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin. It was written at a time when “God” was a noun – a real person, with real character and real motives – and written by a man propelled by love to communicate this God to the transformation of his culture.

Calvin’s Institutes remain one of the most significant theological writings in church history. His style is so readable, his scope so broad and the practical implications of his conclusions so relevant that this work remains accessible today.

Sadly there is a tendency to reduce Calvinism into a theological acronym TULIP: Total depravity (or radical depravity); Unconditional election; Limited atonement (or particular redemption); Irresistible grace (or efficacious grace); and Preserving grace. These theological terms are important. But Calvin will not let us develop a theological framework to feed theological cookies to intellectual elites. Among many purposes (like easing the persecution of post-Reformation believers) the repentance of the unregenerate and a growth in godliness of the regenerate are central to Calvin’s monumental work.

Calvin writes because he wants sinners to know God, know Christ and see the value of the Church.

When I turn my thoughts to the topic of ‘Humble Calvinism’ I am thinking of something much bigger than TULIP or predestination, election and foreordination. These theological puzzle pieces fit into a larger framework bordered by Calvin’s desire to see sinners truly cling to God and honor Him in everyday life so that all people – black, white, men, women, artists, teachers, scientists, political rulers – will humble themselves under the one, sovereign God.

Summa Pietatis

In the introduction of the English translation of the Institutes, John T. McNeill writes, “The discerning reader soon realizes that not the author’s intellect alone but his whole spiritual and emotional being is enlisted in his work … He was not, may we say, a theologian by profession, but a deeply religious man who possessed a genius for orderly thinking and obeyed the impulse to write out the implications of his faith. He calls his book not a summa theologiae but a summa pietatis. The secret of his mental energy lies in his piety; its product is his theology, which is his piety described at length.”

Calvin himself defines piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him – they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him” (1.2.1).

Notice especially Calvin’s emphasis on “reverence.” The common experience of men and women in Scripture who see God is fear. We can measure God’s presence in our lives and culture to the degree that men and women fear God. Reverence towards God is part of what it means to know God and a lack of fear towards God displays the ugliness of human sinfulness (Rom. 3:18). Calvin reminds us of this sovereign God who controls all things and causes men and women to shake in fear and trembling.

Joel Beeke writes, “John Calvin’s Institutes have earned him the title of ‘the preeminent systematician of the Protestant Reformation.’ His reputation as an intellectual, however, is often seen apart from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology. For Calvin, theological understanding and practical piety, truth and usefulness, are inseparable. Theology first of all deals with knowledge – knowledge of God and of ourselves – but there is no true knowledge where there is no true piety” (Calvin on Piety paper).

Calvin sounds the unmistakable warning: A Calvinist is not one who merely understands TULIP and the theological framework associated with it. Calvinism – truly humble Calvinism – builds off the assumption that I must fear God for his holiness, love God for His generosity and find all my joy in Him! This throbbing piety is the heartbeat of Calvinism.

But this message is not only for the churchgoer. God’s plan is the transformation of every facet of culture. To accomplish this, God must sovereignty capture the arts, sciences, academics, politics and the pulpit. This transformation of an ignorant cultural was the bull’s-eye John Calvin rested his theological crosshairs.

Transforming Culture

Historian Alister McGrath has traced the impact of Calvin in natural sciences (encouraging astrology astronomy, medicine and the scientific study of nature), human rights, the arts, economic development and how he brought dignity to human labor. “Calvinism was far more than a theology; it was perceived as a progressive worldview which seemed capable of taking that world by storm, and made a deep impact upon the culture of the period” (A Life of John Calvin, p. 247).

Calvin’s goal was cultural transformation, also labeled the “secularization of holiness” (Henri Hauser). While this label is open to misunderstanding it does represent Calvin’s goal beyond seeing the redemption of sinners but also infusing a culture with holistic holiness.

But why this cultural impact? In distinguishing the Reformers McGrath writes, “Calvin was not concerned [as Luther] with the reformation of a university theological curriculum – in the great free cities of Strasbourg and Geneva, the chief enemies were indifference and ignorance, demanding a systematic presentation of reforming ideas rather than an engagement with the intricacies of scholastic theology” (p. 38).

Today we need Calvin, not just the academic reforms sought by Martin Luther in Germany. Through our blogs, churches, sermons, books and articles we need to once again clarify the nature and revealed motives of God and apply these conclusions holistically to a culture marked by theological “indifference and ignorance.”

To Calvin, this “indifference and ignorance” of God was not merely overcome by contextualizing the message but preaching a holistic message. He was driven – not only to plant churches – but to explain “God” (the noun form) to cities being eternally destroyed for a lack of knowledge (Hos. 4:6). He longed for the earth be “filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Hab. 2:14). He set out to preach the whole council of an all-powerful and absolute God.

And so I am grieved to hear others characterize Calvin as dilapidated, antiquated, obsolete and muted. I disagree. He remains relevant because his source of truth and vision are timeless.

John Calvin’s holistic vision and biblical theology are set forth in the Institutes of Christian Religion. It is a book we need desperately to communicate in today’s language. My prayer in 2007 echoes alongside Calvin’s prayer from 1557: By God’s grace we will pursue Humble Calvinism for the purpose of culturally widespread, God-glorifying piety.


Click here to access previous posts in the Humble Calvinism index.


10 thoughts on “Humble Calvinism: (3) The Institutes > Intro

  1. Thanks for showing the need for Calvinism today (noun vs. subjective verbs) and the true broadening of reformed theology from just an acronym.


  2. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series. I believe you meant “astronomy” rather than “astrology” under “Transforming Culture” heading.

    Thanks for the series,

  3. I’m curious, which edition of the Institutes do you have? I’m looking to buy it in the somewhat-near-future, and would like to get a nice edition (which it sounds like yours is).

  4. Jason, No doubt you want the McNeill/Battles translation. I have a clothbound version from Westminster I purchased 6 years ago. From what I see, it appears the same book is now published in a plastic cardboard hardcover (yuck!). I cannot say this for sure, but that’s what it appears in the pictures from Westminster Bookstore and Ligonier ministries. It’s worth asking around for a cloth even if you have to go used.


  5. Jason,

    John T. McNeill is the editor and Ford Lewis Battles is the Translator.

    ISBN-10: 0664220282
    ISBN-13: 978-0664220280
    Publisher: Westminster John Knox Press; 1559 translation edition (June 1960)

  6. Hi Tony,

    In regard to the quote below was it Calvin who actually said this?

    Calvin sounds the unmistakable warning: A Calvinist is not one who merely understands TULIP and the theological framework associated with it….

    This is the paragraph after the Beeke quote.


  7. Hello Tony. No, this is a summary of the Institutes and especially in light of Calvin’s emphasis on personal piety. Tony

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