New Reading Guide to Calvin’s Institutes

You’re a nerd when you read with two books open at the same time and just for fun and not because you have a class paper due. That’s me. When I read Scripture I keep a commentary open at my side. When I read poetry like John Donne’s Holy Sonnets I keep this commentary at hand. Even when I read The Lord of the Rings I keep this commentary at arms reach. I’ve come to appreciate commentaries, summaries, annotated guides, really any secondary literature by scholars more familiar with the original source before me. And over the years this practice has been deeply rewarding.

Few original sources are more enriching than John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. It’s a very important work in the history of the reformed church, but it’s also old (first published in 1536), it’s foreign-born (written originally in Latin and French), and it’s quite long (1,600 pages). A good companion guide is essential. In the past I’ve used competent guides like T.H.L. Parker’s Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought.

But no guide summarizes Calvin’s points more concisely or more clearly than J. Mark Beach in his new book Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions (RHB, 2010). This 352-page summary can be read as a stand-alone introduction to the life and theology of Calvin or it can be read as a chapter-by-chapter summary guide for readers committed to reading the entire Institutes.

Beach is a seminary professor but this book originated from pastoral convictions, a desire to connect the Christians of his congregation to the riches of Calvin. This was a high task—and a very difficult one—but a task Beach masterfully fulfills. The work oozes with theological conviction, biblical references, and pastoral sensitivities. I would say it surpasses other guides in its field but I’m not sure there are other guides written specifically to benefit the local church.

In the preface Beach explains the origin of the book:

Some years ago when I was serving as pastor to a congregation of believers in Pella, Iowa, I proposed to the adult study group that we study Calvin’s Institutes. I was encouraged by how many were interested in the project. But I also saw furrowed brows. Some asked, “You’re not expecting us to read all the way through the Institutes, are you?” At that moment I tasked myself with writing a synopsis of Calvin’s two big volumes.

He goes on to detail the purpose of his work:

This book does not aim to be a book for Calvin scholars. I am not trying to present a fresh vision on Calvin or his works. Nor am I seeking to commandeer Calvin to win some modern, theological fight. The goal of this synopsis is more modest in the academic sense but no less important in the churchly sense, namely, to present Calvin as a teacher of biblical truth and thus to instruct believers today in the faith they profess. This book therefore is directed to all persons who want to read Calvin’s theology but find themselves short on time and too overwhelmed to study the bulky volumes that comprise the Institutes.

Any pastor who wants his church to benefit from the Institutes should take a look at Piety’s Wisdom. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the endorsement from a leading authority on reformation-era theology, Richard A. Muller:

Mark Beach’s Piety’s Wisdom provides a finely done summary and analysis of Calvin’s Institutes that should be of considerable service to Christian laity, pastors, and students in coming to terms with the thought of the Genevan Reformer. Beach writes clearly and concisely, and with considerable insight into Calvin’s thought. The book includes a short biographical sketch and a contextual introduction to the Institutes. It stands as one of the best and most trustworthy introductions to Calvin presently available.

You can preview the first 32 pages here (PDF).

Currently the book can be purchased only through the publisher’s website. It sells for $15. UPDATE: It will be available from Westminster soonly ($15).

Highly recommended.

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