So what did I do on my summer vacation? I continued to do something that I started January 1 of this year. Late last fall I came upon a plan for reading through all of John Calvin’s Institutes””his four volume, 1500 page or so systematic exposition of the teachings of the Christian faith””in one year. Calvin and Martin Luther together were the two leading lights of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, Calvin being the founder of the “Reformed” branch of the church of which Presbyterianism is a major part. Today, however, Calvin has a dismal reputation as a pinched, narrow-minded, cold and cerebral dogmatician.
I knew much of this image was caricature, and while over the years I had read a good deal of the Institutes, I treated the books like an encyclopedia or dictionary that one dipped into to learn about specific topics. I had never read it straight through, consecutively, until this year when I began the program, which allots an average of six pages a night, five nights a week, for an entire year. Almost immediately I was amazed by several things.
First, it is not just a textbook, but also a true work of literature. It was written in Latin and French and is a landmark in the history of the French language. Calvin was a lawyer and seems at time to relish debate too much (a flaw he confesses in his letters). But despite such passages, even in English translation it is obvious that this is no mere textbook, but a masterpiece of literary art, sometimes astonishing in its power and eloquence.
Second, it is nothing if not biblical….