Tim Keller–The Counter-Intuitive Calvin

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….

Read it all.


Posted in * Christian Life / Church Life, * Religion News & Commentary, Church History, Evangelicals, Other Churches, Theology

3 comments on “Tim Keller–The Counter-Intuitive Calvin

  1. J. Champlin says:

    I read the institutes straight through when I was twenty-one years old. Wonderful! Over the years, Calvin has been supplanted by other things. Still, the treatise on the Christian life, Christian freedom, civil government, the first chapter of the Institutes, the doctrines of church and sacraments, the providence of God; all still loom large in my mind. Also, his care with Scripture, his humanism, and his lawfulness and sense of civic responsibility still beam bright. And when Calvin writes clearly and beautifully; well, “You will never learn true gentleness except by this, a heart imbued with lowliness and reverence for others.”

  2. Mark Baddeley says:

    Tim Keller’s description sounds like someone who has actually read Calvin on his own terms and ‘gets’ him. The narrow, miserly Calvin is a bit like people saying that the OT is all about a God of judgement – it’s a sure sign they haven’t either read or grasped what they’ve read.

  3. Adam 12 says:

    I have dabbled in Calvin, and even brought some expositions to Bible study, but he presents difficulties for me because (it seemed) every disquisition had to include a coda taking a hit at the Catholic church, at least the Catholic church as he thought of it in his day. I would be interested in others’ thoughts on this topic and how they deal with the sort of self-definition of Calvin in which he sets his conclusions against a foil that he repeatedly denigrates.