Thursday, January 01, 2009

0 The Institutes: John Calvin's Letter to the Reader - Intentions and Purposes

In his brief introductory letter to the reader prepended to the Institutes, Calvin notes that he "was never satisfied until the work had been arranged in the order now set forth", that is, the order of the final Latin edition of 1559. The Institutes had gone through several editions in Latin from their first publication in 1536 to the now standard 1559 edition. The initial 1536 edition was indeed very brief, and when laid side-by-side with the large, 1559 edition, the contrast is significant. The introduction in the McNeill edition of the Institutes has an interesting discussion of the evolution of the Institutes over the 23 years from 1536 to 1559, and Battles's Analysis of the Institutes similarly traces the development, and in particular has a couple of charts that show the ordering and reordering of topics that took place as Calvin took the work from the first edition, wrote his first catechism in 1538 and proceeded to later editions.

Furthermore, Battles undertook a translation of the initial edition after finishing his work on the 1559 edition, and the 1536 version can be purchased here.

Calvin's letter gives briefly the central purpose for the production of his magnum opus. He writes:
Moreover, it has been my purpose in this labor to prepare and instruct candidates in sacred theology for the reading of the divine Word, in order that they may be able both to have easy access to it and to advance in it without stumbling. For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents. (p. 4, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
He intends that this be a summary document, on in which he has pulled together various parts of Scripture to summarize its teaching concerning God and man, and the duties we have to Him and to others. His efforts have produced perhaps the most important work other than the Holy Scriptures, in many people's estimation, including mine. His ultimate desire in this, I believe, as in all his work as a pastor and teacher in God's church, is given by an earlier comment in this letter of introduction - and it is an aim that all of us in the church ought to adopt as our own, in the various callings and roles we play in it whether we have been invested with much or little authority:
I am also duly clear in my own conscience, and have God and the angels to witness, that since I undertook the office of teacher in the church, I have had no other purpose than to benefit the church by maintaining the pure doctrine of godliness. (p. 4, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Godliness. It is a word of enormous weight - and simplicity. God-centeredness in all things; a focus and a ground for all that we do. To love and obey God, to serve Him with our very lives. To glorify God and enjoy Him forever, as the Shorter Catechism instructs. May it be so in our lives.



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