Institutes of the Christian Religion Book Review (Excerpts)

This review was prepared for my course The Holy Spirit in the History and Theology of the Church in Summer 2011.

This book review is not in response to the entire work. Excerpts were chosen relating specifically to Calvin’s understanding of the Holy Spirit. I have read other bits and pieces but have not read the whole thing.

Summary and Critical Reading

As the cover of the copy used for this report puts it, John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is “one of the ten books that shook the world” (quoting Will Durant).  That is probably not even an overstatement, as five hundred years later the book is still used as a definitive theology for Christian traditions consisting of millions of people.  In the prefatory address of the book, to Francis the King of France, Calvin establishes his aim for the book.  At first, he says, he was aiming only to lay out the basics of the Christian faith for those who “feel some interest in religion.”  He later decided however that he must go beyond that to offer a defense of the Reformed viewpoint against those who have been condemning it.[1]

The major issue of the book as a whole, then, is whether Calvin’s doctrine – Reformed doctrine – is in fact a corruption of “the Truth” or not.  To show that it is not, he sets out an extremely rational and comprehensive argument.  To me – even though I disagree with large parts of Calvin’s theology – that is the main strength of all of his work but especially the Institutes: it is very logical and internally coherent.  Whether it succeeded in convincing King Francis I am not familiar enough with Reformation history to be able to say, but by the fact that the Reformed Church survived and thrived up until today, I would definitely consider the theology outlined in Institutes to be a success.  I would suspect that the reason for its success was its rationality as well as its repeated appeals to Scripture (as he interpreted it).

My own response is one of a love-hate relationship and I cannot say that it convinced me as it has so many others.  My own personality greatly appreciates structure and logical systems, which as said above I do see as the main strength of Calvin’s work.  Yet I also can’t agree on many of his conclusions, especially about the depravity of humanity and the various doctrines which come out of that.  While I see it is as mostly internally coherent, I don’t always see it as coherent with Scripture or with other sources of revelation – other sources of revelation which in fact he tends not to consider revelation.  The best way to sum up my response then is probably respectful disagreement: respectful of his intellect, his Christo-centric and Scripture-based thought and his persuasive writing abilities, but disagreement with many of the conclusions nonetheless. Despite my own disagreements, the respect aspect is easily enough that I would still evaluate this book as a must-read for anybody interested in Christian theology, whether layperson, professional, or scholar.

On the more specific question of the Holy Spirit, John Calvin is sometimes called “the theologian of the Spirit.”  This may misleadingly give the impression that the Holy Spirit was central to Calvin’s doctrine.  More accurately, I think, it speaks far more to the absence of the Holy Spirit in most other Western writings than it does to the amount of work by Calvin on the subject.  For example, in discussing the knowledge of God – an area which usually in my experience has included mention of the work of the Holy Spirit – there is not a single reference to the Spirit.[2]  How we come to know God is not by the work of the Holy Spirit and it is not even through the person of Jesus.  Revelation is solely limited to Scripture, and we are “altogether unable to come to God if not aided and upheld by his sacred word.”[3]

The Spirit is given the role in affirming Scripture to those who read it, through “secret testimony.”  Since this testimony is superior to reason, it does not need to be further explained why Scripture is ultimately the only authority.  As the Spirit inspired the words, the Spirit must also convince us to trust them.  Calvin is certain that the Spirit is not guiding the teachings of the Church in the same way as he was inspiring Scripture, rebuking his Catholic opponents.[4]  He doesn’t give any particular justification for this belief that the Spirit was at work then in the inspiring of Scripture but is no longer at work in the Church except to emphasize that we trust Scripture.  This came across to me as a very sudden shift of approach from an otherwise very rational defense to a suddenly circular argument: we should trust Scripture because it is inspired by the Holy Spirit and we know that it is inspired because the Holy Spirit tells us so.  If we disagree, or claim any inspiration by the Spirit through the Church or any other means, we obviously do not have the Spirit.

Calvin also affirms the traditional understanding of the Trinity.  He argues for both the divinity of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  As has always been the case throughout the Church’s history, the Holy Spirit is dealt with last, but there is still a lengthy discussion of the divinity of the Spirit that does not feel as if the third person of the Trinity is in any way subordinate.  The Holy Spirit is credited with beauty in creation as well as with regeneration of life.  He works to justify us, being the source of every good thought and every gift.  As with Jesus, a multitude of Scriptural references are provided to defend the Spirit’s oneness with the rest of the Godhead while simultaneously being a different person.  Calvin also distinguishes, in the standard Western formula that while the Spirit is no less than the other two he does proceed from both Father and Son.[5]

The most in-depth discussion of the Holy Spirit comes with the topic of salvation.  The Spirit is essential to experiencing God’s grace and Calvin states that without the communion of the Holy Ghost “no man shall ever taste the paternal favour of God, or the benefits of Christ.”[6]  He summarizes that “faith is his principal work…as it is only by faith that he brings us to the light of the Gospel.”[7]  As we are totally depraved on our own, the only way we can approach faith in Christ is through the work of the Spirit.[8]  To put it in terms I have heard often by other Protestant teachers, the Holy Spirit’s primary task is to point to Jesus and to establish faith in him.

In a lengthy section, this faith is defined as “a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favour toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.”[9]  As well as establishing faith, the Spirit is also given credit for the “quickening” stage whereby one repenting (which happens after coming to faith) is comforted in the knowledge of the mercy of God.  The Spirit then also provides with a new sense of right living which destroys the dominion of sin, sanctifying us even though we will always remain sinful.[10]

Strengths and Weakness on my Understanding of Pneumatology

There are many aspects to which my own pneumatological understanding would object to the theology of John Calvin.  This does not mean that I don’t think Calvin has anything to contribute to the development of a 21st Century theology of the Holy Spirit.  I would, however, tend to see many of those contributions as being in aspects which I would disagree with or at least consider incomplete.

Before some of those disagreements, though, the section that I would really like to applaud is that of the nature of the Trinity (pp. 108-139).  Of the many attempts of explaining the Trinity that I have heard, Calvin probably provided the most effective explanation to me, maintaining the tension of three persons in one substance.  For those like me who maintain the traditional view of the Trinity, this is probably the most complete attempt at explaining the mystery of it using a variety of Scriptural texts as well as some historical references.  I predict that in my future attempts to explain this challenging doctrine, this section is where I would likely begin, especially since the Holy Spirit is treated as a person in his own right and not as an afterthought.

Beyond that, I begin to be more critical of Calvin’s writings.  Many of these criticisms are anachronisms.  As I read, I felt a tension between knowing that he was making new and meaningful points for his context and also feeling as if it is incomplete for today’s context.  I also acknowledge that his arguments were not formed in a vacuum – they were formed largely in opposition to Catholic doctrine, and in some smaller cases in opposition to Anabaptist doctrine.  This is another reason why the phrase “respectful disagreement” is appropriate for my general response to Institutes.

The first area in which I’m inclined to disagree is that the Church is denied any opportunity to be inspired by the Holy Spirit.  Only Scripture is allowed that.  I understand this is a function of his context, when he clearly did not see the Holy Spirit at work in the Catholic Church.  Yet I think this reduces the Church to be almost entirely pointless.  What is the meaning of the Church if it is not being guided by the Holy Spirit in any way?  I do think that the Holy Spirit inspires Scripture; I just also think that the Holy Spirit is still active within each and every person (including non-Christians even if they don’t acknowledge or listen to her).  Limiting the Holy Spirit to only speaking through Scripture to me is vastly underestimating how much God continues to do in the world.

Calvin expresses a clear hierarchy of the Trinity as most throughout Christian history have done either implicitly or explicitly.  Christ is called the Mediator to the Father by way of penal substitution atonement (another disagreement but not the focus for this report).  The Holy Spirit is essentially a mediator to Christ by way of inspiring Scripture, helping us see Christ in Scripture, by giving us faith, and by sanctifying us.  I would take issue with the suggestion that the Father needs Christ to be able to relate to us, or as Calvin puts it in words that were very shocking to me: “without controversy, God loves no man out of Christ.”[11]  I would similarly disagree that Christ is unable to relate to us without the Spirit.  I think this creates an inherent hierarchy because the “farther away” the person of the Trinity is from humanity, needing a mediator, the higher that divine person comes across as being.  In the section to describe what faith means, it is interesting to note that there is no concept of faith in the Holy Spirit, only faith in the Father and the Son by the Holy Spirit.  Thus the Father is clearly laid out as the highest in some sense, then the Son, then the Spirit.  That is not to say that I do not think the Spirit points us to Christ, as I still subscribe to a very Christo-centric framework, but I am also wary of the language that appears to place the Spirit as the lowest of the Trinity.

My largest problem with these readings, however, comes with his definition of faith. Essentially, faith is the opposite of doubt.  It is about being absolutely certain in God.  He claims that “it is already plain that nothing is more adverse to faith than conjecture, or any other feeling akin to doubt.”[12] Granted, this is internally coherent: since the Spirit is providing all the faith required for the elect, you do not need to worry about questions such as how much faith is enough to be saved.  He does not need to work with these types of questions along the spectrum of faith and doubt because within his system of predestination it is a strictly dichotomous distinction between the saved and the reprobate anyway.  As much as my scientific mind tends to want to think in either/or terms, I feel like most issues of theology are not so clear-cut.  This concept then of faith as being about confidence – the opposite of doubt or questioning God – seems to be missing the point as I see it.  Faith to me must inherently be a relational concept, not just an intellectual question of how certain somebody is about “the facts” of God.


Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Translated by Henry Beveridge. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1983.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Henry Beveridge, trans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 3-4

[2] Calvin, 37-42

[3] Calvin, 64-67

[4] Calvin, 68-73

[5] Calvin, 108-139

[6] Calvin, 464

[7] Calvin, 465

[8] Calvin, 462-466

[9] Calvin, 475

[10] Calvin, 508-531

[11] Calvin, 498

[12] Calvin, 502

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.