After Four Hundred Years
by William Stanford Reid
In the year 1536, from the press of Thomas Platter and Balthasar Lasium, Basle publishers, appeared a thin volume of some seven chapters bearing the title of Christianae Religionis Institutio (The Institutes of the Christian Religion) written by a young French Protestant refugee, John Calvin. Although presented to the world as a defence of French Protestants, it was in fact a short statement of the new religious thought which came to be known as “Reformed Theology.” For the next twenty-three years Calvin repeatedly revised his work until in 1559 it appeared in its final form, now very much larger, and one of the most important books ever to come from a European press.
The reason for our valuing the Institutes so highly is that this work became the foundation of much subsequent Protestant thought. It did so for one thing because the author’s concise thinking and expression made it easy to understand. When Calvin wrote, he desired above everything else, to convince his readers of the truth of his message, not to impress them with his great knowledge, nor to confuse them with his swelling words.
The chief cause of the book’s influence was, therefore, the fact that men were able to see Calvin’s teaching so clearly. Since its first appearance it has been a classic, if not the classic, statement of the biblical doctrine of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. By it many people have found salvation in Christ, while others have been strengthened and built up in their faith.
Thus Calvin’s Institutes has been a truly formative work. Indeed in the case of some whole nations such as Holland or Scotland it has become part of the national heritage, helping to mold the people’s character.
But what is of more importance, today the thinking of Calvin, particularly as it is expressed in his Institutes, is experiencing a present revival throughout the Christian world. New translations and new editions of old translations are appearing in many different tongues: English, French, Japanese, Indonesian, etc. Thus Calvin’s influence, which some fifty years ago seemed about to die, is once again making itself felt.
The reason for this is that our own day is very similar to that of Calvin. Sixteenth century Europe faced the threat of a Moslem invasion from the east. At the same time new worlds and new peoples were coming into Europe’s orbit with Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion. But what was even more important, Europe was passing through a veritable economic, social and intellectual revolution as the old order disintegrated before men’s eyes. Thus Calvin, writing for the sixteenth century, speaks to us today in our own terms concerning our own problems and needs.
Because of this, we who are Presbyterians and who owe much to Calvin and his Institutes which form the foundation of our Confession and catechisms, should desire to attain a greater understanding and knowledge of this man’s great work. “He being dead yet speaketh,” and if we listen we shall find that his words are indeed a guide for us in both faith and action.
It might be well, therefore, if our ministers began instructing our people once again in Calvin’s doctrines, and if our people began reading his works in order that they might be built up in their faith in these trying days.
[excerpted from Presbyterian Comment [Montreal, Canada], vol. 1, no. 1 (January 1960), p. 2.]