On my birthday, John got me one of the greatest gifts that a Pentecostal could give – The Institutes of Christian Religion by John Calvin. I’m sure it was hard for him to even hold that majestic 2-volume McNeill & Battles edition. I started to read it before 2017 began. I want to share with you my personal insights and reflections from my reading of The Institutes. For me, I think it’ll be impossible to summarize the book in the traditional way where I do it after having read the entire book. So I will summarize it as I go along.
Here’s what I’ve learned so far –
- Reading long books discipline you.
I’ve set out to read this book over the course of one year. However, I’m not entirely sticking to the plan. While the reading level isn’t as hard as I was expecting it to be, I still find myself re-reading (sometimes, more than 3 times) certain paragraphs and sections because I occasionally have a hard time understanding what he is trying to articulate. More than that, I’m discovering that reading long books requires discipline. Short and medium books give you a quick sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. They’re also easier to learn from since previous pages that you’ve read are still fresh in your mind.
Long books, like The Institutes, discourage you because you don’t see the progress that you make. Even if you’ve already spent several hours reading the book, it seems like there’s still a long way to go. It also feels like you’re not retaining anything you learn because you’re always learning new things. I’ve found myself on some nights almost dreading to read because of these discouragements. Even though I’ve read for almost two months, I’ve only finished 1/3 of the first edition. I’ve realized now that I have to prepare myself – long books take a long time to finish and require discipline to keep you going.
- The Institutes is highly Polemical
When you think of John Calvin, another person you might immediately think of is Michael Servetus. You know, the guy that Calvin “burned”? Calvin directs a lot of his arguments toward Servetus and talks about him frequently in his book. As Calvin writes, especially in his arguments that pertain to the Trinity, he points out Servetus by name and explicitly says that his theology is wrong and heretical. In a similar way, Calvin also strongly opposes the Catholic Church, especially when it comes to images in the church. He condemns the Catholic Church due to their churches being filled with physical images of Mary and Christ. In many of the sections in The Institutes, he calls out the papists and tells them to stop the usage of images in the church (XI.I.7).
- Favorite Section: Book 1, Chapter VII, Section 4 – The witness of the Holy Spirit: This is stronger than all proof
“For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The Same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded” (79).
Calvin, in previous sections, strongly emphasized that the Word of God is the only way to know God (72). Here, as he follows up with this argument, Calvin says that the Holy Spirit is needed in order for one to understand and accept what the Scripture says.
A lot of times, I read the Bible without praying. I feel as if I can figure out what the Bible says; why not? After all, I did take some bible courses and know some hermeneutics. But as Calvin gently reminds me in his book, reading and understanding Scripture can only be accomplished by and through the Holy Spirit.
May the Spirit penetrate our hearts to believe what the Scripture says.