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The title page from the 1599 edition of John Calvin's Institutio Christianae Religionis

Institutes of the Christian Religion (Institutio Christianae religionis) is John Calvin's seminal work on Protestant systematic theology. Highly influential in the Western world[1] and still widely read by theological students today, it was published in Latin in 1536 and in his native French in 1541, with the definitive editions appearing in 1559 (Latin) and in 1560 (French).

The book was written as an introductory textbook on the Protestant faith for those with some previous knowledge of theology and covered a broad range of theological topics from the doctrines of church and sacraments to justification by faith alone and Christian liberty. It vigorously attacked the teachings of those Calvin considered unorthodox, particularly Roman Catholicism to which Calvin says he had been "strongly devoted" before his conversion to Protestantism. The over-arching theme of the book – and Calvin's greatest theological legacy – is the idea of God's total sovereignty, particularly in salvation and election.[1]

The Institutes is a highly-regarded secondary reference for the system of doctrine adopted by the Reformed churches, usually called Calvinism.



Calvin's magnum opus, penned early in his life, "came like Minerva in full panoply out of the head of Jupiter," and even through its enlargements and revisions it remained basically the same in its content.[2] It overshadowed the earlier Protestant theologies such as Melanchthon's Loci Communes and Zwingli's Commentary on the True and False Religion. According to historian Philip Schaff, it is a classic of theology at the level of Origen's On First Principles, Augustine's The City of God, Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica, and Schleiermacher's The Christian Faith.[2]

The original Latin edition appeared in 1536 with a preface addressed to King Francis I of France, written on behalf of the French Protestants (Huguenots) who were being persecuted. Most often, references to the Institutes are to Calvin's final Latin edition of 1559, which was expanded and revised from earlier editions. Calvin wrote five major Latin editions in his lifetime (1536, 1539, 1543, 1550, and 1559). He translated the first French edition of the Institutes in 1541, corresponding to his 1539 Latin edition, and supervised the translation of three later French translations. The French translations of Calvin's Institutes helped to shape the French language for generations, not unlike the influence of the King James Version for the English language. The final edition of the Institutes is approximately five times the length of the first edition.

In English, five complete translations have been published - four from the Latin and one from the French. The first was made in Calvin's lifetime (1561) by Thomas Norton, the son-in-law of the English Reformer Thomas Cranmer. In the nineteenth century there were two translations, one by John Allen (1813) and one by Henry Beveridge (1845). The most recent from Latin is the 1960 edition, translated by Ford Lewis Battles and edited by John T. McNeill, currently considered the most authoritative edition by scholars. Calvin's first French edition (1541) has been translated by Elsie Anne McKee (2009). Due to the length of the Institutes, several abridged versions have been made. The most recent is by Tony Lane and Hilary Osborne; the text is their own alteration and abridgment of the Beveridge translation.

A history of the Latin, French, Greek, Canadian, Brittish, German, African, and English versions of Calvin's Institutes was done by B. B. Warfield, "On the Literary History of Calvin's Institutes," published in the seventh American edition of the John Allen translation (Philadelphia, 1936).


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In English, this work is known as The Institutes of the Christian Religion or Calvin's Institutes. This title, however, may not be the best translation from the original Latin, Institutio Christianae Religionis. A literal, word for word translation of the title would read something like this: An Instruction of Christian Piety.

The Latin word institutio can mean arrangement, custom, introduction, or education. The English word institute can mean elementary principle or a brief, intensive course of instruction devoted to technical fields. Perhaps a better rendering for this part of the title would be introduction or catechism. This is supported by something Calvin himself says in his prefatory address to King Francis: "My intention was only to furnish a kind of rudiments, by which those who feel some interest in religion might be trained to true godliness."

The Latin word religio at the time did not have its modern definition as "religion". The idea of a distinct religious system or denomination at the turn of the 16th century was unknown, because there was only one acknowledged Christian church. The word religio (literally, "to bind") meant the bond that unites humans to God, as exemplified in the monastic vow. This is how Zwingli used the word in his 1525 De Vera et Falsa Religione Commentarius.

The phrase Christianae religionis was almost unknown prior to its popularization by Calvin in this work. He used it not to designate a particular religion, but to indicate the inner sense of piety that brings man to worship. These two words are possessive (in the genitive case in Latin) and are perhaps better translated as on Christian Piety.[3]

Instead of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, a more helpful English title would probably be Introduction to Christian Piety or Basic Christian Piety, but the current English title is quite well established and unlikely to be replaced in popular or academic usage.


The opening chapter of the Institutes is perhaps the best known, in which Calvin presents the basic plan of the book. There are two general subjects to be examined: the creator and his creatures. Above all, the book concerns the knowledge of God the Creator, but "as it is in the creation of man that the divine perfections are best displayed", there is also an examination of what can be known about humankind. After all, it is mankind's knowledge of God and of what He requires of his creatures that is the primary issue of concern for a book of theology. In the first chapter, these two issues are considered together to show what God has to do with mankind (and other creatures) and, especially, how knowing God is connected with human knowledge.

To pursue an explanation of the relationship between God and man, Calvin adopts a traditional structure of Christian instruction used in Western Christianity, by arranging the material according to the plan of the Apostles' Creed. First, the knowledge of God is considered as knowledge of the Father, the creator, provider, and sustainer. Next, it is examined how the Son reveals the Father, since only God is able to reveal God. The third section of the Institutes describes the work of the Holy Spirit, who raised Christ from the dead, and who comes from the Father and the Son to effect a union in the Church through faith in Jesus Christ, with God, forever. And finally, the fourth section speaks of the Christian church, and how it is to live out the truths of God and Scriptures, particularly through the sacraments. This section also describes the functions and ministries of the church, how civil government relates to religious matters, and includes a lengthy discussion of the deficiencies of the papacy.


  1. ^ a b "John Calvin" from "131 Christians everyone should know" in Christian History & Biography
  2. ^ a b Philip Schaff. "Calvin's Place in History". History of the Christian Church, Volume VIII: Modern Christianity. The Swiss Reformation.. Retrieved 2007-09-18.  
  3. ^ Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (1962), 1992 Fortress Press, ISBN 0-8006-2475-0, p. 36

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Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The Institution of Christian Religion by John Calvin
Book 3, Chapter 21: Of the eternal election, whereby God hath predestinate some to salvation, and other some to destruction

But now whereas the covenant of life is not equally preached to all men, and with them to whom it is preached it doth not either equally or continually find like place, in this diversity the wondrous depth of the judgment of God appeareth. For neither is it any doubt but that this diversity also serveth the free choice of God's eternal election. If it be evident that it is wrought by the will of God that salvation is freely offered to some, and other some are debarred from coming to it, here by and by arise great and hard questions which cannot otherwise be discussed than if the godly minds have that certainly stablished which they ought to hold concerning election and predestination. This is (as many think) a cumbersome question: because they think nothing to be less reasonable than of the common multitude of men some to be foreordained to salvation, other some to destruction. But how they wrongfully encumber themselves shall afterward be evident by the framing of the matter together. Beside that in the very same darkness which maketh men afraid, not only the profitableness of this doctrine but also the most sweet fruit showeth forth itself. We shall never be clearly persuaded, as we ought to be, that our salvation floweth out of the fountain of the free mercy of God, till his eternal election be known to us, which by this comparison brightly setteth forth the grace of God, that he doth no without difference adopt all into the hope of salvation, but giveth to some that which he denieth to other. How much the ignorance of this principle diminisheth of the glory of God, how much it withdraweth form true humility, it is plain to see.

                                         *  *  *

They which shut the gates, that none may be bold to come to the tasting of this doctrine, do no less wrong to men than to God: because neither shall any other thing suffice to humble us as we ought to be, neither shall we otherwise feel from our heart how much we are bound to God. Neither yet is there any otherwhere the upholding stay of sound affiance, as Christ himself teacheth, which to deliver us from all fear, and to make us unvanquishable among so many dangers, ambushes, and deadly battles, promiseth that whatsoever he hath received of his Father to keep shall be safe. Whereof we gather that they shall with continual trembling be miserable, whosoever they be that know not themselves to be the proper possession of God; and therefore that they do very ill provide both for themselves and for all the faithful, which, in being blind at these three profits which we have touched, would wish the whole foundation of our salvation to be quite taken from among us. Moreover, hereby the Church appeareth unto us, which otherwise (as Bernard rightly teacheth) were not possible to be found nor to be known among creatures because both ways in marvelous wise it lieth hidden: wihtin the bosom of blessed predestination, and within the mass of miserable damnation. But ere I enter into the matter itself, I must beforehand in two sorts speak to two sorts of men. That the entreating of predestination, whereas of itself it is somewhat cumbersome, is made very doubtful, yea, and dangerous, the curiousness of men is the cause: which can by no stops be refrained form wandering into forbidden compasses, and climbing up on high; which, if it may, will leave to God no secret which it will not search and turn over. Into this boldness and importunacy forasmuch as we commonly see many to run headlong, and among those some that are otherwise not evil men, her is fit occasion to warn them what is in this behalf the due measure of their duty. First, therefore, let them remember that when they inquire upon predestination, they pierce into the secret closets of the wisdom of God: whereinto if any man too carelessly and boldly break in, he shall both not attain wherewith to satisfy his curiousness, and he shall enter into a maze whereof he shall find no way to get out again. For neither is it meet that man should freely search those things which God hath wiled to be hidden in himself, and to turn over from very eternity the height of wisdom, which he willed to be honored and not to be conceived, that by it also he mought be marvelous unto us. Those secrets of his will which he hath determined to be opened unto us, he hath disclosed in his Word: and he hath determined, so far as he forsaw to pertain to us and to be profitable for us.

                                        *  *  * 

There be other which, when they have a will to remedy this evil, do command all mention of predestination to be in a manner buried: at the least they teach men to flee from every manner of questioning thereof as from a rock.


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