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The most persistent error we make when approaching John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion is assuming that Calvin wrote a book called, The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This title represents a loose English translation of Calvin’s original Latin title. It first appeared in the 1813 edition of John Allen (Harrison 2015: 11). Most editions today similarly title Calvin’s work. Unfortunately, this title of Calvin’s great work creates two obstacles that may prevent readers from fully understanding the intent of Calvin’s great work.

A Loose Translation

The first problem follows from John Allen’s loose translation of the Latin title of the Institutes, Institutio christianae religionis. This three-word Latin title can (and perhaps should) be translated: “Institution of Christian Religion” or perhaps, “The Institution of Christian Religion.” The Latin word Institutio is singular, not plural, and so “Institutes” will not do.

Latin has no articles, and so translators insert the words “the” in what they feel are appropriate places. John Allen apparently felt it right to insert the article “the” before the words Christian Religion in his translation of Calvin’s title. In the sixteenth century, adding the article “the” would not have created a major problem. Although it is grammatically natural in French and so not quite a fair comparison to English, John Calvin translates his own Latin in his 1560 French edition with the article before “Christian Religion”: Institution de la religion chrestienne

To add the article “the” in 1813 (and especially to do so today) creates, however, a misunderstanding. It makes it sound like Calvin wrote the Institutio in order to list the various institutes (doctrines) that comprise a discrete religion called Christianity. To understand why this understanding misconstrues the work’s title and intent, we need to discuss the second obstacle which admittedly overlaps with the first.

The Meaning of Religion

Today, the word religion (religio) means something like a body of moral and theological beliefs. In our modern understanding, these religious beliefs demarcate religious faiths from another. This understanding of religio is brand new—about 300 years old. Before this time period, religio meant something like an internal habit, piety, or worship (so Harrison 2015). That means, when Calvin wrote his book, he would not have had a cultural lexicon that would have allowed him to use the word religion (religio) to signify a body of beliefs that demarcated Christianity as a religion among others.

And in fact, Calvin’s Institution focuses on worship and godliness. It is the institution (in the singular) of Christian worship. It is not the institutes as if it were a book primarily a plurality of topics that demarcates Christianity from other faiths—although it does certainly have many topics. Instead, Calvin wrote the work to encourage Christians towards piety, godliness. Which is why Calvin in his 1536 describes his intention as: “to furnish a king of rudiments, by which those who feel some interest in religion might be trained to true godliness” (cited in Harrison 2015: 11).

Now we can return to the problem of where to place the article. In modern English, to say “The Christian Religion” means something like, “The body of Christian beliefs that demarcate it from other religions.” While only marginally much better, to say “Christian Religion” seems to minimize those overtones and get closer to Calvin’s intent.

Training in Godliness

Calvin wrote his work to train readers in godliness, not to define Christianity as one religion by articulating a set of ethical and theological beliefs. For this reason, titling the book, Institution of Christian Religion conveys better the idea of Christian worship or godliness that Calvin intended to communicate through the title. 

For Calvin doctrine does not serve the end of defining Christianity as one religious entity among many; instead, doctrine aims to lead us to godliness—to true worship of God.

The Genevan reformer himself explains that religio births piety (pietas; 1.2.1). Then he defines piety in this way: “reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” Every one, argues Calvin, has a seed of religion exists in all men (1.4.1). And rather than being solely a set of beliefs, religion internally exists as a power or capacity within us. Hence, it can grow in us and distinguishes from animals (1.3.3). Despite this inborn capacity, humans cannot rightly worship God apart from his revelation. For this reason, Calvin affirms that “true religion ought to be conformed to God’s will” (1.4.3).

With all that said, Calvin quite obviously articulated a full sweep of Christian teaching from Scripture. To isolate his purpose in training readers for godliness does not mean that he does not provide an apology for Protestant dogma nor a significant body of teaching. Rather, understanding his purpose helps to ground our expectations and to understand why Calvin wrote as he did. His purpose was deeply religious in the 16th century idiom, that is, he articulated doctrine for the purpose of godliness. The doctrine that fills the pages serves this end.

For Calvin doctrine does not serve the end of defining Christianity as one religious entity among many; instead, doctrine aims to lead us to godliness—to true worship of God.

 


Editorial note: We have started a podcast called “Into Theology” which invites everyone to join us as we read great works of theology together to know and enjoy God and his creation. We are reading through John Calvin’s “Institutes of Christian Religion” now. Join us at any time! Click here to learn more and to access the reading plan. Click here to find the podcast and join the Facebook group here

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