Enfield Town Community Church


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Ok, here we go! John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is an incredibly significant piece of literature, but not just in terms of sheer size and weight. It is a work that was composed during a period of church history that, in many ways, contributed to the theological backbone of many protestant churches we know today, such as ETCC and its partnering churches. 

Why Calvin’s Institutes?

You might be thinking to yourself right now; “Why would I want to read this book? It’s massive! It’s complicated! It’s old language! I only read tweets or books less than 100 pages! I don’t think this is for me thanks!” While I understand your objections, consider the following and have a rethink. If you were to look at our church’s beliefs and values (which can be found here), then you will read sentences, such as “All who believe in Christ are justified by faith alone”, and “The Lord's Supper is a commemoration of Christ's sacrifice offered once for all and involves no change in the bread and wine.” Pause for a moment and ponder the following. Why is it that our church practices the Lord’s Supper this way? Has the Christian church always done it like this? Do I take for granted that I am justified by faith alone, and if so, how can I be sure that my Christian faith is genuine? 

In his Institutes, John Calvin dedicates pages and pages to answering such crucial questions of the Christian life, and he did so at a time where such matters were being heavily challenged and opposed by the Roman Catholic church, which dominated the church scene within Europe throughout the Medieval period. Because of the background that led Calvin to writing his Institutes, it would be a mistake to think that his work is just another bog-standard textbook on Systematic Theology we find today but written in old English. Though it can be treated like the grandad version of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, it is much more than that. 

In essence, Calvin’s Institutes is not only a good place for digging deeper into various theological topics, but it’s also a robust theological defence for protestant Christianity that helped shape our statement of faith at ETCC and many of its outworking practices. In other words, we as ETCC members stand on the shoulders of such Christian giants as John Calvin and his ministry.

In summary, you should start reading Calvin’s Institutes because…

  • It provides us a detailed explanation on various theological topics.
  • It points us back to the Bible and helps us read God’s word more richly.
  • It gives us a sound defence to many objections that oppose our core beliefs at ETCC and their outflowing practices.
  • It helps us with our devotional life, including our Bible readings, meditations, and prayers.
  • It exposes us to, and gives us a greater appreciation for church history, and to those who fought vigorously for the truth of God’s word. 

Reading Calvin’s Institutes – A few tips

Ok, so how do I go about reading the Institutes?

I am not a big reader, and I actually struggle to read books being visually impaired. However, I got through this giantbook last year, and by God’s grace I’m still alive! Here are 3 broad tips to help you get started.

Less is more. Don’t try and read too much in one sitting - The institutes are not meant to be read that way. Start off with just one chapter (Maybe book 1 Chapter 1) and read it slowly and deliberately. To get the best out of the Institutes, maybe don’t attempt to read it as your children’s bedtime reading or family devotion around the dinner table (although the Institutes are very devotional in a sense, so by all means give it a go)! Set aside a time in your day to read a small portion of 1 chapter and meditate on the scriptures Calvin points to, and you will get much more from it. If you find a particular sentence or 2 that really strikes you, then read it again and again, so that it dwells in you richly. That is much better than trying to read 2 or 3 chapters a day. And once you have found a nugget of gold from the Institute (of which there are many!) then maybe store it away in a journal with its Bible reference, which you can come back to later for further meditation and prayer.

Get the best format for you. This great piece of literature is more accessible than you might think. You can get a physical copy, or you can get it as an eBook e.g., Kindle, or you can get an audio recording of the whole Institutes on either Audible or Christian Audio. Basically, there are many format options available. Just a note on translation and edition. Whichever format you choose to digest Calvin’s theological insights, I would recommend the 1559 edition of his Institutes, translated by Ford L. Battles, and edited by John T. McNeil – It is the final edition and the most widely accepted English translation. 

Use other resources and people. Just as there are many good Bible reading plans, so there are also good reading schedules for Calvin’s institutes that will guide you through this great book through a year or 2 for example. I used a 6-month reading plan which helped me stay on track. Another thing I really benefited from was reading the Institutes in a group and meeting up on a few occasions (Before lockdown kicked off) to talk about ourreading and reflections with some great coffee and pastries. This helped with mutual accountability and sharpened my understanding of what Calvin was saying in a particular paragraph of a particular chapter. This is not the easiest book to read and digest, so having reading buddies would be a great way to get some solid theology into your soul during this pandemic. You may need to begin such reading groups over Zoom, but once we can all meet physically again, I would totally recommend booking in a few breakfast’s together – If you need advice on menu options for such occasions, then let me know! Finally, there are other books that give a good overview of the Institutes. For example, The Gospel Coalition have a whole video podcast series and a study course on Calvin and his Institutes if you need something to watch in bed before sleep or listen to while you do the dishes. But seriously, I have found these secondary resources helpful in keeping me going in the right direction when approaching the Institutes. 

Final Thoughts

Well, there you go – If you’ve managed to persevere through this blog post, then you should be fine with Calvin’s Institutes. Yes, it is a very big book (nearly 2,000 pages). Yes, it’s an expensive book. Yes, the old language may be frustrating at times. And yes, many sections of the Institutes will challenge your theological assumptions and may cause you to rethink some of your convictions. But I promise you, Calvin and his Institutes is an excellent book and well worth the perseverance, because your investment in the Institutes will do your soul a lot of good especially during this season. John Calvin completed his Institutes in 1559 during the height of the Reformation, giving one of the greatest articulations of the faith in the history of Christ’s church. I am sure that we at ETCC would want to become familiar with a piece of literature that has greatly influenced our beliefs and practices as a church. In short, if there is one book outside the Bible that every ETCC member should read for their theological understanding and Christian devotion, then it’s Calvin’s institutes. So, what are you waiting for? GO – GET READING - And may your soul be refreshed and your faith strengthened.

- Tim Barnes, Church Member

Tim Barnes, 29/01/2021
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