I have been reading John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion…for about a year. It’s an enormous, exhaustive work of theology. Ironically, Calvin laments that he has a love of brevity and is unable to expound on religious matters as thoroughly as his forebears. If Calvin hadn’t loved brevity, I shudder to think of how much longer Institutes would have been 🙂 Another terrifying thought is, What if Calvin blogged? LOL.
In all seriousness, I have found much to value in Calvin’s Institutes. Calvin isn’t just a theologian living in abstractions. He is a pastor at heart. He doesn’t shy away from big theological ideas or mysteries; nor does he leave the Christian wondering how those big ideas relate to everyday life. Institutes is practical theology, first and foremost.
“Total depravity” is an idea we often associate with Calvin. I have always heard this presented in a judgmental light, that people are evil through and through. I was surprised to find that this is a compassionate concept for Calvin. Depravity refers to the fact that our nature has been deeply affected by the fall. We are unable, in ourselves, to meet God’s expectations. By discussing depravity, Calvin is trying to release us from striving to fulfill moral and religious expectations that are beyond our power. The alternative is to recognize our state of need and to rely on the grace of God to fulfill what we cannot.
Calvin was also a proponent of double predestination–the idea that God has already determined who will be saved and who will be condemned. This is, perhaps, one of the more controversial teachings in church history. It didn’t originate with Calvin but he is probably most known for it.
Here are Calvin’s own words on the subject: “By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation.” Each of us receives salvation only because God chose to give it to us. Calvin maintains that we cannot truly walk in grace until we know this. If we do not embrace predestination, some part of our salvation lies with us–with our goodness, with our desire for God, with our will. For Calvin, this dilutes the purity of grace. As Paul says, “Now if by grace, then it is not by works; otherwise grace ceases to be grace” (Rom. 11:6).
I plan to follow up this post with my own thoughts on predestination. But before I do, I want to hear from my readers. What do you think of Calvin’s quote? Do you think people are preordained to life or damnation?