Institutes of the Christian Religion Summary

John Calvin


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In 1534, French monarch Francis I resolved to purge his realm of heretics and initiated persecution of evangelicals. John Calvin, a recent adherent to the Reformation, fled to Basel and there composed a summary of Protestant beliefs addressed to Francis I with an appeal for an end to the repression. Calvin hoped for a positive response to his plea, but that did not occur, despite the eloquence of the admonitory preface that introduces the material of his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Although Calvin would be duly remembered as an outstanding defender of the Protestant cause, he won his reputation principally as a theological scholar and exponent of Christian piety. He composed five Latin editions of his masterpiece and translated or supervised four translations into French, his purpose being to provide a guidebook for readers of Scripture to promote godly living. The first edition reflects the influence of Martin Luther’s Klein Katechismus (1529; Luther’s Small Catechism, 1893) and thereafter Calvin often cited the Wittenberg reformer. The Apostles’ Creed was the model for the arrangement of Luther’s work, and Calvin followed him in composing the Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Calvin’s magnum opus is both catechetical and apologetic in character, in that it offers instruction in Christian doctrine while defending Protestant teaching against its critics. As it became clear that Francis I would not stop persecuting, Calvin concentrated more on instructing his disciples than on rebutting accusations from their enemies, a trend visible in later versions of his work.

Believing the proper knowledge of God and of one’s self are inseparable, Calvin began by explaining the biblical teaching of how humans may acquire that knowledge and why their sinful condition prevents them from doing so. He magnified the role of the Holy Spirit in enabling people to grasp revealed truth by regenerating them and convincing them that Scripture is the Word of God. From the creation of the world to the end of time, the Holy Spirit is at work calling sinners to Christ and empowering them to respond positively.

Calvin saw Christ as the capstone of revelation and the only redeemer, the one who is the heart of the Bible. The reformer explained how sinners receive the benefits of Christ’s saving work and thereby become members of his spiritual body, the church. For Calvin the doctrine of the church was of immense importance, so he explained the New Testament teaching on that subject and contrasted it sharply with what he perceived to be the erroneous view of the papacy. This included his understanding of the sacraments and his plan for...

(The entire section is 1110 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Calvin, John. Calvin’s “Institutes”: A New Compend. Edited by Hugh T. Kerr. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989. This masterful abridgment of 180 pages provides the essence of the final edition and is an excellent means to obtain a knowledge of Calvin quickly.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960. This definitive translation includes a large introduction replete with helpful information about the author and his major beliefs.

McGoldrick, James Edward. “John Calvin, Practical Theologian: The Reformer’s Spirituality.” In Reformed Spirituality, edited by Joseph A. Pipa, Jr., and J. Andrew Wortman. Taylors, S.C.: Southern Presbyterian Press, 2003. This essay corrects the stereotype of Calvin as an unfeeling scholar detached from ordinary Christians and their struggles.

McGrath, Alister E. A Life of John Calvin. 1990. Reprint. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 2000. This scholarly and thorough biography examines Calvin’s beliefs and relates them to events of his time in a succinct manner.

Wendel, François. Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. Translated by Philip Mairet. 1963. Reprint. Durham, N.C.: Labyrinth Press, 1987. A fine intellectual biography of great value, this work covers every major aspect of Calvin’s theology in a readable format.