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Calvin’s Institutes:
A Comparison Between the 1536 and 1559 Editions

Martyn McGeown


Calvin’s magnum opus, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in 1536, went through several revisions in Latin and French during Calvin’s lifetime. The final edition of 1559, published just five years before the Genevan Reformer’s death, contains Calvin’s mature theological thought. Calvin’s theology developed little over time and he did not see any need to retract anything in his Institutes. There was some maturation of his thought, and he has expanded on many of the topics on which he wrote in 1536, but he did not have to correct his theology in any significant way. The Lord gave John Calvin extraordinary gifts. In 1536 Calvin was only 27 years old and had been converted only about five years prior, yet his Institutes, even in the early seed form, manifests rare genius.

The 1536 edition of the Institutes is just over 200 pages; the final edition of 1559 consists of two volumes exceeding 1500 pages. Evidently, a considerable amount of material has been added in the intervening 23 years. A general overview of the Institutes will reveal a rearrangement of the material.

In 1536 Calvin wrote six chapters: the law (including the knowledge of God, the Decalogue and justification), faith (with an explanation of the Apostles’ Creed), prayer (with an exposition of the Lord’s prayer), the sacraments (treated generally, followed by a section on the two true sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s supper, including a denunciation of Rome’s corruption of both sacraments), a condemnation of the five false sacraments of Rome, and a chapter on ecclesiastical and civil government and Christian freedom.

By 1559 Calvin had rearranged his material into four books: "The Knowledge of God the Creator," "The Knowledge of God the Redeemer," "The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ" and "The External Means or Aids by which God Invites us into the Society of Christ and Holds us Therein." Book I treats epistemology, the doctrine of revelation and Scripture, God, creation and providence. Book II deals with anthropology, the Fall, the law, the similarity and differences between the Old and New Testaments, and the Person, natures, and offices of Christ. In Book III, Calvin discusses faith, regeneration, the Christian life, justification (including a polemic against works righteousness), Christian freedom, prayer, sovereign election and reprobation (at some length), and the final resurrection of the body on the last day. Book IV contains Calvin’s ecclesiology, including sections on the sacraments (true, false and corruptions thereof by Rome), church government and discipline, and ends with instruction concerning the civil state.

In this article we will discuss Book III, chapters 19-25, and Book IV, chapters 18-20, of the 1559 Institutes and compare them with what Calvin wrote in 1536. Page numbers higher than p. 226 are from the 1559 edition (2 volume, Battles translation) of the Institutes; otherwise the references are to the 1536 edition.

This above chapters of the 1559 Institutes cover the following subjects in this order: Christian freedom, prayer (including an exposition of the Lord’s prayer, a section on the place of singing in worship, and a polemic against invoking saints), four chapters on election, reprobation and calling, a chapter on the final resurrection, a whole chapter on the papal mass, a chapter on the five false sacraments of Rome and a final section on civil government.

Reading the two editions of the Institutes gives one a distinct feeling of déjà vu. Exact phrases and sentences are repeated verbatim in the 1559 edition. For example, when discussing the false sacrament of confirmation, Calvin writes, "All beautifully and charmingly done! But where is the Word of God, which promises the presence of the Holy Spirit here?" (p. 1453; cf. p. 125). In another place, Calvin denounces those who promote confirmation in these words,

O, sacrilegious mouth, do you dare oppose to Christ’s sacrament a grease befouled only with the stench of your own breath, and under the spell of mumbled words, and to compare it with water sanctified by God’s Word? (p. 1458; p. 128).

Examples could be multiplied where Calvin uses the same figures, illustrations, and references to make doctrinal points.

The most noticeable addition to the later editions of the Institutes concerns that doctrine for which Calvin is most famous and most maligned: sovereign, double predestination. In 1536 Calvin dealt with election under his treatment of the Apostles’ Creed, particularly, "I believe the holy catholic church." He defines the Church as "the whole number of the elect" (p. 58) and insists on perseverance of the saints, "since the church is the people of God’s elect [John 10:28], it cannot happen that those who are truly its members will ultimately perish" (p. 59). He warns against excessive curiosity concerning the mystery of Good’s hidden decrees, reminding his readers that the sure sign of election is being "in Christ:" "we have a clear enough testimony that we are among God’s elect and of the church if we partake in Christ" (p. 60). He advises a judgment of charity concerning fellow professing believers: "all who profess with us the same God … example of life … ought by some sort of judgment of love be deemed elect and members of the church" (p. 61). Philip Schaff, no friend of Calvin’s theology, notes,

The first edition contains all the essential features of his system … His doctrine of predestination, however, is stated in a more simple and less objectionable form. He dwells on the bright and comforting side of that doctrine, namely the eternal election by the free grace of God in Christ, and leaves out the dark mystery of reprobation and preterition (History of the Christian Church, vol. 8, p. 335).

It is certainly true that Calvin "dwells" more on election, but he does indeed mention reprobation in the 1536 edition. For example, he states that some have been "condemned" by "his eternal plan" (p. 59), and he uses the word "reprobate" to describe such people (p. 60).

Calvin’s development of the doctrine of predestination can undoubtedly be traced back to the many controversies in which he was involved between 1536 and 1559. Polemics sharpen the mind. In Calvin’s case, he was driven back to the Scriptures and the church fathers to find arguments to refute men like Pighius (died 1542), Castellio (banished from Geneva in 1544) and Bolsec (banished from Geneva in 1551), each of whom had attacked him on this doctrine.

In the 1559 edition, Calvin devotes four chapters to the subject, whereas in 1536 he had not even given the doctrine a separate chapter. The Genevan Reformer aims to convince his readers that sovereign double predestination is a scriptural doctrine, that it is important, that it may not be hidden but must be preached, and he expends a lot of ink answering manifold objections to it.

Concerning its importance, Calvin writes, "We shall never be clearly persuaded as we ought to be that our salvation flows from the wellspring of God’s free mercy until we come to know his eternal election" (p. 921). He issues a word of caution to those who are overly curious: those who, without the revealed Word of God, seek to pry into God’s decrees "will enter a labyrinth" (p. 923). However, this does not mean that we should not mention the subject out of fear. Scripture, being "the school of the Holy Spirit" contains all things "necessary and useful to know" (p. 924). To deny this is to "accuse God indirectly of stupid thoughtlessness" as if He had included something in the Bible that is harmful for His church to know (p. 926)!

Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, simply stated, is that "all are not created in equal condition; rather eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others" (p. 926). For a doctrine so offensive to man, one needs clear proof from the Bible. Calvin asserts the example of the nation of Israel: God chose Israel and left the rest of the world in darkness. Israel was not chosen for her merits but because God chose to love her despite the fact that she was a stiff-necked people (Deut. 7:7-8). Calvin goes further, for "from the same race of Abraham God rejected some" (p. 929). Furthermore, election is unconditional. "Say: ‘Since he foresaw we would be holy, he chose us,’ and you will invert Paul’s order," Calvin writes with reference to Ephesians 1:4 (p. 935). After discussing the examples of Esau and Pharaoh in Romans 9, Calvin tackles the objection that Jacob’s election was to earthly privileges not eternal salvation. "It would be an absurd kind of blessing," writes Calvin, "since from it he obtained nothing but manifold hardships, troubles, and exile, many sorrows and bitter cares" (p. 938). Clearly, Calvin understood that the Old Testament saints sought spiritual blessings, which were often symbolized by earthly prosperity.

Calvin develops the doctrine of reprobation in the 1559 Institutes. Calvin opposes those who try to hold election without reprobation. Of such theologians he writes, "But they do this very ignorantly and childishly, since election itself could not stand except as set over reprobation" (p. 947). The Genevan Reformer defends God’s justice in reprobating certain men before the foundation of the world. God’s will is the reason for reprobation and nothing higher than God’s will can be found (p. 949). It is "very wicked" to question God’s will (p. 949). Calvin, however, denies that God is a capricious or "lawless" deity, but he warns us that we are not competent judges to critique God’s decrees (p. 950). In addition, Calvin asserts (which he had not stated in 1536) that God decreed the Fall:

Again I ask, whence does it happen that Adam’s fall irremediably involved so many peoples, together with their infant offspring, in eternal death unless because it pleased God? Here their tongues, otherwise so loquacious, must become mute. The decree is dreadful indeed, I confess … For the first man fell because the Lord had judged it to be expedient: why he so judged is hidden from us (pp. 955, 957).

Calvin answers further objections to this doctrine including that God is no respecter of persons (p. 958), that election gives men a pretext for being idle (p. 960) and that the doctrine "overthrows all exhortations to godly living" (p. 961), objections that are still voiced today. With copious quotations from the Scriptures, Calvin silences "the foul grunting of [the] swine" (p. 960) who oppose predestination.

The Genevan Reformer dedicates a whole chapter to the relationship between predestination and calling. Here Calvin denies that man has any ability to come to Christ and teaches that God must give the sinner both the ability to believe and faith itself (p. 967). Regarding assurance of election, Calvin had written in 1536 that men must seek it in Christ: "those who, not content with Christ, strive to penetrate more deeply, arouse God’s wrath against themselves" (p. 60). In 1559 he develops the idea. To seek assurance of election outside of Christ is to cast oneself into "a bottomless whirlpool," to entangle oneself in "innumerable and inextricable snares" and to bury oneself in "sightless darkness"—just punishments for the presumptuous (pp. 968-969). After a treatment of perseverance, Calvin discusses God’s dealings with the reprobate in more detail. "Sometimes," he writes, "[God] deprives them [i.e., the reprobate] of the capacity to hear his word; at other times he, rather, blinds and stuns them by the preaching of it" (p. 978). Indeed, Calvin asserts that it cannot be denied that God "sends his Word to many whose blindness he intends to increase" (p. 980; Ex. 4:21; Eze. 4:21; Isa. 6:9-10). How dreadfully solemn are these words:

Observe that he directs his voice to them but in order that they might become even more deaf; he kindles a light but that they may be made more blind; he sets forth a doctrine but that they may grow even more stupid; He employs a remedy but so that they may not be healed (p. 980).

Calvin spends some time answering appeals to various texts that supposedly overthrow the doctrine of reprobation. These had not been dealt with in 1536, but by now Calvin knows with the benefit of experience which verses are commonly abused by his enemies. For example, concerning Ezekiel 33:11 ("God does not will the death of the wicked"), Calvin writes, "Now if we are seeking the prophet’s true meaning, it is that he would bring the hope of pardon to the penitent only" (p. 983). Of the "all men" of I Timothy 2:4 Calvin writes, "since it clearly appears that he is concerned with classes of men, not men as individuals, away with further discussion!" (p. 984). He also denies that Matthew 23:37 gives the enemies of reprobation any support (pp. 985-986). In addition to the biblical arguments in this section Calvin has many more quotes from patristic literature, especially Augustine.

A major section (chapter V) of the 1536 Institutes concerned the five false sacraments of Rome. The mass was not treated as a false sacrament as such, because it was not the invention of a new sacrament, but the corruption of a legitimate one. Consequently, the subject of the mass had been treated with a discussion of the Lord’s Supper. By 1559, Calvin has dedicated an entire chapter to a discussion of the mass, "by which Christ’s Supper was not only profaned but annihilated" (p. 1459). One never ceases to be amazed at the boldness of the Reformers. To describe the mass in such terms was in many places punishable by death at this time, yet all of the Reformers boldly attacked it. Modern evangelicals are afraid to offend the Roman church by calling the mass what it truly is: a rite which "taken in the highest purity it can claim, without its appurtenances, from root to top, swarms with every sort of impiety, blasphemy, idolatry, and sacrilege"—the exact words used in the 1536 edition (p. 119; p. 1446). Calvin interacts with more Roman arguments in the 1559 edition. He refutes the notion that Melchizedek’s bringing bread and wine to Abraham in Genesis 14 prefigures and justifies the sacrifice of the mass (p. 1431); he dismisses an appeal to Malachi 1:11 ("incense shall be offered unto my name and a pure offering"). In this regard he explains that the prophets often "under types suitable to [their] time, prophesied concerning the spread of the spiritual worship of God throughout the earth" (p. 1433). The Old Testament saints could only understand the messianic kingdom in picture language such as is used by the prophets (Isa. 2; Mic. 4; Joel 2 etc.; cf. p. 1433). In this section, too, the Genevan Reformer evidences progress in his study of the Fathers. That the mass, as it was known in Calvin’s day, is not primitive can be "more surely ascertained by an assiduous reading of the ancient writers" (p. 1437). Calvin criticizes his enemies for basing their errors on "detached sentences here and there" from the church Fathers (p. 1438), although the Fathers themselves are not free from criticism either. Calvin, although he holds the Fathers in high esteem, is not enslaved to them. He chides them on occasions, for example when they display some appearance of regarding the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice. Yet he admits, "I cannot bring myself to condemn them for any impiety; still I think they cannot be excused for having sinned somewhat in acting as they did" (pp. 1439-1440).

One obvious change in the 1559 Institutes concerns the sacrament of penance. In 1536 the section on penance (a subsection of chapter V) had comprised about 30 pages; in the 1559 edition, only 5 pages are dedicated to the subject. The explanation is not to be found in a deletion, but in a re-arrangement of material. In 1536, under "penance" Calvin had discussed repentance, auricular confession, personal satisfaction for sins, the power of absolution, indulgences and purgatory. In 1559 he moved all the aforementioned topics (except penance as a "sacrament") to Book III and places them between faith and justification.

As he had done in 1536, Calvin argues that only God may institute a sacrament; that there can be no sacrament without a promise and that therefore penance, extreme unction, confirmation, ecclesiastical orders and marriage are not sacraments. Calvin does not esteem the "holy oil" of confirmation "worth one piece of dung" (p. 1459); he criticizes the practice of extreme unction describing it as smearing grease on "half dead corpses when they are already drawing their last breath" (p. 1468; p. 160) and he deflects the Romanist appeals to James 5 in this regard. There is some development on the section on holy orders, particularly more historical research (e.g., the history of the monkish tonsure). Much of the section on false sacraments is taken verbatim from the 1539 edition with many memorable phrases repeated, such as "their unction therefore stinks because it lacks salt, that is, the word of God" (p. 1479).

A major section in the 1539 Institutes had discussed prayer. In both editions Calvin shows his practical piety. Prayer was tremendously important to Calvin. His strict predestinarian theology did not conflict with his insistence on prayer. if God knows (and has preordained) everything, why pray? The Genevan Reformer responds, "[God] ordained it [i.e., prayer] not so much for his own sake as for ours" (p. 852). Calvin does not believe in passivity in prayer, rather, "loathing our inertia and dullness we should seek such aid of the Spirit" (p. 856). He also emphasizes reverence, and earnestness in prayer, reminding the reader that our greatest need, and that for which we must pray in a spirit of humility, is the forgiveness of our sins. In addition prayer must be made with faith in the divine promises. Included in this section is a refutation of the practice of invoking saints. By 1559 Calvin has included more arguments against this practice, e.g., he deals with the objection that the Old Testament believers called upon Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (pp. 883-884).

In 1536 Calvin had devoted just one page to the resurrection of the body. He dealt with it, appropriately enough, under the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. In the final edition Calvin has expanded his treatment to about twenty pages. Undoubtedly, this can be explained by Calvin’s polemics with the Anabaptists, many of whom taught erroneous views about the intermediate state and other important issues. Here too, we find a brief reference to chiliasm, which restricts Christ’s kingship to an earthly millennium. Calvin is brief but sharp: "their fiction is too childish to need or to be worth a refutation" (p. 995). In addition, Calvin expands his teaching on Christian freedom and the role of the civil government.

During Calvin’s life he wrote voluminously. As well as writing commentaries, letters and polemical works, he found time, despite being incredibly busy in the ecclesiastical life of Geneva, and despite poor health and almost constant opposition from all quarters, regularly to update his systematic theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion. Although his views developed somewhat over time and in reaction to opposition from Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, and fellow Protestants, his theological convictions remained the same. This is a remarkable achievement. Given Calvin’s God-centeredness it is most fitting that his final Institutes should not finish with the words, "the end" (p. 226) but "God be praised" (p. 1521).