Anthony N.S. Lane, A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes


Anthony N.S. Lane, A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids 2009, 174 pp., $ 14.99 (ISBN 9780801037313).

Anthony Lane, professor of Historical Theology at the London School of Theology and a well-respected Calvin scholar, offers the reader the possibility to find his way in studying the Institutes in the edition by J.T.McNeill, translated by Ford Lewis Battles (1960, MB). He has selected thirty two fragments, together 576 pages, that is a third of the whole, namely, the part that focuses on the main contents in a doctrinal and spiritual respect. In addition, the material of the other parts, particularly the polemic passages, is shortly indicated. The reader is helped in that his attention is drawn to important footnotes in the MB edition, by some questions accompanying each fragment, and by some modest allusions to present-day debates (e.g. p. 47, on the liberal attitude towards Scripture, p. 141, on the absence of fellowship as a concept in the view on the church in Calvin’s time, p. 153, on the problems of celibacy in the Roman Catholic Church nowadays). Also the selection of texts may also have been inspired by discussions in our own time (the choice on p. 81 of Calvin’s treatment of the fourth commandment in comparison with that of the English Puritan tradition, or the pertinent remark p. 161: ‘Infant baptism needs a defence. As true today as in Calvin’s time’). Incidentally, some criticism on Calvin is expressed (e.g. p. 55, on a kind of Platonist anthropology, in contrast, however, with far less Platonism in his eschatology, p. 134), as well as some criticism on McNeill (p. 149, on the doctrine of inspiration).

To be fair, it may be good to mention what the reader may not expect from this very useful guide. 1. It is a guide to a translation, not to the original Latin or French text of the Institutes. Sometimes, a question of translation is touched upon (e.g. p. 76), but the reader is not able to test this. Also, there is a continual reference to ‘paragraphs’, although in the original texts the sectiones as such were the only paragraphs. 2. It is a guide to the last edition of 1559, without an analyses the genesis of the work in the five main editions. Because in the winter of 1558 Calvin was taking scissors, copying and pasting fragments in a new way without always carrying through the consequences of those operations, some problems in the composition are veiled since they are not discussed. The information on this in the book is selective (e.g., on p. 83 it is mentioned that the ninth chapter of the second book has been added in the 1559 edition, in response to Servetus – but there was also a compositional reason –, while a similar remark is missing on p. 75 with respect to the important sixth chapter of the same book). 3. It is a guide that presents the given exhibition of materials, without analysing the alternatives that were apparently rejected by Calvin, or the relation to the principles of arrangement of the tradition and the contemporaries in teaching the sacra doctrina of the church (e.g. at p. 50, one could ask why the doctrine of God in chapter eleven of the first book has become so extremely short). 4. With the omission of polemics, also the context of Calvin’s treatise does not get much attention in this presentation (e.g. p. 66, ‘the philosophers’: who?). 5. ‘The titles of the books and the chapters are from Calvin and are important. The section headings are not Calvin’s’ (p. 23). One can say more to this. As editor, McNeill had his own principles in naming the sections. These principles differ sometimes notably from those of the editors of the late sixteenth century. Cf. Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin, 2000 p. 74: ‘it has been the effect of the work of MB to emphasize the discursive character of the Institutes (…), often with little concern for the rhetorical mode of the text’ (e.g. that of a disputatio).

A last remark: on p. 19 the title page of the 1536 edition is quoted: ‘Embracing almost the whole sum of piety and whatever is necessary to know in the doctrine of salvation: A work most worthy to be read by all persons zealous for piety.’ It seems very unlikely to me that Calvin would have revealed here his own intentions with this work. Such a way of self-recommendation would be a disavowal of Calvin’s favourite virtue of humility. It must be a superscription of the publisher, Th. Platter.

Rinse Reeling Brouwer, Amsterdam / Kampen

About the author

R.H. Reeling Brouwer

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