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History of Protestantism, vol. 2 - Contents
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    Chapter 23: The “Institutes”

    Calvin Discards the Aristotelian Method—How a True Science of Astronomy is Formed—Calvin Proceeds in the same way in Constructing his Theology—Induction—Christ Himself sets the Example of the Inductive Method—Calvin goes to the Field of Scripture—His Pioneers—The Schoolmen—Melanchthon—Zwingle—The Augsburg Confession—Calvin’s System more Complete—Two Tremendous Facts—First Edition of the Institutes—Successive Editions—The Creed its Model—Enumeration of its Principal Themes-God the Sole Fountain of all things—Christ the One Source of Redemption and Salvation—The Spirit the One Agent in the Application of Redemption—The Church—Her Worship and Government

    Picture: View of Basle

    We shall now proceed to the consideration of that work which has exercised so vast an influence on the great movement we are narrating, and which all will admit, even though they may dissent from some of its’ teachings, to be, in point of logical compactness, and constructive comprehensive genius, truly grand. It is not of a kind that discloses its solidity and gigantic proportions to the casual or passing glance. It must be leisurely contemplated. In the case of some kingly mountain, whose feet are planted in the depths but whose top is lost in the light of heaven, we must remove to a distance, and when the little hills which had seemed to overtop it when we stood at its base have sunk below the horizon, then it is that the true monarch stands out before us in un-approached and unchallenged supremacy. So with the Institutes of the Christian Religion. No such production had emanated from the theological intellect since the times of the great Father of the West — Augustine.HOPV2 226.3

    During the four centuries that preceded Calvin, there had been no lack of theories and systems. The schoolmen had toiled to put the world in possession of truth; but their theology was simply abstraction piled upon abstraction, and the more elaborately they speculated the farther they strayed. Their systems had no basis in fact: they had no root in the revelation of God; they were a speculation, not knowledge.HOPV2 226.4

    Luther and Calvin struck out a new path in theological discovery. They discarded the Aristotelian method as a vicious one, though the fashionable and, indeed, the only one until their time, and they adopted the Baconian method, though Bacon had not yet been born to give his name to his system. Calvin saw the folly of retiring into the dark closet of one’s own mind, as the schoolmen did, and out of such materials as they were able to create, fashioning a theology. Taking his stand upon the open field of revelation, he essayed to glean those God-created and Heaven-revealed truths which lie there, and he proceeded to build them up into a system of knowledge which should have power to enlighten the intellect and to sanctify the hearts of the men of the sixteenth century. Calvin’s first question was not, “Who am I?” but “Who is God?” He looked at God from the stand-point of the human conscience, with the torch of the Bible in his hand. God was to him the beginning of knowledge. The heathen sage said, “Know thyself” But a higher Authority had said, “The fear,” that is the knowledge, “of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” It is in the light that all things are seen. “God is light.”HOPV2 226.5

    In chemistry, in botany, in astronomy, he is the best philosopher who most carefully studies nature, most industriously collects facts, and most skilfully arranges them into a system or science. Not otherwise can the laws of the material universe, and the mutual relations of the bodies that compose it, be discovered. We must proceed in theology just as we proceed in natural science. He is the best theologian who most carefully studies Scripture, who most accurately brings out the meaning of its individual statements or truths, and who so classifies these as to exhibit that whole scheme of doctrine that is contained in the Bible. Not otherwise than by induction can we arrive at a true science: not otherwise than by induction can we come into possession of a true theology. The botanist, instead of shutting himself up in his closet, goes forth into the field and collects into classes the flora spread profusely, and without apparent order, over plain and mountain, grouping plant with plant, each according to its kind, till not one is left, and then his science of botany is perfected. The astronomer, instead of descending into some dark cave, turns his telescope to the heavens, watches the motions of its orbs, and by means of the bodies that are seen, he deduces the laws and forces that are unseen, and thus order springs up before his eye, and the system off the universe unveils itself to him. What the flora of the field are to the botanist, what the stars of the firmament are to the astronomer, the truths scattered over the pages of the Bible are to the theologian. The Master Himself has given us the hint that it is the inductive method which we are to follow in our search after Divine truth; nay, He has herein gone before us and set us the example, for beginning at Moses and the prophets, He expounded to His disciples “in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself.” It was to these pages that Calvin turned. He searched them through and through, he laid all the parts of the Word of God under contribution: its histories and dramas, its Psalms and prophecies, its Gospels and Epistles. With profound submission of mind he accepted whatever he found taught there; and having collected his materials, he proceeded with the severest logic, and in the exercise of a marvellous constructive genius, to frame his system — to erect the temple. To use the beautiful simile of D’Aubigne, “He went to the Gospel springs, and there collecting into a golden cup the pure and living waters of Divine revelation, presented them to the nations to quench their thirst.” 1D’Aubigne, vol. 3, p. 203.HOPV2 226.6

    We have said that Calvin was the first to open this path, but the statement is not to be taken literally and absolutely. He had several pioneers in this road; but none of them had trodden it with so firm a step, or left it so thoroughly open for men to follow, as Calvin did. By far the greatest of his pioneers was Augustine. But even the City of God, however splendid as a dissertation, is yet as a system much inferior to the Institutes, in completeness as well as in logical power. After Augustine there comes a long and dreary interval, during which no attempt was made to classify and systematize the truths of revelation. The attempt of Johannes Damascenus, in the eighth century, is a very defective performance, Not more successful were the efforts of the schoolmen. The most notable of these were the four books of Sentences by Peter Lombard, and the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, but both are defective and erroneous. In perusing the theological productions of that age, we become painfully sensible of strength wasted owing to the adoption of an entirely false method of interpreting the Word of God — a method which, we ought to say, was a forsaking rather than an interpreting of the Scriptures; for in the schoolmen we have a body of ingenious and laborious men, who have withdrawn themselves from the light of the Bible into the dark chamber of their own minds, and are weaving systems of theology out of their brains and the traditions of their Church, in which errors are much more plentiful than truths, and which possess no power to pacify the conscience, or to purify the life.HOPV2 227.1

    When we reach the age of the Reformation the true light again greets our eyes. Luther was no systematiser on a great scale; Melanchthon made a more considerable essay in that direction. His Loci Communes, or Common Places, published in 1521, were a prodigious advance on the systems of the schoolmen. They are quickened by the new life, but yet their mold is essentially mediaeval, and is too rigid and unbending to permit a free display of the piety of the author. The Commentarius de Vera et Falsa Religione, or Commentary on the True and False Religion, of Zwingle, published in 1525, is freed from the scholastic method of Melanchthon’s performance, but is still defective as a formal system of theology. The Confession of Augsburg (1530) is more systematic and complete than any of the foregoing, but still simply a confession of faith, and not such an exhibition of Divine Truth as the Church required. It remained for Calvin to give it this. The Intitutes of the Christian Religion was a confession of faith, 2Pro Confessione Fidei offertur, says the title-page of the first edition of the Institutes, now before us, dated Basileae1536. a system of exegesis, a body of polemics and apologetics, and an exhibition of the rich practical effects which flow from Christianity — it was all four in one. Calvin takes his reader by the hand and conducts him round the entire territory of truth; he shows him the strength and grandeur of its central citadel — namely, its God-given doctrines; the height and solidity of its ramparts; the gates by which it is approached; the order that reigns within; the glory of the Lamb revealed in the Word that illuminates it with continual day; the River of Life by which it was watered that is, the Holy Spirit; this, he exclaims, is the “City of the Living God,” this is the “Heavenly Jerusalem;” decay or overthrow never can befall it, for it is built upon the foundation of prophets and apostles, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner-stone. Into this city “there entereth nothing that defileth, or maketh a lie,” and the “nations of them that are saved shall walk in the light thereof.”HOPV2 227.2

    That Calvin’s survey of the field of supernatural truth as contained in the Bible was complete; that his classification of its individual facts was perfect; that his deductions and conclusions were in all cases sound, and that his system was without error, Calvin himself did not maintain, and it would ill become even the greatest admirer of that guarded, qualified, and balanced Calvinism which the Reformer taught — not that caricature of it which some of his followers have presented, a Calvinism which disjoins the means from the end, which destroys the freedom of man and abolishes his accountability; which is fatalism, in short, and is no more like the Calvinism of Calvin than Mahommedanism is like Christianity — it would ill become any one, we say, to challenge for Calvin’s system an immunity from error which he himself did not challenge for it. He found himself, in pursuing his investigations in the field of Scripture, standing face to face with two tremendous facts — God’s sovereignty and man’s freedom; both he believed to be facts; he maintained the last as firmly as the first; he confessed that he could not reconcile the two, he left this and all other mysteries connected with supernatural truth to be solved by the deeper researches and the growing light of the ages to come, if it were meant that they should ever find their solution on earth.HOPV2 228.1

    This work was adopted by the Reformed Church, and after some years published in most of the languages of Christendom. The clearness and strength of its logic; the simplicity and beauty of ifs exposition; the candour of its conclusions; the fullness of its doctrinal statements, and not less the warm spiritual life that throbbed under its deductions, now bursting out in rich practical exhortation, and now soaring into a vein of lofty speculation, made the Church feel that no book like this had the Reformation given her heretofore; and she accepted it, as at once a confession of her faith, an answer to all charges whether from the Roman camp or from the infidel one, and her justification alike before those now living and the ages to come, against the violence with which the persecutor was seeking to overwhelm her.HOPV2 228.2

    The first edition of the Institutes contained only six chapters. During all his life after he continued to elaborate and perfect the work. Edition after edition continued to issue from the press. These were published in Latin, but afterwards rendered into French, and translated into all the tongues of Europe. “During twenty-four years,” says Bungener, “the book increased in every edition, not as an edifice to which additions are made, but as a tree which develops itself naturally, freely, and without the compromise of its unity for a moment.” 3Calvin: his Life, his Labours, and his Writings, p. 43. It is noteworthy that the publication of the work fell on the mid-year of the Reformer’s life. Twenty-seven years had he been preparing for writing it, and twenty-seven years did he survive to expand and perfect it; nevertheless, not one of its statements or doctrines did he essentially alter or modify. It came, too, at the right time as regards the Reformation. 4The following valuable note was communicated to the Author by the late Mr. David Laing, LL.D. Than Mr. Laing’s there is no higher authority upon the subject to which it refers, and his note may be regarded as setting finally at rest the hitherto vexed question touching the publication of the Institutes: — “It is now a long while ago, when I was asked by Dr. McCrie, senior, to ascertain in what year the first edition appeared of Calvin’s Institutes. At the time, although no perfect copy of the 1536 volume was accessible, the conclusion I came to was that the work first appeared in a small volume, pp. 519, with the title Christianae Religionis Institutio, etc. Joanne Calvino, Autore. Basileae, MDXXXVI.HOPV2 228.3

    We shall briefly examine the order and scope of the book. It proposes two great ends, the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man. It employs the first to attain the second. “The whole sum of wisdom,” said the author at the outset, “is that by knowing God each of us knows himself also.” 5“Vera hominis sapientia sita est in cognitione Dei Creatoris et Redemptoris.” (Calvini Opp., vol. 9.) If man was made in the image of God, then surely the true way to know what our moral and spiritual powers are, or ought to be, what are the relations in which we stand to God, and what the service of love and obedience we owe him, is not to study the dim and now defaced image, but to turn our eye upon the undimmed and glorious Original — the Being in whose likeness man was created.HOPV2 229.1

    The image of God, it is argued, imprinted upon our own souls would have sufficed to reveal him to us if we had not fallen. But sin has defaced that image. Nevertheless, we are not left in darkness, for God has graciously given us a second revelation of himself in his Word. Grasping that torch, and holding it aloft, Calvin proceeds on his way, and bids all who would know the eternal mysteries follow that shining light. Thus it was that the all-sufficiency and supreme and sole authority of the Scriptures took a leading place in the system of the Reformer.HOPV2 229.2

    The order of the work is simplicity itself. It is borrowed from the Apostles’ Creed, whose four cardinal doctrines furnish the Reformer with the argument of the four books in which he finally arranged the Institutes.HOPV2 229.3

    I. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.”HOPV2 229.4

    Such is the argument of the first book. In it Calvin brings God before us in his character of Creator and sovereign Ruler of the world. But we must note that his treatment of this theme is eminently moral. It is no scenic exhibition of omnipotent power and infinite wisdom, as shown in the building of the fabric of the heavens and the earth, that passes before us. From the first line the author places himself and us in the eye of conscience. The question, Can the knowledge of God as Creator conduct to salvation? leads the Reformer to discuss in successive chapters the doctrine of the fall; the necessity of another and clearer revelation; the proofs of the inspiration of the Bible. He winds up with some chapters on Providence, as exercised in the government of all things, and in the superintendence of each particular thing and person in the universe. In these chapters Calvin lays the foundations for that tremendous conclusion at which he arrives in the book touching election, which has been so stumbling to many, and which is solemn and mysterious to all.HOPV2 229.5

    II. “And in Jesus Christ, his only-begotten Son.” The knowledge of God as Redeemer is the argument of book second. This ushers the author upon a higher stage, and places him amid grander themes. All that led up to the redemption accomplished on Calvary, as well as the redemption itself, is here discussed. Sin, the ruin of man, and his inability to be his own savior; the moral law; the gracious purpose of God in giving it, namely, to convince man of sin, and make him feel his need of a Savior; such are the successive and majestic steps by which Calvin advances to the Cross. Arrived there, we have a complete Christology: Jesus very God, very Man, Prophet, Priest, and King; and his death an eternal redemption, inasmuch as it was an actual, full, and complete expiation of the sins of his people. The book closes with the collected light of the Bible concentrated upon the Cross, and revealing it with a noonday clearness, as a fully accomplished redemption, the one impregnable ground of the sinner’s hope.HOPV2 230.1

    III. “I believe in the Holy Ghost.” That part of redemption which it is the office of the Spirit to accomplish, is the argument to which the author now addresses himself. The theme of the second book is a righteousness accomplished without the sinner: in the third book we are shown a righteousness accomplished within him. Calvin insists not less emphatically upon the last as an essential part of redemption than upon the first. The sinner’s destruction was within him, his salvation must in like manner be within him; an atonement without him will not save him unless he have a holiness within him. But what, asks the author, is the bond of connection between the sinner and the righteousness accomplished without him? That bond, he answers, is the Holy Spirit. The Spirit works faith in the sinner, and by that faith, as with a hand, he receives a two-fold benefit — a righteousness which is imputed to him, and a regeneration which is wrought within him. By the first he obtains the justification of his person, by the second the sanctification of his soul, and a fitness for that glory everlasting of which he became the heir in the moment of his justification. The one grand corollary from all this is that man’s salvation is exclusively, and from first to last, of God’s sovereign grace.HOPV2 230.2

    Thus do Calvin and Luther meet. They have traveled by different routes; the first has advanced by a long and magnificent demonstration, the second has by a sudden inspiration, as it were, grasped the truth; but here at last the two mighty chiefs stand side by side on the ground of “Salvation of God,” and taking each other by the hand, they direct their united assault against the fortress of Rome, “Salvation of man.”HOPV2 230.3

    The moment in which Calvin arrived at this conclusion formed an epoch in the history of Christianity — that is, of the human race. It was the full and demonstrated recovery of a truth that lies at the foundation of all progress, inasmuch as it is the channel of those supernatural and celestial influences by which the human soul is quickened, and society advanced. The doctrine of justification by faith, of which St. Paul had been led to put on record so full and clear an exposition, early began to be corrupted. By the times of Augustine even, very erroneous views were held on this most important subject; and that great Father was not exempt from the obscurity of his age. After his day the corruption rapidly increased. The Church of Rome was simply an elaborate and magnificent exhibition of the doctrine of “Salvation by works.” The language of all its dogmas, and every one of its rites, was “Man his own savior.” Luther placed underneath the stupendous fabric of Rome the doctrine which, driven by his soul-agonies to the Divine page, he had there discovered — “Salvation by grace” — and the edifice fell to the ground. This was the application that Luther made of the doctrine. The use to which Calvin put it was more extensive; he brought out its bearings upon the whole scheme of Christian doctrine, and made it the basis of the Reformation of the Church in the largest and widest sense of the term. In the hands of Luther it is the power of the doctrine which strikes us; in those of Calvin it is its truth, and universality, lying entrenched as it were within its hundred lines of doctrinal circumvallation, and dominating the whole territory of truth in such fashion as to deny to error, of every sort and name, so much as a foot-breadth on which to take root and flourish.HOPV2 230.4

    IV. “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.” The term Church, in its strict sense, he applied to the children of God; in its looser sense, to all who made profession of the Gospel, for the instruction and government of whom, God had instituted, he held, pastors and teachers. Touching the worship and government of the Church, Calvin laid down the principle of the unlawfulness of introducing anything without positive Scripture sanction. “This, he thought, would go to the root of the matter, and sweep away at once the whole mass of sacramentalism and ceremonialism, of ritualism and hierarchism, which had grown up between the apostolic age and the Reformation.” 6Cunningham, The Reformers and the Theology of the Reformation, p. 342; Edin., 1862. Augustine deplored the prevalence of the rites and ceremonies of his time, but he lacked a definite principle with which to combat and uproot them. These ceremonies and rites had become yet more numerous in Luther’s day; but neither had he any weapon wherewith to grapple effectually with them. He opposed them mainly on two grounds: first, that they were burdensome; and secondly, that they contained more or less the idea of merit, and so tended to undermine the doctrine of justification by faith. Calvin sought for a principle which should clear the ground of that whole noxious growth at once, and he judged that he had found such a principle in the following — namely, that not only were many of these ceremonies contrary to the first and second precepts of the Decalogue, and therefore to be condemned as idolatrous; but that in the mass they were without warrant in the Word of God, and were therefore to be rejected as unlawful.HOPV2 231.1

    In regard to Church government, the means which the Reformer adopted for putting an end to all existing corruptions and abuses, and preventing their recurrence, are well summed up by Dr. Cunningham. He sought to attain this end — First, by putting an end to anything like the exercise of monarchical authority in the Church, or independent power vested officially in one man, which was the origin and root of the Papacy.HOPV2 231.2

    Second, by falling back upon the combination of aristocracy and democracy, which prevailed for at least the first two centuries of the Christian era, when the Churches were governed by the common council of Presbyters, and these Presbyters were chosen by the Churches themselves, though tried and ordained by those who had been previously admitted to office.HOPV2 231.3

    Third, by providing against the formation of a spirit of a mere priestly caste, by associating with the ministers in the administration of ecclesiastical affairs, a class of men who, though ordained Presbyters, were usually engaged in the ordinary occupations of society; and fourth, by trying to prevent a repetition of the history of the rise and growth of the prelacy and the Papacy, through the perversion of the one-man power, by fastening the substance of these great principles upon the conscience of the Church as binding jure divino.” 7Cunningham, Reformers and Theol. of Reform., p. 343.HOPV2 231.4

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