The printed book was one of the most significant factors in molding intellectual opinion across sixteenth-century Europe. Books were easily transported, could cross national frontiers undetected, and found their way to private libraries, where they were eagerly, if secretively, devoured. The printed word was integral to the spreading of the ideas of the Reformation across the religious and political boundaries of Europe. Martin Luther never visited England, yet his ideas were brought there through books that were smuggled in through eastern ports such as Ipswich and pored over in nearby Cambridge University. Calvin's distinct and greatest contribution to the consolidation and diffusion of the
Reformed variant of Protestantism was a book that transformed the fortunes of that movement, liberating it from its earlier geographical and cultural imprisonment. The book? Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes immediately became a best-seller and went through numerous, expanded editions in Latin (1539, 1543, 1550, 1553, 1559) and French (1541, 1545, 1551, 1560).
As we noted earlier, the first edition of the Institutes was published at Basel in 1536.19 Modeled on Luther's influential catechisms of 1529, its six chapters included commentaries on the Ten Commandments, the Apostles' Creed, and some disputed matters of theology. Calvin revised the work substantially during his time in Strasbourg. It was the second edition that established the work as one of the most important Protestant works of the era. Completely restructured, the work's seventeen chapters set out a clear, accessible account of the basics of Christian belief, including the doctrine of God, the Trinity, the relation of the Old and New Testaments, penitence, justification by faith, the nature and relation of providence and predestination, human nature, and the nature of the Christian life. Calvin's distinctive emphases on the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible are evident from even a cursory reading of the work and would remain central as it underwent development in later editions.
What is so striking about this edition of the Institutes is not so much that it is a work of theology, but that it is a work of pedagogy, based on careful reflection on how to communicate and commend ideas.20 The work offers a clear and immensely readable account of ideas that might otherwise be inaccessible and unintelligible. This concern for effective communication with a lay audience is especially evident in the French translation of the Institutes (1541), which shows Calvin adapting his ideas and language to his intended audience. Greek words and references to Aristotle are left out, and a healthy dose of French proverbs and idioms have been added. This translation is regularly hailed as a model of pedagogical clarity.
Yet it was not simply the many educational and presentational virtues of the book that propelled it to prominence. It addressed head-on the central weakness of Protestantism up to this point: the problem of the multiplicity of interpretations of the Bible. How can one speak of the Bible as having any authority when it is so clearly at the mercy of its interpreters? Calvin presents his Institutes as an authoritative guide to the correct interpretation of scripture. "My object in this work," he wrote, "is to so prepare and train students of sacred theology for the study of the word of God that they might have an easy access into it, and be able to proceed in it without hindrance."
Calvin established the credentials of his interpretations of the Bible, not by an assertion of his personal authority or wisdom, but by careful engagement with biblical passages, informed by a good knowledge of how these passages had been interpreted by well-regarded older Christian writers, such as Augustine of Hippo.21 Readers of the work found themselves presented with reasoned, defended, and superbly presented accounts of central Christian teachings, firmly rooted in the Bible. Calvin presented and critiqued alternatives, reassuring readers of the plausibility of his own preferred interpretations in the face of these rivals. He did not merely defend his ideas; he showed how he derived them in the first place.
So what are the central ideas that Calvin developed? The most important is the fundamental assertion that a consistent and coherent theological system can be derived and defended on the basis of the Bible. Calvin's greatest legacy to Protestantism is arguably not any specific doctrines but rather his demonstration of how the Bible can serve as the foundation of a stable understanding of Christian beliefs and structures. In particular, Calvin held that the New Testament lays down a specific, defensible church order. Calvin's theology is similar to Luther's at many points, while taking a theologically subtle and diplomatic view on the issue that had caused such a furious row between Luther and Zwingli—the question of the real presence.
The growing importance of the Institutes led Calvin to revise and expand the work; the result was the definitive edition of 1559, consisting of eighty chapters arranged in four books. The final Latin edition was five times larger than the first. This massive expansion of the work reflects Calvin's practice of adding material relating to important controversies that had emerged since earlier editions. It must be said that some of these later additions are rather less elegant and more acerbic than earlier parts of the work and do not reflect Calvin at his best. Where Calvin earlier addressed ideas and assessed them on the basis of their intrinsic merits, he now shows a marked tendency to abuse and vilify his opponents. Calvin is believed to have suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, usually the result of stress, and this may have been the reason for this unhappy development. This final edition, however, shows a marked improvement over previous editions in that the work has been completely reorganized, allowing the inner coherence of Calvin's approach to be appreciated, while at the same time making it easier to find specific discussions.
The success of Calvin's 1559 Institutes gave rise to a series of publishing spin-offs designed to enhance still further the work's pedagogical excellence. In 1562 Augustin Marlorat published a set of indexes to the work that made it easy to find specific topics and questions. In 1576 Nicolas Colladon, one of Calvin's early biographers, produced an edition that included brief marginal summaries of the contents of significant passages, largely to relieve the burden on hard-worked theological students. Thomas Vautrollier, a Huguenot refugee who became one of London's more important religious publishers, printed two study guides to the Institutes. Edmund Bunny's Compendium (1576) offered simplified accounts of Calvin's main arguments. In 1583 Guillaume Delaune (a Huguenot refugee who Anglicized his name as William Lawne) produced a summary of the Institutes that included flowcharts and diagrams to allow readers to follow the intricate structure of the work.
Despite Protestantism's emphasis on the importance of the vernacular, Latin remained the preferred language for theological publications. Calvin's Institutes could be read by academics throughout Europe. However, Calvin's decision to translate the work into French showed a particular concern to communicate with the grass roots of faith. Calvin's growing appeal is evident from the appearance of vernacular translations of the Institutes, such as translations into Dutch (1560), English (1561), German (1572), and Spanish (1597). The impact of these translations was significant. Coherently expressed and carefully justified radical reforming doctrines had become available in a language that everyone could understand.
The response to the French translation of 1541 was noteworthy. Within a year, the Parisian authorities were insisting that all works containing heterodox doctrines, especially Calvin's Institutes, be surrendered to the authorities. In 1542 a martyr died at Rouen with a quotation from this work on his lips. The extent of the market for Calvin's
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writings can be gauged from the 1545 banning of 121 French-language titles, almost half of which were printed in Geneva. Parisian booksellers were outraged and protested vigorously: they would be ruined if they were prohibited from selling such books.
Calvin's growing appeal within many sections of Protestantism lay not in his institutional authority—he was, after all, nothing more than a pastor at Geneva, a small city by the standards of the time—but in the growing perception of his widening readership that he was serious, reliable, and trustworthy. It is generally agreed that one of the most important factors contributing to this growing reputation was the Institutes.
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