Book Review: A Readers Guide to Calvin’s Institutes

A Reader's Guide to Calvin's Institute Book Review Tony Lane

This book review is of a book that should aid you in reading one of the books that (other than the Bible) has had more of an influence on Western Protestant theology, and definitely evangelical theology, than any other. That book, John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion” was also foundational and formational in my own Christian life, and fundamental to my decision to study and continue to appreciate theology. Tony Lane, a professor of Historical Theology at London School of Theology, has done readers of Calvin, and those who have not yet read him, a great service by writing this slim volume.

Why a readers guide? Why should you read it? Because Calvin is important to read. But his Institutes equate to (in my favourite edition) to eight centimetres of shelf space, and his commentaries nearly three feet! This slim volume allows us to unlock the systematic exposition of the Christian faith for which Calvin is best known. Lane is clear at the outset as to the point of his book, “it is not a book to be read on its own but functions purely as a reading guide… guides the reader through a reading of the text, with direction as to the key sections to read“. Thus, it is an excellent tool for engaging with Calvin’s dense, glorious writing.

One of the most valuable features of this book is its excellent introductory potted look at Calvin, the man. This makes for crucial reading, and is very informative. There is also a helpful few pages on the five different editions of The Institutes (1536, 1539, 1543, 1550 and 1559). The changes that lead to the final version resulted in something that Lane helpfully tells us “is roughly as long as Genesis to Luke, inclusive“. Introductions and explanations out of the way, the reader is guided to launch into the Institutes, by way of 26 short chapters, each focusing on a different section of the four books of Calvin’s work.

This is a useful, logical, and invaluable book. It provides an excellent doorway into reading one of the most important works of theology available, and it also provides a good introduction to the man behind it. As a big time Calvin fan, and a reading fan, I can’t recommend this little volume highly enough. It removes many of the obstacles to reading Calvin straight from the source (rather than a barrage of quotes, extracts and distillations), and does so in a firm but easygoing style. This book is one I always recommend when a friend tells me they are about to embark on reading the Institutes!


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