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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 23 — The "Institutes"

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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 — Zwingli — 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.

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.

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.

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."

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." [1]

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.

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 Zwingli, 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, [2] 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."

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.

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.

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." [3] 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. [1535] — that is, August 23, 1535 — while in the French translation by the author, in his last revised translation of 1559, the date is given 'De Basle, le premier jour d'Aoust, mil cinq cens trente cinq.'">4]

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] 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.

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.


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Tuesday, June 19th, 2018
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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