Robust instruction

IN THE FALL OF 1530, Protestantism began to make headway in the French-speaking areas of Europe when a fiercely passionate, uncompromising, red-haired Frenchman by the name of Guillaume Farel led the Swiss city of Neuchâtel to embrace the “evangelical” cause (as people in the sixteenth century termed the spread of Reformation ideas).

As once-honored medieval Catholic devotions were trampled underfoot, Farel began to turn his sights to the independent republic of Geneva (in modern-day Switzerland). By the middle of the decade, he succeeded in transforming Geneva and breaking it from its former political and religious ties. A new motto for the city emerged to capture the mind-set of an era: Post tenebras lux: “Out of the darkness, light.“ 

A glowing candle

Farel’s polemical approach to reformation proved sufficient for spurring French minds and hearts toward radical change. But he recognized that Geneva required a leader better suited to theological and ecclesiological rebuilding of the church. Enter Farel’s friend John Calvin (1509–1564). 

Calvin’s skill at weaving Scripture and theology together in one narrative with breadth, order, and relevance to the era was exactly what was needed. Without a doubt, Calvin’s masterpiece of theology—the Institutes of the Christian Religion—influenced the Reformed tradition for centuries and contributed to Geneva’s growing reputation among friends and foes as the “Mother Church” of French Protestants (Huguenots) and the “Rome of Protestantism.” 

For early Protestants the image of light, set forth in Geneva’s motto, represented the Gospel that had been long hidden, obscured, and extinguished by the medieval church and even the devil himself. The famous seventeenth-century Dutch print The Light Is Restored to the Candlestick features a table surrounded by reformers with a candle as the centerpiece. (A similar painting from Germany appears on p. 39 of CH 115.) Martin Luther and John Calvin, the foremost leaders of the Protestant Reformation, sit at the center of the table on either side of the candle. In the foreground a pope, a cardinal, a monk, and a demon try to blow out the light of the candle—but to no avail.

Calvin’s contemporaries felt as though their message had dramatically invaded early-modern Europe. An unprecedented outpouring of Scripture in the common languages appeared in order to educate a biblically illiterate culture. Such widespread access to Scripture was by all accounts exceptional in European history. A seismic shift had occurred—from copying biblical manuscripts by hand during the medieval era to the use of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century. 

The staggering increase of Bibles shaped the culture of Christendom, both elite and popular, as never before. Preaching filled the streets. Religious conversations dominated the din at alehouses. People purchased, read aloud, and passed on inexpensive theological pamphlets. Images and songs diffused the Protestant message with persistence. Scripture was increasingly promoted as the focus of personal devotion and family devotional life. The first generation of reformers felt a vibrant optimism. Luther famously declared that “nowadays a girl or boy of 15 knows more about Christian doctrine than did all the theologians of the great universities in the old days.”

Yet, as the Protestant Reformation unfolded, it became clear that more robust instruction for the laity and those training for ministry was still needed. Luther’s friend Melancthon found, in a 1528 visitation of parishes in Germany, a widespread lack of knowledge of basic elements of the Christian faith like the Lord’s Prayer. This discovery spurred on the publication of Luther’s Large and Small Catechisms. It was evident that Christians needed guidance to understand better the story of human salvation. Calvin provided even more of that guidance, though it seemed unlikely at the beginning. 

Not seeking the limelight

Calvin, a Frenchman, had set his sights on a secluded, scholarly life. Trained in law, shaped by a cutting-edge humanist education, and self-taught in theology, Calvin is considered one of the most brilliant minds in Christian history. By 1533 he had embraced the reformers’ cause and found himself running from Parisian authorities bent on linking him to Lutheran ideas. 

In 1534 King Francis I’s enactment of a royal policy of persecution against French Protestants dramatically transformed Calvin’s life. From that point on, he lived in exile among Swiss and Genevans. In the position of both refugee and pilgrim, Calvin dedicated his life to advancing the church in Geneva as pastor and author and assisting French-speaking communities that faced tremendous obstacles and persecution. 

But Calvin’s contribution to the church extended well beyond the confines of continental Europe. The Institutes was not just a synthesis of theological understanding grounded in Scripture, nor merely a blueprint for Reformed church order. At its core Calvin saw it as a confession of faith for the church universal.

In March 1536 Calvin’s first edition emerged, a short summary of Reformed doctrine published in Latin. It contained striking similarities in content and structure to Luther’s own Small Catechism (1529). Dedicating the work to King Francis I, Calvin strove to endear the king to the Protestant cause by denying rumors of political subversion and theological innovation. Instead Calvin identified the core of the Protestant effort to be restoring the “True Church,” the body of believers marked by the right preaching of the Word and the right administration of the two Protestant sacraments, baptism and the Eucharist. 

Though Francis I’s reign ended with his death in 1547, Calvin’s dedication continued to be printed with every edition of the Institutes (he kept expanding and revising the work until 1559) as an ongoing reminder of the work’s motivation and context.

Over the course of the 1530s and 1540s, besides developing and expanding his Institutes, Calvin also wrote prefaces for his cousin’s French translation of the Bible, as well as a confession of faith (1536) and Catechism or Instruction of the Christian Religion of the Church of Geneva (1537). All exhibit significant continuity with the first edition of the Institutes. Though Calvin did not join the ministry leadership of Geneva until 1536 (when Farel urged him to do so), he was already developing resources aimed at providing theological guidance for the church. 

A pastor emerges

Meanwhile the Reformation in Geneva was far from stable. In 1538 the tables turned on Farel and Calvin, exiled from the city after a tug-of-war dispute with the state over church authority and discipline. Calvin, once again homeless, took refuge in Strasbourg under the auspices of another mentor, reformer Martin Bucer. He thrived there as pastor of a French congregation, lecturer at the Strasbourg Academy, and newly married husband to widow Idelette de Bure. Emotional healing from his recent hardship and renewed conviction in his calling helped to spur Calvin’s work forward. 

During his time in Strasbourg, Calvin expanded his Latin Institutes by 11 chapters in 1539, revising the title to make it clearer that the work was a systematic treatment of doctrine. He turned his attention to equipping clergy in their study of Scripture; this edition contains an expanded focus on Romans coinciding with Calvin’s commentary on Paul’s epistle published that same year. 

Calvin the scholar increasingly moved in the direction of pastor and teacher with the emergence of his first French edition of the Institutes in 1541. By writing in French, he was reaching out not only to clergy but also to laity, who would not have been able to read Latin, at an entirely new depth. In that same year, he accepted an invitation to return to Geneva.

Calvin was finally satisfied with his Latin edition of the Institutes in 1559. Overall the work was intended as a companion to Scripture and to Calvin’s commentaries. By the end he had substantially expanded the book in range and altered its organization. For example his explanation of justification by faith broadened, based not only on his belief that it was the “main hinge on which all religion turns,” but also due to his involvement in ecumenical discussions—like the Colloquy of Regensburg (1541), an unsuccessful meeting attempting to reconcile Protestants and Catholics over the doctrine of justification. 

By the last edition, the Institutes was divided into four books addressing matters relating to God the Creator, Jesus Christ the Savior, the Holy Spirit, and the nature and functions of the church. Calvin’s followers embraced his emphases on piety, divine providence, the impact of sin, his notion of “double grace,” the work of the Holy Spirit, his doctrine of double predestination, and union with Christ. 

These eight emphases shaped much subsequent Christian doctrine and, more important to Calvin, Christian piety, which he called “reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” At its core the Institutes urges others toward a life dedicated to honoring God in both word and deed.

The legacy of Calvin and his Institutes is immense, impacting the church broadly and the Reformed tradition in particular, from fiery Scottish reformer John Knox in the sixteenth century to Swiss theologian Karl Barth in the twentieth (see “In defiance of the Gods,” pp. 41–42). The questions that Christians grappled with in Calvin’s day continue to surface in our time. While his Institutes is very much of its time, it is also surprisingly relevant for any thinking Christian today. In many ways the Institutes represents Calvin’s coat-of-arms (which shows a hand holding a heart) in action; here is doctrine and piety in the form of a burning heart held out to the world. CH

By Jennifer Powell McNutt

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #116 in 2015]

Jennifer Powell McNutt is associate professor of theology and history of Christianity at Wheaton College and the author of Calvin Meets Voltaire.
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