He published the book in Latin (1536) as Christianae religionis institutio (The Principles of the Christian Religion). Within a year the issue was sold out and a new edition was invited. Calvin responded with a much enlarged version (1539), again in Latin; in 1541 he translated this into French; and this form of the work is one of the most impressive productions in the gamut of French prose. The Parlement of Paris proscribed the book in both languages, and copies of it were publicly burned in the capital. Calvin continued throughout his life to expand and republish it; in its final form it ran to 1,118 pages.


Fig. 37—SANCHEZ COELLO: Ignatius Loyola


Fig. 38—Cathedral, Segovia


Fig. 39—SULTAN MUHAMMAD NUR: Khusrau Sees Shirin Bathing. From Basil Gray, Persian Painting (Courtesy Oxford University Press)


Fig. 40—BIHZAD: The Herdsman and King Dara. From Basil Gray, Persian Painting (Courtesy Oxford University Press)


Fig. 41—ISLAMIC CALLIGRAPHY (about 1460). De Motte Collection


Fig. 42—PERSIAN BOOK COVER (about 1560)


Fig. 43—CORONATION CARPET (used for the coronation of Edward VII in 1901). Los Angeles County Museum


Fig. 44—Tomb of Hafiz, Shiraz, Persia


Fig. 45—Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Mosque), Constantinople


Fig. 46—Mosque of Suleiman, Constantinople


Fig. 47—Shrine of Imam Riza, Mashhad


Fig. 48—GENTILE BELLINI: Medallion of Mohammed II. National Gallery, London

The first edition opened with a passionate but dignified “Preface to the Most Christian King of France.” Two events gave occasion for addressing Francis: the royal edict of January 1535 against the French Protestants, and the almost simultaneous invitation of Francis to Melanchthon and Bucer to come to France and arrange an alliance between the French monarch and the Lutheran princes against Charles V. Calvin hoped to reinforce political expediency with theological arguments, and help incline the King, like his sister, toward the Protestant cause. He was anxious to dissociate this from the Anabaptist movement then verging on communism in Münster. He described the French reformers as patriots, devoted to the King and averse from all economic or political disturbance. The beginning and end of this famous Preface reveal the majesty of Calvin’s thought and style.

When I began this work, Sire, nothing was further from my thoughts than writing a book which would afterwards be presented to your Majesty. My intention was only to lay down some elementary principles, by which inquirers on the subject of religion might be instructed in the nature of true piety.... But when I perceived that the fury of certain wicked men in your kingdom had grown to such a height as to leave no room in the land for sound doctrine, I thought I should be usefully employed if in the same work... I exhibited my confession to you, that you may know the nature of that doctrine which is the object of such unbounded rage in those madmen who are now disturbing the country with fire and sword. For I shall not be afraid to acknowledge that this treatise contains a summary of that very doctrine, which, according to their clamors, deserves to be punished with imprisonment, banishment, proscription, and flames, and to be exterminated from the face of the earth. I well know with what atrocious insinuations your ears have been filled by them, in order to render our cause most odious in your esteem; but your clemency should lead you to consider that if accusation be accounted sufficient evidence of guilt, there will be an end to all innocence in words and actions.....

You yourself, Sire, can bear witness of the false calumnies with which you hear it [our cause] daily traduced: that its only tendency is to wrest the scepters of kings out of their hands, to overturn all the tribunals... to subvert all order and government, to disturb the peace and tranquillity of the people, to abrogate all laws, to scatter all properties and possessions, and, in a word, to involve everything in total confusion.....

Wherefore I beseech you, Sire—and surely it is not an unreasonable request—to take upon yourself the entire cognizance of this cause, which has hitherto been confusedly and carelessly agitated, without any order of law, and with outrageous passion rather than judicial gravity. Think not that I am now meditating my own individual defense in order to effect a safe return to my native country; for though I feel the affection which every man ought to feel for it, yet, under the existing circumstances, I regret not my removal from it. But I plead the cause of all the godly, and consequently of Christ Himself.....

Is it probable that we are meditating the subversion of kingdoms?—we who were never heard to utter a factious word, whose lives were ever known to be peaceable and honest while we lived under your government, and who, even now in our exile, cease not to pray for all prosperity to attend yourself and your kingdom!... Nor have we, by Divine Grace, profited so little in the Gospel, but that our life may be an example to our detractors of chastity, liberality, mercy, temperance, patience, modesty, and every other virtue.....

Though you are now averse and alienated from us, and even inflamed against us, we despair not of regaining your favor, if you will only read with calmness and composure this our confession, which we intend as our defense before your Majesty. But, on the contrary, if your ears are so preoccupied with the whispers of the malevolent as to leave no opportunity for the accused to speak for themselves, and if those outrageous furies, with your connivance, continue to persecute with imprisonments, scourges, tortures, confiscations, and flames, we shall indeed, like sheep destined for the slaughter, be reduced to the greatest extremities. Yet shall we in patience possess our souls, and wait for the mighty hand of the Lord .... for the deliverance of the poor from their affliction, and for the punishment of their despisers, who now exult in such perfect security. May the Lord, the King of Kings, establish your throne with righteousness and your kingdom with equity.4

It is difficult for us, in an age when theology has given place to politics as the center of human interest and conflict, to recapture the mood in which Calvin composed the Institutes. He, much more than Spinoza, was a God-intoxicated man. He was overwhelmed by a sense of man’s littleness and God’s immensity. How absurd it would be to suppose that the frail reason of so infinitesimal a mite as man could understand the Mind behind these innumerable, obedient stars? In pity of man’s reason God has revealed Himself to us in the Bible. That this Holy Book is His Word (says Calvin) is proved by the unrivaled impression that it makes on the human spirit.

Read Demosthenes or Cicero, read Plato, Aristotle, or any others of that class; I grant you that you will be attracted, delighted, moved, and enraptured by them in a surprising manner; but if, after reading them, you turn to the perusal of the sacred volume, whether you are willing or unwilling, it will affect you so powerfully, it will so penetrate your heart, and impress itself so strongly on your mind, that, compared with its energetic influence, the beauties of rhetoricians and philosophers will almost entirely disappear; so that it is easy to perceive something divine in the sacred Scriptures, which far surpasses the highest attainments and ornaments of human industry.5

Consequently this revealed Word must be our final authority, not only in religion and morals but in history, politics, everything. We must accept the story of Adam and Eve; for by their disobedience to God we explain man’s evil nature and his loss of free will.

The mind of man is so completely alienated from the righteousness of God that it conceives, desires, and undertakes everything that is impious, perverse, base, impure, and flagitious. His heart is so thoroughly infected by the poison of sin that it cannot produce anything but what is corrupt; and if at any time men do anything apparently good, yet the mind always remains involved in hypocrisy and deceit, and the heart enslaved by its inward perversity.6

How could so depraved a being ever deserve eternal happiness in paradise? Not one of us could ever earn it by any amount of good works. Good works are good, but only the sacrificial death of the Son of God could avail to earn salvation for men. Not for all men, for God’s justice demands the damnation of most men. But His mercy has chosen some of us to be saved; and to these he has given an upholding faith in their redemption by Christ. For St. Paul said: “God the Father hath chosen us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love; having predestinated us unto the adoption of children by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.”7 Calvin, like Luther, interpreted this to mean that God, by a free choice quite independent of our virtues and vices, determined, long before the creation, just who is to be saved and who is to be damned.8 To the question why God should choose men for salvation or damnation without regard to their merits, Calvin answers again in the words of Paul: “For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” 9 Calvin concludes:

In conformity, therefore, to the clear doctrine of Scripture, we assert that by an eternal and immutable counsel God has once for all determined both whom He would admit to salvation, and whom He would condemn to destruction. We affirm that this counsel, as far as concerns the elect, is founded on His gratuitous mercy, totally irrespective of human merit; but that to those whom He devotes to condemnation, the gate of life is closed by a just and irreprehensible, but incomprehensible, judgment.10

Even the fall of Adam and Eve, with all its consequences, in the Pauline theory, to the human race, “was ordained by the admirable counsel of God.”11

Calvin admits that predestination is repulsive to reason, but he replies, “It is unreasonable that man should scrutinize with impunity those things which the Lord has determined to be hidden in Himself.”12 Yet he professes to know why God so arbitrarily determines the eternal fate of billions of souls: it is “to promote our admiration of His glory” by the display of His power.13 He agrees that this is “a horrible decree” (decretum horribile), “but no one can deny that God foreknew the future final fate of man before He created him, and that He foreknew it because it was appointed by His own decree.”14 Others might argue, like Luther, that the future is determined because God has foreseen it and His foresight cannot be falsified; Calvin reverses the matter, and considers that God foresees the future because He has willed and determined it. And the decree of damnation is absolute; there is no purgatory in Calvin’s theology, no halfway house where one might, by a few million years of burning, wipe out his “reprobation.” And therefore there is no room for prayers for the dead.

We might suppose that on Calvin’s assumptions there would be no sense in any kind of prayer; all being fixed by divine decree, not an ocean of orisons could wash away one jot of the inexorable destiny. However, Calvin is more human than his theology: let us pray with humility and faith, he tells us, and our prayers will be answered; the prayer and the answer were also decreed. Let us worship God in humble religious services, but we must reject the Mass as a sacrilegious pretense of priests to transform earthly materials into the body and blood of Christ. Christ is present in the Eucharist only spiritually, not physically; and the adoration of the consecrated wafer as literally Christ is sheer idolatry. The use of graven images of the Deity, in clear violation of the Second Commandment, encourages idolatry. All religious pictures and statuary, even the crucifix, should be removed from the churches.

The true Church is the invisible congregation of the elect, dead, living, or to be born. The visible Church is composed of “all those who, by a confession of faith, an exemplary life, and participation in the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper” (Calvin rejects the other sacraments), “profess the same God and Christ with ourselves.”15 Outside of this Church there is no salvation.16 Church and state are both divine, and are designed by God to work in harmony as the soul and body of one Christian society: the Church should regulate all details of faith, worship, and morals; the state, as the physical arm of the Church, should enforce these regulations.17 The secular authorities must also see to it that “idolatry” (largely synonymous with Catholicism in Protestant usage) and “other scandals to religion be not publicly set forth and broadcast among the people,” and that only the pure Word of God should be taught and received.18 The ideal government will be a theocracy, and the Reformed Church should be recognized as the voice of God. All the claims of the popes for the supremacy of the Church over the state were renewed by Calvin for his Church.

It is remarkable how much of Roman Catholic tradition and theory survived in Calvin’s theology. He owed something to Stoicism, especially to Seneca, and something to his studies of law; but his chief reliance was on St. Augustine, who drew predestinarianism out of St. Paul, who did not know Christ. Calvin sternly ignored Christ’s conception of God as a loving and merciful father, and calmly passed by a multitude of Biblical passages that assumed man’s freedom to mold his own destiny (2 Pet. 3:9; 1 Tim. 2:4; 1 John 2:2; 4:14, etc.). Calvin’s genius lay not in conceiving new ideas but in developing the thought of his predecessors to ruinously logical conclusions, expressing these with an eloquence equaled only by Augustine, and formulating their practical implications in a system of ecclesiastical legislation. He took from Luther the doctrine of justification or election by faith; from Zwingli the spiritual interpretation of the Eucharist; and from Bucer the contradictory notions of the divine will as the cause of all events, and the requirement of a strenuous practical piety as the test and witness of election. Most of these Protestant doctrines had come down, in milder form, in Catholic tradition; Calvin gave them stark emphasis, and neglected the compensatory mitigating elements in the medieval faith. He was more medieval than any thinker between Augustine and Dante. He completely rejected the humanist concern with earthly excellence, and turned men’s thoughts again, more somberly than before, to the after world. In Calvinism the Reformation again repudiated the Renaissance.

That so unprepossessing a theology should have won the assent of hundreds of millions of men in Switzerland, France, Scotland, England, and North America is at first sight a mystery, then an illumination. Why should Calvinists, Huguenots, and Puritans have fought so valiantly in defense of their own helplessness? And why has this theory of human impotence shared in producing some of the strongest characters in history? Is it because these believers gained more strength from believing themselves the few elect than they lost by admitting that their conduct contributed nothing to their fate? Calvin himself, at once shy and resolute, was confident that he belonged to the elect, and this so comforted him that he found the “horrible decree” of predestination “productive of the most delightful benefit.”19 Did some of the self-elect take pleasure in considering how few were to be saved, and how many were to be damned? The belief that they were chosen of God gave many souls the courage to face the vicissitudes and apparent aimlessness of life, as a similar faith enabled the Jewish people to preserve itself amid difficulties that might otherwise have sapped the will to live; indeed, the Calvinist idea of being divinely chosen may have been indebted to the Jewish form of the belief, as Protestantism in general owed so much to the Old Testament. The confidence in divine election must have been a tower of courage to Huguenots suffering war and massacre, and to Pilgrims uprooting themselves perilously to seek new homes on hostile shores. If a reformed sinner could catch this confidence, and could believe that his reform had been ordained by God, he could stand unshaken to the end. Calvin enhanced this feeling of pride in election by making the elect, penniless or not, an hereditary aristocracy: the children of the elect were automatically elect by the will of God.20 So, by a simple act of faith in one’s self, one could, if only in imagination, possess and transmit paradise. For such immortal boons a confession of helplessness was a bargain price.

Calvin’s followers needed such consolation, for he taught them the medieval view that earthly life is a vale of misery and tears. He cheerfully granted “the correctness of their opinion who considered it as the greatest boon not to be born, and, as the next greatest, to die immediately; nor was there anything irrational in the conduct of those who mourned and wept at the birth of their relations, and solemnly rejoiced at their funerals”; he merely regretted that these wise pessimists, being mostly pagans ignorant of Christ, were doomed to everlasting hell.21 Only one thing could make life bearable—the hope of uninterrupted happiness after death. “If heaven is our country, what is the earth but a place of exile?—and if the departure out of this world is an entrance into life, what is the world but a sepulcher?” 22 Unlike his poetical counterpart, Calvin gives his most eloquent pages not to the phantasmagoria of hell but to the loveliness of heaven. The pious elect will suffer without a murmur all the pains and griefs of life. “For they will keep in view that day when the Lord will receive His faithful servants into His peaceful kingdom, will wipe every tear from their eyes, invest them with robes of joy, adorn them with crowns of glory, entertain them with ineffable delights, and exalt them to a fellowship with His majesty, and... a participation in His happiness.”23 For the poor or unfortunate, who cover the earth, it may have been an indispensable belief.

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