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John Calvin was just twenty-seven years old when the first edition of his Institutes was published in Basel in 1536. Calvin's “little book” — as he affectionately called it — grew in size throughout the rest of his life; eventually, this early, shorter version evolved into what is now known as the Institutes, the 1559 edition, which Calvin considered the authoritative form of his thought for posterity.
One of the most influential reformers, Calvin's work was of significance throughout Europe and beyond. Calvin (1509-1564) was born in Noyon, France on July 10, 1509. His father was the secretary and attorney for the bishopric of Noyon. Calvin was a brilliant scholar and studied law in Paris, Orleans and Bourges. After what he called a "sudden conversion" at the age of 23, Calvin became a fervent Christian and scholar of the Scripture. Calvin did not immediately break with the Roman Catholic Church, but rather worked toward its reform. His pleas for reform soon brought upon him the hatred of the Catholic Church, and in time he was banished from Paris. Calvin fled to Switzerland, broke with the Catholic Church, and joined with the reformers. In 1536 he published his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion, which was a systematic presentation of the Protestant position. In 1559 he founded what later became the University of Geneva. Here he taught his beliefs to thousands of students who in turn carried "Calvinism" back to their homelands throughout Europe. John Calvin died in Geneva, Switzerland on May 27, 1564.
The 1536 edition of John Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is an excellent introduction to Calvin's thought in its earliest form and also serves as an alternative for those who find the much thicker 1559 edition too large and daunting. The structure of the book is simple: it is divided into six chapters with an epistle dedicatory to Francis, the King of France. The opening epistle serves as both an apologetic defending the bourgeoning Protestant movement against seven charges as well as a preface to the catechetical nature of the rest of the book.
Calvin begins the Institutes with a chapter on Law. While mostly an exposition on the Ten Commandments, this chapter also provides a basis for a Christian appreciation and appropriation of the Law. Unlike Luther, Calvin goes beyond recognizing the Law as a vehicle that 1) convicts humanity of sin and 2) constrains human propensity and inclination towards evil. Calvin posits a third and more positive function: 3) guidance regarding behavior God deems as good and pleasing.
The second chapter entitled "Faith" is an explanation of the Apostles Creed. Of note is his introduction which proposes the Word of God, that is Jesus Christ, as both the object and target of our faith. This type of faith is more than a mental exercise acknowledging the existence of God and Christ but a whole-life orientation and obedience to God in life and death.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Calvin devoted a chapter to prayer. Following the pattern established in the first two chapters, an introduction to the subject matter at hand is followed by an exposition of a significant pillar of the Christian faith, in this case, the Lord's Prayer. For Calvin there are two major rules of prayer: 1) to abandon all pretense of our own glory and 2) to sense our own insufficiency as we turn toward God to meet all our needs. In this attitude of prayer, there are also two parts: petition and thanksgiving, both of which Calvin finds expressed in the Lord's prayer.
Calvin spends two chapters on the Sacraments: in the first chapter he discusses his understanding of the two Sacraments: baptism and the Lord's Supper. Then he devotes an entire chapter to Roman Catholicism's "Five False Sacraments".
The final chapter is "Christian Freedom, Ecclesial Power, and Political Administration".