When I started reading the Institutes I was fresh out of Seminary. I didn’t have the opportunity to take a course on Calvin, so I thought that this would round out my education. Another reason I tackled Calvin was my (former) love for systematic theology. I thought that there was nothing more sublime than a cohesive logical understanding of scripture.
The more I pastored and studied scripture for myself, the more I became disillusioned with systematic theology. No matter whose system you chose, the emphasizing of some passages over others always felt arbitrary.
Take the Calvinist/Arminianist debate with respect to Philippians 2:12-13. It’s all a matter of which side you emphasize: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Calvinism) “for it is God who works in you” (Arminianism) (ESV).
Systematic theology is like a bit-mapped picture. If you have a sufficiently detailed resolution (or nuanced systematic method), you can reproduce a pretty accurate picture of the original. But why not just enjoy the original? Scripture is the story of God’s relationship with his people. There is a reason love letters don’t look like bullet lists in a PowerPoint presentation. Narrative trumps systems. Every time.
The logic of Calvin’s systematic theology is highly nuanced and quite brilliant. I learned a tremendous amount from his encyclopedic knowledge of scripture. (This 1,700 page edition of the Institutes is rather small compared to his Commentary on the entire Bible!) When he speaks about the role of faith in the believer’s life and the nature of prayer, his work is inspiring. The problem comes when he follows the logic of his system to the end and is left with with double predestination, for example. (If scripture says that God predestined believers for glory, then logically, He must have predestined souls for hell, right?)
Here is where systems fail and narrative comes to our rescue. The Bible is more of a library than a book. Each author has his own understanding of scripture, as inspired by the Spirit of God. True, the books and stories fit together in amazing ways, but that doesn’t take away from their own character. Read Ecclesiastes beside Song of Songs and you’ll see what I mean.
I started the Institutes as a systematist. While I still appreciate and respect this discipline, I am now wholeheartedly a Biblical theologian. For example, I would much rather work at bringing out what John meant in his Gospel than spend my time trying to reconcile the date of the crucifixion with Mark’s account.
Let scripture speak in all of its sundry glory.
—John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960).