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Calvin’s Institutes vs. Calvin’s Commentaries

John Calvin is famous—or infamous, depending on whom you ask—for his systematic theology. I’ve read portions of his Institutes in various electronic forms, and now that I’ve recently acquired a hard copy, I hope to get through it all. But I’ve been increasingly drawn towards Calvin’s expositional works (I just got a set of his commentaries, too!). Systematic theology is a necessary discipline, but exegesis must come before systematics.

Phil Johnson writes of the relation between Calvin’s Institutes and Commentaries:


Some critics have imagined that they see numerous contradictions between Calvin’s Institutes and his commentaries, but on close inspection these invariably turn out to be differences in emphasis, determined by whatever text Calvin is commenting on in its native context. For example, Calvin’s famous remarks on John 3:16 are often singled out by Arminians as contradictory to fundamental Calvinist soteriology—especially the doctrines of election and effectual calling. Calvin writes:

Christ brought life, because the Heavenly Father loves the human race, and wishes that they should not perish. . . . And he has employed the universal term whosoever, both to invite all indiscriminately to partake of life, and to cut off every excuse from unbelievers. Such is also the import of the term World, which he formerly used; for though nothing will be found in the world that is worthy of the favor of God, yet he shows himself to be reconciled to the whole world, when he invites all men without exception to the faith of Christ, which is nothing else than an entrance into life. [John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, trans. William Pringle (repr. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1963), 1:123–125.]

In reality, nothing in those comments is the least bit incompatible with Calvin’s views on salvation or the doctrine he lays out in the Institutes. Calvin affirmed both the doctrine of election and the indiscriminate proposal of reconciliation in the gospel message. Like most strains of Calvinism even today, Calvin saw no conflict between the truths of God’s sovereign election, His well-meant proposal of mercy to all sinners, the sinner’s own duty to repent and believe, and the truth that sinners are so depraved none can or will respond to the gospel apart from God’s enabling grace.

Half a century ago, a helpful review of Calvin’s commentaries in a theological journal gave this sound advice:

The commentaries complement the Institutes. Many of the controversies which have racked and sometimes splintered the Reformed Churches could have been avoided if the commentaries had been studied as assiduously as the Institutes. The student who knows only The Institutes does not have a complete picture of the theology of the French reformer. Questions such as inspiration, natural theology, and predestination are dealt with in another way in the exegetical works of Calvin, This is not to say that there is any contradiction between the Institutes and the commentaries. They must be taken together, however, to get a clear understanding of Calvin’s theology. [Walter G. Hards, “Calvin’s Commentaries,” Theology Today (April 1959), 16:1:123–124.]

The commentaries are at once warm and pastoral, powerful and lucid, sumptuous and scholarly. They are a remarkable achievement, and if this had been Calvin’s only contribution to the literature of the Reformation, his reputation as the greatest biblical thinker among the leading Reformers would have been secured.

—Phil Johnson, John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, ed. Burk Parsons (Reformation Trust, 2008), 102–103.

Posted 2009·06·20 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Church History · John Calvin · John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology · Phil Johnson
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#1 || 09·06·20··11:45 || Kim in On

I have really enjoyed all of the snippets you have shared from this book. It makes me want to buy it.... but I'd better not .... just yet...

#2 || 09·06·29··07:30 || Derek Ashton


Thanks for posting these very helpful insights. Having recently discovered the genius of Calvin's theology, I'm always amazed by how brilliant and balanced his comments are. Reading Calvin can be overwhelming. Both the writing style and the truths expressed are heavy, but it's always worth the effort to ponder them.

Still, though, Calvin is an imperfect theologian. God's Own Word trumps all (and I KNOW Calvin would agree with that).

Grace & peace,
Derek Ashton

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