I have never read John Calvin before. Which of his books should I read first?
There are three ways to go at this. First, and this is what I personally recommend as best, you can start with Calvin’s famous (and infamous) Institutes of the Christian Religion. There are a few different editions of this out there in English, but the one that I recommend is the McNeil / Battles edition. The Institutes is a good place to start not only because it is the most comprehensive statement of Calvin’s doctrine, but because he wrote it as a handbook to go along with his commentaries. Its goal is to enable the reader to engage Scripture better, and to save time in the commentaries by providing separate discussion of the more complicated theological issues. At the same time, Scripture plays a large role in the Institutes itself. The edition that I recommended above generally runs around $50.
Second, you could start by reading Calvin’s Commentaries. The entire 22 volume set runs about $150 on Amazon, but it is often on sale at CBD for $100. This method is great because Calvin is a gifted exegete and will greatly enhance your reading of Scripture. However, it is more expensive than the first option, and you will miss out on a lot of the more complicated theological material. Calvin valued conciseness in biblical commentary, and he practiced what he preached on that point.
Third, and this is the best way, is to work simultaneously in both the Commentaries and the Institutes. This is the most expensive and time consuming way, but it is also the most thorough and will introduce you to all that is best about Calvin.
Of course, no matter which path you choose, you should augment your studies by reading my series entitled “Reading Scripture with John Calvin”.
I’ve read the Institutes and am reading in the Commentaries, but I want to branch out. What other works of Calvin can I read?
Once you get into the Commentaries and the Institutes, you may find yourself wanting to read more of Calvin on particular issues. If you want to read more about predestination, pick up his Concerning the Eternal Predestination of God. If you want to read more broadly, the volume of his Theological Treatises, which includes the Genevan confession, the Genevan ecclesial ordinances, the “Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper” and other writings.
I’ve been reading in the Institutes, and I want to get deeper into the conversation about Calvin. Could you tell me about some of the important secondary literature?
- Christopher Elwood, Calvin for Armchair Theologians
Elwood’s volume is basically accurate and is very accessible for the layperson. It is the best place to start your journey through the secondary literature on Calvin. Be sure to check out my review of this volume.
- David Steinmetz, Calvin in Context
When you are ready to start on the serious academic secondary literature on Calvin, this is where to start. Steinmetz has chapters on various issues, including the natural knowledge of God, Romans, Lutherans, and the civil magistrate.
- Edward Dowey, Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology
This is a standard work in the field, although many of Dowey’s arguments are contested. Dowey was, however, an excellent scholar and historian, and this volume is well worth your time.
- Stephen Edmondson, Calvin’s Christolog
I have found this volume to be a very helpful contribution from an excellent up-and-coming scholar. While it deals primarily with Calvin’s Christology (who would have guessed!), Edmondson also discusses ways of understanding the structure of the four books of the Institutes and argues that the final form is directly died to the trajectory of th Scriptural canon.
- Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography
If you want a hardcore biography from a capable historian, this is a good place to turn.
- William Bouwsma, Calvin: A Sixteenth-Century Portrait
This is less a straight historical biography, but it is a sort of biographical study that attempts to get at the heart of Calvin the man. Though treading close to, and some might say overstepping, the fine line of psychologizing his subject, Bouwsma argues that Calvin can be understood as inhabiting a dialectical tension between order and freedom.
- Richard Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition
Muller provides here several essays on Calvin’s method in and organization of the Institutes, discusses how Reformed scholasticism relates to Calvin’s work, and offers other insights in the historical study of Calvin. It is a well-know and highly regarded treatment.
- Randall Zachman, John Calvin as Teacher, Pastor, and Theologian
The title accurately describes this volume. I have not had the chance to study it carefully, but it is highly regarded in the field. More work ought to be done along these lines, for Calvin saw himself not as an academic theologian in the modern sense of the term, but as a pastor whose job it was to teach and therefore be a theologian.
- Karl Barth, The Theology of John Calvin
Why not read what one great theologian had to say about another?