So, You Want to Read John Calvin?

In the comments thread on my recent post about Martin Luther’s early theological studies, Joshua asked me to recommend some reading on Calvin. As anyone who reads this blog with any frequency is sure to know, I have quite the soft spot for Calvin, and find it hard to turn down any opportunity to point people toward his work and good work about his work. In any case, I thought that I would structure this post in the same was as I did my very successful post entitled, So, You Want to Read Karl Barth?.

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 Christology

    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?
This should get you started on reading Calvin, and provide a decent bibliography for the average seminary paper on his work. If you read all this, you will be well on your way, and beyond the point of needing my recommendations for further study.


I've made a series of videos about John Calvin and posted them to Youtube. You may find them helpful, or at least interesting, when embarking on a study of Calvin.



Joshua said…
Thanks for the secondary resources. And for using my request to encourage reading of Calvin. I have been working through both Cottrell and Steinmetz and am glad to hear you find them worthwhile.

The one thing that I would add is Calvin's Reformation Debate with Jacopo Sadoleto. It has many of his major concerns in nuce and thus provides a nice primer to the Institutes.
Lee said…
Any thoughts on the Lane/Osborne abridgement of the Institutes published by Baker Academic? I've started reading that because the full Institutes seem pretty daunting for a layperson like myself. On the other hand, I don't want to waste my time reading something insubstantial.

Calvin's reply to Sadoleto is, indeed, an important text not only the see Calvin in great form, but also for historical reasons. As you no doubt know (but I will mention for the benefit of others), his writing of that reply precipitated his return to Geneva.

In any case, it is included in the Theological Treatises volume I mentioned above. Thanks for calling specific attention to it.


I am not familiar with that abridgment at all. However, abridgments are usually more reaving of the editor's theological judgments than those of the author being abridged. My advice would be to ditch it and dig into the Institutes unabridged. However, if that is still too daunting, you might dig up a copy of the 1536 edition of the Institutes, which is much shorter,
Anonymous said…
Good post, Travis.

The funny thing is, is that I would not identify myself as "Reformed" per se . . . nevertheless I have read, and sometimes re-read, all of your recommendations---both primary and secondary sources. I think Calvin was a great theologian, and worthy of the churches' contemplation.

I am currently re-reading Dowey's Knowledge of God, which is interesting to read (and I realize Muller takes issue with the edition of the Institutes that Dowey used), in tandem, with Barth's "The Theology of John Calvin". Barth, of course, tries to "Christocize" Calvin's Knowledge of God beyond Calvin, at least this is how it appears to me . . .
Joshua said…
have you seen/read/heard of this new book by zachman called the image and the word in the theology of Calvin? I haven't seen it yet, but just requested a review copy of ND press.

In my humble opinion, Barth picks up threads and subtle themes in Calvin's work and carries them much further. Thus, he may at times get precisely what Calvin said wrong, but I tend to think that he is following in Calvin's spirit.


I hadn't heard of that book, though now that I looked it up on Amazon I can say that it is interesting that the cover is taken from the Isenheim altarpiece, which was important for Barth.
Wyatt said…
My favorite Books on John Calvin are the ones written by francois wendel, wilhelm niesel, roland wallace and tf torrance. I'm sad to see them missing from this list! I also like Beza's biography of Calvin and Bruce Gordon was helpful for me, though I know some people don't like his critical approach. Great post!
Wyatt said…
My experience with muller has been that he interpreted Calvin to support fundamentalism and oppose modern academia.
I appreciate those books a great deal. However, they are all rather dated (especially Wendel), and Niesel and Wallace have suffered from ideological criticism, i.e., they are often taken for giving one a "Barthian" Calvin. Wallace, in fact, is (was?) related through marriage (I believe) to TF Torrance. Gordon I appreciate as well, but - in my amateur's judgment - he doesn't seem to "get" Calvin in the same way that Calvin's countryman and fellow-humanist (Cottret) does.
As for Muller, there are certainly ways that Calvin can support fundamentalism and oppose modern academia. His historical work is incredibly influential even if - again, in my amateur's judgment - his position is over-state and unnecessarily inflexible, especially on the Calvin & Calvinism debates.

You're bound and determined to get me into trouble in these comments...
Travis - What is your estimation of Bruce Gordon's (Calvin) and Alister McGrath's (A Life of John Calvin) work on JC?

I heartily recommend both...

kurt i johanson
Hi Kurt,

I was turned off to McGrath as a reader of Calvin way back when by his collection of readings in theology. So I haven't looked at his life of Calvin. Perhaps one day. But why do so when there are other excellent works by true Calvin specialists?

Speaking of, I like Gordon's book a great deal and, like you, heartily recommend it.

However, my favorite remains Cottret. But that's more for reasons of personal taste (i.e., his emphases match well with how I approach Calvin) than historical-scholarly reasons.

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