Monthly Archives: December 2014

Countdown to Calvin: One Week to Go!

Our Dead Theologians Society small group is now just a week away from a fifty week excursion through Calvin’s Institutes, beginning January 5th.

The collective decision to take up this next selection is an event of no small significance for our reading group:

  • It is the 20th selection since the group was formed on March 30, 2009.
  • It is only the second non-Puritan work (the first was our previous read, Octavius Winslow’s Personal Declension & Revival of Religion in the Soul), and hence the earliest selection.
  • The charter members of the group have read a total of 4461 pages, an average of 2.2 pages per day, excluding breaks. Reading the Institutes in 2015 will require that pace to double to 4.4 pages per day for 344 days (94% of the year).
  • The highest number of books finished in a year so far is four, both in 2013 and 2014, and the Institutes will tie that number, if we consider it as four books in one.
  • The highest number of pages assigned for completion in a year was 893 in 2011. Reading the Institutes in 2015 in the McNeill-Battles 2 volume edition will exceed that record by 69%, with 1512 pages to cover.

Following the reading schedule developed by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, we will spend roughly a third (35%) of our time in books 1 and 2, a third (31%) in book 3, and a third (34%) in book 4 as follows:

Book Start Date End Date # Days % Time Start Page End Page # Pages % Pages
1 1/5 2/26 52 15.1% 3 237 235 15.5%
2 2/27 5/6 68 19.8% 241 534 294 19.4%
3 5/7 8/25 110 32.0% 537 1008 472 31.2%
4 8/26 12/18 114 33.1% 1011 1521 511 33.8%
344 100.0% 1512 100.0%
Daily Avg: 4.4

Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren included the Institutes in their recommended reading list as one of those books that is typically over people’s heads (How to Read a Book, Appendix A: A Recommended Reading List). The Institutes of the Christian Religion is considered to be among the top 1% of books in the Western tradition that will significantly reward the reader for the efforts made to read them. And lest anyone become puffed up with the notion of this undertaking, please realize that some people make it a habit to read the Institutes every year, in addition to their annual reading through the Bible.

So rest now, but prepare to TAKE UP AND READ on January 5th!

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Countdown to Calvin: Two Weeks to Go!

Our Dead Theologians Society is now just two weeks away from a fifty week excursion through Calvin’s Institutes, beginning January 5th.  Reading through the Institutes in 2015 will require an average of 5-7 pages per day of the McNeill-Battles (MB) translation, five days each week.  I’ve tried the schedule on for size, and already cruised through the first week.

Anyone with the two volume MB translation will want to take the opportunity to read the 43 page introduction (pp. xxix-lxxi) to gain further background than the materials recommended in the previous blog, since the first reading assignment for January 5th begins with Calvin’s preface to the reader (p. 3 of MB).

I discovered one delightful tidbit in the MB introduction on p. xxxvi, where it was noted that Calvin thought in Latin from his boyhood as a matter of habit.  The age at which Calvin took up this habit wasn’t specified, but the fact that he did so indicates how precocious he was in his studies.  This little tidbit also is essential in appreciating the role of the Latin and French editions of the Institutes.  Calvin wrote the Institutes in Latin, and the last four Latin editions (1539, 1543, 1550, 1559) were translated into French for wider dissemination, within a year or two after the Latin edition was published. Hence the Latin editions are definitive.

So unless you are a Latin scholar, the issue becomes which English translation to use.  The 1559, final edition of the Institutes has been translated into English four times: Thomas Norton (1561); John Allen (1813); Henry Beveridge (1845); and Ford Lewis Battles (1960).  J. I. Packer gives the following assessment of all four:

No English translation fully matches Calvin’s Latin; that of the Elizabethan, Thomas Norton, perhaps gets closest; Beveridge gives us Calvin’s feistiness but not always his precision; Battles gives us the precision but not always the punchiness, and fleetness of foot; Allen is smooth and clear, but low-key.  

Years ago I bought the McNeill-Battles translation (two volume set) from the Westminster Theological Seminary bookstore, because that is the edition used in the seminary’s coursework.  I figured if it was good enough for Westminster, it is good enough for me. And I must say, when I have pulled down Beveridge’s translation for sharing sections with others, I have usually been a little disappointed in his translation by comparison.  But I don’t mean to disparage Beveridge’s translation or scholarship.  Perhaps it is what you get used to.  I like how one person responded to the Beveridge vs Battles debate on PuritanBoard back in 2009, which a fellow DTS member shared with me:

Wow! Talk about inside baseball! Comparing Beveridge and Battles vis a vis who was the better Calvin scholar is a little like asking whether Micky Mantle or Roger Maris was a better Yankee.

I will probably acquire a copy of Beveridge’s translation within the next few months for further study anyway, and most of the passages I share from the Institutes will be his rendering, since it is available online.

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Countdown to Calvin: Three Weeks to Go!

Our Dead Theologians Society will embark on it most ambitious expedition yet when we take up Calvin’s Institutes in 2015, beginning January 5th. Using the reading schedule prepared by Dr. James C. Goodloe IV, available online here, the pace will require reading an average of 5-7 pages per day of the Battles/McNeill edition of the Institutes, five days a week for 50 weeks (no sweat, just 10-15 minutes per day, 5 days a week).

Any cost-conscious enthusiast eager to join this expedition may obtain Beveridge’s translation (1845) for around $20 from the WTS Bookstore. If you want the more recent, two-volume Battles translation edited by John T. McNeill (1960), it will cost you a little more. If you don’t want to spend anything, Beveridge’s translation is accessible online for free.

As background on the life of Calvin, Jeremy Walker’s An Outline of the Life of John Calvin is handy. And J. I. Packer wrote an excellent preface, as always, to A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis. Ligon Duncan gave 10 good reasons to read through the Institutes in 2009 (the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth), so we are only six years behind, but the days of the week fall out exactly the same.  So Dr. Goodloe’s reading schedule will serve us well in 2015!

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Midweek Rambling: An Age of Acedia

W. Bradford Littlejohn is doing a series of articles titled, “The Seven Deadly Sins in a Digital Age,” and recently completed the fourth installment, on sloth, or acedia (Latin).  I heartily recommend the article on the Reformation21 website, along with others in that series.

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Week 9 of 9 in Winslow: The Lord, the Keeper of His People

Sadly we come to our last assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, in chapter 9, “The Lord, the Keeper of His People”.

Puritan writers tell us that one test of sound theology is whether it leads to the worship and praise and glory of God. Our author certainly passes that test here, increasingly so towards the end of the book. I’m saddened, as usual, at this point when we have to part company, so to speak, with this dear elder brother and put his book back on the shelf (temporarily at least, it’s a keeper). In his parting admonition Winslow wisely points us to the great Shepherd of the sheep by closing with Jude 24-25, reminding us of the one who is able to keep us from stumbling, and who never forsakes us.  So we have great consolation.

I love the progression Winslow used in making his case as to why the believer needs the Lord as his keeper. He listed some solemn and affecting examples which prove the utter inability of every creature to keep itself: the fallen angels, the first Adam, and some illustrious saints in Scripture. Last but not least he cited the sad experience of every believer:

“But why speak of others? Let the reader, if he is a professing child of God, pause and survey the past of his own life. What marks of perfect weakness may he discover; what evidences of his own fickleness, folly, immature judgment, may he trace; what outbreakings of deep iniquity; what disclosures of hidden corruption; what startling symptoms of the most awful departure and apostasy from God, does the review present! And this, too, let it be remembered, is the history of a believer in Jesus, a renewed child of God, a partaker of the Divine nature, an expectant of eternal glory! Holy and blessed are they who, as they read and lay aside this book, shall relinquish all their fond conceit of self-power, and of self-keeping, and shall pray, and cease not to pray, ‘Lord, hold thou me up, and I shall be safe!’ ‘Let him that thinketh he standeth, take heed lest he fall.’

Winslow went on to catalog some of the ways the Lord brings believers to know “their perfect weakness and insufficiency to keep themselves,” and the last one he referred to as “the great school”, citing Romans 7:18-20, 24:

“But the great school in which we learn this painful, yet needed and wholesome lesson, is in the body of sin which we daily bear about with us. It was here Paul learned his lesson, as the seventh chapter of his letter to the church at Rome shows, and for which epistle the saints of God will ever have reason to praise and adore the blessed and Eternal Spirit: ‘I know that in me (that is, in my flesh,) dwelleth no good thing: . . . ‘”

Winslow interpreted Romans 7:14-25 as describing the experience of every believer, as did all of the Puritans. Sadly today, many modern commentators are not so unanimous. Some think Paul was describing a man in transition, coming to faith in Christ. I can go along with a view of a man in transition, if we are thinking in terms of sanctification as a whole, but all the while we are still talking about the experience of a believer. I say that because as long as a believer remains on earth in this body, he has indwelling sin while at the same time he has Christ dwelling within. As such, he has a renewed nature, albeit an imperfectly renewed nature. Hence he has a struggle and constant battle all the way home.

As a result of this imperfectly renewed nature, the believer experiences cognitive dissonance the rest of his life. He finds himself believing and doubting, wise and foolish, spiritually discerning and spiritually myopic, over and over again (Paul’s experience in Romans 7:14f). On the one hand there is a tendency towards license, because of salvation by grace, and on the other hand there is a pull towards legalism, as he hankers for his former master, the law (follow this link to see the larger context of the excerpt below from William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour):

“Indeed, all those complaints of our wants and weaknesses, so far as they withdraw our hearts from relying cheerfully on Christ, they are but the language of pride hankering after the covenant of works. O it is hard to forget our mother-tongue, which is so natural to us; labour therefore to be sensible of it, [of] how grievous it is to the Spirit of Christ. What would a husband say, if his wife, instead of expressing her love to him, and delight in him, should day and night do nothing but weep and cry to think of her former husband that is dead? The law, as a covenant, and Christ, are com­pared to two husbands: ‘Ye are become dead to the law by the body of Christ, that ye should be married to another, even to him who is raised from the dead,’ Rom. 7:4. Now thy sorrow for the defect of thy own righteousness, when it hinders thy rejoicing in Christ, is but a whining after thy other husband, and this Christ cannot take but unkindly—that thou art not well pleased to lie in the bosom of Christ, and have thy happiness from him as with your old husband the law.”

And so let us take to heart the lesson Winslow left us, summed up in the poem by Augustus Toplady which he cited in part, A Debtor to Mercy Alone, informing us that we are only less happy but not less secure than glorified saints in heaven:

Of covenant mercy I sing; nor fear, with Your righteousness on, my person and offering to bring. The terrors of law and of God with me can have nothing to do; my Savior’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.

 The work which His goodness began, the arm of His strength will complete; His promise is yea and amen, and never was forfeited yet. Things future, nor things that are now nor all things below or above, can make him his purpose forgo, or sever my soul from his love.

 My name from the palms of His hands Eternity will not erase; impressed on His heart it remains, in marks of indelible grace. Yes, I to the end shall endure, as sure as the earnest is given; more happy, but not more secure, the glorified spirits in heaven.

Glory be to Him!

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