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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