Prefatory Address Question 1: How does Calvin’s aim in writing the Institutes differ from the reason or aim in many serious works on theology today?
Calvin himself listed the reasons he wrote the Institutes. One was to provide a basic understanding of the way of salvation, or in other words an understanding of the whole Bible and what it teaches us about God, man and the church. His aim was to structure the Institutes along the lines of the Apostle’s Creed, so that the first book would be about God the Father, the second about Christ as Redeemer (which includes his section on man), the third about the Holy Spirit (who applies Christ to His elect), and the last about the church. Calvin thought that if he wrote Bible commentaries, he would have to spend a lot of time explaining basics to his reader; to keep these brief, he chose to provide his readers with the Institutes.
Another reason was to provide a defense of his fellow Protestants against the oppression of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC), which Calvin accused of many crimes. One example was the burning of Protestants at the stake (which recalled the fate of Bohemia’s Jan Hus and continued later in England). However, Calvin’s most impassioned language against the RCC’s actions came in retort to their accusations of unbelief, antinomianism and schismatic behavior. Here, Calvin’s intense concern for the truth, the honor of God, and the church are greater than his concern for physical persecution. This was probably farsighted, because he knew Protestants in the future would need a defense against the early false accusations made against their church, and a contemporary account would serve best. However, in this one may see a tendency to prize ideas over against the physical (or: the mind over against the body), something seen at times in today’s American Protestant church. To put it in the form of a joke: “What do Protestants believe the body is?” “A vehicle to transport the brain from one sermon to the next.” There is much that can be said against this, which is formally denied but practically accepted as so many church members accept progressive bodily degradation and increasing disease as normal aging. Calvin himself died in his fifties, a stunningly young age. While his premature death was very much better for him (as he went to be with his Lord), it was worse for us. He never finished commenting on the whole Bible, and necessarily left his Christian posterity fewer sermons. One can consider his influence on the church to have been massive, but abbreviated.
The difference in Calvin’s purpose in writing the Institutes in the 16th century compared to the purpose of serious works of theology today is a question best answered by comparison; perhaps it is wise to compare the Institutes to Louis Berkhof’s 20th century magnum opus Systematic Theology. Berkhof is widely influential – he’s been cited by Reformed Christian writers that span the gamut of Reformed thinking: R.J. Rushdoony (a post-millenial Reconstructionist) cited him favorably in his Institutes of Biblical Law, and Kim Riddlebarger (an amillenial adherent of Two-Kingdom theology, which opposes Reconstructionism), recommends Berkhof as an “indispensable” resource. It has seen service as a seminary textbook but is accessible to any serious layman. While Calvin wrote the Institutes as an introduction to his commentaries, Berkhof used an introduction to his Systematic Theology as his capstone work. That is a difference. However, both Calvin and Berkhof shaped their major works self-consciously (albeit roughly) after the Apostle’s Creed: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit and the church. Both men addressed controversies that were extant at the time of writing, which was probably necessary, but not always useful for later generations of readers. Calvin is the more famous of the two, and more controversial, but both are giants. Lastly, Calvin’s setting was a time and place of turmoil; he dealt with ecclesiastical, civil and societal flux and did not escape controversy in his own person (although he did not experience as much danger as his predecessor Martin Luther). Berkhof’s setting had order and stability, and religious choices did not create as much instability or controversy in a person’s life as it might have done during Calvin’s time, which is not to say that Berkhof did not have to deal with any controversy at all.