Book Review Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes

Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary
of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions by J. Mark Beach

Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010

368 pages. $20.00 paperback.

Available on Amazon.com

Dr. J. Mark Beach’s summary of the Institutes is unique. His summary is done with an awareness of the significant Calvin research of the last twenty years. He self-consciously avoids commandeering Calvin to win a modern theological fight. The book is written for laypersons, students, and busy pastors. It arose within the context of Beach providing a summary of the Institutes for an adult study group. What makes this summary unique and helpful is that it functions as a study guide that provides questions for group discussion. Therefore this work accomplishes two purposes. First, it provides a concise summary of key issues in Calvin’s thought. Second, it provides the tools for a group study of the Institutes.

As a preacher, I found this summary useful for sermon preparation. I was working on sermons on the topics of general revelation and justification as I happened to read the summaries of Calvin’s views on these matters. The result was that I learned how Calvin formulated these doctrines and discovered some nice quotations to use in my sermons. Any tool, even a summary of a classic theological work, is helpful if it assists the reader in interacting with the critical issues in the original text. I found that this summary stimulated me to interact with and respond to Calvin’s theological ideas. This summary will make you think about both Christian doctrine and Christian living.

I enjoyed reading straight through this brief summary because it gave me a sense of the breadth and vitality of Calvin’s theology. I find that constantly I need to challenge the limited horizons of my own thinking about theological matters. This book helped me to see beyond my own partial perspective to the broader vistas of Calvin’s vision of what faith knows about God, self, and the world. A quick read of this book presents the reader with a kaleidoscope of doctrinal formulations and raises a whole array of questions. The critical reader can come up with many more relevant questions to be used in a book discussion.

Beach’s method is to divide each chapter into three sections entitled Orientation, Topics of Chapter, and Observations. In the Orientation Beach places the subject matter of each chapter into its context in the Institutes. He also provides a birds-eye view of the topics discussed in the chapter. The summary is detailed, logical, clear, and well-written. In the Observations section Beach accents some of the critical insights of Calvin in a section of the Institutes.

A concise summary by its very nature is an implicit interpretation of what is considered relevant and significant in Calvin’s thought. This element of interpretation makes Beach’s work interesting. Aware of present Calvin research, Beach avoids misinterpretations of Calvin’s theology and present Calvin’s perspective on issues in contemporary theology.

The following topics and Beach’s interpretation of Calvin show the relevance of Calvin’s thought when dealing with present discussions about covenant, natural law, the law/gospel distinction, merit, justification, and two-kingdom theology. Let us look at a few comments that Beach makes on these subjects in Calvin to get a taste for how the Reformer’s thought can be brought into dialogue with contemporary discussions.

About the covenant of works, Beach writes: “Calvin (like Augustine) sets forth a rudimentary doctrine of the covenant of works. He does not use that language, of course, but the ingredients that would compose that doctrine in later Reformed thinking are present” (90).

Regarding the purpose of natural law, Beach states: “Indeed, conscience stands in place of the written law of Moses, and man befouled by sin stands condemned on that basis” (96).

With respect to the relationship between law, promise, and the Mosaic covenant, Beach explains: “The law, indeed, contains promise, that is, the gospel. This gospel promise is also revealed in the law—the law here referring to the entirety of the Old testament, not merely the Ten Commandments” (109). On the law/gospel distinction, Beach writes: “The importance of Calvin’s remark here is not to be underestimated. The law can refer to the entirety of Old Testament revelation; in that sense the gospel is revealed in the law. Sometimes the law can, instead, refer to God’s perfect standard of righteousness, which demands from us perfection if we would enjoy fellowship with God. Then the law stands entirely opposed to the gospel . . .”(122).

In defending the unity of the Old and New Testaments, Beach observes: “In this context Calvin is particularly concerned to emphasize his first point, namely that the people of the Old Testament were not seeking merely material blessing and felicity in earthly obtainments. Rather, “the Old Testament was particularly concerned with the future life” (2.10.3)” (124).

With regard to merit, Calvin states that “man as man cannot merit before God. Even the human nature of Christ cannot merit before God” (149). Beach argues that Calvin considers it important to defend the truth that Christ merits for His elect: “For Calvin, the denial of merit, i.e., claiming divine mercy absent merit, trivializes Christ’s sacrifice and turns Him into “a mere instrument or minister” of salvation” (149).

Beach explains Calvin’s view of how the Christian needs a “double acceptance before God” that includes a second justification: “Here Calvin again refers to the second justification that believers enjoy, for God reckons our works “good” from His Fatherly kindness by granting “pardon for those blemishes and spots which cleave to them” (3.17.5)” (214).

Concerning Calvin’s teaching about “a twofold government in man” or the two kingdoms, Beach writes: “Calvin’s burden is to formulate his own version of the separation of church and state. He does not want the political sphere impinging on the ecclesiastical sphere. More importantly for his discussion of Christian freedom, as noted above, Calvin is concerned about the misapplication of Christian freedom to the political jurisdiction. He opposes the Libertines and others who, in the name of Christian freedom, argue that believers are free from obeying the civil authorities and living by the rules of society” (226).

I am excited about this book being used in adult study groups, adult Sunday Schools, book discussion groups, high school or college classrooms, or in pre-confession classes. Gather some friends and use this book to help guide your discussion of Reformed theology. It is vital for the health of Reformed churches that Reformed believers constantly grow in their knowledge and love of the truth. This book functions as an introduction to Reformed theology. I encourage elders in Reformed churches to promote a study group of the Institutes in the congregation using this summary. There are enough lessons for an entire school year—some 24 chapters are included. Each chapter is followed by questions for reflection and discussion. The questions are detailed and cover the wide array of issues discussed in each chapter.

The questions at the end of each chapter remind me of how many questions arise out of and have arisen out of the study of Calvin’s thought and the relationship between his views and those of the post-Reformation orthodox Reformed. What is the relationship between faith and assurance in Calvin? Calvin presents perspectives that are relevant for burning theological issues today. What is the nature of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace? Is there a sense in which we need a second justification or a double acceptance? What is the relationship between covenant and election? How does Calvin understand the “universalistic texts” like Ezekiel 33:11? Is the moral law equivalent to natural law? What is God’s purpose in providing natural law? Why can’t a mere man merit with God? How are faith and love related? Is there a “lower working” of the Spirit in the reprobate? Why does Calvin reject an absolute antithesis between the law and gospel? Did the fall obliterate man’s natural gifts (the image of God in the wider sense)? The answers to these questions and more are touched on in Piety’s Wisdom.

A book group or study class could use Beach’s book on its own or use it as a gateway into the actual text of the Institutes.

I believe that John Frame is right to emphasize the role that sola Scriptura ought to play in our approach to Christian theology. But I also believe that the way forward in Reformed theology is the way of going back to interact with the theology of the Reformers and the orthodox Reformed. Frame has also emphasized the role that all believers play in doing theology. For that reason, Beach is to be commended for all of the hard work he put into providing a summary with study questions that can be used by laity to enter into the fertile thought of the Reformer of Geneva.


Rev. Nathan Brummel is a member of Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, MI. He was recently welcomed as a minister in the URCNA by colloquium doctum and is eligible for call.

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