Archive E.J. Hutchinson Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

John Calvin and the Summa Rebooted

I noted a couple of years ago Calvin’s possibly revealing use of the word summa (as in, Summa theologiae) “so prominently in the first sentence [of the final edition of the Institutes (1559)],” and commented that 

[t]he gesture would signal, I think, a radical simplification of the theological enterprise, reconfigured in radically non-speculative terms (he is interested only in what is verum et solidum, after all): a true summa sapientiae, a “summary of wisdom,” has two parts, inextricably linked with each other, driven (as the reader sees as the work unfolds) primarily by the exegesis of Scripture and set out according to the pattern of the simplest of the so-called “ecumenical” creeds, the Apostles’ Creed.

What is an institutio, then? A summa 2.0, if you like, rebooted, streamlined, rigorously and transparently rooted in the principium cognoscendi externum, Holy Scripture, seen with the eyes of faith, the principium cognoscendi internum, corresponding to the two parts of which our wisdom consists.

Even if the gesture is polemical in certain respects, however, it nevertheless connects the Institutes to a long tradition of theological summary in the West. A further fact perhaps corroborates the work’s intentional link to pre-Reformation theological reflection: the word summa is the very first word of the first edition of the Institutes (1536) and is followed immediately by an affirmation of the identity of God with his attributes, i.e. of divine simplicity. Calvin writes:

Summa fere sacrae doctrinae duabus his partibus constat: Cognitione Dei ac nostri. Haec vero de Deo nobis in praesentia discenda sunt. Primum, ut certa fide constitutum habeamus, ipsum infinitam esse sapientiam, iustitiam, bonitatem, misericordiam, veritatem, virtutem ac vitam: ut nulla sit prorsus alia sapientia, iustitia, bonitas, misericordia, veritas, virtus et vita.

The sum [summa] of sacred teaching consists more or less of the following two parts: knowledge of God and of ourselves. But at present we must learn the following items about God [de Deo]–first, that we have it established by certain faith that he himself is infinite wisdom, righteousness, goodness, mercy, truth, power, and life, so that there is absolutely no other wisdom, righteousness, goodness, mercy, truth, power, and life.1

Calvin offers a summa, beginning, after his own fashion, with the locus de Deo as dogmatics had traditionally done, and he affirms something very traditional indeed about God in himself–even if he goes on immediately to connect this doctrine to God as creator, to sin, and to God as redeemer, striking, in typical Melanchthonian fashion, the keynotes of Reformation theology. Reformation emphases, then, need not–and ought not–to stand in tension with an orthodox theology proper. If you think they do, you have a very different view of the emphases of the Reformation and how best to situate them in relation to God in se from the Reformers themselves. There’s nothing absolutely dispositive about that, of course, but it is worth observing.

Such a connection (both to Melanchthon and to the pre-Reformation tradition) is not frivolous: for in a 1546 French translation of Melanchthon’s Loci communes, probably by Calvin himself, the work is titled with the French equivalent of Summa theologiae (La somme de théologie). (For more on all of these issues, see my essay “Melanchthon’s Unintended Reformation?: The Case of the Missing Doctrine of God” in God of Our Fathers, forthcoming from the Davenant Institute.)

Even more striking, perhaps, is one of Calvin’s proof-texts for what he says in the quotation above: Baruch 3. (If you don’t believe me, you can see for yourself.) What he presumably has in mind is Baruch 3.14:

Learn where wisdom is, where strength is,

Where understanding is, so that you may at the same time learn

Where length of days and life are,

Where there is light for the eyes, and peace. (Tr. Edgar J. Goodspeed)

When one notices facts such as these, a different picture of Calvin emerges from what one sometimes finds in contemporary accounts of the Reformation and of Calvin. He remained very old school in key respects, even using for the purposes of doctrinal instruction a book he did not consider canonical. Calvin did not introduce an entirely new way of thinking about God or of thinking about man, or even of thinking about God in relation to man. What he did do was to bring into sharper focus the effects of sin on our knowledge of God and of ourselves, so that the glory of the free grace of God in the gospel, revealed in the Word and, preeminently, in Jesus Christ, could shine forth more brightly and have its full effect, bringing fallen sinners into restored relationship with the utterly transcendent, infinite, immutable, impassible God who is.


  1. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.