Thursday, January 05, 2012

Book Review of A Study Guide to Calvin's Institutes by Douglas Wilson

Few works of Christian theology compare with the Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. The Institutes is a brilliant, systematic explanation of Christian belief written by John Calvin, who is one of the founding fathers of the Protestant Reformation. A Study Guide to Calvin’s Institutes is a teaching tool meant to help lead everyday people through this magisterial two-volume work. This book is written by Douglas Wilson, who is a pastor-leader at Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. The book is well-thought out, however, its presentation is a little too austere for most readers.

At earlier points in history, people were taught faith tenets catechistically. This means that students were taught questions and answers to memorize, allowing students to absorb a tremendous amount of content. This was especially common in the Reformed Tradition, including such documents as the Westminster Shorter Catechism, among others. Embracing this traditional form of education, A Study Guide to Calvin’s Institutes is a huge catechism meant to summarize the content of Institutes.

Although I admire the austerity and the insensitivity to marketing concerns of Douglas Wilson in writing this book, I believe it is a little too old-fashioned and formal for most readers, even if they are attempting to be students of the Institutes. Hundreds of pages of questions and answers are a rather lengthy summary of an even lengthier text. Half of the fun of reading such a wonderful work such as the Institutes is slowing down enough to figure out what the book is saying. The questions and answers extract all the beauty of the text for a quick summary of the facts, which is disappointing for me.

If I were to use this book in a teaching setting, I would use A Study Guide to Calvin’s Institutes as a voice in the room to launch discussion about each section of the book.  The catechetical format would be helpful in laying down a standard from which readers of the Institutes could then begin forming their opinions in agreement with or opposition to Wilson’s interpretation.

For a theology lover like me, this book will be a lot of fun to have on my shelf, and read through. In fact, it may function a lot like the study notes do in my study bible. For most, the format and the nature of the book will be disappointing.

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