In the next few months I will embark on the monumental task of reading, taking notes on, and writing a comprehensive summary of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion for my seminary education. (also available here to read it online or download) At a little over 1500 pages, it will take me about a year to finish the the assignment. I have read large portions of the Institutes over the last few years, so I am familiar with the content. But I have never engaged the text with the level of examination that will be required of me.
Sinclair Ferguson, in his book Some Pastors and Teachers, reminds us why Calvin is good for the soul of every Christian, and specifically reminds me why I really do want to do this:
The high point of theology in the Middle Ages was Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae (Sum, or Survey, of Theology). But Calvin did not write a Summa theologiae; he wrote a summa pietatis, a survey of piety. He was concerned not merely with the instruction of the intellect, but with the engagement of the heart and the whole person in devotion to the Lord. His work will illustrates his personal motto: “I offer my heart to you, Lord, readily and sincerely.”
…its central theme was always the same: the true, evangelical knowledge of God, and how that affects and transforms our lives. He therefore constantly seeks to draw the reader into a personal appreciation of what is being expounded. Piety, devotion to God, not merely intellectual understanding, is always his goal since eternal life means knowing God, in Christ, through the Spirit (John 17:3). People who are daunted by the thought of reading Calvin are usually amazed to discover how straightforward, practical, and devotional his writing is.
This is a great opportunity to engage with the theology of one of the most influential teachers in the history of the Church. He is known for elevating the glory of God in the minds of his readers, and his use of scripture is responsible and illuminating. The Institutes overflows with love for Christ and reverence for the Bible. When I find nuggets of spiritual gold (which I am sure there will be many of), I will share them here in the hope of encouraging some of you to embark on your own exploration of Calvin’s vision of the Triune God as revealed in the Word of God.
Calvin also wrote A Little Book on the Christian Life, a small book packed with wonderful scriptural truth on the call to holiness, enduring suffering, and the fulfillment of a Christian’s calling. I highly recommend this one as a great introduction to Calvin’s view on Christian living.
Have you ever read a book and gone back to it only to find that you felt like you had never read it before? Did it seem new to you? And as you read it through for the third or fourth time you probably said, “Wow! How could I have missed that?!”
Some people can “fly” through a book and then sit back to tell you the title, author’s name, how many chapter and what each one was about, the thesis of the author, and why they agreed or disagreed with the author…only having read the book once. God has not wired me this way, and, I would imagine, that many of you have not been either.
Here’s a bit of advice that I have found works for the rest of us: Decelerate your reading. In a culture that is running at 1000 miles per hour, seven days a week, it takes effort to slow things down. We sense an obligation to get through a chapter or two in the Bible each day, or to finish that book by the end of the week, only to start the next one and not be able to summarize, internalize, and think about how you can apply what you read before to your specific circumstances or situations. Not to mention, we read so fast that we couldn’t do that even if we wanted to. We just don’t give our brains time to catch up.
Slow down, have a pen/pencil in hand, to your time with the text, look up words, google historical persons or events that the author mentions and assumes that you know. Reading the text out loud also forces you to slow down and stay with the text. It helps in keeping your mind from wandering. If it takes you 15 minutes to really understand a paragraph, so be it. But I guarantee you that you will have gained more in those 15 minutes than you would have if you had read the entire chapter in the same amount of time. And there’s something about having a writing instrument in hand. It just wants to be used, and in turn, makes you go back to underline, to write down a question, and/or rewrite a concept in your own words. It makes you engage the text.
“Well, Jose, that might work for you. But I’m in college (or seminary) and I have deadlines.” In your case, I would recommend How To Read A Book By Mortimer Adler. (even if you’re not in an academic setting, I highly recommend it) You’ll find helpful tips that will revolutionize the way you read. But for the rest of us: slow down, make notes, ask questions and write them down in the margins, underline key points, summarize. And share it with someone. One of the best things you can do to help you retain what you read is to teach it to someone, even if they already know it. The exercise of sharing does wonders for your retention.
As I continue to read through Nichol’s work on Systematic Theology, I am blown away by his pastoral concern for the people in the pews. This anecdote is revealing and reflects how I believe that theology should be taught in the churches. If you want to understand why I am developing this blog site, this is it!
In Ephesians 4: 13-15 Paul nurtures all Christians: “till we all attain.” Jude speaks of “the faith once delivered to the saints,” not “the seminary students,” or “the bishops and elders.” Now I’ll tell you a secret. Over the years the quality control of my systematics lectures has been the secretary who typed them. Soon after I began teaching systematics in 1979 the Lord provided as my secretary a recently converted, single young woman. Being a new convert, she was especially hungry to learn. She typed many transcripts of those early lectures. Though I didn’t tell her this at the time, she was my quality control. If, after she typed the transcript of a lecture, she said, “Pastor Nichols, I really got blessed by that.” Then I said to myself, “that material passes the test.” If, however, she came to me scratching her head, saying: “Pastor Nichols, I didn’t understand that. It didn’t make any sense. It went over my head.” Then I said to myself, “that’s not good yet, I must edit and clarify it. I must try to present it so that she can benefit from it.” That’s how I approach systematics. I refuse to be ashamed of it or intimidated away from it. Systematics is for secretaries. It is for housewives. It is for Christian young people in high school and college. It is for mechanics. It is for fishermen and carpenters. Should that shock us? The Master was a carpenter. He chose some fishermen as apostles. Some may despise that if they like. They can scream that it is unscholarly until they are blue in the face. I refuse to be impressed. I make no bones about it. My special design is to produce a systematic theology that I address to all church members.
Nichols, Gregory G. Lectures in Systematic Theology: Doctrine of God. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Greg Nichols 2017. Kindle version.
As I was reading through the introduction to Dr. Greg Nichols monumental Lectures In Systematic Theology: Doctrine of God I came across this very helpful paragraph on the proper method of conducting systematic theology in a way that would do justice to the Scripture’s position of authority in the life of the church, and, at the same time, recognize that Christ has given the Church gifted pastors and teacher that prayerfully and faithful expound the truths found in the Bible for the edification of God’s people. (Ephesians 4:11-15)
II. The Proper Method of Conducting Systematic Theology
I use “proper” to depict that which is most prudent and most likely to achieve a God-honoring result. The proper method involves two components, “biblical exegesis” and “historical theology.” I use “biblical exegesis” to refer to careful exposition of every key biblical text that addresses a given topic. I use “historical theology” to depict diligent study of church creeds and theological and exegetical works that address a given topic. Systematics must couple these two things.
Nichols, Gregory G. Lectures in Systematic Theology: Doctrine of God. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Greg Nichols, 2017. Kindle.