In her well-crafted and theologically astute anthology of Calvin’s writings on pastoral piety, Elsie Anne McKee presents the famous ethics section of the Institutes (3.6–10) under the heading “The Golden Book of the Christian Life.” Of course, that was not Calvin’s title; he called it De vita hominis Christiani, “On the life of a Christian human being,” which he translated into French as De la vie de l’homme chrétien. This provokes a question: When did 3.6–10 become the “golden booklet,” and what are the ramifications of its curious publishing history?

Encouraged by the cordial reception of his pocketbook Institutes of 1536, Calvin immediately set to work on an expanded second edition, which was published in Strasbourg in 1539. Calvin’s translation of this enlarged edition into French was published in Geneva in 1541. The climactic final chapter (17) of the second edition was a completely new treatise on the Christian life. While Calvin’s French translation of the whole edition was still in process, Pierre de La Place, a prominent member of the fledgling Reformed community in Paris, translated chapter 17 in 1540, apparently with an eye toward publication as a separate work. The project never came to fruition, but it did come to the attention of the ecclesiastical opponents of the Reformation. Leaving no stone unturned, the Sorbonne placed the unpublished manuscript on the Index of Forbidden Books following its censure in 1556. La Place later suffered martyrdom in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, a fact that underlines the relevance of all the basic themes of the treatise he sought to make more accessible to his fellow Huguenot believers.

As it turned out, the first publication of chapter 17 of the 1539 Institutes as a stand-alone treatise was an English translation by Thomas Broke in 1549. The Institutes as a whole was not translated into English until 1561 by Thomas Norton, so Broke’s translation of the treatise on the Christian life has the distinction of being the first part of the Institutes to appear in English. But unlike the English translation of Calvin’s Sermons on the Ten Commandments, which went through six printings between 1579 and 1581, Broke’s translation of the treatise on the Christian life was not reprinted. A work bearing the title A Treatise of a Christian Life, translated by J. Shutte (London, 1594), is listed by Erichson as another rendering of the Institutes 3.6–10, but Calvin scholars Jean-Francois and Gilmont and Peter and Rudolphe Gilmont are unable to attest it and suggest that it may be the translation of a work misattributed to Calvin.

The third edition of the Institutes, now including more than 20 chapters, was published in 1543, the French translation following in 1545. The fourth edition, slightly expanded and for the first time subdivided into numbered paragraphs, appeared in 1550. Before the French translation was completed in 1551, Jean Crespin published separately the final chapter as De vita hominis Christinani (Geneva, 1550). The French translation was also published the same year and it was republished in 1552, though without the name of the author. Book 3.6–10 of the 1559 Institutes was translated into Italian in 1561, making it the first part of the Institutes to be published in Italian, as was the case with English.

Interest in De vita hominis Christinani as a stand-alone treatise revived―after a hiatus of three centuries―with its translation into German by P.G. Bartels under the title Büchlein vom Leben eines Christenmenschen, “Booklet of the life of a Christian human being” (Aurich, 1857). It was promptly translated from German into Dutch and given the title that has stuck ever since:  “Golden booklet concerning the true [right] Christian walk” (Hilversum, 1858). A second edition immediately followed. The treatise had found its natural constituency among the Dutch Reformed eager for practical theological literature that was undeniably Calvinistic. It was republished around the turn of the century and subsequently three times in the 20th century with a slightly modified title, “Golden booklet concerning the Christian life.” The German edition that gave rise to the Dutch publishing success appears to have been a one-off event; it was neither reprinted nor reissued in a modern translation. Its sole, and not inconsiderable, legacy is its original translation into Dutch.

Thus matters stood as of the mid-20th century. The climactic chapter of the second through fourth editions of the Institutes, now 3.6–10 in the definitive fifth edition, was available as a separate treatise only in Dutch until a Dutchman translated it into English in 1952 under the title Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life. It has been continuously in print ever since. Through September 2009 there have been 21 printings for a total of 105,449 copies, and the 1952 Dutch  translation has been licensed for publication in the following languages: Africaans, Arabic, Hungarian, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Persian, Russian, and Spanish. Licensed or not, it has also been translated into Chinese by Charles H. Chao (Taipei, Taiwan: Reformation Translation Fellowship, 1985) and Portuguese by Daniel Costa (São Paulo: Novo Século, 2003).

The full name of the Dutchman responsible for the international circulation of the Golden Booklet is Henry John Gysbert Van Andel (1882–1968). Born in Holland, Van Andel immigrated to the United States in 1909. Formerly a headmaster of a school in the Netherlands, he earned an MA degree from the University of Chicago and joined the Calvin College faculty in 1915 as professor of Holland language and literature. The following year he published Holland Grammar with Exercises: Elementary Course for Schools and Colleges, a work still in print and readily available on the Internet. Later in his career Van Andel published Nederlandse Bloemlezing: A Dutch and Flemish Anthology of Poetry and Prose (1948). He belonged to the “positive” wing of the neo-Calvinist movement generated by Abraham Kuyper. As editor of the Christian Journal, he upheld the doctrine of common grace espoused by Herman Bavinck and advocated “Americanization” of the Dutch Reformed church and community in the United States.

One Scholar’s Perspective

Given the remarkable success of the Van Andel translation, it is most valuable to have his reflections at the time on the significance of the treatise and his personal account of the translation. Van Andel saw Institutes 3.6–10 as Calvin’s answer to the mysticism of such works as Thomas à Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, the thrust of which is to construe “spirituality” in terms of meditation rather than action. Calvin rejected that conception along with its underlying dualism and asceticism, which he regarded as deeply mistaken. True spiritual life begins with the radical work of the Holy Spirit in the human heart; meditation joined with action follows as believers “learn to live holy and sacrificial lives, to be patient in adversity, to be heavenly-minded, and to be moderate and faithful in our temporal occupations.” Far from denying the goodness of creation and cultivating separation from human society, the true Christian life is creation-affirming and consecrated to the service of both God and neighbor.

Van Andel perceived in Protestant evangelicalism in the mid-20th century the same unhealthy separatist tendencies of medieval mysticism that Calvin had to confront. The Golden Booklet thus remains highly relevant. “This little work should be read and reread more than any other part of the Institutes, because it is not only devout but also positive and practical, sane and rational.” Not that the Institutes as a whole has become antiquated. Van Andel expressed the conviction that it all ought to be rendered into modern English, a desire that was fulfilled eight years later with the publication of Ford Lewis Battles definitive English translation.

For his translation of the Golden Booklet, Van Andel used primarily the 1560 French edition, comparing it with the Latin edition of 1559, the Dutch translation of the Latin in 1865, and the English translation by John Allen. Of his own translation Van Andel says, “[W]e tried to render Calvin’s eloquent remarks in modern, vital, simple, and imaginative language without obscuring, or changing the real meaning of the original.” His goal was an accurate representation of Calvin’s thought in readable contemporary English. In this effort he notes with appreciation the suggestions of Alice Fenenga, a revered teacher serving in the editorial office of the National Union of Christian Schools.

Not everyone was happy with the result, however. T.H.L. Parker complained that breaking up the material into short paragraphs did Calvin a disservice. “Calvin did not think like that, but in whole paragraphs. These little sentences are insipid detached from the flow of the argument. … He who wants to know and understand Calvin on the Christian life will be well advised not to attempt it by way of this edition.” Admittedly, there is a different feel to the material in reading the Battles translation of 3.6–10, or McKee’s excerpted version of the same, or her full translation of chapter 17 of the first French edition. Calvin proceeds by way of developing argument, and that is lost when the material is presented in one-sentence paragraphs. McKee’s method of judicious editing to make Calvin’s thought accessible while retaining his structure is preferable. But Van Andel must be given his due in attracting a wide audience to meditate on Calvin’s doctrine of the Christian life.