Week 13 of 50 in the Institutes: Nothing Superstitious About Being Sabbatarian

How ironic it is that in week 13 of our 50 week jaunt through Calvin’s Institutes, our reading includes most of Calvin’s handling of the fourth commandment, wherein we find him deriding “Sabbatarian superstition”  (in 2.8.34; not that I’m superstitious, by any means you understand!).

I was delighted to discover Sinclair Ferguson was the blogger on the Reformation 21 website for this week’s assignments, and, being the gentleman and scholar that he is, he simply noted that Calvin takes the “continental view” on the Sabbath, and he didn’t bother critiquing or comparing the “continental view” with that of the Puritan view espoused in the WCF (see the Reformation 21 April 3rd blog).

I hesitate to take up this topic, since Ferguson (perhaps due to word count blog limitations) sidestepped it entirely.  And besides, who wants to be a picker of nits?  Nevertheless, I am compelled to share my reflections, critical as they are of some of what Calvin espoused, because I don’t think the issues involved are inconsequential.  So despite the risk of rushing in where angels dare to tread, here goes.

To begin with, let’s compare the most concise formulations of the Continental and Puritan views on the fourth commandment. Let’s start with the Continental view as found in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q104: What doth God require in the fourth commandment?  Answer: First, that the ministry of the gospel and the schools be maintained; and that I, especially on the Sabbath, that is, on the day of rest, diligently frequent the church of God to hear His word, to use the sacraments, publicly to call upon the Lord, and contribute to the relief of the poor, as becomes a Christian.  Secondly, that all the days of my life I cease from my evil works, and yield myself to the Lord, to work by His Holy Spirit in me; and thus begin in this life the eternal Sabbath.

By way of contrast, here are the pertinent sections from the Westminster Confession:

20.7  As it is of the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment, binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven for a sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week; and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which in Scripture is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

20.8 This sabbath is then kept holy unto the Lord, when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs before-hand, do not only observe an holy rest from all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations; but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.

Calvin identified three conditions involved in keeping the fourth commandment:

  1. A day of spiritual rest in which believers lay aside their own works to allow God to work in them.
  2. A stated day for worship and meditation.
  3. A day of rest for servants and those under the authority of others.

As Ferguson observed, for Calvin, the second and third conditions remain, and Christ is seen as the fulfillment of the Sabbath, foreshadowed in the OT (2.8.31).

But even Calvin’s observance of the Lord’s Day would very likely be labelled “sabbatarian” by those outside that camp today.  As Ferguson noted, Calvin himself was accused of nourishing people in Judaism (2.8.33). And we shouldn’t overlook Calvin’s longing to have a daily assembly for preaching and ministry of the word (third to last sentence of 2.8.32).

If we could time travel back to Calvin’s Geneva, we would find three church services held on Sunday: at sunrise, nine o’clock, and three o’clock.  At noon there was a children’s service which taught catechism.  And that was just on Sunday.  During the week, the city council had decided there should be more preaching, and so there were sermons given every week day.  This resulted in Calvin preaching three times on Sunday and five times during the week every other week (a rotation shared with other ministers), for a total of ten sermons every fortnight.  So Ferguson’s point is well taken (April 3rd blog) that “a day for worship and meditation has not been reduced to a morning,” either in Calvin’s day or ours.

Some say that the Sabbatarian principles of the WCF and the HC are different in argument, but the same in practice (follow this link for a discussion on The Puritan Board, later!).  As a Sabbatarian, I would have been very much at home with the Lord’s Day observances in Calvin’s Geneva.

Having said that, I want to point out a couple of the issues I have with Calvin’s handling of the fourth commandment.  As hinted in the title of this blog, it isn’t a matter of superstition to observe the fourth commandment as understood from Scripture and in good conscience, any more than it is to keep any of the other commandments (keeping the Lord’s commands is by no means superstitious).  Superstition by its very definition is a blindly accepted belief or notion.  The observance of the fourth commandment, as delineated in the WCF, is rooted in a particular understanding of the teaching of Holy Scripture, which leads me to the second issue I have with Calvin’s treatment.

Calvin seems to jettison sola scriptura and concede to the church the ultimate authority in establishing a particular day for worship and assembly.  In 2.8.34 we find this deference to ecclesiastical authority in selecting a day of worship (emphasis added):

The whole may be thus summed up: As the truth was delivered typically to the Jews, so it is imparted to us without figure; first, that during our whole lives we may aim at a constant rest from our own works, in order that the Lord may work in us by his Spirit; secondly that every individual, as he has opportunity, may diligently exercise himself in private, in pious meditation on the works of God, and, at the same time, that all may observe the legitimate order appointed by the Church, for the hearing of the word, the administration of the sacraments, and public prayer: And, thirdly, that we may avoid oppressing those who are subject to us.

For those interested in a fuller treatment of the Puritan view, in addition to the Westminster standards I recommend James Fisher’s catechism, questions 57-62, which are available here.

If Calvin were alive today, I venture to say he would be appalled by the essential abandonment of the fourth commandment in our age.  And when he inevitably expressed his concerns, he would be labelled a staunch Sabbatarian, by today’s standards.

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 30:  2.8.2 – 2.8.7

Mar. 31:  2.8.8 – 2.8.14

Apr. 1:  2.8.15 – 2.8.19

Apr. 2:  2.8.20 – 2.8.26

Apr. 3:  2.8.27 – 2.8.32


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