Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Calvin on the Sabbath Day

A good half-hour with John G. on the approach of covenant theology to the fourth commandment led me to seek out John Calvin. I suspected two things. First, that Calvin would not forego the chief insight of the Reformation - that we never did nor can we add anything to the sum of salvation's graceful equation. Second, that Calvin would seek to find the moral heart of the commandment, and thus discover another way into the open country of freedom. I was right on both counts. Here is Calvin from the Institutes II.8.34:

The resurrection of our Lord being the end and accomplishment of that true rest which the ancient sabbath typified, this day . . . serves to warn Christians against adhering to a shadowy ceremony. I do not cling so to the number seven as to bring the Church under bondage to it, nor do I condemn churches for holding their meetings on other solemn days, provided they guard against superstition. This they will do if they employ those days merely for the observance of discipline and regular order. The whole may be thus summed up: . . . 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.

Richard Gaffin summarizes Calvin's teaching on the Sabbath from the 1536 and 1559 edition of the Institutes in his dissertation-turned-book, Calvin and the Sabbath (Mentor, 1998). His summary reads as follows:

The fourth commandment, as an element of God's immutable Decalogue, is binding upon all men at all times. Its requirements are three fold.

1. The weekly Sabbath was given to Israel as a type of spiritual rest from sin. The rest of every seventh day was to stimulate their thinking upon the Lord, who would be their Sanctifier. At the coming of Christ, spiritual rest became a reality. The Sabbath then ceased to exist as a promissory sign and, consequently, no longer has typical significance for the Christian church. This does not mean, however, that this first requirement of the commandment no longer obligates the church. On the contrary, its demand is intensified. Christians must strive to case from sinful works and thereby enter into and enjoy spiritual on every day of their lives. [1]

2. The fourth commandment requires of the Christian church, as it required of Israel, that stated times be set aside for public worship. In the case of Israel, the time was designated specifically by the Lord. For the church it is a matter of indifference which day of the week is chosen, although the first day, the day of the Resurrection, is most appropriate.[2]

3. The fourth commandment requires of the Christian church, as it required of Israel, that rest be granted to all those who labor under the authority of others.[3] (58)


[1] The fourth Commandment appoints a day to symbolize (figura) spiritual rest. Gaffin writes, "Spiritual rest is 'keeping holiday' from our own works that God may perform his work in us. It is realized by renouncing fleshly inclinations and accepting the guidance of the Holy Spirit That is not something done sufficiently on one day of the week. On the contrary, once believers have begun spiritual rest, they must continue in it throughout the whole course of life," and again, "spiritual rest is an actual possession yet it will not be fully experienced until the Last Day." In the words of the 1545 Geneva Catechism, "[The fourth commandment] calls us to the reality behind it, namely, that being grafted into the body of Christ and made members of his, we cease from our own works and so resign ourselves to the government of God."

[2] Calvin is clear that though the church is not commanded to meet in order to satisfy some lawful requirement of God's justice, it should meet in order to encourage the proper and orderly practice of religion. Calvin thinks the seventh day is best because of its identification with the resurrection and also because seven is a number of perfection and so, "is suitable to indicate the perpetuity of the eternal Sabbath," though suggesting that "this spiritual rest (though the same in kind) only begins in this life and does not reach perfection until we depart this world."

[3] Gaffin comments, "If a day of rest is given to laborers, the order and productivity or society in general will be promoted. For when one day is assigned for rest, everyone accustoms himself to work the rest of the time." (65)