A few months ago, I began a post which addressed John Calvin's understanding of the fourth commandment using Richard Gaffin's published dissertation, Calvin on the Sabbath. For want of time, I never completed a review of Grudem's critique . . . until now. The sabbath, Gaffin concludes, is thoroughly eschatological. Calvin simply does not understand this, and therefore is unable to do justice to the fourth commandment. His reasoning is as follows:
(1) Calvin’s generalization of the fourth commandment as rest nullifies its uniqueness
The heart of the fourth commandment, Calvin says repeatedly, is the injunction to practice spiritual rest. Spiritual rest, he makes clear, is perpetual cessation from sin so that God may perform his sanctifying work in us. This conclusion, however, isn’t just a portion of lawfulness but a summary of the whole law! Further, to attribute to any one of the ten commandments the comprehensive force that belongs to Christ’s summary of the law--to love God and neighbor--effectively deprives that particular commandment of its place in the decalogue so that a portion of the decalogue receives the meaning divinely intended for the whole. “He [Calvin] has overlooked its specific [unique] place in God’s law and consequently missed its true meaning” (146).
(2) Calvin does not devote serious attention to the Sabbath as an ordinance of creation
Calvin’s teaching addresses only a post-fall Sabbath and does not understand that the meaning of the Sabbath must be governed by the pre-fall, creation Sabbath. If the basic concern of the fourth commandment is, as Calvin says, resting from sin, then sin (as well as the entire ordo salutis) was required before the fall. “The meaning of the Sabbath institution prior to the fall seems not to have crossed his mind” (146).
(3) Calvin’s teaching on the Sabbath disparages the other six days of creation
If the message of the fourth commandment is: Stop Sinning!, then the other six days are the producers of the sin from which one is resting. Calvin saw no use or value in the six days of work. The six days are, for Calvin, days of the sins of the flesh, days which were supposed to be rested from on the Sabbath. The six days become an influence which must be resisted and bound up to make way for piety. That is why Calvin understood the Mosaic commands to cease from labor on the Sabbath as necessary in the face of “sinful human inability to practice daily public worship”(ibid). People need a command to make them cease from labor, otherwise worship would be precluded by the market. Indeed, Calvin enjoins a daily assembly for worship. "The mention of six days of labor is a recognition of sinful actions, not a command to engage in legitimate human callings or other cultural activity. . . . These two elements can only be related antithetically, or the days of work viewed, at best, concessively” (147). Thus, the meaning of the Sabbath is spiritualized and made wholly ecclesial.
(4) Calvin’s teaching on the Sabbath forbids positive interpretation.
Calvin equates the six days of labor with labors of the flesh. He spiritualizes work and rest as sin and the cessation from sin. It is true that the other commandments presuppose sin, but they also have a positive side; do not murder is also an injunction to protect and value other lives. There is no such postive interpretation available to Calvin for the fourth commandment. Should Calvin have understood it positively, where working as well as resting is in view, then sin would have become a requirement for God’s good governance of creation--a real dilemma!
Indeed, the interpretation Calvin gives to the fourth commandment is only meaningful in a world of sin & redemption. On the other, when Calvin states as its core teaching that the creature is to imitate the creator--a notion with relevance apart from redemption--the result summarizes the whole law and neuters its specific force [per the first point above]. Therefore, Gaffin concludes that Calvin is unable to do justice to the fourth commandment as a Creation ordinance, as a principle intended to govern human life before and after the fall and which, together with its neighbors, fits within the framework of Christ’s summary of the law.
(5) Calvin ignores the eschatological purpose of the seventh day
Gaffin is sympathetic to Calvin's reasons for spiritualizing work and rest; the law of types is replaced by the reality of Jesus’s work. But, he says, Calvin did not fully consider types existing in creation before the fall. The Sabbath is an eschatologically-oriented type. We look forward to its eschatological fulfilment. Eschatological light has shone upon the creation from the beginning, and a creation Sabbath has to include that. It is the Spirit who is “the source of (eschatological) life” (152). The pneumatological is always the christological, to be in the Spirit is to be “in Christ.” The realm of the Spirit is the eschatological realm.
The weekly Sabbath was a continual reminder to Adam that history is not a ceaseless repetition of days. Rather, at the beginning of each week he could look forward to the rest of that seventh day. That weekly cycle impressed on him that he, together with the created order as a whole, was moving toward a goal, a nothing less than eschatological culmination. (ibid.)
A weekly day of rest faithfully observed by the church is a concrete witness to a watching world that Christians are not enmeshed in the turmoil of an impersonal historical process but look with confidence to sharing in the consummation of God’s purposes for the creation. There does indeed remain an eschatological Sabbath-rest for the people of God. It is not a command, but a reminder of the better that is coming.
Thus, the fourth commandment makes the meaning of the seventh day interact with the meaning of the previous six. The day of rest gives meaning to, and in turn receives meaning from, the six days of labor. There is a philosophy of history here. The Sabbath’s enjoined rest from labor not a practical demand but an eschatological reminder: we are to meditate upon our six days in the light of the eschatological seventh. Quoting Geerhardus Vos (from what I assume is The Eschatology of the Old Testament (P & R Publishing, 2001)) Gaffin writes:
The Sabbath is not in the first place a means of advancing religion. It has its main significance apart from that, in pointing forward to the eternal issues of life and history . . . a day devoted to the remembrance of man’s eternal destiny cannot be properly observed without the positive cultivation of . . . religious concerns. . . . But, even where this is conceded, the fact remains that it is possible to crowd too much into the day that is merely subservient to religious propaganda, and to void it [of any spiritual good.]
Finally, the eschatological nature of the Sabbath makes Sabbath-keeping a present impossibility. After the fall, human beings cannot possibly fulfil the fourth commandment. Its rest points to the state where all has been perfected, and no more work is necessary. In this present age, work is always necessary. Human beings can't achieve a consummation from their own resources. They cannot bring the psychical creation to its eschatological fulfillment. Therefore, Sabbath-keeping requires and is fundamentally a pneumatological extension of grace, and a practice of hope (and suffering--see Moltmann Theology of Hope chapter 1).
fourth commandment; John Calvin; reformed theology; Wayne Grudem; eschatology; theology of work.