Calvin on the Sabbath

Calvin expounds the 4th commandment in the sections II.viii.28-34 of the Institutes. That’s the funny commandment about keeping one day in seven as holy to the LORD. Funny, because very few Christians I have met take it seriously, especially if they are a) of a dispy background, or b) liberal, and basically don’t care.

The WCF is pretty clear about the Sabbath in Chapter 21.7:

As it is 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.

It teaches clearly that the difference between the Sabbath in the OT and the NT is simply the day on which it is observed. The reason for this

  • “the law of nature” (which, I guess, means rooted in the order of Creation), and
  • that the Decalogue is binds “all men in all ages”.

Seems reasonable to me.

Imagine my surprise, then, that Calvin does not seem to agree, at least not fully. He sees much greater differences than simply the day of the week. Calvin notes three reasons for the Sabbath in the OT:

  1. It represented spiritual rest for the people of God, i.e. it pointed forward to a future rest. The day was not just for its own sake.
  2. In order that the people of God may rest, meditate and assemble for worship.
  3. That servants and employees may rest.

Calvin makes a big deal out of the fact that the shadows are left behind, referencing Colossians 2:16,17. The fulfilment is in Christ. Thus the reality of the Sabbath day spreads over the whole week. His conclusion is that we must shun the superstition of days, which the Jews were under.

However, then Calvin sees that there is a need still to give servants and employees rest, there is still a need for the assembly of the saints, and for this to be done decently and in order, a day must be set apart. He seems to acknowledge that to meet every day would be desirable if it were practical, but isn’t usually. These pragmatic reasons are not to be confused with the almost superstitious reverence for a particular day in the OT. The difference was to be marked by the change of day. (Interestingly, Calvin suggests that superstitions about the Lord’s Day were being imposed in the Catholic Church too.)

Thus it seems that in Calvin’s mind there appeared to be much more discontinuity in the Sabbath teaching than there was in the later Presbyterians of the UK.

Can anyone shed some light on this for me? It is something I need to investigate more…

Calvin on the Sabbath

8 thoughts on “Calvin on the Sabbath

  1. David says:

    Stephen,
    Richard Gaffin’s masters thesis was on the topic of Calvin’s approach to the Sabbath. I have read it, and you can borrow my copy if you like.
    God bless,
    David

  2. David says:

    Stephen,
    Richard Gaffin’s masters thesis was on the topic of Calvin’s approach to the Sabbath. I have read it, and you can borrow my copy if you like.
    God bless,
    David

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