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  • « Chapter Three: The Greatness of the Love of Christ is Displayed in Our Unworthiness to be Loved | Main | Strangers in a Hostile Land »

    Book Review: Calvin and the Sabbath, by Richard Gaffin

    Go to Monergism Books

    “If Sunday is the Sabbath then part of the Christian Church is living in wholesale disregard to the will of God and is under his condemnation,” begins the provocative back cover of Richard Gaffin's analysis and critique of Calvin's understanding of the fourth commandment; and then, to round out the sober contention, it continues, “If the Sabbath is no longer binding on the Christian then sections of the Church are guilty of Pharisaism and are adding extra rules to Christ's teaching”. It may not actually be the case that every dispute over the nature of the fourth commandment and its specific application to the Church today necessarily implies as serious an error as this blanket statement suggests – after all, Gaffin sees fit to disagree with Calvin on many pertinent points, but with a respect and demeanor that would be loathe to charge the Reformer with either “wholesale disregard to the will of God,” or “Pharisaism” – and yet in this assessment the importance of the discussion is at least underscored by drawing out the seriousness implicit in adhering too tenaciously to either extreme edge of what may be a wrong understanding of the Sabbath question. And furthermore, even in cases of rather more mild disagreements, the concrete effects on the actual practice of the Church may be very significant. It is indisputably the case, therefore, that this question is worth a great deal of sober reflection, especially at a time in which the visible Church is clearly fragmented over the issue.

    A careful, full-orbed examination of what the great Genevan Reformer really had to say about the fourth commandment is a very valuable starting point in any discussion of the topic, for several reasons: first of all, the degree of respect accorded to Calvin in the Protestant, Reformed tradition needs no apology; simply by virtue of his towering intellect, exegetical acumen, and personal piety, he deserves a very careful hearing, and when his rank as one of the acknowledged pillars of the Protestant Reformation and his place among the greatest theologians of Church history is added to the mix, his opinion becomes very weighty indeed. But on this specific question, what he has to say becomes even more interesting to discover, simply because adherents to all angles of the Sabbath question have attempted to wrest his words in support of their own understandings. The most ardent Sabbatarians have sought succor from his exegetical writings, particularly his commentaries on Genesis; and those who have gone to the opposite extreme of denying that the fourth commandment applies to the Church today in any sense whatsoever have found much ammunition in the anti-Sabbatarian tenor of his theological and confessional writings, particularly his Institutes. Compounding the problem, certain respectable theologians have gone so far as to assert that on this point, Calvin is hopelessly self-contradictory, and that his commentaries flatly contradict his Institutes – a theoretically possible contingency, but given Calvin's usual consistency and intellect, quite unlikely.

    Gaffin proceeds on the reasonable assumption that, unless utterly impossible, every effort ought to be made to understand all of Calvin's writings as consistent with each other on this point – after all, from the very earliest to the latest of his confessional writings, during which time he was writing his various commentaries, there seems to be no major change of opinion, just some minor development. In fact, Calvin appeared to have died with the same basic interpretation of the Sabbath that he first gave expression to in his (earliest) 1536 edition of the Institutes. That he would have contradicted himself at so many points along the way, without ever revising his opinion, seems incredible. And with that basic assumption in mind, along with the aid of an approach that seeks to understand the historical context of the Reformer, and refuses anachronistically to read into him the later Sabbatarian debates of the Puritans, et al, he does come to a convincingly consistent interpretation.

    In Gaffin's opinion, Calvin's view follows a via media between the Roman sabbatarians and the Anabaptist antinomians. In his Institutes, “Twice Calvin departs from the narrow course of exposition to deal with views he deems false, the propositions first of the 'restless spirits' and then of the 'false prophets'. Each is the polar opposite of the other on the Sabbath question. The 'false prophets,' reflecting a Roman Catholic viewpoint, held that the Lord's Day is a strict continuation of the Jewish Sabbath. The 'restless spirits,' representing an Anabaptist outlook, opposed any distinction of days.”

    So what did this via media look like in concrete terms? In Gaffin's analysis, Calvin's positive interpretation of the fourth commandment and its application to the Church today may be summed up in three points: “1. Christians must practice a perpetual Sabbath through the whole of life, resting from their sinful works, so that God, through his Spirit, may work in them. 2. Christians must observe the lawful order of the church, constituted for preaching, for administering the sacraments, and for public prayers. 3. Christians must not inhumanly oppress those subject to their authority”. After demonstrating this basic approach from Calvin's theological writings, Gaffin then attempts to show how, when read in their historical context, the exegetical writings are fully compatible with that general framework.

    So then, Calvin adhered to a middle ground, of sorts, in which the most basic application of the fourth commandment pertained to the Christians' resting from sin every day of the week, and in which the applications related to specific days of rest had only to do with humane employer/employee relationships and order and consistency in the worship of the Church; but mattered nothing either with regard to a particular day of the week or even the ratio of one day in seven. But this begs the further questions, “How does this understanding fit in with the contemporary Reformed creeds and confessions?”; and in particular, “Is Calvin reconcilable with the development expressed in the later Westminster Confession?”. Although he points out along the way that the disparity between Calvin and the Westminster Confession of Faith is not so stark as has often been made out, it is to Gaffin's credit that he resists the urge to force a compatibility between them where a full reconciliation is not in fact possible. Recognizing the essential discrepancy, he spends the last portion of his book evaluating Calvin's thought in a way that respectfully disagrees with some of his foundational tenets. Whether the reader will finally side with Calvin or Gaffin on this particular point (I for one, tend to sympathize with the Reformer on the key points), at least the issues are made clear, and the arguments for either side are given without distortion – a huge boon in an often abrasive discussion.

    Available at Monergism Books

    Posted by Nathan on January 21, 2010 02:27 PM


    Very nice review, thanks. Calvin's theology is indeed a "global" one, as I like to say, meaning that his position is applicable globally. The theology of "picking out days" is a "local" theology, a theology applicable only locally.

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