John Calvin as a Nascent Sabbatarian

“Furthermore, contrary to the understanding of Primus, Matsuda and Gaffin, Calvin thought the change of the keeping of the Sabbath Day, “every seventh day,” from Saturday to Sunday to be God’s institution, through the apostles. His comment on 1 Corinthians 16:2 shows that Calvin believed “the Apostles” were probably “the ancients” who had made the change, but in any event, in a Deuteronomy sermon Calvin expressly states that the “holy order” of Sunday-observance is one “which God instituted.” Thus, regarding what Primus calls the decisive sabbatarian issues, the Sabbath as a creation ordinance and Sunday as the divinely sanctioned Christian expression of that ordinance, Calvin is fully sabbatarian.

Calvin’s mistaken translation of the first phrase in 1 Corinthians 16:2, taking it to refer to “one of the [Saturday] Sabbaths” instead of to the “first day of the week” apparently mislead him to infer that the apostles had made a decision to change the day more than twenty years after the resurrection. Furthermore, it probably helped to lead him to grant to the church in later generations, the freedom to “have other solemn days for their meetings” in addition to the divinely instituted Lord’s Day.43

While Calvin did not use the term “Christian Sabbath” and would not have agreed with the Westminster Assembly on the timing of the day change when it wrote, “from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, God appointed the seventh day …; and the first day of the week ever since, to continue to the end of the world, which is the Christian Sabbath,” Calvin, like the Divines, believed, based upon Genesis 2:3, that the command to “kee[p] holy to God such set times as he hath appointed in his word; expressly one whole day in seven, to be a holy sabbath to himself,” as “a perpetual rule,” instructs the “the whole human race” to do so “by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the publick and private exercises of God’s worship.”44

It is interesting to ponder how Calvin’s Sabbath theology might have been altered if he had realized that, contra his reading of 1 Corinthians 16:2, “the Jewish Sabbath almost disappears from recorded Christian practice after Christ’s resurrection,” and that furthermore, “the indirect evidence is very strong, and shows not merely that the Lord’s Day was kept by Jewish Christians, but that it originated with them,” for it is likely “that the church in Palestine originally observed both the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.”45

In short, Calvin’s understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath, while off slightly due largely to an exegetical error, and (understandably) not so well developed as that of his Puritan successors, is in sufficient agreement with them on the central issues that he is certainly not ‘non-sabbatarian’ as some have suggested. In fact, one may justly categorize Calvin together with later sabbatarians; the term ‘nascent sabbatarian’ would seem most appropriate.”

43. Actually, in the fifth paragraph of its 21st chapter, “Of Religious Worship, and the Sabbath Day,” the Westminster Confession of Faith, too, recognizes the Christian church (today) has the liberty to hold, “thanksgivings upon special occasions, … to be used in an holy and religious manner.”

44. Westminster Shorter Catechism, answers 58–60, and Calvin’s comment on Genesis 2:3 (see Calvin’s Understanding [earlier in the full article]).

45. Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott, This is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday in its Jewish and Early Church Setting (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott: 1978) 30–32.

~Stewart E. Lauer, “John Calvin, the Nascent Sabbatarian: A Reconsideration of Calvin’s View of Two Key Sabbath-Issues,” The Confessional Presbyterian 12 (2016), 160. Repr. from the third issue.…ewart-e-lauer/

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