The Myth of the “Continental View” of the Sabbath

the myth of the continental view of the sabbath

While it is true that there is some diversity of opinion and practice on the Sabbath in the Continental Reformed tradition, ranging (in the Netherlands, for example) from the loose position of Cocceius, to the strict view of Voetius, Koelman and a’Brakel, the views of the Reformers regarding the Sabbath are much more Sabbatarian than most are used to today. The following excerpt is very helpful for understanding their views on the 4th commandment.

Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture, vol. II, Appendix A, Views of the Reformers Regarding the Sabbath.

One Sided, Out of Context Quotes on the Reformers Regarding the Sabbath

We regret that Hengstenberg, in his recent treatise on the Lord’s day, takes much the same course with those referred to in the note, of producing quotations from the writings of the Reformers, that present only one side of their opinions, and without any qualifying statement as to there being grounds on which they also acknowledged the abiding obligation of a weekly Sabbath. Any one would conclude, from the representation he has given, that the stream of sentiment ran entirely in one direction. There are undoubtedly very strong, as we think, unguarded, and improper, and, as might seem at first sight, quite conclusive declarations in the writings and authorized standards of the Reformers, against Sabbatical observances.

Thus Luther, in his larger Catechism, says,

“God set apart the seventh day, and appointed it to be observed, and commanded that it should be considered holy above all others; and this command, as far as the outward observance was concerned, was given to the Jews alone, that they should abstain from hard labour and rest, in order that both man and beast might be refreshed, and not be worn out by constant work. Therefore this commandment, literally understood, does not apply to us Christians; for it is entirely outward, like other ordinances of the Old Testament, bound to modes, and persons, and times, and customs, all of which are now left free by Christ.”

So again, in the Augsburg Confession, expressing not only the mind of Luther, but also of Melancthon and the leading Lutheran Reformers,

“Great disputes have arisen concerning the change of the law, concerning the ceremonies of the new law, concerning the change of the Sabbath, which have all sprung from the false persuasion, that the worship in the Church ought to correspond to the Levitical service. They who think that the observance of the Lord’s day was instituted by the Church in place of the Sabbath, as a necessary thing, completely err. Scripture grants that the observance of the Sabbath now is free; for it teaches, that since the introduction of the Gospel, Mosaic ceremonies are no longer necessary.”

To add only one more, and that from the Reformed Church, the Helvetic Confession drawn up in 1566, after referring to the observance of Sunday in early times, and the advantages derived from it, adds the following statement: “But we do not tolerate here either superstition or the Jewish mode of observance. For we do not believe that one day is holier than another, or that rest in itself is pleasing to God. We keep the Sunday, not the Sabbath, by a voluntary observance.

Historical Context in the Early Reformation

Now, we freely admit that such statements, taken by themselves, and viewed apart from the circumstances of the time, might very naturally be understood to imply an absolute freedom from any proper obligation to keep the Lord’s day. But it ought, first of all, to be borne in mind, that the subject engaged a comparatively small share of the attention of the Reformers, and that, in so far as it did, they were placed in circumstances fitted to give a peculiar bias to their thoughts and language. There is no regular and systematic treatise on the Sabbath in the works of the more eminent divines of that period; it is only incidentally alluded to in connection with other points, such as the power of the Church in decreeing ceremonies, or briefly discussed in their commentaries on Scripture, or, finally, made the subject of a few paragraphs under the Fourth Commandment, in their elements of Christian doctrine. A few minutes might suffice to read what each one of the Reformers has left on record concerning the permanent obligation of the Sabbath; indeed, that part of the question is rather summarily decided on, than calmly and satisfactorily examined.

It was only about the beginning of the seventeenth century, when a controversy arose concerning it in Holland, that it began to attract much notice on the Continent, and that a careful investigation was made into the grounds of its existing obligation. Before the meeting of the famous Synod of Dort, considerable heats had been occasioned by the subject in the province of Zealand; and with the view of somewhat allaying these, or at least restraining them within certain bounds, that Synod, in one of its last sederunts, held on the 17th May 1618, and after the departure of the foreign deputies, passed certain resolutions, which were intended to serve as interim rules for the direction of those who might still choose to agitate the controversy, until it might be fully and formally discussed in a future synod. These resolutions were passed in the course of one day, and were carried with the consent of the Zealand brethren themselves, so that they may be regarded as embodying the nearly unanimous judgment of the Dutch Church at that period.

Canons of Dort on the Sabbath

They are as follows:—

1. In the Fourth Commandment there is something ceremonial and something moral;

2. The ceremonial was; of the seventh day, and the rigid observance of that day prescribed to the Jewish people;

3. but the moral is, that a certain and stated day was appointed for the worship of God, and such rest as is necessary for the worship of God, and devout meditation upon Him;

4. The Sabbath of the Jews having been abrogated, the Lord’s day must be solemnly sanctified by Christians;

5. From the time of the apostles, this day was always observed in the ancient Catholic Church;

6. The day must be so consecrated to Divine worship, that there shall be a cessation from all servile works, excepting those which are done on account of some present necessity, and from such recreations as are discordant with the worship of God.”

The publishing of these resolutions had not the desired effect; for neither did the controversy cease, nor was it carried on within the prescribed bounds. A few years afterwards, a treatise on the subject was published by Gomar, then at the head of the Calvinists, disputing two or three of the resolutions. He was soon replied to at considerable length by Walaeus; and still more elaborately, some years later, by J. Altingius. It was then first that the points connected with the permanent obligation of the Fourth Commandment came to be fully discussed in the churches of the Reformation. And if certain mistakes in the way of handling the matter appeared in the writings of the earlier divines, we may be the lees surprised, when we know the comparatively small share it had in their inquiries and meditations.1

Sifting Through Papal Superstition

But if we further take into account the circumstances in which they were placed, we shall be still less surprised at the particular error they adopted; for these naturally gave their minds the bias which led them to embrace it. The gigantic system of heresy and corruption against which they had to contend, was chiefly distinguished by the multitude of its superstitious rites and ceremonies, and the substitution of an outward attendance upon these for a simple faith in Christ, as the ground of men’s acceptance before God. This false method of salvation by works had branched itself out into so many ramifications, and had taken such a powerful hold of the minds of men, that the Reformers were in a manner constrained to speak of all outward observances as in themselves worthless, and not properly required to the salvation of sinners. They represented, in the strongest terms, the inward nature of the kingdom of God, its independence of things in themselves, outward and ceremonial, so that no bodily service, merely as such, was incumbent upon Christians as it had been in Judaism, but was only to be used as a help for ministering to, or an occasion for exercising, the graces of a Christian life.

Hence, in the Augsburg Confession, difference of days and distinctions of food are classed together, as things about which so many false opinions had gathered, that “though in themselves indifferent, they had become no longer so.” And the false opinions are particularly specified to be such as tended to produce the conviction, that people thought themselves entitled by those corporeal satisfactions to deserve the remission of their sins. Melancthon, in his defense of that Confession, arguing against the idea so prevalent regarding the Church and her external ceremonies, affirms that “the apostles did not wish us to consider such rites as necessary to our justification before God. They did not wish to impose any burden of that kind upon our consciences; did not wish that righteousness and sin should be placed in the observance of days, of food, and such things. Nay, Paul declares opinions of such a kind to be doctrines of devils.” In like manner, Calvin, in his remarks upon the Fourth Commandment, contained in his Institutes, says that as the Jewish Sabbath was but a shadow of Christ, “there ought to be amongst Christians no superstitious observance of days:” and that to regard the sanctification of every seventh, though not precisely the last, day of the week, as the moral part of the Fourth Commandment, was “only to change the day in despite of the Jews, and at the same time to keep up in the mind the conviction of its sanctity.

Quotations of a like import might be multiplied almost indefinitely; but there can be no need for it, as all who are even moderately acquainted with the times and writings of the Reformers must know, that from the circumstances in which they were placed, and the peculiar nature of the warfare they were called to wage, such expressions regarding outward ceremonies in general, and the sanctification of the Lord’s day in particular, are both of frequent occurrence and easily accounted for. At the same time, though such expressions unquestionably involve a doctrinal error, so far as the Lord’s day at least is concerned, no one really acquainted with the spirit of their writings can need to be told that it is the mere opus operatum (i.e. the outward service alone) that is there spoken of. Nothing more, after all, is meant, than that the kingdom of God is not meat and drink,—that there is no essential inherent sanctity in the days and observances considered by themselves, as apart from the way in which they are used, and the ends for which they are appointed. That the Reformers did not mean the statements referred to, to be taken in the most unqualified sense, is evident alone from their views of the primeval Sabbath. They held, we believe, without any exception worth naming, that the weekly Sabbath appointed at the creation had a universal aspect, and has a descending obligation to future times. We have already given the judgment of Calvin, and also of Luther, on this subject.

The Fourth Commandment and the Law of Nature

Beza was of the same mind, as will appear from a quotation to be produced shortly. So also Peter Martyr, who, in his Loci Com., says,—”God could indeed have appointed all or many days for His own worship; but since He knew that we were doomed to eat our bread by the sweat of our face, He rested one in seven, on which, discarding other works, we should apply to that alone.” And Bullinger, who says on Matt. 12,—”Sabbath signifies rest, and is taken for that day which was consecrated to rest. But the observance of that rest was always famous and of highest antiquity, not invented and brought forth for the first time by Moses when he introduced the law; for in the Decalogue it is said, ‘Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy,’ thereby admonishing them that it was of ancient institution.” And to pass over many of the learned writers, from whom similar extracts might be taken, we conclude with the testimony of Pareus, who, though not properly a Reformer, was yet the disciple of the Reformers, and who, in his commentary on Gen. 2:3, says,

“It pertains to us to keep holy the day sanctified by God, by imitating His rest. To imitate the rest of God is not to be idle, to do nothing, for God was not idle, nor did He bless idleness; neither is it to feign that a sanctity was impressed upon that day (as hypocrites do, who make an idol of the Sabbath); but it is, according to God’s example, to cease from our works, that is, from sins, which properly are our works, tending most of all to desecrate the Sabbath, and from the labours of this life, to which the six days are destined. It is, further, to apply the Sabbath to Divine worship, by teaching, hearing, meditating, doing those things which pertain to the true knowledge and worship of God, to the love of our neighbour, and our own salvation. Such sanctification is suitable every day; for in blessing the seventh day, God did not curse other days; but the sanctification was, by way of distinction, pronounced upon that day, on which no other labours were to entangle us.”

It is evident, that with such views regarding the original appointment and descending obligation of a weekly Sabbath, the Reformers could only have disowned the duty of keeping a Christian Sabbath by being inconsistent with themselves, and could only have denied the abiding obligation of the Fourth Commandment by holding some peculiar notions (different from those now generally entertained) respecting the import of that commandment. We believe that they were at one in holding the Decalogue to be the revelation of the moral law, and as such, therefore, binding in all its precepts upon men of every age and condition of life. As a specimen, we may take what Melancthon says of it in the introduction to his treatise on the Decalogue, contained in vol. 2. of his works, which he begins with these words: “It is necessary to retain the usual division; the principal part of the law is called the moral, which is the Decalogue rightly understood.” Then, shortly after, describing this Decalogue, as a whole, he says,—

“THE MORAL LAW is the eternal and unchangeable wisdom that is in God, and a rule of life, distinguishing what is right from what is wrong, commanding the one, and with severe indignation forbidding the other, the knowledge of which was in creation implanted in rational creatures, and afterwards often repeated, and by Divine voice proclaimed, that men might know that God is, and what He is, and that He is a Judge who obliges all His rational creatures to be conformed to Himself, to yield our obedience entirely accordant with His law, and accusing and destroying all that are not possessed of this conformity.”

In like manner, Calvin, in his Institutes, heads the chapter which treats of the Decalogue, “An explanation of the Moral Law,” describes it as “the rule of perfect righteousness,” and gives it as the reason why God has set up this law in writing before us, “both that it might testify with more certainty what in the law of nature was too obscure, and might more vividly, as by a palpable form, strike our mind and memory.

Inconsistency Worked Out Over Time in the Reformation

Regarding the Decalogue in this light, the Reformers plainly ought to have considered the Fourth Commandment, as well as the others, of universal and permanent obligation. And yet it is certain they did not. They laid down right premises on the subject, while, by some strange over sight or misapprehension, they failed to draw the conclusion these inevitably lead to. It was the unanimous opinion of those divines, that the rest enjoined in the Fourth Commandment was of a ceremonial and typical nature,—that, as Luther expresses himself, “it was entirely outward,” and as such, therefore, consummated and done away in Christ.

Even Alting could not get rid of this view of the matter, and consequently feels himself necessitated to maintain the extreme position, that man was not only made, but also sinned and fell on the sixth day, and that the rest of the Sabbath having been brought in subsequent to the fall, was even, in its first observance, a type of redemption. By such a position, though too improbable to be generally received, he of course vindicated his consistence, in regard to the rest of the Sabbath, as being from the first of a typical nature. The Reformers, however, cannot receive the benefit of the same vindication, not having broached the opinion that the original institution of the Sabbath was subsequent to the fall. The inconsistence probably never struck them, from the subject having occupied so comparatively small a share of their attention. And what seems more than anything else to have misled them, was the passage in Colossians, where, “Sabbath days” are classed by the Apostle among the things which were shadows of Gospel truth, and hence done away when Christ, the substance, came. They constantly bring forward this passage when speaking of the ceremonial and typical nature of the Jewish Sabbath.

But how did they reconcile to their own minds the manifest inconsistence of at once holding the Fourth Commandment to be of moral and perpetual obligation, and, at the same time, of considering the sacred rest imposed in that commandment as of a ceremonial nature, and only of temporary obligation?

Sabbath Partly Ceremonial and Partly Moral – Which Parts?

There was here a real difficulty in the way; and though we find some variety in their endeavours to get rid of it, yet they all concurred in introducing into this part of the Decalogue the distinction—at variance as it was with the general view they entertained of that code of precepts—that the precept was partly ceremonial and partly moral. It was ceremonial, as interdicting all servile work, and enjoining a day of outward unbroken rest,—thus typifying the peaceful and blessed rest which believers enjoy in Christ; free alike from the labours of sin and the fears of guilt.

But did the typical stand in that day of rest being simply one in every seven, or in its being precisely the seventh and last of the ever-returning cycle? Here we find great diversity of opinion.

And did the moral stand in the appointment of one day in every seven, though not precisely the last in order, as a day of bodily rest and spiritual employment, or more generally, in its requiring adequate and proper times to be set apart for these merciful and holy purposes? Here also no less diversity.

Some of the Reformers descended so little into particulars, that we cannot, for certain, know what opinion they held on these points. For example, Melancthon, in his Loci Theol., and in his treatise, De Lege Divina (using almost the same words), writes thus:—”In this commandment there are properly said to be two parts—the one natural, the other moral; the one the genus, the other the species. Of the former it is said, that the natural part or genus is perpetual, and cannot be abrogated, as being a command concerning the maintenance of the public ministry, so that on some one day the people should be taught, and divinely appointed ceremonies handled. But the species, which bears respect to the seventh day in particular, is abrogated.” He carefully avoids saying whether he looked upon the abolition as standing in the change of the day from the seventh to some other; and also, whether the morality of the commandment required the day preserved to be some one day in every week. His language does not necessarily imply any positive decision on these points, although the natural inference is, that by the day still to be observed for pious purposes, he meant one day in each week; and by the abrogation of the species, the mere removal of that day from the last to another day of the week, the first.

One Day in Seven Set Apart For Worship and Rest

1. The Lord’s Day Kept by Tradition

The opinions of the reformed divines, however, are generally expressed with sufficient distinctness upon the points in question; and they divide themselves into two leading classes. One class, with Calvin at their head, maintained that the typical mystery of the sabbatical rest stood not simply in its being held on the seventh or last day, but in that along with the other six preceding days of work—in the number seven viewed as one whole, and terminating in the most strict and rigorous cessation from all labour; hence the removal of the day from the last to the first of the week, if the day itself was still viewed in precisely the same character, did not essentially alter the nature of the institution: the number seven was still preserved, and if viewed in the same light, and in all its parts held equally binding as before, the Jewish ordinance, in their estimation, was substantially retained. Considering the sabbatical rest, therefore, of every seventh day as a shadow of Gospel realities, they conceived that the moral obligation couched under the figure could be carried no further than to impose the necessity of setting apart such times as might be sufficient to maintain the worship of God; but that it did not strictly bind Christians to confine themselves to one day in seven, as if to take more would be to err in excess, or to take fewer would be to err by deficiency. The exact length of the period which was to separate one day of rest from another, under the Christian dispensation, they held should be determined by other considerations. But did they, therefore, question that that should be one in seven? Not in the least, for there were considerations enough besides to fix that as the proper rotation.

Gomar, indeed, says that days for the solemn worship and service of God ought to be more frequent now than under the Jewish dispensation; and he gives us to understand, that to impress this upon the minds of Christians, was one of his reasons for undertaking to show the abrogation of the Jewish seventh-day Sabbath: for God, he contends in sec. 5th, imposes only one day in seven upon the Jews, because they were a carnal and stiff-necked people, and were burdened with many heavy ceremonies; and hence arises a clear obligation, in the altered and improved circumstances of Christians, to have, when they can, more frequent days of sacred rest for the worship of God. Gomar, therefore, held the propriety, and even the obligation, if circumstances permitted, to have a more frequent than a seventh-day sabbath.

But he seems to stand alone in connecting such an obligation with the Fourth Commandment. The Reformers, at any rate, appear to have had no doubt that the day to be observed for holy purposes was to be one in each week, not excepting those of them who took the most general view of the moral obligation imposed in the Fourth Commandment, feeling themselves drawn to that conclusion by a regard to the other purposes for which it was given, as well as from the primeval character of the ordinance, and the recorded procedure of the Apostolic Church in keeping the first day of the week.

Luther, in his German annotations on the Fourth Commandment, says,—”Although the Sabbath is now abolished, and the conscience is freed from it, it is still good, and even necessary, that men should keep a particular day in the week for the sake of the word of God, on which they are to meditate, hear, and learn, for all cannot command everyday; and nature also requires that one day in the week should be kept quiet, without labour either for man or beast.” In like manner, in his Larger Catechism, after stating that the worship of God is “not now bound to certain times, as it was among the Jews, as if this day or that were to be preferred for such a purpose, for no day is better or more excellent than another,” he goes on to remark, that “since the mass of men cannot attend on it every day, from the entanglements of business, some one day, at the least, in the week must be chosen for giving heed to that matter,“—mentioning the example set by the Apostolic Church in choosing the first day of the week as what ought to determine the Church in succeeding times.

Calvin is, if possible, still more decided; for he holds, that even as imposed upon the children of Israel in the Fourth Commandment, the Sabbath was designed not merely to prefigure spiritual rest, but also to afford an opportunity for engaging in religious exercises, and for a respite from labour to the humbler classes of society. And, “since these two latter reasons,” he remarks in his Institutes, “ought not to be numbered amongst the ancient shadows, but alike concern all ages, although the Sabbath is abolished, it yet has that place among us, that on stated days we meet for hearing the word of God, for partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and for public prayers; also that servants and work-people may have a respite from labour.” And a little afterwards, more expressly, bespeaks of “the Apostle having retained the Sabbath” for the poor of the Christian community, so far keeping up the distinction of days, and of the danger of superstition being almost taken away by the substitution of another day of the week for religious purposes, instead of that which the Jews held to be peculiarly sacred.

The Lord’s Day Kept by Divine Right

There was, however, another class of opinions, or rather of divines holding the opinion, that the sabbatical rest, as enjoined upon the Jews in the Fourth Commandment, was indeed typical of the spiritual rest of the Gospel, but that the mystery or type existed in the day of rest being precisely the seventh or last day of the week—that the moral obligation contained in the precept for all times and ages, was its imposing the duty of hallowing one day in seven,—and that, consequently, by changing the day from the last to the first, which was done by the apostles under the direction of the Holy Spirit, the moral part of the commandment was retained in full force, while the Jewish mystery necessarily ceased.

This more correct opinion was, I should say, more generally adopted by the earlier divines after the Reformation, than the one just considered. Beza may first be mentioned, who thus writes on Rev. 1:10:

“He calls that day the Lord’s, which Paul names the first of the week (μία σαββάτων), 1 Cor. 16:2, on which day it appears that even then the Christians were accustomed to hold their own regular meetings, as the Jews were wont to meet in the synagogue on the Sabbath, for the purpose of showing that the Fourth Commandment, concerning the sanctification of every seventh day, was ceremonial, as far as it respected the particular day of rest and the legal services, but that, as regards the worship of God, it was a precept of the moral law, which is perpetual and unchanging during the present life. That day of rest had stood, indeed, from the creation of the world to the resurrection of our Lord, which being as another creation of a new spiritual world (according to the language of the prophets), was made the occasion (the Holy Spirit, beyond doubt, directing the apostles) for assuming, instead of the Sabbath of the former age, or the seventh day, the first day of this world, on which, not the corporeal and corruptible light created on the first day of the old world, but this heavenly and eternal light, hath shone upon us. Therefore the assemblies of the Lord’s day are of apostolical and truly divine tradition; yet so that a Jewish cessation from all work should not be observed, since this would manifestly be not to abolish Judaism, but only to change what respected the particular day. This, however, was afterwards introduced by Constantine, as appears from Eusebius and the laws of the emperor, and was afterwards, by succeeding emperors, restrained within still narrower bounds: till at length, what was first instituted for a good purpose, and is still properly retained, namely, that the mind, freed from its daily labours, should give it itself wholly up to the hearing of the word of God,—came to degenerate into mere Judaism, or rather the most vain will-worship, innumerable other holy-days having been added to it [by the Papal Church].”

This passage puts it beyond a doubt that, according to Beza, the ceremonial part of the Fourth Commandment consisted only in the particular day, and the bodily rest, and that the moral part required still one day in seven to be set apart for the worship of God. What he says of the manner in which the rest should now be observed, will fall to be noticed under the next head. Peter Martyr expresses the same opinion in his Loci Communes, under the Fourth Commandment, remarking, that

“as in other ceremonies there is something abiding and eternal, and something changeable and temporal (as in circumcision and baptism, it is perpetual that they who belong to the covenant of God, and are admitted among His people, should be distinguished by some outward sign), the kind of sign was changeable and temporary; for that it might be done, either by the cutting off of the fore skin, or by the washing with water, God manifested by His appointment. In like manner, that one fixed day in seven should be set free (mancipetur) for the worship of God, is fixed and determined; but whether this or that day should be appointed, is temporary and changeable.”

To the same effect also, Ursinus, the friend of Melancthon, in his Catechism,—”That the first part of the command (that, namely, which enjoins the keeping holy of a seventh-day Sabbath) is moral and perpetual, appears from the end of the institution, and the reasons assigned for it, which are perpetual.” Then, mentioning these, he concludes, that as “they relate to no definite period, but to all times and ages of the world, it follows that God wished to bind men from the beginning of the world even to its end, to keep a certain Sabbath.” And again:

“Though the ceremonial Sabbath is abrogated in the New Testament, a moral Sabbath still remains, and itself therefore a kind of ceremonial Sabbath, i.e., some regular time must be set apart for the ministry. For it is not less needful now in the Christian than it was formerly in the Jewish Church, that there be some fixed day on which the word of God may be taught, and the sacraments publicly administered, which, however, we are not strictly bound to make either the third, fourth, fifth, or any other determinate day of the week.”

He evidently means that, so far as the morality of the Fourth Commandment is concerned, it simply obliges us to one day in the seven. It is almost unnecessary to mention the names of more who adhered to this opinion. We may just add, that it seems to have been that of Bucer, and of Viret, the colleague of Calvin; that it was the opinion of Pareus is certain, as it seems also to have been that of the Synod of Dort, if we may judge from what may be regarded as the natural import of their resolutions; and both Walaeus and Altingius have not only affirmed it as their opinion, but are at considerable pains to prove that the very substance of the Fourth Commandment is its requiring the sanctifying of one day in seven for the service of God,—that unless it included an obligation to this, there could be no proper meaning in the express mention of six days as the appointed period of weekly labour, continually succeeded by another of rest, and no force in the appeal to God’s example and work in creation,—and consequently, that while the moral requires the observance of one day in seven, the ceremonial ceased when the change took place from the last to the first day of the week.

Mosaic Rigor and the Prohibition of Work Rightly Understood

There is still another point, on which it is of importance to give a correct exhibition of the views of the Reformers, viz., in regard to the due observance of the Lord’s day, the Christian Sabbath. Here it is necessary to premise at the outset, what must have occasionally struck those who have read the preceding quotations, that some of the reformed divines looked upon the cessation from work on Sabbath as more strictly and absolutely required of the Jews than is now binding on Christians, and that the entireness of the prohibition in that respect was essential to the mystery wrapt up in the Sabbath. In proof of this they generally refer to such passages as Exodus 16:23, 35:3, which they understand as prohibiting all preparation of food even on Sabbath.

Altingius has endeavoured to show, and I think with perfect success, that such was not really the meaning of those passages, and that such works as were necessary for the ordinary support and refreshment of the body were always permitted, and practiced too, among the Jews. We have already discussed this point, however, and shall not further refer to it here. But the Reformers undoubtedly did believe that a degree of rigour, an extent of prohibition, belonged to the Jewish Sabbath, for which we find no proper warrant in Scripture; and well knowing, from New Testament Scripture, that no such yoke was laid upon the Christian Church, they naturally drew the equally unwarranted conclusion, that the strictness of prohibition as to the performance of works requiring labour was somewhat relaxed. In using such language, they still did not mean that ordinary works might be performed on any plea of worldly convenience or pleasure, but such only as were performed by our Lord,—works required for the necessary support or the comfort of men, and some of which at least they conceived to have been interdicted to the Jews, for the purpose of rendering their sabbatical rest more exactly typical of the spiritual rest enjoyed by believers in Christ.

Calvin on Mosaic Rigor and the Prohibition of Work on the Sabbath

For the proof of this we can appeal to a case which will put the matter, in regard to one great man at least, beyond a doubt,—we mean the venerable Calvin. During his lifetime a book was published by some Dutchman, in which the lawfulness of images in Divine worship, to a certain extent, was maintained on the following ground:

—That though all use of images, and consequently all kinds of image-worship, were prohibited in the Second Commandment, yet this was not to be understood too rigorously; for we have the same exclusive prohibition of all work on Sabbath in the Fourth Commandment, and yet we know that Christ both did and allowed certain kinds of work on that day: so that either He must be held to have violated the Sabbath, or the commandment must be regarded as less strict in its prohibitions of work than the plain import of its words would lead us to suppose,—an alternative, he contended, which would render it equally consistent with the purport of the Second Commandment to make some use of images in the worship of God.

Calvin wrote a reply to this treatise, which is contained in vol. 8 of the Amsterdam edition of his works. We quote only that part of it which bears upon our present subject. At p. 486 he says,

“They who profess Christianity have always understood that the obligation by which the Jews were bound to observe the Sabbath-day was temporary. But it is quite otherwise in regard to idolatry. I grant it, indeed (that is, the Sabbath), as the bark of a spiritual substance, the use of which is still in force, of denying ourselves, of renouncing all our own thoughts and affections, and of bidding farewell to one and all of our own employments (operibus nostris universis valedicendi), so that God may reign in us, then of employing ourselves in the worship of God, learning from His word, in which is to be found our salvation, and of meeting together for making public profession of our faith,—all which differ from the Jewish shadows; for it was so servile a yoke to the Jews, that they were bound on one day of each week to abstain from all work, so that it was even a capital offence to gather wood or bear any burden.”

And then he goes on to defend Jesus from the charge of having broken the Fourth Commandment by performing works of healing on the Sabbath, on the ground that such works did not fall within the prohibition,—that they were properly God’s works, and in no age, on no occasion, were unseasonable or improper.

It is singular that this great man did not here perceive the full force of his own argument, and is another proof that the subject had not, in all its bearings, been fully weighed by his masterly mind. For the same argument which he applied to the defence of Christ in the liberties He personally took with the sabbatical rest, would, if properly carried out, have equally availed to show that the Sabbath, as imposed upon the Jews, was not the servile yoke it is here represented; that all work was not absolutely forbidden to them on that day,—not simply the engaging in any worldly employment, or the bearing of any burden, for whatever purpose, but only such as was done in the way of ordinary traffic or worldly business,—for purposes merely of temporal profit or carnal pleasure, not immediately called for by any proper plea of necessity or mercy.

It is strange also that Calvin, and many of the other Reformers, should have spoken so often of the Sabbath enjoined in the Fourth Commandment, as if it had been an ordinance of mere bodily rest. They did not so interpret the other commandments. They did not make the fulfilment of the second to stand in the mere rejection of idolatry, nor that of the sixth in the simple withholding of the hand from murder; and why should they ever have thought or spoken as if the fourth only enjoined a day of outward rest, and not that rather as a means for the higher end of sanctification?

But with such mistakes regarding the Jewish Sabbath, properly considered, the above passage from Calvin gives us very distinctly to understand how he conceived the ordinance of the Sabbath, as still binding on the Church, should be observed; that though the obligation was not the same in his judgment as in the Jewish Church, yet so much was it to be made a day of spiritual and sacred rest, that not only is it to be hallowed by the denying and crucifying of our sinful affections, but also by taking a solemn leave of our own, that is, undoubtedly, our common worldly occupations, and employing ourselves in the public and private exercises of God’s worship. The distinction, as he regarded it, between the Jewish and the Christian Sabbath, was not that the latter did, while the other did not admit, of manual labour or worldly employments, without any urgent plea of necessity or mercy, but that the Jewish Sabbath so rigorously enforced the outward rest, as to prevent things being done which were necessary to the ordinary comfort, or conducive to the higher interests of man. He held the obligation still in force to keep the Sabbath, as a day set apart for the peculiar worship and service of God, liable to be interrupted only by doing what might be required for the relief of our present wants, or by labours of love for our fellow-creatures.

Further Proof of Calvin’s View

At the risk of being tedious, and for the sake of removing all possible doubt about the real sentiments of Calvin concerning the way in which the Christian Sabbath ought to be spent, we produce other two extracts from his works,—passages found in his discourses (in French) to the people of Geneva on the Ten Commandments. The fifth and sixth of these treat of the Sabbath. And in the fifth, after having stated his views regarding the Sabbath as a typical mystery, in which respect he conceived it to be abolished, he comes to show how far it was still binding, and declares that, as an ordinance of government for the worship and service of God, it pertains to us as well as to the Jews.

“The Sabbath, then, should be to us a tower whereon we should mount aloft to contemplate afar the works of God, when we are not occupied nor hindered by anything besides, from stretching forth all our faculties in considering the gifts and graces which He has bestowed on us. And if we properly apply ourselves to do this on the Sabbath, it is certain that we shall be no strangers to it during the rest of our time, and that this meditation shall have so formed our minds, that on Monday, and the other days of the week, we shall abide in the grateful remembrance of our God,” etc.


“It is for us to dedicate ourselves wholly to God, renouncing ourselves, our feelings, and all our affections; and then, since we have this external ordinance, to act as becomes us, that is, to lay aside our earthly affairs and occupations, so that we may be entirely free (vaquions du tout) to meditate the works of God, may exercise ourselves in considering the gifts which He has afforded us, and, above all, may apply ourselves to apprehend the grace which He daily offers us in His Gospel, and may be more and more conformed to it. And when we shall have employed the Sabbath in praising and magnifying the name of God, and meditating His works, we must, through the rest of the week, show how we have profited thereby.”

It is only necessary to bear in mind the explanation already given regarding the sentiments generally entertained by the Reformers of the Jewish Sabbath, to see that Beza, in his remarks on Rev. 1:2, is of the same mind with Calvin, as to the exclusion of worldly employments from the proper observance of the Lord’s day. When he speaks there of a Jewish cessation from all work not being now imperative, he evidently means in the sense already explained—the mistaken sense, as we have endeavoured to show; for he not only affirms that the sanctification of the seventh day was a part of the moral law, as regards the worship of God, ceremonial only in so far as it respected the particular day and the legal services, but also expresses it as proper, on that day, for the mind to be freed from its daily labours, that it may give itself wholly up to the hearing of the word of God.

Pierre Viret, Six Days for Doing Our Own Business, One Reserved for God

Viret, another of Calvin’s colleagues, entirely concurred with him regarding the due sanctification of the Lord’s day, his discourse on the Fourth Commandment is abundant evidence. For he thus expresses himself there:—

“Since we have from God everything we possess, soul, body, and outward estate, we ought never to do anything else all our lives, than what He requires and demands of us for the true and entire sanctification of the day of rest. Nevertheless, we see that He assigns and permits us six days for doing our own business, and of the seven He reserves for Himself only one—as if He had contented Himself with the seventh part of the time which was specially given up and consecrated to Him, and that all the rest was to be ours. . . . . What ingratitude is it, if, in yielding us six parts of the seven, which we owe Him, we do not at the least strive with all our power to surrender the other part, which He exacts of us, as a token of our fidelity and homage!”

Then, in reference to the objection that it seemed to follow from his views of the Sabbath, that after the public duties were over men might spend the remaining hours of the day in other occupations, he replies,—

“Since we are permitted all other days of the week excepting this for attending to our bodily concerns, it seems to me that we hold very cheap the service of God and the ministry of the Church, on which we ought to wait more diligently on that day than any other, if we cannot find means for employing one whole day of the week in things which God requires of us upon it. For they are of such weight, and consequence that we must take care, in every manner possible, lest we occupy ourselves with anything which might turn our attention elsewhere; so that we may not bring our hearts by halves, but that ourselves and all our family may without detraction apply,” etc.

Martin Bucer, One Day Out of Seven

Bucer, the friend both of Luther and Calvin, expresses sentiments quite similar in the fifteenth chapter of his work on the kingdom of Christ:

“Since our God, with singular goodness towards us, has sanctified one day out of seven, for the quickening of our faith, and so of life eternal, and blessed that day, that the sacred exercises of religion performed on it might be effectual to the promoting of our salvation, he verily shows himself to be a wretched despiser, at once of his own salvation and of the wonderful kindness of our God towards us, and therefore utterly unworthy of living among the people of God, who does not study to sanctify that day to the glorifying of his God, and the furthering of his own salvation, especially since God has granted six days for our works and employments, by which we may support a present life to His glory.”

Then, in reference to the neglect of daily worship, through the carelessness of some and the impediments in the way of others, he asks,

“Who, therefore, does not see how advantageous it is to the people of Christ, that one day in seven should be so consecrated to the exercises of religion, that it is not lawful to do any other kind of work than assemble in the sacred meeting, and there hear the word of God, pour out prayers before God, make profession of faith, and give thanks to God, present sacred offerings, and receive divine sacraments, and so, with undivided application, glorify God, and make increase in faith? For these are the true works of religious holy-days.”

And he goes on to mention, with satisfaction, the laws made by Constantine, and other emperors, to prohibit by penalties the transaction of ordinary business, the exhibition of spectacles, and such things, on the Lord’s day.

Wordly Occupations Excluded

It is abundantly obvious, from the quotations already given, that the Reformers, from whom they are taken, inculcated the duty of keeping the Lord’s day not in part merely, but as a day of spiritual rest and sacred employment; and of doing this, first of all, by ceasing from all ordinary labours and occupations, in so far as the claims of necessity might permit; then, by giving attendance upon the means of grace in public; and finally, by ordering our thoughts and behaviour during the other parts of the day, so as still to make it available to our spiritual improvement.

The more express and definite statements contained in these quotations prove, that though frequently in the writings of the Reformers the duties proper to the observance of the Lord’s day are spoken of in a general way, as consisting in doing what pertains to the preservation and improvement of the public ministry, they did not, by so speaking, mean to intimate, that, excepting what was spent at church, the time might be taken up in any worldly business or recreation. They are most pointed in excluding all worldly occupations whatever, the proper work of the six days, whether done for profit or for pleasure. And in dwelling so specially as they sometimes do upon the public ministry, it was not as if they slighted the more private and family duties—for these, we see, they also enforced—but only because they regarded them as in a manner bound up with a faithful attendance upon the public services of religion. For the school of Geneva, in particular, as it existed under the teaching of Calvin, Viret, and Beza, nothing can be more satisfactory than the manner in which they practically inculcated the devout and solemn observance of the Lord’s day; and that their own practice, and their general doctrine upon the subject, was in perfect accordance with the extracts that have been produced, we have a striking proof in the taunt which Calvin, in his Institutes, says was thrown out against them by some restless spirits, as he calls them (probably the libertine Anabaptists), “that the Christian people were nursed in Judaism,” because they keep the Lord’s day. The very accusation bespeaks how strict was the enforcement of that day, and how orderly its observance at Geneva during the ascendancy of those great men.

Pharisaic Tradition vs. the Word of God: Mishnaic Judaism Mistakenly Read into Sabbath Keeping

In reality, the observance of the Lord’s day practiced at Geneva, and enforced by Calvin and the other Reformers, differed very materially from the Judaical observance, according to the notions of the later Jews; and it was, no doubt, partly their regard to these notions, which led the Reformers astray as to their ideas of the import of the Fourth Commandment. They suffered themselves to be unduly biased by the maxims and the legislation of the synagogue on the subject, as if these were properly grounded in the Divine command, and not rather the turning of its benignant spirit into an oppressive and irksome yoke.

How much they made it of this description, and how justly the Reformers might speak of our being delivered from the Jewish yoke, in the sense now mentioned, may be seen by looking into that portion of the Mishna which treats of the Sabbath. There, the securing of a merely outward, corporeal rest, as opposed to labour or work, is treated as the whole object of the command; and a yoke of numberless restrictions and prohibitions is imposed, for the purpose of determining what is work and what is not, with reference to the law of the Sabbath.

As specimens of the vexatious trifling to which this Rabbinical legislation has descended, the following may be taken. The question is asked, With what species of wick the lamps may be lighted on the Sabbath, and with what not? And as many as fourteen substances are specified which might not be used, and about half as many which might.

“He that extinguishes the lamp, because he is afraid of heathen, of robbers, of an evil spirit, or that the sick may sleep, is absolved; but if to save his lamp, oil, or wick, he is guilty.”

“The tailor must not go out with his needle near dusk [on the Sabbath eve], lest he forget and carry it out with him [after the Sabbath has begun]. The scribe is not to go out with his writing-reed; nor must a man cleanse his garments of vermin, or read by candle-light.”

“An egg must not be put at the side of a hot kettle, that it become seethed, nor must it be wrapt in hot cloths, nor must it be put into hot sand or dust, that it be roasted.”

“Into a pot or kettle, which has been moved from the fire boiling, a man must not put spice; but he may do so in a dish or on a plate.”

“If a man carries a loaf into the public reshuth, he is guilty; if two carry it they are absolved [namely, because in the one case a man does a complete work, but in the other not].”

“He who pairs his nails, or who pulls the hair out of his head, or off his lip, or out of his beard; likewise a woman who plaits her hair, or dyes her eyebrows, or who parts the hair on her forehead; the sages prohibit all these, on the score of their violating the Sabbath rest.”

Thus the subject is prosecuted through twenty-four chapters, setting forth all manner of frivolous distinctions for the purpose of deciding what is work and what not, and, by consequence, what may and what may not be done on the Sabbath.

Had this miserable and petty legislation really been warranted by the Fourth Commandment, we need not say it had been utterly at variance with the spirit of the Gospel; since it would place the most selfish and inactive formalist in the highest rank of observers of the Divine law. But a Sabbath observance made up of such external punctilios never was required by God: it is the ignorance and folly of the Rabbinical Jews, as of modern Anti-Sabbatarians, to suppose that it was; and it was in some degree, also the mistake of the Reformers, to think that the command, as imposed upon the Jews, gave a certain countenance to the error. The kind of observance really required by the Divine precept was of a far higher kind; and it is that which the better part of the Reformers in past times, as well as evangelical Christians in the present, hold to be matter of abiding obligation.

Early Reformers Inarticulate, but Harmonious with Second Reformation Articulation of the Sabbath

It appears, then, upon a full and careful examination of the whole matter, that the Reformers and the most eminent divines, for about a century after the Reformation, were substantially sound upon the question of the Sabbath, in so far as concerns the obligation and practice of Christians. Amid some mistaken and inconsistent representations, they still, for the most part, held that the Fourth Commandment strictly and morally binds men in every age to set apart one whole day in seven for the worship and service of God. They all held the institution of the Sabbath at the creation of the world, and derived thence the obligation upon men of all times to cease every seventh day from their own works and occupations. Finally, they held it to be the duty of all sound Christians to use the Lord’s day as a Sabbath of rest to Him,—withdrawing themselves not only from sin and vanity, but also from those worldly employments and recreations which belong only to a present life, and yielding themselves wholly to the public exercises of God’s worship and to the private duties of devotion, excepting only in so far as any urgent call of necessity or mercy might come in the way to interrupt them.

We avow this to be a fair and faithful representation of the sentiments of those men upon the subject, after a patient consideration of what they have written concerning it. We trust we have furnished materials enough from their writings, for enabling our readers to concur intelligently in that representation. They will see that the summary given by Gualter of their views2 is greatly nearer the mark than the one-sided representation of Hengstenberg. And they will henceforth know how to estimate the assertions of those who, after dancing into the works of the Reformers, and picking up a few partial and disjointed statements, presently set themselves forth as well acquainted with the whole subject, and as fully entitled to say that the Reformers agree with them in holding men at liberty, after they may have been at church, to work, or travel, or enjoy themselves as they please, on other parts of the Sabbath. Such persons may be honest in representing this as the mind of the Reformers, but it must not be forgotten that their credit for honesty in the matter rests upon no better ground than that of ignorance and presumption.

Inconsistency Led to Misunderstanding and Sabbath Desecration

It were wrong to bring our remarks on this subject to a close without pointing to the important lesson furnished, both to private Christians and to the Church at large, by the melancholy consequences which soon manifested themselves as the fruit of that one doctrinal error into which the Reformers did certainly fall regarding the Sabbath. For, though there was much in their circumstances to account for their falling into it, and though it left untouched, in their opinion, the obligation resting on all Christians to keep the day of weekly rest holy to the Lord,—yea, though some of them seemed to think that one day in seven was scarcely enough for such a purpose, yet their view about the Sabbath of the Fourth Commandment, as a Jewish ordinance, told most unfavourably upon the interests of religion on the Continent. There can be little doubt that this was the evil root from which chiefly sprung, so soon afterwards, such a mass of Sabbath desecration, and which has rendered it so difficult ever since to restore the day of God to its proper place in the feelings and observances of the people.

It was well enough so long as men of such zeal and piety as the Reformers kept the helm of affairs—their lofty principles, and holy lives, and self-denying labours, rendered their error meanwhile comparatively innoxious. But a colder age both for ministers and people succeeded; when men came to have so little relish for the service of God, and were so much less disposed to be influenced by the privileges of grace than to be awed by the commands and terrors of law, that the loss of the Fourth Commandment, which may be said to be the only express and formal revelation of law upon the subject, was found to be irreparable.

The other considerations which were sufficient to move such men of faith and piety as the Reformers, fell comparatively powerless upon those who wanted their spiritual life. Strict and positive law was what they needed to restrain them, which being now in a manner removed, the religious observance of the day of God no longer pressed upon them as a matter of conscience. The evil once begun, proceeded rapidly from bad to worse, till it scarcely left in many places so much as the form of religion.

No doubt many other causes were at work in bringing about so disastrous a result, but much was certainly owing to the error under consideration. And it reads a solemn and impressive warning to both ministers and people, not only to resist any improper encroachments upon the sanctity of the Lord’s day, but also to beware of weakening any of the foundations on which the obligation to keep that day is made to rest; and in this as well as in other things, to pray with heighten, that they may “be saved from the errors of wise men, yea, and of good men.

[1] For a full, interesting, and impartial account of the controversies waged in Holland, and also in this country, during the seventeenth century, see the excellent work on the Sabbath by the Rev. James Gilfillan, published since this Appendix was written.

See also Calvin in the Hands of the Philistines: Or Did Calvin Bowl on the Sabbath? by Chris Coldwell.

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[2] “The Sabbath properly signifies rest and leisure from servile work, and at the same time is used to denote the seventh day, which God at the beginning of the world consecrated to holy rest, and afterwards in the law confirmed by a special precept. And although the primitive Church abrogated the Sabbath, in so far as it was a legal shadow, lest it should savour of Judaism; yet it did not abolish that sacred rest and repose, but transferred the keeping of it to the following day, which was called the Lord’s day, because on it Christ rose from the dead. The use of this day, therefore, is the same with what the Sabbath formerly was among the true worshipers of God.

Only, the particular way, or kind of service, in which it is now to be turned to this sacred use, is different from what it was in Judaism; and he goes on to describe how the Reformers thought the day should be spent, viz., in a total withdrawing from worldly cares and pleasures, as far as practicable, and employing the time in the public and private exercises of worship.

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See also The Synod of Dort’s Deliverance on the Sabbath by the Reformed Forum

Are There Two Distinct Reformed Views Of The Sabbath? Does The Continental View Really Exist? by R. Scott Clark

The Perpetuity and Change of the Sabbath | Jonathan Edwards


7 thoughts on “The Myth of the “Continental View” of the Sabbath

  1. So glad to see this article, Seni Adeyemi, as confusion abounds on this subject. I’ve read a number of such clarifications recently on this subject — all of which rejoice my heart! The Rev. Dr. R. E. Knodel, Jr.


  2. Paul,

    Thanks so much for this article from Fairbairn. I had seen the heading in Fairbairn before but hadn’t looked at it, and probably wouldn’t have for a long time. So I am very glad to have someone mine this important piece out for me. I will link it on RBO.

    Warm regards,

    Liked by 1 person

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