Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Seasonal Pastoral Reflections: On Reformers, Sabbath, and Solemn Days

Seasonal pastoral reflections:

I have a lingering concern over whether or not it is appropriate for Biblical Christians to observe "solemn days" and hold meetings for public worship outside the regular Lord’s Day observances. For example, can we worship on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, taking advantage of the cultural celebration of Christmas to preach the gospel [this is our current practice at JPBC]? What should we do with Easter? At least it falls on Sunday, and we should be preaching the gospel of the cross and resurrection every Lord’s Day. But what about a special Sunrise Service? Is this Biblically appropriate? Of course, there is also the basic ongoing issue of conscience as to how properly we should view and observe the Lord’s Day.

In his exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Institutes (see Book II, Chapter VIII; all quotes are from Ford Lewis Battles translation, vol. I), Calvin offers his own perspective on the fourth commandment (remembering the Sabbath Day to keep it holy). First, Calvin does not appear to hold to the strict "Christian Sabbath" view of the later Puritans as reflected both in the Westminster Confession and the London Baptist Confession.

For Calvin, Christ himself is "the true fulfillment of the Sabbath" (p. 397) and the Jewish Sabbath has been "abrogated." Given this fact, "Christians ought therefore to shun completely the superstitious observance of days" (p. 397).

He admonishes those who "surpass the Jews three times over in crass and carnal Sabbatarian superstition" (p. 400).

The primary purpose for the establishment of the Lord’s Day, according to Calvin, was to provide order and peace for the church, allowing it a settled, stated time to hear the Word and partake of the Lord's Supper and an occasion for servants and workmen to rest from their labors.

What about church meetings on days other than the Lord’s Day? Calvin says this: "I shall not condemn churches that have other solemn days for their meetings, provided there be no superstition. This will be so if they have regard solely to the maintenance of discipline and good order" (p. 400).

Calvin’s views appear to be in harmony with those of Bullinger as reflected in The Second Helvetic Confession (1566; see Chapter XXIV Of Holidays, Fasts, and Choice of Meats; references are from John H. Leith, Ed., Creeds of the Christians Church). Regarding the Lord’s Day, the confession states:

"Yet herein we give no place unto Jewish observation of the day, or to any superstitions. For we do not account one day to be holier than another, nor think that mere rest is of itself acceptable to God. Besides, we do celebrate and keep the Lord’s Day, and not the Jewish Sabbath, and that with a free observation" (p. 180).

As regards "Festivals of Christ and the Saints," the confession notes:

"Moreover, if the churches do religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s Nativity, Circumcision, Passion, Resurrection, and of his Ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, according to Christian liberty, we do very well approve of it. But as for festival days, ordained for men and saints departed, we cannot allow them" (p. 180).

Bullinger, it seems, had no problem with a gospel church celebrating Christmas, Easter, or, even Pentecost, as long as it did not get hung up in superstition or focus on the "saints" rather than God.

Was Bullinger still clinging to Roman Catholic traditions? Is the fullest and most mature expression of the Reformation (Biblical) trajectory reflected in the Puritans or did they transgress into reductionism and spiritual minimalism?



Duane said...

This is a difficult issue to resolve and I believe it ultimately comes back to tradition. I'm fond of the maxim to "Preach the gospel always, If necessary use words." by Saint Francis of Assisi. The closer we approximate worship as the natural posture of our minds the simpler it becomes to keep the sabbath.

In reformation circles it is unfortunate how the Saints are largely ignored. Their lives are inspiring and a model for believers everywhere. Adoration of their good example is no vice.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


I actually don't like the Francis quote. Like a companion quote, "Your life is the only sermon some people will ever hear," it not so subtly downplays the primacy of preaching. Paul said that faith comes by hearing (Rom 10:17), not by watching other people's actions (however godly they may be).

As for "Saints." Certainly we can profit from hearing the biographies of great men in the faith. I have done several such studies in my teaching (on Edwards, Spurgeon, etc.). What Bullinger was rejecting were the Catholic feast days dedicated to saints (like Francis). These are wrong-headed and extra-biblical. "Saints" is never used in the Bible to refer to "super-Christians" but it is used simply to refer to believers in general. It is never used in the singular in the Bible, but always in the plural. The only one who is to receive our adoration is God Himself.