On Twitter Anthony Bradley pointed us to a webpage by Ra McLaughlin on the Sabbath. There is good material there but there are also a couple of items that warrant discussion. The one on which I want to focus in this post is the use of the expression “the continental tradition” with respect to the Sabbath. As reflected on this page, it is widely held that there are two distinct Reformed views of the Sabbath, the British or Westminster Standards position and “the Continental view.” It is sometimes argued that the so-called “Continental View” was Calvin’s. Thence people point to the relative brevity of Heidelberg Catechism on the Sabbath and finally one will likely read something about Cocceius on the Sabbath. The implication is usually that the so-called “Continental View” is less rigorous than the British view.
This way of speaking would be a surprise to the Continental Reformed tradition. Let’s define our terms. The adjective “continental” is a little slippery. It’s not always clear what is meant by it. Sometimes it refers to the Dutch Reformed churches. It might include the Germans, the French, and perhaps Geneva. Often, judging by usage, it seems to mean, “Reformed folk who don’t speak English” and are European. The unstated assumption behind this way of writing and speaking is that there were (and are) two distinct traditions, the European (mainly Dutch) and the British (and American). Such ways of speaking and thinking would have been foreign to the classical Reformed writers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Yes, they spoke their own vernacular languages but they all wrote and spoke Latin. They were quite conscious of belonging to single Reformed tradition. The British Reformed (Scots, English, Welsh, Irish) were reading the Dutch, German, French, and Swiss Reformed and vice versa. There was no consciousness in the classical period of a distinctly “British” or “Continental” view of anything. There was simply an international Reformed theology, piety, and practice.
Let’s consider four cases. I made this case at length in RRC so I won’t belabor (on Labor Day) here but much of what has been written about Calvin’s allegedly “continental” view of the Sabbath is simply not well grounded in the sources. What typically happens is that writers appeal to a passage or two from the 1559 Institutes and then call it a day. This way of reading Calvin is deeply flawed. The only way to understand Calvin properly is to read him the way he intended to be read. One must start with his biblical commentary, then go to a treatise (the Institutes or some other), and then to go to his sermons. When one reads Calvin holistically, in context, his view of the Sabbath is quite difficult to distinguish from what is alleged to be a distinctly (and harshly) British view.
The Heidelberg Catechism (1563) did speak to the Sabbath:
103. What does God require in the fourth Commandment?
In the first place, God wills that the ministry of the Gospel and schools be maintained, and that I, especially on the day of rest, diligently attend church, to learn the Word of God, to use the Holy Sacraments, to call publicly upon the Lord, and to give Christian alms. In the second place, that all the days of my life I rest form my evil works, allow the Lord to work in me by His Spirit, and thus begin in this life the everlasting Sabbath.
Ursinus’ lecture on the Christian Sabbath were translated into English and available to students at Oxford University by 1587, where his lectures on the catechism were a part of the curriculum. In his explanation on this question Ursinus observed,
That the first part is moral and perpetual, is evident from the end and the causes of the commandment, which are perpetual in their character. The end or design of the commandment is the maintenance of the public worship of God in the church; or the perpetual preservation, and use of the ecclesiastical ministry.
He wrote that the second part of the commandment is distinctly Mosaic, ceremonial, and temporary. He distinguished between the Israelite “sabbaths” and “the Sabbath.” The Sabbath itself was grounded in creation. It is part of the abiding moral law of God. He distinguished between servile works, i.e., those that hinder worship.
Third, though we mainly think about the Synod of Dort (1618–19) in regard to the doctrine of salvation, the Reformed Churches actually met there to discuss more than responding to the Remonstrants (Arminians). They discussed the life of the church and they formulated a position on the Sabbath that is not clearly distinct from what was held by most British Reformed congregations and confessions. The Synod distinguished between that which is perpetual or creational and that which was temporary or Mosaic in the Sabbath. The intent, however, of these rules (canons) on the Sabbath, adopted in May, 1619, was to make clear that the Sabbath is not abrogated along with the old, Mosaic covenant.F
Fourth, it is frequently asserted or implied that Johannes Cocceius (1603–69) corrupted the Reformed consensus on the Sabbath. E.g., the Theopedia entry claims, “In one of his essays he contends that the observance of the Sabbath, though expedient, is not binding upon Christians, since it was a Jewish institution.” The picture in the original texts, however, is more complicated. In §21 and §338 of the Summa de foedere he recognized that the Sabbath was a creational institution. He taught that it had perpetual validity. He recognized that the Mosaic Sabbath legislation was “moral in nature” while acknowledging that the punishments attached to it, under Moses, were temporary and that there were other temporary aspects to the Mosaic legislation. He also observed the eschatological (i.e., the heavenward looking) aspect of the Sabbath. His doctrine of the progressive abrogation of the covenant of works caused him to argue that the Decalogue was not a covenant of works. He was adamant that the covenant of grace was administered through the Mosaic legislation. These sections of the Summa are difficult but it seems clear that he taught that though the Jewish Sabbath a type and shadow of the future Sabbath rest that would be given in the new covenant, “nevertheless,” he wrote, “it remains true that the [Sabbath-rest] of the New Testament must be observed together with its sanctification. In every possible way the New Testament’s Sabbath rest can be considered and practiced and maintained.
There were Cocceians who, because of the heated polemical context of the fight with the Voetians, took stronger, less conservative views of the Sabbath, I’m not confident that we can read those views back into Cocceius, just as we cannot read the adoption by some Cocceians, of a the Cartesian epistemology, back into Cocceius himself.
Yes there is some diversity within classical Reformed theology on the Sabbath but it is diversity within unity. There is a Reformed view of the Sabbath. There is a fundamental unity that God has established a 1 in 7 pattern in creation. To that creational law was added typological and temporary Mosaic legislation but the Sabbath was not grounded in the Mosaic law and covenant but in creation, i.e., in the nature of things. The Sabbath principle, then, remained in force in the New Covenant. The day was transformed from the last day to the first by the bodily resurrection of the Son of God and the inauguration of the new creation but the Sabbath principle and practice remained.