Monday, January 14, 2019

Sabbath Rest (and recreation)

“Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. (Ex 20:8-10)

Within the Reformed confessional camp there is broad agreement that the New Covenant has not abrogated the 4th Commandment, i.e. the Sabbath. There is fairly universal acceptance that in there still is a day to set aside for our meager attempts at advanced holiness.  There is disagreement about whether that day must be the first day of the week, with some arguing that the practice of the early church to meet on the first day was prescriptive, and some arguing it was merely descriptive and/or of historical rather than scriptural origin.  Calvin 1 was of the latter point of view, arguing that any day of the week would be fine, except Saturday, because he wanted it to be distinguished from the Jewish Sabbath, which he thought of as burdened with too much ritualistic baggage.  He was fine with the first day, but for the practical reason that all Christendom (more or less) had (for whatever reason, as far as he was concerned) adopted it as the Sabbath. He wanted us to agree on the day. It was a Sabbath like the Jewish Sabbath, with regulations more complex than Fizzbin (or even the standard of complexity: the Official rules of Major League Baseball 2) that Calvin believed Paul was ix-naying in Col. 2:16-17.

So let’s stipulate that the Reformed agree. There remains a Sabbath day. And whether or not the first day was prescribed (I don’t think it was) it is, at a minimum, the de facto Sabbath day.

What about the activities that you can do on the Sabbath? There again we have, broadly speaking, two views, generally called the Puritan View and the Continental View.

Before distinguishing the two, if we wanted to list names of Reformed theologians in either camp (I’m not going to bother), both lists would end up looking like a who’s who. This is not a liberal-conservative divide. It boils down to different views of a single passage, and there are big-shots in both camps

The distinction arises in the treatment of recreation on the Sabbath. Both views affirm the Sabbath. Both affirm that you should rest from your work, do not engage in your private commerce for profit, and do not require work from any person in your employ. Both views affirm that you should take extra care to devote yourself to the Word and to meditation, contemplation, and prayer.

But what about, to put it in stark terms, a nice round of golf? (Though never, ever at the expense of attending church and increased scriptural study and meditation/prayer.)  For most of the continental camp that would be acceptable, with proper decorum, given that taking the day as a whole you did in fact sabbath (as a verb.)  The puritan view generally says no to all forms of recreation.

Another example is eating a contemplative Sunday lunch with family or fellow believers at a restaurant. The continental view would say it’s fine, while the puritan view would say: no, that’s not proper. 4

On a scale of recreational activities that runs from 0 to 10, where 10 is drunken Game of Thrones binge-watching, the continental threshold is around 1 (the round of golf or the lunch at a restaurant) while the puritan view has the needle pinned at 0.0. 5

The differences can be traced to a passage in Isaiah:

“If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath
    and from doing as you please on my holy day,
if you call the Sabbath a delight
    and the Lord’s holy day honorable,
and if you honor it by not going your own way
    and not doing as you please or speaking idle words,
14 then you will find your joy in the Lord,
    and I will cause you to ride in triumph on the heights of the land
    and to feast on the inheritance of your father Jacob.”
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isa 58:13-14)

The puritan view would seem to enjoy the plain reading upper-hand, given the “doing as you please” wording. Not so fast, says the continental view. If that were a prohibition against any and all recreation, they argue, then it amounts to new revelation and a modification of the 4th commandment. For neither the 4th commandment as given nor the previous Old Testament writings prior to this passage in Isaiah (i.e. around a millennium of writings) address the issue of recreation on the Sabbath. There is complete silence on the matter. Furthermore, in context of chapter 58 (see the preceding text regarding exploiting labor while fasting) it looks as if Isaiah is speaking to correction of clearly corrupting activities, and that “as you please” is not a universal prohibition against any modest recreation 6, but against beyond the pale practices such as exploiting your employees. The pleasure that one must refrain from, according to the continental view, is that which comes at the expense of corporate worship, rest from work, and increased (but not the impossible all woken hours) prayer, meditation, etc.

I think those who hold to the continental view have no problem with those who hold to the puritan view, except when it is elevated from agree-to-disagree to Reformed Dogma, in spite of the number of Reformed theologians who are/were continental. I do think those with the puritan view tend to think they are absolutely right and the continental view is not truly acceptable. They also tend to make the dreaded slippery slope argument: A nice contemplative meal with believing friends and family? Soon you’ll be playing Bingo and drinking mojitos.

UPDATE: I intended, but forgot, to point out what is written regarding recreation on the Sabbath in arguably the first systematic Reformed Theology white paper, the canons of the Synod of Dort (1618). Regarding recreation on the Sabbath, they wrote:
This same day is thus consecrated for divine worship, so that in it one might rest from all servile works (with these excepted, which are works of charity and pressing necessity) and from those recreations which impede the worship of God. (Emphasis added)
It seems to me that the puritan view must either:

1) Disagree with this position or
2) Agree, but argue that all recreations impede the worship of God, i.e. that the text is an exercise in  redundancy. And also they might want speculate as to why the wording of the last phrase was not just "all recreations." or "all recreations, given that all recreations impede the worship of God." 

1 I think Calvin still counts as Reformed, doesn’t he? These days I’m never sure who’s in and who’s out

2 Example of MLB legalism: A ball hit outside of the boundary of the playing field, a foul ball, shall be considered a strike. Unless the batter already has two strikes, in which case the foul ball shall not be considered a strike.  With the following exceptions to the two strike limit: Exception 1) Should the foul ball be a very slight tip, then we must consider two further possibilities. 1a) Should the catcher catch this tip before it hits the ground, it shall be considered a strike and the batter has struck out. 1b) Should the catcher not catch the ball, or should the ball hit the ground first, it shall not count as a strike and the batter will not be out and the strike count shall remain at  two. Exception 2) Should the batter, with two strikes, position his bat so as to just hit the ball a small distance, deemed a bunt attempt, and in doing so then hit a foul ball, it shall be considered a strike and the batter has struck out. However, unlike all other strikeouts, runners cannot attempt to advance, nor can the batter attempt to reach first base, even though in all other occurrences of a third strike the batter can attempt to reach first, if the catcher does not catch the third strike, regardless of whether the ball first strikes the ground. Is that clear?

3  I hate golf.

4 Those who hold to the puritan view and argue that one should not eat at a restaurant because it is a form of recreation are admirably self-consistent. Those who argue against restaurant meals because you make other people work are self-delusional. To be self-consistent in the "don't make others work" reasoning one, for example, could not watch anything on television, listen to the radio, do anything involving digital streaming, any wireless data access, texting, tweeting, etc. etc. etc. All these voluntary activities (and semi-infinite others) contribute, however minutely, to others (e.g., network engineers) working on the Sabbath. Really, the “don’t make others work” argument is utterly without the merit of self-consistency, and least for most who make it. It boils down to: “the work I cause is acceptable, but the work you cause is not.”

5 Which of course is impossible. Not only from the nit-picking "is jumbo shrimp large or small?" objection (but, but what if I find reading Romans pleasurable? Must I refrain?  Or perhaps read only from Lamentations?) but from a realistic viewpoint. It is literally humanly impossible to refrain from doing one's pleasure at times on the Sabbath. Do I really have to give examples? No, I didn't think so. It boils down, once again, to accepting that the "small" pleasures I allow myself are acceptable, but surely nothing more.

6 Even in modern language, the admonition "you can't just do as you please!" does not mean you can't do anything pleasurable, but rather, for whatever reason, there is a moral or ethical limit as to what pleasurable activity is acceptable at that time and place.


  1. Re: The not eating out view also puzzles me. If every Christian decided not to eat out after Sunday services, what impact would that have on reducing employee income? How many people who work as servers to put food on their own tables would lose shifts? I'm not saying - Therefore, all Christians should go out and eat. But all Christians not eating out as a favor to restaurant employees may actually be the opposite - a negative impact. Not everyone has the luxury of M-F employment, and those who do not have that luxury shouldn't be looked down upon as though the middle-class is equivalent to being a "good" Christian.

    1. My guess is that your argument is answered with "yes, they might lose a shift and even fall under the 29 hours threshold and lose benefits, but God will take care of them." With no acknowledgement that the Sunday shift might have been the way that God was, in fact, taking care of them.

    2. :( "Go in peace, be warmed and filled."

      When it comes to application, making one's own experience or ideal normative isn't helpful. It can create an empathic blindspot if one cannot fathom that someone may have completely different life circumstances and by God's providence too.

  2. Thank you! Well done.

  3. Hi, David.

    I don't think that Hebrews 4 is really talking about anything to do with a day of the week, and I think Romans 14 pretty much does for the idea of anything Sabbath-like being inherent to Christianity. The first century church (I understand) would have met on the first day of the week before and after work - it was not a rest day for them, and there's no sense in the NT of pushing the authorities to make it into one. The idea of the first day of the week being a rest day actually came into force when Christianity was made the state religion.

    There are good, pragmatic reasons for having one day off in seven. However, a lot of Christians don't deal with the fact that they actually have two days off (of work) in seven, technically, and the Sabbath rules are actually about a lot more than that. They also don't deal with the fact that many people simply don't have the option of taking Sundays off regularly - so the "sabbath" approach to Sunday becomes a legalistic thing, enforced by praxis (services at 11 and 6.30) that is a burden on many people that the church leaders don't lift a finger to help with.