this essay first appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal, Summer 2009 (volume 13, number 3)
Calvin500 events in Geneva this past July. I wish I could have gone. Among the other things I would liked to have witnessed was the mass of Calvin enthusiasts gathering after Sunday morning worship for a jolly pétanque competition.
In reality, I suspect no such Calvin-inspired game of boules actually occurred. But I wonder how many of the Reformed churchmen who may have luxuriated in the cafés or otherwise recreated that Lordsday afternoon during the conference felt reassured of their orthodoxy in calling to mind the common anecdote about Calvin's habit of "lawn-bowling" on the Sabbath (typically to the consternation of Knox --that silly, overwrought zealot).
I've probably been told the story more times than I've heard the 4th commandment read in worship. In my experience, even among those who hesitate to labor at their regular employment, or to employ others in servicing them at stores and restaurants on Sundays, many bristle against abstaining from recreations. All I need do is turn down an invitation to watch a film, sport, or to play a game on the Lordsday. Without fail I will be told how we are able to fellowship with others and glorify God by enjoying these activities, and inevitably the godly example of Calvin on the public greens comes into it.
The main problem with citing Calvin's Sabbath bowling practice, other than it being used to contravene Presbyterian standards, is that it is entirely unsubstantiated and contradicts Calvin's own stated views on the matter. Over a decade ago, Chris Coldwell (now general editor of the Confessional Presbyterian Journal) researched the legend with some thoroughness. In his essay titled Calvin in the Hands of the Philistines: Or, Did Calvin Bowl on the Sabbath? Coldwell surveys the relevant literature and historical record on the question.
An unambiguous conclusion emerges as we are guided back from recent references through prominent sources of preceding centuries to Calvin's own time. Coldwell's essay deserves a read by sabbatarian, sub-sabbatarian, and anti-sabbatarian alike, if only because the story is so persistently popular. I must note, for example, this folklore found its way onto page 342 of R.C. Sproul's Truths We Confess, A Layman's Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith, Vol. 2 (P&R 2007).
Is there a lesson here that we all should more critically assess received wisdom? Or is it that we should be more critical toward criticism of received wisdom? Or maybe the lesson is that formation of either doctrine or piety by anecdote is neither right nor safe. In any case, this is how Coldwell concludes:
“Calvin should be afforded the courtesy to speak for himself, and the tendency some have toward using the bowling myth to reinterpret him should be abandoned. While some evidence may be found in future to verify the tale, it seems unlikely. But, until such evidence is found, let us take the Reformer at his word that we should 'dedicate that day wholly unto Him so as we may be utterly withdrawn from the world.' 'If we spend the Lord’s day in making good cheer, and in playing and gaming, is that a good honoring of God? Nay, is it not a mockery, yea and a very unhallowing of his name?' ”