Bowling For Calvin

Sub-Sabbatarian Myth-Busting
this essay first appeared in the Nicotine Theological Journal, Summer 2009 (volume 13, number 3)

Being a thrifty Calvinist, I couldn't justify the expense of attending the 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?' ” 


Steven said...

Thanks so much for posting on the subject of the Lord's Day. Even at the RP church I now attend many of my peers give no thought to recreation on the Lord's Day, and some others are anti-sabbatarian! (I have hope, though, given the many other ways God is working there!)

Sidenote: You should probably edit "asses" to "assess" in the second to last paragraph, though it was a humorous typo.

God bless, brother!

Baus said...

Thanks, Steve. Typo fixed. Boy... the things of which spellcheck fails to alert you.

All the best with encouraging your fellow RPs in the means of grace and blessing of the Lordsday sabbath!

So glad your able to worship there and to be built-up.

Anonymous said...

You're always welcome to come play some nihilist bocce with me. ;)

Martin Rizley said...

I believe those who hold the Puritan view of the Lord's Day are reading Calvin's words through their "Westminster" lenses-- that is, anachronistically. Calvin does not say-- as the Puritans would have said, that the Lord's day is desecrated by a single act of recreation on Sunday. Rather, what he says-- consistent with his teaching in the Institutes-- is that God is dishonored if we "spend" the Lord's Day in frivolous activity. To spend the Lord's Day in that way would be a misuse of the Day, since God has given us the Lord's Day to be a means of spiritual edification. A father who throws a ball to his child in the backyard for a half hour in the afternoon, however, cannot be accused of "spending" the Lord's day "in playing and gaming." (That would be like saying that a man who walks to the mailbox to person who walks once around the block on the Lord's Day has "spent" the day walking. It is true that Calvin believed the day was properly used when we dedicate it wholly unto the Lord, but it is unclear, in my mind, that he would have objected to a single act of recreation on the Lord's Day. The strictness of the Puritan position is based on their view that the Sabbath has passed into the new dispensation in a "wholesale" manner, the only change being the day of its observance. Calvin rejected that view, as his commentary on the fourth commandment in the Institutes makes clear. I am inclined to think that he would not have gone as far as the Puritans in condemning a single act of recreation on the Lord's Day; and therefore, I find it entirely plausible that he might have bowled on the Lord's Day for the purpose of refreshing his body after spending several hours reading and meditating on God's word. What is clear from his writings as a whole is that he did not see the Sabbath carrying over in a "wholesale" manner into the new dispensation. He regarded the Sabbath as a partly ceremonial and partly moral law. It is the "moral aspect" of the Sabbath only that remains applicable under the New Covenant, not the 'ceremonial part' that God gave to the Jews as an adumbration of spiritual rest in Christ.

Baus said...

Martin, to characterize "the" Puritan view as simply carrying-over the OT sabbath "wholesale" is a bit of a strawman, not taking into consideration the more nuanced view even represented in the Westminster Standards. In any case, that Calvin "might" have bowled on the Lord's Day, or that it is "entirely plausible" that he might have is entirely conjecture and contrary to all evidence.

Nevertheless, your distinction between "playing a game" and "spending the day playing games" is useful. And I agree that the question of children's activities does need to be addressed in practical terms.