At the beginning of the movie Annie Hall, Woody Allen tells a joke about two older ladies sitting down to a meal at a resort in the Catskills. One complains that the food in this particular establishment is inedible. The other joins in, “Yes, and the portions are so small.”
That line comes back to me when I think about the way many American Protestants observe the Lord’s Supper. Welch’s grape juice and airy white bread are not what I would normally drink or eat, nor are they exactly what I believe Christ or the church through the ages had in mind for the elements to be used when celebrating the sacrament. What is more, the portions — a thimble full of juice and a half-inch-square piece of bread — do not conjure up images of the marriage supper of the Lamb, to which this sacramental meal points.
The miserly servings and the caliber of the cuisine in most congregations’ observances of the Lord’s Supper are vivid illustrations of the way many Christians in this life fail to celebrate and enjoy the good gifts of God’s creation.
By contrast, one of the many appeals of the Reformed faith is its culture-affirming outlook. For many Christians from pietist or fundamentalist backgrounds, Calvinism’s recognition of the created world’s goodness, as well as its teaching about the legitimacy of so-called secular vocations, is an eye-opening philosophy that gives religious significance to everything from politics and art to plumbing and eating.
The Dutch Calvinist theologian and later politician Abraham Kuyper put the Reformed worldview aptly when he wrote, “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Kuyper’s statement suggests an approach to the world that is diametrically opposed to the sort of cultural asceticism to which American Protestantism has been prone. Instead of teaching children confronted by the world to “Just say ‘no,” the Reformed outlook counters with “Just say yes.’”
Unfortunately, during the past fifty years or so, the Reformed perspective on creation has become a ready way to justify the pleasures that Christians experience in their enjoyment of this world. In fact, anything that may curtail a believer’s enjoyment of the world, the assumption goes, masks a retreat to the cultural straightjacket of fundamentalism. Not all Calvinists are guilty of such an extreme view. Still, the prevailing understanding of the Reformed faith is one in which restraining pleasure or selective cultural engagement is the fallback position of weaker Christians.
The irony here is that John Calvin himself was not averse to making restraint and moderation necessary fruits of sanctification. Often lost in discussions about a Reformed world and life view is an awareness of Calvin’s own understanding of the Christian life, one that recognizes the basic difference between life in this world and life in the world to come. The portion of Calvin’s Institutes that has been republished as The Golden Booklet of the Christian Life, for instance, gives support for the sentiment that Calvin so often expressed in his prayers, that believers should not become too deeply attached to earthly and perishable things.
But the limits that inform a Christian’s enjoyment of this world’s pleasures are evident even in other parts of his theology. In his discussion of Christ’s kingly office, Calvin writes that the Christian life is a “harsh and wretched” warfare, fought “under the cross.” “For this reason,” he adds, “we ought to know that the happiness promised us in Christ does not consist in outward advantages, such as leading a joyous and peaceful life, having rich possessions, being safe from all harm, and abounding with delights such as the flesh commonly longs after. No, our happiness belongs to the heavenly life!”
Restraint, then, is not a dirty word. Think, for instance, of what Paul writes to Titus about the virtues “proper for sound doctrine.” They are “that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate,” and that older women “likewise. . . be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine.” And these older women should instruct younger women to be “discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed.” Paul adds that young men need to be “sober- minded” (Titus 2:1-6).
Obviously, these are not traits that we associate with the forms of celebration that typically accompany New Year’s Eve parties or the home team’s victory in the World Series. But even if our culture has replaced a more restrained understanding of celebration with one that is unbridled, the point of Paul’s teaching cannot be missed. The believer’s walk should be characterized by restraint, discipline, sobriety, and self-control. These traits adorn the Gospel.
The problem is that American Protestants have cultivated extremes rather than nuance. At one end is a commitment to temperance that quickly dissolves into abstinence because of a failure to recognize that worldly pleasures are in fact legitimate.
In reaction comes an unbounded resolve to enjoy to the full the fruits of creation as gifts from God. What both sides miss is a different biblical consideration. Irrespective of whether a particular form of pleasure is lawful or not, the Bible teaches that restraint and sobriety mark the Christian path of obedience. In other words, the believer’s life should be so characterized by moderation that both abstinence and revelry are implausible because both exhibit an immoderate way of living in this world.
Perhaps the best proof that the Christian life should be characterized by moderation is that God’s moral law commands it. Many Christians might think the Ten Commandments are silent about this virtue. In his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus argues that the seventh commandment requires not merely marital fidelity but also chastity, modesty, and temperance. He goes on to advise that you can know whether you have drunk too much alcohol if the next morning you experience “nausea and reeling of the head.” By modern standards, Ursinus’ test for drunkenness is obviously lax. But his larger point is the one that cannot be disputed. Temperance “is the mother and nurse of all other virtues” because without it “we cannot be chaste.”
That is a lesson well worth keeping in mind when considering the pleasures of this life. If Ursinus is right, the case for moderation and restraint is not complicated. Indeed, it is as basic as the Decalogue. Self-discipline and temperance must always accompany enjoyment and celebration. For that reason, small helpings are no more objectionable than rich food and good wine.
This article appeared in the July 2000 issue of Tabletalk, published by Ligonier Ministries.