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Book Review of “Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women” by Willard M. Swartley

Swartley_Slavery Sabbath book cover

Book Review of “Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women” by Willard M. Swartley

We all read the same Bible, yet sometimes we approach certain topics with presuppositions that affect our approach to discovering the true meaning of applicable texts. It is helpful, therefore, to examine various viewpoints of a topic before reaching a conclusion. By examining someone else’s use of biblical texts and knowing some rules regarding interpretation, we are in a better position to formulate an opinion. This book presents an exercise of the intellectual rigor and personal humility necessary to excavate truth from God’s word.

The author has professional experience with the topic of biblical interpretation and his Mennonite background explains at least his interest in the topic of war and peace. He does not attempt to convince us where to land on the issues of slavery, Sabbath, war, and women, but he does identify the presuppositions that seem to effect the analyses of biblical texts with respect to these four issues.

Chapter ~Pages Positions
Slavery 30 Whether or not slavery is considered a sinful institution
Sabbath 30 Saturday-Sabbath, Sabbath-Sunday, and Sunday-Lord’s Day
War 50 Whether or not Christians may participate in war
Women 40 Whether roles for men and women are hierarchical or liberationist
Analysis 30 Use and interpretation of the Bible
Conclusion 10 Summary of hermeneutical principles

Swartley devotes 30-50 pages on each topic by presenting the various viewpoints on the subject. In a following chapter he compares the hermeneutical arguments of paired cases and begins to formulate principles of biblical interpretation. His final chapter presents 22 recommendations intended to guide our proper understanding, interpretation, and application of Scripture.

My interest in this book rests primarily with his analysis of the Sabbath/Lord’s Day issue. From the outset, he identified his position on the relationship of the testaments as being one of a promise/fulfillment framework (p. 237), yet he stated that many Mennonites hold to some extent the Sabbath-Sunday position (p. 66). As he makes personal comments about the Sabbath, he evidences the confusion and tension between these positions. Swartley only briefly discusses the range of interpretations possible within the continuity/discontinuity spectrum (p. 238) and offers this following eyebrow-raising statement.

“The discontinuity of the New Testament with the old is most evident in the points where the people of God did not live up to the best of the old covenant period. Because of this disobedience, a new act of God was necessary to write a new covenant on their hearts.”

His treatment of the Sabbath/Lord’s Day issue is satisfactory. He notes that there are three basic competing interpretations: 1) the seventh day remains the Sabbath and is to be observed by Christians, 2) the Sabbath was transferred to Sunday and is the Christian Sabbath, and 3) the Sabbath was abolished and the Lord’s Day stands in its place as a memorial of the resurrection. Swartley quotes heavily from notable proponents of each position (which are well known to those who have studied this topic) and then discusses some of the underlying hermeneutical principles or assumptions that affect each schema.

He first notes the impact of the practice of the early church, historical traditions, and the interpretations of early church fathers in the arguments of each position. He broadly concludes that the seventh-day position (and somewhat the Lord’s Day position) regards these evidences in a critical fashion, whereas the Christian Sabbath position regards them positively since they apparently bolster their claims. The logical failure of the seventh day position is that the early church met together on the first day of the week as demonstrated both in the NT and in the church fathers. He asks, why would the church canonize Scripture that was at odds with their practice? The answer, of course, is that when the 2nd century church met together on the first day of the week they did not deviate from apostolic tradition as recorded in Scripture. At this point, I believe that Swartley’s assessment about the other two positions is too general to be accurate. Both the record in Acts and the earliest church fathers demonstrate that Christians met together weekly on the first day of the week. While this appears to support both the Christian Sabbath and the fulfilled Sabbath positions, since both support first-day worship, it really argues against the Christian Sabbath position because the early church never equated the Lord’s Day with the Sabbath. Bauckham (in Carson’s From Sabbath to Lord’s Day) asserts that the Sabbath was not applied to the Lord’s Day until the twelfth century by Peter Comestor.

Next, Swartley focuses on the benefits and shortcomings of the historical-critical method used by Rordorf of the fulfilled Sabbath position. Swartley believes that this interpretive grid prevents the interpreter from importing biases into the text, however, it also prevents the text from informing the present world (though he acknowledges that Rordorf celebrates justice and equality as emanating from the biblical texts). Again, this generalization is based on Rordorf’s work which is partly influenced by German literary criticism. Swartley does not state the hermeneutical methods employed by the other two positions, but acknowledges that church traditions also play a role in how one approaches the interpretation of Scripture.

Lastly, Swartley asserts that the differing positions on the Sabbath/Lord’s Day issue vary on their understanding of the relationship between the old and new testaments and how to interpret the teachings and actions of Jesus on Sabbath, that is, whether or not Jesus exercised any messianic authority over the Sabbath. In addition, Swartley proposes that it is possible for biblical texts to appear that they support or oppose the same position. This examination is continued in the next chapter in his assessment of the arguments for and against a Christian’s participation in war. His observation is that authors tend to “proof text” their position by citing only those passages that support their view while casually dismissing or avoiding all together texts that the opposing position finds conclusive.

Finally, Swartley evaluates hermeneutical factors by comparing how scholars approached slavery and the Sabbath, and women and the Sabbath. As he properly observed, it would be important to answer these questions: When was the Sabbath actually instituted? What is our opinion about the composition of Genesis, whether the day in which Moses penned it influenced the text? While his analysis of the hermeneutical factors is interesting, they do not seem to me to be that significant. I found the comparisons to be laborious reading and when he mentioned the Sabbath it often represented a theological tradition and led to confusion. For example, he states that the true purpose of the Sabbath is “to live all of life for the well-being of others.” Furthermore, he states that Jesus fulfilled “the humanitarian purpose of the Sabbath” and “inaugurated a continuous practice of Sabbath, sabbatical and jubilean ethics” thus putting an end to slavery. After all, he avers, you can’t own slaves if you continuously practice the sabbatical year. But you can’t plant crops either.

The aim of examining four controversial cases is to arrive at his concluding chapter that presents what the reader learned from earlier chapters. It begins well, warning the reader to seek to understand a text within its context, and its grammatical-literary features and the historical setting. Then comes the curious admonition to “learn from the poor, the slave, the disenfranchised, the persecuted, and the oppressed” because “these people have gifts of insight which bring the biblical message into clear focus” (p. 230). He resumes with sage advice to be aware of the influences of church traditions or to have a sustained reading and study of texts to overcome biases. His final guideline is to listen to the text, understand the context and be obedient, which he calls “co-creation with God.”

The premise of this book is interesting. By looking at these four case studies perhaps one can synthesize interpretive guidelines to assist in our understanding and application of the Bible. For the most part, the text is coherent and logical. If the reader is interested in any of these topics and is just beginning to examine the literature, then this would be helpful in understanding the basic arguments for or against a certain position. In addition, the bibliographical annotations would be helpful for further research. I did not find that valuable his twenty-two guidelines that biblical scholars should hold to when approaching the biblical text since many of them are well-understood already.

That being said, with regard to the Sabbath/Lord’s Day controversy, it would be helpful to conduct a more thorough analysis of the hermeneutical grids that scholars use to support their case and to devise a list of questions to flesh out the presuppositions, biases, interpretive traditions, misuses of texts, and lack of thoroughness that affect their interpretation of supporting texts.

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