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The Sabbath/Lord’s Day Controversy: Part 1a Who Are The Players ?

Swartley’s book, “Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women” aimed at learning how exegetes tackle controversial topics. With respect to the Sabbath, he stated that he would “examine the scriptural support adduced by each position and then offer some hermeneutical observations and guidelines for proper interpretation (p. 67).[1] After discussing the benefits of the historical-critical method,[2] he determined that Nigel Lee provided a “weak interpretation” of Genesis 2:2-3 and that Martin’s assertion that the Sabbath was moved to Sunday could not be proved on textual grounds. I expected to see more analysis in his book, but it really offered little in terms of identifying the hermeneutical errors or biases when examining the Sabbath/Lord’s Day controversy. In my book review, I mused:

“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.”

Given the sweeping magnitude of Swartley’s endeavor, it is certainly understandable that he provided limited analysis. Even books dedicated to the subject fail to provide conclusive evidence, for as Yang assessed, “Most of the works…do not always treat the biblical data in sufficient depth, sometimes failing to provide any exegetical discussion of the biblical texts in question…”[3] Or as Timmer remarked about the “Sabbath frame” in Exodus: “Despite its historical, literary and theological significance, however, the sabbath frame has not received commensurate scholarly attention.”[4]

Swartley’s book provides a three-step approach to dealing with a controversial subject. First, assess the literature and formulate categories of the various positions. Often, these viewpoints are affected by theological traditions involving scholastic assumptions, hermeneutic styles, the use of extra-biblical resources, and particular church practices and patois—not to mention the historical movement of that theological concern in its geopolitical context. Having an overview of the controversy helps the researcher to better understand the work under scrutiny. Next, identify the points of contention where the various proponents diverge in their interpretation of specific biblical texts and the inferences drawn from their research. Devise questions to draw out the credibility of their interpretations or to separate what can be known from what is supposed. Critical to this step, at least for co-interpretation, is to have some guidelines or rules for interpretation that are generally accepted. Lastly, begin the tedious process of presenting the exegetical commentary of each scholar and comparing the pros and cons of their conclusions. As one should quickly assess, the complexity of dealing with this issue increases with each step.

Swartley identified three conflicting positions—categories that are generally well-accepted. These three positions are divided by their answer to the following question: How is the church to understand her relationship to the Sabbath commandment? The following chart provides the terminology various authors use to describe these three groups. For the sake of clarity and brevity within this series, I will abbreviate Swartley’s terminology within this series to identify the interpretative tradition of an author when necessary.

Position Swartley O’Hare Ratzlaff Williams Donato
4th C not binding Lord’s Day


Sabbath-fulfilled Fulfillment/ Transformation Lord’s Day Evangelical
4th C partially binding Christian Sabbath [CS] Sunday Sabbatarianism Transfer/ Modification Sunday-Sabbath Lutheran
4th C more fully binding Saturday Sabbath [SS] Saturday Sabbatarianism Reformation/ Continuation Seventh Day Adventist

The proponents of each category are not monolithic in their arguments and interpretations, so it is not unusual to discover differing understandings and varying conclusions about specific texts or questions. For example, within the Christian Sabbath [CS] camp, Bownde held that the 4th commandment was fully moral,[5] yet Turretin understood it to be partly ceremonial and partly moral.[6] Again, from the CS camp’s interpretation of Ex 16:23-26, Murray thinks it is unmistakable that the Jews already knew about the Sabbath, that it was practiced since the beginning of human history[7], but Douma disagrees, stating that there may be an impression of pre-knowledge, but upon examination of the full evidence it is actually erroneous to think that the Sabbath was given to Adam.[8] So, on these particular questions, Bownde takes a position similar to the SS camp, and Douma takes a position similar to the LD camp.

Building upon the accepted categories, I will expand on them to demonstrate the diversity even within these broad groups. I placed them in historical order, with dates referring to specific publications.[9]

Sabbath Fulfilled. Those who believe that the Sabbath did not originate at creation but was a ceremonial law for the Israelites and was abrogated by the redemptive work of Christ. The Sabbath has little to nothing to do with the Lord’s Day, which is celebrated on Sunday, the first day of the week. The Lord’s Day honors the resurrection of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

  • Luke documents the growth of the Christian sect, from its initial Jewish milieu to the incorporation of Gentiles through missionary evangelism. The first day of the week, Sunday, attains significance for the church. Several Pauline epistles address the tension between Judaism and Christianity in the area of ritual practices. His letter to the Colossians specifically mentions the Sabbath as a shadow-law.
  • Church Fathers, namely Barnabas, Ignatius, ‘Mathetes’, Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Origen, and Eusebius, held that the Sabbath was fulfilled because Christ embodied what the Sabbath pointed to spiritually, a redemptive rest and the promise of eternal rest. The early Roman Catholic Church carried this torch through the first millennium, with the writings of Sylvester, Augustine, and Gregory the Great. The Eastern Orthodox Church holds that the Sabbath and Lord’s Day are two separate days—that the Sabbath was not transferred to Sunday. The Lord’s Day is symbolical of the new advent of Christ and is the primary day of worship, yet they allow certain religious rituals on the Sabbath and various sects “keep” both days.
  • Medieval to Reformation. Aquinas (1250) held that the Sabbath was a ceremonial commandment of the Jews, but that it was moral only in one respect: that man must give time to God. This view was adopted by early Reformers Luther (1520), Melanchthon (1530), Calvin (1536), and Bullinger (1566), while others resisted any application of the Sabbath to Christian conduct, like Volkelius (1630), the Anabaptists and Socinians (1800s), and as expressed in the Racovian Catechism (1818).
  • Modern advocates teach the discontinuity of the Sabbath between the old and new covenants by asserting that it was a ceremonial command given exclusively to Israel and fulfilled by Christ.
    • Evangelicals holding to or affected by dispensationalism, argue the fulfillment of the Sabbath primarily on the total replacement of the law of Moses with the law of Christ. The roots of this strand are in Luther. Later and modern authors who support this position are Torrey (1899), Riggle (1922), Putnam (1924), McGee (1970), MacArthur (1992), Schreiner (2010), Arand (2011). Some Evangelicals conclude that Sunday church attendance is not compulsory, or that Christians may worship on any day of the week. Former Saturday Sabbatarians tend to adopt this view after re-examining the issue, such as Canright (1889) and Ratzlaff (1990, 2003), who are former SDA pastors, and Morrison (2002), who is a former WCG member.
    • Reformed believers who deny the major tenets of dispensationalism, simply argue that the Sabbath be treated like other ceremonial laws that their Reformed brothers agree were abrogated. The roots of this view are more in line with Church Fathers than Calvin, yet more in line with Calvin than Ursinus. First day worship is significant and church attendance is important. Advocates of this position are Rordorf (1962-68), Carson (1982), Blomberg (1991, 2011), Yang (1997), Timmer (2009), and O’Hare (2011). Former Sunday Sabbatarians tend to adopt this view after re-examination of the evidence, such as Reisinger (2002).

Sunday Sabbatarianism. Those who hold that the morality of the Sabbath is in its one-day-in-seven frequency and the dual obligation to rest from normal activities and engage in public and private worship of the Lord. The Sabbath is a creation ordinance, like marriage; and it is a moral commandment because it is listed in the Decalogue. As a result of the resurrection, the Lord moved the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday, which is now called the “Christian Sabbath” or Lord’s Day.

  • Civil Sabbatarianism. The Edict of Milan (316) was a civil law that encouraged citizens to rest on Sunday. While it cannot be demonstrated that this was motivated by Sabbatarian principles, Sunday rest promoted the association of the Sabbath with the Lord’s Day. The Council of Mâcon (585) and the Council of Rouen (c. 650) specifically drew upon OT sabbatic laws. The Decretals of Gregory IX (1234) legislated a 24 hour rest.[10]
  • Transitional Sabbatarianism. Medieval Roman Catholicism, as elucidated by Aquinas (1274), held that the Sabbath was replaced with (not moved to) the Lord’s Day. Early Reformers, such as Luther (1530) and Calvin (1536), held that the Sabbath commandment meant only that the church was accountable for giving time to God in worship. Modern Roman Catholics, like Harrington (1991), regard the Sabbath and Lord’s Day as distinct institutions, but allow ritualistic rest on Sunday. Ratzinger aka. Pope Benedict XVI (1995) and Pope John Paul II (1998), envision a Sabbath at creation, however this only loosely informs the Lord’s Day.
  • Developed Sabbatarianism. Later Reformers, such as Ursinus (1563) and Bownde (1595), developed the view that the Sabbath was a ‘creation ordinance,’ obligatory on all people from every nation. This view was highly influential, so there are innumerable literary pieces advancing this belief set. Any sect that developed in the 16th through 19th centuries adopted this viewpoint, with only minor variations in determining those moral features that demand specific behaviors. The Anglicans, Presbyterians, Puritans, Methodists, Congregationalists, and Baptists, adopted this posture to varying degrees. See Heidelberg (1563), WCF (1646), Shepard (1649), Owen (1668), Case (1674), Durham (1675), Turretin (1680) LBCF (1689), Schaff (1831), Boston (1853), Henry (1855), Gilfillin (1862), and Dabney (1878).
    • Modern Reformers may downplay the rule-making of the Puritans, yet strongly urge compliance with the fourth commandment, such as Murray (1953), Jewett (1971), Beckwith and Stott (1978) , Primus (1989, 1991), Williamson (1993), Douma (1996), Pipa (1997), Gaffin (1998), Robertson (2001), Duncan (2003), Campbell (2005), Dennison (2008), McGraw (2011), and McLaughlin (2014). McLaughlin distinguishes between European Sabbatarians and English Sabbatarians as I do between Transitional and Developed Sabbatarianism. Reformed Baptists, like Chantry (1991), Ray (2000), and Barcellos (2001) are strongly supportive of the London Confession (1689) a reiteration of the WCF (1646) position.
    • Theonomic Reformers, like Lee (1972) and Rushdooney (1973) differ in their applications of OT law to the church and society, such as applying the seventh year Land Sabbath to agricultural practices. Kline (2000) and Irons (2002) break ranks by limiting the 4th Commandment to the church as opposed to the world.
    • Heritage Sabbatarians. Because of their historical roots in Protestantism or their dabbling with Reformed theology, these authors may refer to Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, and they may engage in some Sabbatarian practices, but are not adamant about Sabbath-keeping per se; i.e., Swartley (1983) and Greear (2014).
  • Optional Sabbatarianism. Eusebius described the Ebionites as worshipers on both Saturday and Sunday. Various sects of the Eastern Orthodox Church will worship on Sunday, but observe sabbatarian practices on Saturday. Some contemporaneous Jewish believers worship with Jews on Saturday and Christians on Sunday. Evangelicals, with or without a Jewish heritage, who loosely agree that the Sabbath is fulfilled, yet adopt Sabbatarian practices as a means to enhance their Christian spirituality either on Sunday or Saturday; i.e., Dawn (1989), Bass (2000), Winner (2003), and Wirzba (2006).
  • Fringe Sabbatarianism. The Christian Identity movement has those who worship on Sunday largely adopting the above argument, like Ewing (1958) and Downey (2008), but some advocate Saturday worship. Weisman (1994) believes that the Jews erroneously moved the Sabbath from the first day of the week to the seventh day of the week during their Babylonian captivity. Jesus moved the Sabbath back to the first day of the week where it belongs. Within the SDA community, some believe that the calendar computations have been in error for centuries and that Sunday is actually the correct day to worship.

Saturday Sabbatarianism. Those who believe the Sabbath to be an unchanging moral commandment that cannot be moved to another day, hence they worship on Saturday, the day the Jews have celebrated as the Sabbath for millennia. The seventh-day Sabbath is the Lord’s Day.

  • Most Jews understand the Sabbath to be a Jewish institution that has both moral and ritual elements to it. It is not obligatory for Gentiles to observe it—sometimes it is even discouraged. The paradigm for the Sabbath is the creation week, which inspires the Jews to engage in personal reflection about their works during the week, as well as the works of God in creation and redemption. See Heschel (1951), Kaplan (1974), Goldenberg and Meier (1991), Muller (1999), Klagsbrun (2002).
  • The record of the apostles preaching on the Sabbath to the Jews indicates their commitment to obeying the fourth commandment. As the church apostatized from this position, their critiques of non-conformists—labeled “heretics”—evidence Christian groups that continued to esteem the Sabbath as the normative practice. Few records of such groups that observed the Sabbath exist and those that do, present them in the worst light.
  • Seventh Day Baptists organized in England in 1653. They proposed that Sunday worship arose as a result of Roman paganism, hence Saturday worship recaptures apostolic teachings. Gamble (1904).
  • Seventh Day Adventists hold that the Fourth Commandment is binding and cannot be altered, therefore, all that was required of the Jews is required of Christians. This view has been observed since Pentecost by Christians, but Constantine changed the day of worship for Christians from Saturday to Sunday in opposition to the Word of God. Notable authors are Andrews (1873), Bacchiocchi (1977-1991), Finley (1988), Shea (1991), DuPreez (2008), and McCarty (2011).
    • Early factions from Adventism, such as Church of God, Seventh Day Church of God, Church of God (7th Day), stress anti-trinitarianism and a Saturday resurrection.
    • Off-shoots of the SDA, such as Worldwide Church of God, propose that other observances of Jewish law are beneficial for the church, such as dietary laws and other calendar observances.
    • A fringe group of the SDA, Lunar Sabbatarians, believe that the Sabbath should fall on the 8th, 15th, 22nd, and 29th of each lunar month.
  • Messianic groups attempt to recapture early Jewish Christianity, McKee (2006). Some Anglo-Israelism groups believe Saturday is the proper day of the week for worship.

The purpose of this article is to begin with an expansive understanding of the players in this debate. Of course, each player brings certain presuppositions to the table, including myself.[11]

Indeed, perhaps the most important underlying presupposition has to do with authority, not merely the authority of Scriptures, but the authority of creeds and the commentary of chosen divines. The only common denominator for Catholics, Protestants, and Seventh-day Adventists is Scripture. So, unless Scripture alone informs us, then there can really be little truth-seeking dialogue between these various positions.

Protestants may boast in the fact that they hold to Scripture alone in contrast to Roman Catholics who also include as authoritative both Tradition and the Magisterium; or Seventh-day Adventists who submit to the teachings of Ellen G. White; but even Protestants may succumb to symbololatry, which Schaff defines as “a species of idolatry [that] substitutes the tyranny of a printed book for that of a living pope.”[12] That is, Protestants can hold to their confessional statements with the same unwavering commitment that they have for Scripture. But as the WCF admitted, “[creeds] are not made the rule of faith or practice; but to be used as a help in both.”[13]

Other sources outside of Scripture may be a help, but God’s word—as faithfully studied and respectfully understood as we can—must eventually be given the upper-hand.

[1] I would hope that all those who hold stock in this topic are determined to “properly” interpret the Scripture. If it were possible to agree upon sources of authority and interpretive methods then perhaps this controversy could be put to rest.
[2] See Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard; Let the Reader Understand, McCartney and Clayton; How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, Fee; Exegetical Falacies, Carson; Knowing Scripture, Sproul.
[3] Yang, Yong-Eui. Jesus and the Sabbath in Matthew’s Gospel. Sheffield, England:Sheffield Academic, 1997, p. 15.
[4] Timmer, Daniel C. Creation, Tabernacle, and Sabbath: The Sabbath Frame of Exodus 31:12-17; 35:1-3 in Exegetical and Theological Perspective. Göttingen, Germany:Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009, p. 11.
[5] Primus, John H. Holy Time: Moderate Puritanism and the Sabbath. Macon, GA:Mercer University Press, 1989, p. 75.
[6] Turretin, Francis. Institutes of Elenctic Theology. 3 vols. Dennison, ed., Musgrave, trans., Phillipsburg, NJ:P&R, 1994, p. 2:84.
[7] Murray, John. The Collected Writings of John Murray. 4 vols. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1976, p. 1:206, 208.
[8] Douma, J. The Ten Commandments. Kloosterman, trans., Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1996, p. 130.
[9] I may be inadvertently omitting some renowned proponents of these categories, and my category names are not intended to be authoritative. This is a work in progress.
[10] Bauckham, R. J. “Sabbath and Sunday in the Medieval Church in the West,” 300–309, In From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, edited by D. A. Carson, 1982. Reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1999, p. 303.
[11] Since this format invites comment, I welcome rational discussion, even pointing out places where I may have stated things incorrectly. In order to honor the Lord, please review your comments before posting and back up statements with references as applicable.
[12] Schaff, Philip. The Creeds of Christendom: With a History and Critical Notes. 3 vols. 1931. Reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996, p. 7.
[13] Westminster Confession of Faith. 1646. Reprint, Glascow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1997, p. 121.

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