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Home » Controversy Series » Evaluating the Strength of Arguments in the Sabbath/Lord’s Day Controversy, Part 1b: What are the Positions?

Evaluating the Strength of Arguments in the Sabbath/Lord’s Day Controversy, Part 1b: What are the Positions?

With a wider view of the history of the controversy and the various expressions of belief, it is time to examine how each position develops its case. There are similarities among the three major positions and, of course, differences. Below, the three major positions will be briefly evaluated. While it is helpful to understand the basic positions as presented here, it becomes even more important to understand the terminology that allows discourse, the method each position uses to state their case, the relevance of cited materials, and finally, the rules of interpretation. These latter considerations will be discussed in following parts of this series.

A Concise Summary of Positions.[1]

The Lord’s Day (LD) position posits that the Sabbath is a ceremonial law that was fulfilled like other typological laws of the OT that pointed to Christ and His work of redemption. The Lord’s Day on Sunday memorializes the resurrection with an assembly of believers, but is different in character than the Sabbath.

The Christian Sabbath (CS) position holds that the Sabbath as presented in the Ten Commandments has a moral component to it that is still applicable today—but on Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection. The Sabbath is enjoined upon all humanity as a testimony of God’s creation and as a benefit to the social structures of life.

The Saturday Sabbath (SS) position asserts that the fourth commandment is a moral law of universal importance and that it is properly observed on Saturday, the same day which Jesus and the apostles observed. Sunday worship is an aberration from apostolic practice, or worse, a sign of apostasy from the true religion.

The CS position has in common with the LD position an appreciation for the fulfillment of ceremonial laws and validates the historical precedent of first-day worship of the church. The CS position has in common with the SS position an appreciation for the enduring morality of the fourth commandment and validates the application of sabbatic laws to the church and society at large. However, the divergence between the LD and SS positions is so obtuse as to make dialogue strained and wanting for a starting place of agreement. One might be tempted to think that the middle position is the correct position because it attempts to take a conciliatory place between the extremes,[2] but it is not the relationship of a position to the contrary positions that legitimizes that view—each view must be evaluated by the soundness and merit of its own argument. It is my opinion that the CS view is the most difficult position to defend because it holds in tension the contradictory propositions of the LD and SS views.

Within the LD camp, there are two major interpretive methodologies: the Dispensational approach and the Reformed approach. The CS camp is divided by two application methodologies: the Puritanical approach and the Modern or “Continental” approach. And the SS camp two authoritative methodologies at its disposal: the Historical approach and the Prophetic approach[3]. This informs us that at the heart of understanding the truth of Scripture, we must also deal with matters of authority, interpretive methodologies, and finally a rationale for deciding the applicability of Scripture. Each of the positions works within their own framework of understanding regarding these three matters. And while the chart below provides a general relationship of specific church denominations to these six positions, it is not unusual to find exceptions. Furthermore, some denominations simply do not have clearly defined position statements on this question.

Position Authority Interpretative Method Application    Denomination
LD Dispensational Bible, Historical Records Historical-critical; Dispensational Not applicable Evangelical Free

Baptist

Pentecostal

Charismatic

Reformed Bible, Historical Records Historical-critical; Covenantal Not applicable Eastern Orthodox

Lutheran

Anglican

CS Puritanical Bible, Historical Records Historical-critical; Ecclesiastic Strict Presbyterian

Orthodox Presbyterian

Christian Reformed Church

Reformed Baptist

Continental Bible, Historical Records Historical-critical; Ecclesiastic Less Strict Roman Catholic

Presbyterian Church of America

Methodist

Congregational

SS Adventist Bible, Historical Records, Prophet Ecclesiastic authority Strict Seventh Day Baptist

Seventh-day Adventist

Churches of God

Messianic Bible, Historical Records, Leader Pastoral authority Strict Assemblies of Yawweh

To make the LD case, proponents emphasize ceremonial commandments and typology, the meaning of Law, and the differences between OT and NT law. They hope to demonstrate how the Sabbath is best understood as a ceremonial law and how Christ is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. If the Sabbath is a ceremonial law, then it does not form a basis for the weekly assembly of believers. That behavior must be based on different premises.

To advance the CS case, proponents emphasize the nature and function of the Ten Commandments as a moral force and the association of the Sabbath with God’s rest on the seventh day. They hope to demonstrate how the Sabbath is of universal authority, yet on a different day of the week. If the Sabbath is of such moral importance, then proper applications must be defined and urged upon those under church authority, and perhaps society in general.

To develop the SS case, advocates emphasize the immutability of moral law, the history of Saturday Sabbath-keeping, and the apostasy of the early church from a critical doctrine. They hope to demonstrate the importance of the proper day for Sabbath-keeping and the authority of their leader(s). Application of Sabbath law is determined by the leadership.

There is perhaps a little overlap among the three major positions because they all agree that Christians should gather together on a weekly basis to worship the Lord who redeemed them, though the LD group hosts those who take a more relaxed view of this. Secondly, each position esteems the Bible as the source and justifier of their knowledge and practice; however, the SS group hosts those who may question the exclusive authority of the Bible. Thirdly, all positions believe in the existence of moral law and the abrogation of ceremonial law, but they differ, obviously, on how to classify the Sabbath. This is why it is crucial to develop a system for understanding how an OT law is classified as ceremonial.

Overview of Notable Books.

Given these general descriptions, one might think that each position begins with a point on which the divergent groups agree, but that is rarely the case. As is to be expected, each author expresses his thoughts in some form with an underlying motivation and an established trajectory for the purposes of persuasion.

Rordorf’s (LD) Sunday examines the history of the week, the Sabbath, and Sunday as presented not only in Scripture, but in the writings of the apostolic and patristic fathers and other early church documents, in order to answer the question how Sunday came to be the chief day of Christian worship. He presents his ratiocinations with care and caution, with no villain or cacodoxy in mind, but the subtle effects of industrialization and technologia on the Christian consensus and tradition. His one mention of the Seventh-day Adventists merely enforces his view that there is a lack of clarity about the relationship of the Jewish Sabbath to the Christian Lord’s Day. Carson’s (LD-Reformed) anthology From Sabbath to Lord’s Day mentions Rordorf’s 1962 work as a precipitating factor for countless books and articles that followed. However, this topic was hotly debated four hundred years earlier between the LD and CS positions, and for the past one hundred years since the establishment of the SS position within Adventism. Indeed, Carson mentions Bacchiocchi (SS) whose book “stirred up most interest” in contemporary times with his theories about the demise of Sabbath-keeping within the early Christian community and his particular interpretations of critical passages of Scripture.[4] Bacchiocchi is often criticized for unconvincing interpretations and false reasoning, but acknowledged when his views are corroborated by the author.[5] This is perhaps the most scholarly effort to date on the topic, and very little criticism is directed at the CS or SS positions. Lincoln’s summary chapter evaluates the idea of transferring Sabbath principles to Sunday (the CS position) and finds it inconsistent.[6] Next, Ratzlaff (LD-Dispensational) writes from the perspective of one who separated from Adventism because his research pointed him to a differing understanding of the Sabbath in Christianity. Sabbath in Christ loosely follows the flow of biblical history to present his systematic understanding of the LD position and ends with four chapters on a personal level. Critical of the evangelistic methods of the SDA church, Ratzlaff exposes how the Sabbath is used to manipulate people to join their church.[7]

The CS position is well-supported by a host of articles, booklets, and books defending, investigating, and promoting this view. The Puritans were often ‘credited’ with innovating the sort of fierce Sabbath-keeping that was eventually ridiculed by modern Protestants. Dennison’s The Market Day for the Soul, Parker’s The English Sabbath, and Primus’ Holy Time explore the development of the Puritanical view of Sunday observance as influenced by the ongoing morality of the Sabbath. These are first-rate scholarly works produced in the 1980s.

For the church-goer, four additional books present the case for enjoying the Lord’s Day with a mind to the sabbatic structure of time. Chantry’s one hundred page book, Call the Sabbath a Delight, encourages readers to embrace a loftier view of the Sabbath and then moves on to explain how the Sabbath was moved to Sunday and guidelines for proper Sabbath conduct. Pipa’s The Lord’s Day advances the Christian Sabbath concept by reflecting on the benefits of Sabbath-keeping. He also explains how the Sabbath was moved to Sunday and how to prepare for and properly conduct oneself on Sunday. Ray composed his book, Celebrating the Sabbath, for study groups, and each of the eight chapters ends with plenty of review and introspective questions. Finally, On the First Day of the Week, by Campbell, presents a more thorough biblical study of the Sabbath/Lord’s Day connection as he moves from Genesis to the apostles, then from the Puritans to modern times.

These books bemoan a declining view of Sunday as Sabbath, increased business on Sunday, and the LD view that the Sabbath is an abolished ceremonial command. One would think that the CS camp is happy that a large contingent of Bible-believers continue to meet on Sunday as they do. But Chantry opens with a complaint against both pagans and evangelicals. “As you are on your way to Sunday School and public worship, you will have noticed that the highways are already filling with cars and trucks. However, you know that most of these do not have a church for their destination.” “You know that on your way home you will see church-goers lined up at the gas pumps and flocking to the restaurants.”[8] If Chantry were a real Sabbath-keeper, he would not be driving his car on Sunday, but he allows that exception for himself while decrying the exceptions that others allow themselves.

The CS camp assumes that if someone believes that the Sabbath is fulfilled, then it must mean that they do not faithfully attend church. The reason for this is that the CS camp bases its church attendance on the fourth commandment; therefore, if the LD camp thinks the fourth commandment is abrogated, then they must believe church attendance is not obligatory. To prove their case, CS advocates then state that LD individuals opt out of church in favor of other activities, as does Chantry. But the truth is that there are plenty of former CS believers who no longer go to church or who veered into liberalism. Their “high view” of the Sabbath has not been a preserving force against worldliness. Furthermore, if the LD ecclesiology endorsed a laizze faire approach to church attendance, then their congregations are not getting the message, because attendance at LD churches surpasses that of CS churches. The question that CS advocates need to ask is: On what basis does the LD camp justify weekly church attendance if not on the Sabbath? Does Hebrews 10:24-25 form a sufficient basis for encouraging regular attendance at church? How long did the church exist before some theologian suggested a moral impetus for church attendance with the Sabbath commandment?

For the Saturday Sabbath position, Bacchiocchi (SS-Adventist) authored several books about the Sabbath, beginning with From Sabbath to Sunday. While remaining staunchly a Saturday Sabbatarian, his research countered the historic position of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in two critical areas. First of all, he proposed that anti-Semitism was at the root of Sunday worship instead of the Constantine and Roman Catholic Church connection. Secondly, he admits that Colossians 2:16 is a reference to the weekly Sabbath rather than a festival Sabbath.

Adventist literature strains the communication bridge by implicating both LD and CS positions as apostates and Jew haters. The LD position, Bacchiocchi states, comes “from the ‘Christian’ theology of contempt for Jews and their religion”[9] Besides this, anyone who teaches the ceremoniality of the Sabbath is accused of “attacking the Sabbath.”[10] This accusation would never be said of someone who teaches the ceremoniality of daily sacrifices or circumcision. It is not “attacking” circumcision to state that it was abrogated. This heightened rhetoric exposes the personal attachment the author has with this particular doctrine. On the other hand, Bacchiocchi is often approving of any Sunday Sabbatarian practice as a “resdiscovery” of the Sabbath, but alas, that is Sunday-keeping, not Sabbath-keeping.[11] And to his credit, Bacchiocchi also made efforts to reach out to other institutions to find common ground. Another Adventist book, In Granite or Ingrained?, by MacCarty, is a more recent contribution that proposes that the Decalogue is written on believer’s hearts obliging them to keep Sabbath on Saturday.

Starting Places.

For example, each position agrees that there are such things as ceremonial laws. The CS group asks the LD group, “If you state that the Ten Commandments represent God’s moral law, why don’t you observe the Sabbath?” The SS group properly asks the CS group, “If you believe that the Sabbath is a moral commandment, then how can the Sabbath be moved to Sunday?” The LD group properly asks the CS and SS groups, “If you believe that the Passover is fulfilled and no longer obligatory, why not the Sabbath?” These and other questions are a good starting place to probe into someone’s understanding of the relationship between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.

For those who are interested in the topic, besides studying the Bible, it is wise to read the works of contrary positions. Listed above are a few representative books. Does the quoted text actually mean what the author says it means? Is there a logical connection from one point to another? Did the author make too much of something or are they ignoring critical information? In the end, is the author faithfully representing the scope of biblical and extra-biblical data and is the author presenting a cohesive and rational understanding of that information?

Finally, there are two books that present multiple viewpoints for further study. Perspectives on the Sabbath: 4 Views, presents the SS, CS, LD-Lutheran, and LD-Reformed positions, each chapter followed by a single critic. The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions boasts additional contributions of Jewish and Catholic persuasions, and what I label CS-Optional, again with responses of other contributors.


[1] These summary descriptions concur with the brief summaries of Bacchiocchi (SS-Adventist), The Sabbath Under Crossfire, p. 262-263; Sproul (CS-Continental), “Defining the Debate,” Tabletalk, June 1, 2011; Ratzlaff (LD-Dispensational), Sabbath in Christ, p. 13-15; Swartley (CS-Heritage), Slavery, Sabbath, War & Women, p. 65-66;

[2] This statement suffers due to anachronism. Because the SS position did not fully develop until the nineteenth century, it cannot be said that the CS position developed as a response to the other two positions; i.e., to position itself between two extreme views.

[3] The historical approach is based on direct historical research and the prophetic approach is based on personally received revelation by a church leader, i.e., Ellen White. Interestingly, MacCarty’s contribution to the book, The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions, does not cite her as an authority. Bacchiocchi quotes White only once in The Sabbath Under Crossfire.

[4] Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day, p. 15.

[5] De Lacey, “The Sabbath/Sunday Question and the Law in the Pauline Corpus,” p. 173, 182, 185.

[6] Lincoln, “From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical and Theological Perspective,” p. 390-398.

[7] Ratzlaff, Sabbath in Christ, (2003), p. 381-385.

[8] Chantry, Call the Sabbath a Delight, p. 8, 9.

[9] Bacchiocchi, The Sabbath Under Crossfire, p. 261.

[10] Ibid. p. 12, 59.

[11] Ibid. p. 263-269.

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8 Comments

  1. Manfred says:

    I’m looking forward to part deux!

  2. Manfred says:

    Reblogged this on Defending. Contending. and commented:
    Here’s part 1 of what looks to be a thought-provoking examination of a controversial topic.

  3. Looking at the churches which support the SS view, I would tend to look more closely at one of the others. Scriptures put much more emphasis on Jesus Christ, sin, salvation, how then we are to live and other essentials then on the day we chose to set aside to worship. Romans 14:5

  4. Sherry says:

    It seems a simple solution for all: rest from all physical work on the Sabbath Saturday, as God rested from His work and commanded Adam and Eve to do, and worship on the Lord’s Day, the first day of the week, as Paul and the disciples did (Acts 20:7).

  5. erica says:

    It is set out so nicely and I look forward to the next part. But I would ask why anyone would lump Sabbath in with ceremonial law? That surely had to do with the Temple and sacrifices. Their fulfillment is clearly set out in Hebrews. Sabbath was not defined as sacrifice nor something the priests did in the temple. It was something given to the people.The reason is stated in the 10 commandments… at creation God rested from His works on the seventh day. True it is a shadow of rest in Christ that we shall know in reality in the future also for the believer it is a reminder / a foretaste of that reality. Nowhere in Scripture is it even hinted that it would, could or should change.

    • Manfred says:

      erica – Where in Scripture we find anyone other than Israel to keep the Sabbath? And where do we find Christians in the Bible observing the Sabbath? We see no corporate worship in the Sabbath command, but we see that as the Christian practice. The Sabbath is described as THE sign of Mosaic Covenant – which is not something Christian are members of.

  6. Erica says:

    Except Sherry that Sabbath is also a day of convocation.

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