Cover Image: From Sabbath to Lord's Day

From Sabbath to Lord's Day:
A Biblical, Historical and Theological Investigation (ed. D. A. Carson)

Zondervan, 1982

Blurb Review by Alan F. Johnson

Review by Alan F. Johnson

This is a book about the fourth commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy" (Exod 20:8-11 NIV). It is also a book about Sunday worship and the relationship between Sabbath and Sunday. A team of seven-mostly British-scholars have undertaken to study and present a fresh interpretation of the topic that challenges the prevailing opinion throughout most of the Church on this issue.

A spate of books has been pouring out on the question of the fourth commandment and the Lord's Day in recent years (e.g. Rordorf, 1968; Francke, 1973; Jewett, 1971; Bacchiocchi, 1977; Beckwith and Stott, 1978; and others). The editor points out that this is surely due to the fact that this subject is fraught with implications involving the history of Christian doctrine, theology and ethics. In a sense it becomes a test case for one's views on the relationship between creation ordinance and law, the OT and NT, prophecy and fulfillment, and other important areas (p. 17).

In twelve tightly-packed, thoroughly-researched and well-documented chapters the authors develop their central thesis. The predominant view in the Church today holds that Sunday is the Christian day of worship and rest that corresponds to the Jewish observance of the seventh-day Sabbath. The Sabbath principle of one day in seven for rest and worship was established at creation, incorporated into the Mosaic code, and formally presented as moral law. Furthermore this view states that the Lord's resurrection on the first day of the week effected a legitimate shift to Sunday.

Contrary to the above understanding the present authors offer a reconstructed interpretation. First of all they deny four assumptions of the predominant viewpoint: (1) that the NT unambiguously develops a transfer theology from Sabbath to Sunday; (2) that the OT links the Sabbath command to a creation ordinance, thus making it a permanent norm; (3) that Sunday observance arose in the second century rather than in the apostolic Church; and (4) that the NT develops patterns of continuity and discontinuity to the OT law on the basis of the paradigm: moral/civil/ceremonial distinctions.

Instead they affirm that (1) Sunday worship arose in the NT period and that (2) Sunday worship was not perceived as the Sabbath in NT times. Furthermore the book argues that its intention is not "to challenge the value of the existing institution of Sunday as still in some form a weekly recreation and rest day, or to enter the debate about whether and how Christians should seek to have their preferences legislated for others in a pluralistic society. It is our intention, however, to challenge the view that gives biblical status to this Sunday tradition as binding for the individual or the church, and to challenge the theology that has been developed to give this support" (p. 403).

While one can grasp well the argument of the whole by reading the introductory chapter and the last chapter, the real substance of the book lies in the detailed Biblical and historical examination. In a series of heavily documented chapters (each averages 100-200 footnotes-often explanatory) arranged generally in an historical framework, the authors have meticulously explored the question of the Sabbath day, law and Sunday (the Lord's day) worship. Some of the more significant chapters are reviewed below.

Harold H. P. Dressler sets forth a brief but excellent discussion of the Sabbath in the OT. The origin of the Sabbath and the seven-day week are traced back exclusively to the Hebrew people. It predates Sinai (no exact time is postulated) but is clearly articulated in the Mosaic legislation in commands that prohibit daily work (Exod 20:10) and prescribe death for violations (31:14). Dressler identifies two overarching purposes of the Sabbath observance: (1) It functions religiously as a sign of the perpetual Mosaic covenant between God and his people, which reminds them of his grace, his holiness and his authority over their lives; and (2) the Sabbath provides a social or humanitarian rest from work for persons and animals patterned after the seventh-day rest of creation. This rest of God in creation, the author argues, is not a creation ordinance but an eschatological mystery pointing to the final goal of all creation in the redemption revealed in the NT. The Sabbath, then, is not a universal ordinance for all mankind but a specific institution for Israel.

With equal expertise but more lengthy exposition, editor Carson explores exegetically the evidence in the four gospels. It is argued that Jesus never contravened the Sabbath itself but did set aside halakah regulations attached to the fourth commandment. Jesus views the law as prophetic of himself and his ministry. It is in this context, Carson claims, that the Sabbath rest is best understood as an eschatological sign of final salvation rest fulfilled in Jesus and hinted at in John 5. In any event the author argues that nowhere in Christ's teaching is the Sabbath viewed as a moral law and thus permanently binding on the Church, nor is there any hint in the gospels that Sunday takes on the character of Sabbath rest.

Next, Max M. B. Turner takes up the question of Sabbath, Sunday and the Law in Luke/ Acts. Contrary to Seventh Day Adventist Bacchiocchi's impressive study, Turner argues against the view that Jesus identified his redemptive ministry with the Sabbath day itself in any significant way. Rather Luke sets forth Jesus as the one who fulfills the Law in the sense of promise-fulfillment by both validation of the Law and his transcending of it in his own demands (cf. R. Banks' similar thesis in Jesus and the Law in the Synoptic Tradition). The author also provides an extensive critique of J. Jervell's recent work (Luke and the People of God) by arguing that the Jerusalem council in principle made a break with the Law and instead exalted the lordship of Christ by the Spirit and its corollary, a new covenant people. Finally, Turner challenges Bacchiocchi's thesis that early NT Christianity observed the new Christian Sabbath on the seventh day (Sunday worship begins in the post-NT period in Rome) and also Beckwith's view that after the resurrection the Sabbath stripped of its casuistry was transferred from the seventh day to the first day of the week. Instead he sees in Acts 20:7 (and possibly 1 Cor 16:2) the beginnings of Sunday worship. Yet in the period covered by the book of Acts "there is no suggestion of a day of rest, nor even that Sunday has as yet an exclusive place in church worship compared to the other days of the week" (p. 137).

In chapter six D. R. De Lacey treats the Sabbath/Sunday question and the Law in the Pauline corpus. Paul's attitude toward the fourth commandment is part of the apostle's understanding of the whole old covenant Law question. After Paul's conversion to Christ the Law no longer played any role in his life. Instead of the old covenant with its legal stipulations the Christian now fulfills his obligations to God by fulfilling the law of love, by walking in the Spirit. Love and the Spirit keep Christian obedience from degenerating into formal legalism. It would have been helpful at this point if De Lacey could have told us also how Christian love might be preserved from degenerating into situational antinomianism. According to De Lacey Paul indeed did continue his Sabbath keeping (Acts 21:26; 23:6; etc.), but as a matter of individual conscience and not divine requirement. As to Sunday observance Paul neither forbids it nor imposes it on all Christians.

A brief theological and exegetical chapter by Andrew T. Lincoln explores the concepts of Sabbath, rest and eschatology in the NT. He concludes that the mystical Sabbath rest of God on the seventh day of creation was an eschatological anticipation of the rest of salvation, fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Lincoln stresses that the theology of the NT writers did not include a transference of the rest of the seventh day to rest on the first day (p. 216).

At the core of the book are four historical chapters written by R. J. Bauckham. This material is excellent and well worth the price of the book. First, Bauckham presents a thorough exegetical and historical study on the term "the Lord's day" (chap. 8). He concludes that while it cannot be proved that Sunday worship began as early as the resurrection appearances, the evidence does tend to support the view that it began in the earliest Palestinian churches. Furthermore in all the early sources the "Lord's day" (Rev 1:10) is connected with Sunday, which is the day of resurrection.

Bauckham then examines the Sabbath and Sunday in the post-apostolic Church (chap. 9), in the medieval Church in the west (chap. 10), and in the Protestant tradition to the present (chap. 11). He argues that the Sabbath rest idea became associated with the Lord's day (Sunday) not in the patristic but in the medieval period. While the Jewish-Christian communities of Syria and Palestine as well as certain gnostic groups continued to keep the Sabbath, it is not until the third-fourth century that Gentile-Christian Sabbath observance occurs, apparently motivated by the desire of Christians to adopt certain customs from their Jewish neighbors. But the official Church leadership frowned on the practice, and the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 380) ruled against resting on the Sabbath, interpreting the Sabbath metaphorically or religiously, not as physical rest but as devotion to God of the whole life, not just one day but every day. The literal commandment to rest was for all these writers of the period a temporary ordinance for Israel alone. They do not refer to the fourth commandment at all in their paraenetic use of the Decalogue. Bauckham takes sharp issue with the principal defender of Sabbatarianism, S. Bacchiocchi, who holds that Sunday observance began in the second century primarily due to the bishop of Rome who syncretized the Christian day of worship with the pagan sun cult (pp. 269-273). Instead the author argues that in the second century the Sabbath commandment was never applied to the Christian Sunday, and there is no evidence that Sunday was regarded as a day of rest (p. 274). How the idea of "rest" on Sunday came into the Christian Church is quite complex. "Eighth-day" terminology for Sunday lent itself to connections with both eschatological rest and gnostic cosmological rest. The earliest clear reference to Sunday as a day free from work is in the fourth-century legislation of Constantine (A.D. 321), which required the total, public rest from work "on the most honorable day of the Sun." Eusebius (A.D. 330), on the other hand, provides the first extant Christian claim that the Sabbath has been transferred to Sunday. But in Eusebius it is the idea of a day of priestly worship that is transferred to Sunday, not a day of physical rest. The priests who worship, not the people who rest, provides the parallel. Most Christian writers of the third and fourth centuries ignore the "rest" idea because of antipathy to the view of Jewish "idleness" on the Sabbath.

In spite of the Constantinian legislation, Bauckham argues that true Sabbatarianism was a medieval, not a patristic, development. Although rooted in Augustine's theology, which included the central place of the Decalogue in Christian morality and the central image of the Sabbath understood spiritually as the rest in God of the restless heart, medieval theologians imposed more rigorous decrees on the strict observance of Sunday as a day of worship and physical rest (because it prevented the distraction of the mind from God). Aquinas argued that the fourth commandment had both a ceremonial and a moral aspect. The moral aspect required a man "to set aside some time for the things of God," but the ceremonial aspect, which required this time to be the seventh day, was abrogated by Christ. Thus a Sabbatarianism grounded in natural moral law became the basis of Catholic practice from the medieval age to the present.

Protestant tradition, on the other hand, in Luther first reacted against the strict Sabbatarianism of the medievalists, then reintroduced the practice in English Puritanism with even more rigor than the earlier churchmen. Total abstinence from not only work but all sports, pastimes and even worldly words and thoughts became obligatory for the vast majority of seventeenth-century Puritans. All of this was to allow the whole day (Sunday) to be devoted to worship and such Christian deeds of piety, mercy and charity as visiting the sick and relieving the poor as well as devotional reading, singing and prayers. However, the period also saw notable nonconformist non-Sabbatarian proponents such as John Milton (seventeenth century), William Paley (1785), Robert Barclay (1678), Philip Doddridge (1763) and J. A. Hessey (1860). At this time Seventh-Day Sabbatarianism also emerged in two major expressions. Earlier proponents of this position were mainly attached to the Seventh-Day Baptist churches (England in 1668 and America in 1671) who followed the Puritan doctrine except that they insisted on its attachment to Saturday and not Sunday (an invention of the papal Antichrist). Later the Seventh-Day Adventists (1840s) emerged as the largest group embodying these same convictions. Their chief scholarly evidence is presented in the impressive study of S. Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity (Rome, 1972). Sabbath observance, then, for over two million Christians of this persuasion "becomes a banner of loyalty to God in the last-day climax of prophetic fulfillment" (cf. Rev 14:12-a text close to the center of Adventist belief).

Finally, chap. 12 reviews the Biblical and historical evidence presented in the previous chapters and attempts to develop a theological proposal of the Sabbath-Sunday issue. Andrew Lincoln holds the anchor position, and for those who do not have the time to wade through the detailed evidence of the previous chapters this chapter provides an excellent summary of the whole work. Lincoln argues that the position in this book differs from the Adventist view not only on historical and Biblical evidence but also on the grounds that these confessedly most consistent Sabbatarians "fail to do justice to the newness of the eschatological situation brought about by God's actions in Christ and therefore to the discontinuity between Old and New Covenants" (p. 401). Equally this thesis differs sharply from those who view Sunday as the Christian Sabbath (argued for by R. T. Beckwith and W. Stott in This Is The Day, 1978). It differs also from the somewhat modified Sabbath-transference view espoused by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of the Church, in which the most important claim made for Sunday is that it is a feast day and thus a day of rest for worship. Likewise the position finds fault with Barth's "holy day" view and P. K. Jewett's The Lord's Day (1971) in that the latter's Biblical exegesis and historical treatment are deficient and lead to false conclusions.

Finding W. Rordorf's work, Sunday (1968), close to their view they take exception to his view of Jesus' opposed negative attitude toward the Sabbath as well as to the connection he sees between the Lord's day and the Lord's supper.

Rather, the Sabbath rest of creation was temporarily and literally embodied in the Mosaic Law as a memorial of Israel's deliverance from Egypt and a sign of God's redemptive goal for mankind. Jesus fulfills the Sabbath rest in his death and resurrection. The first day of the week, the day of resurrection, becomes the memorial of the new creation of Christ. Yet the Lord's day also prefigures the future final rest of the consummation. Lincoln states that "it is the celebration on the Lord's day of the rest we already have through Christ's resurrection that now anticipates and guarantees the rest that is yet to be" (p. 399). Should Christians then rest at all? The position here advocated strongly suggests that this rest can be any day or extended part of a day, including Sunday, but that there is no Biblical or compelling theological reason why it has to be Sunday.

How should all this evidence be judged? There is a mine of historical information, but historians will have to assess the accuracy and validity of Bauckham's material and interpretation. As far as the Biblical discussions are concerned they are careful pieces of sound exegetical method. This reviewer finds on the whole only minor points of criticism in this area. Theologically the book develops a convincing and coherent proposal based on the Biblical-historical reconstructions. However, the issues raised go to the heart of larger theological matters such as the relationship of the NT to the OT, the Christian and the Law, and ethical theory and its implications. Therefore the authors' proposals will face stiff opposition especially from Reformed, Catholic and Anglo-Catholic interpreters, not to mention Seventh-Day Adventists. Since Sabbatarianism in varying degrees has found a home in most of the contemporary Christian Church, I predict it will not easily yield to even this brilliant argumentation. However, I confess that this book has significantly influenced my thinking.

From Sabbath to Lord's Day will easily take its place as the work to be answered or agreed with in future discussions on the subject. The editor and contributors are to be commended for creating an excellent scholarly and careful piece. I warmly commend it to pastors, scholars and students as a must on their reading agenda.

Review by Alan F. Johnson

This review first appeared in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 27:2 [1984] and is used here with permission. No part of this review may be copied or transmitted in any form without the prior permission of the publisher.

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