Keith Hunt - Divine Rest - Page Four   Restitution of All Things

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Divine Rest for Human Restlessness #4

Short history of Sabbath debate


From Dr.Samuele Bacchiocchi's book by the same name

Continued from previous page:


     Radical reformers promoted two opposing views regarding the
Sabbath. One group, mentioned earlier, pressed to its logical
conclusion the Lutheran distinction be tween the Old and New
Testaments, rejecting the observance of the Sabbath or of any
day, as part of the Mosaic dispensation which Christ had
fulfilled and replaced with the dispensation of Grace. Another
group, however, pursued the logical implications of the
Calvinistic unity between the two Testaments, accepting and
promoting the observance of the seventh day Sabbath as a creation
ordinance meant for all time and people. We shall call the latter
"Sabbatarians," a name frequently given to them by their
opponents. Recent studies have shown that Sabbatarians
constituted a respectable group at the time of the Reformation,
especially in such places as Moravia, Bohemia, Austria and
Silesia. In fact, in some Catholic catalogues of sects, they are
listed immediately after the Lutherans and Calvinists. Erasmus
(1466-1536) mentions the existence of Sabbatarians in Bohemia:
"Now I hear that among the Bohemians a new kind of Jews are
springing up, whom they call Sabbatarii, who serve the Sabbath
with great supersti tion." Similarly, Luther reports on the
existence of Sabbatarian groups in Moravia and Austria. In fact,
in 1538 Luther wrote a "Letter Against the Sabbatarians" (Brief
wider die Sabbathers), arguing from the Bible against their
observance of the seventh-day Sabbath.

     Oswald Glait, a former Catholic priest who became first a
Lutheran and then an Anabaptist minister, began in 1527 or 1528
successfully to propagate his Sabbatarian views among Anabap-
tists in Moravia, Silesia and Bohemia. He was supported by the
learned Andreas Fisher, also a former priest and Anabaptist.
     Glait wrote a Booklet on the Sabbath (Buchlenn vom
Sabbath-about 1530) which is not extant. From a refutation of
Glait's book by Caspar Schwenckfeld we learn that Glait
maintained the unity of the Old and New Testaments, accepting the
validity and relevance of the Decalogue for the Christian
dispensation. Glait rejected the contention of his critics that
the Sabbath commandment is a ceremonial law like circumcision. He
held instead that the "Sabbath is commanded and kept from the
beginning of creation." God enjoined "Adam in paradise to
celebrate the Sabbath." Therefore "the Sabbath ... is an eternal
sign of hope and a memorial of creation ... an eternal covenant
to be kept as long as the world stands." On account of this
teaching, Glait faced expulsions, persecutions and finally death
by drowning in the Danube (1546).
     The death of Glait, perhaps the most prominent leader of the
Sabbatarian Anabaptists, did not stop the propagation of the
Sabbath doctrine. This is indicated by the existence of
seventh-day Sabbathkeepers at the time of the Reformation in
several European countries such as Poland, Holland, Germany,
France, Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Finland and Sweden. In the
seventeenth century their presence became particularly felt in
England.  This is indicated by the fact that, as noted by R. J.
Bauckham, "an impressive succession of Puritan and Anglican
spokesmen addressed themselves to combatting the seventh day ...
Their efforts are a tacit admission of the attraction which the
doctrine exercised in the seventeenth century, and seventh day
observers ... were harshly treated by Puritan and Anglican
authorities." The Seventh Day Baptists became the leading
Sabbatarian church in England. Their first church in America was
founded at Newport, Rhode Island, in December 1671. Seventh-day
Adventists gratefully acknowledge their indebtedness to Seventh
Day Baptists for bringing to them knowledge of the Sabbath in
1845. A few years later (1860) the Sabbath was accepted as a
creation ordinance by what became known as the Church of God
Seventh Day. In more recent times this teaching has been adopted
by the Worldwide Church of God and by scores of smaller
denominations. (The Worldwide Church of God about 1990 rejected
the Sabbath, that group has pretty well disappeared from the face
vof the earth, or been absorbed into Protestantism. A number of
groups from the WCG have formed, not ready to depart from 7th day
Sabbath keeping - Keith Hunt)

Reformed tradition. 

     Churches in the Reformed tradition, such as English
Puritans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and
Baptists, adopted what might be called a "compromise position,"
on the one hand acknowledging the Sabbath as a creation
ordinance, while on the other hand defending Sunday as a
legitimate substitution of the Sabbath accomplished by the
Church. They generally distinguished between the temporal and the
spiritual observance of Sunday. Calvin can rightly be regarded as
the pioneer and promoter of this view which exerted far-reaching
influence, especially in Anglo-American Puritan Sabbatarianism.
The basis of Calvin's teaching regarding the Sabbath is to be
found in his rejection of Luther's antithesis between Law and
Gospel. In his effort to maintain the basic unity of the Old and
New Testaments, Calvin Christianized the Law, spiritualizing, at
least in part, the Sabbath commandment.
     Calvin explicitly acknowledges the Sabbath as a divine
ordinance established at creation. In his Commentary on Genesis
2:3, written in 1554, he affirms: "First, therefore, God rested;
then he blessed this rest, that in all ages it might be held
sacred among men: or he dedicated every seventh day to rest, that
his own example might be a perpetual rule." He reiterated the
same conviction one year before his death (1564) in his Harmony
of the Pentateuch, saying: "Certainly God took the seventh day
for His own and hallowed it, when the creation of the world was
finished, that He might keep His servants altogether free from
every care, for the consideration of the beauty, excellence and
fitness of His works." A few paragraphs later, Calvin explains
that "the hallowing of the Sabbath, was prior to the law." God
reiterated the precept at the time of Moses, because in the
meantime it had become "altogether extinct among heathen nations,
and almost obsolete with the race of Abraham." 
     How did Calvin reconcile his acceptance of the Sabbath as a
creation ordinance for mankind with his view "there can be no
doubt, that, on the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the
ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished"? In other
words, how can the Sabbath be at the same time both a creation
ordinance for all and a Jewish ceremonial (Mosaic) law abolished
by Christ? Calvin attempted to resolve this tension by
re-proposing with new qualifications Aquinas' distinction between
the moral and ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath. At creation the
Sabbath was given as a perpetual ordinance but "afterwards in the
Law, a new precept concerning the Sabbath was given, which should
be peculiar to the Jews, and but for a season."  What is the
difference between the Jewish (Mosaic) Sabbath and the Christian
(creation) Sabbath? The difference is not easy to detect,
especially for someone not trained to distinguish theological
nuances. Calvin describes the Jewish Sabbath as being "typical"
(symbolic), that is, "a legal ceremony shadowing forth a
spiritual rest, the truth of which was manifested in Christ." The
Christian Sabbath [Sunday] on the other hand is "without figure."
     By this he apparently means that it is a more pragmatic
institution, designed to accomplish three basic objectives:
first, to allow God to work in us; second, to provide time for
meditation and church services; third, to protect dependent
     An unresolved contradiction. Calvin's attempt to resolve the
tension between the Sabbath as "a creation perpetual ordinance"
and as "a ceremonial temporal law" can hardly be considered
successful. Did not the Sabbath fulfill the same pragmatic
functions for the Jews as it does for the Christians? Moreover,
by teaching that for Christians the Sabbath represents
"self-renunciation" and the "true rest" of the Gospel, did not
Calvin also attribute to the day a "theological-symbolic"
significance, much like the type he assigned to the Jewish
Sabbath? This unresolved tension can be followed in the teaching
of Calvin's successors and has been the cause of endless
controversies. For example, Zacharias Ursinus, the compiler of
that important Reformed confession known as "Heidelberg
Catechism" (1563), teaches that "the Sabbath of the seventh day
was appointed of God from the very beginning of the world, to
declare that men, after His example, should rest from their
labours," and "although the ceremonial Sabbath has been abolished
in the New Testament, yet the moral still continues and pertains
to us as well as to others." This position was later defended
tenaciously in the monumental work, "The Doctrine of the
Sabbath," written in 1595 by the famous English Puritan Nicolas
Bownde, as well as in other confessional documents such as the
"Synod of Dort" of 1619 and the "Westminster Confession of Faith"
of 1647.
     These and similar documents fail to offer a rational
explanation for the artificial and arbitrary distinction between
the socalled moral (constant, perpetual, natural) aspect of the
Sabbath applied to Sunday and its ceremonial (contingent,
temporary, Mosaic) aspect supposedly annulled by Christ. To
contend that the specification of the seventh day is a ceremonial
element of the Sabbath, because it was designed to aid the Jews
in commemorating creation and in experiencing spiritual rest,
means to be blind to the fact that Christians need such an aid
just as much as the Jews; it means to leave Christians confused
as to the reasons for devoting one day to the worship of God. R.
J. Bauckham acknowledges the existence of such a confusion when
he notes that most "Protestants in the mid-sixteenth century had
as imprecise ideas about the basis of Sunday observance as most
Christians at most times have had." 

     The unresolved contradiction between the moral and
ceremonial aspects of the Fourth Commandment has aroused
recurrent controversies over the relationship between Sunday and
the Sabbath commandment. Truly the Sabbath has had no rest. The
moral/ceremonial distinction of the Sabbath has led to two major
opposing views of Sunday. In the Netherlands, for example, the
two views were hotly debated during more than a decade after
Synod of Dort (1619). On the one side, Dutch theologians such as
Willem Teellinck, William Ames, and Antonius Walaeus wrote major
treatises defending the creation origin of the Sabbath and thus
the legitimate application of the Fourth Commandment to the
observance of Sunday. On the other side, a leading professor,
Franciscus Gomarus, produced a major response entitled "Enquiry
into the Meaning and Origin of the Sabbath and Consideration of
the Institution of the Lord's Day" (1628), in which he argues for
a Mosaic origin of the Sabbath and consequently for an
independent ecclesiastical origin of Sunday.

     The debate over these two conflicting positions has flared
up time and again in different countries and no reconciliation
appears yet to be in sight. A fitting example is provided by the
publication of two recent studies, one by Willy Rordorf (1968)
and the other by Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott (1978).
     Rordorf espouses the thesis that the Sabbath is not a
creation ordinance binding upon Christians, but a "social
institution" introduced after the occupation of Canaan and
annulled by Christ. He thus divorces Sunday completely from the
Fourth Commandment, viewing the day as an exclusively Christian
creation, introduced to celebrate Christ's resurrection through
the Lord's Supper celebration. By severing all links with the
Sabbath commandment, Rordorf reduces Sunday to an hour of worship
which could be scheduled in accordance with the demands of modern
life. The practical implications of this position are obvious. If
fully carried out, it could prove to be "the death certificate of
Sunday," since in time even the hour of worship could readily be
squeezed out of the hectic schedule of modern life.
     Beckwith and Stott, in their book "This is the Day: The
Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday" (1978), challenge
Rordorf's thesis, by arguing that the Sabbath is a creation
ordinance, which Christ did not reject but accepted and clarified
and which the Apostles used to frame the Lord's Day. Consequently
they conclude that, "when viewed in the light of the New
Testament as a whole, the Lord's Day can clearly be seen to be a
Christian sabbath - a New Testament fulfillment to which the Old
Testament sabbath points forward." The practical implication of
their conclusions is that Sunday is not merely an hour of
worship, as argued by Rordorf, but "a whole day, set apart to be
a holy festival ... for worship, rest and works of mercy."  Our
immediate concern is not to respond to the respective positions
of Rordorf and Beckwith/Stott, which, as I have shown in my
published dissertation, contain several gratuitous assumptions.
Rather, the reader is requested to take notice at this point that
the controversy over the origin and nature of the Sabbath is far
from over. What is at stake is not merely an academic dispute,
but the question of the very meaning and relevance of the Sabbath
for the Christian life.


     Three main conclusions seem to stand out from the sketch we
have traced of the Biblical and historical witness to the origin
of the Sabbath. 
     First, there is in the Scriptures an un mistakable consensus
supporting the creation origin of the Sabbath. 
     Second, a major and the oldest Jewish tradition traces the
origin of the Sabbath back to the culmination of creation. 
     Third, we have found in the history of Christianity
considerable support for the Edenic origin of the Sabbath, not
only among seventh-day Sabbath keepers but also among many Sunday

     The latter have defended the Sabbath as a creation ordinance
in order to justify Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. The
challenge to the Creation Sabbath has come chiefly from two
fronts: on one side, from Christians who resent and react against
legalistic Sabbatarianism; on the other side, from critical
scholars who reject the historicity of the Pentateuch and
especially of the creation story.
     To argue at this point on the basis of a presumable
preponderant historical support for the validity of the Sabbath
as, a creation ordinance would make historical outworking the
criterion for accepting or rejecting any Biblical doctrine.
     Majority vote, however, is not an accepted principle of
Biblical interpretation (hermeneutics). Our survey is merely
designed to show that belief in creation Sabbath is deeply rooted
in both Scripture and history. To reject such a teaching by
labeling it as "superstitious, legalistic or inconsistent with
modern science" may lead to self-deception, for such labeling
does not in honesty explain away a Biblical precept nor relieve
the Christian from its obligation.

     Our present quest has shown that, according to the unanimous
testimony of the Scriptures, the origin of the Sabbath is rooted
in the creation event and marks the inauguration of human
history. What are some of the practical implications of this
Biblical teaching for the Christian faith? 

     In the first place, it means that Sabbathkeeping is not a
temporary Jewish ceremonial law, but a permanent precept
pertaining to all creatures. 
     Second, it means, as so well stated by Elizabeth E. Platt,
that "we have our roots in the Sabbath; we belong in it from
Genesis on into Eternity in God's plan."     
     Third, it means that our ancestral roots are indeed good,
because they are rooted in God Himself. 
     Last, it means that our world and our existence have value
because they are not a product of chance but a personal creation
of a loving God?

     We no longer live in the perfect beginning but in an
imperfect middle: an age characterized by injustice, greed,
violence, corruption, suffering and death. In the midst of the
chaos and disorder of our age, we seek for certainty, meaning and
hope. The Sabbath brings us weekly reassurance and hope. It
reassures us that our origin and destiny are rooted in God. It
provides us with a sense of continuity with the past and a hope
for the future. It invites us to rest in God while living in a
restless middle and waiting for that end (yet endless) rest and
peace of God (Heb.4:9) for which we were created. This is then
the message of the creation Sabbath: Good News of Human Roots.


To be continued

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