The Sabbath

I’ve come across a couple of webpages where folks express more shock at my re-embracement of Seventh-day Adventism than at my leaving Catholicism–it’s the idea of the Sabbath that bugs them.

The thing is, the question of Sabbath vs. Sunday is inextricably related to the authority of the Catholic Church. I came to the point where personally and theologically I could no longer accept the authority claims of the Catholic Church. I came to see these claims rooted in episcopal and papal hubris rather than in truth. Once that collapsed, I had to look at several doctrines of the Catholic Church that are rooted in ecclesial fiat rather than Scripture. On my blog, I argued quite clearly about the matter of purgatory, for example, which is rooted in Plato and Pope Gregory the Great’s ghost stories, which, once promulgated by later theologians, acquired the aura of “Tradition.” If you cut out Tradition and Reason (a fancy way of justifying adherence to pagan Greek philosphy), and accept sola scriptura, other doctrines must also fall–the Marian dogmas, of course, the idea of a sacrificial priesthood, the idea of the immortality of the soul, and the sacredness of Sunday.

Consider how Sunday is discussed in a classic Catholic catechism written by a Redemptorist priest, Rev. Peter Geiermann, The Convert’s Catechism of Catholic Doctrine. It was originally published by B. Herder in 1930, was republished through 1963, and since 1977 has been consistently published by TAN books in Rockford, IL (whose publications grace the shelves of every Catholic bookstore in Houston). It carries the imprimatur of Joseph E. Ritter, Archbishop of St. Louis at the time of its publication.

Here’s what it says about “the Third Commandment” (in the numbering used by Catholics and Lutherans):

Q. What is the Third Commandment?

A. The Third Commandment is: Remember that thou keep holy the Sabbath day.

Q. Which is the Sabbath day?

A. Saturday is the Sabbath day.

Q. Why do we observe Sunday instead of Saturday?

A. We observe Sunday instead of Saturday because the Catholic Church transferred the solemnity from Saturday to Sunday.

Q. Why did the Catholic Church substitute Sunday for Saturday?

A. The Church substituted Sunday for Saturday, because Christ rose from the dead on a Sunday, and the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles on a Sunday.

Q. By what authority did the Church substitute Sunday for Saturday?

A. The Church substituted Sunday for Saturday by the plenitude of that power which Jesus Christ bestowed upon her.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that “2175 Sunday is expressly distinguished from the sabbath which it follows chronologically every week.” It affirms that the Sabbath is an ordinance rooted in creation, and God’s own action (2168ff). It affirms that “Jesus never fails to respect the holiness of this day. He gives this law its authentic and authoritative interpretation…” (2173). Sunday is theologized as being the start of the new creation, and justified as the day of the resurrection, but its observance is grounded in Church law:

2180 The precept of the Church specifies the law of the Lord more precisely: “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound to participate in the Mass.”

Christians are to seek legislative support of Sunday:

2188 In respecting religious liberty and the common good of all, Christians should seek recognition of Sundays and the Church’s holy days as legal holidays. [Cf. Compendium, 454).

Samuele Bacchiocchi has shown in his doctoral dissertation, From Sabbath to Sunday (Pontifical Gregorian University) that Sunday observance arose in Rome, in the 2nd century, as another way to distinguish Christianity from Judaism.

The rise of the weekly Sunday observance paralleled the rise, also in Rome, of the Sunday celebration of Easter (originally celebrated on 14 Nisan); this latter was gradually imposed on the rest of the Christian world. What became known as the Quartodeciman Controversy raged from the end of the 2nd century to the time of Nicea. In 190, Victor, Bishop of Rome, tried to excommunicate the Eastern churches which observed the ancient tradition–a decree that brought him the rebuke of Irenaeus. The controversy was revived in the 4th century; the churches of Syria and Mesopotamia followed the Jewish calendar to determine the observance of Pesach–Rome and Alexandria chose a different method.

Constantine directed the Council of Nicea to settle the matter, and his letter to the bishops announcing the decision smacks of antisemitism:

It was declared to be particularly unworthy for this, the holiest of all festivals, to follow the custom of the Jews, who had soiled their hands with the most fearful of crimes, and whose minds were blinded. In rejecting their custom,(1) we may transmit to our descendants the legitimate mode of celebrating Easter, which we have observed from the time of the Saviour’s Passion to the present day. We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Saviour has shown us another way; our worship follows a more legitimate and more convenient course; and consequently, in unanimously adopting this mode, we desire, dearest brethren, to separate ourselves from the detestable company of the Jews, for it is truly shameful for us to hear them boast that without their direction we could not keep this feast. How can they be in the right, they who, after the death of the Saviour, have no longer been led by reason but by wild violence, as their delusion may urge them?

Similar anti-Jewish tirades accompany the justification of Sunday observance in the fathers of the Church.

Consider how Pope John Paul II described the growing separation of Sabbath and Sunday in his encyclical, Dies Domini:

Growing distinction from the Sabbath

23. It was this newness which the catechesis of the first centuries stressed as it sought to show the prominence of Sunday relative to the Jewish Sabbath. It was on the Sabbath that the Jewish people had to gather in the synagogue and to rest in the way prescribed by the Law. The Apostles, and in particular Saint Paul, continued initially to attend the synagogue so that there they might proclaim Jesus Christ, commenting upon “the words of the prophets which are read every Sabbath” (Acts 13:27). Some communities observed the Sabbath while also celebrating Sunday. Soon, however, the two days began to be distinguished ever more clearly, in reaction chiefly to the insistence of those Christians whose origins in Judaism made them inclined to maintain the obligation of the old Law. Saint Ignatius of Antioch writes: “If those who were living in the former state of things have come to a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath but keeping the Lord’s Day, the day on which our life has appeared through him and his death …, that mystery from which we have received our faith and in which we persevere in order to be judged disciples of Christ, our only Master, how could we then live without him, given that the prophets too, as his disciples in the Spirit, awaited him as master?”.(21) Saint Augustine notes in turn: “Therefore the Lord too has placed his seal on his day, which is the third after the Passion. In the weekly cycle, however, it is the eighth day after the seventh, that is after the Sabbath, and the first day of the week”.(22) The distinction of Sunday from the Jewish Sabbath grew ever stronger in the mind of the Church, even though there have been times in history when, because the obligation of Sunday rest was so emphasized, the Lord’s Day tended to become more like the Sabbath. Moreover, there have always been groups within Christianity which observe both the Sabbath and Sunday as “two brother days”.(23)

As Christianity spread in the Roman world and gained political authority, it began to support legislation ensuring that people rest on Sunday (and sometimes, mandating work on the Sabbath). Again, Pope John Paul II:

64. For several centuries, Christians observed Sunday simply as a day of worship, without being able to give it the specific meaning of Sabbath rest. Only in the fourth century did the civil law of the Roman Empire recognize the weekly recurrence, determining that on “the day of the sun” the judges, the people of the cities and the various trade corporations would not work. (107) Christians rejoiced to see thus removed the obstacles which until then had sometimes made observance of the Lord’s Day heroic. They could now devote themselves to prayer in common without hindrance. (108)

It would therefore be wrong to see in this legislation of the rhythm of the week a mere historical circumstance with no special significance for the Church and which she could simply set aside. Even after the fall of the Empire, the Councils did not cease to insist upon the arrangements regarding Sunday rest.

He goes on to speak of the necessity of the state supporting Sunday observance: “Therefore, also in the particular circumstances of our own time, Christians will naturally strive to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy” (67).

The Sabbath, written on stone with the finger of God, is rooted, Scripture says, in creation itself. It was given to man at the beginning of time, before sin entered the world. To keep it was to cease from work and to enter God’s own rest, putting away what is ours–even though it is good–and devoting it to God alone.

But the Church, in an age in which hostility to Judaism was on the rise, put it aside and embraced the day of the Sun. It did so by its own authority, and has consistently sought to have secular power enforce it, as we saw in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and John Paul II.

If you accept the authority of the Catholic Church, you will hear and willingly obey. If you don’t–or if you begin to doubt–you must fall back on Scripture, and the command (and example) of God. You will turn aside from your own works, and enter into his rest.

6 thoughts on “The Sabbath

  1. How do you deal with the Lutheran argument that the Law of the Sabbath, like the rest of the ceremonial Law, was abrogated in the death and resurrection of Christ and that Sunday worship is simply an exercise of Christian freedom, just as Christmas and Easter are? JPII’s own encyclical unwittingly backs this up:

    “For several centuries, Christians observed Sunday simply as a day of worship, without being able to give it the specific meaning of Sabbath rest.”

    So in fact, the early Church didn’t see Sunday as a transferral of the Sabbath to a different day by virtue of papal fiat. It must have been something else. Pure anti-semitism isn’t a sufficient explanation for this one, either. Neither the Gospels nor Acts nor the Epistles speak in a remotely Jewish way regarding the Sabbath.

  2. Let’s start with what you say at the outset: “the Law of the Sabbath, like the rest of the ceremonial Law.” Are the Ten Commandments the ceremonial law? Why should one of the commandments be different from the other nine?

  3. I see. But you don’t answer the question–how is the Sabbath different from the other nine? Clearly, the Ten Commandments are different from the ceremonial law–hence their inclusion in every Christian catechism, including the Catholic and the Lutheran. Clearly, Catholics and Lutherans believe the Ten Commandments remain relevant to Christians. The law is what gives us knowledge of sin (Romans 3:20), for sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4).

    You note that the Sabbath command is not explicit until the Ten Commandments. Neither was the command not to murder, yet Cain was punished for it.

    The Sabbath is God’s rest, initiated in creation, before sin–as the Ten Commandments state clearly in giving the justification.

  4. But you don’t answer the question–how is the Sabbath different from the other nine?

    I did when I showed how in the New Testament, Paul uses the same shadow/fulfillment language with the Sabbath that he does with circumcision. Neither he nor anyone else use this kind of language about marital fidelity.

    Clearly, the Ten Commandments are different from the ceremonial law

    The Torah is a whole unit, and you might call the 10 C’s its heart or its core. We might divide into civil/ceremonial/moral for convenience’s sake, but no one at the time did the same, nor do the NT writers. I do think that the distinction between natural law (meaning the principles of morality to which all men are subject) and Torah is a lot more helpful. The natural law is enveloped in the Torah, but is not strictly identical with it. The reason the 10 C’s are in Luther’s catechisms is that he regarded them as the best summary of natural law there is, yet he still recognized their character as part of the Torah, which is why he left off the preface and interpreted Sabbath in terms of divine worship rather than law-keeping.

    The exposition of Sabbath-keeping in the Torah is the main reason why I think it’s not part of the natural law. Sabbath observance is always mentioned in the same breath as “my people,” “my covenant,” “the land I swore to your fathers,” and so on. It’s never couched in the absolute language of “it is an abomination to the Lord” or something of that nature. Sabbath-keeping in the Torah is not just about freeing up Saturday; it’s about the whole sacrificial cult, the identity of the Hebrews and their promised land.

    I think this is apparent in the structure of the Pentateuch as well. There is no command given on Day 7 in the Genesis story. When God tells Adam that he will labor for his food, there is likewise no command. It’s not in God’s covenant with Noah. The Sabbath commandment hits you out of nowhere in Exodus 20. The tales of good and evil in Genesis feature murder, greed, and sexual immorality, but they don’t feature Sabbath-breaking. Sabbath-keeping identifies Israel’s God as the one who created heaven and earth, it centers Israel’s habitual life around divine worship, and its continual observance reminds the people that there is rest yet to come. After all, “six days shall you labor” is a reminder that they’re living with the Fall. Adam didn’t need to rest on the seventh day because he didn’t need to labor. “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread” comes after the Fall.

    Fast-forwarding to the New Testament, Paul calls the Jewish observances shadows in Galatians 4. He doesn’t do the same with marital fidelity. And when he talks in Romans 2 about the Gentiles doing “by nature what the law requires,” is he talking about Sabbath-keeping? Of course not; sans the Genesis narrative and Exodus 20, you don’t have a Sabbath ordinance. People have shown themselves generally capable of figuring out at various times and places that murder, theft, and adultery are wrong. They even figure out that you shouldn’t work yourself too hard. What they don’t figure out is that God has sanctified Saturday and wants you to refrain from all labor on that day. That’s because it’s part of God’s revelation in the Sinai covenant, not natural law.

  5. “Natural law”? How is not having idols, worshipping only one God, not taking the Lord’s name in vain “natural law”?

    Acts 15 tells the Gentiles to abstain from blood. And from “things strangled.” And from meat offered to idols. How is any of that “natural law”?

    God didn’t tell Adam any of these. God only told Noah a couple of them. God told many of them just to Moses.

    God did tell Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. That’s neither “natural” nor “sacrificial.”

    And where does Luther have this category of “natural law”? In the Large Catechism he notes that the origin of the Sabbath commandment is Genesis 2:3: “God set apart the seventh day and appointed it for rest.” Of course, then he rants about the Jews and says we don’t need to keep the outward command. He gets into some absurdity when he says, “This is the simple meaning of the commandment: People must have holidays.” Sorry, Herr Dr. Luther, but that’s not what it says–it says, “God blessed that seventh day and hallowed it.” The command doesn’t tell us to sanctify it, it tells us to remember it. But that’s one of the problems you get into when you truncate the Ten Commandments.

    So, because elsewhere in the Torah it explains the commandment means we can do away with it? The Torah explains adultery, too, and specifies who and what you can and cannot have sex with. By this logic that would do away with that command. The Torah explains idolatry. The Torah explains murder. Shall we do away with every other command that is explained later in the Torah? The command to honor your father and mother says it is so “that your life shall be long in the land the Lord gives you.” Oops, there’s “land”–does that mean we can do away with it? Paul didn’t think so (Ephesians 6).

    The only commands we need to keep are those that pagans can figure out for themselves? What then becomes of revelation? God doesn’t have commands that are due to the fact that he created us, that he redeems us, that he wishes to sanctify us?

    Does Paul really think the Gentiles do all that the law requires? Of course not! They are under condemnation–because they don’t do the law. So his point is that we will be judged by the law whether we know it or not–the point is whether we do it–and none of us do.

    God’s law, the Ten Commandments, is a revelation of his own character. It is rooted in who he is, and what he has done for us, and what he wants to do with us. All we know of that is what he has revealed to us. And if he revealed it, I think we should pay attention.

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