Sabbath in the crossfire

An interpretative view of recent developments in the context of historic anti-Sabbath theology

Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is professor of theology and church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Few biblical doctrines have been as much under fire throughout Christian history as has the seventh-day Sabbath.

In his two-volume bibliographic survey of the Sabbath/Sunday literature from the Reformation to 1860, J. A. Hessey lists about one thousand treatises.1 In the last century an even greater number of studies on the Sabbath/Sunday question have been published. It can truly be said that the Sabbath has had no rest!

In recent times the controversy has been rekindled by three developments: (1) numerous doctoral dissertations and articles written by Sunday-keeping scholars who argue for the apostolic origin of Sunday and the abrogation of the Sabbath; (2) the abandonment of the Sabbath by former Sabbatarian organizations like the Worldwide Church of God; and (3) Pope John's newly released pastoral letter Dies Domini, which calls for a revival of Sunday observance.

This article looks at these recent developments within the larger historical context of the origin and development of the anti-Sabbath theology.

The anti-Sabbath theology

Anti-Sabbath theology goes back to the time of Roman Emperor Hadrian, who promulgated anti-Jewish legislation in A.D. 135 that categorically prohibited the practice of Judaism in general and Sabbath keeping in particular. His aim was to liquidate Judaism at a time when the Jews were experiencing resurgent Messianic expectations that exploded in violent uprisings in various parts of the empire, especially Palestine.2

At that critical time Roman authors produced a body of antisemitic literature attacking the Jews both ethnically and religiously.3 Christian authors joined the fray by producing their own anti-Jewish polemics. For example, the author of The Epistle of Barnabas (c. 130-138) defames the Jews as "wretched men" (16:1) abandoned by God because of the ancient idolatry (5:14) and rejects any historic validity to their religious practices like Sabbath keeping (15:1-8).

At about the same time Justin Martyr (c. 150) developed a "Christian" theology of Sabbath by showing contempt for the Jews and by making the Sabbath a temporary Mosaic ordinance meant solely for the Jews as "a mark to single them out for punishment they so well deserve for their infidelities."4 Justin argues that the New Covenant demands not "refraining from work on one day of the week" but "observing a perpetual Sabbath" by abstaining from sin.5

Justin's anti-Sabbath theology has been proposed in different ways through out the centuries. In recent times dispensationalists and those urging unsubstantiated views of the new covenant maintain essentially the same view: that the Sabbath is a temporary Mosaic ordinance meant only for Jews and thus not binding upon Christians, who observe the day spiritually by accepting the rest of salvation, without any cessation of work on the seventh day.

In the second century, Christians were urged to spend the Sabbath day fasting rather than feasting, a practice probably first introduced by the Gnostic Marcion (c.150), well-known for his anti-Judaic, anti-Sabbath teachings. Sabbath fasting was promoted by papal decrees in order to show, as Pope Sylvester (c. 314-335) said, separation from and "contempt for the Jews."6 The Catholic Church enforced this practice for centuries. In fact in the eleventh century, Pope Leo IX attempted to impose Sabbath fasting on the Eastern Greek churches. Their refusal to accept Sabbath fasting contributed to the historic break between the Roman (Latin) and Eastern (Greek) churches in A.D. 1054.7

The Sabbath in the Middle Ages

A new development occurred following Constantine's Sunday Law of A.D. 321. The absence of any command of Christ or the apostles to observe Sunday made it necessary for church leaders to defend its observance by appealing to the fourth commandment. This was done by arbitrarily and artificially differentiating between moral and ceremonial aspects of the Sabbath commandment. The moral aspect was understood to be the Creation ordinance to observe one-day-in-seven, while the ceremonial was interpreted to be the Mosaic specification of the seventh day. Thus, the Sabbath as the principle of one-day-in-seven was binding upon Christians, but the Sabbath as the specification of the seventh day was represented as being abolished by Christ because it was allegedly designed to aid the Jews in commemorating Creation and in experiencing spiritual rest.

This artificial distinction, articulated especially by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), became the standard rationale for defending the church's right to introduce and regulate the observance of Sunday and holy days. This resulted in an elaborate legalistic system of Sunday-keeping akin to that of the rabbinical Sabbath.8

The Reformers and the Sabbath

The sixteenth-century reformers reproposed with new qualifications the distinctions between the moral (creational) and ceremonial (Mosaic) aspects of the Sabbath. Luther upheld a radical distinction between old and new covenants. Like Marcion and Justin, he attacked the Sabbath as a Mosaic institution "specifically given to the Jewish people."9 In the Large Catechism (1529) Luther explained that the Sabbath is an external matter, like other ordinances of the Old Testament. He attached the Sabbath to particular Jewish customs, persons, and places, from which Christ has set us free.10

The Lutheran distinction between the old and new covenants, or the law and the gospel, has been adopted and developed by many contemporary denominations, including the Worldwide Church of God. These churches generally claim that the seventh day Sabbath is a Mosaic institution that Christ fulfilled and abolished. Consequently, new-covenant Christians are free from its actual observance.

Calvin rejected 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. He accepted the Sabbath as a Creation ordinance for humanity but nevertheless maintained that with "the advent of our Lord Jesus Christ, the ceremonial part of the commandment was abolished." 11 Calvin's view has been adopted by churches in the Reformed tradition, such as the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists.

The unresolved contradiction between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the fourth commandment has given rise to two main opposing views over the relationship between Sunday observance and the Sabbath commandment. On the one hand, the Catholic and Lutheran traditions emphasize the alleged ceremonial aspect of the fourth commandment, which was supposedly abolished by Christ. Consequently, they largely divorce Sunday-keeping from the Sabbath commandment, treating Sunday as an ecclesiastical institution ordained primarily to enable people to attend weekly the church service.

On the other hand, the churches of the Reformed tradition give prominence to the moral aspect of the Sabbath commandment, viewing the observance of a day of rest and worship as a Creation ordinance for humankind. Consequently, they promote Sunday keeping as the legitimate substitution and continuation of the Old Testament Sabbath.

The Sabbath in recent research

These two views are reflected in recent publications. The Lutheran view, abrogating the seventh-day Sabbath, is espoused in the symposium edited by Donald Carson, From Sabbath to Lord's Day (1982) and in Willy Rordorf s work, Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Earliest Centuries of the Christian Church (1968). Both these studies defend the thesis that seventh-day Sabbath keeping is not a Creation ordinance binding upon Christians but a Mosaic institution annulled by Christ. Consequently Sunday is not seen as the Christian Sabbath but a unique Christian creation, introduced to commemorate Christ's resurrection through the Lord's-Supper celebration.

Recently the abrogation view of the Sabbath has been adopted with some modifications by the Worldwide Church of God, whose leaders declared in 1995 that the Sabbath is a Mosaic, old covenant institution terminated at the Cross. The same view is presented in The Sabbath in Crisis, authored by Dale Ratzlaff, a former Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Both the Worldwide Church of God and Ratzlaff believe that the new covenant does not mandate the observance of any day. They claim that the Sabbath rest has been fulfilled in Christ, who daily offers the believer His salvation rest.

The Reformed tradition, which views Sunday as the Christian Sabbath, is reflected in the study by Roger T. Beckwith and William Stott, This is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday ( 1978). The authors argue that the apostles used the Sabbath to frame Sunday as their new day of rest and worship.12 Consequently, they conclude that "in the light of the New Testament as a whole, the Lord's Day can be clearly seen to be a Christian Sabbath a New Testament fulfillment to which the Old Testament Sabbath pointed."13 The practical implication of this conclusion is that Sunday should be observed not merely as an hour of worship but as "a whole day, set apart to be a holy festival... for worship, rest and works of mercy." 14 The Lord's Day Alliance actively promotes this view through its official magazine, Sunday, and its various agencies.

Papal pastoral letter Dies Domini

The preceding survey of the Sabbath/ Sunday controversy offers a historical perspective for analyzing Pope John Paul II's recent pastoral letter Dies Domini. 15 Two significant aspects of this document are (1) the theological connection between Sabbath and Sunday and (2) the call for Sunday rest legislation to facilitate Sunday observance.

A surprising aspect of the pastoral letter is the way the pope develops the theological foundation of Sunday observance by appealing to the continuity of the Sabbath commandment, rather than to the traditional distinction between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the commandment. The pope correctly notes the theological development of the Sabbath from the rest of Creation (Gen. 2:1-3; Exod. 20:8-11) to the rest of redemption (Deut. 5:12-15). He describes the Sabbath as a "kind of 'sacred architecture' of time that marks biblical revelation. It recalls that the universe and history belong to God; and without constant awareness of that truth, humanity cannot serve in the world as a coworker of the Creator" (#15).

Contrary to Dispensationalists, who emphasize the termination of the Sabbath at the Cross, the pope affirms the continuity of the Sabbath in the observance of Sunday, which embodies and preserves the theology and practice of the Sabbath. The pope states: "More than a 'replacement' of the Sabbath, therefore, Sunday is its fulfilment, and in a certain sense its extension and full expression in the ordered unfolding of the history of salvation, which reaches its culmination in Christ" (#59).

The pope maintains that New Testament Christians "made the first day after the Sabbath a festive day" because they discovered that the creative and redemptive accomplishments celebrated by the Sabbath found their "fullest expression in Christ's death and resurrection, though its definitive fulfillment will not come until the Parousia, when Christ returns in glory" (#18).

The problem, however, is that from a biblical perspective, there are no indications that New Testament Christians ever interpreted the day of Christ's resurrection as representing the fulfilment and "full expression" of the Sabbath. In fact, the New Testament attributes no liturgical significance to the day of Christ's resurrection, simply because the resurrection was seen as an existential reality experienced by living victoriously by the power of the risen Savior, and not a liturgical practice, associated with Sunday worship.

None of the utterances of the risen Savior reveal an intent to memorialize the day by making it the new Christian day of rest and worship. Biblical institutions such as the Sabbath, baptism, and the Lord's Supper all trace their origin to a divine act that established them. But there is no such divine act to sanction a weekly Sunday or annual Easter Sunday memorial of the resurrection.

Legislation needed to facilitate Sunday observance

In his pastoral letter, the pope devotes one of the five chapters (chapter 4) to emphasizing both the moral obligation of Sunday observance and the legislation needed to facilitate compliance with such an obligation. The pope finds "the underlying reasons for keeping 'the Lord's Day holy inscribed solemnly in the Ten Commandments" (#62). He appeals to the Sabbath commandment, rather than to Church councils, to justify the moral obligation of Sunday observance, because he recognizes that the fourth commandment provides the strongest moral conviction that Christians need for sanctifying the Lord's Day.

The problem, however, in this reasoning is that Sunday is not the Sabbath. The two days differ not only in their names or numbers but also in origin, meaning, and experience.

In terms of experience, for example, the essence of Sabbath keeping is the consecration of time to the Lord by giving priority to Him in one's thinking and living during the twenty-four hours of the Sabbath. By contrast, the essence of Sunday keeping as it appears in the Papal pastoral letter is attending the church service. Sunday originated as an hour of worship (Justin, Apology, 67), followed by regular secular activities. In spite of the efforts made by Constantine (321 Sunday Law), church councils, and Puritans to make Sunday into a holy day, Sunday has largely remained the Hour of Worship and not the Day of Rest and Worship. The recognition of this historical reality has made it possible in recent times to anticipate the Sunday worship obligation to Saturday evening, an increasingly popular practice not only among Catholics but even among Protestants.

To facilitate compliance with the moral obligation to observe Sunday, the pope calls upon Christians "to ensure that civil legislation respects their duty to keep Sunday holy." However, Sunday Laws have not fostered church attendance. In Western Europe, Sunday Laws have been in effect for many years, yet church attendance is considerably lower than in the United States. Second, Sunday legislation is superfluous today because the short work week already makes it possible for most people to worship on either Sabbath or Sunday.

A possible solution to the crisis of declining church attendance has been conceived in the papal letter. The letter does not call upon the State to legislate the day of rest and worship; instead, it summons Christians to live according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments. The fourth commandment is featured along with its specific command to Christians to "remember" what many have forgotten; namely, that the seventh day is holy unto the Lord our God (Exod. 20:8-11).

An important factor that has caused many Christians to forget the observance of the Sabbath is the anti-Sabbath theology that has deprived Christians of the moral conviction needed for remembering the Sabbath day to keep it holy. This the papal letter seeks to restore.


The Sabbath is still in the crossfire, but the crossfire victimizes those for whom the Sabbath was made rather than the day itself. It is depriving countless Christians of the physical, mental, and spiritual renewal provided by the Sabbath. At a time when many are seeking for rest and release, the Sabbath still invites us to stop our daily work in order to experience more fully and freely the presence, peace, and rest of Christ in our lives (Heb. 4:10).

1. J. A. Hessey, Sunday, Its Origin, History and Present Obligation (London.' Murray Pub. Co., I860).

2. See Samuele Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday: A Historical Investigation of the Rise of Sunday Observance in Early Christianity (Rome: The Pontifical Gregorian University, 1977), 178-182.

3. See Ibid., 175.

4. Justin Martyr, Dialogue With Trypho 23, The Writings of Justin Martyr, T. B. Falls, tr. (New York: Christian Heritage, 1948), 182.

5. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 12, The Writings of Justin Martyr, 166.


6. S. R. E. Humbert. Adversus Graecorum Calumnias 6, Patrologie Latina,ed.]. P. Migne (Pans: Gamier Fratres, 1844), 143,937.

7. See Bacchiocchi, From Sabbath to Sunday, 187-198.

8. See L. L. McReavy, " 'Servile Work:' The Evolution of the Present Sunday Law," Clergy Review 9 (1935), 279ft Paul K. Jewett, The Lord's Day (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 128-169.

9. Luther's Works (1958) 40:93. On Luther's views on Sabbath, see Richard Muller, Adventisten-Sabbat-Reformation (Lund: Studia Theologica Lundensia, 1979), 32-60.

10. Concordia or Book of Concord, The Symbols of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1957), 1974.

11. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972), 1:341.

12. Ibid., 26; cf. 2-12.

13. Ibid., 45, 46.

14. lbid., 141.

15. The English text of the Pastoral Letter Dies Domini was downloaded from the Vatican website: Since the document is divided into 87 paragraphs, the references in parenthesis are to the number of the paragraph.

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Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph.D., is professor of theology and church history at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

December 1998

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