Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views

 

A Review of…

Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views
Christopher John Donato, ed.
(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011)

Not all “perspectives” or “views” books are equally rewarding. Their value hinges on the success of each contributor in representing his position well and arguing his case clearly and persuasively. A failure on this score, even in degree, quickly minimizes the value of the book. And of course because many of us who pick up a book of this type have already hammered out our position to one degree or another, we hope for good challenges to our thinking from all sides. In all these ways Perspectives on the Sabbath must be judged a success. Each of the contributors helpfully presents his case and, therefore, contributes to the Christian cause of learning.

The four contributors are, in order,

Skip MacCarty, pastor, Pioneer Memorial Church, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, representing the Seventh Day Adventist position;

Joseph A. Pipa, president and professor of historical and systematic theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, representing the “Christian Sabbath” position;

Charles P. Arand, chairman, department of systematic theology, Concordia Seminary, representing the confessional Lutheran position;

Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary, representing the fulfillment view.

Following the established “views” and “perspectives” approach, each author’s case is presented in turn, followed by responses from the others. One helpful innovation in this book is the space given to the author, then, to give a final word of response, rounding out the discussion well.

Of course arguing a case well and having a good case to argue are two very different things. And besides that, we all inevitably approach such books with a bias already in place, leaving it difficult to appreciate the full weight of every argument presented by each contributor. Confessing up front my sympathy with Blomberg on this issue, and not wanting to contribute to the degree of emotion and even rancor that has too-often accompanied this particular subject, I will offer some observations that I trust are objective. I will try to limit my comments primarily to exegetical matters.

Blomberg shows an impressive grasp of the New Testament understanding of the Old Testament and in particular the significance of Christ as the “fulfiller” of the Old Testament law. His argument is heavily New Testament-oriented, highlighting the various passages that touch the Sabbath theme. He understands the Sabbath as a type of the rest realized in Christ. As I mentioned, I am in sympathy with this view, and the exegetical grounding Blomberg provides is very clearly presented and, to my mind at least, very compelling. He very helpful summarizes the arguments for his position, presenting Christ as the fulfiller of the Sabbath within the larger theme of Jesus’ fulfillment of all that was anticipated in the various types and shadows of the Old Testament.

Arand’s chapter surveys Luther’s treatment of the Ten Commandments, which I found to be fascinating and very informative reading. Luther’s understanding of the meaning and role of the first command (the first and second in the Reformed and more common evangelical enumeration) within the Decalogue offers valuable insight. And Luther’s emphasis on the role of the Word of God and the gospel preached on Sunday as what makes the day holy, strictly sustainable exegetically or not, is again a valuable insight. Arand’s position is not strictly Sabbatarian, although priority is given to Sunday as the day in which Christians are given opportunity to be sanctified by the preached Word. But at the end of it all, what Arand provides is merely an essay in historical theology and not an exegetical defense of any Sabbath position. Genuinely helpful and enjoyable as it is in itself in many respects (I am sure I will refer to it again in my exposition of the Ten Commandments!), it does not constitute a formidable polemic.

MacCarty and Pipa have much in common.

MacCarty argues that the seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday) remains binding on the new covenant believer. Pipa holds a similar view, the primary difference of course being that he holds that the Sabbath has been moved to Sunday, the first day of the week. Both heavily stress the opening verses of Genesis 2 – that God blessed and sanctified the seventh day – and present the well-known argument that here God established Sabbath observance as a “creation ordinance,” obligatory to all humanity. The exegetical evidence for this – that God here imposes a Sabbath observance of any kind on humanity – is notoriously thin. And the argument advanced by Pipa that it is not “the seventh day” after all but simply “a day in seven” that is imposed is thinner yet. The text just doesn’t say all that this argument requires of it. At the very least we must admit that there just is not enough here to persuade any but the already convinced.

Similarly, both MacCarty and Pipa appeal to “the alien who is within your gates” clause in the Sabbath command (Ex. 20:8-11) as evidence that the Sabbath is binding on Jews and Gentiles alike. But again, the text just doesn’t say that much. It is a command to Israel concerning the behavior of all those within her community. That it can be broadened to universal application is simply not something expressly warranted. And their argument that the death penalty assigned to the violation of the Sabbath indicates the perpetual character of the command or that sabbatismos in Hebrews 4:9 must refer to a Sabbath (day) observance, again, in context, will not be persuasive but to those already in agreement. And we might say the same in regard to the argument that the Sabbath is “eternal, moral law” because it is part of the Decalogue. These arguments simply lack compelling exegetical strength. Necessary as these arguments are to the case, surely something more weighty is needed to sustain them.

Similarly, in Colossians 2:16-17 and Galatians 4:10-11 Paul’s prohibits Christians to enforce the Sabbath, and when we are told that this refers not to Sabbath day observance but other “Jewish” or “legalistic” observances, we are left wondering if the original readers could have understood him in such a restricted way. The exegesis is just not compelling. So also, interpreting Jesus’ assertion that he is “Lord of the Sabbath” to mean merely that he has the right to interpret Sabbath law seems to fall far short of Jesus’ claim. Warfield stated it better: “It [the Sabbath] belongs to him. He is the Lord of it; master of it – for that is what ‘Lord’ means. He may do with it what he will: abolish it if he chooses.”1 To be sure, Jesus does not at this point abolish the Sabbath, but interpreting his claim as something less authoritative leaves the reader suspicious either that the interpreter is unable to accommodate the possible attending implications and/or that the overall argument itself is unable to accommodate all the relevant exegetical data.

On a related score – and this observation edges in to matters of hermeneutics also – the Old Testament emphasis in MacCarty and Pipa is telling. Is it too much, given a Christian Sabbatarianism, to ask that the New Testament provide us with instructions on how to keep the Sabbath in this age? Here Pipa responds to this need, surprisingly, with expositions from Isaiah. Certainly we must not deprecate the older revelation in any way. But again, is it too much to ask for New Testament instruction concerning the keeping of a day that otherwise seems to have been left behind? The specific New Testament teaching given to the church regarding the Sabbath – e.g., Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16-17; Galatians 4:10-11 – seems at first blush, at least, plainly to indicate that Sabbath observance is no longer a Christian duty. We are asked, however, to understand these passages in ways that are not immediately evident, and this not on the force of a New Testament command but on presuppositions which themselves rest on the thinnest of Old Testament exegesis.

New Testament passages such Matthew 5:17ff and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 point us in a better direction. New covenant believers ought to look first to Christ (and, by extension, his apostles) for the right understanding and application of Moses. In terms of the Sabbath this means that we now understand the Sabbath day to have been a shadow pointing forward to a reality now enjoyed in Christ (Col. 2:16-17). Coming to Jesus we find the rest (Matt. 11:28) that was previously anticipated but not fully realized in the observance of a day (Heb. 3-4) – a theme Blomberg traces out clearly and compellingly.

It might have been helpful to Blomberg’s case if he had addressed more fully the question of why Christians worship on Sunday. He highlights this up front in his article, and in most respects his answer is sufficient as is. However, more would be helpful for those looking on from a Sabbatarian perspective. There are of course good reasons for “going to church” on Sunday, even if these reasons are not tied to the Sabbath command. It would serve a non-sabbatarian position well to cover this base as thoroughly as possible in order to satisfy questions and concerns Sabbatarians inevitably will have. Indeed, perhaps he could borrow (and tweak) a page from Luther here!

Perspectives on the Sabbath is an enjoyable read throughout, certainly the best of the various views available in a single volume. And I think the various representatives generally present the best case possible for their views. But the weight of exegetical considerations in this argument seem clearly to favor the view that Christ soteriologically fulfills the Sabbath – what was previously prefigured only typologically. This book bears out this impression.

I should mention something also in regard to the pleasant tone that prevails in this volume (the only exception to this being the unnecessary charge of “antinomianism” that once made its way into one of the responses). It is, after all, an in- house debate, and the overall courtesy of the authors reflects this well. Their interaction is direct and pointed at times, as it must be in a book like this, but the mutual respect remains.

(This review was first published June 23, 2011, at www.thegospelcoalition.org)
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1. B.B. Warfield, “The Sabbath and the Word of God,” in John Meeter, Selected Shorter Writings of B.B. Warfield,” vol.
1 (P&R, 1970): 310.

~ Fred

 

Fred Zaspel

Pastor Zaspel holds a Ph.D. in historical theology from the Free University of Amsterdam. He is currently a pastor at the Reformed Baptist Church of Franconia, PA. He is also Adjunct Professor of Systematic Theology at Calvary Baptist Seminary in Lansdale, PA. He is the author of The Theology of B.B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Crossway, 2010) and Warfield on the Christian Life: Living in Light of the Gospel (Crossway, 2012).

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