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Daily Life
Sabbath and Sunday (2)
F. G. Oosterhoff - to be published in a future issue of Una Sancta

Early Church and Middle Ages
As we saw in the first instalment, the report of the Dutch deputies on the relationship between Sabbath and Sunday concludes that the New Testament does not tell us exactly when and how the Sabbath was replaced by the first day of the week, nor does it speak of a specific day of rest under the new covenant. Because during the first three centuries Christianity was a forbidden religion, it seems probable that at that time believers met for communal worship in the morning and evening, before and after work.

In the early church, according to the report, both the Sabbath and the Sunday were kept, but there was greater stress on the contrast between Sabbath and Sunday than on any continuity. Whenever the fourth commandment was mentioned by church leaders, it was explained in a spiritual sense: the issue was not the cessation of physical labour, but the spiritual rest from evil works. When in 321 the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great, proclaimed the Sunday as day of rest throughout the Roman empire, he again did not do it with reference to the fourth commandment. Augustine (d. 430) also explained the Sabbath command in a spiritual sense.

Meanwhile the obligation to come together for worship was stressed throughout the period of the early church and again during the Middle Ages. Eventually, because of the problem of absenteeism and abuse of the Sunday, the church of the Middle Ages added the Old Testament Sabbath commandments to the civil and ecclesiastical laws regarding Sunday rest. This led to an often severe legalism with endless rules as to what was and was not allowed on the day of rest [1].

The Reformation
The Reformers held an altogether different opinion. Both Luther and Calvin rejected the sabbatarianism of the Middle Ages and returned to the view of the early church. Calvin wrote in his Institutes (Book II, Ch. VIII, par. 28-34) and elsewhere that the Sabbath has only ceremonial value: it is a sign or shadow that has been fulfilled in Christ. God's resting on the seventh day is indeed an example for us, but the Sabbath is, according to Calvin, no creation ordinance, nor is the Sunday a continuation of the Jewish Sabbath. There must be rest on the day of worship, but the rest God requires is first of all of a spiritual nature, a laying aside of our own works to let God work in us. In addition, Calvin taught, Sunday is the day when the congregation comes together in worship, and it further serves a social function – servants, slaves, and even animals receive their day of rest on Sunday.

The rest from evil works is primary, however. We must, Calvin teaches, suppress and deny our own will and work and be open to the will and work of God. He consistently rejects any legalistic and "superstitious" observance of the Sunday. At the same time he exhorts believers to observe the Sunday by faithfully attending the worship services. Calvin concludes his discussion on the fourth commandment in the Institutes with the words "…We ought especially to hold to this general doctrine: that, in order to prevent religion from either perishing or declining among us, we should diligently frequent the sacred meetings, and make use of those external aids which can promote the worship of God." It is clear, incidentally, that Calvin's teachings are reflected in Lord's Day 38.

The seventeenth century and beyond
The situation changed again some decades after Calvin's death. In the later sixteenth and throughout the seventeenth century various Reformed leaders promoted the sabbatarianism of the Middle Ages. We see this first of all in England, which had already in the Middle Ages held to an exceptionally high view of the Sunday. After the English reformation, state and church continued to enforce strict Sunday observance. A problem in England was that Henry VIII had in a single day changed the nation's religion from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism. Rulers and clergy realized that for the new religion to take root, it was essential that everyone attended the Protestant worship services. And so, when civil laws and ordinances did not succeed in abolishing absenteeism and idleness, the emphasis on the Old Testament law steadily increased. In some cases, theologians even suggested the death penalty for Sabbath breaking, just as in the Old Testament. It was common in this period to explain England's political setbacks with reference to the abuse of the Sunday and its victories to strict Sabbath observance.

A small but politically influential minority opposed these radical sabbatarian views, and by the end of the sixteenth century England's lengthy sabbatarian conflicts began. These lasted into the next century and beyond and would become a cause of the English Civil War (1642-1649). It is in this time that the Westminster Confession was drawn up (1646), which like the stricter Puritans emphasized the continuity between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian Sunday and demanded strict observance of the Sunday as day of rest. This confession became the definitive statement of English-Presbyterian doctrine on the issue and influenced non-Presbyterian churches and believers as well.

Among these were the Dutch Reformed. Early in the seventeenth century sabbatarian conflicts had broken out in Zeeland. The Synod of Dort tried to end them by means of a compromise formula, but failed. The battle flared up again after the Synod of Dort. Leaders of the opposing groups were Gijsbertus Voetius, a sabbatarian, and Franciscus Gomarus, who defended the position of Calvin and of Lord's Day 38.

The twentieth century
In spite of the teachings of Calvin and the Heidelberg Catechism, and also in spite of opposition by later theologians, sabbatarianism succeeded in establishing itself. It has shaped ethical theory and practice throughout the modern period, and that not only in Reformed circles. The same thing happened elsewhere. The churches' success in defending the Christian Sunday as day of rest has been aided by the fact that until very recently governments cooperated with them and passed legislation that guaranteed the cessation of work on Sunday whenever possible.

This is no longer the case in our days. Legislators, generally speaking, do not take Scripture as norm and guide, and neither does society as a whole. The rapid pace of secularization is not the only reason, however, for the erosion of the Sunday as day of rest. Another factor has been industrialization and the fact that in more and more industries Sunday labour is considered necessary.

This began already in the nineteenth century and played a role in the decisions of the churches of the secession. The general synods of these churches taught strict Sunday observance. All labour, except works of compassion and necessity, had to cease "in order that the wrath of God not be kindled against the congregation." Church discipline was reserved for those who disobeyed. The spread of industrialization in this period, however, soon gave rise to questions. An urgent one was: what really belongs to the category of "works of compassion and necessity"? Only the work of police and hospitals, as was formerly believed? Or also such things as, for example, the production of gas, which was widely used as source of light and for which Sunday labour was essential? The Synod of 1857 answered that question in the affirmative. It reasoned that for other sources of light far more work had to be done. Therefore believers did not break the Sabbath command by using gas light on Sunday, and employees were allowed to work in the gas factories on the day of rest. The number of such exemptions increased with time.

The great advances in technology since 1857, the rapid pace of internationalization and globalization, and the changed spiritual climate of our own days have further multiplied the problems. Today's situation makes necessary a good and open climate in the churches so that believers can speak about the ethical problems they encounter with respect to Sunday labour, and so that they can strengthen and encourage each other to make the proper choices. Those who cannot possibly avoid Sunday work must receive extra help and support. Today's situation also means that believers must redouble their efforts in defending the Sunday as day of worship.

As I hope to have shown, in the issue under discussion the Dutch synods have not departed from Scripture or confession, nor have they distanced themselves from church history. On the contrary, they have demonstrated that in the Christian Church there has always been room for different answers to the question whether Scripture clearly speaks of an absolute divine command to keep the New Testament Sunday as day of rest.

I also hope to have shown that the synods have not "frittered away" (verkwanseld) the fourth commandment, as critics have claimed. While allowing the meaning that the Sunday as day of rest is not grounded in a divine decree to stand, they also strongly emphasize the fact that the Sunday follows the model of Israel's Sabbath and is therefore in line with the fourth commandment. That command remains valid, even though, following Christ and the apostles, we interpret it in New Testament terms. In this connection we should note Leusden's statement that in the preaching it must become sufficiently clear that Lord's Day 38 speaks of a command, namely that on the day of rest we diligently attend the worship services (Acta, GSLeusden, Art. 25).

I believe that the Dutch synods have done us a favour with their in-depth study of the relationship between Sabbath and Sunday. It is true, the outcome is not what we would have expected, and it is understandable that many have followed developments with suspicion and fear. I admit that initially I did so myself. The sabbatarian tradition has been well established among us: we have all grown up with it. It has given us a sense of security in that it provided us with definite rules with respect to Sunday observance. But it has also meant that we have been tempted to keep the Sunday in a legalistic manner. The fact that on Sunday we rest first of all of our evil works was not forgotten, for Lord's Day 38 continued to be preached, but the obligation to keep the Sunday "laws" inevitably had the effect of moving the spiritual meaning to the background.

The most important contribution of the Dutch studies, in my opinion, is that they have reminded us once again that we are no longer under the old covenant. Christ revealed to us God's deepest intention with all the commandments, including the fourth. He taught us that we are not to see the Sabbath command as a regulation that we can simply follow, and so free ourselves from the absolute claim of God. This is a truth which, as we saw, the believers in the early church understood well. "These Christians," Rordorf writes, "said that it would be a misunderstanding of the Sabbath commandment if we wanted to rest on a single day and to lull ourselves with the illusion that we were in this way fulfilling God's will…." They knew that it was Christ who fulfilled the fourth commandment. Their Sabbath theology was indeed "Christocentric to the core" (pp. 296, 117).

We can still learn from these early Christians. We can also still learn from Calvin, who taught throughout his life that we keep the Sabbath commandment only when we rest from our own works and so let God work in us all the days of our lives. And therefore, Calvin warned, "whenever people are full of ‘envy, rancor, ambition, cruelty and guilt,' they break the Sabbath commandment. But when they dedicate themselves to God and submit to the guidance and governance of his Spirit, then they faithfully observe the substance of the Sabbath command" (Primus, p. 128). Calvin points out that Christians, thanks to the sacrifice of Christ, have more freedom with respect to the day of rest than the Old Testament church. The increased liberty gives also greater responsibility, however. We are to keep the Sabbath not just one day, but all our days. "From that perspective, the spiritual keeping of the Sabbath is far more demanding than the mere external observance of the day. Anyone can take external rest from labour, but only by the grace and Spirit of God can people rest from their sinful works and allow God to work in them redemptively" (Ibid., p. 129).

Conclusion: the two opinions
A problem which the Dutch synods were unable to resolve fully is that in the Christian church there are still two opinions on the relationship between Sabbath and Sunday. They had hoped to come to greater unity and had asked deputies to see whether the data relating to the issue under discussion made it possible to come to an agreement. As the foregoing shows, the deputies have not been a hundred percent successful. Nor is that surprising, in view of the fact that the dilemma has been with us for close to two thousand years.

Nevertheless, considerable commonality does exist. The deputies conclude with gratitude that both parties agree that the Sunday is to be kept as day of rest – either on the ground of the fourth commandment or because the church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit has given to the Sunday the value of day of rest according to the example of the Israel's Sabbath (Acta, GS Leusden, Art. 25). The disagreement is not about the validity of he Sabbath command, but only about what belongs to it. Is it an ellipse with two focuses, namely rest and worship, which have equal weight, or is it a circle with one focus: worship, and therefore rest? However we may answer that question, we agree that there must be rest on Sunday at least for the worship services (L.D.38), and also that there must be a day of rest.

It seems that at least for the time being we will have to live with the differences. One thing, however, is clear: we know that we may not give up meeting together but must encourage one another, and all the more so as we see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:25). And meanwhile we must defend the day of rest. As one commentator writes (J.P. de Vries, in De Reformatie, January 22, 2005): "How good would it be if our disputes about the relation between the fourth commandment and our rest on the first day of the week were changed into a powerful witness to outsiders about the rest which Christ offers and of which we may already receive a foretaste every Sunday."

1. For this section, and also for what follows, I have relied on the documents listed in the first instalment, as well as on the following: John H. Primus, Holy Time: Moderate Puritanism and the Sabbath (Mercer University Press, 1989), Willy Rordorf, Sunday: The History of the Day of Rest and Worship in the Early Centuries of the Christian Church (SCM Press, 1968); P. Visser, Zondagsrust en Zondagsheiliging (Kok, 1959).

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