Saturday, August 20, 2005

That's What I Love About Sunday

Anyone who listens to country radio at all regularly will be familiar with this song sung by Craig Morgan. Take away some of the more obviously Southern Baptist references, and the sentimental cliches conventions of the country music genre (I have neither a front porch, nor a swing on it, and the few times I've gone fishing, I used a pole of fiberglass, not cane), and I feel quite the same about this blessed day.

Others might prefer George Herbert:

O Day most calm, most bright
The fruit of this, the next world's bud,
Th'indorsement of supreme delight,
Writ by a friend, and with his blood;
The couch of time; care's balm and bay:
The week were ever dark, but for thy light:
Thy torch doth show the way

Sunday observance and the doctrine that Sunday in the New Covenant replaces or fulfills the holiness of the sabbath in the Old Testament has long been associated with the Reformed. Less commonly understood is that the Catholic church as well takes Sunday as a replacement/fulfillment of the Jewish sabbath, and a required day of rest, although in a less rigorous fashion. By contrast, Lutheran churches, as found in the LCMS's 1932 statement of faith, treat it as not a divine ordinance but a church ritual, and explicitly dissociate it from any connection with the Jewish sabbath:

We teach that in the New Testament God has abrogated the Sabbath and all the holy days prescribed for the Church of the Old Covenant, so that neither "the keeping of the Sabbath nor any other day" nor the observance of at least one specific day of the seven days of the week is ordained or commanded by God, Col. 2:16; Rom. 14:5 (Augsburg Confession, Triglot, p. 91, Paragraphs 51-60; M., p. 66).

The observance of Sunday and other church festivals is an ordinance of the Church, made by virtue of Christian liberty. (Augsburg Confession, Triglot, p. 91, Paragraphs 51-53, 60; M., p. 66; Large Catechism, Triglot, p. 603, Paragraphs 83, 85, 89, M., p. 401.) Hence Christians should not regard such ordinances as ordained by God and binding upon the conscience, Col. 2:16; Gal. 4:10. However, for the sake of Christian love and peace they should willingly observe them, Rom. 14:13; 1 Cor. 14:40. (Augsburg Confession, Triglot, p. 91, Paragraphs 53-56; M., p. 67.)

Indeed that same statement of faith specifically anathemized sabbatarianism and premillenialism as especially unacceptable:

Not to be included in the number of open questions are the following: the doctrine of the Church and the Ministry, of Sunday, of Chiliasm, and of Antichrist, these doctrines being clearly defined in Scripture.

When I first became a Christian, it was in large part through reading Puritan writings that I encountered in studying family history. The English Pilgrims and Puritans abandoned all the rest of the Christian church calendar in exchange for a particularly strict observance of Sunday. Cotton Mather, in telling the story of how the Pilgrims were disatisfied with living among the Dutch emphasized:

[The Pilgrims] could not with ten years' endeavor bring their [Dutch] neighbors particularly to any suitable observance of the Lord's Day; without which they knew that all practical religion must wither miserably.

The catechism of the Catholic church makes a remarkably similar (mutatis mutandis) argument as to Sunday being the practical foundation of church life:

The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin.

The question of Sunday became, however, the first area on which I became convinced that the Reformed churches were clearly and dramatically in error.

First of all there's the terminology issue: nowhere is Sunday referred in the New Testament to as the "Sabbath"; instead the sabbath is Saturday, what the Jews do (Colossians 2:16), and Sunday is the Lord's Day (Rev. 1:10). The very use of "sabbath" for Sunday is something I would eliminate if I could; the Romance languages and Russian have a better wall against this distortion: Latin dominica ("Lord's Day") > Spanish domingo, French dimanche, or else Russsian voskresenie ("Resurrection") for Sunday and Spanish sabado and Russian subbota "Sabbath" for Saturday.

And while Christian worship is always on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2), i.e. Sunday, nowhere is abstention from work mentioned. Indeed the tendency to place Sunday worship in the wee hours of the morning may well be related to the need to go out and work later that day. Jewish Christians may abstain from work on Saturday but they must not make it a rule for Gentile Christians (Romans 14:6). Indeed our Lord seems to have had considerable trouble from strict sabbatarians, and appears to have relativized its observance almost out of existence (Mark 2:23-28).

Let's not mention the long discussion of the Sabbath in the Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 4, which as the Apostle does in Colossians, interprets it entirely in an eschatological sense: the sabbath rest is a type of the rest to come:

For He has said somewhere concerning the seventh day: "AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY FROM ALL HIS WORKS"; and again in this passage, "THEY SHALL NOT ENTER MY REST." Therefore, since it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly had good news preached to them failed to enter because of disobedience, He again fixes a certain day, "Today," saying through David after so long a time just as has been said before, "TODAY IF YOU HEAR HIS VOICE, DO NOT HARDEN YOUR HEARTS." For if Joshua had given them rest, He would not have spoken of another day after that. So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. For the one who has entered His rest has himself also rested from his works, as God did from His. Therefore let us be diligent to enter that rest, so that no one will fall, through following the same example of disobedience. (NASB; note that the King James translates "sabbath rest" - - Gr. sabbatismos - - as simply "rest"; evidently sabbatarianism prevailed over their scholarship).

Section 15 of the Epistle to Barnabas (actually an anonymous letter of the late first or early second century later ascribed by tradition to that apostle) pursues the same argument at more length:

Furthermore it was written concerning the Sabbath in the ten words which He spake on Mount Sinai face to face with Moses. "Sanctify also the Sabbath of the Lord with pure hands and a pure heart." And in another place he says, "If My sons keep the Sabbath, then I will bestow My mercy on them." He speaks of the Sabbath at the beginning of the Creation, "And God made in six days the works of His hands and on the seventh day He made an end, and rested in it and sanctified it." Notice, children, what is the meaning of "He made an end in six days"? He means this: that the Lord will make an end of everything in six thousand years, for a day with Him means a thousand years. And He Himself is my witness when He says, "Lo, the day of the Lord shall be as a thousand years." So then, children, in six days, that is, in six thousand years, everything will be completed. "And He rested on the seventh day." This means, when His Son comes He will destroy the time of the wicked one, and will judge the godless, and will change the sun and the moon and the stars, and then He will truly rest on the seventh day. Furthermore he says, "Thou shalt sanctify it with clean hands and a pure heart." If, then, anyone has at present the power to keep holy the day which God has made holy, by being pure at heart, we are altogether deceived. See that we shall indeed keep it holy at that time, when we enjoy true rest, when we shall be able to do so because we have been made righteous ourselves and have received the promise, when there is no more sin, but all things have been made new by the Lord: then we shall be able to keep it holy because we ourselves have first been made holy. [emphasis added] Furthermore He says to them, "Your new moons and the sabbaths I cannot away with." Do you see what He means? The present sabbaths [NB: Jewish Saturdays] are not acceptable to Me, but that which I have made, in which I will give rest to all things and make the beginning of an eighth day, that is the beginning of another world. Wherefore we also celebrate with gladness the eighth day in which Jesus also rose from the dead, and was made manifest, and ascended into Heaven.

This passage is truly remarkable, not least for the connection made between sabbatarianism and a legalistic view of holiness. One may celebrate on Sunday the work which God did in Christ, but we cannot consecrate any day with heart-holiness.

Finally, there is the resounding silence on any abstention from work on Sunday. Surely living amongst pagans, the attempt of slaves, say, to avoid working on Sunday or matrons to avoid doing housework would have been a flash-point of conflict with their non-Christian family members. Given the nature of the case, it became simply unbelievable to me that either Jesus or the apostles actually taught an observance of Sunday as a sabbath on which to abstain from work, or taught any connection between their Sunday worship and the Jewish sabbath. At the time when I came to this conclusion I was still, albeit painfully, attempting to observe Sunday as a sabbath. The Reformed books on the topic, such as Call the Sabbath a Delight, made no attempt to argue that the apostles actually taught their doctrine. Rather they worked from prophetic passages (such as Isaiah 58:13 and 56:4-6) and argued that if the Bible is read as a close secret code one can apply rules to such passages to generate a somewhat literal sabbath observance. Such arguments are simply unbelievable to me now. Typology cannot be used to create doctrines that Jesus and the apostles never made. Nor can I, like the Catholics, say that Sunday as a creation by the church, is even so a day whose observance is binding on my conscience at the penalty of grave sin. The Lutheran churches alone teach about Sunday what Jesus and the apostles taught.

But I still call Sunday a delight. And Cotton Mather is not entirely wrong in saying Sunday-observance is the foundation of all practical holiness. As a matter of mercy, a legislated day of rest is a great blessing to workers everywhere. And the worship of God on the day when His Son rose from the dead is likewise most fitting. Tomorrow, after church I won't be going into the office and I won't be reading books and looking at papers for my work. I will be reading Scripture and Christian works and spending time with my family. That's what I love about Sunday, but I will never forget that my real rest will come only in the new heaven and earth.

UPDATE: I've moved the update to a new post here.