Saturday, August 20, 2011

Perspectives on the Sabbath

Chris Donato was on Reformed Forum to talk about his book Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views. You can download the episode in podcast form here.

I reviewed Donato's book back in July, but I still have not shared it here at Bring the Books. And so here it is: my review of Perspectives on the Sabbath.

Review: Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views
ed. Christopher John Donato
Released: April 1, 2011
Publisher: B&H Academic
For Purchase at Westminster Books
420 Pages

I would venture to guess that most Christians have not thought about the issue of the Sabbath before. Many, like myself, have always assumed that they ought to attend worship on Sundays out of tradition, but maybe haven't considered what it really means, theologically speaking. A large contingent of the church thinks that Sabbath observance is fulfilled if one attends religious services.

Thankfully, if you're ignorant in this area, there is a solution. Chris Donato has edited a new volume devoted to letting the four major views on the Sabbath duke it out. The format is familiar, with the first chapter being devoted to the author defending his view. In the next chapter, each of the remaining three views have an opportunity to weigh in, and then of course, the original author is given a chance to respond to the other three in a few brief pages, wrapping things up. To the editor’s credit, enough space is given (400+ pages total) to deal substantially with each view. As a point of reference, other volumes from the same series are less than half the size of this one.

The four perspectives being shared in this book could be separated into two units: those who say that the Sabbath commandments are still binding, and those who say that the Sabbath commandments are no longer binding. The first half of the book covers the two views arguing for a continuing Sabbath. Skip MacCarty, as I mentioned before, begins by defending the Seventh Day Sabbath view. In Part II, Joseph Pipa defends what he calls (to the chagrin of the other contributors) the Christian Sabbath view. After this, we are introduced to the two views who say that Sabbath Commandments are no longer binding. In Part III Charles Arand spends his time laying out Luther’s view of the Sabbath. Finally in Part IV, Craig Blomberg lays out the Fulfilled Sabbath view.

Skip MacCarty: Seventh Day Sabbath View
MacCarty emphasizes the permanency of the Sabbath as being rooted in the opening chapters of Genesis and argues that it is a persistent observance instituted at the beginning of creation, rooted in the creative act and resting of God after that creation act. For MacCarty, it is significant that the Sabbath is never explicitly overturned, and that there is no explicit command in the NT for the Church to begin worshipping on Sundays.

A large amount of MacCarty's essay is devoted to establishing distinctions between the New and Old Covenant, since an obvious conclusion to draw from the smoother continuity found in MacCarty's view would be to suggest that MacCarty does not see a difference between the Old and New Covenants. MacCarty adeptly demonstrates that one can hold to the persistence of the Sabbath and still clearly distinguish Old and New.

The differences between MacCarty and Pipa's view are really very minimal, relative to the other contributors. However, the discussion over which day the worship ought to take place on was quite exegetically involved, as is appropriate for two views which differ in so few other respects. They are both arguing for the permanency and the persistence of the Sabbath as it is presented in the Ten Commandments. Their entire struggle is over the question of whether the command is to have a day or the (seventh) day for Sabbath rest. In the end, MacCarty ably defended the Seventh Day Adventist perspective on these matters and demonstrated that his is a view which is not to be dismissed out of hand.

Joseph Pipa: Christian Sabbath View
Joseph Pipa’s chapter set forth the view that the Sabbath is a permanent and persistent aspect of the creation. Hermeneutically speaking, the Christian Sabbath view determines what OT laws are still binding by using the threefold Civil/Ceremonial/Moral distinction and by accepting that the moral teachings of the OT are what still persist in the NT era, since the Apostles rescinded the civil/ceremonial aspects of the law in the book of Acts. According to Pipa, the Sabbath is a part of the persistent moral law, as are the other Ten Commandments. (Blomberg implies that this is legalistic/pharisaic on Pipa's part, but I see nothing legalistic about saying that one ought to obey God's revealed will.)

Although the Apostles did move the Sabbath day to Sunday, Pipa argues that since the beginning, the command was always for a day of worship. Thus, when the Apostles began to institute worship on Sundays, Pipa finds no incompatibility with the Sabbath command of the Ten Commandments. As I said, this is the point of contention between Pipa/MacCarty. Pipa holds the Puritan view as expressed in the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and quoted the Westminster to buttress the theological underpinnings of his view, but Blomberg, in his response, was put off by Pipa's repeated use of the Westminster Standards, though he mistakenly saw Pipa as depending on them when, in fact, he merely utilized them to articulate his view on Scripture's teaching.

For my own part, after reading the whole book, I came out favoring Pipa's view, though I'm a bit biased since we're both confessionally bound to Westminster. I did notice that near the end of the book, Pipa took a step a bit too far and basically accused Blomberg's view of leading towards Sabbath Day antinomianism (387). Blomberg responded violently to this, of course, calling his comments "inaccurate, unnecessary, offensive, and inappropriately polemical" (408). Blomberg is right, of course, since he does see Scriptural commands for weekly worship, though he doesn't equate Sabbath commands with commands to worship. This conflict was the only area of this volume where one detected even a hint of animus, however.

Charles Arand: Luther's Radical Reading of the Sabbath
Charles Arand’s chapter defending the Lutheran view was, in some ways, the odd one out. While the other contributors chose a more textually oriented and exegetical approach in dealing with their respective views, Arand chose a more historical theological approach. In his chapter, he helpfully discussed the historical situation regarding the Sabbath during Luther’s time. He curiously devotes at least half of his essay discussing Luther’s view of the entire Ten Commandments and then spends the remainder of the time dealing with the Sabbath Commandment in light of that. In a book devoted to Luther’s Sabbath views, such a thing would be welcome, perhaps even necessary; but I got the sense, in this volume, that Arand just ran out of space. In my opinion, there should have been less emphasis on the broader commandments as a whole in Arand’s chapter and more emphasis on NT teachings about the Sabbath, since I sensed that to be an area which needed more fleshing out.

The Lutheran view sees the Ten Commandments as ultimately reducing to one ("You shall have no other Gods"), and sees them as being specifically for the Jews in the form they were presented, although for Luther, a day of rest ought to be observed for devotion to the Word. Curiously (and MacCarty points this out in his response), Luther appears to have, in the name of Christian liberty, repealed the Sabbath, but then, in very strong terms, condemned those who did not participate in it. Whatever one might say about the Lutheran view, I didn't really feel like I got it. Arand's approach got in the way of his view, in my opinion.

Craig Blomberg: The Sabbath as Fulfilled In Christ
Craig Blomberg, finally, presents the “fulfilled Sabbath” view, which argues that Christ has "fulfilled" (read: transformed) the Sabbath and therefore reads the commandments through a filter of sorts, using Christ's New Testament teaching as a guide for what aspects of the OT are still valid in the NT. His hermeneutic says that an Old Testament law is still applicable if it is taught again in the New Testament. He is clear that the Sabbath is valid for Christians today, but that it is a spiritualized Sabbath that does not look at all like Sabbatarianism. The following statement fairly summarizes Blomberg’s take on things, after running the Sabbath through his NT framework:
We obey the Sabbath commandment of the Decalogue as we spiritually rest in Christ, letting Him bear our burdens, trusting for salvation and committing our lives to Him in service, and then remaining faithful in lifelong loyalty to Him rather than committing apostasy (351).
So we see that for Blomberg, the NT application is much more of a spiritualized version of the Sabbath. While Blomberg writes very well and very persuasively, I perceive a great weakness in Blomberg's overall view, and that is a lack of systematic coherence. By eschewing, as he sees it, both Covenant theology and Dispensationalism (though he says he leans more Covenant), he is left with a less systematic approach than the Adventist, Lutheran, and Reformed perspectives. He seems to admit as much in his concluding response to the other three:
My goal, at least, is always to let scriptural exegesis more than presuppositions, 'functional nonnegotiables,' or theological traditions determine my conclusions. And if that leaves me with a disparate conglomeration of beliefs on a variety of topics that don’t easily fit one well-known and existing label or branch of historical theology, then so be it (409).
If you are like me and value historical pedigree and overall systematic approaches to theology, then you may follow me in leaning away from Blomberg's clear and well-stated fulfillment view. One text which Blomberg's view hinges on is Colossians 2:16, which is a very difficult text for Sabbatarians of all stripes. It's texts like these that the reader will have to meditate on and study long after they are done reading this volume.

After reading the whole book, I went back to the editor's introduction, and I want to share one section, because Chris Donato sums up my overall impression quite well:
[T]he Sabbath...serves as a microcosm of much larger questions fundamental to the nature of the worshipping community of Christ itself. Hermeneutical presuppositions and the covenantal (dis)continuity of God’s redemptive plan, among a great many other elements, are at once exposed when discussing this question (3).
It's really the strength of a book like Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views that in one succinct volume most of the issues related to the topic have been laid out neatly so that the undecided reader knows what it is he needs to study on his own time in order to grasp the issues that are at stake. At the end of the day, this is a rewarding, scholarly book about hermeneutics in action that will stick with you long after you've physically read it.


  1. Colossians 2:16 seems pretty clear to me to be referring to the ceremonial aspects of the law...of which the moral law is still binding, since Christ didn't come to abolish but to fulfill it! From this, if Blomberg sees fulfilled as no longer binding (which it seems he does from the arguement), then he has to do that with the 1-3, 5-10 commandments as well.

    Also, you said, "Pipa took a step a bit too far and basically accused Blomberg's view of leading towards Sabbath Day antinomianism (387). Blomberg responded violently to this, of course, calling his comments "inaccurate, unnecessary, offensive, and inappropriately polemical" (408). Blomberg is right, of course, since he does see Scriptural commands for weekly worship, though he doesn't equate Sabbath commands with commands to worship."

    Adam, if you truly believe in Pipa's view, then don't you have to agree with him that Blomberg's view of the Sabbath is an antinomian view and/or legalistic since he is taking away from the law of God. In the last sentence I quoted, seeing commands for weekly worship isn't really the issue and doesn't 'cover' the command by God to observe the Sabbath, which Blomberg denies by saying it is merely spiritual.

    I don't see how you can be okay with Blomberg's view. Perhaps you are being too nice of a 'reviewer'. :)

  2. Well Andrew, I originally wrote this review for Trevin Wax's blog and was trying to take as broad and irenic an approach as I could muster, hence the restraint with regard to Blomberg's view. Also, since I wrote the review almost two months ago, I have been reading Philip Ross' From the Finger of God and am becoming much more hardened in my Sabbatarian views.

    As far as it being part and parcel of Pipa's view that Blomberg is antinomian... I'm a bit divided. On the one hand, he does observe what is in essence a 'perverted' (he would say 'spiritualized') version of the Sabbath commandment. On the other, he does believe in a 'spiritual' observance of the Sabbath, rather than denying the observance of any Sabbath altogether. So I'd still tend to label the view something negative like 'erronious' before I actually dubbed it 'antinomian.'

    Also, Andrew, I'm completely in agreement with you regarding the reference in Colossians 2:16. I thought Pipa defended that understanding of this verse very well.

  3. You know, I thought about this matter overnight, and I came to the conclusion that I was not being objective enough with Blomberg's view. If I had, I would have been more critical, and I'll tell you why:

    If Blomberg had wanted to merely spiritualize any of the other ten commandments - say, adultery or murder - there is no way we would excuse that as a valid view that is not antinomianism. Of all the ten, why is it that we would give a pass to spiritualizing the Sabbath commandment? There may be a cultural bias against that commandment that makes such a spiritualizing pallatable. I don't (at least I'd better not) have a problem with Jesus' ideal of going beyond the commandments and getting to the heart of what they're saying, but Jesus still teaches us to observe them, not merely in some nebulous, exclusively spiritual form.

    All that to say, I considered it a little more and I think you're right - Blomberg's view really is antinomianism. Thanks for giving me a push, Andrew.

  4. Your welcome. The 4th commandment really takes a beating here in America (and Europe), yet it is really special and for man...


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