R.C. Sproul vs The Westminster Divines on the Christian Sabbath

Sproul cites three so-called “controversies” in church history surrounding the Christian Sabbath. Is the Sabbath obligatory for the New Testament Church? If it is, should the Sabbath continue to be the seventh day of the week, the first day of the week, or is the day of the week up for grabs. Thirdly, Sproul raises a difference within the church regarding Sabbath recreation and acts of mercy. So, Sproul cites two defeated views, then fastens his wagon to a third. I’ll address them one-by-one.

Obligatory nature of the Sabbath

Augustine, for example, believed that nine of the Ten Commandments (the so-called “moral law” of the Old Testament) were still intact and imposed obligations upon the Christian church… Augustine was persuaded that the Old Testament Sabbath law had been abrogated. Others have argued that because the Sabbath was instituted originally not in the Mosaic economy but in creation, it maintains its status of moral law as long as the creation is intact.

There’s no doubt, Augustine was the theological giant of his day. However, he lived 1600 years ago, and anyone holding to his theology today could not be ordained in a Reformed Presbyterian church. That speaks to how far God has brought his church.

Many giants have stood on Augustine’s shoulders. Yet today’s Reformed church, with its elevated line to truth on the horizon, repudiates several of Augustine’s theological positions such as paedocommunion, the classification of non-elect regenerate persons, the abrogation of the Sabbath principle, and more.

Of course, there are always theological “controversies” in the church, but controversy alone does not give credence to a defeated view held by an otherwise notable theologian of his day. That Augustine reduced the Ten Commandants to nine merely corroborates the Reformed understanding of the progressive doctrinal illumination of the church. We should expect that doctrine has been refined from Augustine’s day, through the time of the Protestant Reformation, to this very day within the Reformed tradition.

Accordingly, any reference to Augustine in attempt to give credence to a non-confessional Sabbath view gives equal historical credence to paedocommunion and losing one’s salvation, which resurfaced without warm ecclesiastical welcome in the fleeting phase of Federal Vision.

Saturday, Sunday or any day?

The second major controversy is the question about the day of the week on which the Sabbath is to be observed. Some insist that… since the Old Testament Israelites celebrated the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, which would be Saturday, we should follow that pattern.

Sproul gives no details of who was embroiled in the controversy, so it’s hard to comment. As for today it’s safe to say that the Millerite movement that culminated in the Seventh-day Adventist sect and the teachings of its former prophetess, Ellen White, have no seat at the Reformed table. Nor do Saturday Sabbath cults like those that embrace Armstrongism and House of Yahwey heresies, or views held within the Hebrews Roots movement.

But back to basics. What is the relevance of citing the defeated side of a settled “controversy” by an appeal to a particular theologian? Would we lend credence to slavery because an otherwise notable statesman owned slaves? That a particular theologian (past or present) disagrees with the church might be interesting but it is neither surprising nor seemingly relevant.

Indeed, if it is one’s intention to lend credence to doctrines that lost the debate by citing notable theologians who were on the wrong side of the church, then how far might we take this approach? Should we revisit the credibility of the “Transubstantiation of the Mass” because Thomas Aquinas was sound on other doctrine? Where is Sproul hoping to lead us? Controversial debate might create doubt in the minds of the less theologically grounded, but can it lend credence to either side of an issue, especially to the losing side in a progressively illuminated church?

John Calvin argued that it would be legitimate to have the Sabbath day on any day if all of the churches would agree, because the principle in view was the regular assembling of the saints for corporate worship and for the observation of rest.

Well, Calvin didn’t have the benefit of the Westminster Divines as it relates to their mature thought on the Regulative Principle of Worship, Christian Liberty of Conscience and Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day, which through synthetic application overturns the view that the church may determine which day in seven can be constituted as the Lord’s Day. The Divines with good reason rejected Articles XX and XXXIV of the church of England. Again, what’s the point of the history lesson?

How does historical controversy lend credence to settled error, and in this particular case on the church’s alleged right to dictate religious rites and holy days?

Recreation and Acts of Mercy

Within the Reformed tradition, the most significant controversy that has appeared through the ages is the question of how the Sabbath is to be observed. There are two major positions within the Reformed tradition on this question. To make matters simple, we will refer to them as the Continental view of the Sabbath and the Puritan view of the Sabbath.

Tagging with an impressive label a non-confessional view might give people a subjective sense of theological backing, but it cannot provide objective confessional or ecclesiastical backing. Moreover, as church historian and professor R. Scott Clark has demonstrated, this rejected view, commonly referred to as “the Continental view” of the Sabbath, simply entails spurious revisionism. There was no Continental view, or as Dr. Clark puts it:

There was no consciousness in the classical period of a distinctly “British” or “Continental” view of anything. There was simply an international Reformed theology, piety, and practice.

The Puritan view argues against the acceptability of recreation on the Sabbath day. The text most often cited to support this view is Isaiah 58:13-14…The crux of the matter in this passage is the prophetic critique of people doing their own pleasure on the Sabbath day. The assumption that many make with respect to this text is that doing one’s own pleasure must refer to recreation. If this is the case, the prophet Isaiah was adding new dimensions to the Old Testament law with respect to Sabbath-keeping.

On what basis does Sproul object to the word of God “adding new dimensions” to the Old Testament law, (allowing for a moment that the supposed new dimension wasn’t already implicit in the law)? It was Jesus who brought fresh dimensions to the Decalogue. Moreover, doesn’t the New Testament bring further development to the Doctrine of God, from Shema to Trinity?

How does Sproul make use of such a hermeneutical principle that would forbid new dimensions to former teachings, at least with any consistency, without undermining the heart of the Christian faith? Lest Sproul undermines the nature of God’s employment of progressive revelation, he may not dismiss an exegetical interpretation of newer revelation purely on its expansive import – unless, of course, it were to positively contradict what precedes it, which a prima facie Puritan interpretation of Isaiah 58:13-14 does not do! (Sproul implicitly commits an informal fallacy of arguing by false disjunction since forbidding recreation and forbidding work are not mutually exclusive propositions. The Westminster affirmation of the former does not undermine or imply a rejection of the latter. The codified interpretation of the Divines rejects both and without contradiction.)

Sproul overlooks that progressive revelation is an elaborative complement; it does not contradict merely by virtue of its expansive nature. Surely, a recreational import of Isaiah 58:-3-14 would not contradict the 4th Commandment any more than Jesus’ teachings on anger and lust can undermine the 6th and 7th Commandments respectively. So, at best, Sproul has merely begged the question of whether a Puritan view of Isaiah 58:13-14 undermines the law. Sproul has proven nothing.

There is another way to understand Isaiah 58:13-14 however, following the thinking of those who hold the Continental view of the Sabbath… Presumably, what is in view in the prophetic critique is God’s judgment against the Israelites for violating the Mosaic law with respect to the Sabbath day, particularly regarding involvement in commerce… According to this view, the text has nothing to say directly or indirectly about recreation on the Sabbath day.

We might observe in passing that Sproul’s interpretation of the passage seems a bit strained as it would seem to make ancient commerce out to be essentially pleasurable and not laborious. Moreover, if the verse is limited to commerce, then are other sorts of labor not forbidden on the Lord’s Day, or would that entail an abrogation of the Continental view Sproul seeks to defend?!

Sproul raises a point. There are non-confessional ways of looking at many things. Obviously that demonstrates nothing, other than perhaps paper rarely resists ink. At the end of the day, all Sproul has done is arbitrarily inserted a narrow scope of what he deems as lawful pleasures into what Isaiah 58:13-14 forbids. In doing so, Sproul undermines God’s use of progressive revelation and the exegetical basis for a Christian conception of God (Trinity), and sins of the heart as revealed in the New Testament (Sermon On The Mount). In the final analysis, Sproul hasn’t successfully spoken on the Sabbath. He has merely engaged in the informal fallacy of special pleading, which if followed consistently would undermine creedal Christianity and the spirit of the law.

But let’s run with Sproul’s view of recreation and see where it leads. Are we to infer that God commanded us not to work on the Sabbath in order that we might enjoy 21st century entertainment on that day? Are all non-work lawful pleasures that are suitable for Saturdays somehow appropriate for Sunday? Did God command rest for one day in seven so that 21st century Moms and Dads would be free on Sundays to take their children to their soccer games? It should be apparent, the Divines did not base their view of Sabbath recreation solely on Isaiah 58:13-14. With the advent of the five day work week, is Isaiah 58:13-14 needed to demonstrate God’s disapproval of two consecutive Saturdays with a worship service inconveniently dropped into the second Saturday for religious discipline?

Sadly, modern day detractors seek their own pleasures and in doing so have rejected the covenantal promise that is tied to the Sabbath, which extends to their offspring. If not, then we should be quick to believe that the principle of the salvific promise of Isaiah 58:13-14 to our offspring is released to us if we’d only turn in faith from the pleasures of commerce toward the pleasures of recreation! Such a view is refuted simply by stating it.

Did God protect us from work on the Sabbath in order for us to indulge ourselves in recreation and to be entertained after Sunday worship? Is that how we are to appropriate the promised blessings of Isaiah 58:13-14?

One must wonder what is off limits for a so-called Continental sabbatarian. Take golf. Are starters at the club and servers at the pub exempt from the creation ordinance of Sabbath rest? Of course not. So, when it comes to the so-called Continental view, is it acceptable for one to be served at a restaurant, or entertained by athletes as they desecrate the Sabbath, just as long as we ourselves keep the Sabbath holy per “The Continental view”? (Who’s the pharisaical legalist in this picture?) Even working-animals and servants were to rest on the Sabbath. Some have gone so far as to defend their being waited on by asserting that the sabbath commandment doesn’t apply to unbelievers!

The point should be plain enough. Even if we allow for spurious historical claims about a Continental view in order to lend credence to non-confessional Sabbath keeping, the license taken by most who reject the Reformed view today is typically unsupportable and would be opposed even by most supposed seventeenth century detractors. Let’s be honest, what falls under “recreation” often entails others working on behalf of our personal pleasure (e.g. baristas as Starbucks) and a form of commerce to boot. Rarely does an allowance for recreational pleasure uphold the creation ordinance for all people not to work on the Christian sabbath. (Christians won’t even forgo a latte macchiato on Sundays so not to be an occasion for another person’s violation of the 4th Commandment.)

One other point of debate remains between the two sides on this issue. It has to do with works of mercy performed on the Sabbath… Some have drawn the conclusion that since Jesus performed works of mercy on the Sabbath, the Christian is obligated to do the same. However, the fact that Jesus did works of mercy on the Sabbath, though it clearly reveals that it is lawful to do so on the Sabbath, does not obligate us to do such works on the Sabbath.

I have no idea who Sproul is referring to with respect to the “some” who find it obligatory to do works of mercy on the Sabbath, but does his rightly rejecting an esoteric position on the Sabbath – one that is denied by the Westminster standards(!) – somehow add force to a non-confessional view of the Sabbath? No, though it might raise doubt in the minds of the less theologically grounded.

Closing remarks

R.C. Sproul was a popularizer in a favorable sense. I owe him much. He was the first living Calvinst I knew, and as a baby Calvinist I devoured his VHS and audio cassettes. I just couldn’t get enough. Sproul’s usefulness is vast and his gifts many. He brought generic Calvinism to the masses. Few, if any, were his equal in that respect. Notwithstanding, one must read Sproul with a discerning mind.

I’m a bit leery when one cites historical disagreement in the church while appealing to select theologians in the context of trying to justify the wrong side of the church’s confessional position. It bears mentioning that in this same vein Sproul’s view of the Impeccability of Christ implicitly denies Chalcedon and the Westminster Standards as it relates to the hypostatic union. That strikes me as reckless and cavalier. What’s most striking, however, is not just that Sproul’s position implicitly denies Chalcedon, but that his rhetorical claim that favored implicit heresy is identical in-kind to his Sabbath claim that invokes alleged division while citing backing of theologians for an aberrant view.

The best theologians, past and present, have been divided on the question of whether Jesus could have sinned.

I find something subtly misleading about such appeals when used to defend any position, let alone a position that would undermine orthodox Christology. (I also find it misleading to refer to historical disagreement as controversy as Sproul has.)

Leaving aside such a dubious claim about the best theologians, the point I’ll zero in on is that claiming select theologians who affirm doctrine that’s contrary to the church’s creeds and confessions is never difficult. However, what is difficult is developing persuasive arguments that refute the theology of the theologians that have stood with a confessional Reformed tradition for 400 years. (I address Sproul’s rejection of Christ’s inability to sin here, beginning @21 minutes and here on this blog.)

All of these issues continue to be examined and debated as the church seeks to understand how God is best honored on this day.

There will always be gainsayers within the fold of God, but we can be grateful for confessional Presbyterianism, which got the Sabbath right with no serious attempt or movement within the tradition to overturn this teaching of 400 years. All we have are non-subscribers and subscribers in the fold, but the confessional Reformed church has indeed spoken. Any complaints are with her and ultimately, I believe, with God Himself.