The Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments

Part 1: The Rediscovery of the Sabbath by Sunday Sabbatarians

Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 2 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6

Part 1
The Rediscovery of the Sabbath by Sunday Sabbatarians
Part 2a
The Rediscovery of the Seventh-Day Sabbath
Part 2b
The Rediscovery of the Seventh-Day Sabbath - Continued
Part 3a
The Sabbath as Christ's Rest for Human Restlessness
Part 3b
The Sabbath as Christ's Rest for Human Restlessness - Continued

Chapter 7

A paradox of our time is that while some Christians are rejecting the Sabbath as an Old Covenant institution nailed to the Cross, an increasing number of other Christians are rediscovering the continuity and value of the Sabbath for our tension-filled and restless lives.

In the previous chapters, we examined the origin and development of the anti-Sabbath theology, manifested today especially in the Dispensational and "New Covenant" theology which reduces the Sabbath to an Old Covenant, Jewish institution terminated at the Cross. We found that such a theology breaks the unity and continuity of the Plan of Salvation besides ignoring the cosmic sweep of the Sabbath which embraces creation, redemption, and final restoration.

An increasing number of Christian thinkers are discovering that the abrogation view of the Sabbath derives not from Scripture, but from the "Christian" theology of contempt for Jews and their religion. This theology originated in the early Church and has plagued Christianity through much of its history, causing the loss of the precious Jewish heritage of the Christian faith by advocating a radical discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, Law and Gospel, Sabbath and Sunday.

In their desire to recover the biblical and Jewish roots of Christianity, many Christians are taking a fresh look at institutions such as the Sabbath, which for too long have been regarded as a trademark of Judaism. To their surprise, they are discovering, as Dorothy Bass puts it in her article "Rediscovering the Sabbath," that "the practice of Sabbathkeeping may be a gift waiting to be unwrapped, a confirmation that we are not without help in shaping the renewing ways of life for which we long."1

Objectives of This Chapter.
This chapter has two major objectives. The first is to briefly report on the rediscovery of the Sabbath by scholars, religious organizations, and people of different persuasions. Hopefully this report will counteract any negative impression some readers may have gained from reading in the preceding chapters about the different arguments commonly used to attack the validity and value of the Sabbath.

After reading so many pages about the crossfire of controversy surrounding the Sabbath today, some may be tempted to think that the Sabbath is in crisis, as the title of Dale Ratzlaff's book suggests. The truth is that the Sabbath has never been in crisis because it is a divine institution. God's moral principles are not subject to crisis. The rediscovery of the Sabbath by Christians of different persuasions confirms that the Sabbath is not in crisis. It still provides rest and renewal to those who accept God's invitation to make themselves free and available for Him on His Holy Sabbath Day.

The second objective of this chapter is to explore, by way of conclusion to the whole book, how the Sabbath enables believers to experience rest and renewal in their lives. This final section is a Christ-centered, practical reflection designed to help people discover the Sabbath as a day to joyfully celebrate God's creative and redemptive love.

Two Types of Sabbatarians.
The rediscovery of the Sabbath today assumes two different forms. On one hand, some Christians are reexamining the biblical meaning and function of the Sabbath in order to develop a " biblical" model for Sunday observance. We may call these people "Sunday-Sabbatarians" because they believe in observing Sunday as their biblical Sabbath. They follow the Reformed, Calvinistic tradition which gives prominence to the moral aspect of the Sabbath commandment by viewing the observance of a day of rest and worship as a creation ordinance for mankind. Consequently, they promote Sundaykeeping as the legitimate substitution and continuation of the Old Testament Sabbath.

Contrary to Dispensationalists and "New Covenant" Christians who emphasize the radical discontinuity between the Sabbath (which they see as the sign of the Old Covenant) and Sunday (which they view as the sign of the New Covenant), Sunday-Sabbatarians recognize the underlying unity and continuity that exists between the Old and the New Testaments, Sabbath and Sunday. Consequently, they are eager to rediscover the biblical view of the Sabbath in order to better understand how Sunday should be observed.

On the other hand, an increasing number of Christians reject the compromise position of Sunday-Sabbatarians and want to rediscover the Sabbath as the biblical seventh day, both in terms of its meaning and experience. These seventh-day Sabbatarians sense the need to recover the biblical and Jewish roots of the Christian faith and to return to the beliefs and practices of the Apostolic Church.

The rediscovery of the Sabbath by both Sunday-Sabbatarian and Seventh-day Sabbatarians is motivated also by the realization that the values of the Sabbath as a day for spiritual, physical, moral, and social renewal are essential for revitalizing the religious experience of millions of Christians today.

For the sake of clarity, this chapter is divided into three parts: (1) The rediscovery of the Sabbath by Sunday sabbatarians, (2) the rediscovery of the Sabbath by seventh-day Sabbatarians, and (3) the rediscovery of the Sabbath as Christ's rest for human restlessness.


Keeping the Sabbath Wholly.
A good example of the rediscovery of the Sabbath as a model for Sundaykeeping is the book Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting by Marva J. Dawn, a Lutheran theologian.2 With refreshing insight she captures the meaning and experience of the Sabbath in Scripture and in the religious life of the Jewish people. For example, Dawn writes: "All the great motifs of our Christian faith are underscored in our Sabbathkeeping. Its Ceasing deepens our repentance for the many ways that we fail to trust God and try to create our own future. Its Resting strengthens our faith in the totality of His grace. Its Embracing invites us to take the truths of our faith and apply them practically in our values and lifestyles. Its Feasting heightens our sense of eschatological hope-the Joy of our present experience of God's love and its foretaste of the Joy to come."3

When I heard Marva Dawn present the highlights of her book at the International Sabbath Symposium, sponsored by the University of Denver on May 24-26, 1989, I was tempted to spring forward to extend to her the right hand of fellowship into my own Seventh-day Adventist Church. I felt that she did a marvelous job in capturing some of the fundamental meanings and experiences of the Sabbath. However, my thrill was dampened when I read the appendix of her book where she explains how to observe the Christian Sabbath from sunset Saturday to sunset Sunday. Dawn's attempt to invest Sunday with the meaning and experience of the Sabbath ignores the fundamental fact that Sunday is not the Sabbath. The two days, as I show in Chapter 1, are different in their origin, meaning, and experience.

"Call the Sabbath Delightful."
Another example of the rediscovery of the Sabbath as a model for Sundaykeeping is the article "Call the Sabbath Delightful," published in The Lutheran on March 16, 1983. The author, Judith Fiedler Finn, an attorney, discovered the Sabbath by turning to the Jews in her community. She discovered that "the Sabbath is a sanctuary in time. In fact, it is a time in which we can begin to experience eternity and its peace."4 She decided, however, that for her family "the most practical choice" was to make Sunday their Sabbath. Despite her husband's initial protest, she writes, "We plunged in 'cold turkey.' No work from sunset Saturday to sunset Sunday."5 She continues explaining how her family celebrates Sunday as the biblical Sabbath.

Finn's attempt to celebrate Sunday from sunset to sunset as though it were the Sabbath ignores the historical reality that the essence of Sundaykeeping has never been a consecration of time, but attendance at the Mass or at a church service. The recognition of this historical reality has led the Catholic Church, as well as over 4000 Protestant churches in the USA,6 to anticipate Sunday church services to Saturday evening in order to accommodate those who are unable or unwilling to go to church on Sunday morning. This may be good enough for Sundaykeeping, but it is not good enough for Sabbathkeeping because the essence of the latter is not primarily going to church, but giving priority in one's thinking and living during the 24 hours of the seventh day.

"Rediscovering the Sabbath."
The article "Rediscovering the Sabbath," written by Dorothy C. Bass and published in Christianity Today on September 1, 1997, offers another fitting example of Sunday-Sabbatarianism. Bass speaks of the Sabbath as "the most challenging and spiritual discipline for contemporary Christians."7 She eloquently writes that "as the new century dawns, the practice of Sabbath keeping may be a gift waiting to be unwrapped, a confirmation that we are not without help in shaping the renewing ways of life for which we long."8

The problem with the article is that Bass wants to unwrap the gift of the Sabbath by trying to fit Sunday into what may be called "the Sabbath gift box." This does not work because Sunday is not the Sabbath. In fact, Bass has a problem deciding, for example, "What, besides churchgoing, is Christian Sabbath [Sunday] keeping?"9 She suggests that it may be a good idea to refrain from buying, selling, "paying bills, preparing tax returns, and making lists of things to do in the coming week."10 But she cannot provide a compelling biblical reason for abstaining from these secular activities. Why? Simply because historically the essence of Sundaykeeping has been going to church on Sunday and not refraining from business activities. This can still be seen today even in the Bible Belt where many businesses open on Sunday as soon as church services are over.

University of Denver Sabbath Symposium.
The scholarly community also has shown an interest for rediscovering the Sabbath as a model for Sundaykeeping. An example is the International Sabbath Symposium sponsored by the University of Denver May 24-26, 1989. The organizer of the symposium was Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, Director of the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Denver.

Stanley Wagner received from one of his students a tape of a Sabbath lecture I delivered at the First Denver Seventh-day Adventist Church. While listening to that tape, Dr. Wagner recounts, "I was absolutely overwhelmed by Dr. Bacchiocchi's address, in which he spoke of the Sabbath in the warmest, most loving terms I had ever heard from the mouth of a Christian. It was then that I felt the time had come for Jewish and Christian scholars to meet to explore our respective traditions relative to the Sabbath."11

I vividly recall the evening when Dr. Wagner called me to tell me how impressed he was by my lecture on the Sabbath and by my book Divine Rest for Human Restlessness. He told me that the lecture and the book had inspired him to explore the possibility of convening at the University of Denver for an international Sabbath symposium that would bring together Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Sabbatarian scholars for the purpose of reexamining the relevance of the Sabbath for today. Then he asked me: "Would you be willing to come to deliver one of the major addresses?" I replied: "Dr. Wagner, I would be glad to come at my own expense, if necessary."

This Sabbath Symposium was truly a groundbreaking event that brought together leading scholars from prestigious institutions as far away as England and Israel. While some of the papers presented made an attempt to apply the values of the Sabbath to Sundaykeeping, most of them examined the history, theology, and relevance of the Sabbath for today. Eventually, the papers were published by Crossroad in the book The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions (272 pages).

What surprised me most at the conference was to hear some Sundaykeeping scholars waxing eloquent about the Sabbath-a day they had never observed. For example, instead of critiquing my paper, Catholic Professor Dennis Kennedy, C. M., from St. Thomas Seminary, chose to present his own meditation on the relevance of the Sabbath for both the human and subhuman creation. He said: "We humans need to experience God's sanctifying presence. So we keep the Sabbath to (1) follow divine example, (2) acknowledge God as Creator, and (3) participate in God's rest and blessings. It is a sign of covenant between God and us-we look back to the past perfect creation and forward to the ultimate salvation."12

Prof. Kennedy continued saying: "I would like to suggest that this Sabbath symposium is not some kind of dusty, scholarly tediousness for a few learned doctors only; rather, it is an attempt to revise the relationship of Creator to creation and to define what our part in that creation is to be. Sabbath is meant to refer to rest for all involved in the process of creation: rest for the earth as well as for human."13 He called for the recovery of a sabbatical ecological conscience which consists in becoming the curators rather than the predators of God's creation. By teaching us to admire God's creation, the Sabbath teaches us to respect the natural world.

The willingness of Sundaykeeping scholars to reexamine the values of the Sabbath for the social, ecological, and psychological problems of our society represents a positive trend that needs to be encouraged. In time, this trend could well motivate Christians to adopt seventh-day Sabbathkeeping, not only as a philosophical value but also as an existential practice governing their lives.

University of South Africa Sabbath Conference.
A similar conference on "The biblical Day of Rest" was sponsored by the C. B. Powell Bible Center of the University of South Africa on June 16-17,1994. The conference was partly called to deal with the question debated in the public press on how the Lord's Day should be observed. The question was stirred up by the refusal of some rugby players to play on Sunday during an international game in Australia. These players belonged to the Dutch Reformed Church that observes Sunday as the Christian Sabbath.

The conference was attended by about 100 scholars and church leaders of the major denominations in South Africa. The papers presented at the conference were published in a book The Biblical Day of Rest. It was evident that the prevailing concern was to reaffirm the Reformed view of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. For example, in his presentation on "The Meaning of Sunday as a Day Dedicated to God," Dr. Francois Möller, President of the Apostolic Faith Mission, said: "Sunday must be observed as a day dedicated to God. To make this possible, there must be purposeful rules and behavior on the part of the church and every Christian individual. Things which need to be done, must be done during the week. This is not the day to catch up on the washing, mend clothes, clean the house, service the car, help children with school work, prepare large meals, go shopping, make appointments, etceteras."14

I was invited to present two papers at this conference on "The Biblical Day of Rest." The first dealt with the historical change from Sabbath to Sunday in early Christianity, and the second addressed the relevance of the Sabbath for modern society. The response was very positive. I could sense that though there was disagreement about which day is the Christian Sabbath, there was agreement on its meaning, nature, and relevance for today.

Three Dutch Reformed pastors attending the conference told me that they wanted to reexamine the validity and value of the seventh-day Sabbath for themselves and for their congregations. In fact, one of them came to visit me at the home of the Adventist pastor where I was staying and kept me up on a Friday night until past midnight. Another attended the Sabbath morning service at the City Hall auditorium where I spoke.

It was gratifying to witness a gathering of church leaders and scholars eager to deepen their understanding of the biblical Sabbath in order to find ways to revitalize Sundaykeeping. Such an endeavor, however, holds little hope of success, because as noted in Chapter 1, Sunday is not the Sabbath. Historically, Sundaykeeping has been understood and experienced not as the "Holy Day of Rest" but primarily as church attendance followed by normal activities. The attempt of church leaders to make Sunday into a holy day today is a nearly impossible task, because historically Christians have not understood and experienced Sunday as a holy day. Moreover, people today are more interested in holidays than in the observance of a holy day.

The Lord's Day Alliance.
A final example of rediscovery of the Sabbath as a model for Sunday keeping is provided by the goals and work of the Lord's Day Alliance of the United States (LDA). I became personally acquainted with the work of the LDA several years ago when its Executive Director, Dr. James Wesberry, came to spend a Sabbath with our family here at Andrews University where I teach. After reading my book From Sabbath to Sunday, he wrote me a most gracious letter inquiring about the possibility of our meeting. He wrote: "It will be a great joy to meet and talk with you any time such a meeting may be arranged. . . . Such a conversation might add to my knowledge and give me additional ideas about how the Lord's Day should be observed. . . . If you propose a time and a place for such a get-together, it will be an honor to meet and talk with you. I should hope you might visit me here in our office."15

Dr. Wesberry came to spent Sabbath, December 2, 1978, with us. The visit was a memorable occasion not only for my family but also for him. In fact, in his farewell address to the Board Members of the LDA published in Sunday, the official magazine of the LDA, Dr. Wesberry mentioned his visit to Andrews University as one of the highlights of his tenure as Executive Director of the LDA. He was greatly impressed by the atmosphere of peace and tranquillity that he felt was so pervasive in our homes, campus, and lives on the Sabbath.

When my wife and I took Dr. Wesberry to the South Bend airport that Saturday night, he said: "This was the most delightful Sabbath I have ever experienced in my life." Then he asked: "Would you be willing to come to Atlanta, Georgia, next February 14, and be our keynote speaker at our annual LDA board meeting that brings together about 150 church leaders representing 21 denominations? I would like you to share with them some of the things you have shared with me today." It goes without saying that I was delighted to accept the invitation. It was for me an unforgettable experience to speak to such a distinguished group of Church leaders. In my lecture, I spoke not only on how the change came about from Saturday to Sunday in early Christianity, but also on how the values of the Sabbath can revitalize the religious experience of millions of Christians today.

Dr. Wesberry was especially impressed by my book Divine Rest for Human Restlessness because he found in it new insights into the meaning and experience of the Sabbath which he felt were applicable to Sunday observance. In his Foreword to the book he wrote: "The author has dealt well with his subject. He has built a gold mine of Sabbath material and made an invaluable contribution to the strengthening of the Sabbath throughout the world! No one, no matter of what faith or denomination he or she may be, can read this book without finding Divine rest for his or her restlessness."16

Prior to his death Dr. Wesberry wrote me a most gracious letter asking me to do him "a big favor," namely, to explore the possibility of establishing an endowed chair for Sabbath Studies in his name. When I informed him by phone that an endowed chair for Sabbath Studies at Andrews University would require an investment of half a million dollars, he told me that this was way beyond his means. We discussed the possibility of raising together the funds needed for this worthy project, but he passed away before anything could be done about it.

What stands out most in my memory about Dr. James Wesberry is his dedication to help Christians experience the physical and spiritual renewal that comes from the celebration of the Sabbath. Though I could not support his endeavors to apply the values of the biblical Sabbath to Sunday, I fully share his conviction that a recovery of the meaning and experience of Sabbathkeeping is indispensable to revitalize the spiritual life of Christians today. Christians who give priority to the Lord in their thinking and living during the Sabbath day ultimately give priority to the Lord every day of their lives.


Chapter 6, Part 2
Chapter 7, Part 2a


Notes to Chapter 7, Part 1
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.


1. Dorothy C. Bass, "Rediscovering the Sabbath," Christianity Today (September 1, 1997), p. 40.
2. Marva J. Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Grand Rapids, 1989).
3. Ibid., p. 203.
4. Judith Fiedler Finn, "Call the Sabbath Delightful," The Lutheran (March 16, 1983), p. 4.
5. Ibid., p. 5.
6. Warren Bird, "Saturday Night Live at Church," Sunday (November 1992), p. 11. The article was originally published in Christianity Today and reprinted by permission in Sunday.
7. Dorothy C. Bass (note 1), p. 39.
8. Ibid., p. 40.
9. Ibid., pp. 42-43.
10. Ibid., p. 43.
11. Stanley M. Wagner, "Foreword," in The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Tamara C. Eskenazi, Daniel J. Jarrington, William H. Shea (New York, 1991), p. ix.
12. Dennis Kennedy, "A Response to S. Bacchiocchi and J. Primus," in The Sabbath in Jewish and Christian Traditions (note 11), p. 132.
13. Ibid., p. 132.
14. Francois Möller, "The Meaning of Sunday as a Day Dedicated to God," in The Biblical Day of Rest, ed. Francois Swanepoel (Pretoria, 1994), p. 11.
15. Dr. James Wesberry's letter to Samuele Bacchiocchi, 2 February 1978.
16. James P. Wesberry, "Foreword," to Samuele Bacchiocchi, Divine Rest for Human Restlessness (Rome, Italy, 1980), p. 9.

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Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University