History of the Sabbath: A Critical Response

August 31, 2009

I read a few chapters of J. N. Andrews’ book, History of the Sabbath and the First Day of the Week. The chapters I read were on Christian history. I wanted to understand how a Christian Sabbath-keeper viewed this history in light of the evidence supporting Sunday assembly.

Andrews, who lived in the nineteenth century, was an intelligent well-educated man and probably the most prominent forefather of the Adventist movement. Had that not been the case, I would have dismissed his entire book on the basis of his derogatory opinions concerning the early ecclesiastical writers. But because of his credentials, I knew it was imperative that Andrews address these writing as representing Christian belief, lest he offer defeat of his theological opinion to his critics on a silver platter.

It soon becomes apparent while reading Andrews’ book that he did not write it with the intention of pleasing scholarly critics. His intentions were to persuade the less informed to follow after what he had undoubtedly accepted as absolute truth. A good example of this is found on page 127 where he presents quotes from two different historians and pits them against one another in an effort to discredit the known history of our faith. If Andrews can show his readers that historians cannot agree on the facts of history, he will have scored a victory for his efforts to persuade their minds.

One historian, Johann Mosheim, an eighteenth century scholar, was quoted by Andrews as saying this about early Christian assembly:

All Christians were unanimous in setting apart the first day of the week, on which the triumphant Saviour arose from the dead, for the solemn celebration of public worship. This pious custom, which was derived from the example of the church of Jerusalem, was founded upon the express appointment of the apostles, who consecrated that day to the same sacred purpose, and was observed universally throughout the Christian churches, as appears from the united testimonies of the most credible writers.

No doubt this is a damaging statement to adherents of Christian Sabbath keepers, especially coming from a prominent historian, and one worthy of Andrews’ discrediting if at all possible. Andrews then proceeds to present another quote, this one from the nineteenth century historian, August Neander. Andrews prefaces Neander’s quote with this: “Now let us read what Neander, the most distinguished of church historians, says of this apostolic authority for Sunday observance.” He then presents the quote as follows:

The festival of Sunday, like all other festivals, was always only a human ordinance, and it was far from the intentions of the apostles to establish a divine command in this respect, far from them, and from the early apostolic church, to transfer the laws of the Sabbath to Sunday. Perhaps at the end of the second century a false application of this kind had begun to take place; for men appear by that time to have considered laboring on Sunday as a sin.

Andrews asks the question: “How shall we determine which of these historians is in the right?” It was immediately obvious to me, and I suspect to anyone familiar with ecclesiastical history, that the two historians were referring to two completely different things. Andrews, who must have understood the difference, apparently wanted to convey to his readers that Neander’s opinion is superior to that of Mosheim’s and thus proceeds in his effort to disingenuously persuade his readers to his opinion by launching his argument off the apparent contradiction. But there is no contradiction between the historians and surly Andrews must have understood that.

Mosheim was merely referring to Sunday worship not Sunday Sabbath or Feasterville. There is no record of Christians observing a Sunday Sabbath in the first two centuries of church history. In fact the churches in the region of Asia Minor distinguished quite clearly between the seventh day Sabbath and Sunday worship. Keeping the seventh day Sabbath was encouraged in the Syrian churches, but was clearly inferior to Sunday worship as illustrated in the third century compilation of Christian instruction called, The Constitutions of the Holy Apostles. In this work we find the following instruction:

Assemble yourselves together every day, morning and evening, singing psalms and praying in the Lord’s house: in the morning saying the sixty-second Psalm, and in the evening the hundred and fortieth, but principally on the Sabbath-day. And on the day of our Lord’s resurrection, which is the Lord’s day, meet more diligently, sending praise to God that made the universe by Jesus, and sent Him to us, and condescended to let Him suffer, and raised Him from the dead. Otherwise what apology will he make to God who does not assemble on that day to hear the saving word concerning the resurrection, on which we pray thrice standing in memory of Him who arose in three days, in which is performed the reading of the prophets, the preaching of the Gospel, the oblation of the sacrifice, the gift of the holy food?” (2:59)

This is not only sufficient to show proof of Sunday worship in the third century, but it also supplies credence to Neander’s claim that the day Sunday was becoming something much more than a day of Christian worship and assembly; it was becoming an obligatory requirement from which a type of Christian Sabbath immerged later (officially) in the fourth century (Council of Laodicea, 364).

We can also verify Mosheim’s claim that Christians assembled on Sundays from Justin Martyr’s first apology in which he described a typical Christian assembly during his time in the mid second century.

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president [Bishop] verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.” (First Apology, 67)

Beyond Justin we can draw from the first century bishop of the church in Antioch, Ignatius (80 – 110 A.D.) Ignatius undoubtedly knew some of the apostles personally. In all likelihood he knew to some extent Peter, Paul and John. On his way to martyrdom Ignatius wrote letters to various churches in the region of Syria, one to the church in Rome where he was being taken, and one to his good friend Polycarp, the bishop of the church in Smyrna. In one of those letters, the one written to the church in Magnesians, Ignatius exhorts Jewish converts to the unity of Christian worship.

If, therefore, those who were brought up in the ancient order of things have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath, but living in the observance of the Lord’s Day, on which also our life has sprung up again by Him and by His death–whom some deny, by which mystery we have obtained faith, and therefore endure, that we may be found the disciples of Jesus Christ, our only Master–how shall we be able to live apart from Him, whose disciples the prophets themselves in the Spirit did wait for Him as their Teacher? And therefore He whom they rightly waited for, being come, raised them from the dead.” (To the Magnesians, chapter 9)

Nothing could be more devastating to Andrews’ theology than a credible refutation of it by a well respected and highly admired first century bishop of the Christian church. It was therefore, imperative that Andrews discredit the Ignatius quote as thoroughly as possible. He began his argument by attacking the authenticity of the letter. Andrew draws primarily from nineteenth century scholar Dr. Killen for information to support his claim that this letter was not authentic. Dr. Killen struggled to admit any part of the Ignatius letters were genuine, but admits that four of them, in their shorter versions, were accepted by many as genuine, and of those four Magnesians was not listed. However, the fourth century historian, Eusebius, listed seven letters as genuine and Magnesians was among them (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:36:5). Those same seven letters, again in their shorter form, are widely accepted as genuine by scholars today.

There is probably no stronger historical evidence that directly denies the Sabbath-keepers doctrine than that of Ignatius’ letter to the Magnesians; but we must accept the fact that the evidence can rightly be dismissed on the bases of uncertainty of its authenticity. But those who wish to dismiss the evidence are burdened with reconciling the undisputed historical evidence against them with the absence of evidence in support of their view.

If the Sabbath-keepers doctrine were true, how did the entire universal church mutate into a Sunday worshiping church within the forty or so years between the death of the Apostle John and the writings of Justin Martyr? My argument is from silence though not of a single source, but of an entire period of history from which some evidence, if the Sabbatarian doctrine is true, must be produced.