Perspectives on the Sabbath: Four Views
Christopher John Donato, ed.
(Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011)
by Fred G. Zaspel
Not all “perspectives” or “views” books are equally rewarding. Their value hinges on the success of each contributor
in representing his position well and arguing his case clearly and persuasively. A failure on this score, even in degree, quickly
minimizes the value of the book. And of course because many of us who pick up a book of this type have already hammered
out our position to one degree or another, we hope for good challenges to our thinking from all sides. In all these ways
Perspectives on the Sabbath must be judged a success. Each of the contributors helpfully presents his case and, therefore,
contributes to the Christian cause of learning.
The four contributors are, in order,
Skip MacCarty, pastor, Pioneer Memorial Church, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, MI, representing the
Seventh Day Adventist position;
Joseph A. Pipa, president and professor of historical and systematic theology, Greenville Presbyterian Theological
Seminary, representing the “Christian Sabbath” position;
Charles P. Arand, chairman, department of systematic theology, Concordia Seminary, representing the
confessional Lutheran position;
Craig L. Blomberg, distinguished professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary, representing the fulfillment
Following the established “views” and “perspectives” approach, each author’s case is presented in turn, followed by
responses from the others. One helpful innovation in this book is the space given to the author, then, to give a final word of
response, rounding out the discussion well.
Of course arguing a case well and having a good case to argue are two very different things. And besides that, we
all inevitably approach such books with a bias already in place, leaving it difficult to appreciate the full weight of every
argument presented by each contributor. Confessing up front my sympathy with Blomberg on this issue, and not wanting to
contribute to the degree of emotion and even rancor that has too-often accompanied this particular subject, I will offer some
observations that I trust are objective. I will try to limit my comments primarily to exegetical matters.
Blomberg shows an impressive grasp of the New Testament understanding of the Old Testament and in particular
the significance of Christ as the “fulfiller” of the Old Testament law. His argument is heavily New Testament-oriented,
highlighting the various passages that touch the Sabbath theme. He understands the Sabbath as a type of the rest realized in
Christ. As I mentioned, I am in sympathy with this view, and the exegetical grounding Blomberg provides is very clearly
presented and, to my mind at least, very compelling. He very helpful summarizes the arguments for his position, presenting
Christ as the fulfiller of the Sabbath within the larger theme of Jesus’ fulfillment of all that was anticipated in the various
types and shadows of the Old Testament.
Arand’s chapter surveys Luther’s treatment of the Ten Commandments, which I found to be fascinating and very
informative reading. Luther’s understanding of the meaning and role of the first command (the first and second in the
Reformed and more common evangelical enumeration) within the Decalogue offers valuable insight. And Luther’s emphasis
on the role of the Word of God and the gospel preached on Sunday as what makes the day holy, strictly sustainable
exegetically or not, is again a valuable insight. Arand’s position is not strictly Sabbatarian, although priority is given to Sunday
as the day in which Christians are given opportunity to be sanctified by the preached Word. But at the end of it all, what
Arand provides is merely an essay in historical theology and not an exegetical defense of any Sabbath position. Genuinely
helpful and enjoyable as it is in itself in many respects (I am sure I will refer to it again in my exposition of the Ten
Commandments!), it does not constitute a formidable polemic.
MacCarty and Pipa have much in common. MacCarty argues that the seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday) remains
binding on the new covenant believer. Pipa holds a similar view, the primary difference of course being that he holds that the
Sabbath has been moved to Sunday, the first day of the week. Both heavily stress the opening verses of Genesis 2 - that God
blessed and sanctified the seventh day - and present the well-known argument that here God established Sabbath observance
as a “creation ordinance,” obligatory to all humanity. The exegetical evidence for this - that God here imposes a Sabbath
observance of any kind on humanity - is notoriously thin. And the argument advanced by Pipa that it is not “the seventh day”
after all but simply “a day in seven” that is imposed is thinner yet. The text just doesn’t say all that this argument requires of
it. At the very least we must admit that there just is not enough here to persuade any but the already convinced.
Similarly, both MacCarty and Pipa appeal to “the alien who is within your gates” clause in the Sabbath command
(Ex. 20:8-11) as evidence that the Sabbath is binding on Jews and Gentiles alike. But again, the text just doesn’t say that
much. It is a command to Israel concerning the behavior of all those within her community. That it can be broadened to
universal application is simply not something expressly warranted. And their argument that the death penalty assigned to the
violation of the Sabbath indicates the perpetual character of the command or that sabbatismos in Hebrews 4:9 must refer to
a Sabbath (day) observance, again, in context, will not be persuasive but to those already in agreement. And we might say
the same in regard to the argument that the Sabbath is “eternal, moral law” because it is part of the Decalogue. These
arguments simply lack compelling exegetical strength. Necessary as these arguments are to the case, surely something more
weighty is needed to sustain them.
Similarly, in Colossians 2:16-17 and Galatians 4:10-11 Paul’s prohibits Christians to enforce the Sabbath, and when
we are told that this refers not to Sabbath day observance but other “Jewish” or “legalistic” observances, we are left
wondering if the original readers could have understood him in such a restricted way. The exegesis is just not compelling. So
also, interpreting Jesus’ assertion that he is “Lord of the Sabbath” to mean merely that he has the right to interpret Sabbath
law seems to fall far short of Jesus’ claim. Warfield stated it better: “It [the Sabbath] belongs to him. He is the Lord of it;
master of it - for that is what ‘Lord’ means. He may do with it what he will: abolish it if he chooses.”1 To be sure, Jesus
does not at this point abolish the Sabbath, but interpreting his claim as something less authoritative leaves the reader
suspicious either that the interpreter is unable to accommodate the possible attending implications and/or that the overall
argument itself is unable to accommodate all the relevant exegetical data.
On a related score - and this observation edges in to matters of hermeneutics also - the Old Testament emphasis in
MacCarty and Pipa is telling. Is it too much, given a Christian Sabbatarianism, to ask that the New Testament provide us
with instructions on how to keep the Sabbath in this age? Here Pipa responds to this need, surprisingly, with expositions from
Isaiah. Certainly we must not deprecate the older revelation in any way. But again, is it too much to ask for New Testament
instruction concerning the keeping of a day that otherwise seems to have been left behind? The specific New Testament
teaching given to the church regarding the Sabbath - e.g., Romans 14:5; Colossians 2:16-17; Galatians 4:10-11 - seems at first
blush, at least, plainly to indicate that Sabbath observance is no longer a Christian duty. We are asked, however, to
understand these passages in ways that are not immediately evident, and this not on the force of a New Testament command
but on presuppositions which themselves rest on the thinnest of Old Testament exegesis.
New Testament passages such Matthew 5:17ff and 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 point us in a better direction. New
covenant believers ought to look first to Christ (and, by extension, his apostles) for the right understanding and application of
Moses. In terms of the Sabbath this means that we now understand the Sabbath day to have been a shadow pointing forward
to a reality now enjoyed in Christ (Col. 2:16-17). Coming to Jesus we find the rest (Matt. 11:28) that was previously
anticipated but not fully realized in the observance of a day (Heb. 3-4) - a theme Blomberg traces out clearly and
It might have been helpful to Blomberg’s case if he had addressed more fully the question of why Christians worship
on Sunday. He highlights this up front in his article, and in most respects his answer is sufficient as is. However, more would
be helpful for those looking on from a Sabbatarian perspective. There are of course good reasons for “going to church” on
Sunday, even if these reasons are not tied to the Sabbath command. It would serve a non-sabbatarian position well to cover
this base as thoroughly as possible in order to satisfy questions and concerns Sabbatarians inevitably will have. Indeed,
perhaps he could borrow (and tweak) a page from Luther here!
Perspectives on the Sabbath is an enjoyable read throughout, certainly the best of the various views available in a
single volume. And I think the various representatives generally present the best case possible for their views. But the weight
of exegetical considerations in this argument seem clearly to favor the view that Christ soteriologically fulfills the Sabbath -
what was previously prefigured only typologically. This book bears out this impression.
I should mention something also in regard to the pleasant tone that prevails in this volume (the only exception to this
being the unnecessary charge of “antinomianism” that once made its way into one of the responses). It is, after all, an in-
house debate, and the overall courtesy of the authors reflects this well. Their interaction is direct and pointed at times, as it
must be in a book like this, but the mutual respect remains. The disagreements among Christians on this issue are not likely to
go away, but in this regard the authors helpfully model on-going discussion. Because of its format and the overall substance
and tone of the arguments presented, Perspectives on the Sabbath helpfully contributes to the discussion.
Fred G. Zaspel
(This review was first published June 23, 2011, at www.thegospelcoalition.org <http://www.thegospelcoalition.org>.)
1. B.B. Warfield, “The Sabbath and the Word of God,” in John Meeter, Selected Shorter Writings of B.B. Warfield,” vol.
1 (P&R, 1970): 310.