Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Sabbath Shackles

From the October 2009 E-Block.

I was asked by a reader to have a look at a rather large website (that will remain nameless) offering reasons why Christians should observe the Sabbath. I found it to be full of non sequiturs and arguments we have already dealt with here before (as we did here and also in the Jan-Feb 2009 E-Block article, "Stone Sabbath") so I asked the reader to select what he deemed to be the three strongest arguments from the page, and I would deal with them alone. He gave me his selections, so let's have a look. We'll refer to this Sabbatarian site by the designation "Sal" for reasons I'll leave under wraps. 

Argument #1: The True Vine
One rather extended argument begins by correctly noting that it is not enough to argue that God did not intend for the Gentiles to observe the law. As we discuss here, that could only be true of laws that do not reflect some sort of universal moral. The critical question is whether the Sabbath law is one of those "universals". To the extent of trying to argue this, Sal says:
  1. Scripture refers to the Sabbath as being "of the Lord" and belonging to God. This is true (as in Ex. 20:10) but the syllogism here is essentially that anything "of the Lord" is intended for universal observance. So does "the captain of the host of the Lord" (Joshua 5) refer to a being that leads all military entities at all times? Is the "treasury of the Lord" (Josh. 6:19) where we will always deposit our money? There is simply no logical progression here to suggest that a Sabbath being "of the Lord" makes it a universal, all-time observation. It means no more and no less than it is one designated by the Lord -- as opposed to one designated by some pagan deity or administration. This makes far more sense in context, to the extent that the Babylonians and Egyptians also had their versions of "sabbaths" or days of rest.
  2. Jesus says that "the Sabbath was made for man," (Mark 2:27) not just Jews. "Man" here means all of mankind. Once again, however, there's a hidden syllogism: That which was "made for man" is that which is intended to be universally and timelessly observed. All Jesus' statement indicates, rather, is that the Sabbath was for man's benefit, and to that extent, its primary functions -- rest from labor, contemplation upon God's Word -- are principles that remain sound no matter when they are observed, and are also prescribed in various ways in the NT. However, this does not equate with a legalistic binding of such actions to one particular day for all men at all times, and there is nothing in the NT that does this either.
  3. The "mixed multitude" that left Egypt with Israel had to observe the Sabbath, as did foreigners and slaves of the Jews. These of course were all people living among the Jews, and the guidelines of ritual purity would indicate that this is a "when in Rome" principle -- not a sign of universal application.
  4. Jesus says he is the "true vine" in which everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, would abide (John 15:1-8). This means that everyone must obey Jesus, who ordered us to keep the Sabbath command. It's this last part that gets a little tricky, though. Obviously Sal isn't sacrificing in the Temple right now, so how do they arrive at the conclusion that the Sabbath command -- again -- is a universal? It's not completely honest. They first appeal to Matthew 5:19, "Whoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments..." But this is not merely the Ten Commandments; it is the whole law (5:18). They also appeal to Jesus' advice to the rich young ruler (Matt. 19:17 and parallels) but the Decalogue would naturally operate as a representation of the whole of the law, as it did even in Moses' day. Sal is therefore stuck: He either needs to follow every jot and tittle legalistically, or else he's picking and choosing based on some guideline or other -- and that means we're right back to, "Is the Sabbath in particular a universal?" again. Sal uses similar metaphors with the same basic argument (eg, Christians and Jews are branches in the same olive tree) but it boils down to the same problem. It is asked, thus, "How can one be going to the synagogue to worship on the Sabbath and another going to church to worship on a Sunday? That is not the same teaching." Well, how can one be going to the Temple to sacrifice animals, while another does not? That is not the same teaching either. Notably, Sal allows for the fact that circumcision is regarded differently under the new covenant, as one of the heart rather than of the foreskin -- so he has already admitted a difference in teaching and practice for the two covenant groups. And yet, he does not see the problem in this for his own arguments.
  5. The New Jerusalem in Revelation has gates named after Jews. There are no "Gentile gates." Once again, the same conclusion is jumped to that becoming part of God's covenant people (regardless of which one) equates with a universal, timeless observation of all laws. And again, unless Sal is slitting a heifer's throat somewhere this year, he's out of luck. Ironically, Sal gives away the store again with his admissions that circumcision is different for the "spiritual Jews" (as he calls Christians). So likewise, he says, we must "spiritually" fulfill the Sabbath command. Well, if we set aside time away from work to worship and serve God -- isn't that it? If not, why not?
Argument #2: Sabbath-Keeping Not A Work

This one is not so much an argument for Sabbath-keeping as it is a response to those who say Sabbath-keeping is a work, and since we are not justified by works, we can't be justified by Sabbath-keeping. I have not used such an argument myself, but it seems quite obviously true, so how does Sal get it so that keeping the Sabbath does not involve "works"?

He does so first by claiming that Sabbath-keeping isn't a work, but something that is used to glorify Christ. That may be as it may be, but that does not make Sabbath-keeping not a "work".

Second, he tries to force a dichotomy between Romans 2:13 "the doers of the law shall be justified") and Romans 3:20 ("by the deeds of the law no flesh shall be justified") in order to argue that Paul is not referring to the same thing, and that "works of the law" are not "doing what the law says." But this is a vain contrivance, one very similar to what Skeptics have tried with these verses (see here). Like Skeptics, Sal fails to see these two verses as steps in Paul's argument. It is merely contrived to argue that "works of the law" refers only to rituals of the law such as animal sacrifices.

Argument #3: Vs. Rom. 14:5

Finally, Sal tries to circumvent a prime "non-keeping" verse, one we have noted in the linked article further above. Sal here offers the following replies:
  1. It doesn't mention the Sabbath specifically. This is a vain argument as well. Paul refers to "days" -- is the Sabbath a "day"? This is like arguing that if someone says, "all dogs have fleas," they couldn't possibly include Lassie, because Lassie is not mentioned by name.
  2. Paul earlier mentions those weak in faith eating only vegetables. The law doesn't say we have to eat vegetables, so he can't be referring to the Jewish law. Sal here is rather ill-informed. The allusion to vegetarianism has specifically to do with those who would try to observe the law by not wanting to eat meat dedicated to idols, and therefore commit idolatry. A concern of the Mosaic law is indeed under consideration, though it is also a wider stricture of anyone who worshiped the true God.
  3. This makes no sense because Paul observed Sabbath feasts; then would he consider himself weak? Sal once again fails to consider Paul's observations in their social context. He cites examples of Paul attending festivals, but Paul's purpose was either to evangelize Jews in the synagogue, be a good neighbor to the Jews, or to honor his ancestral traditions -- not because he was worried about his salvation, as the "weak" were.
  4. Rom. 14 has to do with food, so Paul must be referring to days when people fast, not the Sabbath. This, too, is contrived, in the sense of point 1 above: The broader category of "days" applies to all types of days, whether fast days or Sabbath days. But as it happens, Paul makes no such connection between eating and days; this is merely Sal's imagination.

So it is that a strict Sabbatarian view is found to be unwarranted. We once again note that while we are free to observe such things as Sabbaths if we so desire -- as Paul attended festivals to honor Jewish customs and ancestry -- to turn it into a requirement simply goes too far.

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