In the recent “Dabney on Sunday” post, R.L. Dabney instructs us that concerning the Sabbath, “there is a reason in the nature of things, making such an institution necessary to man’s religious interests; and that this necessity is substantially the same in all ages and nations.” The investigation of this question – precisely what about the Sabbath is grounded in the nature of things – is a significant task of the Christian theologian, since a very intuitive objection against the Sabbath, the cavil which excises it from the rest of the Decalogue, is that Sabbath-observance by its nature must be a positive injunction, not in its nature morally obligatory. This philosophical objection contradicts the lucid witness of Scripture, which declares Sabbath-keeping to be a moral and New Covenant ordinance (e.g. Ex. 20:8-11; Isa. 56:1-8), but that fact only increases the suitability of our investigation; there could very well be scoffers who agree that the Bible teaches the moral duty of Sabbath-observance, on which basis they reject Scripture itself. Thus, I will here deal not with the biblical evidence for the abiding validity of the Sabbath, which is legion and easily accessible, but with the philosophical evidence supporting the claim that Sabbath-observance is a moral duty grounded in the nature of things.
The Necessity of This Investigation
Some will still not be convinced of the need for this investigation. They will understand that if the Bible teaches that the Sabbath is a moral duty, and if scoffers strongly deny that the Sabbath can be a moral duty, then those scoffers would form an argument to discredit biblical authority. The scoffers would take the premises “the Sabbath cannot be a moral duty” and “the Bible teaches the Sabbath as a moral duty” to infer the conclusion, “the Bible is false.” Notwithstanding their grasp of the scoffers’ argument, these Christian objectors would hold that if the Bible teaches the Sabbath is a moral duty, then that actually constitutes the Sabbath as a moral duty. They would argue that since moral duties are universal, then if God universally imposes the duty of Sabbath-observance upon us in His Word, that’s that; nothing else is needed to make the Sabbath into a moral command; it does not need some independent basis in “the nature of things,” in which case scoffers cannot point to some disconnect between Sabbath-observance and the nature of things to ground their own argument. Thus, these Christian objectors would not affirm the distinction I make between the biblical teaching of our Sabbath-duty and the metaphysical grounds of our Sabbath-duty: as they see it, the former is the latter.
The error in this thinking is its misunderstanding of the nature of moral law and positive law. The Bible truly is an infallible means by which we know Sabbath-observance to be moral (a ratio cognoscendi for our belief in the Sabbath), but it is not the metaphysical basis which makes Sabbath-observance to be moral (a ratio essendi for the righteousness of Sabbath-keeping).1 A pair of examples will illumine this concept: imagine that God universally forbade the human race from performing jumping jacks. Prior to this commandment, humans would have no moral obligation to refrain from jumping jacks, but after it, they would be universally bound to refrain. Contrast this with a universal commandment of God not to commit idolatry. Prior to God’s issuance of an idolatry-prohibition, all men would still be morally forbidden from idolatry; an explicit commandment from God would only compound and concretize our moral duty, not create it. But what is the difference between these prohibitions of jumping jacks and idolatry? Both are universal, yet only the latter is moral. Idolatry is wrong according to its very nature, while performing jumping jacks would be wrong only in an extrinsic sense, if God has contingently forbidden it. The prohibition of jumping jacks would therefore be a universal positive law, but it would still lack the characteristics of a moral law, since it would not involve an action that is inherently wrong, that is, immoral according to the nature of things.
The upshot is that a universal commandment from God requiring Sabbath-observance of all men would not ipso facto be a moral law. Sabbath-observance, to be a moral duty, must have its ratio essendi in the nature of things, not merely in a commandment of God. If the Sabbath is not grounded in the nature of things, it can still achieve the status of a universal positive law and thereby bind all men to its observance, but it cannot be treated as moral. However, since the Bible does clearly teach the Sabbath to be a moral command, we already have great reason to believe that, whatever the specific answer is, there truly is a basis in the nature of things to morally ground the duty of Sabbath-observance. This article intends to articulate this basis and thus strengthen the sabbatarian viewpoint.
The Opposing Views Contrasted
A central difficulty of defending the moral nature of Sabbath-observance is that the opposing positions share central premises but differ on the inference. Both sides understand that weekly worship is important for man’s religious interests, we being creatures of habit, and both sides understand that the day of weekly worship must be fixed on a given day for orderly societal edification. Both sides understand as well that the appointed day of worship must be of a moderate frequency so as to detract neither from our labor nor from our spirituality, and both sides understand that it is proper to set aside periodic times for personal and habitual religious devotion. Yet here they differ: the sabbatarian infers that setting aside a given day per week for religious exercises is inherently morally obligatory, while the antisabbatarian infers that weekly worship is merely a good idea, a wise course of action. (Some antisabbatarians would further hold that it is only made strictly binding by the positive law of the church and/or the magistrate.) The sabbatarians would see the Sabbath as an intrinsically binding moral duty; the antisabbatarians would see it as an intrinsically permissible act which achieves moral objectives.2
For further clarity into the nature of this disagreement, consider these words from Charles Hodge on the nature of positive law:
The fourth class of laws are those called positive, which derive all their authority from the explicit command of God. Such are external rites and ceremonies, as circumcision, sacrifices, and the distinction between clean and unclean meats, and between months, days, and years. The criterion of such laws is that they would not be binding unless positively enacted; and that they bind only those to whom they are given, and only so long as they continue in force by the appointment of God. Such laws may have answered important ends, and valid reasons doubtless existed why they were imposed; still they are specifically different from those commands which are in their own nature morally obligatory. The obligation to obey such laws does not arise from their fitness for the end for which they have been given, but solely from the divine command.3
When authorities (divine or human) issue positive laws, they do so for given reasons, to achieve various ends. The authorities command the subjects to perform certain actions because the authorities (ought to) believe that such actions, when performed, will improve the subjects’ and others’ well-being (among other righteous ends). Yet even when positive laws are issued for very moral purposes, it still does not follow that the commanded actions are in themselves morally obligatory. The moral purposes of the commanded actions do not give rise to the subjects’ obligation to keep them, as if the actions could be obligatory independent of the authoritative commandment. Rather, their obligation arises solely from the fact that an authority issued the positive commandment. “The obligation to obey such laws does not arise from their fitness for the end for which they have been given.” When we apply this insight to the Sabbath, we can see more clearly how the sabbatarian and antisabbatarian views differ. The premises on which they agree, as mentioned above, can either be reasons which make the Sabbath to be intrinsically morally obligatory, or they can be moral ends which make a weekly day of worship, in itself morally indifferent, a good idea to pursue. In the latter case, a weekly day of worship could be morally binding only if it were made so by an authoritative positive law. Once we grant the obvious fact that man is a creature of society, habit, and worship, these two positions remain.
The Analogy of Sexual Ethics
This disagreement is not an easy one to resolve immediately, since the intrinsic nature and the ends of ethical actions are very strongly related, not atomistic and independent features of moral reality. Consider how this works for sexual ethics: when asked why sodomy is wrong, if we were to respond that it conflicts with the purpose of sex, the purpose of gender, and the purpose of society (viz., to maintain peaceful, stable households and communities for the procreation and upbringing of children), we would be speaking the truth. Yet, in citing the moral ends of sex, gender, and society to explain why sodomy is a grave sin, we would not thereby be claiming that sodomy is in itself morally permissible (!); we would not be claiming that committing such a grave sin is merely a “bad idea,” only sinful insofar as it fails to accomplish the moral ends of sex, gender, and society. No, our citation of the moral ends of sex, gender, and society would be to explain that sodomy is intrinsically wrong – that it is, by its very nature, contrary to God’s design of human nature. That sodomy is contrary to human nature is manifested in its statistical opposition to the health of children and society (and sodomites), but even in the rare cases where sodomy’s bad consequences can be avoided, sodomy is still inherently wrong, intrinsically immoral, due to its conflict with our God-given design.
But what is conceptually different between the two ideas (1) that sodomy is intrinsically sinful, as manifested in its conflicting with the ends of sex, gender, and society, and (2) that sodomy is intrinsically permissible but made a sinful “bad idea” inasmuch as it conflicts with the ends of sex, gender, and society? The answer must be that, as a matter of brute fact, God has designed us not to commit sodomy. Our obligation to refrain from sodomy inheres within us as part of our nature, constituted by God; it is a natural end within human nature, not an end extrinsically imposed by human wisdom as a means of attaining other ends, even though it is powerfully related to those other ends. Sodomy is as intrinsically contrary to human nature as idolatry is, even though the latter is necessarily contrary to the nature of any rational creature, while the former is contingently contrary to human nature as God has particularly constituted us. Both are intrinsically sinful irrespective of the bad consequences which might proceed, and simply due to the brute fact that the relevant natural end is inherent to us, not an extrinsically wise pursuit (a “good idea”) given other intrinsic ends.
Therefore, while the sabbatarian and antisabbatarian agree that there are a number of moral ends accomplished through a recurring weekly period of worship, the sabbatarian position demands that Sabbath-observance is more strongly related, by its nature, to these ends: that the duty of Sabbath-observance is itself an inherent end of human nature, and that the neglect of Sabbath-observance is “against nature.” According to the sabbatarian, Sabbath-neglect is intrinsically contrary to our design as creatures of worship, not simply contrary to the moral ends which Sabbath-observance fulfills.
To provide evidence that Sabbath-observance is an intrinsic obligation of human nature, not merely a wise course of action in pursuing extrinsic moral objectives, let us examine other duties which humans have regarding the stewardship of their time, since God calls us to redeem it (Eph. 5:16). Mothers and fathers are intrinsically morally bound to spend time with their children, loving them and instructing them, as are husbands and wives intrinsically bound to spend time with each other. The spending of time with children or with a spouse is not merely an intrinsically permissible action which achieves the righteous ends of child-raising and marriage-nurturing – as if, should some other course of action achieve the same ends, no time would need to be spent with them – but is rather an intrinsically obligatory action. A man who fails to spend sufficient time with his children and wife is ipso facto sinning, being a poor steward of his time. Or to put it another way, the man who refuses to spend an appropriate amount of time with his family is sinning not only in his neglect to nurture such vital relationships, but also in his poor stewardship of time.4
Another example of an intrinsically moral time-obligation is contained within the fourth commandment itself: our duty to labor. Within the Decalogue, God Almighty states not that there are certain moral ends which labor attains (comfort, security, and health for a man and his family), as though we could justly omit labor if we can attain these ends otherwise – but that we are morally bound to spend a great proportion of our time working. The picture presented is not one where, should we have sufficient wealth, it would be superior to cease laboring altogether, living a life of predominant recreation. Just as with a man’s obligation to spend time nurturing his family relationships, a man is likewise bound to spend time laboring with his hands. There is intrinsic value in spending time doing these activities, independent of the other ends they attain; consequently, they are intrinsically moral time-obligations.
Indeed, if we can ever sin in being a poor steward of time, then an immediate inference is that we have intrinsically moral time-obligations, and that these time-obligations are commensurate with the moral weightiness of the required actions themselves. Because we are morally bound to love our families, we are thereby morally bound to spend time expressing that love; because we are morally bound to exercise ourselves in profitable labor, we are thereby morally bound to spend time in work; and because we are morally bound to worship the Lord, we are thereby (intrinsically) morally bound to spend time in religious exercises. Setting aside time specifically to worship God is, therefore, as intrinsically morally obligatory as the obligation to worship God itself. This is the doctrinal background we ought to have when Dabney says, rather matter-of-factly, that the obligation to spend time in the worship of God “is as much a dictate of the natural reason and conscience, as immediate a result of the natural relations of man to God, as that man shall worship his God at all.” In no way, therefore, can the time set aside for His worship be considered as intrinsically permissible. Our nature as God-created beings includes within itself a cycle of work and worship:
Creation week models for us a work/rest duality, whereby the 6/1 pattern is a nested, correlative reality that should govern our time. The six and the one should be seen as equally ultimate. It is not that we are “given” some time to “take care of our necessary tasks” in service to the real action, which is the Sabbath; nor on the other hand is the Sabbath a mere recovery time that we might do the really important work of the six days. But rather, both good work as an end in itself, and cessation from that work to bask in the vision of God, are correlatively the definers of our time as creatures. Our time is defined in both its cyclical and durative aspects.
So deeply is the 6/1 theme rooted in Creation, that it suggests that a work/worship duality in a 6/1 proportionality may be expected to be a pattern even in “eternity” (to use a term for it that I am advising against). We should speak then not of “eternal rest,” but “eschatological work/rest.”5
Both worship and labor are intrinsically valuable uses of our time – uses of our time for which God has designed us – in which case they both are enduring moral obligations.
The Antisabbatarian’s Stumbling Block
Though it is important to establish foundationally that we have a moral obligation to spend time in the worship of God, such a truth is but a stepping stone to the real stumbling block for the antisabbatarian. The antisabbatarian can gleefully agree with the sabbatarian that we ought to set aside time to worship God, seeing that as an intrinsic moral obligation. But, he would justly add, this is different from teaching that Sabbath-observance is intrinsically morally obligatory, since Sabbath-observance is more than the obligation to set aside some amount of time for worship. That we are obligated to set aside a given amount of time for worship is far from the notion that we are morally bound to set aside a contiguous period of time, specifically one day in seven, for both corporate and individual religious exercises. He would note that with other time-obligations, such as a father’s duty to spend time with his children, the obligation consists in the fact that, of all his time, some sufficient but general proportion must be spent with them; no moral obligation requires him to spend a specific, contiguous chunk of time in the process. It would be rather odd, actually, to suppose that a father is morally obligated to commit (e.g.) at least one four-hour segment of his time per week to his children. We would rather suppose that his time-obligation consists in a more indefinite and indistinct proportion of time, to be selected with practical wisdom as circumstances arise and change, and without conscious reflection upon the precise boundaries of this time – not demanding any particular contiguous chunk of time, much less demanding the same contiguous chunk of time for different people with varying dispositions and needs.
Since the sabbatarian maintains that the Sabbath is not only an appointed day for corporate worship, but also a day in which individual worship (besides works of necessity and mercy6) is to occupy the preponderance of one’s time, and since he further believes that this obligation of day-long devotion has a somewhat rough but still discrete beginning and end (one day in seven), and even further holds that this same period obligates all men, no matter their spiritual dispositions and needs, this objection is a serious one to address. The sabbatarian answer to this multifaceted antisabbatarian objection will be laid forth in the next article in this series, elucidating the moral factors which establish Sabbath-observance as intrinsically morally obligatory.
Read Part 2
- The same linked article from before also distinguishes between ratio essendi and ratio cognoscendi, which are very important concepts in Christian ethics. ↩
- You might observe that this is very similar to the disagreement between strong kinists and weak kinists concerning the moral status of interracial marriage. ↩
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. 3, p. 269. Emphasis mine. ↩
- Sins can be compounded like this in many other ways. The Westminster Standards teach that one of the sins forbidden by the third commandment (Larger Catechism #113) is backsliding, since it taints our profession of God’s name; but backsliding can occur by any sin or number of sins. Further, R.C. Sproul has described all sin as “cosmic treason,” since it by its nature is a personal rebellion against God’s authority (cf. James 2:10-11). Similarly, whenever God issues a positive commandment that codifies an antecedent moral obligation, such as the Ten Commandments, we sin (at least) doubly if we break the commandment: we not only commit the intrinsically sinful action but also commit the sin of disobedience to God’s authority. Indeed, for each principle which should motivate us not to sin on any given occasion – others’ well-being, our own well-being, the demands of justice, and so on; God’s glory foremost – our sin compounds itself. ↩
- Tim Harris, “Pipa on the Lord’s Day.” I would add that the description of “eternal rest” can still be appropriate to describe our time spent in glory. Hebrews 4 uses language which, at the very least, indicates that the term “eternal rest” (or “eschatological rest”) can be appropriate, so long as its concept is properly articulated. As Harris rightly notes, it should not signify that we will do zero labor in glory – but, I would add, it does signify that the performance of our moral duties will be without the pain and volitional exertion which accompany our duties’ fulfillment in these “days of sorrow.” In glory, our weakness of will will not degrade our moral character whatsoever; resisting temptations, including temptations toward slothfulness, will not occur, and we will therefore have an “eternal rest” from sin and temptation. To put it another way: in glory, it will be more vividly true that “His yoke is easy and His burden is light.” ↩
- See the Westminster Shorter Catechism, question 60: “How is the sabbath to be sanctified?” A: “The sabbath is to be sanctified by a holy resting all that day, even from such worldly employments and recreations as are lawful on other days; and spending the whole time in the public and private exercises of God’s worship, except so much as is to be taken up in the works of necessity and mercy.” ↩