The first article of the series concludes in discussing the antisabbatarian’s main stumbling block: that while we may have a moral obligation to designate time for the worship of God, it does not follow that Sabbath-observance is morally obligatory. The duty of Sabbath-observance is more specific than the duty to allot some time for worship, since the Sabbath requires that we specifically allot one day in seven to be entirely devoted to worship (individual and corporate), except as the day is punctuated by works of necessity and mercy. A moral obligation to set aside some amount of time worship is agreed upon, but a moral obligation to set aside one full day in seven solely for worship is not. Proving this further moral claim is the aim of this article.
Identifying the Moral and the Positive
To establish this further moral claim, it would be crucial to properly identify what, exactly, the moral substance of the Sabbath is. Despite the foregoing claim that the moral substance of Sabbath-observance is the setting aside of one day in seven for religious exercises, some sabbatarians would treat this specification of a one-in-seven proportion as a merely positive injunction – permissible intrinsically, obligatory only by authoritative command – not proper to the commandment’s moral essence. As Dabney teaches:
Whether one day in six, or one in eight, might not have seemed to the Divine wisdom admissible for this purpose; or which day of the seven, the first or last, should be consecrated to it, or what should be the particular external ceremonies for its observance; all these things, we freely admit, are of merely positive institution, and may be changed by the Divine Legislator.
See also the words of Charles Hodge:
A moral law is one that binds from its own nature. It expresses an obligation arising either out of our relations to God or out of our permanent relations to our fellow-men. It binds whether formally enacted or not. There are no doubt positive elements in the fourth commandment as it stands in the Bible. It is positive that a seventh, and not a sixth or eighth part of our time should be consecrated to the public service of God. It is positive that the seventh rather than any other day of the week should be thus set apart. But it is moral that there should be a day of rest and cessation from worldly avocations.1
Yet these same theologians seem to indicate the opposite elsewhere; Hodge also teaches that the one-in-seven proportion is itself moral, because grounded in the nature of things:
We are as much bound to keep one day in seven holy unto the Lord, as were the patriarchs or Israelites. This law binds all men as men, because given to all mankind, and because it is founded upon the nature common to all men, and the relation which all men bear to God.2
Dabney does the same when he speaks of
that which we have so carefully pointed out as the essential and perpetual substance of the Sabbath law—the cessation of labour, and the appropriation to religious pursuits of one day (not one fragment of a day) in seven.3
This contradiction might seem a small point of contention, but it reveals a topic of vital importance. If the one-in-seven proportion is not itself essential to the Sabbath’s moral substance, then the entire sabbatarian case is weakened, if not eviscerated. When proving that Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath, a sabbatarian will ordinarily assume as a premise that one day in seven must be reserved – because that is the moral substance of the Sabbath – and, on that premise, he will then show the reasons to suppose why the day has changed from Saturday to Sunday. For example, Dabney argues: “To what day is the Sabbath changed, if not to the first? No other day in the week has a shadow of a claim. It must be this, or none; but it cannot be none: therefore it must be this.”4 Having already established that the one-in-seven proportion is itself moral, he presupposes this when asking what peculiar day is appointed for Sabbath-worship in the New Covenant. But if the one-in-seven proportion is not itself moral, then there is no reason to answer the question within this framework. Instead, the sabbatarian would have to prove that the one-in-seven proportion is binding as a positive injunction (not inherently moral), and further that the specified day of worship is positively ordained as Sunday. He would need to prove that a New Covenant positive law commands one day of the week to be ordained for worship, in addition to proving a shift from Saturday to Sunday. The sabbatarian would have to exclude the possibility that there is no specific day or time ordained for religious exercises in the New Covenant, as that would not be automatically excluded by any moral law.
If the sabbatarian does not prove the moral nature of the one-in-seven proportion, then all he could establish as moral would be to allot some time for worship. Yet this would barely distinguish itself from antisabbatarianism. The antisabbatarian agrees that we are morally bound to utilize some time for worship, but such a bare moral basis still leaves various questions to be answered: Has God issued a universal positive law, applicable in the New Covenant, to designate one particular day in seven? Has He issued any positive law requiring us to designate one whole day (e.g. one-in-six or one-in-eight)? Has He commanded us to designate any contiguous proportion of time at all? Or has He simply left it up to our practical wisdom to decide how we apportion our worship-time? If the one-in-seven proportion is not moral, then the sabbatarian’s case becomes extremely difficult, even impossible, because he must prove that a whole host of positive injunctions are binding on Christians today. If the one-in-seven proportion is established as moral, then the sabbatarian need only provide reasons for the positive shift from Saturday to Sunday within the moral framework, as Dabney does; but if it is not, then the antisabbatarian’s objection gains full force. Hence it is vital for sabbatarians to overcome the antisabbatarian’s stumbling block.5
The Morality of the One-in-Seven Proportion
Recall the primary stumbling block for the antisabbatarian: that although we morally ought to spend some amount of time in worship, we have no reason to treat this time-obligation differently from other time-obligations of ours. Fathers are morally bound to spend time with their children, but they are not bound to have (e.g.) a specific four-hour allotment for this duty; their time-obligation is more indistinct and guided by general practical wisdom, not characterized by discrete time apportionment. Likewise, while the antisabbatarian grasps our moral obligation to allot some amount of time for worship, he does not see the further moral basis for specifically reserving one whole day in seven for individual and corporate worship.
This objection grows in potency when we add the evident observation that different people have different circumstances and different dispositions regarding their religious life. Just as some men need to spend more time with their wives than other men, due both to differing circumstances and to different temperaments, and just as some men need to work more or less, so also the time-obligation for a person’s religious worship is unlikely to be exactly uniform from person to person. Someone who is free to engage in worship frequently during the week will not need a full day of religious devotion in the same way that someone who is swamped with work for six days will. A busier person will need that specific segment of rest and worship more than an unbusy person will. But if this is so, argues the antisabbatarian, then it is frankly false that each individual needs an equal allotment of time for religious exercises. Such a particular allotment might be a wise course of action instituted by positive law, but it cannot be intrinsically moral.
The fundamental answer to this objection, then, is the intrinsic moral value of a specific time allotment for worship, an intrinsic moral value which, as a brute fact, is not proper unto discrete allotments for the more natural tasks of life. This moral value arises from the high importance of religious worship over our more “natural” tasks, in addition to the tendency of human nature to degenerate from our religious and spiritual duties despite their lofty importance. There is an enormous difference between the heavenly-mindedness required in worship, and the concerns which even fallen humanity has for the more natural tasks of work and family. The latter concerns are much more inscribed in our consciences as vivid duties than the former concern, so much so that the majority of unregenerate men will often fulfill these duties ably. But it is not so for our spiritual and religious duties. By our nature, we are much more prone to deviate from our religious obligations, even though the fulfillment of such obligations is essential to our flourishing as a spiritual wellspring. The maintenance of our religiosity and spirituality is necessary to ensure our compliance with our more natural duties – the corruption of our first-table vitality tends to pollute by derivation our second-table obedience – yet we are much more prone to be tempted away from spiritual things than from our more natural obligations concerning work and family.6 Consequently, for these two reasons, a specific allotment of time for worship is morally essential. Charles Hodge agrees:
This command was designed to arrest the current of the outward life of the people and to turn their thoughts to the unseen and spiritual. Men are so prone to be engrossed by the things of this world that it was, and is, of the highest importance that there should be one day of frequent recurrence on which they were forbidden to think of the things of the world, and forced to think of the things unseen and eternal.7
Notice that this specific apportionment of time for worship has value independently of the time spent in worship. It is one thing to spend an amount of time equal to one day in seven worshiping God; it is another to specifically plan to set aside one day in seven for worship. The latter involves a particular intention of time-allotment that adds intrinsic value to the value of spending time in worship, precisely because it assures that an appropriate amount of time will be spent in worship (as is the purpose of all time-budgeting). Purposefully allotting time for an activity maintains the activity’s importance in the mind as a vivid recurring duty, preventing it from the reduction and deprioritization it would suffer if governed solely by the general exercise of practical wisdom.
Notice, too, that this moral benefit would accrue to anyone irrespective of his disposition or circumstances. If the moral value of the Sabbath consisted solely in the amount of time spent in worship, and not further in the moral value of specifically allotting time for worship, then the different religious needs for different people would demand different amounts of time in religious exercises. But since there is moral value independent of the sheer amount of time spent in worship, varying religious needs do not undermine the moral nature of the one-in-seven proportion. Different people’s varying religious needs are compatible with a uniform apportionment of time for worship.
There might not be a danger in relegating other time-obligations solely to practical wisdom, such as the time spent with one’s children or at work, but for the time spent in worship, the risk of unlawfully reducing such time is too great, especially given the solemn importance of religious exercises in themselves. Thus the Almighty has designed mankind to allot a particular proportion of time for religious exercises, one whole day in seven.
Time-Allotment as Intrinsically Moral
The probable objection of the antisabbatarian to this argument would be to repeat that allotting a discrete time period for worship, while a good idea, is not intrinsically moral. He would claim that setting aside a particular day for worship, given our tendency to spurn religious duties, is a wise course of action, but nonetheless such budgeting is still intrinsically permissible (that is, not intrinsically obligatory). This would allow the antisabbatarian to then conclude that there is no perpetual obligation to reserve the entirety of one day to religious exercises; at most he would claim we are morally bound to attend public worship services on Sundays. Hence, whether this time allotment is intrinsically obligatory or merely a “good idea,” though a seemingly small disagreement, is determinative of the whole issue.
The best answer to this final objection is simply to note how near and integral this time-allotment arrangement is unto human well-being. Because of the frailties of human nature, and because of the value of religious exercises in vitalizing the upper principles of the soul, such an arrangement is so necessary and important that we really can say that the one-in-seven proportion is thereby moral.
Consider the arrangement of family government as an analogue. Fathers primarily, and mothers secondarily, are endowed by God with authority to provide commandments and guidance unto their children, and also to administer discipline for sin, particularly the sin of filial disobedience. Without this peculiar arrangement – that is, without an arrangement where parents could tell their children what to do and justly punish them for disobedience – children would inevitably become moral monsters. Children are so naturally prone to act selfishly and solipsistically, so naturally bent to depart from moral duties, that an arrangement with parental positive law and punishment is intrinsically moral, woven into the very fabric of human nature to emerge organically within history – not a mere “good idea.” The main evidences for the moral quality of this family structure are the weaknesses of human nature to degenerate into various sins if not guided from childhood. But this weakness within human nature is precisely the same kind of evidence we have to discern the moral quality of the one-in-seven proportion: given the weaknesses of human nature to depart from spiritual duties, a discrete and recurring period of worship is necessary for our well-being. If the inference of family government’s intrinsic morality is valid in the first case, then the inference of sabbatarianism is just as valid in the second.
For the sake of emphasis, note again how the apportionment of time for Sabbath-worship differs from other time-obligations. Because we are not nearly as prone to forsake our duty to spend time in work and with our families, a specific time-allotment for such duties is not intrinsically moral. The end or purpose of such a time-allotment – namely, to ensure that we spend time doing the specified activity – is not as crucial to our well-being, as integral to our God-designed nature, as the allotment of time for religious exercises. (This is very different, of course, from saying that it is unimportant to spend time with one’s family or at work!) Precisely due to our proneness to depart from spiritual duties, the particular time-obligation for religious worship morally requires a set period, whereas other time-obligations do not. This is the fundamental answer, then, to the antisabbatarian’s stumbling block.8
The Sabbath’s Social Nature
I do not wish to imply that the Sabbath’s moral basis is grounded solely in human nature’s powerful need for a purposefully allotted period of worship. Many sabbatarian authors have explained that, because our worship is also to be public and corporate, the nature of our allotted worship time of necessity requires a positive appointment. A society cannot set aside one day for rest and worship unless they agree to a day. Moreover, others’ participation in worship also serves to encourage and motivate our own religious exercises, which then begets societal holiness. Numerous other social reasons doubtless exist as part of the Sabbath’s design.
Nevertheless, I do not see these social elements as foundational for establishing the intrinsic morality of Sabbath-observance, since they would never be able to explain our moral obligation to engage in private worship on the Sabbath. One of the more peculiar aspects of sabbatarianism is that it requires an individual to engage in religious exercises the entire day (except for works of necessity and mercy), even when he is apart from public and family worship. But social-moral reasons for sabbatarianism will necessary fail to prove the intrinsic morality of engaging in individual worship during an allotted day of the week. This is why I focused on the argument above, regarding the increased importance of religiosity and the frailties of human nature: it establishes the more basic moral foundation for Sabbath-observance, permitting further social-moral observations about the Sabbath without the inevitable gap in moral reasoning which such social observations would leave. (Moreover, I should add that there could be further moral reasons to allot one day in seven for religious exercises besides the argument I provided above, but my argument should nonetheless provide sufficient evidence to undercut the antisabbatarian’s stumbling block.)
Once it is granted that a particular allotment of time for religious exercises is crucial to human well-being and intrinsically moral, the next question is specifying what that ideal allotment is. Though arguments could be made, without recourse to Scripture, to prove that the one-in-seven proportion is evidently the ideal apportionment of time – e.g., appealing to mankind’s historic practices, or perhaps showing the abject failure of a one-in-ten day of rest in Revolution-era France – there would be no use in doing so. The common and intuitive objection against sabbatarianism is the strangeness or vagueness of claiming that, as a moral principle, a particular slot of time ought to be reserved for worship. If the foregoing argument is valid, then this objection is overcome, and there simply is no further antisabbatarian objection standing; that is, antisabbatarians do not concede that an apportionment of time for worship is moral but then question whether that particular apportionment is one day in seven. If they do, Scripture is abundantly clear on the answer anyway.9
However, a complication emerges when we reflect on this specific time-allotment. The fourth commandment doesn’t actually allot one full day in seven for worship; that is, it does not allot twenty-four hours of worship for every 144 hours spent outside of worship. The obvious reason this is false is because we need to sleep for some duration within those twenty-four hours. Yet unless the Sabbath-commandment also requires a specific amount of sleep, the remainder of the day being reserved strictly for worship, the Sabbath actually does not allot an equal amount of worship-time for everybody. Moreover, it’s not clear whether the fourth commandment morally requires us to begin the Sabbath at sunset, at midnight, or at our awakening – nor is it clear whether one of these options is the singular, universally applicable answer – which can also affect whether we view the whole allotted period as exactly twenty-four hours in the first place. In sum: it is ambiguous how much time should be allotted for Sabbath-observance.
While this provides a complication, it does not serve as an antisabbatarian objection. The ambiguity of the precise time-apportionment does not make the specification of the allotment a non-moral decision (i.e. it does not disprove the moral nature of Sabbath-observance), but simply demands that the decision be made through the exercise of practical wisdom. This is different, however, from reducing all of our worship time-obligation purely to the exercise of practical wisdom – which is antisabbatarianism – since this still demands that, as a moral imperative, we must select a specific, contiguous portion of time for our Sabbath-worship. A sabbatarian would understand that human nature demands a specific allotment of time for religious exercises roughly equal to one day in seven, and would exercise practical wisdom in setting the exact bounds on this time (e.g. from midnight to midnight), while an antisabbatarian would simply utilize practical wisdom to make sure he spends enough time in worship, without believing that any intentional weekly apportionment of time is itself morally demanded. As stated above, the constitution of human nature – specifically, the drastic importance of religion for our flourishing and the ease with which we neglect it – demands as a moral obligation that we set aside one day in seven for religious exercises. This still leaves a degree of ambiguity within which practical wisdom should reign, but this is far from the degree of leeway granted to practical wisdom by the antisabbatarian – a degree that, sadly, ensures the eventual abolition of religion from man’s consciousness.
The Permissibility of Recreation
Besides the designation of a specific start- and endpoint for Sabbath-observance, I further contend that practical wisdom should be employed in determining the amount of recreation to be done on a given Sabbath. This contention conflicts with the traditional Protestant sabbatarian position, which holds that all recreation is forbidden for the entire day; but from my research, this position is poorly argued. Some sabbatarian arguments simply equate a rest from worldly labor with a rest from all “worldly amusements,” thus treating the outright prohibition on recreation as an obvious implication of the commandment itself. A more convincing argument, though it is not necessarily articulated for this exact purpose, is to identify the biblical purpose of the Sabbath as God-centered (especially by citing Isaiah 58:13-14), in which case everything detracting from worship is ipso facto unlawful. For instance, although Charles Hodge is not necessarily attempting to exclude all works of recreation from the Sabbath in these ensuing statements, they nonetheless show what kind of argument a recreation-forbidding sabbatarian would construct:
The day is to be kept holy unto the Lord. In Scriptural usage to hallow or make holy is to set apart to the service of God. Thus the tabernacle, the temple, and all its utensils were made holy. In this sense the Sabbath is holy. It is to be devoted to the duties of religion, and what is inconsistent with such devotion, is contrary to the design of the institution.10
As the argument would go, since worship and consecration to God is the design of the Sabbath, then any works contradicting that design would be unlawful. The recreation-forbidding sabbatarian would of course qualify this to note that works of necessity and mercy are permitted, since human health and well-being is a high moral end alongside religious worship. But he would then note that recreation would not be sufficiently morally weighty to permit it on the Sabbath, whereas works of mercy and necessity would be. He would argue that works of recreation are (to cite the words of Isaiah 58) instances of “doing thine own ways,” “finding thine own pleasure,” and “speaking thine own words.”11
These arguments are unconvincing. It is plainly false that a rest from worldly labors entails a rest from all recreations. Quite the contrary: recreation is not an activity from which we rest, but is itself constitutive of rest and relaxation from worldly labors, and should therefore be understood as permitted on our weekly day of rest. On ordinary days of the week, men will often pursue some sort of recreation precisely because they desire to let their minds at ease from the toils of the day. Playing a game with their family, watching a movie, or simply chatting are all forms of rest despite (or rather, because of) their categorization as recreation. Furthermore, it is apparent that these sorts of recreations inevitably occur on any given Sabbath-day. Suppose a husband wakes up on Sunday morning to find his wife cooking breakfast in the kitchen, and, after planting a kiss on her cheek, makes some conversation with her. Couldn’t this be understood as an act of recreation? Even if it is not strictly classified as recreation, this activity would not fall under the categories of mercy, necessity, or worship, and thus it would still strain the traditional sabbatarian understanding. Or as another example, consider the socialization that inevitably occurs after the benediction is given in a worship service. Congregants converse and interact with one another, often talking about various activities of their week or discussing their families. Again, none of this is within the realm of mercy, necessity, or worship.12 Even if these instances of chatting would not be strictly termed “recreation,” they would still cast doubt on the worship-necessity-mercy paradigm, permitting other works of relaxation and “amusement” into the Sabbath. Therefore, due to the nature of recreation as a mode of rest, and due to the inescapability of including recreations on the Sabbath – in addition to the absence of any clear biblical argument prohibiting recreations – recreations should be understood as intrinsically permissible on the Sabbath.
This is where the qualification of the Sabbath as a distinctively holy day, consecrated specially unto the Lord, becomes a crucial consideration in the opposite direction. The traditional sabbatarians are correct in identifying the Sabbath’s design as emphasizing and cultivating the duties of religion, and indeed the Scripture asserts this quite plainly; but they are incorrect in seeing this as requiring a full prohibition of all recreation. While recreation is intrinsically permissible on the Sabbath, it should nevertheless be maintained in lower proportions than on ordinary days of the week, precisely because the Sabbath is to be peculiarly devoted to religious exercises. (In other words, the amount of recreation used to give man a true “day of rest” is lawful; otherwise recreation should not crowd out the worshipful design of the day.) This is where practical wisdom re-enters the argument. While we are told that, as part of the nature of things, we ought to apportion one day in seven to be devoted to religious exercises, this still leaves the degree of included recreation up to one’s practical judgment. As above, this inclusion of a degree of practical wisdom does not nullify the moral nature of the time-allotment. For the maintenance of religiosity, mankind is designed to set aside one day generally (not absolutely and entirely) reserved for religious exercises, though this permits practical wisdom both in discerning the start- and endpoints and in permitting a healthy amount of recreation and rest.13 The antisabbatarian would give far too much leeway to practical wisdom, removing the necessity of a discrete, contiguous time allotment itself.
The Holy Scriptures present the Sabbath as an abiding moral commandment of God, with the moral substance of this commandment being the reservation of one day in seven for the worship of God. God is abundantly gracious in making our Sabbath-obligations clear in His Word, for many of these matters inevitably become complex and confusing. Though it is obvious that we must spend some amount of our time in religious exercises, other components of this commandment’s moral substance are not as obvious, which is why they often fall under the eager critique of antisabbatarians. But as we have learned, man’s religiosity and spirituality, being the upper principles of his soul, require stricter safeguards to maintain, especially due to our natural proneness to neglect religion and worship; and thus it is a moral commandment, not merely a “good idea,” to allocate a contiguous, recurring portion of our time for worship, specifically one day in seven. This is the moral basis of sabbatarianism: the foundation of the fourth commandment within the nature of things.
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 323. ↩
- Ibid., p. 329. ↩
- R.L. Dabney, Systematic Theology, p. 385. ↩
- Ibid., p. 391 ↩
- I would reiterate here that the Bible is clear in its teaching on the moral continuity of the one-in-seven proportion, and that sabbatarians like Hodge and Dabney appeal to this biblical evidence when proving that the one-in-seven proportion is moral. But it’s still important to counter the philosophical objection that such a budgeted proportion cannot by its nature be moral, simply because that objection is so intuitive – so intuitive, indeed, that even Hodge and Dabney succumbed to calling the one-in-seven proportion positive! ↩
- This was the case even before Adam’s fall, since man at that point in history, although truly holy and righteous, was mutably so. ↩
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 322. ↩
- Even if someone is not convinced from this mere philosophical consideration that human nature demands a particular period of time to be allotted for worship, it still is sufficient to undercut the antisabbatarian’s objection. The antisabbatarian contends that, by its nature, this one-in-seven command cannot be moral, but my argument demonstrates exactly how it can be moral. Given the Bible’s clear presentation that it is moral (even if it does not establish all the details why it is), an undercutting argument is all that is necessary to maintain the reasonableness of sabbatarianism. ↩
- It also is important to add that this one-in-seven principle, being a creation ordinance, is fitted not only to our particular physical and spiritual constitution (cf. Mark 2:27), but also to the well-being of all of creation. ↩
- Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 3, p. 338. ↩
- Though I interpret Isaiah 58:13-14 as teaching a high regard and consecration of the Sabbath, I nonetheless find this compatible with a lessened proportion of recreation; that is, Isaiah does not require a complete barring of all recreation from the entire day. I expand more on this idea below. ↩
- Indeed, for a given activity to be a work of worship, according to the traditional Reformed view, the regulative principle of worship would have to be in force. Yet very few traditional sabbatarians would claim that the regulative principle of worship is in effect for the vast preponderance of the Sabbath-day, that is, the entirety of the Sabbath except for the times given to works of mercy and necessity. ↩
- Notice that practical wisdom is needed to balance the amount of Sabbath-time we spend resting and the amount we spend worshiping: they are ordinarily mutually exclusive. While there is a sense in which worship “recharges” us for the week to come, thereby serving as a type of “rest,” it is clear that worship cannot provide the same kind of rest and recuperation of which an old-fashioned nap is capable. This shows what might be the fundamental error in the traditional sabbatarian viewpoint: the effective exclusion of rest from the day of rest. Are naps works of worship, necessity, or mercy? Someone could try stretching the category of “necessity” to include napping (it’s usually reserved for activities like nocturnal sleep and eating), but the answer is no. Yet if naps are permissible forms of rest that can occupy potential worship-time on the Sabbath, then recreation, being a form of rest, can permissibly do the same. ↩