22 August 2014

Sabbatarian Hermeneutics and Some Resulting Misapplications

I've mentioned it before but I wish to briefly revisit the question of the Sabbath and the mandate regarding six days of labour. There are some who insist that our culture's five day work cycle (which is certainly not applicable to everyone, as many work six or even seven days) is in fact sinful and that as Christians who would take Dominion, we need to be working a full six days.
Thus, is the five day work week sinful modernism and a paradigm Christians should reject?
To deal with this question I must first address some of the assumptions rooted in the question. First there is the question of the Sabbath itself and secondly even if I grant the Sabbatarian position does this necessitate a six day work week?
Like Calvin I believe the Sabbath is not actually in force today. There was a time in which I would have ardently disagreed with the Genevan Reformer. I was a strict Sabbatarian of the Westminster School.
After coming to a better understanding of Redemptive History and in particular the covenantal questions addressed in the books of Galatians and Hebrews I ultimately abandoned the position.
Actually, the main issue is connected to the question of the Decalogue and whether or not it is the equivalent of the Eternal Moral Law. While the substance of God's character does not change, the nature of law is in itself a more complicated issue.
Reformed Sabbatarian theology (a la Westminster) insists the Decalogue is the Eternal Moral Law. Many believe Adam had it in the Garden. Thus, the Ten Commandments are perpetually binding and reflect the immutable character of God. They are commandments that are given because they in and of themselves represent what is good.
Many detractors would agree the substance of the laws are binding but the actual form in which they are given whether in Exodus or Deuteronomy are contextual forms rooted in the now obsolete Mosaic covenant. They would say there are aspects of the Decalogue that are good simply because they were commanded for that time and place.
The substance of the Sabbath, the obligation to give to God of our time and to set aside daily cares and concerns is still binding but not in the form of a 24 hour day in a seven day cycle.
It's interesting how Dominionist theology struggles with these categories because the notion of setting aside daily concerns and turning to God are nonsensical to them. Daily concerns under that system are forms of worship. The way this is all applied by them can at times be reckoned bizarre.
All that said, in the New Testament era we are not under a tutelage wherein we are instructed in the minutiae concerning how to live our lives and worship God. We aren't given hundreds of commands that reflect how we should love God and neighbour in an agrarian/pastoral tribal Iron Age context. Instead we're told simply to love God and neighbour. We're told to redeem the time for the days are evil and to lay up treasure in heaven.
The problem for the Eternal Law argument that roots the form to eternality is the question concerning the change of days. This issue is what led me (and some close friends at the time) to reconsider the issue in toto. The realization that the idea of a day-change (seventh day to first day) destroyed the integrity of the Eternal Law argument and led us to reconsider the Sabbath in light of the New Testament teachings.
Time does not modify objective truth, but the lesson of the Sabbath and in particular the form it took in the Old Covenant was tied to a historical context. That should be self-evident even in the way the command is formulated. It's established for an agrarian society, a society in a given context and a certain time in Redemptive History. The preamble declares YHWH as the God which has delivered them from Egypt. This is different from the New Covenant as was prophesied by the prophets themselves. We are metaphorically delivered from Egypt but that does not contain historical meaning for the Church and is not the basis of the New Covenant which was established with Christ as the mediator... not Moses.
This is not to suggest that living in a technological-industrial society changes the objective nature of moral absolutes. Not at all, but the Sabbath in and of itself is not morally objective. Christ's words concerning the fact that Sabbath was made 'for man' and not man for the Sabbath indicates that its very nature, the keeping of the seventh day, is different than an absolute principle regarding murder or theft. It serves a different purpose. In terms of the Decalogue it is a positive command to remember as opposed to a prohibition. In the New Testament this is explained in terms of the Sabbath being not a commandment that's particularly about prohibition but aid, growth and spiritual advancement. Under the administration of death (as Moses is called) there is capital condemnation which typifies the Christ's role as Judge.
In the New Covenant many of these commands were abrogated as Paul in Galatians and the author of Hebrews make clear. This means the Covenant itself was temporary. It reflected eternal truths but they were often expressed in symbolic and temporary forms which were abrogated by the Messiah. The Church does not wield the sword. The Church is given positive commands as is appropriate. We live in an age of Spiritual Maturity and prohibitive commands belong to an age of Spiritual Infancy.
Even the oft appealed to Matthew 5.17f does not support the Sabbatarian argument. If so, then the Apostles in Acts 15 are certainly the least in the Kingdom.  The reality is that all has been fulfilled or 'finished' as Christ declared on the cross. And yet that also must be understood in terms of the Already-Not Yet. For those of 'The Age to Come' who still live in 'This Age' the finished work of Christ has been applied.
All of these things were fulfilled with the coming of the Messiah which is also Already Not-Yet. We still await the Second Coming which is the completion of the single event... the fulfillment, the Coming of the Messiah. It's an even that must be understood as something that is both past and future with aspects applicable to the present.
It could be argued that if every aspect of the Sabbath command were in effect then indeed we would (regardless of cultural context) be obligated to labour six days. If that's the case, and if we're not permitted to generate work for others (and thus partake in their work) then we must not use any electricity or anything else on Sunday and even supporting those necessarily Sabbath breaking enterprises may entail sin on our part. Power plants don't shut down on Saturday night and re-start on Monday morning. It doesn't work that way. Someone has to be there continuously.
If this command is meant to be followed in the absolute literal sense then we have to completely break with modern civilization. I don't see any way around that. Sabbatarianism means a rejection of industrial society.
Some will argue necessity or even mercy but when put under real analysis this argument is found wanting.
If the 'agrarian' elements are to be stripped away or understood in terms of general equity then the six-day element must be included. An agrarian society means the breadwinner is in the fields all day but is basically home during the meals. He doesn't have a job that takes him away from his family. Living in a village means the wife can purchase the minimally required goods from the market which would also be within walking distance. It's a different type of lifestyle rooted in a different mode and rhythm of life.
Today, there are many basic tasks that are completed on what we typically refer to as a 'day off'. For many this is a day of housecleaning, laundry or running errands. Even those of us who live in a village probably live in a situation where the village economy was destroyed long ago and we must drive to a larger urban area in order to purchase everything from food to soap and new clothes. Is this lifestyle sinful? If so, then the Amish are certainly correct in their paradigm.
If not, then it must be understood that a good deal of our 'time off' is indeed another form of work.
And if the agrarian forms are not binding, then Sabbath must function differently in an industrial society.
As an interesting aside...
There are a few people who still hold to the Sabbath but understand it as only pertinent to people in covenant. They can eat at a restaurant on Sunday but if they owned the restaurant they would certainly be closed. They would say it's valid to enter into transactions with the Babylonians on a Sunday but Christians must eschew jobs that would require them to work on that day.
Some would accuse them of a dualist ethic... what's wrong for Christians is okay for the world. They would rightly respond that unbelievers can't keep the Sabbath anyway. It's not a matter of it being okay for them. Everything the unbeliever does it sinful. They don't need Sunday Blue Laws. They need the gospel. Upon conversion they would certainly quit the job so that they could be in Church.
But what of those who don't have a problem with industrial society but still insist that Christians are obligated to work six days?
It seems as if some of these teachers interpret work as time devoted to generating 'profit'. But this cannot possibly be what the Sabbath commandment envisioned. A true agrarian economy is not based on cash profits and capital.
In our society mowing the lawn and doing laundry are indeed 'work' and no one needs to feel guilty about taking Saturday off from work. Also if this were true then truly leisure itself would almost become sinful. There would be no time for it. Six days of work and Sabbath, that's it. The Sabbatarian Sunday is not a time for leisure. Resting in the Lord is about laying aside worldly burdens and labours. The day is one of physical rest but primarily is set aside for 'resting in' or worshipping and communing with God. It's not about long naps in the hammock. It's a day that demands that we don't think our own thoughts or speak our own words. If you're going to follow the Old Testament Sabbath then Isaiah 58.13 is both informative and necessary.
Granted the ancient world didn't share our notions of leisure and it certainly has been abused in our day but for many who live in a industrial urban environments, the escape, the temporary retreat into the hinterland is something many people have come to treasure and view as essential to the relief of stress. That's not an argument, just something else to consider. Is it wrong to go camping, take a fishing trip or take days off work to visit family in another state?
If the other six days are necessarily devoted to profit-labour, then any kind of recreational day off would be a sin. If it's permitted to 'take a vacation day', then it's simply a matter of quantification. We're not arguing over the principle, merely how much time or how many days are morally acceptable. Fine then, you get your week of vacation on top of your fifty-two Saturday/Vacation days per year. Does that work? If not, why not?
If it's okay to take a holiday, then why can't we take a weekly one-day holiday?
The Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. Ultimately it was a picture of heaven and in Christ we are already seated in the heavenlies. The Messiah has come, the yoke of tutelage has been removed. The Old Covenant has been annulled. The only Sabbath we await is the eternal rest of heaven itself. Today whenever we give of our time and energy to things of God we are effectively 'keeping Sabbath'.
You're doing it right now as you read this article and consider the issue. You're saying that I owe and desire to give of my time to God and consider issues pertinent to His Kingdom. This is part of loving God. We should do it as often and as much as we possibly can.
Whether it's being 'kept' seven hours a week or twenty-seven that depends on the person and their particular circumstance. But in the New Covenant, we no longer 'keep' days or Sabbaths.
Even if I were still a Sabbatarian, I would in no way feel compelled to work extra hours or take a second job in order to fulfill a misunderstood requirement attached to the Old Covenant form of the 4th Commandment. The Reformed teachers who proffer this are simply wrong but in reality this is just symptomatic of a wider array of theological errors concerning the Kingdom. They've embraced a host of theologically driven economic errors as a result of their misapplication and misreading of Scripture.
The error stems from a misunderstanding of Redemptive-History, the relationship between the covenants, the nature of the law and New Testament doctrine concerning the Christian life. When these errors are combined with Dominionist impulses, the way it redefines 'good works' and the Kingdom of God we end up with a teaching regarding the Sabbath that places layer upon layer of Judaized legalistic burdens upon God's people... and all to no end but a shallow satisfaction found in the flesh.