Sabbath & Lord’s Day in Early Church Thought 1B


Some may ask, “Why study what the Ancient Church had to say on the Sabbath? Why don’t we just study the Bible alone? Don’t we believe in the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura?”

The Sabbath and Lord’s Day questions are not easily answered by Bible study. When one considers the Sabbath passages in the Old Covenant, one is left with the impression that absolutely no work is permitted on the seventh day. When one moves to the Gospels, Jesus’ treatment of the Sabbath seems to vary from allowing some works to unapologetic breaking of the Sabbath. To add confusion to confusion, when one gets to Acts 2:46, Christians met together every day. In Col 2:16, Paul seems to group the Sabbath in with other Jewish customs that are not binding in the New Covenant era. In Heb 4:1-11, the preacher says that the Sabbath is “today.” Trying to make sense of the biblical data is not an easy task. Most take the simple position of assigning the Sabbath command to Sunday; however, there is no biblical warrant for such a move. Therefore, it makes sense to see what the Early Church has said and practiced concerning the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day.

Still Not Convinced of the Need to Consult the Past?

Early Christian writers had the same Holy Spirit that we have. They were “inspired” in a sense; however, their works are by no means “God-breathed.” Christian classics are written by imperfect men, who reflect on the teachings of Scripture to the best of their ability. Christian classics are not totally trustworthy, having some mixture of error. They are not the standard by which Christians live; yet, they are by no means of no value to the Christian life.

Although Scripture addresses all things in general, and is sufficient for all things in general (1 Tim 3:16-17), it does not always give specifics. How does Scripture address the watching of movies and television? It does not; however, Christian writers, reflecting on the Scriptures, have written on the dangers of theater and violent games.2 How does Scripture address the recent trend of buying Sport Utility Vehicles. It does not; however, Christian writers have written against seeking status and wealth.3

Reading how other Christians have lived in light of Scripture, may help us in our present troubles. Reading how God delivered Augustine from sexual sin may be a comfort for those addicted to pornography. Note that sometimes Christians have misapplied Scriptures, adding to troubles. As in all cases, the reader must practice discernment.

The Bible itself quotes uninspired writings. Jude quoted from texts that were not considered Scripture by the Jews. Quoting from the Assumption of Moses, Jude warned against those who would speak against things of which they had no understanding.4 Quoting from the Apocalypse of Enoch, Jude warned against ungodliness.5 If the Jews and early Christians did not consider such books to be Scripture, then why did Jude quote them? The quotes helped the reader focus on Jude’s authoritative warnings. Christian writings, used rightly, help focus the reader on Scripture.

For those who insist on studying the Bible alone, I ask, “Why do you listen to preaching, teaching, hymns, and Christian music?” Preaching and teaching are human reflections and explanations of the Scriptures. Pick up a hymnal and read Charles Wesley’s “Jesus, Lover of my Soul.” Is the hymn Scripture or based on a specific text? It is not based on any specific text, but reflects on the love of the Savior for sinners. The Church listens to sermons, hymns, and teaching, without complaining that their words and lyrics are not Scripture.

These historical writings “acquaint [present Christians] with the wisdom of past Christians.”6 Although Christian classics “are subordinate to Scripture, they are a delight to read.”7 They testify that the Holy Spirit has been at work in people over the last 2000 years.8 Christian classics help to explain the Scriptures.9

Christian classics humble their readers.10 Consider John 4:38. Trying to figure out Christianity by oneself is not only a daunting task, but a prideful one. Such thought assumes that no one else has had anything to contribute to Christian knowledge, practice, and devotion. It pridefully assumes that one can do better than everyone since the Apostles. In humility remember that “others have helped shape Christianity for good or ill.”11 According to Jesus, “You have reaped the benefits of their labors.”12

Martyrdom of IgnatiusChristian classics free modern Christians from the “tyranny of the present.”13 Modern culture partly shapes the minds of present Christians. The culture of the present is far removed from the culture of the ancient world. The wisdom of Christians throughout the history of the Church challenge our present perceptions of the meaning of Scripture, and how to apply it. They send present Christians back to Scriptures to reexamine their own faith and practice. For example, many present Baptist congregations hate giving pastors much authority; however, Ignatius, reflecting on Scriptures such as Heb 13:17, thought congregations should not do anything without pastoral consent.14 American Christians cry “persecution” when courts remove plaques of the Ten Commandments; yet, persecution to the ancient Christians meant suffering and death, in which they took joy.15

Christian classics offer models for imitation.16 The authors were not perfect examples to imitate; however, the biblical heroes of the faith were not perfect either. Abraham, to whom God imputed righteousness for belief, created a divided family through polygamy.17 Jacob, whom God made into the nation Israel, was a deceiver.18 Rahab, who hid the Israelite spies, was a deceiver and a prostitute.19 David, a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery and murder.20 Despite their sins, Heb 11:1-40 considered them commendable examples of faith. In a similar way, we may consider the imperfect models of Christian authors imitable. Keep in mind, that Christians should imitate others only as they imitate Christ.

Finally, the reading of Christian classics results in praise to God.21 As readers see the triumph of God in the salvation of others, they can celebrate God’s grace and mercy. As readers see the triumph of God in the deliverance of others from sin, readers may rejoice in their deliverance. As readers see the triumph of God’s truth over error and heresy, they can praise God for his revelation. As readers see the mighty works of God in the lives of others, they can praise God for using imperfect people to accomplish his perfect will.

Next week, Ignatius, Barnabus, and Justin Martyr weigh in on the days in question.


2. Augustine, Confessio, trans. by R. S. Pine-Coffin, (London: Penguin Group, 1961), 4.1 (71).
3. Ibid.; Basil, “Homily 20: Of Humility,” trans. by M. Monica Wagner, in Saint Basil Ascetical Works, (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc., 1950), 480.
4. Jude 8-11
5. Jude 14-16
6. Michael A. G. Haykin, “Introduction to Classics of Christian Devotion,” (classroom lecture notes, 26720 – Classics of Christian Devotion, 5 July 2005).
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. Ibid.
12. John 4:38
13. Haykin, “Introduction to Classics of Christian Devotion”
14. Ignatius, Magnesieusin Ignatios, trans. by J. H. Strawley, in An English Translation of the Epistles of St. Ignatius, (London: SPCK, 1954) 2.7.1-2 (20-21); Ignatius, Trallianois Ignatios 3.2.2 (24); Ignatius, Philadelpheusin Ignatios 5.7.1-2 (36); Ignatius, Smurnaiois Ignatios 6.8.1 (42).
14. The Acts of St. Cyprian, trans. by Herbert Musurillo, in The Acts of the Christian Martyrs, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 173-175.
16. Haykin, “Introduction to Classics of Christian Devotion.”
17. Gen 15:6; 16:1-16; 21:8-21.
18. Gen 28:10-15; 32:22-32.
19. Josh 2
10. 2 Sam 11-12
21. Haykin, “Introduction to Classics of Christian Devotion.”

About haroyce

Royce is an aspiring writer of fantasy, history, philosophy, and theology. He earned his BS in History from Cedarville College, and his MDiv from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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