The Fourth Century
Constantine: the External Threat Becomes the Internal Threat
The emperor Constantine (AD 306 – 337) had a religious experience whilst gaining control over the Roman Empire. The experience made him favor what had been an illegal religion. Constantine gave Christianity legal status through the Edict of Milan (AD 313).68 Although he showed favor towards the Church, Constantine seemed to have worldview confusion. He remained the High Priest of the pagan religions of the Empire.69 When the Arian heresy appeared, Constantine, acting with authority over the Church, called the Council of Nicea in AD 325. Although the canons of said council declared Arianism heresy, Constantine favored the Arian view.70 An Arian, Eusebius of Nicodemia, baptized Constantine on his deathbed.71
Sunday Sabbath by Decree
What happens to Christian teaching in the hands of a confused Caesar? It changes. Although the Church had been teaching that the Sabbath command was not binding on Christians, Constantine decreed Sunday to be the Christian Sabbath (AD 321).
Eusebius Life of Constantine
4.18 He ordained… that one day should be regarded as a special occasion for prayer… Accordingly he enjoined all the subjects of the Roman Empire to observe the Lord’s day as a day of rest…72
Note that this was not just for Christians. All Roman citizens were under the decree to rest on Sunday. Constantine even ordered Roman soldiers to pray to the king of heaven on Sunday.73 By decree, all were to rest and worship on a Sunday Sabbath; however, the Church continued to teach a distinction between the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day for at least a century after the decree.
The Ecumenical Councils Defend the Established Truth
The First Council of Nice (AD 325)
Canon 20. Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.74
Kneeling (falling prostrate) was the common position for prayer from ancient times; yet, early Christians began standing while praying on the Lord’s day in remembrance of the resurrection.75 Standing also implies activity and liveliness in contrast to the rest and humility implied by kneeling.
The Council of Gangra (AD ~325 – 381)
Canon 18. If any one, under pretence of asceticism, shall fast on Sunday, let him be anathema.76
Fasting, kneeling, or any ascetic activity is inappropriate for the joyful celebration of the resurrection on the Lord’s day. Sunday was a festive occasion.
The Synod of Laodicea (AD ~343 – 381)
Canon 16.The Gospels are to be read on the Sabbath [i.e. Saturday], with the other Scriptures.
Canon 29. Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.77
Christians worshiped on both Saturday and Sunday; yet, they gave the highest honor to Sunday. Resting on the Sabbath is Judaizing worthy of anathema. Rest is allowed on Sunday, but not commanded. This allowance clause, if they can, is in opposition to Constantine’s decree that all Roman citizens must rest on Sunday. Over time, Constantine’s decree won the day, becoming official Church teaching. By the time of the Protestant Reformation, very few knew of the distinction between Sabbath and the Lord’s day. Those who made such a distinction, and taught against the Sabbath command, were deemed heretics even by the majority of Protestants.78
Addendum to the First Four Centuries
One may ask, What if the majority of the Church was wrong? What did the Eastern Church have to say about the Sabbath? Did splinter groups worship and rest on Saturday? Were the heretics who did honor Saturday really heretics?
What of the Eastern Church in the First Four Centuries?
Writers in the Eastern tradition agreed with the West on the Sabbath questions. Origen, the main theologian of Eastern Orthodoxy, believed that the Sabbath command ended at the end of the Old Covenant era.79 John Chrysostom believed the Sabbath was not a command of conscience , as were the others in the Decalogue, but was a temporary command to be fulfilled and abolished.80 The Eastern Church believed in a temporary and proleptic Sabbath, worshipping instead on the Lord’s day.
What of Splinter Groups in the First Four Centuries?
Heretics and schismatics make no case of any worth against the Early Church’s teaching on the Sabbath and Lord’s day. The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, most likely written by someone from a splinter group, taught Christians to gather together on Sunday for worship.81 The Gnostic Christian heretics hated the Sabbath command, thinking it to be from an evil god. Of all the splinter groups, only the Ebionites, who rejected the deity of Christ, made a case for worship and rest on the Sabbath. The majority of the Western and Eastern Church, and even some schismatics, made a distinction between the Sabbath and Lord’s day.
In the next ROAR, Augustine of Hippo will finish our study of rest.