Is the Sabbath Normative?

This post is the second part of a discussion on whether Jesus actually broke the Old Testament Law by healing on the Sabbath. This question was raised in an online argument, which is largely irrelevant to history, but which gives opportunity for worthwhile consideration of the nature of Law, the person of Christ, and, in particular, the place of Sabbath in the life of the contemporary believer.

To recap, the previous post argues that Jesus did not sin, that he did heal on the Sabbath, that this was disliked by religious leaders of his day, and that the OT Law has three divisions: civil, ceremonial, and moral.

Is the Sabbath in Play?

If the Decalogue is still morally normative, then the practice of Sabbath is still in play. The question, then, is how to practice the Sabbath in our contemporary context.

One school of thought believes that Sabbath is still necessary, but that the principle was fulfilled in Christ, so that Sabbath for Christians is a spiritual rest in Christ. This is a biblical concept, seen clearly in Hebrews 4. In particular, verses 9 and 10 declare, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” Some who hold this view believe that the day of rest in the Sabbath was fulfilled in Christ, and therefore spiritualize present application. Although he does not argue for only a spiritualization of the Sabbath, J. D. Greear provides a helpful explanation of the fulfillment of the Sabbath in Christ in this blog.

There are some people, like Seventh Day Adventists, who take a literalist approach to Sabbath and have their worship services on Saturday. This is a consistent application, but it isn’t clear that such a literal approach is necessary. In fact, if we accept the tripartite division of the law described above, then it would seem that some of the particulars of the practice of Sabbath fall into the categories of civil and ceremonial, instead of moral law.

A third category, including much of the Reformed tradition, believe that the Sabbath is still in play and that we fulfill it largely through rest on Sunday, as a Christianized analogy of the Old Testament practices. This is witnessed in the history of the United States through the various Blue Laws. A famous example of this method of practicing Sabbath is found in Eric Liddell’s refusal to run a race on Sunday.


All of these three methods of applying the Sabbath have something to contribute to a robust practice of Sabbath for contemporary Christians. The literalist approach affirms the truthfulness of God’s word. Though we may argue about the actual practice, which deviates from traditional Christian practice and misses the significance of the Sunday resurrection, we can respect the importance of following God’s law.

The spiritual fulfillment is a valuable perspective for Christians because it is true. The practice of Sabbath was intended, in part, to point forward to the future rest that we will enter into by Christ’s blood, when the whole cosmos is redeemed and the toil from the curse (Gen 3:17-19) has been removed. At that time, though we will still work, we will have been glorified, creation will have been renewed, (Romans 8:18-25) and we will enter into the ultimate Sabbath rest. It remains to see whether that spiritual fulfillment eliminates any present practice of the principle of Sabbath.

The third approach, which entails the rigorous of customs adapted to contemporary contexts is good because it highlights the importance of rest, encourages corporate worship, and is an earnest attempt to honor God. At the same time, such an approach runs afoul of Christ’s own interpretation and risks becoming a burden to the people it is intended to help.

A fourth approach to the Sabbath argues, which I have not introduced before, treats the whole of the Old Testament as edifying, but believes that all forms of the Law were fulfilled by Christ (Matt 5:17). That argument is worth carrying, but would push this post beyond the current length. I will, however, offer a few simple objectives: first, those who hold this position generally create their own laws (no movies, no pants for women, ties on Sunday) to substitute for the Old Testament Laws, which put them in a worse position; second, this approach has to deal with the odd fact that most of the Decalogue is reaffirmed explicitly in the New Testament; third, this view raises significant questions about the nature of revelation in the Old Testament, specifically with the close connection between Jesus and the Old Testament (Luke 24:27).

A fifth approach to Sabbath argues that the Decalogue is the moral law and is in play, but that the fourth commandment no longer applies because Jesus didn’t practice it in the passages discussed above. This is consistent with how most contemporary Evangelicals treat the Decalogue, whether or not they can formulate that perspective fully. Not lying is good, but Sabbath is unnecessary. This approach is exegetically inconsistent and seems to be argued more for convenience than otherwise.

Practicing Sabbath

Each of the first three interpretations is helpful, but I believe they each fall short for one reason or another. The fourth and fifth interpretations are less helpful, and I believe create more exegetical problems than they solve.

If we accept that the Decalogue is the moral law, and it reflects the immutable character of our Holy God, then we should see that it is still in play. The question is how to apply it.

In Matthew 12:1-14, Jesus shows that practicing Sabbath was not fundamentally about inactivity. Rather, he argues that doing good work is explicitly lawful (v. 12). Note that he does not argue that the law does not apply, but that doing God honoring work on the Sabbath is a moral positive. There is no category for moral neutrality, either an action is sinful or morally praiseworthy.

Instead, the Sabbath is intended to provide a rest from economic activity during the week, which helps to show our trust in God’s goodness and provision. This is consistent with the statement in the Exodus 20:8-11. Jesus’ own interpretation undermines a strictly literalistic understanding of these verses. Also, considering the expositions of the Sabbath, which focus on giving the land a rest in an agrarian context, it seems that the emphasis is more on stopping ceaseless striving than on a particular form of inactivity. For example, in Exodus 23:10-12, Moses specifically records the purpose of Sabbath being for the provision of the poor and the wild beasts, as well as the refreshment of economic actors.

It is no accident that immediately preceding Jesus’ Sabbath healing in Matthew 12, he calls his hearers into his rest:

“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)

Note that the rest Jesus proposes entails work—the image of a yoke could mean little else. This is not the absence of activity, but the redirection of activity to restorative purposes. This often includes working at rest, but not a legalistic rest, the fulfillment of which entails greater effort than simply continuing to work for economic gain. In one sense, Jesus is calling people into a spiritual Sabbath, since they can rest in the fulfillment of the ceremonial law through his future propitiation. However, it is not clear that Jesus is alleviating any regular practice of literal rest as an expectation of a holy life.

Mark’s Gospel provides a slightly different telling of the Matthew 12 account in the second chapter. In Jesus’ explanation of David and his men eating the showbread, contrary to the ceremonial law, Jesus illuminates that the purpose of Sabbath, when he says: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:27)

In one sense this is entirely true in a spiritual sense. The spiritual rest of Hebrews 4 is a great blessing for humans. In another sense, however, a non-legalistic practice of Sabbath is needed now more than ever.

Jesus’ explanation of the blessing of Sabbath for humans ties closely to the ideas in Exodus 23:12, which is a refreshing rest from economic activity. If anything, Christ’s fulfillment of the law was designed to bring a greater blessing to the elect. He fulfilled the ceremonial law so that we can trust in his once and for all sacrifice for sin (Cf. Heb 10:1-18). This is a great blessing. But if the practice of Sabbath rest, particularly in the form of resting from economic activity, is intended as a blessing, then we would expect this to be amplified rather than diminished. Therefore, while the civil and ceremonial trappings of the Sabbath may no longer apply, with their limitations to a single day of rest each week, we should look for our rest to be more varied and greater.

A full consideration of the application of Sabbath would take much more space (and would reveal how terrible I am at this myself), but likely it includes a regular pattern of participation in worship, taking vacations, not being perpetually online, carving out time for physical fitness, prioritizing family activity over work, and other active, but redemptive practices. It is still likely to include simply resting and doing quiet activities, or at least activities that are refreshing to our bodies and our souls, and that differ from our daily economic toil.

Did Jesus Violate the OT Law?


A recent argument online has raised an important question about the relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament Law, and in particular the Sabbath. I’ll leave the background for interested readers to discover, but the main point that piqued my interest was the argument by some that Jesus violated the Old Testament Law when he healed on the Sabbath. (The whole argument is such a mishmash of bad exegesis, heresy, and improper inference from both sides that it isn’t worth diving into.)

The simple answer is “no.” If Jesus had violated the Old Testament Law, then he would have sinned and would not have been our Messiah. We needed a blemishless sacrifice for our own sin, which only Jesus—who is very God and very man—could provide.

Those who are arguing that Jesus violated the Moral Law of the Old Testament are implicitly arguing that Jesus sinned against God. If we accept the account of the author of Hebrews, then we know that Jesus did not sin (Heb 4:15). Or, perhaps, the Paul’s argument toward that same end might encourage us to accept that point (1 Cor 5:21). If one disagrees with the testimony of Scripture and argues that Jesus did, in fact, sin, then the rest of this argument doesn’t matter because the only real authority for theology is that person’s opinion (or whatever other source he/she deems to be, in his/her opinion worthy of the highest authority).

For those of you with me, we’ve established that Jesus did not sin.

However, Jesus did not follow the customs of the people of his day relating to the observation of Sabbath. This was a major point of contention between the religious authorities of the day and him.

Jesus on the Sabbath

For example, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath in Matt 12:8-14 right after he explains why his disciples’ eating of gleaned grain was not a violation of the Sabbath (vv. 1-8). This made the Pharisees pretty mad, likely because he both undermined their legalistic hegemony (vv. 11-12) and because he implies that he is Messiah (v. 8).

There are other examples, as well.

Significantly, in John 5, Jesus heals a man at the pool of Bethesda on a Saturday. This leads to a full-scale decision to kill him. John is much more explicit about the complaint of the Pharisees: “This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making him equal to God.” (v. 18)

This passage is important because it states explicitly that Jesus broke the Sabbath.

At this point, some might think my argument scuttled. If we read absolutely literally, then John says that Jesus broke the Sabbath. Some infer that a) some portions of the OT Law are more important than others, so Jesus didn’t sin by violating a portion of the Law; b) Jesus sinned (see above); c) the Sabbath Law was not in play for Jesus.

Options a) and c) are in play for orthodox Christians, but I don’t think either one is correct.

Although John 5:18 states that Jesus was “breaking the Sabbath,” we can recognize that John is describing the perspective of the Pharisees. When John is speaking from his own perspective he writes that Jesus “was doing these things on the Sabbath” (v. 17). In contrast, the Pharisees see Jesus’ good works as breaking the Sabbath and “making himself equal with God.” (v. 18) Of the four gospel writers, John is the clearest about announcing Jesus’ deity, so there is little question that he is not actually accusing Jesus of violating the Old Testament Law. He was violating the imposed, unbiblical norms of his day, which had been imposed on the Jews by their religious leaders in order to ensure they didn’t violate the real Law.

The Nature of the Law

There is a solid rabbinic tradition of a tripartite division of the Law in the Old Testament. This division has been largely recognized through Church History, though it is certainly not a universally held view.

Generally, the Old Testament Laws tend to be divided into the Civil, the Ceremonial, and the Moral Law. Civil laws tend to be those laws of the Old Testament that focus on the political and social administration of the people of Israel. These include the casuistic limitations on punishments for idolaters, adulterers, slavers, etc. Such laws, like the various property laws, are helpful in understanding the principles of justice, but our building codes do not require a parapet around the roof because it is no longer technologically or culturally necessary and because the nation of Israel, as a theocracy constituted in the Old Testament is no longer extant. Occasionally, actual theonomists arise (not just faithful people seeking justice in society that doesn’t match the worldview of the vogue “secular” culture) that try to enforce parts of the civil law, but it rarely goes far and is inconsistent with the way Christianity has interpreted the use of the OT Law.

The second category of Old Testament Law is the ceremonial law. These are laws related to the worship of the Israelites, including the various offerings, sacrifices, cleansings, and festivals. Even orthodox Jews do not practice this portion of the Law fully, because they have no temple in which to conduct the various sacrifices. For Christians, it is this portion of the Law that we generally understand to have been fulfilled by Christ (cf. Matt 5:17).

The third category of the Law is the moral law. These are contained in the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments. According to the Reformed tradition, this portion of the Law is still in play for several reasons. First, it is the only portion of the Law that was actually written by God himself. (Ex 31:18) Second, the Decalogue is considered to reflect the character of God. This is the resolution to the famous Euthyphro dilemma of philosophy. God’s Law is good not by declaration of God or by pre-existence morally prior to God, but because it reflects the character of a good God. Third, most of the Ten Commandments are restated in the New Testament explicitly, and the entirety of them seem to be reaffirmed to Christ when he summarizes them in the first and second greatest commandments. (cf. Matt 22:34-40) The first greatest commandment is generally considered to summarize the first tablet of the Decalogue, with the second summarizing the latter portion of the Decalogue. Those who hold this position generally argue that the civil and ceremonial law are temporal and geographically bound applications of the moral law.

There are certainly objections to this approach to the Law, but that is a topic for another day.

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good - A Review

Empirical Foundations of the Common Good is the sort of project that offers hope for interdisciplinary dialogue. The premise of the book is to provide a response to the basic question how social sciences can inform theology. For the most part, the essays are helpful in this regard, especially for those who rely on traditional Catholic Social Teachings as a foundation for their theology.

With a few exceptions, the non-theologians’ explanations of their contribution to theology are helpful. The majority of the authors avoided the assumption that theology should conform to the findings of their discipline; instead they argued that their disciplines could inform the application of theology.

For example, Christian theology makes the moral claim that Christians should be engaged in seeking the welfare of the poor. Economics provides evidence for how best that should take place. Or, to state it differently, theology provides the telos for the method of economics. When political science, public policy, sociology, and economics claim to provide both the definition of the common good and the method for attaining to the common good, they transgress into the area of applied theology, or ethics. When discipline failure like that happen, the result is the current elevation of politics, economics, and sexuality to the status of summum bonum for society. That, as we see around us, is a guarantee of the pursuit of anything but a true common good.

After Daniel Finn’s editorial introduction, the volume contains eight essays by experts in a variety of disciplines, all making arguments about how their particular discipline contributes to theological arguments about the common good. Chapter One is political scientist, Matthew Carnes, showing how his discipline contributes to a cross-disciplinary discussion through four emphases within Political Science. In the second chapter, Andrew Yuengert asserts that economics can help theologians understand the role of individual choice in seeking the common good. Mary Jo Bane, a public policy specialist, argues in Chapter Three for the contribution of her discipline in helping theologians understand trade-offs implicit in pursuing the common good. In the fourth chapter, Douglas Porpora argues that sociologists have little to say about the constitution of the common good, but have a great deal of expertise in showing how to measure and evaluate the pursuit of those theologically identified ends.

Charles Wilber, an economist, echoes Porpora in his essay in Chapter Five. He argues that economics can help measure progress toward human flourishing, while acknowledging the failure of most economists to separate economic metrics from a holistic understanding of the common good. The sixth chapter puts bureaucracy in perspective, as Gerardo Sanchis Muños dissects the failure of public service to serve the common good. Theologian David Cloutier critiques contemporary iterations of Catholic social teaching, pointing to less individualistic emphases in earlier stages of the tradition in Chapter Seven. The eighth and final chapter, theologian-economist Mary Hirschfeld reasserts the importance of theology for the social sciences, so that a proper understanding of the common good may develop.

The clear message of this volume is that theology needs social sciences to understand how to accomplish its moral ends, while the social sciences need theology to inform them of the nature of the common good. In the present fragmented state of academia, there is too much isolation in separate ivory towers. That is unhealthy for students and tragic for the development of robust worldviews that have a defined end and cogent methodology.

Somewhat surprisingly, this volume is favorable toward markets, though critical of market economics untethered to a moral foundation. However, the various authors regularly affirm the improved possibilities for flourishing that come from enabling market economics. Given the use of Catholic Social Teaching by some to argue for forms of economic socialism, this is volume that deserves careful attention. It may be that proponents of various forms of socialism are, in fact, conflating a pursuit of the common good with discredited means to achieve it.

Like other volumes that Finn has edited, this collection of essays reflects careful conversation. The essays refer to one another and show signs of having been shaped by the arguments in various chapters. This makes the volume easier to read and more helpful for classroom instruction or dialog than many edited volumes that appear to be a random collection of voices shouting in the wilderness.

If there are two things clearly explained in this volume it is (1) that we need more interdisciplinary dialogue, else theology and social sciences tend toward tyranny, and (2) we need not abandon the methodology of market economics for central planning to better approximate the common good.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.

Writing Theology Well - A Review

I’m deep in the throes of dissertation writing. This means that a volume like Lucretia Yaghjian’s Writing Theology Well: A Rhetoric for Theological and Biblical Writers is of great interest. I want to have a done dissertation most, but I want to have a good dissertation at the same time. Therefore, a book on theological writing that made it to a second edition seemed an excellent one to review.


The book consists of four parts. Yaghjian begins by discussing theological rhetoric. This includes considering the context of the writing, focusing on inquiry, reflection, and persuasion, and using tools of identification, correlation, suspicion and construction. Part Two deals with the task of research, documenting that research well, and some chapters on exegesis and hermeneutics. The third part emphasizes writing style, with a focus on discovering one’s voice and the use of analogy, metaphor, etc. This section also deals with some basics of sentence and paragraph construction and delves into the vital art of revision. The fourth section focuses on writing in “new contexts,” which goes from the writing of international students, to various forms of online writing.

Writing Theology Well is a volume that contains many of the basic elements of a writing guide. There are helpful guidelines and checklists for the revision process, some ideas about structuring arguments, and a healthy emphasis on writing techniques that aid clear communication. As a guide to writing, this volume has the necessary framework to be helpful.

The promise in a book like this is that it tailored specifically for a particular type of writing, namely, theological writing. As I transitioned from my undergrad in English to writing for a technical audience in nuclear power to taking seminary courses, there were often points of frustration where a tool that I had used in a previous life was no longer acceptable. For this reason Writing Theology Well held out the promise of a helpful tool that I could benefit from and that I’d recommend to others.

Analysis and Conclusion

My praise for Writing Theology Well will be somewhat limited. This volume will be most helpful in particular theological contexts. It would not have been very helpful at the conservative seminary that I attended for several reasons.

First, the book begins with an emphasis on writing a theological reflection paper well. That is certainly a noble pursuit, but in my decade of seminary (to date) I may have written three reflection papers. These were also not simply essays on my perspective on a doctrine or theological topic, but usually reflections on a book. For good or ill, assuming some continuity among conservative seminaries, there is little call for the sort of introspective reflection paper outlined here.

Second, the emphasis on embracing one’s context and not attempting to rise above it would not be helpful in a conservative seminary. The goal in most conservative seminaries is to get the students to experience theology outside of their own context, which is why there is a high value on research papers over reflection essays. This sometimes results in the prohibition of first person pronouns, which is at times a tedious requirement. However, forcing the student to write from outside of themselves is often helpful in breaking them out of the rut of their own experiences. None of my professors actually expected the students to attain objectivity, but we were all supposed to try. The focus on embracing context has positives, and perhaps a place later in theological education, but the emphasis on writing subjectively would not transfer well in conservative academia.

Third, most of the examples of writing for consideration were from feminist or other post-modern sources. This means that the reader has to try to get past the content of the theology (largely segregated from its supporting arguments), and the logical presuppositions of the excerpts, to try to get to the point of evaluating the style. Of course, I’m sure if the shoe were on the other foot, someone with another bias might have as much difficulty evaluating conservative sources. The trouble is that many of the passages that were supposed to show off the beauty of the prose were so skeptical toward traditional forms of Christianity that it would never matter how wonderful the writing was from. In that sense, this book misses the mark by failing to emphasize that the content is more important than the style, though style is certainly significant. At the same time, I thought some of the author’s comments on being faithful to the text in her discussion of hermeneutics was beneficial.

In the end, this is probably a very fine book for a particular context. Yaghjian puts the fundamentals of writing on display in a way that is consistent with the best “how-to” manuals. Her emphasis on planning, revising, and structure are right on the mark. This is a volume that many will probably find helpful for writing, but most likely not in more conservative contexts.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume directly from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.