THE SABBATH IN THE RECORD OF THE EARLY FATHERS
The first reasons for neglecting the Sabbath are now mostly obsolete - A portion of the early fathers taught the perpetuity of the decalogue, and made it the standard of moral character - What they say concerning the origin of the Sabbath at Creation - Their testimony concerning the perpetuity of the ancient Sabbath, and concerning its observance - Enumeration of the things which caused the suppression of the Sabbath and the elevation of Sunday.
The reasons offered by the early fathers for neglecting the observance of the Sabbath show conclusively that they had no special light on the subject by reason of living in the first centuries, which we in this later age do not possess. The fact is, so many of the reasons offered by them are manifestly false and absurd that those who in these days discard the Sabbath, do also discard the most of the reasons offered by these fathers for this same course. We have also learned from such of the early fathers as mention first-day observance, the exact nature of the Sunday festival, and all the reasons which in the first centuries were offered in its support. Very few indeed of these reasons are now offered by modern first-day writers.
But some of the fathers bear emphatic testimony to the perpetuity of the ten commandments, and make their observance the condition of eternal life. Some of them also distinctly assert the origin of the Sabbath at creation. Several of them moreover either bear witness to the existence of Sabbath-keepers, or bear decisive testimony to the perpetuity and obligation of the Sabbath, or define the nature of proper Sabbatic observance, or connect the observance of the Sabbath and first day together. Let us now hear the testimony of those who assert the authority of the ten commandments. Irenaeus asserts their perpetuity, and makes them a test of Christian character. Thus he says:
This is a very strong statement. He makes the ten commandments the law of nature implanted in man's being at the beginning; and so inherited by all mankind. This is no doubt true. It is the presence of the carnal mind or law of sin and death, implanted in man by the fall, that has partially obliterated this law, and made the work of the new covenant a necessity.2 He again asserts the perpetuity and authority of the ten commandments:
By the "extension" of the decalogue, Irenaeus doubtless means the exposition which the Saviour gave of the meaning of the commandments in his sermon on the mount.4 Theophilus speaks in like manner concerning the decalogue:-
Tertullian calls the ten commandments "the rules of our regenerate life," that is to say, the rules which govern the life of a converted man:
In showing the deep guilt involved in the violation of the seventh commandment, Tertullian speaks of the sacredness of the commandments which precede it, naming several of them in particular, and among them the fourth, and then says of the precept against adultery that
Clement of Rome, or rather the author whose works have been ascribed to this father, speaks thus of the decalogue as a test:
Novation, who wrote about A.D. 250, is accounted the founder of the sect called Cathari or Puritans. He wrote a treatise on the Sabbath, which is not extant. There is no reference to Sunday in any of his writings. He makes the following striking remarks concerning the moral law:
It is evident that in the judgment of Novation, the ten commandments enjoined nothing that was not sacredly regarded by the patriarchs before Jacob went down into Egypt. It follows, therefore, that, in his opinion, the Sabbath was made, not at the fall of the Manna, but when God sanctified the seventh day, and that holy men from the earliest ages observed it.
The Apostolical Constitutions, written about the third century, give us an understanding of what was widely regarded in the third century as apostolic doctrine. They speak thus of the ten commandments:
This writer, like Irenaeus, believed in the identity of the decalogue with the law of nature. These testimonies show that in the writings of the early fathers are some of the strongest utterances in behalf of the perpetuity and authority of the ten commandments. Now let us hear what they say concerning the origin of the Sabbath at creation. The epistle ascribed to Barnabas, says:
Irenaeus seems plainly to connect the origin of the Sabbath with the sanctification of the seventh day:
Tertullian, likewise, refers the origin of the Sabbath to "the benediction of the Father:"
Origen, who, as we have seen, believed in a mystical Sabbath, did nevertheless fix its origin at the sanctification of the seventh day:
The testimony of Novation which has been given relative to the sacredness and authority of the decalogue plainly implies the existence of the Sabbath in the patriarchal ages, and its observance by those holy men of old. It was given to Israel that they might
And he adds,
He did, not, therefore, believe the Sabbath to have originated at the fall of the manna, but counted it one of those things which were practiced by their fathers before Jacob went down to Egypt.
Lactantius places the origin of the Sabbath at creation:
In a poem on Genesis written about the time of Lactantius, but by an unknown author, we have an explicit testimony to the divine appointment of the seventh day to a holy use while man was yet in Eden, the garden of God:
The Apostolical Constitution, while teaching the present obligation of the Sabbath, plainly indicate its origin to have been at creation:
Such are the testimonies of the early fathers to the primeval origin of the Sabbath, and to the sacredness and perpetual obligation of the ten commandments. We now call attention to what they say relative to the perpetuity of the Sabbath, and to its observance in the centuries during which they lived. Tertullian defines Christ's relation to the Sabbath:
He affirms that Christ did not abolish the Sabbath:
Nor can it be said that while Tertullian denied that Christ abolished the Sabbath he did believe that he transferred its sacredness from the seventh day of the week to the first, for he continues thus:
This is a very remarkable statement. The modern doctrine of the change of the Sabbath was unknown in Tertullian's time. Had it then been in existence, there could be no doubt that in the words last quoted he was aiming at it a heavy blow; for the very thing which he asserts Christ's adversary, Satan, would have had him do, that modern first-day writers assert he did do in consecrating another day instead of adding to the sanctity of his Father's Sabbath.
Archelaus of Cascar in Mesopotamia emphatically denies the abolition of the Sabbath:
Justin Martyr, as we have seen, was an outspoken opponent of Sabbatic observance, and of the authority of the law of God. He was by no means always candid in what he said. He has occasion to refer to those who observed the seventh day, and he does it with contempt. Thus he says:
These words are spoken of Sabbath-keeping Christians. Such of them as were of Jewish descent no doubt generally retained circumcision. But there were many Gentile Christians who observed the Sabbath, as we shall see, and it is not true that they observed circumcision. Justin speaks of this class as acting from "weak-mindedness," yet he inadvertently alludes to the keeping of the commandments as the performance of "the ETERNAL and NATURAL ACTS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS," a most appropriate designation indeed. Justin would fellowship those who act thus, provided they would fellowship him in the contrary course. But though Justin, on this condition could fellowship these "week-minded" brethren, he says that there are those who "do not venture to have any intercourse with, or to extend hospitality to, such persons; but I do not agree with them."28 This shows the bitter spirit which prevailed in some quarters toward the Sabbath, even as early as Justin's time. Justin has no word of condemnation for these intolerant professors; he is only solicitous lest those persons who perform "the eternal and natural acts of righteousness and piety" should condemn those who do not perform them.
Clement of Alexandria, though a mystical writer, bears an important testimony to the perpetuity of the ancient Sabbath, and to man's present need thereof. He comments thus on the fourth commandment:
Clement recognized the authority of the moral law; for he treats of the ten commandments, one by one, and shows what each enjoins. He plainly teaches that the Sabbath was made for man, and that he now needs it as a day of rest, and his language implies that it was made at the creation. But in the next paragraph, he makes some curious suggestions, which deserve notice:
This language has been adduced to show that Clement called the eighth day, or Sunday, the Sabbath. But first-day writers in general have not dared to commit themselves to such an interpretation, and some of them have expressly discarded it. Let us notice this statement with especial care. He speaks of the ordinals seventh and eighth in the abstract, but probably with reference to the days of the week. Observe then,
There remains but one difficulty to be solved, and that is why he should suggest the changing of the numbering of the days of the week by striking one from the count of each day, thus making the Sabbath the sixth day in the count instead of the seventh; and making Sunday the seventh day in the count instead of the eighth. The answer seems to have eluded the observation of the first-day and anti-Sabbatarian writers who have sought to grasp it. But there is a fact which solves the difficulty. Clement's commentary on the fourth commandment, from which these quotations are taken, is principally made up of curious observations on "the perfect number six," "the number seven motherless and childless," and the number eight, which is "a cube," and the like matters, and is taken with some change of arrangement almost word for word from Philo Judaeus, a teacher who flourished at Alexandria about one century before Clement. Whoever will take pains to compare these two writers will find in Philo nearly all the ideas and illustrations which Clement has used, and the very language also in which he has expressed them.31 Philo was a mystical teacher to whom Clement looked up as to a master. A statement which we find in Philo, in immediate connection with several curious ideas, which Clement quotes from him, gives, beyond all doubt, the key to Clement's suggestion that possibly the eighth day should be called the seventh, and the seventh day called the sixth. Philo said that, according to God's purpose, the first day of time was not to be numbered with the other days of the creation week. Thus he says:
This would simply change the numbering of the days, as counted by Philo, and afterward partially adopted by Clement, and make the Sabbath, not the seventh day, but the sixth, and Sunday, not the eighth day, but the seventh; but it would still leave the Sabbath day and the Sunday the same identical days as before. It would, however, give to the Sabbath the name of sixth day, because the first of the six days of creation was not counted; and it would cause the eighth day, so called in the early church because of its coming next after the Sabbath, to be called seventh day. Thus the Sabbath would be the sixth day, and the seventh a day of work, and yet the Sabbath would be the identical day that it had ever been, and the Sunday, though called seventh day, would still, as ever before, remain a day on which ordinary labor was lawful. Of course, Philo's idea that the first day of time should not be counted, is wholly false; for there is not one fact in the Bible to support it, but many which expressly contradict it, and even Clement, with all deference to Philo, only timidly suggests it. But when the matter is laid open, it shows that Clement had no thought of calling Sunday the Sabbath, and that he does expressly confirm what we have fully proved out of other of the fathers, that Sunday was a day on which, in their judgment, labor was not sinful.
Tertullian, at different periods of his life, held different views respecting the Sabbath, and committed them all to writing. We last quoted from him a decisive testimony to the perpetuity of the Sabbath, coupled with an equally decisive testimony against the sanctification of the first day of the week. In another work, from which we have already quoted his statement that Christians should not kneel on Sunday, we find another statement that "some few" abstained from kneeling on the Sabbath. This has probable reference to Carthage, where Tertullian lived. He speaks thus:
The act of standing in prayer was one of the chief honors conferred upon Sunday. Those who refrained from kneeling on the seventh day, without doubt did it because they desired to honor that day. This particular act is of no consequence; for it was adopted in imitation of those who, from tradition and custom, thus honored Sunday; but we have in this an undoubted reference to Sabbath-keeping Christians. Tertullian speaks of them, however, in a manner quite unlike that of Justin in his reference to the commandment-keepers of his time.
Origen, like many other of the fathers, was far from being consistent with himself. Though he has spoken against Sabbatic observance, and has honored the so-called Lord's day as something better than the ancient Sabbath, he has nevertheless given a discourse expressly designed to teach Christians the proper method of observing the Sabbath. Here is a portion of this sermon:
This is by no means a bad representation of the proper observance of the Sabbath. Such a discourse addressed to Christians is a strong evidence that many did then hallow that day. Some, indeed, have claimed that these words were spoken concerning Sunday. They would have it that he contrasts the observance of the first day with that of the seventh. But the contrast is not between the different methods of keeping two days, but between two methods of observing one day. The Jews in Origen's time spent the day mainly in mere abstinence from labor, and often added sensuality to idleness. But the Christians were to observe it in divine worship, as well as sacred rest. What day he intends cannot be doubtful. It is DIES SABBATI, a term which can signify only the seventh day. Here is the first instance of the term Christian Sabbath, Sabbati Christiani, and it is expressly applied to the seventh day observed by Christians.
The longer form of the reputed epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians was not written till after Origen's time, but, though not written by Ignatius, it is valuable for the light which it sheds upon the existing state of things at the time of its composition, and for marking the progress which apostasy had made with respect to the Sabbath. Here is its reference to the Sabbath and first day:-
This writer specifies the different things which made up the Jewish observance of the Sabbath. They may be summed up under two heads. 1. Strict abstinence from labor. 2. Dancing and carousal. Now, in the light of what Origen has said, we can understand the contrast which this writer draws between the Jewish and Christian observance of the Sabbath. The error of the Jews in the first part of this was that they contented themselves with mere bodily relaxation, without raising their thoughts to God, the Creator, and this mere idleness soon gave place to sensual folly.
The Christian, as Origen draws the contrast, refrains from labor on the Sabbath that he may raise his heart in grateful worship. Or, as this writer draws it, the Christian keeps the Sabbath in a spiritual manner, rejoicing in meditation on the law; but to do thus, he must hallow it in the manner which that law commands, that is, in the observance of a sacred rest which commemorates the rest of the Creator. The writer evidently believed in the observance of the Sabbath as an act of obedience to that law on which they were to meditate on that day. And the nature of the epistle indicates that it was observed, at all events, in the country where it was written. But mark the work of apostasy. The so-called Lord's day for which the writer could offer nothing better than an argument drawn from the title of the sixth psalm (see its marginal reading) is exalted above the Lord's holy day, and made the queen of all days!
The Apostolical Constitutions, though not written in apostolic times, were in existence as early as the third century, and were then very generally believed to express the doctrine of the apostles. They do therefore furnish important historical testimony to the practice of the church at that time, and also indicate the great progress which apostasy had made. Guericke speaks thus of them:
Mosheim says of them:
These Constitutions indicate that the Sabbath was extensively observed in the third century. They also show the standing of the Sunday festival in that century. After solemnly enjoining the sacred observance of the ten commandments, they thus enforce the Sabbath:
This is sound Sabbatarian doctrine. To show how distinctly these Constitutions recognize the decalogue as the foundation of Sabbatic authority we quote the words next preceding the above, though we have quoted them on another occasion:
But though these Constitutions thus recognize the authority of the decalogue and the sacred obligation of the seventh day, they elevate the Sunday festival in some respects to higher honor than the Sabbath, though they claim for it no precept of the Scriptures. Thus they say:
Tested by his own principles, the writer of these Constitutions was far advanced in apostasy; for he held a festival, for which he claimed no divine authority, more honorable than one which he acknowledged to be ordained of God. There could be but one step more in this course, and that would be to set aside the commandment of God for the ordinance of man, and this step was not very long afterward actually taken. One other point should be noticed. It is said:
The question of the sinfulness of labor on either of these days is not here taken into the account; for the reason assigned is that the slaves may have leisure to attend public worship. But while these Constitutions elsewhere forbid labor on the Sabbath on the authority of the decalogue, they do not forbid it upon the first day of the week. Take the following as an example:
The Apostolical Constitutions are valuable to us, not as authority
respecting the teaching of the apostles, but as giving us a knowledge of
the views and practices which prevailed in the third century. As these
Constitutions were extensively
Thus much out of the fathers concerning the authority of the decalogue, and concerning the perpetuity and observance of the ancient Sabbath. The suppression of the Sabbath of the Bible, and the elevation of Sunday to its place, has been shown to be in no sense the work of the Saviour. But so great a work required the united action of powerful causes, and these causes we now enumerate.
1 Irenaeus Against Heresies, book iv. chap. xv. sect. 1.
2 Jer.31:33; Rom.7:21-25; 8:1-7.
3 Irenaeus Against Heresies, book iv. chap. xvi. sect. 4.
4 Matt. Chapters 5, 6, 7.
5 Theophilus to Autolycus, book ii. chap. xxvii.
6 Id. BOOK III. CHAP IX.
8 De Anima, chap. xxxvii.
9 On Modesty, chap. v.
10 Recognitions of Clement, book iii. chap. lv.
11 Novation on the Jewish Meats, chap. iii.
12 Apostolical Constitutions, book ii. sect. 4. par. 36.
13 Id. book vi. sect. 4, par. 19.
14 Epistle of Barnabas, chap. xv.
15 Irenaeus Against Heresies, book v. chap. xxxiii. sect. 2.
16 De Anima, chap. xxxvii.
17 Tertullian Against Marcion, book iv, chap. xii.
18 Origen Against Celsus, book vi. chap. lxi.
19 Novatian on the Jewish Meats, chap. iii.
20 Divine Institutes of Lactantius, book vii. chap. xiv.
21 Poem on Genesis, Lines 51-53.
22 Apostolical Constitutions, book vii. sect. 2, par. 36.
23 Tertullian Against Marcion, book iv. chap. xii.
25 Tertullian Against Marcion, book iv. chap. xii.
26 Disputation with Manes, sect. 42.
27 Dialogue with Trypho, chap. xlvii.
29 Clement's Miscellanies, book vi. chap. xvi.
31 Compare Clement of Alexandria, vol. ii. pp. 386-390, Ante-Nicene library edition, or the Miscellanies of Clement, book vi. chap. xvi. with Bohn's edition of Philo, vol. i. pp. 3, 4, 29, 30, 31, 32, 54, 55; vol. iii. p. 159; vol. iv. p. 452.
32 Bohn's edition of Philo Judaeus, vol. i. p. 4.
33 Tertullian on Prayer, chap. xxiii.
34 Origen's Opera, Tome 2, p. 358, Paris, 1733, "Quo est autem festivitas Sabbati nisi illa dequa Apostolus dicit, `relinqueretur ergo Sabbatismus,' hoc est, Sabbati observatio, `populo Dei?" Relinquentes ergo Judaicas Sabbati observationes, qualis debeat esse Christiano Sabbati observatio, videamus. Die Sabbati nihil ex omnibus mundi actibus oportet operari. Si ergo desinas ab omnibus saecularibus operibus, et nihil mundanum geras, sed spiritalibus operibus vaces, ad ecclesiam convenias, lectionibus divinis et tractatibus aurem praebeas, et de ecclestibus cogites, de futura spe sollicitudinem geras, venturum judicium prae oculis habeas, non respicias ad prae sontia et visibilia, sed ad invisibilia et futura, haec est observatio Sabbati Christiani." - Origenis in Numeras Homilia 23.
35 Epistle to the Magnesians (longer form) chap. ix.
36 Ancient church, p. 212.
37 Historical Commentaries, cent. 1. sect. 51.
38 Apostolical Constitutions, book ii. sect. 4, par. 36.
40 Id. book. vii. sect. 2, par. 23.
41 Id. book vii. sect. 2, par. 36.
42 Apostolical Constitutions, book ii, sec. 4. par. 36.
43 Id. book viii. sect. 4, par. 33.
44 Id. book vii. sect. 2, par. 36.
45 Victorinus says, "Let the sixth day become a rigorous
fast, lest we should appear to observe any Sabbath with the Jews." - On
the creation of the World, sect. 4. And Constantine says, "It becomes us
to have nothing in common with the perfidious Jews." -Socrates' Eccl.
Hist. book v. chap. xxii.