The Case for the Christian Sabbath— Part One

S.K. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, (Andrews U. Press, 2009), pp. xiv+575.   (This is the first of a seven part critique of Tonstad’s landmark and elegantly written book).

It is the thesis of of S.K. Tonstad that the majority of Christendom needs to resurrect and recover the observance of the seventh day, the Sabbath.   His concern is however not just with the loss of a ‘day of rest’ or a particular ritual pattern to the Christian week, but moreover with theology—“the character of the seventh day is misconstrued if it is seen as a national or religious marker of identity and not as a theological statement. To the extent that it is a part of God’s story, it cannot be suppressed indefinitely. It must reassert itself to complete its God-ordained mission; it cannot remain permanently in exile” (p. 5).

As might be expected, the author will address the seventh day in the OT, the seventh day in the NT, and post-Biblical issues raised by the eclipse of the seventh day, issues such as the alienation between Christians and Jews, the estrangement of Christians from the material world, and the loss of understanding of the theological depth of the seventh day observance.  It is clear the author sees the eclipse of seventh day observance as one of the direct causes of some of these problems, not surprisingly perhaps since the author is an ardent Seventh Day Adventist.

For Tondstad’s case, much hangs on his reading of Genesis 2.1-3 and as one reads his exposition of this text, one begins to see where the argument will go. He says “By the act of hallowing the seventh day God drives the stake of divine presence into the soil of human time” (p. 21). This sentence is characteristic of the rhetoric of this book as it abounds in metaphorical images that are potent.  And here is where we begin to see some of the oddity of the case he wants to make.  What Gen. 2.1-3 says is God ceased (shabbat) from creating.  In other words the seventh day is when he was not actively involved in doing some creative work in his material creation.  The text suggests something more like God was sitting back and enjoying what he had just accomplished and seeing that it was very good.  The seventh day itself is not the capstone of creation. If anything deserves that title it is the creation of woman last of all creatures.  Rather the seventh day is the day when one takes time to appreciate the creation already finished.  And it is this day which God both blessed and hallowed. The absence of divine creative activity is not the same thing as divine presence.

And what exactly does it mean to say God finished his work on the seventh day?  Does it mean he created this day especially and set it apart from all other days?  This statement in Genesis has always been puzzled over, and it led in fact in the LXX translation of Gen. 2.1-3 to the translated that God finished his creative work on the sixth day!  The work in question however cannot be the day itself, since the Hebrew says he finished it ‘on that day’.  The activity in view must surely be his blessing and hallowing of the day, which otherwise was a creation of  the sun and earth having already been created. Blessing and hallowing, while not a materially creative work, can nonetheless be said to be an activity.  And perhaps it might be well to remember that when it comes to that, Jesus said that God is always working, in some sense (John 5.17).  To cease from creating, is not the same as to cease from all activity.  And finally, the text does not say “and God said let there be a seventh day, and lo there was a seventh day”.  The seventh day is not a special creation of God. Indeed, one could argue that the seventh day is still ongoing, as God has still ceased from his inaugural creation work, and in Gen. 2.1-3 there is no statement “and there was evening and morning a seventh day’.

Tonstad rejects the usually scholarly logic that Sabbath observance was something that comes into play in the Exodus tradition, and should be distinguished from the seventh day of creation material in Gen. 2, preferring unitive readings of Genesis following older Jewish scholars such as U. Cassuto and N. Sarna.  He thinks the Documentary Hypothesis has run out of literary gas.  In his view, the Sabbath must be seen as an ordinance of creation for all time— all this from Gen. 2.1-3.   The net effect of this hermeneutical move is that the Sabbath and its observance rests on all humankind, it is not a rite set up for God’s chosen people, Israel alone.

One of the problems with a good active theological mind that works synthetically, as Tonstad’s does, is that it tends to over-read texts, by which I mean it reads more theology into a text than is there.  Tonstad for example wants to see the seventh day, and God’s benediction on the seventh day as not merely a retrospective evaluation of the goodness of God’s creative work, but prospective of redemption.  He suggests that the “orientation of the seventh day from the beginning oscillates between memory and hope, between the reality of Paradise Lost and the Prospect of Paradise Regained, the oscillation of hope is stronger than the oscillation of memory. In its original configuration, the seventh day must be seen as promise as much as memorial. It forecasts that God’s ‘very good’ will be sustained. Transforming the human experience into a journey of hope.”  (p. 59).     Unfortunately, as the British would say, this is ‘over-egging the pudding’.  Gen. 2.1-3 is clearly retrospective, not prospective, it does not in itself promise anything about the future, nor does it establish a particular pattern of Sabbath observance.  That clearly comes later,  when there is a people, Israel to do such observing.  That is not to deny the connection between the seventh day in Genesis and the later Israelite worship pattern, the latter definitely is grounded in the former, but the two are not the same.   The seventh day is God’s celebration of his own creative work, and since God is not a narcissist understandably nothing is said about worship, or even creatures needing worship the creator God.  As Tonstad admits, there is only one text in Genesis that deals with the seventh day and its theology, Gen. 2.1-3, and there is frankly no attempt there to connect that to a remedy for what happens afterwards, namely the Fall.  To be continued.

Forward Thinking on ‘Reading Backwards’–The Interview Part Six
Finding Jesus— Reboot
Finding Jesus– Review of Part One
Finding Jesus— Begins Sunday Night at 9 P.M. on CNN
  • Jonathan

    Dr. Witherington,

    I would like to question you on your comment that “God is not a narcissist.” A friend of mine had a discussion with me last night concerning a saying that is popular in Christian circles. It goes something like this; “God desires to gain glory from everything and all of Creation’s purpose is to bring glory to God.”

    This sort of thought has always struck me as viewing God in narcissistic fashion. Of course, people reply, “Well, it isn’t selfish since God as the greatest being has every right to be consumed by himself.”

    Surely humanity is more than a utilitarian sort of puppet which God animated for the entertainment of his own glory.

    Where does this idea come from? It seems to come up most often in Calvinistic circles. What are your thoughts on this topic?



  • ben witherington

    Unfortunately it comes from the misreading of glory texts in the Bible by John Piper and others of his persuasion, and right now its a very popular misreading of the Bible, especially in some Reformed theological circles. If you go to the archives of my Beliefnet blog you will find various posts on this matter. Just type in John Piper into the search engine there. If Jesus the self-sacrificer is the very exegesis of the Father, God is not a glory grabber or a self-aggrandizing deity. It is of course our job to glorify God— but that is another matter.


    Ben W.