The Case for the Christian Sabbath– Part Four

Paul’s writings come in for considerable scrutiny in Tonstad’s book because they are problematic for his case, in the extreme. For example Rom. 14.5-6 (a text Tonstad strangely ignores) has Paul saying of early Christian practice “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. let each be persuaded in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord.”   Had Paul continued to be a sabbatarian, he could hardly have written indifferently on differing Christian worship practices, or have said, let each be persuaded in his own mind!   Galatians comes in for lots of attention in Tonstad’s book.

Gal. 5.14—Christ has brought the Law to completion in one sentence, namely love your neighbor as yourself, in that on the cross he fulfilled and completed that commandment, and so the Law ceases to be a way of righteousness or a way to fulfill all righteousness, as Christ has already completed the task  (see p. 214).   The Sabbath is the designated day for the liberation of creation, according to Tonstad. (p. 218).

By binding or combining the first two commandments into one, Jesus is in effect rejecting any interpretation of Sabbath observance that does not involve and incorporate love of neighbor. The Sabbath then is the pledge of God’s healing, restoring presence. (p. 220).  The Sabbath was made for us, not the other way around.   While we were made for God,  the Sabbath by contrast was made as a blessing for us.  And when its observance involves the avoidance of restoring and healing and blessing and loving one’s neighbor, it is not a proper Sabbath observance.

“The message of Jesus in the Gospels, addressing all Christians [not] in an open ended readership, take precedence, and the voice of Paul, addressing specific situations  in named churches, will not dilute or invalidate the Gospel narrative.  Applying this insight to the Sabbath, we should be reluctant to accept the affirmation that the affirmation of the Sabbath that we find in the Gospels will be disaffirmed by Paul in his letters.”  (p. 227).

Obviously Galatians becomes something of a bête noir for Tonstad’s kind of interpretation, and so it is not a surprise he must expend considerable energy trying to explain away some of the things that Paul says.  Following Troy Martin he wants to take the reference in 4.8-11 to turning back to paganism, not to turning to circumcision and Judaism, and so the reference to days and months and seasons and years becomes a Pauline critique of the pagan religious calendar  (p. 231).   The scenario then is that Gentiles in Galatia, put off by the Judaizers are prepared to even give up on the Pauline form of Christianity and go native, back to paganism and the elemental spirits of the universe.    Unfortunately for this theory, it crashes to earth with a thud in Paul’s allegory in which he contrasts two Jewish covenants— the Abrahamic one and the Mosaic one, and urges his audience to cast out the Judaizers who were wooing them, to reject circumcision, and indeed to embrace the new covenant which is linked to the Abrahamic covenant, not the Mosaic one.   It is one the singular failures of this book to come to grips with the theology of new covenant in the NT, which is not simply a renewal of the old covenant.  This is especially the case when in Gal. 2 Paul upbraids a fellow Jewish Christian Peter, for turning back to kosher food observance rather than dining with Gentiles in Galatia.   The demand for circumcision in Paul’s mind implies an observance of all the Mosaic commandments, including Sabbath keeping, and Paul will have none of this.

So how do we marginalize Paul— well we take a dose of Louis Martyn’s apocalyptic reading of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, sprinkle in a reminder that what matters most for Paul is story, narrative, not so much doctrine and commandments, remind the audience that after all most of Galatians is polemics and hyperbolic rhetoric.   Following Hay’s interpretation of pistis Christou Tonstad sees the issue in Galatians God setting right what has had gone wrong in the world by sending Jesus—it is the faithfulness of Christ then that is set over against Law, which was incapable of setting a fallen world to rights.

p. 243—“Paul eschews exclusion but not particularity; he decries discrimination but not differences.”   P.247 “Galatians may tell us what Paul thinks about the Sabbath in the context of the activity of his opponents, but it is not thereby representative of what Paul thinks about the Sabbath or even the best place to launch such an inquiry.”    Paul is not rejecting Sabbath observance he “chips away at the ethnocentric disposition of Judaism and its sociology of exclusion”  p. 248.   The seventh day is seen as the God of everyone’s commitment to all human beings, it is a statement of God the whole human family and is not the preserve of Jews. (p. 248).

Following G. Stanton, he concludes that ‘the law of Christ’ mentioned in Galatians refers to the example of Christ’s life and Christ’s teachings, and what Christ’s teachings involve is the law of Moses redefined by Christ with the love command and the bearing of each other’s burdens as its essence, and it is fulfilled by Christ in his own self-giving love, especially on the cross.   P. 250.

If Galatians is a major hurdle on the way to rescuing the Sabbath for Christian use, Col. 2.16 would seem to be the brickwall which stops all forward motion in such a quest.   So this text must be explained in a most peculiar way (e.g. it does not refer to the seventh day Sabbath, it does refer to the Sabbath but Paul, mirable dictu is affirming the Colossians Sabbath observance rather than decrying it, or  sabbata here refers to Sabbaths that have lost their Jewish character (p. 259).

One of the things Tonstad finds incredible is the idea that Paul might link together pagan philosophy and religion on the one hand  and Mosaic religion on the other under the heading of stoicheia.  Was Paul fighting on two fronts?  The answer is yes in fact and stoicheia means elementary teachings that one should be beyond if you are a Christian.

One attempt at exegetical gymnastics is to suggest that the phrases festivals, new moons, Sabbaths, may well allude to Hos. 2,11 but the Sabbath in question was not the weekly Sabbath but rather to the annual cultic Sabbath of the liturgical calendar (Lev. 16.31).  p. 262.

Following Troy Martin (again) he argues that the key text means ‘don’t let anyone judge you in regard to your ongoing praxis of festivals, new moons, Sabbaths, but just make sure that in doing those things you discern the body of Christ by and in these practices  (p. 264-65).   Paul then would be reassuring the Colossians such praxis is fine, and protecting them against Cynic polemics against such Jewish praxis.  The problem with this, is that when we run into phrases like ‘the worship of angels’  the context and content of Paul’s own critique of the Colossians has to do with the allure of Judaism including Jewish worship praxis in various forms.

Following Clint Arnold he suggests that Paul is critiquing some sort of syncretistic gumbo which involves some Jewish elements, and some pagan elements. (pp. 267-68).   Yes, but even if so, the Jewish elements he chose to single out for critique included the Jewish religious calendar in a general way—new moons and Sabbaths included.

For Tonstad it is inconceivable that while the Creator may have one special day, the redeemer might have or set up another one day the sign of creation, the other day the sign of redemption.  (p. 274).   Inconceivable unless there has been a breach in the identity of God, especially in light of how Christ the redeemer in Colossians is also portrayed as the creator as well.   If restoration proclaims the faithfulness of God to the original promises then one should expect Sabbath to be reaffirmed in the new creation.  “In Colossians as a whole,. The sabbata do not come straight from the OT or from a simple Judaizing opponent.”  P. 274.   This totally ignores the sapiential character of the language here in which Wisdom along side of Yahweh is involved in the creation of the universe,  not Wisdom as Yahweh.   The Creator and the Redeemer are not the same person, the Son is a different person than the Father, though he shares the fullness of the pleroma, the divine essence or substance with the Father.