The Quantum Thomist

Musings about quantum physics, classical philosophy, and the connection between the two.
Diversity in belief of the early Church (Definition of Christian Part 2).

The definition of a Christian, Part 3
Last modified on Sun Oct 15 09:15:30 2017

In a previous post in this series, I suggested that we define Christianity as the religion, which includes a coherent world-view, established by Jesus Christ, and first promoted though his disciples, the Apostles. The question posed to us by Bertrand Russell, which I am attempting to answer, is which beliefs are essential to Christianity. If we want to say that Christianity is the religion founded by Jesus and the Apostles, then whatever list of beliefs we finally settle on should be consistent with what they believed and taught. Those teachings are preserved firstly in the New Testament (which builds on the Old Testament, which the Apostles firmly accepted, and believed foreshadowed the New), and secondly in their oral teachings which were preserved by the individual Churches they founded, in cities from Rome across to the Persian Empire and possibly as far away as India. This rule of faith can then be pieced together by comparing other early Christian writings, and used as a guide to help interpret and understand the New Testament.

I would propose which beliefs are essential to a coherent belief system is in itself an essential doctrine of that belief system. Suppose that we have three groups of people. One group has lax in defining the essential beliefs, the second is too stringent, and the third gets it right. The group that is too lax will include various ideologies which (if the belief system when properly formulated is true) are incorrect. They will admit those who shouldn't be there. What this means is that they are tolerant of error. To be tolerant of error means that you do not correct someone's mistakes. For a religion such as Christianity, which calls on its followers to target perfection, to tolerate error is impossible. There is nothing more hateful than to let someone continue to be guided by dangerously wrong ideas. Such an approach would include those the apostles would have excluded, and thus cannot be considered as Christian. The apostles did exclude people (see, for example, Titus 3:10, 1 Corinthians 5:11, Matthew 7:23).

On the other hand, to be too strict in the definition of belief, for example by placing additional burdens on believers, would exclude perspectives which ought to be included within the spectrum of Christian beliefs. It might even exclude the apostles, and certainly would exclude many of the apostle's age they would have included. Thus while this group might be a subset of Christianity, they cannot represent Christianity as a whole.

In either case, we either include people the apostle's would have excluded, and considered it essential to exclude if the church was to maintain its message, or exclude people the apostle's would have included, and considered it essential to include if the church was to maintain its breadth. Thus we believe something differently to the apostles, which the apostles considered essential. Given that the beliefs the apostles considered essential to the faith define Christianity, to have a different list of essential beliefs denies us the status of being a good Christian. We may well still be a Christian, just not a perfect one. Of course, we should admit the uncertainty in our own list of beliefs.

So if the list of which beliefs are essential is an essential part of the definition of a religion, then if we choose a different list to that which the apostles selected, then we are excluding the apostles from Christianity. We are saying that they incorrectly understood what Christianity is, and since this understanding is essential to being a good Christian, we would be saying that the apostles were not authentic Christians. And this is an absurd conclusion.

So when asking ourselves what are the essential beliefs of Christianity, we should begin by looking at what the apostles (being the closest we can get to Jesus, at least in a historical study) considered essential.

Of course, this definition runs into problems. Firstly, the group of apostles were not completely uniform in their beliefs. Which one do we point to when there is a difference between them? But do we need to point? We know that they accepted each other as Christians, despite their differences. The list of essential beliefs is not a single pinprick: believe this, or else! It is a region: believe this, or this, or this, but not that. So for each of the apostles, although they would have each had their own particular spin on Christianity, which they would no doubted believed themselves to be best, they would still have considered the other apostle's preferred set of doctrines as acceptable. There is therefore room in the list of essential beliefs for a degree of diversity, as long as it does not go too far into realms which all the apostles would have believed to be unacceptable. Equally, just because all the apostles believed something doesn't mean that they would have considered it essential to the faith. They were interested in the good news of the salvation from sin offered by Jesus, and the associated matters of morality and theology. Many questions are irrelevant to this. I'm sure that many of the apostles would have had strong views on the best ways to catch fish. They wouldn't have made it an article of the Christian faith. They no doubt followed their culture into many scientific errors; again, they would have considered those matters irrelevant to the message of Jesus. Thus, in matters such as these, Christians are free to believe what they will (although they ought to follow the best available evidence, just as they do when they build up their Christian faith).

The next problem is how do we construct the beliefs from the evidence available to us? There is room for different interpretations. But we have to distinguish between valid interpretations and invalid interpretations. So let us consider a particular text - any text will do. Before we start by reading it, this text could have any meaning whatsoever: these meanings are the possible interpretations. The words used in their direct grammatical context constrain the meaning, ruling most of the interpretations invalid. But, words necessarily contain a certain degree of ambiguity in meaning (particularly since words shift in meaning from place to place and time to time, so when looking at a historical text we have to reconstruct which of those meanings apply). We cannot rule out every interpretation but one from the grammatical sense of the text, but we can still limit them considerably. When eliminating invalid interpretations, of equal importance as considering the words used by the writer is to think about the words they didn't use. If they had meant our suggested interpretation, would they have expressed it in a different way, that made it clearer, and was less open to misunderstanding? Also, we must keep in mind the literary form of the text: is it poetry or allegory, containing metaphor and imagery, description, instruction, parable, hyperbole, or something else? Is the writer quoting an opponent, or expressing his own view, or neither? Each literary form has its own rules of interpretation. The more picturesque the language, the broader the range of possible interpretations consistent with it.

Next we need to compare the remaining interpretations against the entire body of writing, firstly the immediate context, and then the wider context. Is this interpretation consistent with what was written elsewhere? If not, then we can discard it. We use those passages which are clearer to interpret those which are less clear.

Thirdly, we look at the surrounding culture of the writer. What did the writer believe? In the case of the New Testament writers, we know that they were raised in second temple Judaism, and their world-view was shaped by the Old Testament as interpreted by the teachers of the time. While there are obviously differences between the New and Old Testaments, and some novelties introduced in Christianity, nonetheless there is a great deal of influence. We should also watch out for allusions to the Old Testament in the New; a choice of words which calls back, intentionally, to some Old Testament imagery which further expands what the author intended to say. Equally there are other Jewish sources: Josephus, Philo, the Talmud and so on, which can give an insight to the mindset of the culture in which Jesus operated.

Next, we should look at how the text was interpreted by the disciples of the apostles, in the post-apostolic Christian writings. These authors had advantages over us: they lived in the same culture, spoke the same language natively, and, in the earliest generations at least, could call on memories of what the apostles taught in person, or of the apostle's own disciples, and to early written sources which are now lost to us. Obviously each generation removed from the original source makes these memories less reliable (although since the teachings were passed on in community rather than just from one person to another, and since early Christianity was highly suspicious of theological novelty, the passing on of tradition would still be very reliable), but equally obviously we don't have to rely on a single chain of witnesses, but several largely independent chains. What was agreed on across the early Church has a very good chance of stretching back to the original source; where there was strong disagreement, less so.

Finally, we can demand internal consistency when we systematise our interpretations of different passages.

Thus by well established methods of interpretation, we can reduce the list of possible interpretations to just a few viable alternatives: we remove almost all of the uncertainty. What remains, we add to the uncertainty from the diversity of belief among the apostles themselves.

But how do we know that we have an accurate manuscript in the first place? How do we know that the words we read were those first written? Once again, we can be more confident than many people might realise. The Romans and Persian elites were vivacious readers, but only the very wealthy, or institutions such as schools, academies and churches or monasteries, could maintain large libraries. Before the invention of printing, manuscripts were copied by hand, one at a time. It was a slow and expensive process; even the writing materials (parchment and Papyrus) were expensive, so professional scribes were well trained not to make mistakes. They were much better at copying than we are today. A wealthy man would learn of a book he wanted to read and add to his library. He would seek out his nearest copy, borrow it, and find a scribe willing to copy it. What errors introduced in the copying process would remain in that manuscript and those copied from it, and no others. Except in the earliest years of the manuscript history, the copies would generally be found in the same geographical neighbourhood as the original, leading to manuscript traditions growing up independently in different places. The Greek manuscripts of the New Testament have been divided into four independent families, each centred around one of the early centres of learning and training of clergy in the early Church: Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome.

Each manuscript is on a particular branch of a tree, and each branch is linked by an independent line of boughs to the trunk of the tree, which represents the original. The manuscripts we possess today are twigs taken from anywhere on that tree, and we have a good sample of all the branches, albeit that most of the earlier texts are Alexandrian, and the majority of the later texts are Byzantine: but we possess some manuscripts from each family across a wide range of time periods. Major errors in the copying process were rare (things such as spelling mistakes, or the omission or repetition of words are more common, but easily recognised); the chances of the same substantial error occurring twice independently (let alone the several hundred or thousand times that would be needed to explain the New Testament manuscript record) are sufficiently remote that we can forget about it. If we have enough manuscripts, then through careful comparison, we can trace them back to their common ancestor, which is likely to be the original. In the case of the New Testament, we have more than enough manuscripts and fragments, with the earliest dating from just a few years after the originals were written, collected together from almost every location there were Greek speaking Christians. On top of that, we have the translations, citations in early Christian writers, and the early lectionaries. There is an abundance of evidence, far more than any other ancient text. We know what sorts of errors copyists generally make, and what sorts of errors they don't make. In short, we can with almost complete certainty remove the errors introduced in the copying process, and recover the words of the original manuscript. A modern New Testament will provide a translation of the reading that the translators consider most reliable, with possible alternative readings marked in the footnotes. We can be certain that the original is translated by either the main text or one of the footnotes. What little uncertainty remains can be added to the imprecision we have already encountered.

Indeed, we can see how little uncertainty there is just by using the English translations, rather than having to go back to the Greek text. We can compare the King James Bible against a good word-for-word modern translation (following the same translation methodology as the KJV) such as the English Standard Version. There is obviously a vast difference between seventeenth century and twenty-first century language, but I am interested in the meaning of the text. The King James Bible was based on a handful of late Byzantine manuscripts. It was a very good translation of a (by modern terms) very bad manuscript. The Greek text used by the modern translations is constructed by taking the early Alexandrian manuscripts as a base text, and then correcting that reading from the other manuscript families as appropriate; it is widely regarded as the best text we have available. One translation is based on what is regarded as the worst critical text produced by scholars (albeit ground-breaking for its time), the other on what is regarded as the best text there has ever been. Now try to find a significant difference in meaning between the two translations. There are a few, but you have to hunt pretty hard to locate them. While there is a vast number of variations in the manuscript record, almost all of them can be eliminated, and those which remain don't affect the meaning of the text.

Then we have the problem that the New Testament writers didn't directly provide a list of essential beliefs. That's not their problem: they weren't writing specifically for our benefit to answer this problem, but to answer the problems faced by their contemporaries. In some places, they directly state that something is essential or of first importance. In other places, they directly say that something is non-essential. For other things, we have to interpret as best we can, which introduces more uncertainty.

So I seem to have a problem: my definition of what constitutes Christian belief is imprecise to begin with, and our knowledge of that definition is even more imprecise. But is this really a problem? Uncertainty is something which all scientists deal with on a day-to-day basis, and it can be, and must be, parametrised, defined, accurately stated, and reduced by further systematic investigation. Definitions don't have to be perfectly precise, and for most things they shouldn't be. When we define the word cat, we don't imagine one particular cat and leave it at that, but make the definition sufficiently broad that it includes every possible cat, and sufficiently narrow that it excludes every possible dog. While there is uncertainty in the definition of Christian belief, it is not so broad that the definition becomes useless; we can point with certainty to beliefs and say that to believe them makes one a Christian, and to deny them makes one outside the faith; the uncertainty just amounts to a little fuzziness around the edges.

We can take one possible set of beliefs which we can consider Christian; say the most likely reconstruction of the beliefs of the apostle Paul. Modify it a little bit, and we have a different belief system, which will still be Christian. Group these two belief-systems together, and we have a set. Continue expanding the set by infinitesimal modifications, until we map out the region of possible states bound by our analysis of the earliest Christian sources, including the uncertainty and the requirement for logical coherence. Logical coherence is important. It is impossible to get from Christianity to, for example, Buddhism, in small steps because the intermediate region is not coherent, while both Christianity and Buddhism are. Thus we can make a clear distinction between the different religions. Like every definition constructed in this way (which should be all definitions), it is unchanging in time. A Church organisation can evolve its doctrines. Christianity itself can't. The Church will either move away, or perhaps towards, authentic Christianity; but Christianity isn't defined by the resolutions of contemporary Church councils, but by what was taught by Jesus through his Apostles.

We can then take a particular person off the street today, and ask what they believe. We compare the beliefs he lists against the set. If the belief system is a member of that set, then it is Christian. If it is not, then it is either non-Christian, heretical Christian or bad Christian. Of course, whether the person himself is Christian or non-Christian not only depends on what he believes, but on whether he lives in accordance with those beliefs. But for this intellectual exercise, we are only interested in the belief systems themselves.

We can treat any religion in a similar way. If a religion is to be defined in terms of sets of beliefs, rituals, and ways of life, then we can construct the set of every possible logically coherent religion, and then within this set, draw various subsets. One of these subsets would correspond to Christianity, another to Islam, another to Hinduism, and so on. There are two different definitions of a religion, and we need both of them. Firstly, we want to define it in terms of a list of beliefs, rituals and behaviours, which is necessary if we are to take apart and investigate the truth or falsity of the beliefs of the religion. Secondly, we can define a religion in terms of the beliefs and intentions of its founder. We want these two definitions to be equivalent. We would be pretty stupid if we defined the Muslim, in part, as someone who accepted a particular set of beliefs, if that list of beliefs excluded Mohammed. Thus, at least in the time of Mohammed, we would have to use what Mohammed believed as part of our definition of Islam; what he believed to be essential to the religion, what he believed to be accidental, and those possible beliefs which he claimed were forbidden for Muslims. One might think that we would include Mohammed by making the list of correct beliefs broader than what Mohammed would have chosen, but this is not viable. For one of the key tenets of any religion is where its boundaries should be drawn, and by drawing them in a different place to where Mohammed would, we are saying that his view on this matter was not Islamic, and therefore that he was either a bad Muslim or no Muslim at all, which is absurd. But since definitions are unchanging in time, we have to, as much as is possible and sensible, use the same list of defining beliefs today.

Doesn't looking back at a Jewish Peasant two thousand years ago render Christianity irrelevant? After all, Jesus might have said some wise things, but don't we have far more accumulated wisdom to draw on today? If Christianity were false, there would be merit in this objection. But if Christianity is true, then Jesus was God Himself walking on the earth. Whatever wisdom (or lack of it - we have got a lot of things wrong as well as getting a lot right) we have obtained over the past millennia is insignificant next to the the wisdom of God. Thus if Christianity is true, rather than using our modern standard to judge which bits of Jesus' teachings we like and which we should discard, we should be using Jesus' standard to decide which bits of modern wisdom are good and which should be put aside. After all, reason is the process of moving from premise to conclusion. A conclusion is only as good as the premises that support it, and every premise can be challenged. And the premises that our modern culture and philosophy are built on are as shaky as any other. The only way we can be sure that we are building from true premises is to establish them using non-rational means: empirical observation or the direct word of God. So if Christianity is right about Jesus, and modern reasoning contradicts Christian doctrine, then we should jettison at least some of the premises on which modern reasoning is built. Indeed, it is the only rational thing to do.

Should we accept all of the beliefs of the Apostles as being binding on Christians? I think that the answer should be 'No.' Some of their common beliefs would have been taken from Jesus' life, ministry and teachings. Others would have been taken from the culture around them. For example, they might have held to a particular view of reproduction; that the child inherited from the father alone, and the mother was only the carrier of the child. But if this belief didn't come from Jesus, then it need not be correct. They would not have regarded such beliefs, or beliefs such as that the earth was at the centre of the universe, as being essential to Christianity, and therefore Christians are free to follow what the best empirical evidence has to say.

What about their views on ethical matters such as slavery? If all the apostles accepted slavery, then should Christians do so as well? This particular issue is more complex than is often realised. When we think of slavery, we think of the horrific Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and the sugar cane plantations of North and Central America. This is slavery in its worst form. In Biblical times, it corresponds to the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, which is universally condemned throughout the Bible, or, in Roman times, pirates who kidnapped people to sell them on to slavery, who Paul directly condemns in 1 Timothy. Thus it is certainly permissible (I would say mandatory) for Christians to oppose that form of slavery. But there were other forms of slavery as well, and many of these (not all) were beneficial for the slave: debt slavery, when people would lease themselves for a short period in slavery to pay off their debts; or the tutors, scribes and stewards, who had better lives as part of a Patrician's household than they would have done trying to ply their trades privately as freemen. But, even here, it is not clear that the Apostles supported slavery. The ancient justification for slavery was that some people were naturally inferior and thus deserved to be slaves to their betters. The Apostle's teaching completely overturned this teaching, saying that slaves and freemen were equal before God. Christian masters were asked to receive their slaves as brothers. Slaves were encouraged to seek their freedom, if they could obtain it through legal means. Slaves and freemen worshipped side by side in the Church, the distinction dissolved through Christian unity. This idea continued throughout Christian history, with most theologians arguing that slavery was an evil. In the early church, the majority regarded it as a necessary evil, fearing a complete collapse of the Roman economy if slavery ended (which probably would have occurred). A few supported slavery, while some called for its abolition despite the economic consequences. As time progressed, opposition to slavery hardened. There were, as is commonly cited, many theologians in North America, even otherwise very well regarded theologians, who argued in favour of slavery at the height of the trade in the Americas. But they are the exception. These exceptions are warnings about what can happen if theologians seek to use contemporary culture to guide their interpretation of scripture, much as some theologians today try to mutilate scripture to support contemporary society's approval of certain forms of sexual immorality.

I am aware of five crusades against slavery in human history. The first was by the Western Church in the middle ages, culminating in the permanent abolition of slavery in Northern Europe by the early twelfth century. The second was by various Buddhists in India and China, but their campaigns only achieved a few years of success. Thirdly, after the Spanish and Portuguese began slavery of the inhabitants of the Canary Islands and North and Central America (mainly from secular influences, although briefly permitted by the papacy), and began the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, the efforts of various Catholic monks, Catholic Kings, and a continual stream of condemnations of slavery by the post-Renaissance Popes saw the outlawing of slavery and the slave trade in Catholic Southern Europe. Fourthly, from various Anglican Evangelicals and Quakers in the United Kingdom, which led to the end of slavery in the overseas territories of the Northern European Empires. Finally in North America in the events leading up to the civil war, inspired partly by Christianity and partly from secular (enlightenment) philosophy. Three and a half out of five of the only movements in human history to oppose slavery were Christian, and Christianity is the only major movement to have a consistent, albeit not unanimous, anti-slavery streak from first establishment to the present day. The reintroduction of slavery in Renaissance Europe against the trajectory of Christian doctrine and due to secular ideologies is a good example of why the Church should not let itself be influenced by new ideas from outside its tradition.

But what about the evolution of Christian belief over time? Hasn't Christian doctrine changed over the centuries, and does this not rule out the idea of defining Christian belief in terms of the beliefs of the early church? This is not just an issue with Christian belief, but of any intellectual system defined in terms of what it believes. If certain doctrines are regarded as being essential to a belief system, and the organisation in charge of interpreting and guarding those doctrines then tries to modify them, does this mean that the doctrine has changed? With a few caveats, no. It means that the organisation no longer believes what it was founded to defend. The body of belief ceases to be what it was, and becomes something else. That something else might be better than the original belief system, or it might be worse. This is true for anything. If certain attributes are essential to a type of being, and it so that it no longer possesses some or all of those attributes, then it is no longer that type of being but something else. The Church which changes its beliefs beyond the bounds of authentic Christianity will believe in some other religion; perhaps a better one than it was founded upon, but nonetheless different. If names are to be of any use, then the new belief system should be called by something else, otherwise we can no longer say Christian and expect to know what is meant. If names are to have use, their meaning has to remain constant over time. Otherwise we would have to qualify each definition with a date and time, for example, by saying that it is a aardvark according to the twelfth century European definition, rather than the eighteenth century Chinese definition, and hope that the reader is learned enough to be able to distinguish between the two. Better just to call it an aardvark, and if the Chinese meant something different, then use a different word to describe the concept. Better to just call it a Christian, and whether it is a second century Christian or a twentieth century Christian, use the same label to refer to the same religion, and a different or qualified label if the doctrine changed between those times. If a Church tries to change its doctrine while still claiming to accept the same faith, then by nature it excludes those who hold to the original doctrine (even if the Church's change makes the doctrine more inclusive), and leaves them with nowhere to go. Since the mission of the Church is to preserve and guard the doctrine, it has, in effect, betrayed that purpose and its members. If members of a Church believe that they can do better than the founding doctrines of that Church, then they should leave that Church and found a new organisation to reflect their no doubt superior religion.

So what sort of changes are acceptable? Those developments which don't affect the underlying meaning of the original message.

However, there are also changes to doctrine which cannot be accepted, because they would involve a change of the Essence of the religion.

The existence of God, Part 1

Reader Comments:

1. Clive Anderson
Posted at 00:31:09 Wednesday August 21 2019

What it means to be a Christian

I wish that more people saw fit to delve in to the fundamentals of this discussion (at least the start of the discussion).I believe that the Bible is coherent enough that if we were to systematically go through it we would be able to produce a list of essential beliefs that define what and who a Christian is; to the best of our ability to define Christianity with the differences of interpretation that allow for different denominations. That being said, what is your opinion on the fact that most people don't adhere to the Seventh day of the week as the Sabbath? The Bible that I read clearly states that the Sabbath is to be kept as holy and set apart from the rest of the week. Following through with what you have said in this post I would say that this poses a major problem for Christianity.

2. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 20:19:38 Wednesday August 21 2019


There is a difference between the Old Covenant of the Old Testament (Moses) and the New Covenant of the New Testament (Jesus). It is clear from various passages in the NT that the "terms and conditions" of each of the two covenants are different. For example Acts 15, Galatians 2:15-3:29, Galatians 5:1-15, Romans 14:1-9, as well as gospel passages such as Mark 7:19 and Matthew 12:1-8. I could have cited many other passages of the New Testament. There is a distinction in the NT between parts of the law which Christians ought to follow, and parts which they need not. The major point of dispute in the first few decades of the Church was to what extent gentile believers have to follow the Law of Moses. It is clear from reading of the NT that some parts of the law of Moses apply to Christians and others don't.

The final consensus was that the Old Testament law could be described in three parts: moral (do not kill, honour your parents, love your neighbour as yourself etc.), civil (the various legislations over boundaries and inheritance, etc. ), and ceremonial (the various regulations over sacrifices and ritual cleanliness, etc.). These categories are not directly found in the Bible, but a division of some sort is evident from the New Testament text, and this has been found to be a useful way of expressing and explaining it. Christians are not bound to follow the ceremonial law (because Jesus' perfect sacrifice replaces the sacrificial system, Hebrews 7:26-8:7) or the civil law (which was set up just to set the nation of Israel apart from the nations around them; but now the gospel is open to everyone), but ought to be increasingly inclined to keep the moral law. Unlike Judaism and Islam, we are not judged by our adherence to the law, because we are Justified by grace -- unmerited forgiveness -- through faith -- trust in and assent to God's promises -- a promise guaranteed by the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus and mediated to us through a union with Christ established through repentance, the instruments of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's supper, communion with the Church, and the indwelling Holy Spirit. (That was all a bit of a mouthful, and displayed my classical Anglican bias: radical protestants would dislike my emphasis on the role of the sacraments; Roman Catholics would dislike my understanding of justification.)

But even though we are not judged by the law, Christ's purpose was to "save his people from his sins." That's the promise that we as Christians are assenting to; and it involves a gradual transformation of our character to put to death all vice in us, and to become virtuous people, inclined by our nature to do good. (Obviously, that transformation's not always evident with all Christians; none of us are yet perfect, and some have really betrayed God's purpose.)

So that leaves the question of which category (civil, moral, ceremonial) observance of the Sabbath falls into. Here passages such as Matthew 12:8 and Romans 14:5 become very relevant; it is clear that Christians need not be as strict about the Sabbath as the Jews were. Sabbath observance is thus placed in the civil category; and has a similar status to circumcision. A necessary part of the Jewish covenant; but something which Christians either may or may not practice since we follow a different covenant which doesn't entail it. Christians thus don't have to be as strict in their Sabbath observance as the Jews (and, of course, the day of rest was moved from a Saturday to Sunday in honour of the resurrection). Having said that, I do believe that Christians ought to have some reverence for the Sabbath day, and this is one area where the contemporary church has fallen short. We are looking for a middle ground between the extremes of Orthodox Judaism and a complete neglect of the day. But precisely how much reverence to show is a matter about which Christians can legitimately disagree. Despite what one might infer from the Old Testament alone, being unobservant of the Sabbath is not a mortal sin that separates one from the Church (unless genuinely repented) in the same way that murder or child abuse are.

3. Clive Anderson
Posted at 18:25:14 Thursday August 22 2019

Rebuttal on the Sabbath

I agree with most of your statements. The problem is that your categorizing of the Sabbath as part of the law that needn't be strictly observed is false. The Sabbath is mentioned in the Old Testament as part of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are to be as much adhered to now as they were in the time of the Israelites when Moses received the stone tablets. Matthew 12:8 simply states that Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. I don't see how that helps to prove your point. Romans 14:5 talks about people valuing different days. That has nothing to do with the observance of the Sabbath as being holy. If we are to suppose that being a Christian is to follow Christ as we know him through the Gospel then shouldn't all Christians observe the Sabbath because Christ observed the Sabbath? Where and by who was the day of rest changed from the seventh day of the week to the first? To my knowledge that is strictly extra-biblical. I somewhat agree with your concluding statement (definitely in the fact that not observing the Sabbath doesn't make you at all a Christian) but the New Testament does nothing to change any of the Ten Commandments; the Sabbath being the fourth.

4. Nigel Cundy
Posted at 23:05:33 Thursday August 29 2019

More on the Sabbath

Thanks for your reply. Sorry it has taken me so long to respond.

So most simply the question is whether Sabbath observance is part of the moral law or the civil/ceremonial law. There are a number of options.

1) It is part of the civil law, and there is no obligation to follow it.

2) It is part of the moral law, but some or all of the hundreds of Jewish traditions that developed around it are part of the civil law. Some observance of the Sabbath is required, but not the full Jewish regulation.

3) It is part of the moral law, including the full Jewish regulations.

4) It is part of the moral law to observe one day, but it is permitted to observe Sunday rather than Saturday.

Now, there is no question that the Old Testament treats Sabbath observance very seriously. Not only is it the fourth commandment, but also passages such as Jeremiah 17:21-27, where the prosperity of the country is directly tied to their observance of the Sabbath.

But we need to focus on the New Testament. Here is the list of all the relevant passages I can think of in the New Testament.

Matthew 12:1-8, plus parallel passages in Mark 2 and Luke 6. (All citations taken from the ESV.)

1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath." 3 He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him to eat nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath."

I focused on verse 8 in my previous answer, but that needs to be taken in the context of the rest of the passage. The disciples are breaking the Sabbath; the Pharisees complain, and Jesus defends the disciples. He does so, not by saying that the commandment had been interpreted too strictly, but by claiming the authority to overrule the Sabbath law, and pointing out that it is a less important commandment than satisfying hunger or religious observance (and note that the temple rituals are not part of the New Covenant; so if the Sabbath is less important than them, and they are merely ceremonial law, then that implies that the Sabbath is not an overriding moral commandment).

Mark's account of this incident adds the verse

Mark 2:27 And he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

Once again, the implication in this dichotomy is that the Sabbath is not in the first rank of the commandments. Observance of the Sabbath law is good practice, but not a hard and fast rule and one of the key purposes in life (in the same way that the prohibitions against murder, idolatry, sexual immorality, greed and so on are related to what we were made for).

Immediately following this passage is Matthew 12:9-13 (plus Mark 3, Luke 14), where Jesus himself breaks the Sabbath law

9 He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?" — so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, "Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath." 13 Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Again, Jesus is saying that there are more important things than the Sabbath law: people break it in order to preserve life. He is asked by the Pharisees whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath. By the Jewish law, it is not. But Jesus answered by his actions that it is. There is a similar passage in Luke 13:

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, "Woman, you are freed from your disability." 13 And he laid his hands on her, and immediately she was made straight, and she glorified God. 14 But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, "There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day." 15 Then the Lord answered him, "You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?"

The Synoptic gospels highlight this issue of the Sabbath as one of the key points of dissension between Jesus and his opponents. John's gospel makes this clearer. At the end of the healing on the Sabbath described in John 5 (and Jesus commanding someone to carry a mat on a Sabbath), we have this passage:

John 5:16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, "My Father is working until now, and I am working."

18 This was 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 himself equal with God.

This passage states clearly that Jesus broke the Sabbath law, and that this was one of two complaints that the Jewish authorities brought against Him, the other being His purported blasphemy. Note Jesus' defence: that God the Father is working until now; i.e. God himself doesn't observe the Sabbath. This event is referenced again in John 7:22, and again Jesus defends his Sabbath-breaking, and again in John 9.

14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, "He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see." 16 Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?" And there was a division among them.

Again, Jesus' laxity with regards to the Sabbath is the accusation against him. What He claimed cannot be true because He doesn't keep the Sabbath law.

So to summarise lesson from the gospels, we see that Jesus was both accused of breaking the Sabbath law, and showing a blind eye when His disciples did the same. This was the first point of contention between Him and the authorities (the others being his criticism of them and claims to be God; but it is on account of the perceived Sabbath breaking that they were hardened against him). Jesus doesn't defend His actions by merely saying that He is only breaking the Jewish traditions around the Sabbath, but by diminishing the importance of the Sabbath law.

Clearly the example of Jesus rules out option (3). It might leave open option (2): one could argue that Jesus and the disciples merely broke the auxiliary regulations, and not the fourth commandment itself. It also leaves open option (1).

The rest of the NT has other passages that are relevant. I mentioned Romans 14

2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

The context of Paul's writing is the dispute over the how much the Jewish law applies to gentiles. That's clear from the inclusion of food in his discussion, and how a few sentences later he makes a similar point with explicit reference to ritual cleanliness. Thus when Paul talks of people who honour one day above another, he is referring to the Jewish law. That day would thus be the Sabbath. Paul is thus implicitly saying that observance of the Sabbath is not mandatory for gentile Christians. They can follow it if they like, but that shows a certain weakness in faith.

The reference in Colossians 2 is even clearer:

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath.

The context of this passage is how Christ accepts the gentiles, despite that they are physically uncircumcised. So again, it is discussing the parts of the law which the gentile believers are bound to follow. Here Paul clearly places Sabbath observance on the same level as the dietary laws, which we all agree are not binding on Christians.

These two passages clearly in my view place Sabbath observance on the same level as dietary laws: something which Christians can follow if they choose, but which is not binding on them.

One further point relates to the covenant with Noah. I've often wondered why the particular prohibitions of Acts 15:20 are so important to the apostles. Sexual immorality and idolatry are obvious; but why abstain from blood? I have connected this to the covenant described in Genesis 9, which includes the same prohibitions. Gentiles aren't compelled to obey the Mosaic covenant because they are not descendants of the Israelites. But they are bound by the covenant established with Noah, since everyone is a descendant of Noah. That includes the moral law (for example Thou shalt not kill is explicitly mentioned in Genesis 9), and the prohibition on eating blood. But Sabbath observance is part of the Mosaic covenant, and not the covenant with Noah.

Thus it is reasonable to say that Sabbath observance is part of the law that need not apply to gentile Christians. The example of Jesus certainly states that the observance need not be as strict as the Jews practised. Jesus nowhere is recorded as berating people for disobeying the Sabbath. All He says on the subject is either to diminish it, or declare Himself Lord over it (and thus having the authority to turn it off for His followers), or is neutral. Paul's writing is clear, and puts Sabbath observance on the same level as the dietary regulations.

But my own view comes back to this verse here:

Mark 2:27 And he said to them, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

This suggests to me that observance of the Sabbath is of benefit to man, and thus still something we ought to be encouraged to follow, at least to a certain extent. In other words, it is something which we ought to honour in some way for our benefit, but not too get too guilty or too strict if we should break it. There are more important things than Sabbath observance, and we shouldn't allow the Sabbath to stop us from helping others or serving God in some way. And this, I think, has been the historic position of the Church: to encourage Sunday observance, while not being too strict about it.

In recent times, the culture has grown increasingly lax over this, and unfortunately the Church has followed them. Thus the Church has shown too much of a blind eye towards people ignoring the day of rest; and moved too far in its balance between encouraging Sabbath observance and not being too strict about it. That is, however, merely one of a number of problems with the contemporary Church, and not the most important.

5. Clive Anderson
Posted at 03:54:04 Tuesday September 3 2019

The Sabbath a Holy Day

Jesus never once broke the Sabbath. In all of your examples Jesus is simply remedying the Jews understanding of the Sabbath because of the traditions that had formed around the Sabbath. Notice the word "traditions"; all the rules and regulations that the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin enforced were traditions built up from a flawed understanding of the Sabbath. The "law" that Jesus supposedly broke, in regards to the Sabbath, was not really law but rather what the Jewish Priests supposed the Law to be. Paul does not regulate the Sabbath to the level of dietary laws. Colossians 2:16 is simply saying not to let people judge you in matters regarding those dietary laws and the Sabbath. Once again I will mention the fact that we both believe that Jesus was/is perfect so everything he did was without fault. Why would Jesus say what he said to diminish the Sabbath if He Himself was the one to establish it in the Ten Commandments? I maintain that the New Testament does nothing to undo any of the Ten Commandments. Thus Sabbath observance is of the utmost importance. Since you have mentioned it on multiple occasions I would like to know when, where, why, and how the "Day of Rest" was changed from the seventh day to the first? As for all of the stipulations in the Jewish Law based on tradition those are to be recognized as being worthy to follow only in so far as they accurately represent the spirit of the Law. The Sabbath is to be a day of rest where Christians are to abstain from all secular activity and engage in communion with God and fellow Christians to worship.

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