The Sabbath Question (2)

From the very beginning of the Reformed churches existence in Australia and New Zealand, the proper observance of the Lord’s Day has been a focal problem. I recall that when I arrived in Australia in 1958, local discussions on the subject were numerous but in few instances were they productive. Sermons on Lord’s Day 38 were printed but various emphases came to expression in these. Sessions were wrestling with the problem of disciplining members who worked on Sunday and because of it were not able to be faithful in attending worship services. And was the use of the Lord’s Day for pleasure, visiting relatives and new job seeking reason for discipline? ground for personal admonition? Should specific instruction in Catechism room, from the pulpit and in the church papers not set forth clearly how the Lord’s Day was to be observed? the sessions asked, There was a call for guidance. Who was to give it?

Discussions on the Lord’s Day in local and classical church papers began to appear in New Zealand with increasing frequency after some ministers from the Orthodox Presbyterian church arrived to serve as pastors of various Reformed congregations. These men were well acquainted with the Westminster Confession’s statement concerning the “Christian Sabbath.” They found most Reformed church members ignorant of these. So, explanations and applications of the Westminster Confession’s teachings was presented for thought and guidance.

Reactions to these writings were not slow in coming. Some asked questions, others suggested that the position was too absolutistic. Others, taking a position in harmony with the Gereformeerde Kerken’s thinking, openly disagreed with the theological basis of the Westminster Confession’s teaching and therefore alsowith the applications. The result was more confusion for some church members. Sharp disagreements between various leaders came into focus.

The next step was to bring the Lord’s Day problem to the higher bodies of the church. But before this was done, ministers discussed the various positions in their fraternal gatherings and conferences. In this way the position held by each minister became quite well known by colleagues. Elders discussed the problems involved in Lord’s Day observance in their informal fellowships and they in turn reflected their minister’s positions or their own general background. Some indicated positions taken on the basis of personal study and reflection. When the problem came to the Synod of the Reformed churches, the church leaders had pretty well adopted and indicated their personal views.

The New Zealand Synod of 1964, having received overtures to deal with Sabbath observance, appointed a Sabbath committee and charged it “to formulate an agreed report on Lord’s Day Observance as outlined in Scripture and Confession.” The committee took up its mandate in a serious manner and presented a report in which six themes were discussed. 1) the Sabbath is a creation ordinance. This section included a reference to the Sabbath in the Decalogue and the place of the law in both the old and new covenant. 2) the Sabbath in the N.T. dispensation. 3 ) problem texts which seem to indicate a difference between the O.T. and NT. in respect to the Sabbath. 4) the Sabbath in early church time. 5) the Sabbath law and works of piety, mercy and necessity. 6) the application of this Sabbath law to specific problems.

This report presented and defended the view of the Westminster confession. The Scriptures were interpreted in keeping with this confessional position and the applications were in conformity with the strong emphasis on the Lord’s Day as a day of rest and worship.

The Synod also had to deal with an overture from a session in which the Synod was requested to “decide that chapter 21, para. 7, 8 of the Westminster Confession be declared not binding on our churches.” Grounds presented in the overture were: the statements in the Westminster Confession have either no Scriptural foundation or are at variance with Scripture and in general conflict with the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 38.

It seemed as if a head-on collision was unavoidable. The Synod held an extensive discussion taking up much of two days. The first conclusion that was formulated reads: “The overture of the session be regarded as a gravamen and therefore be taken under study.” The overture was recommitted to the session for reformulation after which it was to be sent to all sessions for study. The report was to be sent to all sessions as a guideline on the Sabbath and the Sabbath committee was to study the gravamen and report on it to all sessions six months before the next synod.

Later on the same day that the Synod had concluded its Sabbath discussion the Westminster Confession was declared “to be adopted as a part of the official standards of the Reformed churches of New Zealand with these exceptions: a phrase from chap. 20, para. 4—on the civil magistrate; chap. 24, a phrase in para. 4; chap. 25, part of para. 6; and chapter 31 para. 1 amended and para. 2 deleted.” This means that the statements on the Sabbath were adopted unaltered.

The gravamen was reformulated by the session. There was no new material presented, the grounds were developed with exegetical and theological references and comments. All sessions studied it. The Sabbath committee reported on it to all sessions. When the Synod met again in early 1967 the opposing views on the Lord’s Day were set forth more clearly and forcefully than before. A suggestion was presented to Synod by a session that Synod should not decide on the issue until a study had been made by all Reformed churches. This was really a suggestion that the R.E.S. be requested to study the entire subject.

The Synod, faced with the gravamen, was now faced with another problem: the nature of a confession and its authority. Is a confession to be taken literally? Is a confession an exact statement of truths? Or does a confession set forth a system of doctrine? (which could mean that not all statements are of equal validity and authority). The Synod was not able to give well formulated answers to these questions so it decided that another study was imperative before it could resolve the problem of the Lord’s Day. Hence the decision on the Lord’s Day as such is postponed until clarity and hoped for agreement on the formal and prior problem concerning the nature and authority of a creed is achieved.

While the events referred to above were taking place in New Zealand, the Australians were increasingly becoming interested and began to participate in the New Zealand discussions. Fraternal delegates to the New Zealand Synods took part in discussions and reported to the Australian churches. Some Australian written contributions appeared in New Zealand publications. The editor of Trowel & Sword, a monthly publication supported and subscribed to by members of both churches, wrote a series of editorial paragraphs supporting the “new Gereformeerde view.” A minister of one of the Australian Reformed churches took issue with the editor, expressing ,his views in some articles published in Trowel & Sword. In the meantime, some sessions in Australia were forced to deal with Sunday observance problems. In one large city church an elder and his son established an industrial plant which was operated on a seven day week basis. Some fellow elders protested. The industrialist had his answers ready. “The Old Testament Sabbath demanded rest from labor. New Testament Sunday does not. The church had added Old Testament requirements to the New Testament Sunday.” In effect, he had adopted the “new Gereformeerde view” and applied it to his industrial circumstances.

The session sought advice. The editor of Trowel & Sword was requested to write on the subject (which he did as referred to above). The session also requested Classis Victoria for advice. The Classis did not deal with the specific situation in the local church, but adopted the following nine statements for guidance to the churches:

I The fourth commandment is fulfilled by Christ and has to be understood from this fulfillment.

II The real meaning of the Sabbath as token of the rest which is fulfilled in Christ and given by Him, is maintained in the N.T. time and ought to be put in its proper form in our Sunday observance.

III The Sunday is not the N.T. Sabbath (Col. 2:16,17). IV The Sunday has, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, become the day on which we remember the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

V The Sunday is the day of corporate worship for the church (Lord’s Day 38).

VI The Sunday calls us to live all the days of our life as people redeemed by our Lord Jesus Christ.

VII The Sunday is a foretaste of eternal life. VIII The Sunday should not be abrogated; on the contrary we should be grateful for this special day on which we are reminded of our risen Lord and His redemption and we are called in to His rest and therefore into the joy of His service. We should be on our guard against the dangers of licentiousness and intolerant legalism.

IX The fellowship of the congregation with the Lord is of such a great Significance that we should strive after the utmost limitation of all Sunday labour.

Objections to the Classical statements were raised immediately and especially against point III. A formal protest was sent to Classis by one of the Professors. Meanwhile, other faculty members were approached to express their views on the Lord’s Day problem. Three of them drew up a statement which was addressed to all ministers and sessions of both denominations in which an urgent call to further study and communal discussion be undertaken before any series of problems and questions were enumerated to provide evidence that the problem is complicated and difficult.

It was indicated that aside from situational problems, there are hermeneutical, exegetical and theological problems involved in the Lord’s Day problem and these had not been sufficiently dealt with to date. In the statement two suggestions were made: 1. to present the entire problem to the R.E.S. for study and advice; 2. to publish a symposium of exegetical. confessional and practical studies as an initial step in the communal study.

Classis Victorial having received the protest against its decisions, decided to bring the Lord’s Day problem to Synod. The professor’s protest was also forwarded to Synod. The Australian Synod, meeting in November ‘67 decided to request the R.E.S. to place the Lord’s Day problem on the agendum for the 1968 Synod to be convened in Amsterdam. The Synod also stated that Classis Victoria should not have adopted point III. Cf. above. It went on to say the Lord’s Day must he considered a day of worship and all members in the churches must do their utmost to observe the day as such. Synod did not deny the Lord’s Day is a d3y of rest. It decided not to make a pronouncement on the very point that is being debated and on which advice is sought from the R.E.S.

A symposium proposed by some of the professors was also prepared. The undersigned functioned as editor. Essays were requested on: 1) the Old Testament material on the Sabbath; 2) the New Testament material; 3) the Lord’s Day in Church History; 4) the new Gereformeerde view (also called the Evangelical view by Luther); 5) the Westminster Assembly’s view of the Sabbath; 6) the teaching of Lord’s Day 38 and the historical setting of this creedal statement; 7) Lord’s Day keeping from a practical and pastoral point of view; 8) a summary essay. The writers represent the Christian Reformed church including the editor (3); the Heformed churches of New Zealand—also O.P.C. men (2); the Reformed churches, of Australia (2); and the Presbyterian church of Australia (1).

The symposium consisting of 107 pages, single spaced typed foolscap pages, was bound with a heavy paper cover. One hundred and ten copies were produced -an insufficient number. Attempts to have the symposium published in a paperback edition have not been successful to date. Possibly some more mimcographed copies could be produced in the future if demands for the symposium continue to come.

Summing up the present situation in the Australasian Reformed churches in regard to the Sunday Sabbath problem we see that:

1. The New Zealand Reformed churches are confronted by two views, and discussions and decisions on these are held in abeyance until a study is made of the nature and authority of the confessions.

2. The Australian Reformed churches, having stressed that the Lord’s Day is a day for worship, decided to request the R.E.S. to study the entire Lord’s Day problem.

Rev. Gerard Van Groningen is Professor at the Geelong Theological Seminary, Geelong, Victoria, Australia.