Sola Scriptura and the Sunday Law
By Loren Seibold | 6 May 2021 |
Recently I participated in a Facebook discussion in which one of our pastors reminded us of the threat of Sunday laws.
This in itself wasn’t surprising: Sunday laws have been hanging over our heads for as long as I can remember. In my childhood church we had long, fearful discussions about the blue laws (laws that closed businesses on Sunday) in our state. Even back then I wasn’t quite sure how they threatened us. They were an inconvenience, to be sure, but no one ever tried to stop us from going to church on Sabbath, only from shopping on Sunday.
It is of vital importance that we protect religious liberty. Restrictions on religious liberty have been imposed in many places in the world, and given the mutability of political systems, why couldn’t it someday happen here, too? But at this moment I see little evidence for laws outlawing a day of worship in the United States. Even the blue laws here are almost gone, surviving only in a few ordinances restricting alcohol sales.
It’s not threats to religious liberty that I have doubts about. I’m very proud of Adventists’ support of religious liberty.
What I do question is whether our specific fears are biblical.
What surprised me in the discussion initiated by this pastor wasn’t that he believed in imminent Sunday laws, or even that he was able to see evidence of them where there isn’t any. We Adventists are experts at anticipating fearful possibilities. What surprised me is that when someone pushed back at him, he asked, “But don’t you believe in sola scriptura?”
It’s important for me to say here that my personal eschatology is very basic: I believe Jesus is coming again, but we don’t know when. Bad things happen in the world, have always happened, and will continue to happen, but we ought not to use them as an excuse to make bad predictions. We live in a sometimes-hurtful world. Jesus hasn’t yet returned in response to any of the horrors of this old world so far, which leads me to believe Jesus will return when God chooses for him to return (Matthew 24:36), and not a moment before. Given what our experience so far, most of us should plan on dying before we see Jesus in the clouds of glory.
In particular, I see absolutely no defensible reason for rampant paranoid speculation about end-time events. All that does is frighten us and rob us of the peace we are promised in Christ.
I also believe that of all the conspiratorial notions that have accreted to our eschatology, very little can be defended from Scripture without heavy interpretation from Uriah Smith and Ellen White. How you regard Uriah and Ellen will probably determine how specific your eschatology is.
The biblical Sabbath
Many Christians say that something that happened in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus changed the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.
That dog won’t hunt. You may argue that the day of worship isn’t important, or that there are some abstruse theological reasons for choosing Sunday. But I don’t believe one can make a “thus saith the Lord” case that a change from Saturday to Sunday is demanded or even anticipated by the Bible writers. There is abundant evidence to show that that change came about after the New Testament era, in the formative years of the Christian church.
But having correctly established that Saturday is the biblical Sabbath, we Adventists take a couple of additional steps that, in my opinion, are even harder to argue for than Sunday-keeping.
First, we say that the seventh day Sabbath is the testing truth for those who are faithful to Jesus. This makes a demand that even Jesus didn’t make: he said that the Sabbath was made for the good of humankind, not humankind created to serve the Sabbath (Mark 2:27–28)—which at least shows that he didn’t think it the legal requirement for salvation. He added that he himself is the Lord of the Sabbath, which makes the Sabbath and for that matter all religious activities meaningful only when seen through the lens of the cross.
And if that weren’t enough, along comes Paul to say that salvation is granted by faith in Christ alone as demonstrated in a Christlike life, not by any abstract legal requirement.
But we Adventists then take a second step—and this one is central to our discussion here. After declaring the Sabbath the testing truth, we mount it squarely within a terrifying narrative of persecution. Among the things that we have confidently asserted is that the United States, followed quickly by the rest of the world, will outlaw the Sabbath and replace it with Sunday—laws directed precisely at us Seventh-day Adventists.
The biblical case
We should certainly, from many Bible stories, hear clearly the warning that we must defend our faith. I do not dispute that principle at all. I am asking here just one question: if all we had were the Bible, could we still come up with the precise scenario of an anti-Sabbath Sunday law that targets Seventh-day Adventists?
Two Bible passages are evoked in this regard.
Daniel 7:25 talks about a figure who “will speak against the Most High and oppress his holy people and try to change the set times and the laws.” The assumption here is that this figure is the papacy, and that these times and laws are religious observances that are being changed—specifically, Sabbath changed to Sunday. The implication is that in our day the papacy will try to enforce by law what it decreed centuries ago.
Whether the Roman Catholic church changed the day of worship as consciously and intentionally as some Roman Catholic catechists claim is in doubt. Sam Bacchiochi’s From Sabbath to Sunday shows that Sunday worship evolved in a sort of carrot-and-stick manner—the stick being a wish to be disassociated with Jews; the carrot these same Christians’ desire to fit in with the Romans whose cult of the sun God already made Sunday a special day—rather than by decree or law, religious or civil.
Yet even if this passage actually is a description of the change of the Jewish Sabbath to the popular Christian Sunday, it still doesn’t address why Saturday worship should be outlawed now, a couple of millennia later.
The other passage that we bring to bear has to do with the Mark of the Beast in Revelation 13:16-17. Again, this is a useful warning of government opposition to faith—something Christians in the Roman empire would have known well, and concerning which we should be alert, too.
Yet is that mark enforced Sunday worship? That’s not specified. A great many assumptions have to be made, including that the sign of God’s sealed people is the Sabbath, as it was in the Old Testament (Exodus 31:12-13; Ezekiel 20:12, 20), rather than the Holy Spirit, as it is in the New Testament (2 Corinthians 5:5, Ephesians 1:13).
I cannot see how either of these passages makes the case for anti-Sabbath Sunday laws unless you interpret them entirely through the writings of Ellen White.
Sola Ellen White
Let us admit, then, that the Sunday law scenario, while it isn’t prohibited by the Bible, isn’t clearly given in the Bible either. To hold that Sunday laws are inevitable can’t be defended by sola scriptura. It can only be defended by using Ellen White (in this case, her Great Controversy scenario) as Holy Writ, as though what she wrote is as fully inspired as the 66 biblios of the Holy Bible.
And we can do that if we wish to. If we adopt a hermeneutic that makes Ellen White the equivalent of the Bible, who would stop us? Many of us already regard Ellen White’s voluminous writings as a parallel Bible. Some appear to have a belief structure closer to sola Ellen than sola scriptura.
But let us not say that Sunday laws (nor, for that matter, many of the other specific events of the Adventist end-time narrative) are biblical ideas. The broad principles are found there; the specifics are not.
When we insist future events will happen in terms that are only found in The Great Controversy, we are saying that we regard The Great Controversy as an extension of the Bible. And if we choose to do that, we must ask ourselves if we wish to be Christians on those terms. Because, as we already know, turning Ellen White’s corpus into another Bible introduces a whole new set of problems.
Personally, I find most of our end-time conspiracies irrelevant and even counterproductive. They rob us of peace and assurance, and send us chasing after specific threats to our faith that may never appear precisely as we have anticipated them. I agree with my friend Reinder Bruinsma when he says,
There is an ever-deepening chasm between the reality of Sunday observance in today’s western world and the message that continues to be heard in some quarters of the Adventist Church, namely that we will soon have to face severe Sunday laws, which will force every citizen to keep Sunday and will make life extremely difficult for those who insist on keeping the seventh-day Sabbath sacred.
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.