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The Bursting of Boundaries.

 A review of Encountering the Rest of God: How Jesus Came to Personify the Sabbath, by Henry Sturcke, Theologischer Verlag Zurich, 2005.

 

Read an interview with the author here

 

Henry Sturcke's Rest of God sets out to explore "the rapid disappearance of the Sabbath as a Christian worship practice", and stands alongside the earlier work of Bacchiocchi (From Sabbath to Sunday) and Carson (From Sabbath to Lord's Day) as a major contribution to the "Sabbath question". Its appearance is of particular note for those within the Church of God tradition: the author comes from within this community.

I was exposed to the polemical, persuasive teaching of a fundamentalist, apocalyptic Christian group, the Worldwide Church of God. A core belief involved the command to remember the Sabbath day... I studied at their college, accepted ordination and served in the ministry of the church for over twenty years... The priceless opportunity to write a dissertation offered me the chance to slowly and painstakingly reexamine the question. (Preface)

Rest of God is published under the Swiss theological imprint TVZ. Being published outside the United States by a company specializing in theological texts, it is likely to have a restricted profile in the general Christian marketplace, and probably less impact than it deserves. It isn't, for example, available on Amazon (although it can be ordered through the German Amazon site), and won't feature prominently on the shelves of too many Christian bookstores. Currently it is only available in the US through Eisenbrauns.

The importance of this study is not in doubt, but some preliminary cautions are in order for readers who may not have previously encountered the kind of detailed exegesis Henry Sturcke engages in. This is not a "popular" treatment, but a doctoral dissertation written in a style that makes demands of a general reader well beyond those they may be familiar with in church literature. Not everyone will be comfortable with recurring citations from the Greek text of the New Testament (though not essential, some familiarity with the Greek is a definite advantage in following the discussion), or an occasional untranslated quotation from a German source. On at least one occasion both occur together (p.278). This is standard in studies at this level, but may pose substantial barriers to non-specialists. 

Beyond this, those with shared roots in the Worldwide Church of God may find Sturcke's affirmative use of contemporary historical-critical scholarship unfamiliar and discomforting. The author is well aware of a range of significant issues that are well beyond the horizon of most ministers in the Church of God, to say nothing of lay members. This is a real strength, but also highlights the lack of theological expertise in the Church of God community, where teaching about the Sabbath is usually pure polemic, with little interest or competence shown in tackling the issues at anything but superficial depth. An obvious example occurred in the late 1970s when Garner Ted Armstrong, newly separated from his father's church, visited the Church of God (Seventh Day) headquarters in Denver. Speaking there as a guest preacher he mentioned, as part of the pleasantries, his tour of the Bible Advocate Press where he had been presented with "a very fine book" on the Sabbath (Bacchiocchi's). He was obviously unfamiliar with it (unlike his hosts) and his subsequent preaching record on this subject indicates that he never did bother to dust it off and read it; a remarkable oversight by a high-profile Sabbatarian apologist.

Sturcke claims to offer a more finely nuanced argument than some who have gone this way before. (There was little doubt, for example, about the inevitable direction Bacchiocchi's 1977 treatise would take, although the journey he took readers on still held a few surprises.)  He seems to have achieved this; he deals with the selected texts in great detail and the reader must persevere to uncover his conclusions. This is a mark of good methodology, but not so likely to appeal to the casual reader who may be less interested in meticulously weighted arguments than having a particular position confirmed (or disconfirmed).

After setting the scene with an overview of the work of earlier scholars (particularly Rordorf and Bacchiocchi) and a review of the significance of the Sabbath in the Old Testament and Intertestamental periods, Sturcke examines a series of New Testament texts that bear directly on the issue under investigation: Galatians 4, the Grain field pericopes in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 2, Matthew 12, Luke 6), the Sabbath healing controversies in John, and a passage from Hebrews (4:9). He then focuses on what can be learned from the way the Sabbath is presented in the Epistle of Barnabas (one of the early "Apostolic Fathers") and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas

The section on Galatians 4: 8-11 alone extends over 58 pages. The conclusion reached is that the Galatians are not returning to their previous pagan observances, but, under the influence of a competing Gentile mission, are beginning to observe the days mandated in the Old Testament, and that Paul is drawing a parallel between their previous polytheistic practices and those (equally objectionable) customs they were now beginning to adopt, grounded in the Torah.

As it stands, Rest of God pushes the lay reader well up the learning curve at a very steep gradient. It would be valuable at some future point to produce a more accessible version of this significant study, one that reaches out to a much wider audience. Fortunately the conclusion of the book (chapter 7) presents a readable reprise of the investigation, and this might provide a starting point. In the conclusion Sturcke writes:

The most important general result of this investigation has been the discovery that while on the one hand there was diversity of practice with regard to a seventh-day Sabbath in the early Christian community, the subject had, for most strands of Christianity, lost importance when compared to the role that the Sabbath played in Second Temple Judaism... as a result of the intensive Christological focus of the community. (p.333)

The author then attempts a brief historical reconstruction to account for the rapid disappearance of Sabbatarian worship from the Christian community.

The Sabbath was not rejected in order to form a new identity. The new identity had already been formed by faith in Christ. This led both to a loss of importance of the Sabbath, as well as to its reinterpretation... (p.338)

The study ends with some straight talking:

The results of this investigation have demonstrated that the Sabbatarian position can only be maintained by faulty exegesis and historical ignorance... the Sabbatarian claim must be firmly and decidedly rejected and resisted. The claim that only those who worship on the seventh-day Sabbath are faithful to the biblical pattern is both mistaken and sectarian - a lamentable mixture. (p.343-344)

It should be noted that Sturcke also forcefully rejects the concept of Sunday Sabbatarianism, the idea that the institution along with its obligations has simply been transferred from the seventh day to the first.

The consecration of all of life means that not only the Sabbath, but any time is a time for God, and the believer, to be active in overcoming the forces of darkness. (p.345)

The early Christian movement was characterized by the bursting of boundaries... The boundary between sacred and profane time was transcended. (p.346)

While the line of argument Sturcke advances contains new elements, the general thesis has a long pedigree. According to the classification system proposed by Willard Swartley (Slavery Sabbath War & Women) Rest of God fits in with what he terms the Lord's Day position (as against the Sabbath position of Adventists, or the Sabbath-Sunday position of the Puritans). The eight emphases that characterize this position, as outlined by Swartley (p.79), are all compatible with Sturcke's presentation, but especially the sixth and eighth:

6. Though Jewish Christians continued to observe the Sabbath, Christian theology, as it developed in the context of the Gentile mission, held Sabbath-keeping to be unnecessary... Jesus, the substance to whom the shadow pointed, has made all days holy.

8. Only in later church history... did Sabbath observance get connected to the Lord's day, producing Sabbath-Sunday observance.

Rest of God will be an invaluable addition to the library of anyone seeking an authoritative, comprehensive treatment of the scriptural issues surrounding the marginalization of Christian Sabbath observance. Those Sabbatarian Christians who require their religious underpinnings to rest on reinforced concrete, however, should probably steer clear. Sturcke may well irritate, frustrate and aggravate whatever prior understandings they bring to the Sabbath issue. This study is a long way removed from the "proof" literature most of us are familiar with.

For those with a more dynamic and flexible approach to the scriptures and doctrine, happy to launch out on the waters and tack into the wind, this will be an opportunity to discover new depths to an old question. Even if you finally disagree with Henry Sturcke, you'll find much here to reflect on and to broaden your understanding of both the Sabbath and the earliest years of Christianity. It seems likely that this book will set the agenda for serious discussion of the Sabbath for some time.

G Rumney