The Sabbath Command in the Natural Law Tradition
What is the nature of the Sabbath commandment? All of the Ten Commandments have been the subject of considerable controversy almost since the moment they were given to Moses, but the Sabbath has often presented particularly thorny problems. In Second Temple Judaism, debates about what precisely the commandment forbade were sufficiently common to be a subject of regular debate between Jesus of Nazareth and the Pharisees. Since then the matter has developed into considerably great complexity. After Jesus’ death and resurrection, debates emerged about whether Gentile Christians had to obey the Sabbath. Controversies about special days appeared during the ministry of the Apostle Paul more than once, and as church history progressed, many similar debates emerged. Is it right to celebrate the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week or the first? Do New Testament observers need to rest from labor as their forebearers did? Is the Lord’s Day the same as the Sabbath, and does the Sabbath commandment even apply at all under the New Covenant? These questions, and many more, have been a ceaseless site of controversy for millennia, and this is unlikely to change soon.
Despite these difficulties, the Church’s natural law tradition has developed several helpful categories for matters of this sort. Distinctions between positive law and natural law, divine law and human law, ceremonial and moral precepts, and other similar concepts offer promising tools with which to carve out the basic true shape of the Sabbath commandment from its complex history. This paper will apply these categories to the Sabbath command in its several parts: the hallowing of the day, the prohibition against labor, the one-in-seven day cycle, and the specific assignment of the seventh day in the cycle as the Sabbath, with special attention to these last two elements (these being the source of most continued controversy).
Of course, with these distinctions, as with any tools, skilled teachers are necessary, or at least quite helpful, in using them appropriately. To that end, we will also analyze the ways three Christian thinkers in the natural law tradition—Thomas Aquinas, Richard Hooker, and John Calvin—used (or did not use) these categories to explicate the meaning of the commandment enjoining the people of God to what the Heidelberg Catechism called the “festive day of rest.”
The Biblical Texts
While the Sabbath command, like many other topics in Scripture, almost innumerable texts which bear at least some relevance to their understanding, there are a few specific texts particularly important. These first include the giving of the Sabbath command itself, which occurs twice, first in Exodus 20:8-11 and again in Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Little else will be necessary to quote in full, but for these two texts it is important.
Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or your sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Keep the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, just as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your livestock, nor the foreigner that is within your gates, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Both instances of the command have most of their features in common. In both the Sabbath is an observance that the hearer must keep holy, both prohibit labour for all classes of Israelite society, and they use a nearly identical formula for the six/seventh day pattern. These are in fact the key elements that make up the “what” of the command, what is enjoins and forbids. However, the uniformity of these features makes the difference in rationale stand out starkly. This deserves a moment of attention.
The first instance of the Sabbath command explains the reason for it in terms of creation. Israel shall work for six days and rest on the seventh because this is the pattern God established in the construction of the world, and in doing this He blessed and consecrated the seventh day. In Deuteronomy, when Moses republishes the same law, the rationale is different. The emphasis is on the Exodus event so that God’s deliverance of Israel from hard labour in Egypt serves as a meaningful ground for the rest expected on the Sabbath. That Moses would articulate the same commandment under both of these rationales is itself telling about the nature of the command, in a manner which shall be explored in more detail later. For now, to note that one focuses more on creation and the other focuses more on redemption is sufficient.
A few other texts are especially relevant to the meaning of the Sabbath. Jesus famously claims in Mark 2:27 that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.” In Exodus 31:13-17, God instructs Moses to speak to Israel of the Sabbath as a sign between Him and His people, the breaking of which would constitute a breach of covenant. Finally, in Romans 14:5-6, Paul speaks of some people who view all days as alike and others who hallow certain days, and he relativizes the difference by referring each of them to their conviction of conscience before the Lord as they act in whichever way to glorify Him. This last example is an especially contested one since some take it as a reference to the many feast days and other Sabbaths but not properly the weekly Sabbath. Rather than engaging in detailed exegesis at this point, however, there shall be more benefit in analyzing the whole topic at the level of principle, at which point the possible readings of this particular example should be able to find a comfortable place if the whole analysis goes well. On that note, the next step is to survey the principles and categories by which a natural law theologian can parse the subject as a whole.
Principles and Distinctions
As the list above specified, the Sabbath command naturally lends itself to a division into four aspects: the hallowing of the day, the prohibition against labor, the one-in-seven day cycle, and the specific assignment of the seventh day in the cycle as the Sabbath. Each of these might relate to broader moral questions in one of several ways, corresponding to the different possible types of law.
Broadly speaking, the most helpful category in the whole natural law tradition is that distinguishing positive law from natural law. Positive laws require, authorize, regulate, or prohibit actions which in themselves are not necessarily morally obligatory but can serve morally significant ends. A classic example for the modern world is the speed limit. There is no intrinsic moral difference between driving 70 miles per hour or just 40, but a positive law, of no value by itself but serving in some context for the sake of an objective moral good (the preservation of human life), may require or prohibit one of these speeds.
Positive law can have several forms and purposes, and when looking at the Torah, many Christian readers (especially among the Reformed) have identified three primary meanings or underlying purposes for its laws. They can be ceremonial, symbolizing something pertinent to worship, piety, and spiritual training, judicial, representing a contextual application of punishments and rewards or various practical affairs, and moral, in which case they directly specify an application of natural law. These are not mutually exclusive, as a commandment may have multiple aspects or parts each of which relates differently to these categories.
Natural law, by contrast, pertains to that created inner rule by which creatures are to operate as designed by God. For humans specifically, who discern law by their rational faculties, the order distinctive to them is also called the “law of reason.” Law of this sort is rooted in what humans are, in their essential constitution as God gave it and as it stands in relation to both God and the rest of creation. That which most properly belongs to this law transcends time and place and applies everywhere men are men. Everything natural law in this sense teaches arises organically out of men’s physical, animate, and rational constitutions and the ends to which this nature orients the race.
That positive law is in principle changeable while natural law is not (at least as long as this world endures) is the most important difference between the two for understanding many of the commands of Torah. A positive law need not change necessarily, but it may if the lawgiver so decrees, the reasons for its institution pass away, or circumstances change so as to render the law ineffective at fulfilling its ends. Natural law, on the other hand, is entrenched in the given created order and cannot change unless that order itself transforms (as it will in some way in the eschaton).
With these distinctions established, the several parts of the Sabbath command lie ready for dissection. The command could be entirely positive, entirely natural, or mixed, and if it is mixed, each part might belong to either kind of law and to any of the available subspecies. All of the parts may share the same end or ends, or each might have its own. It remains, then, to analyze these parts with the help of the skilled legal surgeons Aquinas, Calvin, and Hooker.
A Dissection of the Sabbath
A Hallowed Day
In both instances of the Sabbath command, the first part of the command is to hallow the day. God commands the Israelites to “remember” or “keep” the Sabbath and to hallow (לקדשו) it. This is explicitly ritual or ceremonial language, also used in a variety of cultic contexts. Such language ordinarily suggests that a command has a typical (typological) function as a ceremony, and thus, under many common applications of natural law though, it would pass away with the New Covenant.
However, the picture is more complex than that. For example, Aquinas says of the hallowing of the Sabbath that it, “understood literally, is partly moral and partly ceremonial.” He goes on to say that man has “a natural inclination to set aside a certain time for each necessary thing,” which of course must include the spiritually necessary as much as the bodily. So “to have a certain time set aside for occupying oneself with Divine things is a matter of moral precept.”
Aquinas argues, then, that the command to hallow the Sabbath does itself have a moral component inasmuch as nature teaches the need to allot time to all of the needs of human life and that rendering due service to the Divine is a basic need of human life. Nonetheless, this is itself only a general point. He continues to note that, inasmuch as the commandment provides a specification of this time, it is ceremonial.
Hooker takes a somewhat similar approach. In Book V of his Laws, he says that there is “natural and necessary” cause “for which there should be a difference in days” using reasoning similar to that of Aquinas. He notes that nature even heathens to set aside regular times for public religion, and that nature itself clearly requires the sanctification of regular times to divine service.
Calvin does not explicitly invoke nature in his treatment of the Sabbath, but his remarks do belong in the context of his broader work in which the basic outline of natural and positive law described is indeed active. Like Aquinas, he mentions that the Sabbath command is a special mixed case, partially ceremonial but not entirely. He identifies three primary ends of the command, but for the moment only two are relevant. These two are the establishment of regular time to devote to religious functions and the procurement of needful rest to servants and others who need “some intermission from labour.” The first of these is familiar by now: Hooker and Aquinas both invoked it as something nature teaches. Of these two ends, Calvin says they “ought not to be classed with ancient shadows, but are adapted to every age.” Since Calvin is otherwise known to have been in agreement with the basic categories of natural law thought, it is most probable that for him to say these ends suit every age is for him to assign them a place in the law of nature.
The results with respect to the hallowing of the day, then, are fairly consistent. All three of the writers in consideration agree that the command to consecrate a day to God is partially a positive, ceremonial law and partially a specification of natural law. Though the precise activities of Sabbath day piety may have been ritual and typological, the need to set aside a devoted day, or at least some kind of regular time, for divine service is knowable from nature itself.
Do No Work
After the hallowing itself, the next, and perhaps more prominent, part of the Sabbath command is its prohibition against labour. The command requires that after six days of labour, the seventh day must be devoted to rest. No person in Israel—slave or free, native or foreign, male or female—would be allowed to work on the Sabbath. What is the significance of this prohibition, and how does it relate to the categories and ends of law available?
Aquinas does not say a great deal about rest in his coverage of the Sabbath commandment, but he does make a few useful points. He mentions as ceremonial aspects of the rest requirement in the law the way in which in represents Christ’s rest in the tomb, cessation from sin, the rest of the mind in God, and heavenly beatitude. Besides this, Aquinas mentions two possible correspondences with natural law. Since reason teaches the need to set aside time for divine matters, it follows that it is reasonable to rest from other labours in order to devote such time properly. In a minor way, he mentions almost in passing that man has a natural inclination to set aside time for everything necessary, including bodily refreshment and sleep. So nature teaches man to rest regularly and to devote time to divine service regularly, and Aquinas treats these two needs as fitting together organically.
Hooker treats of rest in a more philosophical mode, explaining that it involves the cessation of motion when labours reach their proper ends. This paints a somewhat eschatological (and thus perhaps ceremonial) picture of the purpose of the command to rest. He also, however, notes that rest from one labour can be to serve another, higher task. In the case of festival days, it is fitting that regular earthly labours throughout the week support and then yield to the higher matter of divine service, which is “most natural and fit to accompany the solemn festival duties of honour which are done to God.” Thus Hooker, like Aquinas, clearly affirms a natural link between rest and worship, though the natural purpose of rest itself is less pronounced.
Calvin perhaps has the most to say about rest. He highlighted first and foremost the theme of spiritual rest, in an especially Protestant key, far more than Aquinas or Hooker. Indeed, for Calvin, teaching rest from human efforts in favor of God’s work, spiritual rest, holds “primary place in the Sabbath.” This, of course, is a purely symbolic and pedagogical function which terminates in the work of Christ. Most strikingly, though, is Calvin’s emphasis on the dimension of human rest from servile labour. As the citation above said, Calvin considered the giving of rest from servile labour one of the universal ends of the Sabbath commandment. This seems to come from the basic human need to rest regularly, rather than persist in perpetual labour. Presumably, then, this is to be understood as a law of nature.
The picture for the rest aspect of the Sabbath command, then, is slightly more complex than the previous part. All of the authors seemed to see a natural correspondence of rest and worship, as temporal labours seem fittingly to go on hold for time allotted to divine service. Both Aquinas and Calvin highlighted the ceremonial figuration of spiritual rest in the commandment which has already been brought to its conclusion in Christ. Calvin more than the others also gave special note to the simple gift of physical rest to servants and all those under authority in way which implied it to be a natural law. Fortunately, none of these insights contradict. A synthesis might say that the Sabbath command was given with a typical purpose to train in spiritual rest, which has been terminated in Christ, and an ongoing moral significance arising from the natural need for rest, the natural need to devote time to divine matters, and the natural association between the fulfillment of these two needs. These theses all tie neatly into the way the rest of the Scriptures use the Sabbath motif, as other references often associate it with divine redemption, freedom for slaves, deliverance from debt, and the coming of justice. All of these link into the concept of rest, both in the spiritual sense that they point to Christ’s salvation and in the temporal sense that they offer mercy and indulgence to weary men labouring under the sun. In this way it is true to say that the Sabbath was made for man, for it is primarily for human need that God enjoins rest on His people in Sabbath.
One Day in Seven
In the midst of the command to abstain from work on the Sabbath, God gave a timeline defining Sabbath observance. Six days were for labour, and the seventh day was the Sabbath. Is this perpetually binding? Does the one-in-seven day pattern belong to natural law or positive law, and if positive, is it one of the many ceremonial aspects that passed away after Christ? This, it turns out, is not entirely straightforward.
First, Aquinas does not make an explicit statement on whether the weekly cycle is an actual part of the natural law in operation in the Sabbath command. He does, however, make two statements which might be relevant to the question. First, when speaking of the universal nature of the precepts of the Decalogue in general and how this applies to the Sabbath, he explains that the Sabbath command corresponds to the requirement from nature that men worship God inwardly by enjoining to it an external aspect as well. This external application uses “a universal boon that concerns all. This universal boon was the work of the Creation of the world, from which work God is stated to have rested on the seventh day.” The grounds the weekly Sabbath cycle in the history of creation as recorded in Genesis, and since the whole world was created in this way, it bears relevance to the whole world. However, he also states that the precept is ceremonial insofar as it specializes the time as a sign of creation, implying that the seven day pattern probably is indeed a temporary and changeable part of the command.
Hooker is a bit more ambiguous. He poses the question as to whether observed days in the Church are a matter of divine law or human institution, to which he provides a multifaceted answer. He notes, as mentioned earlier, that nature teaches the need for regular observance of religious days, and the he breaks them down into three kinds: those which God instituted strictly and permanently, those which God instituted just as strictly but temporarily, and those which the Church voluntarily specifies. This last category he applies to the many feast and festival days of the Church, the second he applies to the many feast and festival days of Israel under Torah, and the first he applies exclusively to the Sabbath. The Sabbath day is thus for Hooker a perpetual institution, but he does qualify this: “The moral law itself requires a seventh part of time throughout the age of the whole world to be spent in service of God.” Unfortunately, it is not strictly clear in what sense Hooker refers to the moral law here. Usually this would refer to natural law, but the context and wording would also support an interpretation in terms of a perpetual positive law.
Calvin is perhaps the most clear on this point. He discusses the seven day cycle almost exclusively in terms of its typical signification. Later, he lumps Sabbath observance with the broader category relativized in Paul of the “observance of days,” which implies that he understands any day in any sequence of seven to be those “all alike.” Most tellingly, he uses strong language about the Church’s role in the transition from the Sabbath to the Lord’s Day. He says that in many of Paul’s church plants the Sabbath was “retained,” as though voluntarily. Most striking is this sentence:
It being expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished; and as a thing necessary to retain decency, orders and peace, in the Church, another day was appointed for that purpose.
Shortly afterwards he mentions not clinging to the number seven “as to bring the Church under bondage to it.” Instead, he insists that whatever the churches do should simply be for the observance of discipline and order with guard against superstition. To Calvin, then, the seven day cycle seems to have been purely ceremonial, so that any specification of a specific day for religious functions is entirely up to the discretion of the Church.
On this point, then, is greater diversity than on the previous two. Aquinas assigns the creation pattern in the temporal specification to ceremonial law, but he does not go into much detail besides this on the status of the seven day requirement. Hooker explicitly assigns the seventh portion of the week permanent moral value but does not clearly explain whether this is by a perpetual divine positive law or is in some sense natural. Calvin, by contrast, seems to strongly and explicitly reject any permanent role for the seven day pattern except as it proves useful to the churches in their various situations.
Given the lack of clarity afforded by these teachers on this point, it may be worth briefly investigating whether it may be possible to synthesize them, or at least some of their insights, in some way. The most probable way to do with would be to demonstrate a ground for the seven day cycle in nature. If it were the case that human nature has an intrinsic disposition to a seven day pattern, this would allow for at least the permanent utility or fittingness of a one-in-seven Sabbath while still perhaps leaving open the possibility of this being less that strictly required so that the Church has discretion on the point, something of a middle ground between the views of Hooker and Calvin. Is this feasible?
This is a rare situation in which the discoveries of modern science may perhaps shed light on an aspect of human nature which would not have been quite obvious in the past. Several studies in human biology have demonstrated that the human body does operate on some level in seven day patterns. Sometimes called “circaseptan rhythms” or “circaseptan bioperiodicty,” these have not always been given sufficient recognition but have seen published results. Some of them even specifically find reason to suspect a circaseptan cycle in the body’s need for rest and repair. Research in this area is admittedly not extensive, and much more work would need to be done to demonstrate anything conclusively, but for now the suggestion that perhaps a seven day pattern is woven into human nature offers a possible way to better understand this particular aspect of the Sabbath command.
The Seventh Day
Last among the parts of the Sabbath law to consider is the specific assignment of the Sabbath to the seventh day of the week. Some of this will overlap with the preceding section, but the questions are in fact distinct. Perhaps this distinction would not have become a subject at all except for the peculiar fact that Sabbath observance in church history was seemingly transferred straightforwardly from the last day of the week to the first in the form of the Lord’s Day. The legitimacy of this move is the primary issue at hand.
In Aquinas’s discussion of the Sabbath commandment, he states that in the New Law the Lord’s Day replaced the Sabbath. However, he is quick to clarify that this is not a matter of precept but rather comes by Church institution and Christian custom. This is different from the Sabbath especially in not being figurative and thus also being less strict. Given that Aquinas also seemed to make the seven day pattern itself a changeable matter of ceremony, it seems clear he considered this a matter of positive law which the Church is free to modify, at least in principle.
Hooker, though insistent on preserving the one-in-seven pattern, is clear that the day for observing the Sabbath has in some sense been changed to honor the new creation of Christ. He says little in any way detailing or justifying the change, however, so the only route to his meaning is by inference from his other claims. It would seem that he regarded the specification of the exact day to be a matter of divine positive law, which God Himself changed from the seventh under the Old Covenant to the first in the New. This seems slightly out of step with much of the way Hooker elsewhere deploys natural law and positive law, though, so the whole matter remains slightly ambiguous.
Calvin, here as with the last point, is very clear and takes a strong stance. To have any specific day of the week mandated was a ceremonial aspect of the Old Testament. When it was “expedient to overthrow superstition, the Jewish holy day was abolished.” The Church established the Lord’s Day in its place for the sake of order and discipline, since it is still necessary (naturally, as was seen earlier) that some regular times be devoted to religious services and rest from labour. This seems further to be in principle changeable indefinitely, so that churches around the world are free according to their circumstances to employ whatever days seem useful for discipline and order so long as they avoid superstition.
On this final point, then, there is minor disagreement. All three teachers agree that the Sabbath has been in some sense replaced by the Lord’s Day, and thus the day of Sabbath observance was certainly a matter of changeable positive law. Hooker, however, stands out from Aquinas and Calvin in that they both saw this reassignment as permitted by the temporary ceremonial character of the seventh day specification, so that the Church was free to respecify its own day, but Hooker seems to have taken the day in both cases as a matter of exclusively divine positive law which God reassigned on His own judgment. In all of these cases the current Lord’s Day is hypothetically changeable just as the seventh day Sabbath was, but for Hooker it seems this would require divine command, whereas Aquinas and Calvin leave this in the discretion of the Church.
From this survey of the Sabbath commandment, a strong working hypothesis begins to emerge. (There are also, of course, innumerable further angles and lines of inquiry from which the Sabbath command might be better understood, especially from a biblical-theological perspective, but the scope here is much more narrow.) What follows is a short account of the command’s parts and their relations to different types of law. It will not agree precisely with any of the three guides through this material, it takes a great deal of inspiration from each of them.
The Sabbath command, to repeat, has four primary parts: the hallowing of a day, the prohibition on labour, the seven day cycle, and the precise specification of the seventh day as the one to which the consecration and rest apply. By now it is clear that the consecration of a day itself is a mixed command. That humans need to set aside time to rest and time to worship and that these two fit together perfectly is a matter of natural law, woven into human being as such and knowable from nature. The specific forms of divine service and details of rest were themselves ceremonial and typological, so that they do not bind as such now that Christ has come. Rest is still needful, both because it frees up time for worship and because it blessed and benefits people weary from their week of labour, but there are no precise rules remaining on what may or may not be done.
The seven day cycle in the Sabbath has not the clearest nature, but, tentatively, it should be understood as a positive ceremonial precept corresponding quite fittingly to a pattern present in human nature. Preserving this may not be strictly necessary but seems proper and prudent. Finally, the precise specification of the seventh day as the Sabbath was certainly a matter of changeable positive law. Whether the replacement in the Lord’s Day is more correctly a human or divine institution is less than perfectly clear, but it seems more likely that it is indeed a human arrangement of the Church for order. This does not mean that the Lord’s Day necessarily should ever be changed, but churches in unique situations need not be wary or superstitious if circumstances encourage them to appoint a different day more suitable to their needs.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this survey would be to explain the Sabbath commandment in the form of a catechismal pair. What does God require in the fourth commandment? God requires that His people together set aside time to rest from their labours and gather as one to publicly serve and enjoy Him, their true end and desire, until the rest they have in Christ is manifested to the world at His return.
- Exodus 20:8-11 MEV. ↩︎
- Deuteronomy 5:12-15. ↩︎
- This outline of the kinds of law is in substance common to the views of countless natural law theorists, but the closest influence is definitely Hooker. ↩︎
- This distinction is not, of course, entirely unique to the natural law tradition, but it certainly finds the most welcome (and arguably the most comprehensive and systematic development) here. ↩︎
- Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans Fathers of the English Dominican Province. (New Advent, 2008), https://www.newadvent.org/summa/3122.htm, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Richard Hooker, “Richard Hooker on Festival Days,” trans W. Bradford Littlejohn from Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie, Book V, chapter 29, (The Davenant Institute: 2020), https://davenantinstitute.org/hooker-on-festival-days/. ↩︎
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes/institutes.iv.ix.html, Book 2. Chapter 8. ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Aquinas, Summa, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
- TBD ↩︎
- Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, §29. ↩︎
- Ibid, §34. ↩︎
- Aquinas, Summa, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
- TBD ↩︎
- Ibid. ↩︎
- Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, §28-29. ↩︎
- Ibid, §33. ↩︎
- Ibid, §34. ↩︎
- See, for example, F. Levi F. and F. Halberg, “Circaseptan (about-7-day) bioperiodicity–spontaneous and reactive–and the search for pacemakers,” La Ricerca in clinica e in laboratorio vol. 12, 2 (1982), 323-70, doi:10.1007/BF02909422. ↩︎
- Alain E. Reinberg, Laurence Dejardin, Michael H. Smolensky & Yvan Touitou, “Seven-day human biological rhythms: An expedition in search of their origin, synchronization, functional advantage, adaptive value and clinical relevance,” Chronobiology International, 34:2 (2017), 162-191, doi:10.1080/07420528.2016.1236807. ↩︎
- Aquinas, Summa, II-II Q122 A5. ↩︎
- TBD. ↩︎
- Calvin, Institutes, Book 2, Chapter 8, §33. ↩︎