Is the Westminster Confession’s Doctrine of the Sabbath a Judaizing Doctrine?

Does observing Sunday as the Christian Sabbath lead to a judaizing of the gospel and a denying of Christ?

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Indeed, this is a system whose Sabbath doctrine is inextricably intertwined with other central doctrines of our confessional system, such as its doctrine of the law of God. One wonders how ordained officers who embrace the position of the Minority Report could work in clear conscience within the context of a denomination and in cooperation with fellow church officers whose professed doctrine of the Sabbath would, by logical implication, make them in effect Judaizers and Christ-deniers.

 

In a day when it seems Presbyterians are drifting further and further away from the doctrines of the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms, The Confessional Presbyterian journal was founded in 2005 to provide a forum for ecumenical discussion amongst conservative Presbyterians of different denominations, wishing to defend closer adherence to these old standards of biblical Christianity. The CPJ is an annual 2 column large format publication containing a range of theological, practical and historical material, which over the last twelve issues has amounted to 3,352 pages or 3,217,348 words (see table of contents here). The 2016 twelfth issue was the first fully thematic issue (contents listed below), and the topic is a doctrine in much decay in our day, The Lord’s Day or Christian Sabbath. One of the important pieces run in v12 is Geoff Willour’s “Is the Westminster Confession’s Doctrine of the Sabbath a Judaizing Doctrine? A Critique of the First Minority Report of the OPC’s Committee on Sabbath Matters. Below is a summary.

Mr. Willour introduces his subject, noting the decay of observance of the Christian Sabbath in our day and that most of the professing church seems to view the commandment as merely ceremonial (pp. 195–196). After giving the historical background that gave rise to the Majority and Minority Reports on the Sabbath in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) in 1973, pastor Willour summarizes the contents of the second minority report:

The position of the author of the Minority Report is that the Sabbath was exclusively a ceremonial law, binding only upon God’s people living under the old covenant administration. As such, it was a “shadow” that pointed forward to, and was fulfilled in Christ and the salvation-rest He graciously provides to His believing people. Consequently, the fourth commandment is no longer binding upon believers today, who are living under the new covenant administration of fulfillment in Christ and not the old covenant administration of types and shadows. Instead of observing the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, believers today observe the Lord’s Day—Sunday, the day of the Lord’s resurrection—which the author of the Minority Report regards as the new covenant holy day, distinct and separate from the Sabbath, and thus not at all to be identified as the “Christian Sabbath,” as the Westminster Standards mistakenly teach (WCF 21.7; WLC 116 & 117; WSC 59). To require believers today to observe Sunday as if it were the “Christian Sabbath,” and as if such observance were an act of obedience to the fourth commandment, involves no less an act of Judaizing the gospel as the requiring of circumcision on the part of Gentile believers. Indeed, it is even a denial of Christ!

In the body of his argument, the author of this Report relies almost exclusively on the New Testament, especially Colossians 2:16–17 and related texts. In fact, he begins the Scriptural argumentation for his position with these words: “Colossians 2:16, 17 is the key passage for the understanding of the place of the Fourth Commandment in the Christian life” (Minutes, 40th G.A., 106; emphasis added). Conspicuously absent in his biblical argumentation for his position is any interaction with the exegesis of such key passages as offered by the authors of the Majority Report.

After giving examples of the author’s argumentation, the reverend Willour goes on to give a critique of the Minority Report under four points. 1. The Minority Report neglects to interact with either the Majority Report or the historic Westminster-confessing tradition of interpretation with respect to its exegesis of Colossians 2:16, 17 and other allegedly anti-sabbatarian Scriptural texts (197-200). 2. The position of the Minority Report is flawed in that it grounds the Sabbath ordinance in the Mosaic, old-covenant administration, rather than in creation (201). 3. The Minority Report does not give due weight to the inclusion of the Sabbath commandment within the Decalogue, the other commandments of which are clearly moral in nature (201-202). 4. The position taken and assertions employed in the Minority Report, to the effect that the observing of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath involves a judaizing of the gospel and a denying of Christ, is potentially divisive (202). The author then closes with a very brief positive note, but we shall close this summary by citing the brief explanation of the fourth point.

I would not be surprised to read such accusations against the Westminster doctrine of the Sabbath from confessional Lutherans, or dispensationalists, or other anti-sabbatarian brethren whose theological and confessional traditions stand opposed to our Sabbath doctrine. But to read a report written by a church officer in the OPC who has affirmed ordination vows which include the promise to receive and adopt the Scriptural system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards is befuddling to me. Indeed, this is a system whose Sabbath doctrine is inextricably intertwined with other central doctrines of our confessional system, such as its doctrine of the law of God. One wonders how ordained officers who embrace the position of the Minority Report could work in clear conscience within the context of a denomination and in cooperation with fellow church officers whose professed doctrine of the Sabbath would, by logical implication, make them in effect Judaizers and Christ-deniers. At the very least it would seem that a consistent adherence to the position of the Minority Report would make it difficult to cultivate a spirit of collegiality, confidence in, and mutual submission to the brethren, for how could one submit to and have confidence in fellow church officers whom one believes to be Judaizers and Christ-deniers? At its worst, the consistent embracing of the position of the Minority Report by those within the Westminster-confessing churches may have the potential effect of promoting schism. Arguably, embracing the position expressed in the Minority Report is a rejection of an important aspect of the Scriptural system of doctrine taught in the Westminster Standards, and thus poses a potential threat to the unity, purity, and peace of Westminster-confessing churches such as the OPC.

The 2016 12th issue of The Confessional Presbyterian journal is currently on sale for $20 postpaid. Sets of v2-12 currently are on sale for $140 postpaid (the 2005 v1 is out of print). The contents of volume 12 are as follows:

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