The Complete Testimony of the Fathers of the First Three Centuries Concerning the Sabbath and First Day


Chapter 1

Introductory Statement

WITH respect to the Sabbath, the religious world may be divided into three classes:- TFTC 5.1

1. Those who retain the ancient seventh-day Sabbath. TFTC 5.2

2. Those who observe the first-day Sabbath. TFTC 5.3

3. Those who deny the existence of any Sabbath. 1 TFTC 5.4

It is inevitable that controversy should exist between these parties. Their first appeal is to the Bible, and this should decide the case; for it reveals man’s whole duty. But there is an appeal by the second party, and sometimes by the third, to another authority, the early fathers of the church, for the decision of the question. TFTC 5.5

The controversy stands thus: The second and third parties agree with the first that God did anciently require the observance of the seventh day; but both deny the doctrine of the first, that he still requires men to hallow that day; the second asserting that he has changed the Sabbath to the first day of the week; and the third declaring that he has totally abolished the institution itself. TFTC 5.6

The first class plant themselves upon the plain letter of the law of God, and adduce those scriptures which teach the perpetuity and immutability of the moral law, and which show that the new covenant does not abrogate that law, but puts it into the heart of every Christian. TFTC 6.1

The second class attempt to prove the change of the Sabbath by quoting those texts which mention the first day of the week, and also those which are said to refer to it. The first day is, on such authority, called by this party the Christian Sabbath, and the fourth commandment is used by them to enforce this new Sabbath. TFTC 6.2

The third class adduce those texts which assert the dissolution of the old covenant; and those which teach the abolition of the ceremonial law with all its distinction of days, as new moons, feast days, and annual sabbaths; and also those texts which declare that men cannot be justified by that law which condemns sin; and from all these contend that the law and the Sabbath are both abolished. TFTC 6.3

But the first class answer to the second that the texts which they bring forward do not meet the case, inasmuch as they say nothing respecting the change of the Sabbath; and that it is not honest to use the fourth commandment to enforce the observance of a day not therein commanded. And the third class assent to this answer as truthful and just. TFTC 6.4

To the position of the third class, the first make this answer: That the old covenant was made between God and his people concerning his law; 1 that it ceased because the people failed in its conditions, the keeping of the commandments; that the new covenant does not abrogate the law of God, but secures obedience to it by putting it into the heart of every Christian; that there are two systems of law, one being made up of typical and ceremonial precepts, and the other consisting of moral principles only; that those texts which speak of the abrogation of the handwriting of ordinances and of the distinction in meats, drinks, and days, pertain alone to this shadowy system, and never to the moral law which contains the Sabbath of the Lord; and that it is not the fault of the law, but of sinners, that they are condemned by it; and that justification being attained only by the sacrifice of Christ as a sin-offering, is in itself a most powerful attestation to the perpetuity, immutability, and perfection, of that law which reveals sin. And to this answer the second class heartily assent. TFTC 6.5

But the second class have something further to say. The Bible, indeed, fails to assert the change of the Sabbath, but these persons have something else to offer, in their estimation, equally as good as the Scriptures. The early fathers of the church, who conversed with the apostles, or who conversed with some who had conversed with them, and those who followed for several generations, are by this class presented as authority, and their testimony is used to establish the so-called Christian Sabbath on a firm basis. And this is what they assert respecting the fathers: That they distinctly teach the change of the Sabbath from the seventh to the first day of the week, and that the first day is by divine authority the Christian Sabbath. TFTC 7.1

But the third class squarely deny this statement, and affirm that the fathers held the Sabbath as an institution made for the Jews when they came out of Egypt, and that Christ abolished it at his death. They also assert that the fathers held the first day, not as a Sabbath in which men must not labor lest they break a divine precept, but as an ecclesiastical institution, which they called the Lord’s day, and which was the proper day for religious assemblies because custom and tradition thus concurred. And so the third class answer the second by an explicit denial of its alleged facts. They also aim a blow at the first by the assertion, that the early fathers taught the no-Sabbath doctrine, which must therefore be acknowledged as the real doctrine of the New Testament. TFTC 8.1

And now the first class respond to these conflicting statements of the second and the third. And here is its response:- TFTC 8.2

1. That our duty respecting the Sabbath, and respecting every other thing, can be learned only from the Scriptures. TFTC 8.3

2. That the first three hundred years after the apostles, nearly accomplished the complete development of the great apostasy, which had commenced even in Paul’s time; and this age of apostatizing cannot be good authority for making changes in the law of God. TFTC 8.4

3. That only a small proportion of the ministers and teachers of this period have transmitted any writings to our time; and these are generally fragments of the original works, and they have come down to us mainly through the hands of the Romanists, who have never scrupled to destroy, or to corrupt, that which witnesses against themselves, whenever it has been in their power to do it. TFTC 8.5

4. But, inasmuch as these two classes, viz., those who maintain the first-day Sabbath, and those who deny the existence of any Sabbath, both appeal to these fathers for testimony with which to sustain themselves, and to put down the first class, viz., those who hallow the ancient Sabbath, it becomes necessary that the exact truth respecting the writings of that age, which now exist, should be shown. There is but one method of doing this which will effectually end the controversy. This is to give every one of their testimonies concerning the Sabbath and first-day in their own words. In doing this the following facts will appear:- TFTC 9.1

1. That in some important particulars there is a marked disagreement on this subject among them. For while some teach that the Sabbath originated at creation and should be hallowed even now, others assert that it began with the fall of the manna, and ended with the death of Christ. And while one class represent Christ as a violator of the Sabbath, another class represent him as sacredly hallowing it, and a third class declare that he certainly did violate it, and that he certainly never did, but always observed it! Some of them also affirm that the Sabbath was abolished, and in other places positively affirm that it is perpetuated and made more sacred than it formerly was. Moreover some assert that the ten commandments are absolutely abolished, whilst others declare that they are perpetuated, and are the tests of Christian character in this dispensation. Some call the day of Christ’s resurrection the first day of the week; others call it the day of the sun, and the eighth day; and a larger number call it the Lord’s day, but there are no examples of this application till the close of the second century. Some enjoin the observance of both the Sabbath and the first day, while others treat the seventh day as despicable. TFTC 9.2

2. But in several things of great importance there is perfect unity of sentiment. They always distinguish between the Sabbath and the first day of the week. The change of the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first is never mentioned in a single instance. They never term the first day the Christian Sabbath, nor do they treat it as a Sabbath of any kind. Nor is there a single declaration in any of them that labor on the first day of the week is sinful; the utmost that can be found being one or two vague expressions which do not necessarily have any such sense. TFTC 10.1

3. Many of the fathers call the first day of the week the Lord’s day. But none of them claim for it any Scriptural authority, and some expressly state that it has none whatever, but rests solely upon custom and tradition. TFTC 10.2

4. But the writings of the fathers furnish positive proof that the Sabbath was observed in the Christian church down to the time when they wrote, and by no inconsiderable part of that body. For some of them expressly enjoin its observance, and even some of those who held that it was abolished speak of Christians who observed it, whom they would consent to fellowship if they would not make it a test. TFTC 10.3

5. And now mark the work of apostasy: This work never begins by thrusting out God’s institutions, but always by bringing in those of men and at first only asking that they may be tolerated, while yet the ones ordained of God are sacredly observed. This, in time, being effected, the next effort is to make them equal with the divine. When this has been accomplished, the third stage of the process is to honor them above those divinely commanded; and this is speedily succeeded by the fourth, in which the divine institution is thrust out with contempt, and the whole ground given to its human rival. TFTC 11.1

6. Before the first three centuries had expired, apostasy concerning the Sabbath had, with many of the fathers, advanced to the third stage, and with a considerable number had already entered upon the fourth. For those fathers who hallow the Sabbath do generally associate with it the festival called by them the Lord’s day. And though they speak of the Sabbath as a divine institution, and never speak thus of the so-called Lord’s day, they do, nevertheless, give the greater honor to this human festival. So far had the apostasy progressed before the end of the third century, that only one thing more was needed to accomplish the work as far as the Sabbath was concerned, and this was to discard it, and to honor the Sunday festival alone. Some of the fathers had already gone thus far; and the work became general within five centuries after Christ. TFTC 11.2

7. The modern church historians make very conflicting statements respecting the Sabbath during the first centuries. Some pass over it almost in silence, or indicate that it was, at most, observed only by Jewish Christians. Others, however, testify to its general observance by the Gentile Christians; yet some of these assert that the Sabbath was observed as a matter of expediency and not of moral obligation, because those who kept it did not believe the commandments were binding. (This is a great error, as will appear in due time.) What is said, however, by these modern historians is comparatively unimportant inasmuch as their sources of information were of necessity the very writings which are about to be quoted. TFTC 11.3

8. In the following pages will be found in their own words, every statement 1 which the fathers of the first three centuries make by way of defining their views of the Sabbath and first-day. And even when they merely allude to either day in giving their views of other subjects, the nature of the allusion is stated, and, where practicable, the sentence or phrase containing it is quoted. The different writings are cited in the order in which they purport to have been written. A considerable number were not written by the persons to whom they were ascribed, but at a later date. As these have been largely quoted by first-day writers, they are here given in full. And even these writings possess a certain historical value. For though not written by the ones whose names they bear, they are known to have been in existence from the second or third century, and they give some idea of the views which then prevailed. TFTC 12.1

First of all let us hear the so-called Apostolical Constitutions. These were not the work of the apostles, but they were in existence as early as the third century, and were then very generally believed to express the doctrine of the apostles. They do therefore furnish important historical testimony to the practice of the church at that time. Mosheim in his Historical Commentaries, sect.51, speaks thus of these Constitutions:- TFTC 12.2

“The matter of this work is unquestionably ancient; since the manners and discipline of which it exhibits a view are those which prevailed amongst the Christians of the second and third centuries, especially those resident in Greece and the oriental regions.” TFTC 13.1

Of the Apostolical Constitutions, Guericke’s Church History speaks thus:- TFTC 13.2

“This is a collection of ecclesiastical statutes purporting to be the work of the apostolic age, but in reality formed gradually in the second, third, and fourth centuries, and is of much value in reference to the history of polity, and Christian archaeology generally.” - Ancient Church, p. 212. TFTC 13.3