“Know the history of the church!” was an oft-repeated phrase throughout my seminary training. Officebearers and the people of God in the pew must know church history. We are not so arrogant as to cast aside this history and start anew every generation in our study of doctrine. When we wrestle with different issues, we must ask: “Has the church dealt with these matters in the past?” Specifically, this is a question we ask regarding the subject of the Sabbath, a subject that generates a fair amount of questions and debate. We Reformed people are perhaps most familiar with instruction on the Sabbath in the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the fourth commandment. What we might not realize is that the Synod of Dordt also had something to say on the Sabbath—a frequently overlooked gem in history, but one we intend briefly to examine.
The Synod of Dordt is most well-known for its formulation of five heads of doctrine to refute the errors of the Arminians. But the Synod involved itself in other important areas as well. After the international delegates from various countries departed, the Dutch delegates deliberated upon a variety of matters in what is called the Post-Acta (post-Acts). It was during this period that the delegates faced the Sabbath question: what relationship does the Old Testament Sabbath have to the Lord’s Day of the New Testament, and what does this mean for the observance of the day?1
The Sabbath debate at Dordt arose out of a concern some delegates had about Sabbath desecration in the town of Dordrecht. Discussion on the Sabbath issue spanned multiple sessions of Synod in the Spring of 1619. On May 17, 1619, at session 164, the Synod appealed to the States General to make laws against the growing profanation of the Sabbath. This action led to “a question concerning the necessity of observing the day of the Lord,” a question that was real and pressing in the province of Zeeland. The Synod responded to this question by forming a committee to write up general rules on the Sabbath issue. Appointed to this committee were Johannes Polyander of Leiden, Franciscus Gomarus of Groningen, Anthonius Thysius of Har- derwyk, and Antonius Walaeus of Middleburg, all of whom were theological professors. The professors were to arrange a private conference with the Zeeland delegates to discuss the Sabbath question and write up general rules on the issue. Finally, on May 17, at the 164th session, the Synod adopted the “rules on the observance of the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day” (or: Dordt’s regulae).2
These “rules on the observance of the Sabbath, or Lord’s Day” adopted by the Synod of Dordt are as follows:
- There is in the fourth commandment of the divine law a ceremonial and a moral element.
- The ceremonial element is the rest of the seventh day after creation, and the strict observance of that day imposed especially on the Jewish people.
- The moral element consists in the fact that a certain definite day is set aside for worship and so much rest as is needful for worship and hallowed meditation.
- The Sabbath of the Jews having been abolished, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians.
- Since the times of the apostles this day has always been observed by the old catholic church.
- This day must be so consecrated to worship that on that day we rest from all servile works, except those which charity and present necessity require; and also from all such recreations as interfere with worship.3
An explanation of these six points is in order. The first rule refers to a “ceremonial” element and “moral” element in the fourth commandment. The fourth commandment (Ex. 20:8-11) reads:
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
By a “ceremonial” element in the fourth commandment, Dordt meant that there was an aspect of the commandment that belonged to the ceremonies of the Old Testament and that passed away. By a “moral” element in the fourth commandment, the Synod identified the element that yet abides in the New Testament.
The second rule locates the ceremonial element in the fourth commandment: rest on the seventh day (Saturday) and its strict observance imposed on the Jewish people.
The third rule states what the moral element in the fourth commandment is: a definite day to be set aside for worship and rest. Which day of the week this is, we are not yet told in this third rule. But Dordt grasped the heart of the fourth commandment: worship and rest, and that on a definite day.
The fourth rule follows logically from rules one to three. The day the Sabbath is observed has been changed from the “Sabbath of the Jews” (the seventh day, Saturday) in the Old Testament, to “the day of the Lord” (the first day, Sunday) in the New Testament. Now, in the New Testament, the day of the Lord must be solemnly hallowed by Christians. Sunday is the New Testament Sabbath.
The fifth rule has its eye on the observance of the Lord’s Day by the church in her history. This day, the first day of the week, was observed during the time of the apostles. Although the Synod supplied no scriptural
proof in the rule itself, one such passage is Acts 20:6, 7: “And we sailed away from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came unto them to Troas in five days; where we abode seven days. And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight.” These verses describe an official worship service on the first day of the week. Furthermore, Sunday was observed as the New Testament Sabbath after the time of the apostles, which is the repeated testimony of the early church fathers.
The sixth rule gives some practical points on the observance of this first day. Servile works and recreations that interfere with worship are forbidden—from such servile work and recreation there is to be rest. Works that “charity and present necessity require” are the only exception to this prohibition of ordinary labor.
The requirement is that the day be consecrated to worship; it is here that the Synod revisits the heart of the fourth commandment: worship. It ought not to be that recreation fills the day, for that would interfere with such worship.
First, these rules on the Sabbath are balanced. The Synod did not slide into the ditch on one side of the road, maintaining the seventh day Sabbath yet in the New Testament. Neither did the delegates fall into the ditch on the other side of the road, saying that the fourth commandment is purely ceremonial and has very little, if any, application to the New Testament Christian. Instead, Dordt recognized the fourth commandment as belonging to the moral law, while locating the ceremonial element in the commandment. To fall into one of those two ditches has not been uncommon in the church’s history, which is why we can be thankful for Dordt’s carefulness and clarity in this area.
Second, there is much wisdom in Dordt’s regulae, particularly rule six. When it comes to practical points on the observance of the Lord’s Day, rule six does not present a long list of “do’s and don’ts.” Dordt was not interested in answering the question, “May we do this on Sunday? May we do that on Sunday?” Instead, the sixth point is both brief and profound, centering on worship on Sunday. Dordt steers us away from making long lists and asking such questions, and instead teaches us to ask this question concerning the Lord’s Day: “How can this day, the whole day, be a day of worship to the God of our salvation?” Such is the wise viewpoint of Dordt.
Third, these six statements represent (although not exclusively) the historic position of Reformed churches on the Sabbath question. For this reason alone, these rules are of value to the Reformed believer. The Christian Reformed Church, our mother church, considered the regulae to be the historic position on the Sabbath for Reformed churches. The Christian Reformed Church Synod adopted these six formulations in 1881, and reaffirmed them in 1926 in the context of controversy over a minister’s sermon.4 Van Dellen and Monsma comment,
These six points were adopted by our own Synod of 1881. And according to our Synod of 1926…they must be considered doctrinal in their nature and hence binding and also in full accord with the fundamental principles expressed in Lord’s Day 38 of the Catechism, to the effect that the fourth commandment also applies to the New Testament Church in its observance of the day of rest and worship. Synod also declared that these six points are an official interpretation of our confession and not an addition to our Forms of Unity.5
That these six rules are the historically Reformed position on the Sabbath ought to be a wake-up call to those Reformed churches that have neglected to preach on Sabbath observance, and to those in the pew who view Sunday as another day for their work and pleasure. These rules set down by Dordt are a sharp reminder for us, too. We know what God requires in the fourth commandment. Our ministers preach on the fourth commandment. But what is the Lord’s Day like on a practical level for us? Dordt was concerned that recreation not interfere with worship. But do we switch this around, having a concern that worship not interfere with recreation? Dordt’s position on the Sabbath is as relevant today as it was in the past.
Study these six formulations of Dordt for yourself. Perhaps you can spend next Sunday afternoon discussing them with your family. And then, thank God for raising up men to bring clarity to this issue, for the good of His church then and now.
1 Daniel R. Hyde, “Regulae de Observatione Sabbathi: The Synod of Dort’s (1618-19) Deliverance on the Sabbath.” Puritan Reformed Journal 4, no. 1 (2012): 163. Also found at https://www.academia.edu.
2 Hyde, 163.
4 Hyde, “Regulae de Observatione Sabbathi,” 180-81.
5 Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma, The Church Order Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1964), 276.