Home > apologetics, church history > Presuppositions in Evaluating Early Church History

Presuppositions in Evaluating Early Church History


In my overall reading and research concerning the Lord’s Day/Sabbath and its historical development, I have come across some interesting material that also serves to show the existence of presuppositions and how we interpret historical data.

An example of this (and how our presuppositions distort our conclusions) comes from Samuele Bacchiocchi, a 20th century Seventh Day Adventist historian, whose book From Sabbath to Sunday does include some good historical data, excerpts from the writing of many early church fathers, following their writings from the 2nd century through the development of Roman Catholicism. The work does have some interesting points, including the development of a “spiritualized” sabbath beginning in the 4th century Constantine era and developed especially by Augustine plus further agreement from later Catholic Popes, to the effect that “This is why we accept in a spiritual way and observe spiritually what is written about the Sabbath. For the Sabbath means rest and we have the true Sabbath, the very Redeemer, our Lord Jesus Christ” (Pope Gregory I, late 6th and early 7th century A.D.)

Yet in closely reading both the actual early church ideas and this Seventh Day Adventist’s “explanation” or “interpretation,” the following erroneous idea comes out. “The fact that the typology of the eighth day first appears especially in the writings of anti-Judaic polemics, such as the “Epistle of Barnabas” and the “Dialogue with Trypho,” and that it was widely used as an apologetic device to prove the superiority of Sunday over the Sabbath,” therefore – according to this writer with a presupposition of seventh day worship, trying to prove that the early Christian Church really did not have a consensus on what day to meet for worship – this “suggests, first of all, that Sunday worship arose as a controversial innovation and not as an undisputed apostolic institution. The polemic was apparently provoked by a Sabbath-keeping minority (mostly Jewish-Christians) who refused to accept the new day of worship.”

Really? Justin Martyr and other early apologists were really trying to defend their own doctrines to fellow believers? Even basic encyclopedia entries (and not just Wikipedia) as well as article and book references readily acknowledge the basic audience of these writings: some to Gentile non-Christians, and other writing to Jewish non-Christians. False presuppositions (and forcing a predetermined outcome to agree with that presupposition) drive a modern writer to reject the plain and obvious audience of these works and instead conclude that a doctrinal issue was “controversial” within the Christian community itself. By that reasoning, everything they wrote about – including Justin Martyr’s statements about the then orthodox view of chiliasm – was really uncertain and controversial among Christians, and nothing of truth was decided except by the force of these 2nd century writers “decreeing” what the Christian Church “ought” to believe.

Here I recall also the difference (misunderstood by some) between what are considered “controversial issues” among Christians versus “controversial” for non-Christians, as in this previous post.  An excerpt from what I wrote then — Are cultural issues in the world really debatable points to Bible-believing Christians?  … The same goes for abortion, or any other social issue that the world is uncertain about:  God’s word does not change, and the true Church of professing believers does not feel the need to debate these issues — surely also applies regarding the “issues” of the early church. An idea which may be considered questionable by unbelievers, or even something that unbelievers hold a different/opposing view about, does not at all mean that the same issue was a “controversial innovation” by the believers of that time.

As with this rather obvious example, of how a group outside of the mainstream Christian church (SDA) imposes their false presuppositions on historical data, it behooves us to carefully analyze what we read, especially as this material comes up easily in online search results and it is not always easy to tell, at first glance, the presuppositions of a particular writer.  And when (as I have seen done at a local church) a church pastor/teacher casually references the “Christian Sabbath” issue and asserts for their own position that the Seventh Day Adventists have “proved” this one and they have it right about the seventh day Sabbath — well, “think again” and consider the source and  their presuppositions.

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  1. November 3, 2014 at 6:12 am
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