William Lane Craig Takes the Wind from Old Earth Creationist Hermeneutical Sails

While I have a huge amount of respect for William Lane Craig, there was not much doubt in my mind that I’d be disappointed by his conclusions when he announced his intention to turn his attention to researching the most plausible way to interpret the text of Genesis 1-11. After all, one of his most notable apologetic arguments is the Kalam Cosmological argument which capitalizes on the currently accepted secular scientific theory of the origin of the universe- the Big Bang. My suspicion that Craig would dismiss the Young Earth Creationist interpretation turned out to be well founded. What I did not expect, however, was the blow his conclusion would deal to two of Old Earth Creationists’ most celebrated defenders: Hugh Ross and John Walton.

 

William Lane Craig


Craig’s long awaited scholarly opinion was delivered in Part 27 of his Defender’s Class on the subject of Creation and Evolution, which was the summary and conclusion of the hermeneutical section “on the exploration of creation and evolutionary theory.” Dr. Craig explains that he has surveyed “quite a range of alternatives available to the Bible believing Christian which have been advanced by evangelical scholars” in the previous installments of his class and has concluded that he finds two to be the most plausible:

“It seems to me that the two most plausible interpretive options are the literal, Young Earth Creationist interpretation and the mytho-historical interpretation. Of the two, I find the mytho-historical interpretation to provide a better genre analysis of Genesis 1-11 for the reasons I have stated and therefore to be the better of the two options.”

Let’s unpack what that means.

What is hermeneutics?

I like the simple definition Tim Chaffey gives in his article for Answers in Genesis, “How Should We Interpret the Bible Part 1“:

“Hermeneutics (from the Greek word hermeneuo, which means to explain or interpret) is the branch of theology that focuses on identifying and applying sound principles of biblical interpretation.”

Of course, things can certainly get complicated quickly once one delves into how the various principles of hermeneutics are applied to correctly interpret Scripture. But the point is, hermeneutics is primarily a textual consideration of how to interpret Scripture. Outside influences such as that of modern science are of no consequence. Or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Ironically, Craig agrees with that sentiment in his answer to a questioner titled “The Historical Adam“:

“There is an almost irresistible tendency to allow science to guide our biblical interpretation. This sort of interpretive approach to Scripture is often called ‘concordism.’ Beginning with what modern science tells us about the origin of the world and mankind, we approach the biblical text and read that science into the text, or, at least, read the text in such a way that it comports with modern science. The flaws in such a hermeneutic are obvious…”

Of course, the irony is Craig’s discussion in this very lecture, that he gives the mytho-historical interpretation greater weight due to the consideration of scientific evidence which he makes clear he accepts as irrefutable fact.

Is Dr. Craig open to the YEC Interpretation?

One might assume that Dr. Craig would be open to considering what he views as the 2nd most plausible interpretation of Genesis 1-11 as, in fact, the correct interpretation. Not so.

For example, in response to one audience member who astutely mentioned that many of the conclusions of modern day science are based on models that offer predictions of the past rather than testable, repeatable, and observable results, Craig answers:

“What I would say is, in light of modern science, history, and linguistics the literalistic interpretation is falsified. So, one isn’t assuming that it’s false. Rather, it’s saying that in light of the evidence we have, it’s been falsified. There was no world-wide flood a few thousand years ago that destroyed all terrestrial life.”

On creation science in general and the theories presented in some of Dr. Jonathan Sarfati’s work in particular, Craig states:

“This is crank science and Christians should not be attracted to it.”

Despite his glib and misguided remarks directed at creation science, I view Dr. Craig’s hermeneutical assessment of Genesis 1-11 as a boon for Young Earth Creationists if used in the proper way. Specifically, within the context of apologetic defenses of the young earth interpretation over and against the old earth interpretation.

What are the ramifications?

How many of us have heard Christians who take an old earth interpretation of Scripture say something like, “Sure I believe in the Big Bang. I just know who banged it!”, and the evolutionary theory equivalent declarations? Truly, on an extremely superficial level those statements may seem to work. But, that’s the problem. They quickly unravel when one begins to thoughtfully read Genesis 1-11.

Many Christians who make these remarks don’t realize the conclusions that must follow if one has any intentions of attempting to maintain a logically consistent view of Scripture. The Big Bang and Evolution come with baggage that render them diametrically opposed to the biblical creation account which teaches that: Adam and Eve are the literal progenitors of the human race, the global flood destroyed all terrestrial life on earth other than Noah, his family, and the animals on board the ark, and the origin of all the world’s languages was the confusion of language at Babel- just to name a few.

Proponents of the Old Earth Creation view go to great lengths in an effort to harmonize these Scriptural historical events with the secular scientific view that claims to have debunked each one of them as an impossibility. Craig spent the first 26 installments of his series discussing these interpretive efforts. He doesn’t have a very high view of most of them. Citing his “The Historical Adam” article again:

“I suspect that many of the outlandish interpretations of the opening chapters of Genesis (e.g., so-called ‘functional creation’ or the day-age theory) are motivated by the dread fear that biblical theology pursued independently of modern science would reveal that the Young Earth Creationists are right, and, hence, the task of the systematic theologian becomes hopeless.”

The common refrain of all these theorists can be summed up in this quote from the esteemed Norman Geisler which I am citing from another of Chaffey’s articles:

“It seems plausible the universe is billions of years old…there is no demonstrated conflict between Genesis 1-2 and scientific fact…a literal interpretation of Genesis is consistent with a universe that is billions of years old” (Geisler 2003, 650) (emphasis mine)

And therein lies the rub! Old Earth Creationists want to affirm a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-11 while also affirming billions of years and all the conclusions of modern day secular science. Many Christians are effectively lulled into complacency by the assurances of some of our most well respected and trusted theologians that one can comfortably affirm them all. It is this notion that Dr. Craig’s conclusion has intellectually quashed. The result should be a reality check to fans of the interpretation methods of Hugh Ross and John Walton.

What does Craig have to say about the methods of Ross and Walton? Suffice it to say, he doesn’t mince words.

Contra Ross

 

Hugh Ross

Ross proposes that the text of Scripture can be understood to refer to a local flood event. Referencing Ross’s book “Navigating Genesis,” Craig sums up this view, then gives his response:

“Ross argues that the flood was intended to be merely a local flood in Mesopotamia. I am like our previous questioner [a young earth advocate from the audience] though here who said that the language of Genesis 6-9 just doesn’t seem consistent with a local flood. It talks about how all life under the heavens was destroyed. And the picture there is that the world is returned to the primordial state of Genesis 1 verse 2 where it was covered by this primeval ocean, and then, as you were, creation begins anew with Noah and his family afterwards and the animals on board the ark. So, as much as I would like a local flood interpretation to be true I just can’t convince myself that it is the correct reading of the passage…”

And that’s not all. Craig considers attempts such as Ross’s to localize Biblical events to be a literalistic attempt to “save the truth.” He explains:

“Now again, it’s very interesting. What the literalists often do is to try to localize the phenomenon in order to save it…’Oh well, there wasn’t a world-wide flood, it was a local flood. It isn’t the origin of the world’s languages [Babel], it’s really just that the people at that Babylonian ziggurat had their languages confused’… So, I appreciate the motivation. I feel it myself! I want to affirm that these stories are true, but I don’t think you can save the truth by the device of trying to interpret them as merely local events. As our friend…said, I don’t think the language of the narratives are going to permit that…This is a consistent hermeneutical pattern. You try to save the truth by localizing it. And I’m not persuaded that’s legit…”

To summarize in comic book lingo:

 

 

 

Seriously though. Ouch. But, this is an echo of what YECs have been saying all along about the OEC mishandling of the text of Genesis 1-11.

Contra Walton

John Walton

Craig explains that in Walton’s book, “The Lost World of the Flood,” he and his co-author Tremper Longman reject Ross’s interpretation in favor of the view that the author of Genesis was intentionally employing the use of hyperbole and exaggeration in these accounts for effect. Walton and Longman argue that the initial hearers would have immediately understood the author’s point and easily recognized his intended use of literary device due to the obvious outlandishness of the events. He gives the example of the ark which, due to its sheer size, would have been an impossibility for Noah to build.

To this explanation Craig replies:

“Now, I’m not persuaded that Walton and Longman are right in saying this is mere hyperbole. That seems overly simplistic to me…”

Craig delves deeper in his Reasonable Faith podcast John Walton’s view of Genesis, Part 2 in which he explains:

Walton’s view…is that Genesis 1 does not describe God’s bringing into existence these various objects and organisms over the course of the six-day creation week. Rather, he thinks it is merely the specification of certain functions for the objects and organisms that have been there for an indeterminate amount of time that already exist.”

“On Walton’s view, if you travel back in time in your time machine and came out during the creation week (however long ago that was) you wouldn’t see anything coming into existence. The dinosaurs, man, the sun and the stars, they’d all be there just fine, be an ecosystem that was working, and nothing spectacular would be happening…”

Of course, YECs will object that this is just not the way the text reads at all. Craig wholeheartedly agrees:

“…this view of Genesis 1 is enormously implausible because it would require us to take as literally false all of the statements about the primordial darkness, the primeval ocean, the emergence of dry land from the ocean, the Earth’s bringing forth vegetation and fruit trees, the waters bringing forth sea creatures, the Earth bringing forth animals, God’s making man…They have to be reinterpreted in some sort of functional way, and it seems to me that that is enormously implausible…I’m simply saying that this is not the way the text reads on the surface. It’s incredible to read it this way. So the proponent of the functional interpretation would have to have some enormous proof here that we’re to think that only functional interpretation is involved here…I don’t think there is any such proof.”

What does this supposed anthropocentric function add to their scientific functions? The vegetation served the terrestrial animals as food. The sun served to divide day from night, just as Genesis says, to mark times and years and seasons and so forth. It’s not clear to me that these things weren’t already functioning in these ways.”

After addressing additional shortcomings of the view, Craig concludes by urging caution to those who are tempted to adopt Walton’s functional interpretation:

“…you’ve got to be careful…You are hooking your star to a very idiosyncratic and widely rejected interpretation of these Genesis narratives, and one that is not only unjustified but I think enormously implausible.”

Where Does This Leave Us?

In almost all scenarios, one of the most compelling evidences to the accuracy of an argument is the corroboration of a hostile witness. When it comes to the literal, Young Earth Creationist interpretation of Genesis 1-11, William Lane Craig fits the bill of ideal hostile witness. He is certainly qualified to weigh in on the issue, yet no one could confuse him for a proponent or even sympathizer of the Young Earth Creationist interpretation. It wouldn’t even be exaggerating to say that he is reviled by it. Moreover, Craig expresses multiple times in his lecture that he empathizes greatly with the motivation OECs feel to harmonize Scripture with the modern day secular interpretation of scientific evidence. However, when it comes to the task of rigorously examining the hermeneutical possibilities the text presents, he is honest enough to admit that popular old earth theories such as those proposed by Ross and Walton are just not legitimately convincing. Therefore, Craig’s conclusion adds significant weight to the YEC counter to the common OEC claim that hermeneutical approaches which read long ages into Genesis 1-11 are equal or superior to the plausibility of the YEC straight forward accounting of time presented in the text.

 

 

 

Creationist Theory on Ascending Complexity of Life Ordered in Precambrian/lower Cambrian Sediments

In my opinion, one of the most challenging arenas of science for a Young Earth Creationist (YEC) is geology. Both sides of the debate have the same data to work with- the geologic column. Likewise, they share the same goal- reconstructing a plausible theory to explain the earth’s history. The very deepest layers in this geological column, the Precambrian and lower Cambrian, pose quite a mystery for us to solve since they contain the very first signs of life.

Of particular interest within these lowest levels, is the presence of a clear order of organisms increasing in complexity along the vertically ascending layers of sediment. The questions are: how do we explain the method by which these layers came to be deposited historically and what is the significance of the increasing complexity in the fossil record? Creationists and Evolutionists have two vastly different answers largely due to the presuppositions underlying their respective world views. These presuppositions unavoidably affect interpretation.

Evolutionary theory sees the layers as being deposited over millions of years, containing the record of the evolution of life from simple to complex. This view traditionally enjoys the “edge” in modern thought for two reasons. First, it’s the only view most people are aware of since it is the only one approved in public education systems; and second, it is certainly a simple/obvious explanation if one agrees with evolutionary presuppositions.

YEC theory sees the deposition of these deepest layers as the result of one catastrophic event- the global flood recorded in Genesis chapters 6-9 which devastated the entire earth. Since YEC’s maintain that life didn’t evolve, but came into existence simultaneously according to the Biblical 6 day Creation narrative, the difficulty has been arriving at an explanation of the increasing complexity demonstrated in the fossil record. However, Dr. Kurt Wise (Ph.D. in Paleontology and M.A in Geology from Harvard) described a theory during his presentation at the 2017 “Is Genesis History?” Conference proving that the evolutionary reconstruction is not the only one data supports. Wise admits that “Creationist palaeontology is an immature field” and that theirresources… are severely limited.” However, Wise believes his theory is the one aligning most closely with the evidence.

Shared Evidence

Early in Dr. Wise’s presentation, he sets the stage by documenting the data both evolutionists and creationists have to interpret:

At the base of the geologic column, the lowest level is referred to as the “Precambrian.”

                                                  Image via Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Wise notes that there are only 12 geographical locations where geologists can access the complete Precambrian series of sediments exhibiting the order of increasing complexity (stratomorphic series). In fact, he explains, it has only been within approximately the last 30 years that these rocks have been recognized as what they are- Precambrian sediments that did not erode away. Within this series, there is a clear and consistent sequence of sediments containing organisms increasing in complexity beginning with simple bacteria. This same order of increasing complexity in the fossil record is observed throughout the geological column. For example, the order is present even throughout the Great Unconformity (which exists on almost all continents) despite the fact that some of the layers present in the Precambrian series of sediments are missing altogether.

Dr. Wise supplies the following examples of this ascending complexity. In the deepest layer of sediment, the only fossils present are bacteria or bacteria related. Rising up into younger sediments, in addition to the bacteria, you begin to find single celled algae. Continuing upward, protists appear (single celled, non-photosynthetic organisms- not an animal, plant, or fungus). Next, appear a group called “Ediacaran Fauna” which are large (1-2′), flat macrofossils (fossils observable with the naked eye).

Photo: Dickinsonia, by Ilya Bobrovskiy, Australian National University (fair use for scientific and educational purposes), via SBS News.

Following this group is “Tommotian Fauna” (or “small shelly fauna”) which are small (around 1 inch at most) cone-shaped fossils.

Tommotian Fauna image via fossilmuseum.net

Next, come the “Atdabanian Fauna.” This is the lowest level in which Trilobites are found.

Plate from Barrande’s work Système silurien du centre de la Bohême via Wikipedia

Evolutionist Interpretation of the Data

Traditional evolutionary theory presupposes both uniformitarianism and naturalism. The former can be defined as the “concept that ‘the present is the key to the past’ (that events occur at the same rate now as they have always done)…Today, Earth’s history is considered to have been a slow, gradual process, punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events.” Therefore, each layer of sediment in the geologic column (some of which are tens of thousands of feet thick) represents millions of years of history. This “deep time” is crucial to support the latter presupposition which can be summarized as the “idea or belief that only natural (as opposed to supernatural or spiritual) laws and forces operate in the world.” Barring the possibility of a Creator God existing outside of His Creation, evolutionists conclude that the ascending complexity of organisms can only be explained by slow evolutionary processes requiring millions of years.

No one would disagree that given the presuppositions above, these conclusions are reasonable. Wise notes an additional factor supporting evolutionary theory while being problematic for YEC. Essentially, if the lowest levels of sediment can preserve bacteria, it should be able to preserve more complex organisms if they existed simultaneously. The simplest and most logical deduction is that only bacteria are preserved because they were the only thing in existence. This is the problem Wise’s theory addresses.

At this juncture it must be noted that the assumption of uniformitarianism underlying evolutionary theory is not scientifically provable. As influential 20th century paleontologist G.G Simpson famously stated, “Uniformity is an unprovable postulate justified, or indeed required, on two grounds. First, nothing in our incomplete but extensive knowledge of history disagrees with it. Second, only with this postulate is a rational interpretation of history possible, and we are justified in seeking—as scientists we must seek—such a rational interpretation.” This is imperative due to modern day rhetoric claiming that creation science is “pseudoscience.” The entire foundation of evolutionary theory is underscored by an “unprovable postulate” rendering its resulting conclusions no more or less scientific than the conclusions of creation science.

YEC Interpretation of the Data

YEC’s operate under their own set of presuppositions. While agreeing that relatively recent geological history can be reconstructed with the assumption of the slow, gradual processes that we witness today, they reject that uniformitarianism can be projected infinitely backward in antiquity to arrive at an accurate historical reconstruction of earth’s ancient history due to the global Flood. YEC’s also presuppose a Creator who created life supernaturally as described in Scripture rather than via naturalistic means. Wise submits that the evidence indicates that “the uppermost Precambrian are the very beginning of the Flood deposits and they are preserving a Pre-Flood ecological sequence of some sort.”

Interestingly, this alternative interpretation of the data wasn’t arrived at by a group of YEC scientists. Instead, the theory that follows was developed during the course of a Harvard University graduate class under renowned paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Gould, studying the Cambrian explosion. Although Wise doesn’t reveal if any of the other class participants besides himself were YEC’s, he does note that the conclusions being drawn were (understandably) disconcerting to the evolutionists working on the project.

It all began when the group made an interesting observation: within the stratomorphic series,

each type of fauna is specific to a particular type of rock. For example: the Ediacaran Fauna is almost always found in sand; the Tommotian Fauna is always in carbonates; and the Atdabanian Fauna is always in shale. Therefore, the faunal sequence is dependent on the type of rock (facies dependant).

The group recognized this phenomenon to be in keeping with “Walther’s Law” which Wise summarizes as, “a principle in geology stating that if you have a series of lithosomes (types of rock) stacked vertically in a particular order, it could be that the order is due to a transgression event or a regression event, where the first thing is formed in shallow water, the next thing is formed in deeper water, and the next thing is formed in even deeper water. It could be that what you see vertically, is what the world was like horizontally at the time of deposition… So, you’re not actually looking at three different aged things. You’re looking at three different things at different positions.”

“Stratigraphic column on the north shore of Isfjord in Svalbard Norway. The vertical succession of rock types (representing sedimentary facies) reflects lateral changes in paleoenvironment.” via Wikipedia

Wise clarifies with the following scenario: you have sand at the shore, mud off shore, and reefs out beyond that. This would result in layers of sandstone, mud shale, then carbonate. So, if you see a sequence of sandstone/shale/carbonate in a vertical sequence, you could conclude that rather than life evolving into greater complexity over millions of years, you merely have three separate facies existing side by side that became buried on top of each other because water came in over the land. Therefore, these three faunas may not be separated in time, but are separated horizontally. Three different fauna, living at the same time, getting buried in a sequence only because water is either coming in or going out. Subsequently, the shallow water organisms are buried on bottom, followed by those inhabiting medium depth water, followed by deep water organisms.

This essentially reveals that millions of years of time is not a necessary factor in the formation of these 12 areas in which geologists have a clear cross-section of the Precambrian.

Adding Radiometric Dating into the Mix

It is beyond the scope of this article to address the numerous and very valid problems with the accuracy of ages of rocks assigned by radiometric dating. Interested readers can refer to Dr. Andrew Snelling’s treatment of that topic in his article Radiometric Dating: Problems with the Assumptions. To greatly simplify, I will merely state that the science behind the dating models is sound. However, the scientifically unprovable assumptions plugged in as constants in the equations render the results unrealiable at best and completely invalid at worst.

For our purposes, the only relevant issue is the range of time that these radiometric dating models indicate regarding the successive layers of rock which cumulatively result in the millions of years evolutionists assign to the geologic column in the form of the geologic time scale. When it comes to these ancient date ranges assigned to each layer of sediment, Wise explains that the smallest increment of measurement is the “radiometric pixel” which is a unit of 5 million years. Essentially, this means that radiometric dating methods employed in this context cannot discern periods of time between sediments in increments less than 5 million years.

This becomes of paramount importance when Wise notes that the graduate team examining the radiometric dating data pertaining to these layers of sediment discovered that the evidence revealed the time period separating these layers was not, in fact, hundreds of millions of years, but something less than a radiometric pixel! Here, Wise points out, that when you are at the Cambrian level (dated by the evolutionary time scale to be 5 million years ago), 5 million years is 1%- you can’t see anything less than 1%. Foundationally, you can’t distinguish the different age of things less than 1% apart.

How do these facts alter the interpretation of the data? Wise states, “The radiometric data suggests that there is less than a radiometric pixel between these three faunas. Add that to the facies issues of the faunas and we concluded these faunas don’t represent successive faunas, they represent three faunas at the same time. Buried in that order, but not living in that order.”

Wise continues by explaining that this finding is magnified when one realizes that whatever process has buried these fauna in this same pattern, it is represented identically in 12 different geographical locations all over the earth! So, the next step becomes figuring out how closely the age of these 12 different deposits can be determined. Wise says, “Again, we concluded that we cannot discern differences in their age at the level of the radiometric pixel. So, they could all be at exactly the same moment in time, and that the same event, a global event, buried them in the same sequence for that reason.” Therefore, the data contained in the Precambrian and lower Cambrian layers can very well be interpreted in support of the Genesis global flood event, documenting life existing simultaneously, and ordered in horizontal proximity to one another.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, evolutionists will never consider the YEC theory to be valid. Not because the data contained in the Precambrian and lower Cambrian sediments preclude it, but because it violates the two foundational presuppositions of uniformitarianism and naturalism- neither of which are scientifically provable.

 

 

Refuting the “Pagan Origins of the Lord’s Day” Myth Part 3: On the power of Rome, Constantine, and Councils

In the previous installments of this series we have systematically disproved the most integral elements of the Seventh Day Sabbatarian myth that the Christian tradition of gathering for worship on Sunday is rooted in pagan practice. In Part 1, we established that no weekly pagan observance was held on Sunday in honor of a pagan deity in either Rome or Greece. In Part 2, we clarified the following: historically, the term “catholic” refers merely to the early Christian church and is not synonymous with the entity which later became known as the “Roman Catholic Church”; the Christian practice of gathering for worship on Sunday was a well established tradition long before the 300’s (the alleged rise of the Roman Catholic Church); this practice was not confined to the geographical area of Rome; this practice was not considered a “replacement Sabbath”; it was overwhelmingly adopted due to early Christians’ reverence of Jesus’ resurrection; and finally, that the Roman Catholic Church’s claim that they “changed the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday” is based on their own brand of revisionist history and not historically supportable.

One may logically wonder what is even left to dispute since the Seventh Day Sabbatarians’ required foundational claims have been effectively dismissed as fallacious. However, there are three subjects left which must be addressed: the alleged unopposed power of Rome, Constantine, and the ecumenical councils of Nicea (325 AD) and Laodicea (364 AD). The vast majority of Seventh Day Sabbatarian “evidence” comes in the form of excerpted quotes, edicts, and canons from selected decrees and councils which are strategically placed within their publications to construct an erroneous historical context.

Did Rome Have the Authority to Establish Sunday Worship Throughout Christendom?

Perusal of Seventh Day Sabbatarian literature of all stripes leaves one with the clear impression that Rome had complete, unopposed authority over all of Christendom from an extremely early date. Essentially, this belief can only be sustained if one has little to no knowledge of the structure of the early church. An excellent resource on this topic is David Guzik’s second lecture in his Early Church History series, The Spread of the Gospel and the Apologists.

Guzik explains that the early church leaders did not see themselves as apostles, but heirs to the apostles, so the focus was placed on the office of bishop which is a new testament office. Guzik defines the authority of the office of bishop as, “leader of the Christians in a particular city and its immediate region.” He continues, “He had oversight over the many congregations of Christians in that area.” The office of bishop did increase in power over time due to a variety of factors, but Guzik notes that “this was a trend encouraged by the apostolic fathers, including Ignatius of Antioch (110-117 AD).” The four cities that rose to prominence were Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome, and Alexandria which did result in the bishops of these cities acquiring more authority than other bishops of less prominent cities.

Guzik notes that “this naturally led to competition between the prominent patriarchal bishops” and is indeed the manner by which there came to be a “Pope” much later down the road. How much later down the road? According to the Biblicalcyclopedia entry for “papacy,” “The first pope, in the real sense of the word, was Leo I (440-461).” However, the rest of the article attests to the fact that even at this point the struggle for supremacy was far from over. Eventually, the bishop of Rome did emerge as the leading figure of the church in the west. This is an evolution elaborated upon in Guzik’s fifth lecture, The Christian Empire: The Roman Catholic Church and the Papacy for those interested in pursuing that topic.

For our discussion, the pertinent question is: Was the bishop of Rome capable of exerting his authority over the other three prominent bishops (of Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria) with regard to Christian practice during the early time periods required by the Seventh Day Sabbatarian theory. The clear historical answer is no. One of the best examples to demonstrate this is the Quartodeciman Controversy which took place in three stages over a period of 170 years swirling around the debate concerning the appropriate date the resurrection should be celebrated and when the fast would end. Ironically, many pagan origin conspiracy theorists erroneously bill this debate as an Easter vs Passover disagreement. For more on that, you can check out my article: So You Think Easter is Pagan Part 2: The Constantine Conspiracy.

In take one of the controversy, Polycarp (bishop of Smyrna) came to visit Anicetus (bishop of Rome) in 155 AD to convince Anicetus to follow his tradition of observing Passover on Nisan 14 rather than on the Sunday following Nisan 14, but neither bishop could convince the other. They ended up agreeing to disagree and took the Lord’s Supper together. In take two of the controversy circa 195 AD, Victor (the bishop of Rome) tried to excommunicate Polycrates (bishop of Ephesus) for observing Passover on Nisan 14 rather than the Sunday after Nisan 14. Irenaeus (Polycarp’s disciple) agreed that Sunday should be kept, however, he and several other bishops opposed Victor’s attempt to excommunicate Polycrates citing the peaceful example set by Polycarp and Anicetus in 155. Polycrates was ultimately not excommunicated. This shows that even at the end of the 2nd century, the bishop of Rome did not have the power to make mandates on the church as a whole and the other bishops both opposed and defied him without consequence. Both Polycarp and Polycrates acted as equals to the bishop of Rome.

As D.M. Canright writes in his no nonsense manner, “Specially mark this fact: The observance and sanctity of the Lord’s Day was fully established throughout all the great Eastern Churches long before the Roman Papacy could rule even in the West, much less in the East.”

Seventh Day Sabbatarians have no problem identifying who they believe is responsible for what they claim is the “replacing” of the seventh day Sabbath with Sunday- Rome and the Papacy. However, the when is not so clearly established. Are any of the suggested occasions plausible? Let’s take a look at the options.

Constantine’s 321 AD Edict

Constantine, Roman Emperor 306-337 AD

Here I will provide an example of how Seventh Day Sabbatarian groups commonly surround quotes with their “revised” context in order to lend credibility to a narrative where none exists. The following is a citation of Constantine’s 321 AD edict found in United Church of God, an International Association’s article, Was the Saturday Sabbath Changed to Sunday:

The article states, “Constantine the Great, a worshipper of the pagan Roman sun god Sol Invictus, famously converted to Christianity at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in A.D. 312… Several years later, he dictated the following edict which established a national day of rest on Sunday, the holy day of Sol Invictus.”

Here the article inserts the edict from the source Codex Justinianis lib. 3, tit. 12, 3:

On the venerable Day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country, however, persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits; because it often happens that another day is not so suitable for grain-sowing or for vine-planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost. (Given the 7th day of March, Crispus and Constantine being consuls each of them for the second time [A.D. 321]”

The UCG article bookends this citation with the following assertion, “With this edict, Constantine effectively combined pagan worship practices from the Roman sun god he worshiped with aspects of his new-found Christianity. This pattern is replicated throughout early Roman Catholic History.”

Encased in such a sinister context, the content of the edict is easily assigned meaning that is wholly foreign to its author’s intent. The goal of presenting the edict in this way is to insinuate that the language used in the edict corroborates their two foundational claims: 1) that Sunday was an established weekly pagan observance in honor of the sun god in Rome; 2) that with this edict, Constantine exercised his authority to require Christians to change the day of their Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday. Reading the edict with these two presuppositions in mind leads one to view the edict as directed toward Christians with the intent of requiring them by law to worship on what the pagans referred to as “the venerable day of the Sun.”

The problem with this is that we have already revealed that both of those presuppositions are patently false. First, there was no such weekly pagan observance to the sun deity to co-opt in Rome, rather it was annual. One may not commandeer (no matter how much power one wields) a pagan observance that does not exist. Second, the overwhelming testimony of early church history (dating back to even the 1st century) is that the tradition of Christian worship on Sunday was already well established throughout Christendom by the time of the issuance of this edict – not merely in Rome. Canright highlights the absurdity of assigning this edict as the origin of widespread Christian worship on Sunday by noting the limited scope of its authority, “This law applied only to the Roman Empire. At that date there were numerous Christian Churches outside of the Roman jurisdiction, all keeping Sunday…This law in no way could affect them.”

In light of these truths, the Seventh Day Sabbatarian assertions are nonsensical. Why would Constantine issue an edict requiring Christians to cease work on Sunday when this had already been their tradition for generations? The logical question becomes: To whom was this edict directed if not Christians? Clearly there was a group of people in Rome who were working on Sunday. The use of pagan language in the edict itself describing Sunday as “the venerable day of the Sun” identifies the group to whom it was directed- pagans! Constantine’s edict then becomes further evidence of what all Roman historians already attest: that Roman pagans were not already setting aside this “day of the Sun” as any type of weekly holy day in which they abstained from work.

Canright writes, “Christians needed no law to compel them to keep the day, for they all kept it already as a Christian duty. But the pagans kept no weekly day. Hence the law was directed to them, and, of course, used pagan terms for that day, ‘the day of the sun.’ That is the manifest explanation of why the pagan name was used.” Were the edict directed at Christians and intended to become an alternative Sabbath certainly the language of the edict would reflect that. But it doesn’t. It is obvious that Constantine did not intend Sunday as any type of replacement Sabbath as defined by a Sabbatarian. The word “Sabbath” is noticeably absent and farmers were explicitly given the freedom to work on that day as they pleased.

It should also be mentioned that although the edict declared Sunday a civil day of rest within the cities, it did not force pagans outside the city to conform to Christian tradition. Canright cites the significance notable and well-respected early church historian Philip Schaff places on the clause within the edict giving those “in the country” the freedom to work their fields on the civilly designated day of rest, “He expressly exempted the country districts where paganism still prevailed.” Canright elaborates, “This is true, and it shows that the pagans did not keep Sunday nor did they wish to. Hence, where they were greatly in the majority, they were exempted from obeying this law. But in the cities where Christians largely were, there secular business had to cease. This law was made to protect Christians and the Christian’s day, not pagans nor a pagan day.”

But, Weren’t Early Christians Who Chose to Gather for Worship on Saturday Persecuted?

This is another instance of a claim which is repeated ad nauseum by Seventh Day Sabbatarians with absolutely no source citation as corroboration. The argument is that most early Christians wanted to gather on Saturday and believed this is what Scripture teaches, but were forced to abandon this belief practically en masse and gather on Sunday instead due to persecution. Essentially, “Sunday worship” survived predominately as tradition due to these circumstances.

Admittedly, I find this an interesting path of reasoning due to the fact that, historically, Christianity as a whole both thrives and spreads particularly in times of grievous persecution. That being said, after sifting through mountains of Seventh Day Sabbatarian literature I finally found one source which provided a single citation to corroborate the claim. The source cited as “proof” was Constantine’s 315 AD decree, Concerning Jews, Heaven Worshippers, and Samaritans from Fordham University’s Jewish History Sourcebook which reads as follows:

We wish to make it known to the Jews and their elders and their patriarchs that if, after the enactment of this law, any one of them dares to attack with stones or some other manifestation of anger another who has fled their dangerous sect and attached himself to the worship of God [Christianity], he must speedily be given to the flames and burn~ together with all his accomplices. Moreover, if any one of the population should join their abominable sect and attend their meetings, he will bear with them the deserved penalties.”

This decree does not do anything to bolster the Seventh Day Sabbatarian case for the following reasons:

  1. This law was instituted in 315 AD, 6 years prior to Constantine’s alleged institution of Sunday observance and it actually says nothing about Sunday observance at all. It would be truly confusing to assert that Constantine had instituted a persecution of individuals for breaking a law that he had yet to decree.
  2. If the law was enforced as it is written, it certainly doesn’t constitute persecution. It does however assign a harsh, capital punishment for Jews who attack via stoning, etc, individuals who have converted to Christianity.
  3. All other laws documented on this Fordham University site which DO constitute persecution were instituted by Roman Emperors that came well after Constantine.

In order to corroborate their claim, Seventh Day Sabbatarians would need a citation of Saturday keeping Christians being persecuted prior to this date since the tradition of gathering on Sunday was well established long before Constantine even existed. Do they have evidence of that? If so, I have never seen it provided.

On the flip side of the coin, do we have any historical evidence that the small number of Christians who chose to gather for worship on Saturday instead of Sunday were not persecuted by the church? As a matter of fact we do. Justin Martyr discusses these very individuals in his Dialogue with Trypho 47 (dated between 155 and 167 AD). Trypho asks Martyr if individuals who recognize Jesus as the Messiah, yet choose to keep the law of Moses (including the seventh day Sabbath) will still be saved. The following is an excerpt from Martyr’s response:

But if some, through weak-mindedness, wish to observe such institutions as were given by Moses, from which they expect some virtue, but which we believe were appointed by reason of the hardness of the people’s hearts, along with their hope in this Christ, and [wish to perform] the eternal and natural acts of righteousness and piety, yet choose to live with the Christians and the faithful, as I said before, not inducing them either to be circumcised like themselves, or to keep the Sabbath, or to observe any other such ceremonies, then I hold that we ought to join ourselves to such, and associate with them in all things as kinsmen and brethren. But if, Trypho,’ I continued, ‘some of your race, who say they believe in this Christ, compel those Gentiles who believe in this Christ to live in all respects according to the law given by Moses, or choose not to associate so intimately with them, I in like manner do not approve of them. But I believe that even those, who have been persuaded by them to observe the legal dispensation along with their confession of God in Christ, shall probably be saved.” (emphasis mine)

Martyr doesn’t mince words- there is no ambiguity. While he clearly disagrees with those who choose to keep the Sabbath as a requirement, as long as these individuals do not harass other Christians by telling them they are required to hold the same belief, he considers them his “kinsmen and brethren.” Furthermore, even with regards to those who do harass (or as Paul would say “judaize”) other Christians, Martyr still believes they are “saved” even though he avoids association with them. Disagreement does not equal persecution by any stretch of the imagination.

How About Ecumenical Councils?

Frankly, any Seventh Day Sabbatarian effort to pinpoint an alleged forceful institution of a “replacement” Sabbath on Sunday on any ecumenical council is an exercise in futility no matter what quotation is cited. Why? Because the very first ecumenical council was the Council of Nicea which did not occur until 325 AD. Since we are quite nearly guilty of beating the proverbial dead horse when it comes to providing evidence that the Christian tradition of worship on Sunday was, by this point, extremely old news we will only mention two councils very briefly.

The Council of Nicea 325 AD

“16th-century fresco depicting the Council of Nicaea” via Wikipedia

This council is the subject of quite a number of conspiracy theories, the vast majority of which are beyond the scope of this article. Canright cites the allegation relating to our topic as leveled by an editorial in the Advent Review and Herald, February 26, 1914:

“I find that three hundred and twenty-five years after Christianity was born, a council of human beings, called the Council of Nice, convened by a human being named Constantine the Great, instituted the first day Sabbath to displace the seventh day Sabbath.” The editor endorses this language thus: “The position which the writer of the letter takes is impregnable and the arguments unanswerable.”

As it turns out, the position is neither “impregnable” nor the arguments “unanswerable.” The entire purpose for the council and prime debate to be settled was the relationship of the Father and the Son. Specifically, whether or not Jesus Christ is a created being or true God. Amid the secondary disputes presented at Nicea, the subject of worship on Sunday was not even broached. However, James R. White mentions that “Twenty canons were presented dealing with various disciplinary issues within the church.” It is here that Seventh Day Sabbatarians attempt to lodge a foot in the door. However, the only one that even remotely touches our topic is the twentieth canon which reads:

Forasmuch as there are certain persons who kneel on the Lord’s Day and in the days of Pentecost, therefore, to the intent that all things may be uniformly observed everywhere (in every parish), it seems good to the holy Synod that prayer be made to God standing.”

This canon bypasses the subject of the propriety of gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day entirely (and during Pentecost) and discusses instead whether or not individuals should kneel or stand while praying. Paul Pavao provides these comments on the 20th canon, “In De Corona (ch. 3) Tertullian, around A.D. 200, says that the practice of praying while standing on Sunday and between Passover and Pentecost was a long-standing tradition. So this tradition predates Nicea by around two centuries, at least. The reason for this is that the first day of the week and Passover were days to celebrate the resurrection. Since they were days of celebration, kneeling and fasting were forbidden. Tertullian seems to think those traditions were observed everywhere…The observance of the Lord’s day and the avoidance of fasting and kneeling on the first day of the week is a very ancient tradition.”

Canright cites the following historical facts (including sources) regarding the Council of Nicea which further damage the Seventh Day Sabbatarian case:

This world-renowned council was held at Nice in Grecian territory near Constantinople, A.D. 325. It was the first general council of the Christian Church. Dean Stanley, in his ‘History of the Eastern Church,’ devotes one hundred pages to this council. On page 99 he says it was Eastern, held in the center of the Eastern Church. Its decrees were accepted by all Christendom ‘as a final settlement of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity’ (page 102). It was a democratic assembly; no Pope ruled over it (page 107). In calling the council, the Bishop of Rome was not consulted, nor did he or any bishop from Italy attend. Only two presbyters came to represent Rome and only five or six bishops from all the West. There were three hundred and eighteen bishops present. All these were from the Eastern Greek Churches, except the six as above. It was emphatically an Eastern Greek council, held in Greek territory, and conducted in the Greek language. The ‘Encyclopedia Britannica,’ Article ‘Nice,’ says: “The West was but feebly represented. Two presbyters as deputies of the Roman Bishop, Sylvester, were present. Thus an immense majority of the Synod hailed from the East.” (emphasis mine)

Furthermore, the 6th Nicene canon refutes the Seventh Day Sabbatarian assertion of an ultimately authoritative Rome:

Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also. Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges. And this is to be universally understood, that if any one be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop. If, however, two or three bishops shall from natural love of contradiction, oppose the common suffrage of the rest, it being reasonable and in accordance with the ecclesiastical law, then let the choice of the majority prevail.”

On this canon James R. White writes, “This canon is significant because it demonstrates that at this time there was no concept of a single universal head of the church with jurisdiction over everyone else. While later Roman bishops would claim such authority, resulting in the development of the papacy, at this time no Christian looked to one individual, or church, as the final authority.”

Once again referring to the “persecution” element of the discussion, let’s briefly make a note of just who these bishops voting at Nicea were. James R. White writes:

When it (the Council of Nicea) began on June 19, 325, the fires of persecution had barely cooled. The Roman Empire had been unsuccessful in its attempt to wipe out the Christian faith. Fourteen years had elapsed since the final persecutions under the Emperor Galerius had ended. Many of the men who made up the Council of Nicea bore in their bodies the scars of persecution. They had been willing to suffer for the name of Christ.”

So we have bishops, many of whom had been willing to die and had indeed submitted to torture rather than betray their faith, voting on the issues at the Council of Nicea. Does it make sense that these same men would vote to compromise the church by enforcing a foreign tradition rooted in paganism fourteen years after they were willing to die for their principles? No.

Canright aptly summarizes, “This, it will be seen, simply recognizes the Lord’s Day as a well-known Christian day of worship familiar to all that great Eastern council. There was no discussion over it, no opposition to it. Here were eighteen hundred bishops and clergy nearly all from the Eastern Churches. Did any one of them object that they kept the Sabbath instead of the Lord’s Day? No, not a hint of it. All were agreed on the day. And this was over a hundred years before the Papacy was born and only four years after Constantine’s Sunday law of A.D. 321.”

The Council of Laodicea 364 AD

If it were not far too little, far too late, the twenty-ninth canon of the Council of Laodicea might give us pause:

“Christians must not judaize by resting on the Sabbath, but must work on that day, rather honouring the Lord’s Day; and, if they can, resting then as Christians. But if any shall be found to be judaizers, let them be anathema from Christ.”

Why is this no help for the Seventh Day Sabbatarian case? Canright cites multiple reasons:

Laodicea is not Rome. It is situated in Asia Minor over 1,000 miles east of Rome. It was in Asia, not in Europe. It was an Eastern, not a Western town, an Oriental, not a Latin city…It was a Greek, not a Roman city…The Pope of Rome did not attend this council at Laodicea, A.D. 364…nor did he send a legate or a delegate or any one to represent him. In fact, neither the Roman Church nor the Pope had anything to do with the council in any way, shape, or manner. It was held without even their knowledge or consent… I have searched through a number of cyclopedias and church histories and can find no mention at all of the council at Laodicea in most of them, and only a few lines in any…Rev. W. Armstrong, a scholar of Canton, Pa., says: ‘This council is not even mentioned by Mosheim, Milner, Euter, Reeves, Socrates, Sozomen, nor by four other historians on my table.’ McClintock and Strong’s ‘Cyclopedia’ says of this council: ‘Thirty-two bishops were present from different provinces in Asia.’ All bishops of the Eastern Church, not one from the Roman Church!…Now think of it: this little local council of thirty-two bishops revolutionizes the whole world on the keeping of the Sabbath immediately without opposition!”

Conclusion

We have clearly established that Rome most certainly did not have the authority to forcibly “change” the day upon which the vast majority of Christendom worshiped at the early date Seventh Day Sabbatarian theories require. Nor can the institution of this tradition be traced to Constantine’s 321 AD edict. Even less logic can be detected in attempting to declare subsequent ecumenical councils as the culprit which were not Roman but Greek, and not even attended by a Roman bishop (pope). Canright states in his forthright fashion that one may “As well claim that Russia established our Fourth of July.” I find this comparison particularly relevant in light of our current political climate.

Seventh Day Sabbatarians may choose to esteem Saturday rather than Sunday. They may not, however, vilify those who choose to esteem Sunday by ascribing fallacious and historically unsupportable pagan origin to the tradition. A tradition that is well attested universally by Christians in all geographical areas, from the very earliest documentation, citing the very same reasons, without controversy or written record of debate.

As the Apostle Paul writes by divine inspiration in Romans 14:5-12:

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. […] 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

To that, I reply with a hearty, Amen!