Book Review: A Brief History of Sunday, by Justo González
Justo Gonzalez, A Brief History of Sunday: From the New Testament to the New Creation. Eerdmans, 2017. 176 pp, $16.00.
When I first saw the title of this book, I almost drooled. Theologically, the relationship between Sabbath and Lord’s Day can feel complex—and practically, the rise of Saturday night services in churches across the U.S. has invited arguments both for and against a “Christian Sabbath.” As a result, “the Sabbath itself has no rest.”[i] This is why we could use a popular history of the Lord’s Day. I fear, however, that instead of outlining Sunday’s lineage, Gonzalez is trying to liberate it from a theology of atonement that he wrongly sees as oppressive.
His reason for writing, though, is commendable: “Christians find themselves once again in the midst of a society that is indifferent and sometimes even hostile to their values and beliefs, and have to find ways to live those values, proclaim those beliefs, and worship their God with diminishing social support. For all but them, Sunday is just another day—a day of leisure, and football, and trips to the beach” (141). Amen! His solution? Liturgical renewal will begin by “looking at an earlier time, the time when worship had to stand on its own meaning and on the faith behind it, but not on social approval or legal support, and a time when worship was more participatory” (143).
He’s right. Our churches need to do better than just leaning on the ever-useful arms of state-sanctioned blue laws. At his best, Gonzalez challenges us to prepare for days when we’ll have to believe with Bonhoeffer that “’the freedom of the church is not where it has possibilities, but only where the Gospel really and in its own power makes room for itself on earth, even and precisely when no such possibilities are offered to it.’”[ii]
THE BOOK’S ARGUMENT
The main point of the book, repeatedly emphasized, is that “the Lord’s day was not to be a day of particular sobriety or austerity. On the contrary, this was a day of joy and celebration” to commemorate Jesus’ resurrection (39). Instead of kneeling and fasting, feasting was the order of the Day. Thus Gonzalez celebrates the Eastern church’s focus on “the victory of Christ over the powers of evil” by Christ’s “resurrection from among the dead” (70). These were the glory days for Gonzalez, and he wants to bring them into the present.
Unfortunately, the villain of the story (as Gonzalez tells it) is the Western church, where “God was seen primarily as a legislator and judge, sin as a debt owed to God for having broken the law, and Christ as the sacrificial victim atoning for sin. Salvation then was the result of having such a debt wiped away, either by the merits of Christ or by one’s own merits—or, most commonly, by a combination of both” (70). He draws a straight causal line from penal substitution to the Catholic penitential system, indulgences, and the Mass. For Gonzalez, “the most important point to underscore is the shift from a view in which Communion was a celebration of Christ’s victory to a more somber view in which Communion was the repetition of his sacrifice” (71).
Long story short: Sunday would still be fun if it hadn’t been for the Western church inventing penal substitution “influenced by the Roman emphasis on law and order” (70). When the cross became a punishment, Sunday became a drag, because communion became a re-sacrificing of Jesus’ body, which made Sunday more funeral than festival. The Mass may be the bitter fruit, but penal substitution, for Gonzalez, is the bitter root. This is what “radically changed the mood of the Sunday service” (76).
THE BOOK’S PROBLEMS
The problem with this reconstruction, of course, is that penal substitution is neither Eastern nor Western. It’s middle-eastern; that is, it’s biblical (Mark 10:45; Rom. 3:21–26; Gal. 3:13; 1 Pet. 2:24), and Jesus himself intended communion, certainly not as a bloodless re-sacrifice, but definitely as a proclamation of his death (Matt 26:28; Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:26). If churches can’t glory in the cross on the Lord’s Day, that’s not the West’s fault.
Gonzalez laments Sunday’s historic mood swing from “one of joy and victory” to “funereal overtones, centering not on the resurrection and on eschatological hope, but rather on the cross and human sin that made the cross necessary” (95–96). From this, it’s hard not to conclude that Gonzalez might prefer a cross-less Lord’s Day. One wonders what to do with Paul’s determination to glory in the cross (Gal 6:14; cf. 1Cor 1:18; 2:1–5).
Not surprisingly, ignoring the cross eventually leads Gonzalez to forget the Christ. Perhaps the most telling moment is when he approvingly quotes a wholly Christ-less hymn as if it exemplifies the joyful remembrance of the resurrection he thinks the Fathers envisioned in the first few centuries. Here’s some lines from the hymn: “God invites all the poor and hungry to the banquet of justice and good, where the harvest will not be hoarded, so that no one will lack for food.” Underneath is the liberation theology for which Gonzalez is really arguing. Here’s more: “May we build such a place among us where all people are equal in love. God has called us to work together and to share everything we have.” There’s a note of utopian universalism there. And the refrain? “Let us now go to the banquet, to the feast of the universe. The table’s set and a place is waiting, come, everyone, with your gifts to share.”
Is that what it looks like to celebrate the Lord’s Day—with no mention of the Lord?
CHURCH HISTORY WITH AN AGENDA
A sunny ecumenism shines through his unqualified praise of Vatican 2 for “recalling that Sunday is a feast day, and that therefore the Mass, rather than a [sad] remembrance of the death of Christ, is a celebration of his victorious resurrection” (145). Gonzalez appears too easily satisfied in his preferred cheerfulness, but with no corresponding change in the Catholic theology of the Mass itself—or, for that matter, the penal substitutionary atonement he presents as the root of the problem. How is this not simply an ecumenical call for Catholics and Protestants alike to just lighten up on Sunday?
Of course, no human telling of history is ever without its biases, but Gonzalez’s book is a particularly clear example of church history with an agenda. The argument ends up feeling like special pleading for a Sunday observance of the liberationist theology he promotes elsewhere in his writings—titles like Liberation Theology, The Liberating Pulpit, Liberation Preaching; Poverty and Ecclesiology: Nineteenth-Century Evangelicals in Light of Liberation Theology; and Proclaiming the Acceptable Year.
Here, in his latest release, Gonzalez attempts to liberate Sunday itself. But liberate it from what? Apparently from the cross, which Paul said was of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3–6), the very cross without which there would be no resurrection.
Last but not least, there’s the pesky problem of the ultimate authority for Sunday observance, which Gonzalez leaves dangling as a loose end. He observes that a “main point of contention [in British Puritanism] . . . was . . . why Sunday should be observed.” He then adds: “It may be worth remembering that this question had already arisen in Protestant-Catholic polemics at the time of the reformation, Catholics generally claiming that the establishment of Sunday was an action of the church, and that this proved the authority of the church to interpret Scripture and determine how it is to be applied” (q121).
Catholics said the church made the change for herself, using this “as an argument against the insistence of Protestants on the sole authority of Scripture” (95), whereas Protestants and Puritans argued dominical authority for the change by our Lord’s resurrection on the first day. Yet for all this, Gonzalez never shows his own cards—not exactly a ringing endorsement for sola scriptura. But as R. J. Bauckham rightly notes elsewhere regarding Sunday observance, “the use of its title, the Lord’s Day, in Revelation 1:10 gives that custom the stamp of canonical authority.”[iii]
Gonzalez’s real commitments are all too clear. What he wants, in the end, is a Lord’s Day that “emphasizes the joyful and festive elements in worship, particularly in communion” (147). Penal substitution, Catholic Priests, and Protestant Puritans vacuumed all the joy out of it, so Gonzalez swoops in to liberate the Lord’s Day from the morbidity of the cross by focusing on the “joy” of a cross-less resurrection.
But distinctively Christian joy, as Machen observed, “is a joy akin to fear.” And on the Lord’s Day in particular, “Despairing, hoping, trembling, half-doubting and half-believing, trusting all to Jesus, we venture into the presence of the very God. And in His presence we live.”[iv]
That’s Christian joy—a recognition that the resurrection only happened because the cross had to happen first. “For Christ our Passover has been sacrificed; therefore celebrate the feast not with the leaven of evil and immorality but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (1 Cor. 5:7–9). Sacrifice doesn’t ruin celebration; it enables, informs, purifies, and sobers it.
Christ has been sacrificed; therefore, we celebrate.
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[i] Quoted from R.J. Bauckham, “Sabbath and Sunday in the Protestant Tradition,” in D.A. Carson, ed., From Sabbath to Lord’s Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1982), p.323. Bauckham’s historical essays in this volume, though more technical and rigorous, provide a more accurate history of the Lord’s Day…minus the axe to grind.
[ii] He goes on: “The essential freedom of the church is not a gift of the world to the church, but the freedom of the Word of God to gain a hearing…Freedom as an institutional possession is not an essential mark of the church since whether the churches of God are really free can only be decided by the actual preaching of the Word of God. Quoted in Mark Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (New York: Oxford, 2002), p.54.
[iii] Bauckham, 240.
[iv] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009 [f.p. 1923]), p.114.