Anti-Sabbatarianism in the ESV Study Bible

Let me preface this post by stating that I am a big fan of the ESV Study Bible. Sure, the relentless pre-publication hype eventually became rather tiresome, the superlatives used in some of the celebrity endorsements were faintly ridiculous, and I can’t help but wonder how anyone could in good conscience shell out $240 for a “Premium Calfskin” edition when around 200 million people today don’t have access to the Bible in their own language. Such minor gripes notwithstanding, the ESV Study Bible is easily the best of its kind available today and I have no hesitation in recommending it. It’s a fantastic resource and I use it daily.

Laudations aside, I was surprised and not a little annoyed yesterday by one of its study notes. I’ve been following the excellent daily reading plan and Sunday’s reading included Isaiah 56:2:

Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.

Students of Reformed theology will be aware that this is one of the verses in the Old Testament commonly cited to underline the importance of keeping the Sabbath. The study note for this verse helpfully points the reader to the note for Romans 14:5, which discusses “the Sabbath command as it applies to Christian believers”. So out of healthy curiosity I flicked over to Romans 14:5:

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.

The study note in question reads as follows (with emphasis added):

The weak thought some days were more important than others. Given the Jewish background here (see v. 14), the day that is supremely in view is certainly the Sabbath. The strong think every day is the same. Both views are permissible. Each person must follow his own conscience. What is remarkable is that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment for Paul but a matter of one’s personal conviction. Unlike the other nine commandments in Ex. 20:1–17, the Sabbath commandment seems to have been part of the “ceremonial laws” of the Mosaic covenant, like the dietary laws and the laws about sacrifices, all of which are no longer binding on new covenant believers (see also Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16–17). However, it is still wise to take regular times of rest from work, and regular times of worship are commanded for Christians (Heb. 10:24–25; cf. Acts 20:7).

Now, I happen to disagree on several levels with the position expressed in this note. For example, the claim that the Sabbath is “certainly”  in view here is a considerable overstatement, hardly warranted by the mere observation of its “Jewish background”. But that’s not the point I wish to make here. Rather, my point is that it’s surprising and rather disappointing to find such an anti-Sabbatarian view expressed in the ESV Study Bible as if that position were uncontroversial among Evangelicals, there being no significant dissenting views. (Compare, for example, the lengthy and even-handed notes on Genesis 1 and Revelation 20.)

According to its ‘Introduction’,

the doctrinal perspective of the ESV Study Bible is that of classic evangelical orthodoxy, in the historic stream of the Reformation. . . . Within that broad tradition of evangelical orthodoxy, the notes have sought to represent fairly the various evangelical positions on disputed topics such as baptism, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, the future of ethnic Israel, and questions concerning the millennium and other events connected with the time of Christ’s return. (pp. 10-11)

I’d have thought that different views on the Sabbath would easily fall under “various evangelical positions on disputed topics”. Moreover, the position expressed in the note on Romans 14:5 — essentially, that the fourth commandment is a wholly ceremonial law that has now been entirely abrogated — is barely inside “the historic stream of the Reformation”. It represents a markedly weaker view of the Sabbath than both of the historic Reformed positions: the “Continental view” (Calvin’s) and the “Puritan view” (Westminster’s).

Apparently the notes on Romans were contributed by Thomas Schreiner. For the record, I think this was an excellent choice. Schreiner is a first-class exegete and theologian; his commentary on Romans is among the best in its class (not that my opinion counts for much). I’ve no objection to such a view on the Sabbath being expressed in a scholarly commentary, even though I disagree with it. But doesn’t it seem altogether out of place in the ESV Study Bible, given its target audience and professed goals?

So how did the anti-Sabbatarianism of the note on Romans 14:5 slip past the editors? Didn’t they realize this would run the risk of upsetting a sizeable portion of their target constituency? (No doubt the fact that Schreiner also served as New Testament Editor goes some way toward answering the first question.)

Well, at least I now feel somewhat less annoyed for having got that off my chest. Who’d have thought blogging could be so therapeutic?

6 Responses to Anti-Sabbatarianism in the ESV Study Bible

  1. I can’t help but wonder how anyone could in good conscience shell out $240 for a “Premium Calfskin” edition when around 200 million people today don’t have access to the Bible in their own language

    In fairness, I wonder if Crossway put any of that significant profit towards translating the Bible into other languages, subsidizing the very cheap versions of the ESV which they do offer, and of course offering the ESV and some of its study components available for free online.

  2. Hi Dominic,

    Good points. I’d like to think that some of the profits go towards Scripture translation. Do we know that?

    The outreach editions are great. Still, marketing a luxury Bible doesn’t strike me as the best way to subsidize the costs!

    In any case, my throwaway comment was directed at the buyer rather than the seller. I can’t help but wonder what Jesus or Paul would have made of our Bible markets here in the affluent West.

  3. David McKay

    Hi James
    I am wading through the ESV Study Bible, after a rapid read-through of seven other Bibles over the previous 3 and a half years.

    This time, it will take at least 2 years, I think. The ESV Study Bible has some great features. I really appreciate John Collins introduction and notes on Psalms. Here and also in his article on the theology of the Old Testament, he rightly highlights the centrality of God’s revelation of himself to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7. Over and over, the ESV SB shows us how often this passage is referred to through the OT. Sometimes directly quoted, but also frequently alluded to.

    I hope to preach on Psalm 89 in July and to focus on God’s HESED and EMUNAH which are referred to over and over in Psalm 89, and which were also part of what God said about himself to Moses in Exodus 34.

    Ducking for cover, I must say that I can’t see any sabbatarianism taught in the NT.

  4. Hi David,

    “Ducking for cover, I must say that I can’t see any sabbatarianism taught in the NT.”

    You need to start in the OT and move forward. ;)

    One might argue that sabbatarianism is absent from the NT only in the limited sense that, say, condemnation of bestiality is also absent. In brief, I think the fact that (1) sabbath observance is one of the Ten Commandments and (2) the NT apparently endorses the continued applicability of the Ten Commandments to the covenant community yields at least a presumption in favor of some form of sabbatarianism (albeit modified by the transition from Old to New Covenant).

    But knowing that you and I disagree about Covenant Theology, I realize it will take much more argument than this to convince you. :)

  5. David McKay

    Hi James
    How should we interpret the Scriptures? Does the New Testament show how the Old should be interpreted? Or must we read the New through an Old Testament lens? Or both at once?

    It is a fascinating topic, isn’t it!

  6. rveldman

    My own denomination, the Free Methodist Church, is still somewhat sabbatarian on paper, but you would never know it from knowing our people. Honoring the Lord’s Day is a long-lost practice among us. This sad state of affairs is highlighted by the fact that if any (I generalize here) of our people came across the note in the ESV Study Bible we are discussing that they would not even see a problem. But the FM’s from the 1960’s on back would sure notice!