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The True Doctrine of the Sabbath by Nicholas Bownd

D. Scott Meadows

The True Doctrine of the Sabbath—A Critical Edition with Introduction and Analysis, by Nicholas Bownd. Dallas: Naphtali, and Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2015, cx + 482 pages, $30.00.

One could not hope to find a more venerable declaration, explanation, demonstration, fortification, and recommendation of the typical Puritan doctrine of the Sabbath, as summarized in the Westminster Confession of Faith (21.7–8), than this one by Nicholas Bownd (or Bownde, or Bound, d. 1613), Doctor of Divinity (Cambridge, 1594). The first edition appeared in 1595; this reprint contains the second edition (1606), which answers a contemporary critic. Added are many significant enhancements for modern readers (e.g., modern editing standards, translation of all Latin sources referenced). The extended, descriptive title of 1606 was:

Sabbathum Veteris Et Novi Testimenti [Sabbath, Old and New Testament]: or, The True Doctrine of the Sabbath held and practiced of the church of god, both before, and under the law; and in the time of the gospel: plainly laid forth and soundly proved by testimonies both of holy scripture, and also of old and new ecclesiastical writers, fathers and councils, and laws of all sorts, both civil, canon and common.

The book begins with new material including a substantial introduction and analysis. The introduction describes the historical setting and presents a brief biography of the author, including his controversy with a certain Thomas Rogers, which arose from the book’s first edition. The analysis section makes a balanced assessment of Bownd’s work. The original material follows, starting with “Prefatory Epistles, 1595–1606.” Bownd’s treatise is divided into two major parts, roughly equating to the Sabbath’s basis and its practice. Bownd uses the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:8–11(KJV) as his overarching text and organizing principle: “Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy” (basis); “Six days shalt thou labor 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,” etc. (practice).

Book One, “The Ancient Institution and Continuance of the Sabbath,” addresses perhaps the most technically difficult aspects of the subject, such as the nature of the Fourth Commandment in particular and the complex case for its continuance. Five formidable objections to Christians keeping the Sabbath are answered admirably; some of these are still in circulation today, being offered by Dispensationalists and adherents of so-called New Covenant Theology. Bownd insists that each seventh day is moral law, while the specific day of the week to be set apart is positive law, being changed from the last day of the week for the Jews to the first day of the week for Christians, in honor of Christ’s resurrection upon this day. He argues that the day’s name has also been changed to “the Lord’s Day.” Many good reasons remain for resting from our ordinary work on this day—particularly so that we might without hindrance give ourselves to the worship of God in public and in private. Keeping the Lord’s Day is a commandment for everyone, not just believers. Christians are as strictly bound by this law as were Jews, and yet the specific requirements for keeping the Lord’s Day are not as complex and burdensome. Book One concludes with a case against recreations that interfere with Sabbath sanctification.

Book Two, “The Sanctification of the Sabbath,” gives specific and practical direction for both corporate and private obedience to the precept. Precision in keeping God’s commandments is strongly urged. Public worship must have preaching as its main feature, without omitting the public reading of Scripture, weekly observance of the Lord’s Supper, baptism whenever warranted, prayers, and collections for the poor. Acceptable worship necessarily involves spiritual knowledge and deep reverence behind outward conformity to God’s revealed will. A section making the case for “whole day” Sabbath keeping precedes the advocacy and elements of private worship: preparation, meditation on Scripture and God’s works, holy conference, and psalm singing. Lastly, “works of mercy” are urged not as an exception to the Sabbath but as a requirement, and superiors (heads of families and princes) are exhorted to promote Sabbath sanctification in the lives of their subjects.

Strengths of this book include its reverence for God and his Word, its comprehensiveness, appeal to previous teachers of orthodoxy (some ancient), and its exemplary exegesis joined with theological reasoning. Bownd illustrates powerfully the usefulness of that happy combination of rare intellectual gifts and academic preparation with a heart devoted to God and his glory. The author abounds in powers of ethical analysis within an atmosphere of deep spirituality. I found myself richly fed and gently convicted again and again. This sentence provoked my yearning toward further reformation:

If we do measure out the obedience of all men, we shall easily see how short they are of that perfect righteousness, which is here required; and that many shall be even then found breakers of this commandment, when they did most presume of the keeping of it, and were puffed up with a spiritual pride for it. (279–80)

As with any book of mere human composition, there are weaknesses and flaws, but in my view they are slight blemishes in comparison with the overall treasure. Bownd relates a bizarre story, probably superstitious or exaggerated, of a baby born with the face of a dog as divine punishment for a nobleman who loved his hunting dogs too much and chose hunting over church attendance. This is one example of the few instances for reasonable criticism.

Given its massive treatment and its strategic timing in the history of Protestant and Puritan Sabbath theology, this volume ought to be in every Reformed pastor’s library. Even if Bownd borrowed some ideas from previous generations, I know of nothing comparable to this trove of Christian Sabbath doctrine. It seems that all advocates of the Lord’s Day in the Reformed tradition ever since are indebted to Bownd, whether they realize it or not. Ad fontes!

A good dose of Bownd with God’s blessing, expressed accessibly for this generation, would go far toward recovering greater faithfulness in worship—in the church, our families, and in society. Making the best spiritual use of our Lord’s Days is both a sign and a means of evangelical and redemptive progress. Those most likely to benefit from Bownd’s book must have an open mind, facility in reading older works, and a zeal to glean all that is profitable for the soul.

D. Scott Meadows is a Reformed Baptist minister serving as the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church (Reformed), in Exeter, New Hampshire. Ordained Servant Online, April 2017.

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