A Brief History of Sunday

From the New Testament to the New Creation

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Justo L. González
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , May
     176 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Well known for his numerous books on Christian history and theology, Justo González presents in this latest publication a remarkable study of the history of the meaning of Sunday as a day of worship and rest in Christian tradition. Although brief, and at times lacking in-depth discussions and references to scholarly discussions of the various issues related to the topic, the book nonetheless synthesizes together a vast wealth of scholarship and knowledge on this subject. It is a remarkable book and it will make a difference in any future discussion of the topic.

I must admit that I am biased when discussing this subject since I am a Seventh-day Adventist historian and theologian and have long known all the basic texts and arguments in the change from Sabbath to Sunday in the early church. González, who is a United Methodist minister, is naturally in support of Sunday as a day of worship. But gratefully, this book is not a polemical rehearsal of well- known arguments and is not intended to pick a fight with Christians who insist on observing Saturday as a day of rest, a practice that González readily admits goes back to the early church (23). Instead, it is an informative and graceful account of the development of the meaning of Sunday from the days of the New Testament church to our present time, a meaning that the author believes has been lost.

A Brief History of Sunday is divided into four parts which give an overview of the meaning of Sunday before Constantine, from Constantine to the end of antiquity, during the Middle Ages, and, finally, from the Reformation to today. Throughout the book, González carefully weaves together the history of seventh-day Sabbath observance in Christianity, the development of the meaning of Sunday as a day of worship and rest (both concepts were not linked at first), and the development of what Sunday worship involves.

Admittedly, there are not many texts in the first three hundred years of Christianity to explain the meaning of Sunday worship, and things are often assumed rather than probed. One of them is González’s assumption on the basis of Acts 20:7 that Sunday worship first began on a Saturday evening to slowly move to Sunday morning before dawn by the time of Justin Martyr (20-23). There is no solid evidence on which to base this assumption and to generalize it as a pattern throughout Christianity, yet this is a crucial point in González’s reasoning.

I certainly found it interesting that González readily admits that early Christians naturally kept Saturday as a day of rest and worship and that most early Gentiles who converted to Christianity likely kept Sabbath too since the early church was predominantly Jewish. Today this fact is less debated than it used to be and is more generally acknowledged. What is enlightening throughout the book is the author’s careful presentation of how Sunday became another day of worship and came to be the dominant day in Christianity, even though for centuries some Christians in various parts of the world also kept Sabbath. According to González, the earliest documents to speak of worship on Sunday emphasized three events of salvation history to justify a simple worship before dawn on that day: Sunday was chronologically the first day of creation; it was the day of Jesus’s resurrection and thus symbolically represents the beginning of a new creation; and it was the eighth day of the week and thus a day of hope pointing to the consummation of all things (31). González points out that early Christians did not consider Sunday as a day of strict rest, as the Jews considered the Sabbath, but slowly it became one after the Roman Empire became Christian at the time of Constantine. As Sunday became legally recognized (and enforced) as a day of rest, Christian liturgy developed and attendance at worship services became required.

Another important aspect of the book is the history of Sabbatarianism in English-speaking countries and the transference of the meaning of the third/fourth commandment to Sunday. Medieval theologians such as Thomas Aquinas were the first to distinguish between the moral and ceremonial aspects of the commandment, thus providing the basis for discarding the obligation of rest on Saturday and its transfer to Sunday. This argument over time gave rise to strict Sunday Sabbatarianism in some countries dominated by the Reformed tradition, and the beginning of seventh-day Sabbatarianism for those who continued to insist that the seventh day of the week (Saturday) remains the biblical Sabbath. Also interesting is González’s suggestion that it became easier for Protestants in some northern countries to adopt Sunday Sabbatarianism because in their languages the names for Saturday and Sunday do not have biblical antecedents like they do in many other languages where Saturday is derived from the Hebrew word Sabbath and Sunday is a form of the Latin for Lord’s Day (dominica).

I personally think this book succeeds in providing a renewed justification for Sunday worship in a world that has become highly secularized and where Christians are fast losing the historical and theological reasons for many of their practices. In this brief history, González wishes that Sunday worship in Christian churches would return to emphasizing the three basic values it had in early Christianity (a memorial of the first day of creation and of the day of Jesus’s resurrection, pointing to the beginning of a new creation, and as the eighth day of the week anticipating the consummation of all things), and subtly points out that attempts at making Sunday a restricted day of rest are a later development, and that mainly in English-speaking countries, where a Reformed tradition was firmly implanted. For González, this understanding of Sunday lacks valid historical connections to the early church. Overall, I believe this book provides a good summary of many arguments and ideas regarding the Christian observance of the Sabbath and Lord’s Day as days of worship and rest, and what exactly is the intended historical and theological meaning of each.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Denis Fortin is professor of historical theology at Andrews University.

Date of Review: 
September 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justo L. González is a retired professor of historical theology and United Methodist minister. His more than one hundred books, published in ten languages, include the acclaimed three-volume History of Christian Thought and The Story Luke Tells.



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