The name of “Bacchiocchi” was respected in Armstrongite circles–at least the ones that I ran in. I know that Garner Ted Armstrong and Ron Dart spoke highly of his dissertation, From Sabbath to Sunday, which concerned the Catholic Church’s change of the day of worship from Saturday to Sunday.
“So what?,” some may say. “There are a lot of Sabbatarian tracts that make that point.” The difference is that Bacchiocchi wrote his dissertation at the Pontifical Gregorian Institute at Rome, Italy, as the first non-Catholic to be admitted there since the sixteenth century (see Samuele Bacchiocchi – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). I read a while back that there were Catholics who actually liked his work because they thought it upheld the Church’s authority to institute non-Scriptural traditions (Sunday). Bacchiocchi assumed that the change of the Sabbath was a bad thing, but elements of the Church read his dissertation in another light–as a criticism of Sola Scriptura. Moreover, Bacchiocchi’s From Sabbath to Sunday was so influential that prominent Sunday-keeping scholars (e.g., D.A. Carson, Richard Bauckham) saw a need to refute it–in From Sabbath to Lord’s Day.
I’d like to talk first about my impression of his work, then some things that I know about him personally. I read From Sabbath to Sunday in high school. People always told me that it was a dense book, but I found its prose to be understandable, even though the footnotes were quite copious! The book was refreshing because it actually interacted with the early church fathers (e.g., Dicache, Justin Martyr, etc.). A lot of Sabbatarians don’t do this, for they assert that Constantine was the one who changed the church’s day of worship–in the fourth century C.E. But Christian writings as early as the late first century C.E. honor the first day of the week (see here), and Bacchiocchi did well to acknowledge that point.
For Bacchiocchi, the church moved away from Jewish observances after Rome had crushed the Jewish rebellions in the early second century C.E. It wanted to distance itself from the Jews so Rome would leave it alone! It’s been a while since I read Bacchiocchi, but he presented the second century church as if it was grasping for straws to buttress Sunday observance. He said that the resurrection of Christ on the first day of the week was not a major factor in its support for Sunday, for many church fathers focused on Christ’s death rather than his resurrection, plus they largely based their Sunday observance on the occurrence of the number eight in Scripture (e.g., eight people on the ark), since Sunday is the eighth day–the day after the seventh-day Sabbath.
I don’t think Bacchiocchi was totally wrong in his analysis, since the Romans’ defeat of the Jews may have contributed to the church’s anti-Judaism. But I don’t think he was totally right, either. His critics point out that there were early church fathers who connected the celebration of the first day of the week with Christ’s resurrection (again, see here). So Bacchiocchi’s explanation of the origins of Sunday observance is not the only way to see the issue. It could be that Christ rose on Sunday, and that’s why the early church fathers honored that day.
I fell in love with Bacchiocchi’s Divine Rest for Human Restlessness. It’s one of the few books that knocked my socks off! I read this book in high school. I liked Bacchiocchi’s statement that the Sabbath is a day to act like all my work is done. As someone who always has “one more thing” to do, this statement has given me rest and peace on many a Sabbath. I also enjoyed Bacchiocchi’s connection of the Sabbath with Christ’s coming kingdom, along with his personal anecdotes of how he tried to be faithful to the Sabbath as a non-Catholic in Sunday-keeping environments. Sabbatarianism is a minority practice in which adherents must push against the grain. After all, the world often requires work and secular activity on the Sabbath. So it was refreshing to read Bacchiocchi’s struggles with this issue. And Bacchiocchi’s book drew praise from Sunday-keeping organizations, which wanted to apply his insights to the Lord’s day.
His book, The Advent Hope, exposed me to a lot of eschatological and soteriological issues. I think I first learned of universalism from this particular work. (See Eschatological Sabbath: The Spiritual Interpretation for my critique of his approach to Isaiah 66).
I never read all of Wine and the Bible, only parts of it that are on the Internet. He was defending the tea-totaller position, and I recall that he referred to ancient sources in which oinos means unfermented grape juice. But I wonder how he would interpret Deuteronomy 14:26: “spend the money for whatever you wish–oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire” (NRSV).
A significant move was when he wrote a few books that said Christians should observe the annual holy days. There were Armstrongites who applauded his conversion, while more cynical people claimed that he was trying to lure Armstrongites into the Adventist church. The Worldwide Church of God was abandoning the Sabbath and the holy days in the 1990’s, after all, and there were members who still clung to those institutions, looking for a place to go.
I admire Bacchiocchi’s open-mindedness, since he was willing to explore spiritual avenues apart from the usual Adventist spiel. And, to his credit, his books on the holy days were not the typical Armstrongite interpretation of those festivals, which drew a lot of criticism. It’s good to read new interpretations, for a change!
But I don’t really go ga–ga anymore when someone unconventionally defends an Armstrongite doctrine. I used to get excited when a Sunday-keeping Protestant defended soul sleep or said we should keep the Sabbath or avoid unclean meats, since that made me feel less strange. And the same went for Bacchiocchi, who was a big scholar in a prominent Sabbatarian denomination, which relegated the holy days to the no-longer-relevant “ceremonial law.” But when Bacchiocchi started defending the holy days, the thought went through my mind: “I can’t be too strange to keep that stuff, since the respected scholar Bacchiocchi does so too.” Now, to be honest, I really don’t care. The peculiar doctrines of Armstongism don’t matter to me that much.
Bacchiocchi also criticized biblical inerrancy, as does the Seventh-Day Adventist church, which sees the Bible as “thought-inspired” rather than “word-inspired.” I wonder if he can offer me insight on how to reconcile faith with historical-criticism.
One more thing: Bacchiocchi had a little spat with Joe Tkach, Jr., the leader of the Worldwide Church of God. Bacchiocchi said it was ironic that the WCG was embracing a “new covenant perspective” on the Sabbath and holy days, while following the “old covenant” model of church hierarchy. My family and friends got a big kick out of that dig! It’s so true!
Now, for some personal stuff:
1. I know people who used to visit Bacchiocchi in Berrien Springs, where he taught at Andrews University. They say he was a very nice man.
2. Bacchiocchi and I interacted via e-mail. I ordered a copy of Divine Rest for Human Restlessness for an evangelical friend who had started keeping the Sabbath. Unfortunately, Bacchiocchi never got my check. So I never got the book!
3. My dad went to hear Bacchiocchi speak. Bacchiocchi attended several interdenominational Sabbatarian gatherings, which included Armstrongites. My dad loved Bacchiocchi’s response to a question about the Sabbath and legalism: “Legalism says one has to work for his salvation, but on the Sabbath I don’t work. I rest.”
So we lost a great man today–someone prominent in Sabbatarian and non-Sabbatarian circles, who was not afraid to look into different ideas and to interact with people from other denominations.