R.A. Torrey on the Sabbath and the Holy Spirit

I finished Fred Sanders’ How God Used R.A. Torrey, and I will be writing my review of it tomorrow.  (Moody Publishers sent me a review copy in exchange for an honest review, just to get that out into the open.)  The book is a collection of sermons that were delivered by R.A. Torrey (1856-1928).  In this post, I would like to discuss two topics that are in the book: the Sabbath and the Trinity.  I grew up in a denomination that observed the seventh-day Sabbath on Saturday and did not believe in the Trinity, thinking that the Holy Spirit is an impersonal force rather than a person.  While I do not feel bound to those beliefs, they form a background for my discussion in this post.

A.  On page 59, Torrey states after quoting the Sabbath commandment: “This is not the seventh day of the week, as some men say, daring to put into God’s Word what He did not put in, but the seventh day is for rest after six days of work, without specifying which day of the week it should come.  Of course it was the seventh day of the week with the Jew, in commemoration of the old creation; but with the Christian it is the first day of the week, in commemoration of the new creation through a risen Lord.”

I read this sort of argument some years back on a Christian dating site of which I was a part.  Someone was arguing against seventh-day Sabbatarianism by saying that the fourth commandment does not require people to observe Saturday (or, more accurately, sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) as the Sabbath; rather, it requires people to work for six days and rest on the day after those six days.  It does not specify which days those six days are, and which days the seventh day is.  The person making this point cited Waltke-O’Connor, but (in vague retrospect) I doubt that Waltke-O’Connor were making that point about the Sabbath; rather, they were referring to examples in the Hebrew Bible of a set number of days being followed by another day.

I respected the person making that point, since he brought a knowledge of scholarship to the discussion boards.  But I thought that he was dead wrong in his interpretation of the fourth commandment.  The reason was that, in the Torah, the Sabbath seemed to me to be a specific day of the week, not any seventh day coming after any six days.  I think of the story of the manna: manna fell for six days, but it did not fall on the seventh day, so the Israelites had to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day.  Does that sound to you like the Israelites could pick any seventh day as their Sabbath?  No, the Sabbath was a specific day of the week, the seventh day, and on that day manna did not fall.  Or consider the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath and got executed.  He could not say, “Today is my day of work, and it is not the seventh day that I have chosen to rest on; my seventh day is Tuesday.”  No, the Sabbath was a specific day of the week, and all Israelites were expected to rest on that day, under penalty of death for refusing to do so.

My reading of Torrey indicates that he would agree with my analysis, even though he made a similar argument to that of the person on the Christian dating site.  Torrey acknowledges that the Sabbath for Old Testament Israel was sunset Friday to sunset Saturday.  He may even acknowledge that God in Genesis 1 rested on sunset Friday to sunset Saturday (or at least he thinks that the Saturday sabbath commemorates what happened in Genesis 1).  But his point appears to be that Christians, by observing Sunday as their Sabbath (not that all Christians do, but a number of Christians in history have), are actually obeying the fourth commandment, even if they rest on a different day from what the ancient Israelites rested on.  The reason is that the Christians are working for six days and resting on a seventh.  Their seventh day is not the same seventh day that the Israelites rested on, but it is still a seventh day after six days of work, and resting on it obeys the fourth commandment, after the dawn of the new creation.

I take it that Torrey is quite specific about what in the fourth commandment is the actual commandment.  The actual commandment, for Torrey, is to work for six days and rest on the seventh day after that.  I doubt that Torrey includes in the fourth commandment the elaboration in Exodus 20:11 that provides the rationale for it: that God worked for six days at creation and rested on the seventh day, and that God blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.  For Torrey, I infer, that is not the commandment itself, but the elaboration of the commandment for Old Testament Israel, as it specifies the day on which Old Testament Israel is to rest, namely, from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset.  Christians celebrate another day, Sunday, in commemoration of something else (Christ’s resurrection and the new creation), but they are still obeying the fourth commandment because they are working for six days and resting on the seventh day after that.

I am not sure if I find this argument convincing, but it is interesting.

B.  There is a chapter of the book in which Torrey is arguing that the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force.  (Whom exactly Torrey was arguing against, I do not know, but he does say later in the book that he used to read Unitarian literature, so he may be arguing against Unitarians, people who did not believe in the Trinity.)  Torrey notes places in the New Testament in which the Holy Spirit speaks, knows, intercedes, instructs, can be grieved, has a mind, and has a will.  According to Torrey, that applies to a person, not an impersonal force.  Torrey also refers to Nehemiah 9:20, which states that God gave God’s Spirit to instruct Israel.  Torrey believes that the doctrine of the personality of the Holy Spirit, and even the Trinity, is present in the Old Testament, not just the New.

I do not entirely know how Armstrongites account for such passages; one Armstrongite I know said that such passages about the Holy Spirit are personifications, not literal descriptions, in the same way that wisdom is personified as someone calling out in the Book of Proverbs.  I am skeptical that such a comparison works, though.  The Book of Proverbs could be personifying wisdom as part of a poetic appeal for people to follow wisdom and not folly; that, in my mind, is arguably different from a New Testament narrative or statement about reality that the Holy Spirit speaks or has personal characteristics.  The two just seem to me to be different genres.

At the same time, I am scanning a United Church of God article that argues that the Holy Spirit is not a person, and it makes the case that there are impersonal characteristics of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament: the Holy Spirit is said to be poured out; it can fill people; people can quench it.  Can this be said of a person?  The article answers no.

Then I wonder: Can the Holy Spirit be the power of God rather than a personal being, as Armstrongites argue, and still do all the stuff that Torrey mentions?  Can God instruct people through his power?  Well, where that may get tricky is that the Holy Spirit in Romans 8 intercedes for believers.  Can God use his power to intercede for believers before God?  I am not saying that is impossible, but it is hard to picture; it is easier to picture a being interceding between us and God the Father.  Or maybe God does, through his power, support people in their prayers.  Is that a stretch, though, that departs abysmally from what Romans 8 is saying?

Then there is the question of the Holy Spirit in the Hebrew Bible.  I am very hesitant to say that we have the Trinity in the Hebrew Bible.  I am not hesitant to question my Armstrongite heritage; my education in the historical-critical method of studying the Bible, well, I am more hesitant to question that!  There, I am open to saying that God according to Nehemiah 9:20 can instruct Israel through God’s power, meaning there is only one God- person in the Old Testament, but God still acts through God’s power; in this model, there is a personality behind that power, namely, God, but the Holy Spirit would still be God’s power, as opposed to being a separate person from God the Father.

I admit that I have much to learn about the Holy Spirit: historical-critical understandings of the Holy Spirit, Jewish understandings of the Holy Spirit, etc.

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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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