The reformers claimed to rely solely on the Bible. But Catholics argue that Protestants still recognize Rome’s authority because of a specific belief.
Martin Luther and his contemporaries claimed this Latin phrase, meaning “Scripture alone,” was the basis for their efforts to reform Catholicism and reject the authority of the pope and Catholic tradition.
Unfortunately, a major problem arose: they couldn’t fully agree on what and how to reform. Some wanted to move fast with sweeping reforms; others wanted to move slowly. Some wanted limited crosses and icons; others believed all icons were wrong. Some believed in infant baptism; others, only adult baptism. Some believed the Eucharistic bread was Christ’s body; others believed it represented Christ’s body. The disagreements went on and on, which is why there are thousands of Protestant denominations today.
But, despite these divisions, there is one belief the reformers almost unanimously agreed on. In this, they did not break with the Roman Church: They upheld Sunday as the day of worship.
The problem with Sunday
But maintaining Sunday created a huge problem Protestants still live with to this day. Simply put, it fundamentally broke with the concept of sola scriptura. The Bible shows that Jesus, the apostles and the early Church all observed the seventh-day Sabbath (Luke 4:16, 31; Acts 17:2-3; 18:4). So, if one was to rely solely on Scripture to decide doctrine, one would worship on the seventh day. (You can learn more about the biblical case for the seventh-day Sabbath in our video series “The Sabbath: A Gift From God.”)
To find the origin of Sunday worship, one has to consult extrabiblical history, which shows Sunday was gradually adopted (by some) beginning in the mid-second century. The first written evidence of Sunday worship is from a document written by Justin Martyr around A.D. 150. One of the primary motivations for the change to Sunday was a desire to not appear “Jewish.” In fact, early in its history, the Roman Church even imposed a weekly Saturday fast to show “contempt for the Jews” who observed the Sabbath as a feast (Kenneth Strand, ed., The Sabbath in Scripture and History, 1982, pp. 137-138).
In A.D. 321 Constantine the Great officially established Sunday as the day of rest throughout the Roman Empire. Constantine had been a devout sun worshipper most of his life, which might help explain why he enshrined dies solis (the day of the sun) as the official day of worship.
The history of Sunday is not a secret. To its credit, the Catholic Church is very honest about making this change. John A. O’Brien, in his book on Catholic theology, The Faith of Millions: The Credentials of the Catholic Religion, states the Catholic belief: “The Church received the authority to make such a change from her Founder, Jesus Christ. … The Church did not change the divine law obliging men to worship, but merely changed the day on which such public worship was to be offered” (1974, p. 400, emphasis added). Many other Catholic sources say the same thing.
Secular history and the Roman Church agree on this point: It was the Catholic Church that changed the Christian day of worship from the seventh day to Sunday—not the Bible.Secular history and the Roman Church agree on this point: It was the Catholic Church that changed the Christian day of worship from the seventh day to Sunday—not the Bible. To see more evidence of this, read “When and How Did the Change in Worship From Saturday to Sunday Occur?”
The reformers and the Sabbath
Now, back to the Reformation. As we have already seen, the reformers challenged many practices of Rome—while leaving Sunday untouched. But it wasn’t because they never considered the issue.
At the same time, there was a small movement that emerged from the Anabaptists in Silesia and Moravia advocating a return to the seventh-day Sabbath. Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin were aware of the Sabbatarians (as they were called), but all adamantly opposed them.
In a letter about fellow reformer Andreas Karlstadt (who had Sabbatarian leanings), Luther wrote: “Yes, if Karlstadt were to write more about the Sabbath, even Sunday would have to give way, and the Sabbath, that is Saturday, would be celebrated. He would truly make us Jews in all things, so that we also would have to be circumcised, etc.” (Against the Heavenly Prophets, 1525).
It’s interesting that Luther distinguished Sunday from the Sabbath, which he understood was on Saturday. Luther’s view was that the Sabbath was part of the ceremonial law for Jews and not binding on Christians. He maintained Sunday as the day of formal worship—but resisted it being considered obligatory or equated with the Fourth Commandment.
A challenge for Protestants
Though Protestant literature usually tries to justify Sunday observance with selected scriptures, this is a smokescreen for the historical reality that Rome, not the Bible, was responsible for the change. Catholic apologists have often used the discrepancy between sola scriptura and Sunday worship to chide Protestants. Notice these two examples:
From The Faith of Millions:
“But since Saturday, not Sunday, is specified in the Bible, isn’t it curious that non-Catholics who profess to take their religion directly from the Bible and not from the Church, observe Sunday instead of Saturday? Yes, of course, it is inconsistent; but this change was made … centuries before Protestantism was born. …
“They have continued the custom, even though it rests upon the authority of the Catholic Church and not upon an explicit text in the Bible. That observance remains as a reminder of the Mother Church from which the non-Catholic sects broke away” (pp. 400-401).
Many Catholic apologists will quote the archbishop of Reggio who, at the Council of Trent, said:
“The written word explicitly enjoins the observance of the seventh day as the Sabbath. They do not observe the seventh day, but reject it. If they do truly hold the Scripture alone as their standard, they would be observing the seventh day as is enjoined in the Scripture throughout. Yet they not only reject the observance of the Sabbath enjoined in the written word, but they have adopted and do practise the observance of Sunday, for which they have only the tradition of the [Catholic] Church. Consequently the claim of ‘Scripture alone as the standard,’ fails; and the doctrine of ‘Scripture and tradition’ as essential, is fully established, the Protestants themselves being judges” (quoted, for instance, in Rome’s Challenge: Why Do Protestants Keep Sunday? 1995, p. 23).
The above quotes accurately express the Reformation’s greatest failure. Protestantism was founded on the premise of replacing Catholic tradition with sola scriptura, yet maintained one of the most significant changes the Catholic Church made to Scripture. Had the reformers seriously applied sola scriptura, they would have rejected Sunday and restored the seventh-day Sabbath.
Every weekend, when millions of Protestants work on Saturday and go to church on Sunday, they are unwittingly acquiescing to the authority of the Catholic Church rather than the Bible.
If you’re interested in going where Luther, Zwingli and Calvin refused to go, consider reading our free booklet The Sabbath: A Neglected Gift From God. It thoroughly covers the biblical case for the Sabbath, addresses common challenges and shows how the Sabbath can truly change your life for the better.