Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Christmas & John Calvin

Is Christmas Christian - Part III

Continued from Part I & Part II

Q. 4. What did John Calvin think about Christmas?

Answer. If one is going to mount an argument based on Reformed tradition, one may as well go back to one of the initial sources of Reformed tradition--John Calvin himself. He approved of Christmas celebrations as long as they were purified from superstitious and idolatrous accretions.

Calvin did not condemn the annual celebration of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. Furthermore, he believed that Reformed churches have the liberty to establish such feast days. In fact, it was Calvin's predecessor in Geneva, Farel, who had banned all such observances in the city. But when Calvin came he convinced them to reinstate the celebration of the five evangelical festivals (Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost).

Later the Genevan council decided to abolish these observances. Calvin was blamed for this action, even though he had nothing to do with it and he himself objected to the decree. Nevertheless, inflammatory accusations were circulating about Calvin's indefensible rigorism, which forced Calvin to respond. People were accusing him of backing the prohibition against these feasts.

Calvin's first response was to write a letter to his friend Haller, a Reformed minister at Berne. His letter makes it very clear that he did not support the city council's decision to ban Christmas celebrations. Calvin wrote:
Since my recall [from Strasbourg] I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ's birthday as you are used to doing. [The Reformed churches of Berne, Strasbourg, and Zurich celebrated the five evangelical feasts.] There were even extraordinary days of prayer on other days; the shops were shut in the morning, and every one returned to his individual calling after dinner. There were, however, in the meanwhile, certain inflexible individuals who did not comply with the common custom from some perverse malice or other. . . . Let me say this, that if I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon. There is no reason why men should be so much provoked, if we use our liberty as the edification of the church demands.
Those of you familiar with his writing will recognize this as classic John Calvin. We can sum up Calvin's position like this: churches have liberty to celebrate these festivals with moderation, as long as the practice will genuinely edify Christian people.

Of course, Calvin had serious reservations about the way in which Christmas and other Christian celebrations were conducted in his own day. Late medieval Roman Catholic superstitious and even idolatrous practices often mucked up what might otherwise have been a rather simple and joyous feast of Scripture, hymns, and prayers commemorating the birth of our Lord. If the annual celebration of the incarnation of our Lord could be stripped of late medieval piety's unedifying and silly excesses, Christmas might be observed with moderation and great benefit.

Calvin also wrote to Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1574), Zwingli's successor and city pastor of Zurich. In that letter he carefully distances himself from the rash decree of the city fathers in Geneva. Once Bullinger heard that Calvin had not slipped into the cultish repudiation of the great feasts of the church, he was relieved. Bullinger wrote back:
You have just given the answer that I expected, my dear brother. For I know that in matters of this sort, where duty is but little heeded, and much ill-will is engendered, you have never been morose. I am anxious, indeed, in such matters, to see that liberty preserved, which I perceive to have flourished in the churches from the very days of the apostles.
It is a matter of historical record that some of the churches under Geneva's jurisdiction observed the Lord's Supper on December 25th, even when it did not fall on the Lord's Day. And whatever one makes of the ambiguous record that remains of the complex political and ecclesiastical struggles over the church calendar in Geneva during Calvin's time, one thing at least is clear from the record of Calvin's preaching schedule. On the major feasts days, like Christmas, he interrupted his normal practice of preaching through books of the Bible in order to preach on passages and themes related to those feasts.

My point is not to elevate Calvin to the level of a doxological litmus test. Just because Calvin did it, doesn't mean we should. But when the anti-Christmas crusaders cry "Reformed Tradition! Presbyterian Tradition!" I reply: What Reformed tradition? Which Reformers? What Presbyterians? Which Reformed theologians? If you want to appeal to the Reformed tradition, at least be honest about the diversity of opinions held on this subject.

Yes, certain Scottish Presbyterians opposed Christmas and all annual celebrations. One of the most referenced is George Gillespie's A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies, Obtruded Upon the Church of Scotland (1637). But there are all sorts of issues that called forth Gillespie's polemic that do not apply to most of our Reformed churches today. Neither the Church of England nor the Roman Catholic Church seeks to impose unwanted ceremonies on our churches. Moreover, Protestant churches are able to celebrate Christmas without all the superstitious paraphernalia that clung to the festival in the 16th and 17th centuries. We don't say a mass, pray to any saints, or make Christmas "a holy day of obligation." Abstaining from celebrating these feasts was for some Scots and Reformed English of that day a way of distinguishing themselves from the hated Romanists and the persecuting establishment of the Church of England.

The bottom line is that our Reformed tradition is divided on this issue, and the divide is by no means down the middle. The majority of Reformed churches have celebrated Christmas joyfully and with moderation.

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