Sunday, November 25, 2007

Is Christmas Christian? - Part II

Continued from Part 1

In the next two posts I'll deal with anti-Christmas arguments based on the supposed historic practice of presbyterian and Reformed churches.

Q. 1. Have Protestant churches historically celebrated Christmas?

Answer. I'm on safe ground saying that historically most Protestant churches have cheerfully celebrated Christmas. Of course there are some that have not. But those who have not are in the minority.

So what do we do with Kevin Reed's astonishing claims?
Following an initial look at the origins of Christmas, we will note historic opposition to its observance, with special emphasis on Protestant objections to the holiday. We will see that Protestants, and especially Presbyterians, have rejected Christmas celebration . . .
Well, there's only one thing to do with it. Denounce it as a blatant falsehood. The facts are spread all over the history of the Protestant church. How can any one dare suggest that Protestants have rejected Christmas celebrations? The author is either ignorant or deliberately twisting what is readily available from the historical record.

The Reformers and their churches were first called Protestants at the council of Speyer in 1529. They were mostly followers of Luther's reforms. Even so, the term Protestant has come to refer to those churches in opposition to Rome and associated with the Reformation. This includes Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and independent churches. Even if one finds cause to dismiss the Lutheran churches as "compromising with Romanism"—as is often done in anti-Christmas fundamentalist literature—they are the original Protestants! And Luther and the Lutherans have never had any problems with Christmas. They glory in Christmas! This is so well known that a citation proving it is unnecessary.

This is to say nothing of the other Protestant churches that use a church year calendar and observe Christmas—Anglicans, Methodists, and yes, even Reformed and Presbyterian churches, as we shall see.

Reed's assertions are simply erroneous, if not downright ridiculous. Protestants as a whole have not rejected Christmas celebrations.

Q. 2. But what about Reformed and Presbyterian churches? Have they historically observed Christmas?

Answer. Yes, the majority of Reformed churches have indeed observed a moderate celebration of Christmas. This is especially true for what has been called "the continental Reformed tradition." Since the 16th century, most Reformed communities have celebrated Christmas. This would include the German Reformed, the French Reformed, the Dutch Reformed, the Swiss Reformed, and the English Reformed churches.

Q. 3. Has the celebration of Christmas ever been a test for Reformed orthodoxy in the Reformation tradition?

Answer. I can't say that it has never been, because presently there are some Reformed authors that indeed believe that it should be. And they can refer to individual authors in the past that spoke as if the observance of Christmas ought to function as a litmus test for orthodoxy. There are tracts and pamphlets, mostly from the 17th- and 18th-century Scottish Presbyterians, that seek to persuade churches to condemn, even discipline those who practice the celebration of Christmas. But officially the church has never taken this radical stand.

Unfortunately, Reed writes as if opposing Christmas has always been a mark of Reformation orthodoxy:
The Protestant Reformers summoned us back to the scriptural law of worship which allows us to admit only those institutions in worship that possess express scriptural warrant. To take a stand in support of Christmas is a repudiation of this legacy of the Reformation. It is a retreat from a hard-won point of orthodoxy.
Once again, please remember that phrase "the Protestant Reformers" includes Luther and the Lutherans who have never repudiated Christmas celebrations. Nevertheless, the repudiation of Christmas has never been "the legacy of the Reformation." This is a shameless untruth. But even if we narrow the horizon and include only Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, Reed's categorical pronouncements are still inaccurate. Most Reformed churches have not considered Christmas observance a matter of "hard-won" orthodoxy. At the most, it is the legacy of a very small selection of radical Puritans and some Scottish Presbyterians.

Furthermore, celebrating Christmas is not a "retreat" from orthodoxy. How can we retreat from something that was never advanced? The majority of Reformed churches have never made the presence or absence of Christmas a matter of orthodoxy! As far as I know, Christmas has never been a litmus test for orthodoxy in any official Reformed or Presbyterian confession, catechism, or book of church order. You will find nothing of the sort in the Heidelberg Catechism, the Church of England's Thirty-nine Articles, the First or Second Helvetic Confessions, the Scot's Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the Belgic Confession, or even the Westminster Standards.

One of the most respected and widely received Reformed confessions in the 16th century was the Second Helvetic Confession (A.D. 1566). It explicitly praises the celebration of the central feasts of the church year.
The Festivals of Christ and the Saints. Moreover, if in Christian Liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly.
I commend to you Mark Horne's excellent little article called Celebrating a Calvinist Christmas with a Clear Conscience. Some of the historical data is there for you to see. He discusses the Westminster Assembly, the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), the Synod of Dortrecht (1619), the great Genevan Theologian of the 17th Century, Francis Turretin, and others.

To be continued. . .

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