A Defense of Calvin’s Rejection of Christmas

I believe John Calvin was right that Christmas was a mere human invention

If my church history books are correct there was only one day that was celebrated faithfully in the early Church. It was the Lord’s Day. And people used to greet one another by saying “Jesus is risen.” Yes, every Sunday for them was (if you will pardon the expression) an ‘Easter.’ So I still think John Calvin was right in his desire to bring the Church back to that wonderful condition. And I don’t think our present practice will help us to attain it.

 

I woke up last night and couldn’t get back to sleep. I kept thinking of the statement in the December 11 issue of Christian Renewal claiming that “Calvin swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction.” This was referring to the fact that the great Reformer wanted to rid the church of all human inventions. I emphasize the word ‘all.’ And don’t we all know—are we not all willing to admit—that Christmas is a mere human invention. (Monsma and Van Dellen, in their Commentary on the Church Order were willing to admit it—“The festival days are not ordained of God but are a human invention,” p. 273 of the 1941 edition). Now I want to make clear that there are some wonderful saints of God who seem to me to be addicted to Christmas. They are probably far more sanctified that I am, so I take no joy at all in writing what might offend them. But I believe John Calvin was right and, for my conscience sake, I simply want to state my reasons.

My first reason is that I agree with what John wrote to Cardinal Sadelot. He told this high-ranking Roman Catholic that the only model of a true church is the apostolic Church of the New Testament. And don’t we all know that there is not the slightest evidence that that Church observed Christmas? It was from this principle, among other things, that we derive one of our most important principles. The inspired word of God is the only rule (and infallible rule) of our faith and practice. I can’t think of anything more important than that, can you? Yet we all know that there isn’t any evidence that that rule teaches us to have Christmas. It was, to put it simply, unknown in the apostolic era.

Some of the most precious (at least to me) sections of our great Reformation Confessions pay special attention to this issue. And they tell us that God should only be worshiped as he himself has commanded. There is no command to have a special day called Christmas. These Confessions tell us that “since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures” (Belgic Confession VII). The same Confession says, in several places, that we are to “reject all human inventions.”

The problem as I see it today is that the word ‘all’ doesn’t quite mean ‘all’ any more. Little words such as ‘only’ and ‘all’ and ‘any’ have simply ceased to mean to us what they once did. To John Calvin these words meant something similar to the rules at the prison where I frequently minister. Those prisoners can ‘only’ do certain things at certain times, and they are not allowed to invent exceptions. And I can’t read the Belgic Confession or the Westminster Confession without being convinced all over again that it wasn’t just John Calvin who wanted to be done with ‘all’ human inventions. No, that was the shared conviction.

Should we not, therefore, tell people who want to know where we stand today, that we believe there are at least a few exceptions to these creedal statements? Should we not say that the Bible is not quite the ‘only’ rule of our faith and practice. Should we not tell them we think Calvin (and our Confessions) went a little too far in using these little words ‘all,’ ‘any’ and ‘only.’ Should we not tell them that there ought to be at least enough room for us to have Good Friday, Christmas, and Easter. Is this not in very fact where we stand today as Presbyterian and Reformed (P&R) Churches? If so, why not honestly say so?

Jesus had some strong words to say about human inventions. The Jews in the time of Jesus would never have admitted that they were making God’s words ‘of no effect’ but that is what they really were doing. Read Mark 7:1-13 and you will be reminded of the way they had nullified God’s commandment by their invented tradition. The tradition they had invented eclipsed God’s commandment. And I think the same thing has happened in our own culture.

There was a time when (in Des Moines, Iowa where I grew up in the 1920s and 1930s) the lights were on every Sunday night in most Protestant Churches. (I also read the other day—on The Aquila Report—that there was a time in our country when the Southern Baptists opposed the increasing elevation of Christmas.) And there was a time here in Northwest Iowa where I now live, when the stores were all closed on Sunday. Remember Sunday? The Lord’s Day? That is the only day that God has commanded. But now stores are open on Sunday. But they are closed on Christmas!

And I think the change that has taken place has been aided and abetted by P&R Churches. If we had stood firm in our adherence to the view of John Calvin—as stated in our own Reformed Catechisms and Confessions—this dreadful exaltation of a human invention would probably never have gone as far as it has.

And finally this: when I served on the board of GCP (Great Commission Publications) I used to harp on the harm this is doing. I believe with all my heart in what the Bible says about the virgin birth of our Savior. But I also believe that we ought to teach God’s word to our children with the same balance that we see in the apostolic writings. And everyone knows that they do not magnify the birth of our Lord the way it is now magnified in most P&R churches.

The teachings of the Bible are like the parts of the human body: each has its proper place and proportion. No one wants a picture of a man in which there is a giant nose, out of all proportion to the rest of his body. But that is what we have every year with all this emphasis on the birth of Jesus. Yes, the virgin birth of Christ must be part of our teaching. But it should be brought back to the relative status that it has in the Heidelberg Catechism (Lord’s Day 14, Q/A 35-36 – two out of 129).

If my church history books are correct there was only one day that was celebrated faithfully in the early Church. It was the Lord’s Day. And people used to greet one another by saying “Jesus is risen.” Yes, every Sunday for them was (if you will pardon the expression) an ‘Easter.’ So I still think John Calvin was right in his desire to bring the Church back to that wonderful condition. And I don’t think our present practice will help us to attain it. (By their fruits you will know them!)

G. I. Williamson is a retired minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, living in the Orange City, Iowa area. He is the author of study guides on the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and the Heidelberg Catechism.

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