Over the years, I’ve seen a number of folks write or speak on the topic of why Christians ought not reject Christmas on account of its pagan origins. However, something I haven’t found much material on is replying to Christians who reject Christmas on account of its popish origins.
In other words, let’s say I don’t have any issue with the idea that Christmas used to be pagan. After all, as Doug Wilson would say, that’s fitting, because we used to be pagans. But what if my beef with Christmas has to do with the regulative principle of worship, and the idea that a certain Roman bishop back in the 4th century named Julius presumed to have the authority to declare a holy day to inform the liturgy of the church, apart from any command or counsel of Scripture?
Has anyone dealt with these kind of objections at length, and can direct me to any substantive literature on the topic?
Wouldn’t your response to the pagan origins of Christmas be just as apposite here? We did, after all, used to be Papists.
To answer your direct question, I don’t know of anything specific, but I do know that English-speaking Reformed folks have had a very strained relationship with Christmas historically, and I think it was the Popery that bothered them, so I’d probably start looking there.
A couple notable men who are recorded to have been critical of Christmas for its papal origins would include Charles Spurgeon and Calvin.
Spurgeon seemed to have personally rejected Christmas, yet he didn’t see fit to go out of his way to fight against it. Here are a couple really good quotes from him on the topic. One of them:
“We have no superstitious regard for times and seasons. Certainly we do not believe in the present ecclesiastical arrangement called Christmas . First, because we do not believe in the mass at all, but abhor it, whether it be sung in Latin or in English; and secondly, because we find no Scriptural warrant whatever for observing any day as the birthday of the Savior; and consequently, its observance is a superstition, because not of divine authority. Superstition has fixed most positively the day of our Savior’s birth, although there is no possibility of discovering when it occurred. … It was not till the middle of the third century that any part of the church celebrated the nativity of our Lord; and it was not till very long after the Western church had set the example, that the Eastern adopted it. … Probably the fact is that the “holy” days were arranged to fit in with the heathen festivals. We venture to assert, that if there be any day in the year, of which we may be pretty sure that it was not the day on which the Savior was born, it is the twenty-fifth of December. Nevertheless since, the current of men’s thoughts is led this way just now, and I see no evil in the current itself, I shall launch the bark of our discourse upon that stream, and make use of the fact, which I shall neither justify nor condemn, by endeavoring to lead your thoughts in the same direction. Since it is lawful, and even laudable, to meditate upon the incarnation of the Lord upon any day in the year, it cannot be in the power of other men’s superstitions to render such a meditation improper for to-day. Regarding not the day, let us, nevertheless, give God thanks for the gift of His dear Son.”
By contrast, Calvin seemed to unload both barrels on Christmas. Here is a quote from a sermon he gave on a Christmas day, cited from here
“Now, I see here today more people that I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel. Did you think you would be honoring God? Consider what sort of obedience to God your coming displays. In your mind, you are celebrating a holiday for God, or turning today into one but so much for that. In truth, as you have often been admonished, it is good to set aside one day out of the year in which we are reminded of all the good that has occurred because of Christ’s birth in the world, and in which we hear the story of his birth retold, which will be done Sunday. But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts. For when you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.
Let us consider what our Lord has to say on the matter. Was it not Saul’s intention to worship God when he spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, along with the best spoils and cattle? He says as much: ‘I want to worship God.’ Saul’s tongue was full of devotion and good intention. but what was the response he received? ‘You soothsayer! You heretic! You apostate! You claim to be honoring God, but God rejects you and disavows all that you have done.’ Consequently, the same is true of our actions. For no day is superior to another. It matters not whether we recall our Lord’s nativity on a Wednesday, Thursday, or some other day. But when we insist on establishing a service of worship based on our whim, we blaspheme God, and create an idol, though we have done it all in the name of God. And when you worship God in the idleness of a holiday spirit, that is a heavy sin to bear, and one which attracts others about it, until we reach the height of iniquity. Therefore, let us pay attention to what Micah is saying here, that God must not only strip away things that are bad in themselves, but must also eliminate anything that might foster superstition. Once we have understood that, we will no longer find it strange that Noel is not being observed today, but that on Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and recite the story of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. But all those who barely know Jesus Christ, or that we must be subject to him, and that God removes all those impediments that prevent us from coming to him, these folk, I say, will at best grit their teeth. They came here in anticipation of celebrating a wrong intention, but will leave with it wholly unfulfilled.”
So what I’m looking for is men who have spent time laboring to refute Spurgeon and Calvin on their points.
I like the wittiness of the reply, but I just don’t know that the objections of former paganism and papalism are necessarily of the same nature.
The Scriptures speak to us pretty specifically concerning the distinction between sacrificing meat to idols, versus the meat itself. The meat is clean to the Christian who eats with a clean conscience. The meat may be enjoyed with thanksgiving, and it is made holy by the word of God and by prayer (e.g. 1 Timothy 4:4-5). So I can say with a clean conscience, so what if my pagan viking forefathers made kringla to celebrate their heathen gods? That doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy kringla as a Christian to the glory of Christ.
The papal objection is different though. The reason we are protestants, after all, owes to the fact that we reject certain doctrines as heretical which the Catholic church holds. Included among those doctrines are the supposed apostolic authority of the pope, and the dangers of elevating the traditions of men over and against Scripture. Therefore, if the tradition of Christmas exists for essentially no other historical reason than papal decree, it seems incumbent upon the protestant to give a coherent basis for why he embraces it.
As Spurgeon said somewhere, it makes sense that a papist would regard Christmas as holy. But it doesn’t make sense for the protestant.
It’s a portion of this sermon so it may not answer every objection.
But to get to your main objection: does the church have the authority to establish Christmas?
It has the responsibility to teach the whole council of God. With that responsibility comes to the authority to select what part and when it may do so. I don’t see how it is a violation of the regulative principle to set aside a time to preach and teach on the birth of Christ or to rejoice in his first coming.
Our church treats Christmas as a cultural rather than religious holiday. We think it is fine for members to personally celebrate Christmas but our church gives it only a little more recognition than is given to Mother’s Day or Thanksgiving. Nothing changes about our worship except that hymns traditionally associated with Christmas are sung a little more frequently in December and our pastor will preach on the Incarnation on the Lord’s Day preceding Christmas (his rationale is that the topic is worth preaching on once a year, so why not at cultural Christmas?).
Care to elaborate more? I’ve certainly read it reported that there arose a tradition among some Christians to celebrate the advent, but history seems pretty clear that Rome codified Christmas into the liturgical calendar.
I agree that the church has the responsibility to teach the whole council of God, and that how exactly that is done is going to look different from church to church. There is certainly nothing problematic with setting aside a particular time to teach concerning the advent, just as there would be nothing problematic with setting aside time to teach concerning marriage, etc. Expediency demands that we schedule time to teach this thing or that. And yet we would all agree that no one in the church has the authority to declare a holy day to celebrate and meditate upon marriage, right?
The objection isn’t against the fact that Christians would celebrate the advent. The objection is to the notion that the church — or any of its bishops — ever had the authority to declare and codify a holy day into the liturgical calendar and the consciences of its members.
Thanks for the link. However, neither the alleged pagan roots, nor the date of Christ’s birth are really the issues being discussed. Even if we think we have confidence in the date of Christ’s birth, that doesn’t solve the objection that we were never commended to solemnity the date of his birth as a day of holy observance for all the churches.
Is there a specific article in there which deals with this objection, in particular?
I think you’re right that the regulative principle sometimes get pushed too far. I’ve heard at least a few pretty crazy arguments that try to apply the regulative principle rigidly to every aspect and decision of life, and it leads to some pretty non-sensical conclusions, simply owing to the fact that Scripture doesn’t directly address every situation of life.
But since the topic of Christmas has to do with the establishing and solemnifying a holy day that would bind the liturgical practice of the church, it seems to me that the regulative principle is very clearly relevant here.
Thanks for sharing these two quotes. I’ve never seen what these two men, Spurgeon and Calvin, have written on the matter, and it’s helpful. But I don’t think either quote proves what you say it does.
You say, “ Spurgeon seemed to have personally rejected Christmas, yet he didn’t see fit to go out of his way to fight against it.”
“ Calvin seemed to unload both barrels on Christmas.”
But what do you really mean? It’s not as if either man was opposed to us remembering Christ’s birth, or opposed to celebrations, or opposed to giving gifts…
So what does it mean for them to be “opposed to Christmas?”
I’d have to read more of their writing to be sure, I think, but it seems that both men are rejecting the superstition of Rome and of paganism. And, in Calvins case, he seems clearly to be fighting against those who would come to church once a year on Christmas and neglect it the rest of the year.
I think there’s a reason why Calvin seems to “unload both barrels” to us. He’s fighting the superstitions of the Roman Catholic Church at a fever pitch, something we rarely think about.
Clearly, neither man was opposed to the remembering or celebrating the birth of Christ. But that isn’t the same thing as saying that they were advocates of the observance of the Christmas holy day. The natural conflating of these two things is no doubt the biggest challenge to the discussion. I think Christmas has been so simply assumed for us for the whole of our Christian lives in the last few generations that we are hard-wired to equate the observance of the day with the celebration of the truth. This makes it challenging to even get all parties on the same page to even begin the discussion. “What? You don’t celebrate Christmas? Why would you object to people being thankful for Jesus’ birth?”
It was the observance of the holy day that both Calvin and Spurgeon objected to. Both men affirmed the celebration of the advent itself, and would even concede to preach concerning the advent of Christ when this time of year came around. But they did so not because they embraced the Christmas tradition, rather, they abhored it, yet understood that in God’s providence, Christmas wasn’t going anywhere.
You note that Spurgeon and Calvin are speaking against superstition and paganism, and not against Christmas, but it appears pretty plain to me that Calvin is arguing that the holy day is the superstition he’s opposing.
“For no day is superior to another. It matters not whether we recall our Lord’s nativity on a Wednesday, Thursday, or some other day. But when we insist on establishing a service of worship based on our whim, we blaspheme God, and create an idol, though we have done it all in the name of God.”
Calvin further emphasizes that even though he’s going to preach concerning the advent on that particular day, he wants people to understand that the holy day of Christmas is not what they are observing. Rather, the remembrance they are participating in will be the Lord’s supper, as they would do any other Lord’s Day:
“Therefore, let us pay attention to what Micah is saying here, that God must not only strip away things that are bad in themselves, but must also eliminate anything that might foster superstition. Once we have understood that, we will no longer find it strange that Noel is not being observed today, but that on Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and recite the story of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Similarly, Spurgeon said in another sermon (quoted at greater length in the link I included above):
“I hold it to be one of the greatest absurdities under heaven to think that there is any religion in keeping Christmas-day. There are no probabilities whatever that our Savior Jesus Christ was born on that day and the observance of it is purely of Popish origin; doubtless those who are Catholics have a right to hallow it, but I do not see how consistent Protestants can account it in the least sacred.”
It’s important to make sure we see the distinction between the celebration of the advent, and the practice of observing a holy day.
Agreed. And I don’t think anybody outside the RCC even has such a category. We don’t have holy days. We have holidays. Holidays are days off work. That’s it. Associated with various traditions, in general, such as Mother’s Day, Veterans Day, Easter, etc. In fact it’s gone so far away from holy days that we don’t even have any regard for the Lord’s Day. But that’s a separate issue that simply demonstrates the point.
Regardless of who, how, or why Christmas originally started, the point that both Calvin and Spurgeon made still stands—it is perfectly acceptable, and even makes sense, to use that Sunday to celebrate the nativity and incarnation.
I’ve certainly had this conversation with somebody who was so opposed to celebrating these Romish holydays that he intended to stop coming to church during seasons or days we were “celebrating” these things. My response to him was essentially what Calvin and Spurgeon said, though I had never read them.
There is still superstition about these days to a certain degree, of course, since there continues to be a (decreasing) group of cultural Christians that show up Xmas and Easter to church somewhere. And Calvin’s preaching to them seems particularly useful for pastors today to study and learn to pierce through the hard shell of such men with preaching to the heart.
Is your question more about “celebrating” Christmas at home?
Jason, I think you are dealing with a conscience issue here. We can no more be rid of all popery in our lives than we can be rid of all pagan influence in our lives. The fact that you call this coming Friday “December 25” instead of “December 11” is because of a Pope.
Don’t violate your conscience, but don’t make it more than it is, either.
The celebration of the birth goes all the way back to at least the second century. I would argue that the fact that its mentioned in the gospels in such detail means that his birth was something that was honored earlier. But atleast in 129 AD we have evidence of an early “Christmas carol”. A roman bishop then wrote,
“In the Holy Night of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour, all shall solemnly sing the Angels Hymn.”
The earliest known accounts associated with a December 25 birthdate can be traced back to church father Irenaeus (130—202) who connected Mary’s conception of Jesus with the Passion Week which also was being celebrated early on. Using March 25 as his Passion Week date, Irenaeus calculated forward nine months to December 25 as a birthdate. Hippolytus in the early 200s wrote in a commentary on Daniel that Christ was born on December 25 using the similar method as Irenaeus speculating that Christ was conceived around the same time of the year as his death. Sextus Julius Africanus in the year 221 also noted December 25 as the date of Jesus’ birth but instead of just using the same method as Irenaeus he also collaborated it with the gospel of Luke and the appearance of an angel to John the Baptist’s father. He held that Zechariah was in the temple on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement that occurs around October, because scripture says “the worshipers were praying outside of the Temple and not within” for “only the priest could enter the Temple at this time to conduct the proper rituals”; because Jesus was six months younger than his cousin John the Baptist, Jesus was conceived in March and born in late December.
All of this points not to an imposition of Christmas by a Pope but rather an acknowledgement by a Pope of a church tradition already being practiced. I love my Puritan fathers but they lived in a different time than we and some of their thoughts were reactions to Rome that may not apply to us. Calvin was more balanced in that he fought against superstition that became associated with Holy Days. But he still had Christmas sermons. In one sermon he said something very helpful regarding celebrations:
“Cursed then are all enjoyments, all honors, all things desirable, until we feel that God received us in mercy. Being thus reconciled with him we can enjoy ourselves, not merely with an earthly joy, but especially with that joy that is promised to us in the Holy Spirit, in order that we may seek it in him.
Finally I think Turretin on the celebration of Christian feasts by protestants is very helpful. He says:
If some Reformed churches still observe some festivals (as the conception, nativity, passion and ascension of Christ), they differ widely from the papists because they dedicate these days to God alone and not to creatures. (2) No sanctity is attached to them, nor power and efficacy believed to be in them (as if they are much more holy than the remaining days). (3) They do not bind believers to a scrupulous and too strict abstinence on them from all servile work (as if in that abstinence there was any moral good or any part of religion placed and on the other hand it would be a great offense to do any work on those days). (4) The church is not bound by any necessity to the unchangeable observance of those days, but as they were instituted by human authority, so by the same they can be abolished and changed, if utility and the necessity of the church should demand it. “For everything is dissolved by the same causes by which it was produced,” the lawyers say. In one word, they are considered as human institutions. Superstition and the idea of necessity are absent.
XIV. If some days with certain churches are designated by the names of apostles or martyrs, it is not to be supposed that they were instituted for their worship or should be terminated on their honor, as the papists do. Hence Bellarmine asserts “that the honor of the festivals immediately and terminatively pertains to the saints” (De Cultu Sanctorum,” 3.16 Opera , 2:555). Rather they are referred to the memory of the saints by whom Christ built up his church for our advantage (to the worship, however, and honor God alone, who conferred upon the apostles and martyrs whatever thing worthy of praise they possessed, did or underwent). They neither invoke nor burn incense t them, but to God alone, whom they invoke. They give thanks on account of the benefits redounding to us by their ministry and example. Hence we cannot approve the rigid judgment of those who charge such churches with idolatry (in which those days are still kept, the name of the saints being retained), since they agree with us in doctrine concerning the worship of God alone and detest the idolatry of the papists.
Fascinating thing here is Calvin and Spurgeon celebrating Christmas, liturgically, while opposing superstition and the idolatry of times, seasons, and the Mass. Reminds me of Calvin celebrating the Lord’s supper only every quarter or so while arguing for it weekly. Honestly, the more important issue seems clear to be pastoral with both Calvin and Spurgeon.
We shouldn’t oppose any man exercising his conscience concerning Christmas, as John says, but we should oppose that man binding other men’s consciences where we have freedom and see men like Calvin and Luther choosing not to, themselves. Concerning weekly communion, I keep saying the most important thing is not that Calvin would have preferred it weekly, but that he submitted to the civil authorities by celebrating it quarterly.
Same thing with Christmas: what is striking is the juxtaposition of Calvin and Spurgeon’s vehement condemnation of its superstitious celebration while celebrating it themselves, at least liturgically. Love,
I don’t personally know anyone who attends church only on Christmas, but when December 25 fell on Sunday in 2011 and 2016, I know of churches that didn’t hold their normal Sunday services. Almost seems like Christmas has become the opposite of a holy day.