Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An Open Letter to Andy Williams – Or Just Say No to Noël

[updated 12/23/12]

One was more than a little disappointed to read the current Ref21 website headline article, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Mr. Hays, (which  has since been superseded by an article on the Newton school shooting. Digging around even further, we did find two excellent articles by Roy Blackwood, Reforming Your Bible Study and The Exercise.)

While it is well enough written as far as it goes, it evades the real question regarding the celebration of Christmas among evangelically confessional churches, at least the presbyterian. IOW “invidious associations” of paganism, popery or partying upon  the holiday are not of the essence of a principled concern or objection from Scripture.

Rather  the P&R churches, contra the Lutheran or  Anglican, understand the good and necessary consequences of the Second Commandment to be that ‘whatsoever is not commanded – explicitly or implicitly in Scripture – is forbidden in the worship of God’. In other words, what is called the Regulative Principle of Worship (RPW). Thus the Larger, Shorter and Heidelberg Catechisms on the Second Commandment and the Westminster Confession Chapt. 21 On Religious Worship, if not also the Belgic Confession Art. 32 Of the Order and Discipline of the Church.

Consequently  as the Appendix to the Westminster Assembly’s Directory of Worship states, “Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued”. “No warrant” as in “uncommanded”.  And if uncommanded, forbidden.

Again, while we are commanded in Scripture to observe Christ’s resurrection  once a week, not once a year at Easter – that is after all the reason for the switch from the seventh  to the first day when it comes to the 4th commandment – and his death  in the Lord’s Supper, we are never commanded to observe or celebrate his birth whatever the associations it might have for us,  sentimentally or culturally notwithstanding.

Granted the continental reformed churches have not been as consistent or agreed with the presbyterian on the point. Early on – arguably, if not largely due to the civil magistrate’s sponsorship of the traditional feast days according to Van Dellen and Monsma’s Commentary on the Church Order  – the same Order called for the congregations to religiously improve those days, though previously the churches had set them aside.

Yet it must also be recognized that the 1566 General Assembly of the Church of Scotland only took exception to the Second Helvetic Confession in a letter to Beza when it came to observing the “festival of our Lord’s nativity, circumcision,  passion, resurrection, ascension and sending  the Holy Ghost upon his disciples” in the 24th chapter. Why? “(F)or we dare not religiously celebrate any other feast day than what the divine oracles have prescribed”. The Word does not command it. Or the RPW if you will.

 In the next century, Geo. Gillespie was a well known Scotch representative at the Westminster Assembly (1643-49), in part due to his previous Dispute Against English Popish Ceremonies (1637). This is the classic presbyterian work on worship that skewers  the largely Anglican arguments  for not only  the indifference of  feast days such as Christmas, but also their lawfulness, expedience and necessity.  Needless to say,  Gillespie’s  conclusion is that all four arguments fall short of carrying the day.

For that matter, William Ames was an Nonconformist minster who fled persecution in England for Holland, only to serve as an advisor to the Moderator of the famous Synod of Dordt (1618) and later as a theological professor at Franeker. [His Marrow of Theology was very popular in America and though he died before moving there, his widow, children and library made the voyage after his death to New England.] He quotes an early church father Hospinian in his Fresh Suit Against Human Ceremonies in God’s Worship (1633) to the effect that “Not the day, but the Word of God, etc. puts us in mind of the nativity, resurrection and ascension of Christ”.

 In light of all this, one might hope for some clarification on the issue from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  Again, invidious associations with paganism are the least of the classic confessional objections to the “most wonderful time of the year”.

And that with all due reverence and respect to the memory of that most noted, revered and eminent minstrel of good cheer  and singer of theological songs, one Andy Williams.
Thank you very much,

[See also here, for a "Christmas Day" sermon by Calvin.]

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