Worship and the Birth of Christ, Part 1

In this special two-part episode, we discuss the observation of Christmas. This subject is perennially debated in the Reformed community. Listen as we discuss the historical, theological, and the practical issues involved.

We invoke a distinction between celebrating the nativity of Christ and observing Christmas as an annual liturgical event. Christ’s nativity has been celebrated from the moment of his miraculous conception. Consider the examples of Mary, Elizabeth, Shepherds, Angels, Magi, and Simeon. The Church must celebrate the nativity of Christ in some form. Christians may celebrate the nativity as an annual liturgical event, but must not observe it as a God-ordained ordinance. As we explore this issues, we address the following objections:

  • According to sola Scriptura and the Regulative Principle of Worship, if it’s not God-ordained, then we must not do it.
  • If the Church holds an annual service to celebrate Christ’s nativity, then it will inevitably come to be regarded as a God-ordained holy day.
  • Christmas is a Christianized pagan holiday.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program and learn how to subscribe.

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CM

9 months ago

Great show. A lot of food for thought.
Another Latin phrase that might come in to play here is, “Abusus non tollit usum;” “The misuse of a thing does not prohibit its proper use.”
Looking forward to part two.

Blessings-

Chris

9 months ago

Glen brought some familiarity with some of the back ground but to take this on you need to be more ready and less to have winged it. At least it seemed that way to me. I’m not sure how you prevent arguing that we must ‘celebrate’ the birth of Christ morphing into the Anglican view which takes the next step to set a day. And the argument that singling these times out may indeed inevitably turn to will worship avoided the elephant in the room. Everything about us is screaming to do just that on this day in particular. It’s what Gillespie calls a monument of idolatry, a ‘lover’s token’ ever beckoning back to idolatry. So while in theory we can talk about setting topics to address periodically as something indifferent; it is no longer a theory or pure matter of indifference when it comes to the specific times of the pretended holy days of the ‘christian’ calendar. If something in theory indifferent on examination is not expedient to edification, it is no longer indifferent, it is in fact unlawful. You needed a TE fully committed to non observance to bounce off of.

For those interested in the history of why we are even discussing this as Presbyterians, the recent article from v. 11 of The Confessional Presbyterian is posted free and clear. https://www.cpjournal.com/articles-2/articles/american-presbyterianism-and-the-religious-observance-of-christmas/

As far as non tolli bonum usum.
CF. George Gillespie, Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (Naphtali Press, 2013), 156-157. This book is on currently on sale at Naphtali Press (www.naphtali.com), but this entire section has been posted in the free articles section.

“Dr. Forbes’ answer is, that not only things instituted by God are not to be taken away for the abuse of them, but farther, neither must indifferent matters thoughtfully introduced by men always be done away with because of ensuing abuse. The papists have abused temples, and places of prayer, and cathedrals, and holy vessels, and bells, and the blessing of marriage; however, thoughtful reformers have not proposed that such things must be abandoned.[1]
Answer. (1) Calvin,[2] answering that which Cassander alleges out of an Italian writer, abusu non tolli bonum usum [abuse does not take away the good use], he admits it only to be true in things which are instituted by God Himself, not so in things ordained by men, for the very use of such things or rites as have no necessary use in God’s worship, and which men have devised only at their own pleasure, is taken away by idolatrous abuse. Pars tutior [The safer part] here, is to put them wholly away, and there is, by a great deal, more danger in retaining than in removing them.

“(2) The proofs which I have produced [see previously in extract in the PDF] for the proposition about which now we debate, do not only infer that things and rites which have been notoriously abused to idolatry should be abolished, in case they be not restored to a right use, but simply and absolutely that in any wise they are to be abolished. God commanded to say to the covering, and the ornaments of idols, “Get thee hence” (Isa. 30:22). It is not enough they be purged from the abuse, but simpliciter they themselves must pack them and be gone. How did Jacob with the earrings of the idols; Elijah with Baal’s altar; Jehu with his vestments; Josiah with his houses; Manasseh with his altars; Moses with the golden calf; Joshua with the temples of Canaan; Hezekiah with the brazen serpent? Did they retain the things themselves, and only purge them from the abuse? Belike [Suppose], if these our opposites had been their counselors, they had advised them to be contented with such a moderation; yet we see they were better counseled when they destroyed utterly the things themselves, whereby we know that they were of the same mind with us, and thought that things abused to idolatry, if they have no necessary use, are far better away than a-place [in place]. Did Daniel refuse Bel’s meat because it was not restored to the right use? Nay, if that had been all, it might have been quickly helped, and the meat sanctified by the Word of God and prayer. Finally, were the churches of Pergamos and Thyatira reproved because they did not restore things sacrificed to idols to their right use? Or, were they not rather reproved for having anything at all to do with the things themselves?

“[1] . Irenicum, lib. 1, cap. 7, 9, 6. neque res mediæ ab hominibus prudenter introductæ, propter sequentem abusum semper tollendæ sunt. Abusi sunt Papistæ templis, et oratoriis, et cathedris, et sacris vasis, et campanis, et benedictione matrimoniali; nec tamen res istas censuerunt prudentes reformatores abjiciendas [7–6, p. 43]. [The quotation comes from section 6. Section 9 reads: “IX. Atqueita iam paret justas fuisse & idoneas rationes, ex ipsarum rerum intuitu, propter quas Patres Perthenses articulos à Rege propositos, partim potuerunt, partim etiam admittere debuerunt. Nam in rebus illis quædam sunt necessariæ, omnes autem licitæ ac laudabiles: illæ sine peccato contemni non possunt; istæ licitè et laudabiliter admittuntur” (7–9, p. 45). Cf. The First Book of the Irenicum, trans. E. G. Selwyn, p. 118–119, 121–122.]

“[2] . Responsio Ad Versipellem Quendam Mediatorem, p. 41–44. [Cf. CR 37 (CO 9), 542. Cf. [French] “Response a Un Certain Moyenneur Rusé,” Recueil des Opuscules (Geneva: Stoer, 1611) 2191–2192. “Similarly, what is alleged of an Italian writer, that abuse does not take away good use, will not be true if one holds to it without exception: because it is clearly commanded to us to prudently watch that we would not offend the infirm brothers by our example, and that we should never undertake what would be illicit. For Saint Paul prohibits offending the brothers in eating flesh that was sacrificed to idols [1 Cor. 10:28], and speaking to this particular issue he shows a general rule that we are to keep ourselves from troubling the consciences of the weak by a bad or damaging example. One might speak better and more wholesomely if he were to say that what God himself ordains may not be abolished for wrong use or abuse that is committed against it. But even here, it is necessary to abstain from these things if, by later human ordinance, they have become corrupt with error, and if their use is harmful or scandalizes the brothers. “Here I marvel how this “Reformer,” after granting that superstitions sometimes have such strong popularity that it is necessary to remove from the realm of man those things once ordained by public authority (as we read of Hezekiah doing with the bronze serpent), finally does not consider even a little that his shrewdness is a horror to the ways of good action: as if in defending supportable rituals, he would oblige that all superstitions should be considered as safe and whole because they are weighty. For what is there in the papacy now that would not resemble the bronze serpent, even if it did not begin that way [Num. 21:9]? Moses had it made and forged by the commandment of God: he had it kept for a sign of recognition. Among the virtues of Hezekiah told to us is that he had it broken and reduced to ash [2 Kings 18:4]. The superstitions for the most part, against which true servants of God battle today, are spreading from here to who knows where as covered pits in the ground. They are filled with detestable errors that can never be erased unless their use is taken away. Why, therefore, do we not confess simply what is true, that this remedy is necessary for taking away filth from the church?” See the translation of this tract by Raymond V. Bottomly, The Confessional Presbyterian 8 (2012) 264.”

Donald

9 months ago

I’m still unclear how we went from the story of the nativity with the celebrations recorded in the gospels (but only intimated by John the Baptist in the Gospel of Mark) to having festival days, perhaps more than once in a given year, devoted to celebrating the nativity.

The rest of the gospels and the Book of Acts are completely silent about any such ongoing celebrations, and as you say the celebration of Christmas did not appear until well after the second century. You also make clear that no ordinance or binding of the conscience is here envisioned. And yet the way you talk about the obligation of the church to celebrate the nativity in some way and of the desirability of having multiple festivals instead of just one makes it sound like our regular Lord’s Day worship is somehow insufficient to the task.

I cannot escape the conclusion that we are reworking our practice of Christmas in order to fit it in with the regulative principle and the Scriptures, rather than actually beginning from the Scriptures and arriving at Christmas.

So were they appropriately celebrating the nativity of Christ before the celebration of Christmas? Was their Lord’s Day worship sufficient in the early days of Christianity to that purpose? Is our regular Christian worship somehow insufficient to that task?

Also, has there ever been a Christian church that has practiced the multiple nativity festivals suggested in the podcast? Is there any historical precedent for doing so? Or is this rather something wholly new that has resulted from the need to rework Christmas to fit it within the strictures of the regulative principle?

Richard

9 months ago

I would say that any part of Christ’s life that is recorded in the Gospels is worth remembering by the church. Thus, Christmas (the Feast of the Incarnation), his baptism, Epiphany, Transfiguration, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost are worth celebrating and do not violate the Regulative Principle.

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