Is the Church Calendar Biblical?
Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002
The answer to this question depends on what is meant by “liturgical calendar” and what is meant by “biblical.” Let us deal with the latter question first.
If by biblical one means, “Does God’s Word require Christians to observe certain days (other than the Lord’s Day?,” the answer is no. But this involves us immediately in the question of the so-called Regulative Principle of Worship. To honor space limitations, I must be brief in our treatment of this aspect of our subject.[i]
Since the Reformation there have been at least three different approaches employed in seeking an answer as to what churches may do in their service to Christ. The first is what might be called the High Church Principle, commonly associated with Romanism, Anglicanism, and Lutheranism. This view is summarized by the words: “If it is not forbidden, it is permitted.” At the other extreme is the Regulative Principle of Worship: “If it is not expressly commanded, or if it may not be certainly deduced by good and necessary consequence or example, it is forbidden.” A third way, commonly taken by the Continental Reformed, recently called the Informed Principle of Worship, might best be called the Scriptural Principle of Worship. Or such it was thought to be by Oecolampadius at the time of the Reformation. Hughes Oliphant Old has captured in a paragraph the essential issue.
We take it as a basic principle of our inquiry, then, that it is to Scripture, first of all, that we must go when we would try to find an answer to our questions about the meaning of worship. That our worship should be according to Scripture is obviously one of the principles that we have inherited from the Protestant Reformation. Early in the Reformation it was expressed by Martin Bucer in his Grund und Ursach. It was developed with particular clarity by John Oecolampadius, who distinguished the principle from a naive biblicism. There had been those who felt that worship was biblical as long as nothing was done that was expressly forbidden in Scripture. On the other hand, there were those who insisted that for worship to be biblical, only that could be done which was commanded in Scripture. As Oecolampadius saw it, neither of these approaches is satisfactory. He developed the principle that our worship should be “according to Scripture.” To be sure, we do not find a ready-made liturgy in the Bible, but we do find many teachings about worship. In the sacred pages we find all kinds of examples of worship that was genuine, true, and spiritual. We discover general principles for doing things “decently and in order” that we should follow in our worship. That our worship should be according to Scripture is a sound principle.[ii]
Granting, for argument’s sake, Oecolampadius’ principle as valid, we would next face the question of whether Scripture provides adequate warrant for the observance of special days (other than the Lord’s Day). Some have suggested that Galatians 4:10-11 forbids the commemoration of, say, Christ’s birth, on a particular day. “Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain.” But this is to misunderstand the passage and remove it from its context.
The problem Paul was fighting in Galatians was not the observance of days per se. It could not have been! A reading of Acts 20 and 21 finds our beloved Apostle himself eager to get back to Jerusalem to observe Pentecost and more than willing to observe Jewish customs. Notice what rumor Paul hoped to put to rest by the observance of the latter: Paul was told that Jewish believers “have been informed about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, saying that they ought not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs” (Acts 21:21). This charge was false. Paul did not tell Jews they must reject those practices which formerly set them apart, but rather that they must accept Gentiles as coequals without imposing upon them the obligation to keep Jewish ceremonial distinctives. This agrees with what James and the other elders told Paul during the same meeting: “But concerning the Gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality” (v. 25).
The problem at Galatia, then, could not have been the observance of days per se because Jewish Christians were never told that they could not celebrate their distinctive calendar. Rather, the problem was that some were teaching that Gentiles could not be saved unless they, too, observed all the Jewish ceremonial distinctives. That Paul was addressing only Gentile believers in this passage—and was concerned only about Jewish distinctives being forced upon them—is glaringly evident from the fact that Paul warns, “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all.” Clearly it was only Gentiles who could have considered becoming circumcised: the Jewish Christians already were!
Paul couldn’t care less about days per se, just as he couldn’t care less about circumcision. “Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts.” And again: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” And again: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation.” (1 Cor 7:19; Gal 5:6; Gal 6:15) Consequently, there is nothing in Paul’s argument in Galatians which would lead us to believe that the observance of days per se was wrong, evil, unacceptable. What he was battling for was a Gospel which held out to the whole world a free and accessible salvation, one not tied to Jewish distinctives.
But that leaves us with the question of whether the church is permitted to observe certain days in honor of our Lord. We believe that we are so permitted. Consider the fact that the Church of the Old Testament, without benefit of divinely inspired instruction, added to its own calendar the Feasts of Purim and Chanukah, commemorating great acts of deliverance by God.
The establishment of Purim is found in Esther 9:27-28. “The Jews ordained, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all such as joined themselves unto them, so as it should not fail, that they would keep these two days according to their writing, and according to their appointed time every year; And that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, every family, every province, and every city; and that these days of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed.”
The establishment of Chanukah is recorded in 2 Maccabees 10: “It happened on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the festival of booths, remembering how not long before, during the festival of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.”
Why would we think that God would disapprove His church’s commemorating His greatest act of deliverance wrought by Christ, when Christ Himself honored the Feast of Chanukah by His presence in John 10:22, and God Himself included the Book of Esther in Scripture?
Thus we agree with the Second Helvetic Confession, which, according to Schaff, “occupies the first rank among the Reformed Confessions.” In Chapter XXIV, Bullinger asserted—and virtually all of Reformed Europe concurred—that:
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. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.
Some eighty years later, the Westminster Assembly offered a radically different view of “Christian Liberty,” one which was the mirror-opposite of that found in the Second Helvetic. In “An Appendix, Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship,’ the Westminster divines held that, “Festival days, vulgarly [commonly] called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.”
This view illustrates one of the areas of departure between the Continental Reformed, on the one hand, and Westminster Presbyterians, on the other, since the Reformation. The Presbyterians have held that Christian Liberty forbids the observance of certain events on certain days, whereas the Continental Reformed have (typically) held that Christian Liberty permits such observance. Which practice can more properly claim the word “Liberty” I’ll leave to your judgment. But it is worth noting that “at the great Synod of Dordt, 1618-19, Article 67 was adopted which called for the Churches to ‘keep’—beside Sundays—Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other days.”
Though the Bible does not command us to observe special days, the Reformed Synod said, “Go right ahead—in moderation.” Which brings us back to the question of “liturgical calendar.” The Catholic Encyclopedia is quite correct when it says that “It has been the traditional practice of civilized peoples to have the cycle of the times of the year associated with their religious practices.” This is true even in regard to Humanism, the hope of which is centered in the anti-Christ State. Thus the modern State requires the observance of Labor Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Presidents’ Day, etc., all in honor of the State and its ideologies. They’ve even gone so far in America as to impose observance to honor Martin Luther King, who was, among other things, a liar, a cheat and a socialist, yet a man whose rhetoric resonates with all that is “politically correct.”
My point is that the observance of days is inescapable. Even those Presbyterians opposed to special days can sometimes be found celebrating Reformation Day! This instinct to honor significant events has sometimes proved a missiological boon, as for example when “a Christian calendar, based on biblical events,” came to replace (during the fifth to eighth centuries) that pagan calendar which had “dominated Germanic religions.”[iii]
But just as highlighting everything in a book becomes, in effect, highlighting nothing, so the observance of special days should be kept to a decorous minimum. This has been the precise practice of the Continental Reformed in regard to liturgical calendar, an example that commends itself to the rest of the churches.In addition to two services on the Lord’s Day, “Worship services shall be held in observance of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, and ordinarily on Old and New Year’s Day.”
That seems sufficient, eh?
[i] For a fuller treatment of the Regulative Principle of Worship, send a donation to Messiah’s Ministries and request the Messiah’s Mandate series on worship, Numbers 1-5. 1405 Avenue Z, Box 110. Brooklyn, NY 11235. USA.
[ii] Hughes Oliphant Old, Themes and Variations for a Christian Doxology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 10. Old adds, “For a detailed study of how Oecolampadius developed the principle of ‘reformed according to Scripture,’ see my study, The Shaping of the Reformed Baptismal Rite in the Sixteenth Century (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), pp. 119ff.”
[iii] Noted by Harold J. Berman in Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge: Harvard, 1983), pp. 62-63.