Monday, December 6, 2010

On Keeping Christ Out of Christmas

An essential doctrine of Reformed Christian worship is a derivative of the Protestant tenet sola Scriptura called the Regulative Principle. Simply put, the Regulative Principle teaches that God alone has the right to institute the acceptable way of worship. We find this doctrine in the Westminster Confession of Faith 21.1 which reads, "The acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the holy Scripture."

The basic thought is this: Worship is fundamentally prostration before God. In worship we seek to be submitted to God's holy word, receiving the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit as our blessedness and reward in accordance with his covenant of grace. But being submitted to God in worship not only includes submission with regard to what and who we worship but also with regard to how we worship. In other words, worshipping God in a way he has not prescribed is tantamount to worshipping a false God. Or put another way, worship that is not regulated by God cannot be worship that is glorifying to God. It is what the framers of the confession called "will worship," since the human will is exalted to a position of authority over God.

Just as God himself is set apart as the only acceptable object of worship, so also God has set apart peculiar means, a peculiar manner, and a particular time for his worship. We see these aspects of worship in the first table of the moral law (i.e. The Ten Commandments, Ex. 20, Deut. 5):

1. OBJECT set apart for worship. You shall have no other God's before me.
2. MEANS set apart for worship. You shall not make any graven images.
3. MANNER set apart for worship. You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
4. TIME set apart for worship. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy.

These basic principles are rooted in the character of God. They are unchanging. They are revealed to us for his glory and our good.

With repect to the when of worship, in Old Testament times God prescribed the weekly sabbath day (i.e. the fourth commandment) along with other holy days. The fourth commandment is essentially moral, prescribing the one-day-in-seven Sabbath. But it also has a ceremonial aspect, namely the prescription of Saturday. In New Testament times the ceremonial law has been abrogated, and the ceremonial aspect of the fourth commandment has changed from Saturday to Sunday. But the moral essence of the fourth commandment (i.e. one day in seven) continues forever. The Christian Sabbath, Sunday, the Lord's Day, is the only day set apart as holy in the New testament era. God has graciously given his church this day alone for regular public worship. Public worship on any other day, which is certainly permissible, should be extraordinary, irregular. In other words, the Christian calendar is a weekly calendar--six days you shall work and one day you shall rest. It is not yearly (or beyond) as in Old Testament times.

So, with respect to Christmas (Christ-mass), the problem is not that Christ is being taken out of Christmas as is often suggested. The problem is that he was never there to begin with. It's not taking Christ out of Christmas that troubles me; it's putting him in it.

I think it's great for families, schools, workplaces, and nations to set apart times in which people can come together, exchange gifts, and feast. I do things like that with my family and others every year for Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I also think its fine for churches to meet irregularly for public worship on days other than Sunday. But we should be very careful not to presume to be more wise than God when it comes to observing holy days. We shouldn't presume that any day or season has religious significance if God has not given it such. God alone has authority to set apart days as holy, and he has not seen fit to do that with any day but the weekly sabbath since the coming of Christ.


Reformed4ever said...

I agree. Amen. I like the comment that the Christian calendar is the weekly calendar. One holy day per week. Christmas has more regard than all 52 Lord's Days put together including "Easter."

Ben Dunlap said...

"he has not seen fit to do that with any day but the weekly sabbath since the coming of Christ."

Says who? All apostolic confessions of East and West (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Copts, etc.) would vigorously disagree with you on this point. And they've been worshiping God in very particular ways with remarkable continuity since the apostolic era.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Ben, Thank you for reading and commenting. Did you have a particular confession in mind? I'm not familiar with an early church confession that speaks to this issue.

Ben Dunlap said...

I guess by 'confession' I just meant 'Church'. I'm not familiar with anything in the New Testament or the Fathers that indicates that an annual liturgical calendar -- which was clearly a part of right worship under the Old Covenant -- have been abrogated in the New Covenant.

Now my familiarity with the New Testament and the Fathers is not comprehensive by any means, so I could stand to be enlightened on that point if there is such evidence.

Against any such documentary evidence, though, would be the consistent tradition of all the Churches -- Eastern and Western, Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian -- that consider themselves 'apostolic'. I am certain that you will find an annual liturgical calendar or the like in all of these "confessions", despite the fact that they have not been in full communion with each other for about fifteen centuries.

This would seem more than a little odd to me if in fact feast days etc. had indeed been abrogated by God in the New Covenant.

Reformed4ever said...

Ben, I'm interested in how you construct the phrase "all apostolic confessions of East and West." If it's apostolic, how could it be East and/or West. This is anachronistic.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Eric, good point.

Ben, I think you touched on Eric's point when you acknowledged the disunity between EO and RC. Both claim to be Apostolic via the succession of the Apostolic office, which makes an appeal to the authority of both inconsistent.

With respect to your argument from Scripture, I would point to the clear abrogation of the OT ceremonial laws in the NT, which includes the OT liturgical calendar (Col. 2:14-17; Gal. 4:8-11; Heb. 8). I would also point out that the people of God in the OT were very careful not to erect any new ceremonies or liturgical days beyond what God had clearly prescribed.

Ben Dunlap said...

The three Scripture passages you cite may clearly indicate an abrogation of the specifics of the OT ceremonial laws. But I don't see why they need to be read as a categorical abrogation of all annual liturgical calendars -- especially in light of the contravening historical evidence.

Besides the observable current practice of the apostolic churches, we also have documentary evidence. Tertullian and Origen knew a Christian celebration of Pentecost in the 2nd/3rd centuries (and Origen in fact defends this practice against those who would interpret Gal. 4:10 as you do). Eusebius indicates that Christians celebrated Easter, preceded by a period of fast, from the apostolic era, and that the date of Easter was a controversy at Nicaea in 325.

So I guess it's just difficult for me to understand how it's clear that such an ancient and universal practice was actually abrogated by Christ. If this is clear, whence the clarity? Certainly not from the Scripture passages you cited -- those would support your position /if/ your position were clear from other reasons as well; as it is, there is so much other evidence pointing in the opposite direction that I'd have to join Origen in interpreting them differently from the way you do.

@Reformed4ever -- I don't mean to imply anything of theological significance when I say 'apostolic' in this particular thread. It's just an identifying tag; there are certain churches -- namely the Roman Catholic, the various Eastern Orthodox, and the various Oriental Orthodox -- who claim that their bishops today are the successors, in a continuous line, of bishops appointed by the apostles. I don't see that these claims are mutually incompatible -- there were 12 apostles, after all. ;-)

And as a simple historical matter it's difficult to see how they could all be wrong about apostolic succession or even why one would want to claim, historically-speaking, that any of these churches is wrong. I can certainly see why you would want to argue that the historical fact of apostolic succession does not imply the theological conclusions that these churches draw from it -- but that's beside the point in this thread.

Or would you go further and say that, for example, the Copts of Egypt do /not/ actually have an episcopal lineage that begins, as a purely historical matter, with the evangelist Mark?

Again, I'm just considering the historical question here: Was Mark in fact the "proto-bishop" of Alexandria, regardless of whether he called himself a bishop or thought of his office in anything like the way that modern Copts think of their bishops? The Copts would say so. And suppose they're right -- and the Armenians are right about /their/ episcopal lineage, and the Latins about theirs, and the Russian Orthodox about theirs, etc. etc. etc.

Meanwhile they all have liturgical calendars that include feasts like Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost... despite the fact that these various churches have not been in juridical communion with each other since the fifth century, and probably not in regular, mutually agreeable contact for even longer (for the simple reasons of geography and culture, not to mention mounting theological differences -- schisms don't come out of the blue).

In the face of all of that, then, it seems like there's a heavy burden of proof on anyone who would claim that an annual liturgical calendar was not only unknown to the apostles, but was in fact opposed by them. I don't see that citing a few unclear passages from Paul can really bear this burden.

M. Jay Bennett said...

Ben, Thanks for your questions and continued discussion. I'd like to respond in two parts: (1) Biblical Theological and (2) Historical Theological.

1. Biblical Theological. You acknowledge in your response that the NT does in fact abrogate the OT ceremonial laws, which includes the liturgical calendar. And you also say (correct me if I'm wrong) that this does not mean that the general concept of a liturgical calendar is forbidden. This is where my point about the OT people of God being very careful to only do what God had prescribed becomes important.

At the root of this discussion is the question of authority, specifically by what authority is worship to be regulated? For those who believe Scripture alone is our final authority in matters of worship, there are two theories as to how that authority gets applied. Some would say whatever is not forbidden is allowed. This is sometimes called the normative principle. The normative principle is held by the Lutheran branch of Protestantism. Others would say whatever is not prescribed is prohibited. This is often called the regulative principle. The regulative principle is held by the Reformed branch of Protestantism. I adhere to the Reformed confession, which I further explain in the post above. Therefore, the argument that says the NT does not forbid a liturgical calendar beyond the weekly Sabbath is unpersuasive for me. One must either demonstrate that the NT prescribes such a calendar or that the prior assumption (i.e. the regulative principle) is wrong. Given the OT practice of strict adherence to God's prescription in matters of faith and worship, the NT's abrogation of the ceremonial laws (see the above Scripture references), and the absence of a prescription for a liturgical calendar beyond the weekly Sabbath, I believe we must conclude that such a calendar is forbidden.

2. Historical Theological. You've said you don't mean to imply anything theological when you use the modifier "apostolic," but then you defend the claim of some churches to the succession of the apostolic office in order to establish their credibility. This is inconsistent. In order for your argument re the RC, EO, and Coptic churches to work you must affirm their claim to authority, namely the succession of the apostolic office. Protestants reject the succession of the apostolic office, understanding it to have ended with the death of the last Apostle. It was only for a time, namely the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). Instead, we confess the succession of the apostolic teaching (1 Tim. 4:11; 2 Tim. 1:13; 2:2; 3:10-4:5; Titus 1:9; 2:1 Jude 3), which is the New Testament. So the true churches are the churches in which the apostolic teaching (i.e. the pure gospel) is being taught to the next generations of believers.

Furthermore, I question any appeal to Origen or Tertullian set alongside an appeal to the so called apostolic churches. Origen was declared a heretic at the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), and Tertullian is marred by his adherence to the Montanist heresy and his rejection of infant baptism. Appealing to these two early church teachers while also appealing to the authority of traditions that anathematized their teaching, is inconsistent (much like appealing to the authority of RC, EO, and Coptic churches simultaneously).

Ben Dunlap said...

Thanks for your lengthy reply. To respond to part 2 first: Again I don't think that I was appealing to the authority of any particular church -- unless it's necessary to accept the authority of the Coptic church in order to give credence to its claim of an episcopal lineage that traces to the evangelist Mark.

Maybe that is necessary -- but then again maybe it's not. I think it's at least logically possible that Coptic bishops today (1) could have been appointed by bishops who were appointed by bishops who were appointed by bishops etc. etc. all the way back to Mark -- AND, at the same time, (2) somewhere along the line they got some things quite wrong, to the point where Mark would be appalled to hear what they are teaching today, or at least some of it.

Whether either premise is true, I don't think the two are logically incompatible with each other. Therefore I think one can reasonably reject the authority of the modern Coptic church while still affirming its episcopal lineage as a matter of purely historical fact.

Indeed if one rejects the concept of apostolic succession entirely, then I suppose the first premise (historical accuracy of episcopal lineage) would almost necessitate the second (false doctrine) because there would be fairly strong evidence of improper adherence to the "human tradition" of Matthew 15.

Of course that leads back to my original question; namely, how did all these churches -- despite their deep and varied and ancient differences -- get so many things so wrong in exactly the same ways?

So I guess what I'm appealing to here is not so much the authority of any or all of these churches -- but instead the evidence presented by this core common praxis. If nothing else the commonality presents strong historical evidence that practices like the annual liturgical calendar are very very old.

And then leads to a natural question: What on earth happened back in the early Church that everything went so wrong, to the point that it wasn't properly sorted out for over a thousand years? And I ask this question in a concrete and historical way -- who taught what, and when, and at what point did it become utterly pervasive in the 'apostolic office' churches?

I'm honestly less interested in polemics than in just making sense of the Protestant reading of Church history. It's only in the last few years that I've begun to learn about the liturgies of the various churches who claim apostolic succession. This study, and its concomitant historical reflections, keep leading me to wonder in passing whether, in responding so vigorously to the excesses then prevalent in the West, the Reformers sort of missed a much bigger picture.

Ben Dunlap said...

[part 2 to work around Blogger's comment-length limit]

One last, more concrete question. You said that the regulative principle forbids from worship that which is not explicitly prescribed in the New Testament. How does this play out in the practical details of Sunday worship?

I ask this because the regulative principle resonates deeply with me, as a Catholic. I was wowed by the argument of Joseph Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict XVI) in his book "Spirit of the Liturgy", where he reflects on the prescriptive worship of the OT, particularly as found at the end of Exodus, and draws from it a governing principle of worship -- namely that the form of right worship must be "received" by the worshiper, not "created" by him.

Of course in the Catholic vision this reception is mediated by the Church -- but Ratzinger/Benedict would certainly affirm, as I read him, that the Church is not the master of the liturgy so much as its steward. So what you end up with is quite different from the regulative principle, though there are echos in common, but also quite different from the Lutheran normative principle as you've expressed it.

At any rate I'm wondering, for those who hold to the regulative principle: How does the NT guide you, in a concrete way, in figuring out what you will do with yourself from 9am to 10am of a Sunday morning? Since there's no detailed "ordo" of a worship service to be found in the NT, it seems like there must be some extent to which your Sunday worship is not, strictly speaking, prescribed by the NT. Or am I kind of missing the point here, precisely because I'm coming from the Catholic mindset, which when it comes to ceremonial details is really much closer in kind to Old Testament worship than to what you've described as Reformed worship?

M. Jay Bennett said...


You've acknowledged that the Coptic churches teach false doctrine. Would you acknowledge the same sbout the EO and RC churches?

M. Jay Bennett said...

Ben, continuing (I just saw and moderated you part 2 above). Ultimately the RPW is grounded in the second commandment of the moral law, which forbids a way of worship, namely through images. The strict adherence of the OT church to the ceremonial law is an example of prescribed worship but cannot the ground of NT practice, since the ceremonial law has been abrogated. Simply put, the RPW gets worked out in the distinction between elements, forms, and circumstances in worship. Elements are things like reading and preaching Scripture, the sacraments (i.e. Baptism and the Lord's Supper), praying, singing hymns, psalms, and siritual songs. Forms are things like order of worship, specific wording of prayers, lyrics of songs, and music accompanying songs. Circumstances are things like the place, the specific hour of worship, the length of service, and the temperature of the room. Elements are specifically prescribed in the text. No specific form or circumstance is prescribed.

Ben Dunlap said...

"No specific form or circumstance is prescribed" -- and yet any worship service must have a form and must occur in certain circumstances.

So if I'm reading you rightly, then the RPW does not apply to forms and circumstances -- i.e., as long as you don't introduce elements that are unknown to the NT, then you're still adhering to the RPW and have a certain reasonable latitude in the form and circumstance of worship.

But how is the observance of feast days in an annual calendar anything other than form and circumstance?

At any rate, I don't think I acknowledged that the Coptic church teaches false doctrine -- just that one /could/ simultaneously affirm that premise and still affirm the historical validity of the Copts' claims about their episcopal lineage. Put another way: one need not accept the authority of the Coptic episcopate in order to acknowledge that the same episcopate probably is historically continuous with the evangelist Mark.

Or, more generally speaking: Historical continuity with the apostles, in the sense that Bishop Z was actually appointed by Bishop Y who was actually appointed by Bishop X etc., is distinct from the question of whether there is an apostolic succession in the manner affirmed by the RC/EO/OO churches.

So again I have to imagine that Protestantism has grappled seriously with this basic question: If there's at least an historical accuracy to these churches' claims of continuity with the apostles, then what happened that the apostolic teaching was lost so early on?

Because it does seem that one must affirm that the apostolic teaching was lost very soon after the apostles died, if one is also to affirm that there are two sacraments and not seven, that an annual liturgical calendar is against the NT, etc -- because every single church that claims continuity with the apostles maintains these practices.

So it seems that one must either say (a) there is no historical accuracy to the claims of episcopal lineage -- all of these churches have just concocted myths to bolster their authority; or (b) there was a "great Apostasy" within a generation of the Resurrection, after which the true faith was basically lost until the Reformation.

Or is it not so black and white as all that?

M. Jay Bennett said...


Sorry to respond so late to your last comment.

You are right that every worship service must involve forms and circumstances. Nonetheless, the RPW does apply to forms and circumstances, since it is in Scripture's regulation of worship that we see the distinction between elements, forms, and circumstances. Specific elements are prescribed as the norms of worship. But latitude is given on forms and circumstances (though not a bare latitude, since there are still matters of general wisdom and propriety to consider).

Instituting an annual calendar would be the prescription of a form, which is contrary to Scripture.

I still think your reasoning via apostolic succession is bad. The issue is precisely authority, so whether there is a line of successors is immaterial if it has no bearing on the authority of the faith and practice of the "church" in that line. For example, I might appeal to a direct line from Noah, Moses, or David, but that in no way establishes the authority of my teaching. Likewise, I might appeal to a direct line from Paul, but it was he himself who warned against false teachers, even that they would come from within the church. Why would the Apostles spend so much time warning against the immediate threat of false teaching and practice, if historical proximity served as a preventative against it? They seem to understand that the evil one, the world, and our own sinfulness is always crouching at the door, ready to pounce. Indeed, one could quite easily make the case that it is precisely during times of increased significance in redemptive history that belief in falsehood becomes more pronounced. Therefore, it is precisely at the point of the Apostolic foundation of the church (i.e. the completion of the NT canon) that she suffered the most strenuous doctrinal attacks.

The Copts, for instance, have denied Chalcedonian Christology, opting instead for monophysitism. This is a condemnable heresy, which they have believed for 1000's of years stretching back to the early church period.

We might even stretch back to the Apostles themselves. The Apostle Paul tells us in his epistle to the Galatians that the Apostle Peter had offended the truth of the gospel, and he calls him out for it. Now here is an Apostle himself needing the correction of another. If it is true that historical proximity to the Apostles somehow insures doctrinal fidelity, why did the Apostle himself fall short for a time?

Nonetheless, The Father is gracious to his people through his Son and by the Spirit. The Spirit has illumined teachers to understand the Word properly in defense of the faith, giving birth to the catholic creeds. And he has continued the same work, leading the church into all truth even to the present day. So, it's not so black and white. It's not that the truth was lost through a great apostacy, but instead, the church has had to grow into a fuller and more precise understanding of "the faith once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3b).

In the end, my historiography is, from what I can gather, different from yours. I see the Apostolic teaching as being given perfectly in Holy Scripture, which is our only ultimately authority in faith and practice. But the church has had to grow in its understanding of that teaching over time. So, the church's understanding of Scripture has become fuller and more precise over time, due in large part to her need to defend against false teachers, which, again, is precisely what the Apostles warned against. Its understanding during the time of the church Fathers was less full and less precise. As one Patristics scholar has said, "With all due respect, we might better call the church Fathers the church Babies, since their work was done at such an early stage in church history."

M. Jay Bennett said...


Instituting an annual calendar would be the prescription of a form, which is contrary to Scripture.

Should read:

Instituting an annual calendar would be the prescription of an ELEMENT, which is contrary to Scripture. the prescription of particular holy days would be elemental to worship.

Anonymous said...

This is good stuff. I wish more Christians, particularly those who claim to be Reformed would take it to heart.