New Horizons

Is Christmas Scriptural?

G. I. Williamson

I want to thank the Committee on Christian Education for remaining faithful to the Orthodox Presbyterian tradition of respecting minority views that are firmly rooted in Presbyterian and Reformed history. I therefore gladly avail myself of the privilege to express myself on the subject of Christmas.

It is seldom understood today that there was a time when such days as Christmas were generally regarded as lacking any warrant from Scripture. But listen to the careful statement of Idzerd Van Dellen and Martin Monsma in The Church Order Commentary (Zondervan, 1941). Under the heading of "The Original Position of the Reformed Churches regarding Special Days," they say this on page 273:

"During the early days of the Reformation some Reformed localities observed only Sunday. All special days sanctioned and revered by Rome were set aside. Zwingli and Calvin both encouraged the rejection of all ecclesiastical festive days. In Geneva all special days were discontinued as soon as the Reformation took a firm hold in that city. Already before the arrival of Calvin in Geneva this had been accomplished under the leadership of Farel and Viret. But Calvin agreed heartily. And Knox, the Reformer of Scotland, shared these same convictions, he being a disciple of Calvin in Geneva. Consequently the Scottish Churches also banned the Roman sacred days."

Christ on Christmas

It is my conviction that this view alone is fully consistent with Scripture and the Reformed Confessions. I say this for the following reasons:

  1. When Jesus sent his apostles forth, he commanded them to teach converts to observe all things that he had commanded (Matt. 28:20). He did not authorize them to add to—or to take from—what he had commanded. And I believe that they faithfully did what Jesus told them to do.
  2. It is quite evident from the apostolic writings that there was no such day as Christmas in the apostolic churches. They did not have it for the simple reason that this was not one of the things that Jesus had commanded.
  3. The question, therefore, comes down to this: were the teachings and practices of the apostles sufficient to establish the practices that Christ himself authorized for his churches? The modern church quite obviously says no. But men such as Zwingli, Knox, and Calvin said yes. I believe these men were right.

The Detriments of Christmas

It is also my conviction that the widespread return of the Reformed churches to what is, after all, a Romish invention and tradition, is not in any way truly beneficial to the church. People think it is. But that does not make it so. And here I only want to mention one important consideration. Sunday school material—even such as is produced by our own Great Commission Publications—suffers under the dominion of what is commonly called "the church calendar." This means that every year, in the cycle of materials, an inordinate amount of time is spent repeating the story of Christ's birth. I hope no reader thinks for one moment that I discount the importance of the virgin birth of Christ. No, not at all. I certainly want the scriptural accounts in Matthew and Luke to receive due emphasis. But it is not due emphasis when a small portion of the history of salvation is magnified all out of proportion to the emphasis it receives in the Bible itself. Yet that is what has happened.

It is my hope, though I will probably not live to see it, that the Lord will send a new and even greater Reformation than the one he sent in the sixteenth century. When that happens, I believe, the church will again be emancipated from what is, after all, nothing more than a man-made tradition.

Private Celebrations

And now let me add one important caveat. I do not think that the strictest Reformer ever questioned the right of an individual to celebrate the birth of Christ at a time—and in a godly manner—of his own choosing. I certainly do not question this right. If you want to exchange gifts, or read Luke 2, or sing "Silent Night" on December 25, then I have no quarrel with you at all. What I ask in return is that you will not quarrel with me when I stand with the great Reformers mentioned above. What I question is not your personal right of Christian liberty, but the right of the church in its corporate capacity—whether on a denominational or congregational level—to designate an annual date to commemorate the birth of Christ.

Since no one knows the day of the year on which Christ was born, and God has deliberately not told us the day, no one has the right to invent a date to substitute for what God has not given. The popes of Rome, of course, have claimed this authority—that's how it came about that December 25 was set aside. But as for me and my house, we cannot in good conscience submit to such man-made impositions.

Mr. Williamson, a semiretired pastor, is a member of the Committee on Christian Education. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 1998.

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