Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Church Calendars, Scriptural Authority, and Liberty of Conscience, no. 1

[Wow, sorry for the long title, but there it is.] Since we are sitting here on "Ash Wednesday," it seems a good time to reflect once again on the issue of the church calendar and especially on how Presbyterians should think about using or not using the calendar in the life of their churches. Or maybe--from a different angle and still mulling over my lecture that I just gave on Martin Luther--the question should be: why should those who emphasize the authority of Scripture not incorporate the church calendar into the rhythyms of a Presbyterian church's year?

In order to get at an answer to this question, I think you have to start with the question of authority--who or what determines or orders the life of a church? That is to say, on what basis does the church order its life? For most Protestants and especially for most conservative Presbyterians, we would say that Jesus is the King over his church and he orders his church through his Word and by Spirit. And that, of course, is the right (i.e. biblical) answer (for more on this, see On Being Presbyterian, ch. 4 and 8).

Protestants came to this answer over against what they saw to be an usurption of the church's authority by the pope, an expansion of the church's authority through its canon law, ritual practice, and traditional usage, and a corrupt use of that authroity, typified most clearly in Pope Leo X's decision to sell indulgences in order to fund the completion of St. Peter's Cathedral. The church used authority in order to bind the consciences of God's people in an unbiblical and hence illegitimate manner.

This point on the liberty of conscience is actually quite important--one of the major criticisms of Rome made by the Reformers was that the Roman church through its idoltary and superstitutious practices were illegitimately binding the consciences of people. In order to see what these practices looked like in medieval Europe, all one needs to do is read Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars--a worship pattern that emphasized ritual actions that taught biblical truths was emphasized centered on the Mass. The Reformers looked at this and said that this was not the worship which God required in his Word, was not likely to produce Gospel repentance and faith, and hence bound people in superstition which led them to perdition.

And so, the more biblically-oriented of these Protestants came to articulate a position that came to be known as the "regulative principle of worship." The principle itself is much debated today--especially in terms of the extent and application of it--but it remains a very important biblical point: namely, that the only legitimate manner of worship, declaration of doctrine, or practice of church order is that which is contained in Holy Scripture. The way the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it is valuable: "The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped 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" (WCF 21:1).

And this "regulative principle," importantly, comes after the chapter on liberty of conscience. Our confessions rightly say that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray to liberty of conscience" (WCF 20:2). The Triune God is King over each individual's conscience; that conscience is bound by the Word of God; and the church may only prescribe (or proscribe) what Scripture does.

All of this brings us to the question of the priority of using church calendar itself. While I am aware that some would make a biblical argument for using the church calendar based on the OT development of sacrifical feast days (an argument that is not convincing to me), I would suggest that what we have for our place in the redemptive, biblical drama is actually a rhythym of 52 feasts days a year--the Lord's Day in which Word, Sacraments, and prayer constitute the heart of the church's "calendar." This, I believe, is what we find prescribed in God's Word, both by apostolic practice and direction. For a Presbyterian church to move beyond this--whether to demand attendance at Wednesday night activities as part of Christian discipleship or to offer Lenten observance as part of the church's discipleship practices, placing ashes on people's foreheads as part of this--binds the conscience in ways that are "beside" the express command of Scripture itself and hence, spiritually illegitimate and potentially dangerous

And as Luther himself said, the only safe place for the conscience is anchored in God's Word: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason--for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves--I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen." What we want are believers whose consciences are captive not to the church, nor its traditions, nor the good ideas of pastors, sessions, or other leaders. We want their and our consciences captive to God's Word--because that is the only safe and sound place to be.


Anonymous said...

Would you say that for a church to offer a Christmas Eve service, Christmas Day Service, or even a Lord's Day service whose focus was Easter, also "binds the conscience in ways that are "beside" the express command of Scripture itself and hence, spiritually illegitimate and potentially dangerous".

Even about Reformation Sunday?!

Warren Dodson said...

Does every non-Sunday, elder-led gathering of the saints violate the regulative principle? I am not familiar with the practice of all, but I am not aware of any Protestants that view Ash Wednesday or Lenten services as obligatory. They are an opportunity to avail oneself of the means of grace.

I also wonder about the authority of elders to lead in the ministry of the church. If the elders as Sunday School teachers or small group leaders (assuming arguendo that such are permitted) to structure their teaching to correspond to the preaching ministry of the elders, have they violated the consciences of those teacher or leaders?

For that matter, was Paul violating the Ephesian elders' consciences when he asked them to come to Miletus? Or was that an example of uniquely apostolic authority?

Wayne said...

As a pastor and a member of our session, I recognize that we have a responsibility to instruct our congregation in the whole counsel of God with preeminence given to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

What if our session chose to do this by way of organizing a good portion of those 52 Sunday's around, say, the major events in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ? We could have a series of Sundays in which our Scripture readings and prayers reflect on his promised coming (from both the vantage points of OT Israel and our present hope in his return). Then perhaps we could have a few Sundays in which our Scripture readings and prayers center on the incarnation of our Lord. We might then even have a few Sundays that reflect on those portions of the Scriptures where we see the Son of God revealing himself to his people and the nations and consider how we might take that message of the gospel to all of the world. Then we could have a few Sundays where our readings and prayers consider why our Lord came for us in the first place - to redeem us from our sin and bondage - even noting that our Messiah was rejected by men, smitten and afflicted. We could then have a few Sundays where we give special attention to his death, resurrection, ascension, and the out-pouring of the Holy Spirit.

Seems like I've just use the essential outline of the traditional Western calendar, yet I fail to see how any of this would be a violation of anyone's conscious let alone a violation of the regulative principle of worship.

Wayne Larson
Redeemer Presbyterian (PCA)
Des Moines, IA

Wayne said...

"conscious" - Ha! conscience, of course.

Anonymous said...

"While I am aware that some would make a biblical argument for using the church calendar based on the OT development of sacrifical feast days (an argument that is not convincing to me),..."

I should like to know why this type of typological argument (at least for the permissibility, NOT the necessity, of an annual calendar of festivals) is so unconvincing to you?

This reluctance to find any principles for Christian practice in the OT seems rather out of keeping with Reformed biblical hermeneutics, which typically stresses the continuity of OT and NT. Reformed people stress this continuity in matters of polity and ethics all the time. Furthermore, Reformed people even draw sacramental norms for Christian practice from OT "ceremonial" texts like laws about circumcision and its recipients. So we even have Reformed confessional grounds for the very approach to hermeneutics that you seem to call into question here.

And, your Luther quotations notwithstanding, why did Luther himself, and Calvin, and Bucer, and just about every Reformed church prior to the rise of Puritanism in England (and its influence on Scottish Presbyterianism) support a Christologically centered calendar with at least the five "evangelical feast days" of Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost? Were all of them simply inconsistent? Support for such an annual calendar is even found in such a widely accepted Reformed confession like the Second Helvetic Confession.

And just what about the manner of such celebrations is so objectionable? Observing the calendar doesn't require adding any additional elements to the service. As Wayne has pointed out, it simply requires focusing the topics of the ministry of the word and prayer on particular themes at particular times. It keeps the church centered on Christ by the discipline of keeping the main events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection in the forefront of the church's attention.

Finally, no Reformed or Presbyterian churches that observe the liturgical year are compelling their members to participate in any extra services (like an Ash Wednesday service or a Good Friday service). No one is excommunicated or disciplined for not attending those special services or participating in certain spiritual disciplines during Lent. So how exactly does this constitute a binding of people's consciences?

Mike Farley

Anonymous said...

Yet another comment:

Why since the reformation have we been talking so much about the conscience? I have a hard time finding the biblical warrant for this--it just doesn't seem to be an emphasis in Scripture. Given, Paul uses a word in a couple of places that is often translated 'conscience', but i am not sure that he is actually talking about the same thing that we are talking about when we say 'conscience' (this semantic observation was confirmed in a conversation with a friend at my church who is doing a PhD in classics at Cambridge).

Now i realize that there are historical reasons which contributed to 'conscience' playing an important role in Luther's discourse; i just wonder if our situation is the same in this regard. One might argue that it is, since Luther's discourse arose out of an attempt to protect the doctrine of Justification by Faith--a doctrine that has come under stain in our own day. Nevertheless, I think we can take the discussion a bit to far when we start talking about how suggesting (nor requiring) anything but scriptural imperatives upon people binds their 'consciences'. If we are going to take the logic that far then we might as well drop the WCF; it was never explicitly commanded in scripture.

But back to the original question: Are we on 'conscience' overload, or is there good biblical grounds for making a lot out of this topic.

-Kyle Wells

Anonymous said...

Using this logic, it seems inescapable that,

1. You would have to believe any service that is even "offered" on any day besides Sunday would bind the conscience thus would be sinful.

2. You would have to see any Sunday sermon series or worship focus--a two-month study of the Gospel of John, a 4 week study of the Ordo Salutis, a church that chose a yearly theme (such as a church I know did, "That in All Things, Christ Would Have the Preeminence"--would be sinful, inasmuch such an arrangement is not mandated by Scripture.

3 would oppose the celebration of Christmas, Easter and any other church calendar construct.

Garrett said...

Hi Sean,

An amusing anecdote: I once had a parishioner who pooh-poohed “All Saints Day” (we don't even celebrate All Saints Day at our church) and used that as a springboard to attack the use of the church calendar. That same Lord’s Day evening he traveled nearly 100 miles away to attend the unbiblical and wholly Western and Protestant “Reformation Day” special service of worship put on by a local presbytery.

Garrett Craw
Christ Church, Santa Clarita, CA

Anonymous said...

Pastor Lucas,

I think the term for you position is "the heckler's veto."

Jeff Meyers said...

How ironic that you quote Luther at the end. Luther loved and commended a full-bodied liturgical church year. He did it because he found good pastoral reasons for it in the Word of God.

Jeff Meyers said...

Hi Sean,

Sorry I left that note above without any comments. I wasn't trying to be shrill. But it is rather odd when Presbyterians quote Luther and interpret his calls to biblical fidelity as backing up our anti-Lutheran practices. That's all.

Also, I believe I've answered many of your objections to the use of the church year in the following posts:

A Parking Lot parable:

Is the church year an imposition on the conscience of Christians?

Don't these annual festivals smack of OT religion?

Is there any warrant in the Bible for a church year?

Of what use is the church year?

You can read all the stuff I have on Christmas and the church year here:


Jeff Meyers

Peter Green said...

Dr. Lucas,

Some thoughts: It seems to me that any group of people naturally start to form traditions which mark the passing of the time and give regularity to life. This fits with what God did in Genesis 1 by providing the stars for the marking of times and seasons. Even God recognized this need and appointed the stars "for signs and for seasons, and for days and years". Groups and cultures form around holidays and traditions to develop a shared history which help the future generations connect with the past generations and know “where they fit in the story” (to borrow an oft repeated phrase from covenant theology). Throughout the biblical story we see God’s people setting up stones, altars, or traditions to remind themselves of the past, be a witness to them, or simply to develop a tradition to form around. Two prominent examples are when Jacob wrestles with God in Genesis 32 and the feast of Purim in the book of Esther. Genesis 32:32 says: “Therefore to this day the people of Israel do not eat the sinew of the thigh that is on the hip socket, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip on the sinew of the thigh.” This is obviously not a holiday or festival but it certainly is an interesting tradition used to from and develop the identity of the people of God. The story of Esther is much more interesting and 9:27-28 reads as follows: “the Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring and all who joined them, that without fail they would keep these two days according to what was written and at the time appointed every year, that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation, in every clan, province, and city, and that these days of Purim should never fall into disuse among the Jews, nor should the commemoration of these days cease among their descendants.” The interesting thing is that there is no indication either in the Jacob story or the Esther story that God required the tradition of the feast of Purim. These were developed by the Jews themselves. The feast of Purim is especially interesting since it seems like the Jews were doing exactly what you said was wrong. “The Jews firmly obligated themselves and their offspring…” There’s no indication that God had anything to do with it and yet the Jews were “binding their conscience” none-the-less.
Because humans, by nature, mark the time with festivals and holidays, the question is not whether we will, but which group or culture will set the agenda. Most people are part of many groups and cultures – the church, the state, the soccer team, the school, the lions club, etc. – and one will take precedence. As Christians our primary identity should be in Christ, not in any other culture or group. Christians are the new humanity and the nation of redeemed people. It only makes sense that we develop festivals and cultural traditions (shaped by Christ and His word) in order to form our identity around Christ and away from the US or anything else. As it stands most Christians will celebrate the beginning of the US on July 4th. We’ll take the day off, have a picnic, celebrate with friends, do really dumb (but cool) stuff with fireworks and generally have a good time. Our identity is shaped by July 4th. Since the church (particularly American Presbyterians) refuse to seriously celebrate the beginning of the new humanity at Pentecost, or the coronation of our King at the Ascension, the United States of America steps in and fills the gap. Consequently American Christians have mixed identities. Christianity often becomes associated with America. If Christians worked on July 4th, and President’s Day, and Labor Day, and MLK Day but took off a day or several days for Pentecost, Ascension, Holy Week, Advent, and Christmas we would have a much more solidly Christ-centered identity. Of course I do not think that it is wrong to celebrate July 4th (I wouldn’t bind the conscience to forbid something that God has not forbidden), but I do think that Christian holidays should be a much bigger part of the life of the church. Of course you could argue that the “52 feast days” that we do celebrate should be identity forming enough, but they were not for the OT church, so why should we assume that it is for us?
Additionally, celebrating the events of Christ’s life help to teach and train our children about the Christian faith. This is certainly the way it was done in the OT. Passover and many of the memorial stones or altars were explicitly ordained by God as “object lessons” and teaching tools for Israelite fathers. If a culture does not have these traditions to impress its history into its children the children forget and go astray. I would argue that if the church had had a robust celebration of Ascension Day as the coronation of the King, dispensationalism with its emphasis on the “future” reign of Christ would have failed to take root and died a long time ago. If every year we had a great big celebration focused on the fact that Christ was on the throne now, anyone who suggested that Christ’s reign was future would have just gotten strange looks. We fight against the stream as it is now because we don’t have those cultural traditions which form people’s identities.

Peter Green

Mark said...

For the record, initial credibility would be higher if

1) this was a presented as simply what the Church is ordered to do (i.e. abstain from a Church calendar) rather as some violation of the liberty of individual consciences. It leads to absurdity since any sessional or pastoral decision about themes in worship or subjects in sermons would qualify as such a violation.

2) Reformation sunday and the Continental Reformed practice of preaching through the Heidelberg Catechism on an annual basis were included as examples of prohibited behavior.

I'm not saying that 1) and 2) would make the argument convincing. But they would make it look at least somewhat self-consistent.

JATB said...

I am a PCA pastor, and we had an Ash Wednesday service last night. It wasn't really that out of the ordinary: we have a Wednesday evening prayer service every week. Only this week, the focus of those prayers was on our own repentance and on God's promises to us in the Scriptures to forgive all of our sins through Jesus Christ. In my sermon, I spoke on Christ's instructions regarding fasting, that fasting is between us and God, not between us and the world. Thus, I instructed everyone who received ashes (that is entirely voluntary: we do it with "every head bowed, every eye closed") to wash them off before they left church, not to parade around with them on, displaying their piety before men.

We observe the calendar to a certain extent (using a combination of lectio continua and lectio selecta throughout the year) for a number of reasons, but the chief of which is that our faith is not a timeless mythology. It is firmly rooted in actual events that actually happened in history. So we revisit those events at the same time every year for the same reason we celebrate Independence Day on the 4th of July every year: because something actually happened.

When I taught Bible in a Chistian school (at a PCA church), I consistently found, every year, that my students who were Episcopal, Lutheran, or Roman Catholic had a much, much better grasp of the sweep of redemptive history than the Reformed or Baptist kids. Those students with no connection to the Church Year knew stories from the Bible, but not how it all fits together. The kids who lived the Christian Year saw the big picture year in and year out.

And yes, to use Luther to bolster an argument against the Christian Year is downright comical.

We don't have holy days of obligation, other than the Lord's Day, and even that the Bible says we are to think of as a delight more than an obligation.

So am I binding my congregation's conscience? About 50% of our regular group was in attendance last night, much more than we usually have on Wednesday night. How did we do that? Did we threaten them with damnation or excommunication if they did not attend? No, we simply made the service available and they chose to come. Others chose not to. I mentioned in my sermon last night that observing Lent does not make one more spiritual or more accepted in God's sight than not observing Lent. We cannot be more accepted than we are in Christ.

No conscience binding here. It's time to give that old argument a rest.

Burke said...

Sean, is it true that you are preaching at a Valentine's banquet tomorrow in IL? Amazing! Apparently, by your reasoning, the only parts of the Church calendar that it is wrong for churches to celebrate are the parts that remain explicitly Christian and Biblically oriented. Culturally secularized/paganized saint's days seem to be okay.

Anonymous said...

I posted some thoughts on this.

Paul B. said...

I just saw the "preaching, Valentine's Banquet" notice, too. So it's OK for the church to observe Valentine's Day?

To paraphrase one of your own questions: Why should those who emphasize the authority of Scripture incorporate the secular, Hallmark, shopping-mall calendar into the rhythms of a Presbyterian church's year?

I don't think there's anything evil about the church Valentine's banquet where you'll be preaching, but I think that it, and your participation in it, show the near-impossibility of not following some calendar or another. And I'll be using this as an illustration as I teach on worship.

I grew up in a church that believed, or said it believed, that the regulative principle makes special, annual observances sinful. What that meant in practice was that special, annual celebrations *of the events of Jesus' ministry* were sinful. Occasions for paying special attention to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus -- these were pagan. Mother's Day, Father's Day, New Year's sermons and so forth -- these were fine. It beggars belief.

Anonymous said...

While in some sense Valentine's Day can certainly be called a Hallmark holiday, let's not forget that it has deep roots in the church calendar. From Wikipedia:

Saint Valentine (also Valentinus) refers to one of several martyred saints of ancient Rome. The feast of Saint Valentine was formerly celebrated on February 14 by the Roman Catholic Church until a revised calendar was issued in 1969, pursuant to the Second Vatican Council. His feast day is July 30 in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Paul B. said...


You're right, of course: Valentine's Day is a saint's day. But I doubt that the church where Dr. Lucas will preach is observing it as such. Like St. Patrick's Day, St. Valentine's has become highly secularized. No matter. My point is simply that however the church in question celebrates it -- as a saint's day or as a Hallmarkified occasion -- such an observance seems inconsistent with Dr. Lucas' post.

JATB said...


Great post on your blog. Too bad it wasn't deemed worthy of reading "past the first paragraph." :-) I thought it had a lot of good material. I've posted a reply here.

Anonymous said...

my concern is that my small children and i are being told by our pca pastor that we are in a period of mourning for the next 40 days--where does the good news of the gospel fit with that? do we have to crucify Christ every year? is He risen or not?

Jeff Meyers said...

Lent is not "a period of mourning." Perhaps you are misunderstanding what the pastor is saying. I hope so. Lent is a time for repentance. It's not about crucifying Christ all over again. Who says that? It's about hearing the Gospel accounts of the passion and death of Christ every year. It's about meditating on the crucifixion every year. How can that not be about appropriating the good news? What's wrong with doing this in a concentrated way every year, or every week for that matter?

dwc said...

The calender is about walking with Christ throughout the year, his birth, his life, his suffering, death, burial, resurrection. Who better to walk with through the year? As another commentator stated above, we are better to remember when Super Bowl Sunday is, the effort we put forth in celebrating independence day, etc, etc. Why not put the same efforts and energies into walking with Christ? Seems to be the regular, repetition of doing is much better than the alternative of just floating through the year, bouncing from this study to that study and not ever having any constancy.

JATB said...

I'll echo what Jeff says about Lent not being a "period of mourning." If someone is saying that, he'd better dig a little deeper. I especially hope no one is under the impression that the Sundays in Lent are times of mourning: every Sunday is a feast day. Every Sunday celebrates the resurrection. Yes, even for those who observe the Christian Year. The Sundays in Lent are not actually part of Lent, not even in the Roman Catholic tradition. That's why they are Sundays in Lent, not Sundays of Lent. Lent is 40 days. If you count from Ash Wednesday to Easter, you get 46 days, not 40. That's because the Sundays aren't included in the count. That's why even RC or Episcopal folks who give up somethi ng for Lent (that's simply another form of fasting, BTW) will allow themselves to have those things on Sundays. The Lord's Day is always a feast, never a fast. After all, it is the Lord's Day, the day Christ arose from the dead.

Nevertheless, every year it seems we have some agency or other of the PCA proclaim a day of prayer and fasting for a Sunday! That's the one day we should never fast.

Anonymous said...

Peter Green has it spot on. The annual cycle of events and observances, both God-ordained and man-developed, in the Older Covenant were designed to keep in mind just who we are. Read the instructions Moses gave the people or Israel in regards Passover and its detailed feast, Seder. Read through the order of that feast. It is, straight up, a means of inculcating the Jewish identity deep within the warp and weft of that people. Same with the other annual feasts--First Fruits, Succoth, Purim, Rosh Hoshanna, Hannukah..even the typical order observed by individual families eas
ch Shabat. It was by means of these weekly, seasonal, and annual observances that Jewish Fathers were reminded to, and assisted in, TEACH YOUR CHILDREN. Righteeoh, it's Hollywood through and through, but watch, again, Fiddler on the Roof, and see how TRADITION shapes the people. To be sure, it can (and so often does) devolve into empty ritual, but that is OUR fault, not the fault of the observance.

I rather expect that the reticence to observe any sort of calendar amongst Protestants stems from an intense over-reaction to what the church of Rome had become, and a desire to be as much "other" as possible. Thus we Prods have rather had done with too many good, right, and beneficial "traditions" and patterns which mark the Roman church. Thus we eschew observation of anything smacking of a liturgical year (and losing the benefits thereof), many have had done entirely with the Lord's Supper, or relegated it to a meaningless and casual observance, perhaps, as do the OPC, only making it a requirement once per quarter, and then only should the requisite duly qualified people be present. Such a low view of the Table is in large part why I did not persue involvement with that group.

Certainly, we musn't do as the Romans, and require such observation of annual feasts. Paul was quite firm on this..those who observe days and seasons, let them, don't forbit, neither require. On the other hand (to quote Reb Tevya...) we've rather had the baby out with the bath in trying to separate ourselves from those bound by Rome's burdensome traditions. There is a reason the twelve tribal leaders were commanded to each pick up a large stone from the bed of the Jordan as they crossed dry-shod, and placed them into a pile on the side of the Promised Land. Ever since every Jewish Father, when passing by with his sons, would retell the story of how those "ordinary" rocks came to be in a cairn on the bank. And the boy's sense of identity as a Jew, a child of the Covenant, a descendant of Abraham, one brought OUT of Egypt and slavery and IN to a land of Promise was knit stronger. But no, we observe "youth group", "marriage encounters", "singles ministry", "pastor as CEO", all designed to "fix" the problems we've allowed to invade, when restructuring our attention toward specific observances designed to deepen our sense of who we ARE is largely left to......the surrounding culture. Mr. Green makes the mark when he declares that, in large measure, we are more American than Christian, culturally speaking. A careful and thoughtful observance, from a decidedly Christian perspective, of events that proclaim and celebrate our identity in Christ would go far toward displacing much of the corrupting identity the surrounding culture impinges upon our people, perhaps thus restoring us to our rightful function as salt and light in our communities. Allow me to posit that it is over time to have done with that old Enlightenment Movement mantra "just Jesus and Me".


Travis said...

Wow, some folks really have too much time on their hands.

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