Reformers’ disagreement on Christmas yields lessons

December 15, 2016 | Posted in Southern Baptist Convention | By

Martin Luther and John Calvinby David Roach

NASHVILLE (BP) — When it came to celebrating Christmas, leaders of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation were divided on whether followers of Jesus should say “bah humbug” or “joy to the world.”

While Martin Luther loved to celebrate Christmas with feasting and special church services, the so-called Reformed wing of the Reformation, led by Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin, raised objections to such festivities, arguing believers should worship God only in ways explicitly commanded by Scripture and that a festival in December commemorating Christ’s birth was not commanded.

The Reformed wing’s Puritan heirs in England and New England were adamant in their rejection of Christmas celebrations. English Puritan William Prynne (1600-1669) argued, for example, that “all pious Christians” should “eternally abominate” Christmas festivities, said church historian Michael Haykin. In New England, celebrating Christmas could result in a fine.

Though few modern Christians share such sentiments against Christmas, a North Carolina pastor who holds a Ph.D. in church history told Baptist Press, believers can draw insights from both sides in the debate.

Andy Davis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Durham, N.C., advocates a “mediating position,” in which believers acknowledge the food and fun of Christmas as good gifts from the Lord but also recognize that secular Christmas festivities can stray far afield from celebrating the incarnation.

“Take the Christmas blessings, and look upward to the giver,” Davis said. “The happiness that we feel when we look at the lights and we enjoy the holiday — all of it comes from God. And ultimately God has so much more to give you than just that. He has His own Son, and the center of everything is the giving of Christ.”

Reformers differ

Among the Reformers, differing views of Christmas stemmed largely from differing views of worship, Haykin, professor of church history and biblical spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, told BP.

Luther held the “normative principle” — the belief Christians may worship God in any way not forbidden by Scripture — while Zwingli and Calvin held the “regulative principle” — the belief Christians may only worship God in ways commanded by Scripture.

Thus, Luther retained the Roman Catholic traditions of Advent and Christmas and may have been among the first people to decorate a Christmas tree with candles, Haykin said. “It was a festival he delighted to celebrate.”

The first seven sermons in “The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther” edited by John Nicholas Lenker are all designated for the Christmas season.

For Zwingli and Calvin, in contrast, “there are questions raised about” Christmas, Haykin said. He noted all Reformers praised God for the incarnation but differed over the appropriateness of an official festival on Dec. 25.

Preaching on Christmas Day 1551, a Tuesday, Calvin noted, “I see here today more people than I am accustomed to having at the sermon,” according to Calvin’s “Sermons on the Book of Micah” translated by Benjamin Wirt Farley.

Then Calvin warned, “When you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.”

Still, Calvin’s admonition seemed to be a caution rather than a prohibition of Christmas.

In a 1551 letter quoted by Presbyterian pastor Phil Larson, Calvin said he “pursued the moderate course in keeping Christ’s birthday.” Similarly, in a 1555 letter he noted, “A church is not to be despised or condemned because it observes more festival days than the others.”

Nearly a century later, the Puritans, who drew theological inspiration from Calvin among other sources, took his view a step further, formally outlawing Christmas in England in 1647, Haykin said.

In America, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony permitted nonbelievers among them to celebrate Christmas in the early 1620s, Davis said. But when some nonbelievers were seen playing a game on Christmas Day, the colony’s governor “confiscated their game equipment and said they were free to not work, but they had to stay indoors and would best spend the time by reading the Bible and praying.”

Caution about Christmas in British territories prevailed until the 1800s, Davis said, because of a desire not to return to Roman Catholic practices.

‘Scraps’ from God’s table

The Reformers’ and Puritans’ reticence about Christmas should not be dismissed altogether in the modern world, Davis said, noting the holiday often is celebrated with “fantastic busyness” and “materialism” but “no real, vibrant piety.”

Even when charity and thankfulness are involved in the celebration, Davis said, meaningful references to Christ can be removed, as in Charles Dickens’ famous novella “A Christmas Carol.”

Yet “you can go too far in the opposite direction” by eschewing traditional Christmas celebrations altogether, Davis said.

“The ‘eat, drink and be merry’ thing is like scraps that fall from the table of God. It’s common grace blessings that people enjoy,” he said. “… Why wouldn’t you want something like that?”

It’s understandable that some Christians reject Christmas activities that are merely cultural with no celebration of Christ, Davis said. But the culture “just doesn’t get it” when Christians denounce the holiday altogether.

A more productive message in 21st-century America is, he said, “These blessings are gifts from God. But He has so much more to give you than that. He came into the world to save sinners.”

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program.

EDITOR’S NOTE: During the coming months, Baptist Press will periodically publish stories observing the 500th anniversary of when Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, Oct. 31, 1517.


Where were they then? Luther, Calvin & Menno in 1516

October 31, 2016 | Posted in Southern Baptist Convention | By

lutherby David Roach

NASHVILLE (BP) — Five hundred years ago, on Oct. 31, 1516, Martin Luther was a German Catholic priest questioning whether the pope truly had power to spring souls from purgatory. John Calvin was a 7-year-old in France who had just reached what medievals deemed the “age of accountability.”

In the Netherlands, Menno Simons was a 20-year-old headed toward the Catholic priesthood who had never read the Bible.

A year later, Luther would nail 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany, challenging some of the Roman Catholic Church’s practices and sparking a movement that changed all three men’s paths forever. The challenges of Luther and others eventually provoked the Catholic Church to correct corrupt practices among some clergy. Later, Luther began challenging fundamentals of Catholic doctrine and separated definitively from Rome.

But on the previous Oct. 31, Luther, Calvin and Menno were merely historical soil in which the seeds of the Reformation were about to sprout.

“The Reformation happened at a great kairotic turning point in history,” Reformation scholar Timothy George said, referencing the Greek word “kairos,” which signifies an opportune moment that is either seized or lost. “It was the end of one era and the beginning of another” with “a lot of changes in the wind.”

George, author of “Theology of the Reformers” and dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, told Baptist Press some hints of the change to come were evident in the lives of Luther, Calvin and Menno in 1516.

With Luther, change was clearly on the horizon. Calvin and Menno were still nearly two decades away from becoming Protestant Reformers, but their lives illustrated some prominent flaws of medieval Catholicism that they eventually came to criticize.

Martin Luther

Then a 32-year-old monk, Luther was preparing for a special event on Oct. 31, 1516. The next day, the pope had granted the Castle Church in Wittenberg the privilege of dispensing the supposedly excess merit of Jesus, Mary and the saints to those who viewed the local collection of relics — which supposedly included pieces of Mary’s girdle and a strand of Jesus’ beard, according to Roland Bainton’s book “Here I Stand.”

Receiving the allegedly excess merit was said to decrease a soul’s time in purgatory, a place where Catholics claim people receive punishment for certain types of sins before being released to heaven.

The whole practice, known as granting indulgences, seemed suspect to Luther, and he said so in a sermon.

“Luther spoke moderately and without certainty on all points,” Bainton wrote of Luther’s Oct. 31, 1516, sermon. “But on some, he was perfectly assured. … To assert that the pope can deliver souls from purgatory is audacious. If he can do so, then he is cruel not to release them all.”

Luther, who later rejected the doctrine of purgatory altogether, was particularly sensitive about absolution of sin because of his own intense struggle with guilt.

Though not a particularly noteworthy sinner by Bainton’s account, Luther found it impossible to do enough good works to satisfy God’s moral standards. He would confess his sins to a mentor priest daily — for six hours on at least one occasion — leading his mentor to say, “If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive — parricide [murder of a relative], blasphemy, adultery — instead of all these peccadilloes.”

George thinks Luther had found the spiritual relief he sought by 1516, receiving Christ as Lord and Savior by faith alone. But he had not yet articulated his mature doctrine of justification by faith alone. That would come two or three years later.

On Oct. 31, 1516, however, his discontentment with the spiritual status quo was already coming through.

John Calvin

Not as much is known about what Calvin was doing specifically on that day. After his mother died when he was five or six, Calvin was raised by “friends of the family … of the noble caste in France,” George said.

As part of a Catholic family, Calvin would have received infant baptism and been required to take communion at least once a year. One of the few episodes known from Calvin’s early childhood, according to “Theology of the Reformers,” is that his mother once took him to kiss what was purported to be the severed finger of St. Anne, the alleged mother of Mary.

Beginning around 1516, Calvin would have begun to appear before a priest to answer what George called “guilt-inducing” questions about his own sins.

Among the types of questions seven year olds faced, according to “Theology of the Reformers”: “Have you believed in magic?” “Have you failed to kneel on both knees or remove your hat during communion?” “Have you thrown snowballs or rocks at others?” And just to make sure the child was paying attention and not answering mindlessly: “Did you kill the emperor with a double-headed ax?”

Preaching of the day, Calvin later wrote, “informed us we were miserable sinners dependent on thy mercy; reconciliation was to come through the righteousness of works.”

By age 12, Calvin secured a benefice, a church office that would pay him for life while requiring little of him. To perform the few duties required, Calvin’s family would have hired an illiterate common priest, George said, noting the setup was typical of medieval church life.

Though Calvin came to reject the medieval Catholic system and became a leading voice for Protestantism by the mid-1530s, there was little hint in 1516 that he would make that dramatic turn.

Menno Simons

The situation was similar in 1516 for Menno. Though he went on to become a leading Anabaptist — rejecting infant baptism, advocating the church’s freedom from government control and drawing harsh criticism from so-called Magisterial Reformers like Luther and Calvin — he was a “typical Catholic” at age 20, George said.

Among his typical characteristics was Menno’s level of biblical illiteracy. While he could read both Latin and Greek, becoming what George called “an above average Catholic priest” in 1524, Menno claimed not to have read the Bible until approximately 1526.

The Catholic Church later would work to remedy the lack of education among priests as well as moral shortcomings like the benefice system Calvin encountered.

Also in the mid-1520s, Menno began to question whether the bread and wine of communion really transformed into the body and blood of Christ as the Catholic Church taught. It wasn’t until 1535, however, that witnessing the slaughter of a group of “misled,” violent Anabaptists inspired Menno to receive Christ as his Lord and Savior and become an Anabaptist himself — though one dedicated to pacifism.

Yet in 1516, there was little hint of that coming transformation or of Menno’s significant leadership that would eventuate in Dutch Anabaptists’ being called “Mennonites.”

Reformation context

“It’s a great mistake to think that the Reformation just kind of happened do novo out of nothing,” George said.

“There was a context,” he continued, of people like Luther, Calvin and Menno, who wanted to “purify the church” and “reform the church” as it existed in 1516.

Reprinted from Baptist Press (, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.