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Pastor Andrew Webb | Fayetteville, North Carolina
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Providence ARP Church
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Providence ARP Church
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Why Do Presbyterians Observe Holy Days?
Posted by: Providence ARP Church | more..
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Dr. Samuel Miller, Professor of Ecclesiastical History and Church Government at Princeton Seminary wrote confidently in 1835 "Presbyterians do not observe Holy Days." 1 Yet some 164 years after the book in which Miller made that bold declaration was published, an informal survey of 30 churches in the Presbyterian Church in America, the largest of the theologically conservative Presbyterian bodies in the United States, indicated that 83% of the churches do regularly celebrate Holy Days.

What happened in those intervening 164 years? Did the practice of Presbyterians change significantly in that time or was Miller’s declaration inaccurate when he made it? What might have brought about such a radical change if it did in fact occur? This essay will seek to answer these questions. Because of space constraints, considerably more time will be spent examining the history of the development of Presbyterian practice in the United States regarding Holy Days than in examining the theological foundations for that practice. Nevertheless, it is appropriate to begin by discussing the theological reasoning behind Dr. Miller’s declaration.

Presbyterians, and indeed most Christians, who describe their theology as distinctively "Reformed", believe that the Worship of the Church is one of the most important aspects of the Faith. Furthermore they believe that this worship must be guided by the theology of the Bible. What makes the worship of those whose theological roots are in the Puritan wing of the Reformation distinctive, is their belief that the only worship that is acceptable before God, is that worship which is expressly commanded in His word, the Bible. This Puritan belief is succinctly summed up in the most important of the Puritan Creedal documents, The Westminster Confession of Faith, in the first section of the twenty-first chapter:

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all, is good, and doth good unto all, and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But 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.

In accordance with their beliefs, the Puritans attempted to ensure that only those elements that were directly instituted by God were present in their worship. Such worship was distinctively different from that of other Protestants such as the Lutherans and Anglicans, who tended to believe that true worship consisted of that which was commanded by God and anything which was not specifically condemned. Accordingly, outside of the Puritan wing of the Reformation, many innovations in worship that had been adopted by the Church since the closing of the Canon were retained. The fact that the Anglican church in particular retained many of these innovations is particularly important, because it was in the attempt to thoroughly reform the Church of England that the majority of the Puritan battles were waged, and it was out of these battles that the Presbyterian Confessional Standards came.

Amongst those innovations that continued to be practiced by the Anglican church after they broke with Rome, was the observance of what had come to be called the Church Year. The Church Year consisted of a series of festivals or feast days on which the church traditionally held special worship services and employed particular liturgies. While feast days were most commonly held to celebrate the birth or martyrdom of a Saint, the two most popular feast days in the Anglican Church were undoubtedly Christmas and Easter, which celebrated the birth and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Puritans did not observe Christmas and Easter because they did not wish to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, but because they believed that God had instituted a cycle not of two special feast days, but of fifty two holy days on which to glorify Jesus Christ and to preach on the importance of his birth, death, and resurrection.

These fifty two holy days were, of course, Sunday – the Lord’s day. The Puritans observed every Sunday as the New Testament continuation of the Old Testament Sabbath day of rest and worship:

As it is the law of nature, that, in general, a due proportion of time be set apart for the worship of God; so, in his Word, by a positive, moral, and perpetual commandment binding all men in all ages, he hath particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week, and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord's day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.2

For the Puritans, these Christian Sabbaths were the only days that were specifically set aside by the Lord for worship. There had indeed been specific feast days apart from the Sabbath in the Old Testament period, but the Puritans felt that these feast days were part of the Ceremonial Law, and as such had passed away when Christ, the reality which they foreshadowed, appeared. The Sabbath, on the other hand, as both a creation ordinance (cf. Genesis 2:2-3) and part of the Moral Law (Exodus 20:8-11) was an occasion to be observed by all of the people of God throughout all the ages.

Part of the proof for the Puritans that new feast days were not to be created and observed was the fact that they had not been invented or observed by either the Apostolic or the early Church. The Scriptures contained no references whatsoever to the actual dates on which the events which were later celebrated were to be observed had occurred. The church did not begin to seriously conjecture as to when these events had taken place until the third century AD and it was not until the fourth century AD that the church began to celebrate the feast of the nativity (Christmas) for instance. The placement by the church of this event on December 25th had less to do with the date they felt was most likely for the birth of Christ, than the desire to undermine the celebration of the Saturnalia, a pagan festival beginning on the December 17th, with a rival Christian holiday. The choice of December 25th, the winter solstice, was made because the Roman Emperor Aurelian, had decreed in 274 AD that December 25th was to be kept as a public festival in honor of the Invincible Sun.3 The choice of the 25th was therefore both an attempt to challenge the Pagan feast day and to maximize on the obvious metaphor between the "invincible sun" of Roman Paganism and the "Invincible Son" (Jesus Christ) of Christianity.

But more important than the questionable circumstances of their institution for the Puritans, was the simple fact that the celebration of these holy days had no warrant in the Word of God. On the contrary, the Puritans and their descendants were concerned that the Word of God forbade their celebration:

We believe that the Scriptures not only do not warrant the observance of such days, but that they positively discountenance it. Let any one impartially weigh Colossians ii. 16 and also, Galatians iv. 9, 10, 11; and then say whether these passages do not evidently indicate, that the inspired Apostle disapproved of the observance of such days.4

Another concern for the Puritans was the mode in which these Feast Days were commonly celebrated. In English society at the beginning of the 17th century the celebration of Christmas had become particularly scandalous. Far from being a season of dignified worship it had become a prolonged bacchanal that seemed to have more to do with the original feasting and festivity of the Roman Saturnalia than the celebration of Christ’s birth:

Celebrants devoted much of the season to pagan pleasures that were discouraged during the remainder of the year. The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, card playing, and gambling escalated to magnificent proportions.5

Accordingly Puritan condemnation of the festival of Christmas in particular often focused on the common abuses of the holiday. William Prynne’s Histriomastix (1633) for instance commented "Into what a stupendous height of more than pagan impiety… have we not now degenerated!" Another common complaint was that well over half of the days on the calendar were holy days. This seriously cut into the amount of time that could be spent occupied in labor. It seemed to John Northbrooke, another English Reformer writing in 1577, that the Pope, "not God in his word" had appointed Holy days "to traine up the people in ignorance and ydleness, wherby half of the year, and more, was overpassed (by their ydle holy-dayes) in loytering and vaine pastimes & c., in restrayning men from their handy labors and occupations."6

Read More Of This Article at: Why Do Presbyterians Observe Holy Days?

Category:  Holy Days

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