I don’t consider myself a partisan of the strong Puritan construal of the regulative principle, in so far as I understand it– 1one that, on principle, objects to the corporate celebration of things such as Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Ascension, and so on. 2
However, the Westminster Confession of Faith, which is the confession most often subscribed by adherents of this strong version of the regulative principle, seems to me to allow (perhaps unwittingly) for this very thing: a Protestant observance of “holidays.”
I say this because of one of the proof texts used in a well-known section on the regulation of worship (yes, I know that the choice of proof-texts, unlike the confession itself, isn’t inspired). 3
I refer to WCF 21.5:
The reading of the Scriptures with godly fear, the sound preaching and conscionable hearing of the Word, in obedience unto God, with understanding, faith and reverence, singing of psalms with grace in the heart; as also, the due administration and worthy receiving of the sacraments instituted by Christ, are all parts of the ordinary religious worship of God: beside religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner.
The proof-text given for the phrase “thanksgivings upon special occasions” is, in addition to Psalm 107, Esther 9.22. Here is what we find when we turn to that passage on the institution of the festival of Purim:
And Mordecai recorded these things and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, obliging them to keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same, year by year, as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and gifts to the poor.
So the Jews accepted what they had started to do, and what Mordecai had written to them. For Haman the Agagite, the son of Hammedatha, the enemy of all the Jews, had plotted against the Jews to destroy them, and had cast Pur (that is, cast lots), to crush and to destroy them. But when it came before the king, he gave orders in writing that his evil plan that he had devised against the Jews should return on his own head, and that he and his sons should be hanged on the gallows. Therefore they called these days Purim, after the term Pur. Therefore, because of all that was written in this letter, and of what they had faced in this matter, and of what had happened to them, 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.
Then Queen Esther, the daughter of Abihail, and Mordecai the Jew gave full written authority, confirming this second letter about Purim.Letters were sent to all the Jews, to the 127 provinces of the kingdom of Ahasuerus, in words of peace and truth, that these days of Purim should be observed at their appointed seasons, as Mordecai the Jew and Queen Esther obligated them, and as they had obligated themselves and their offspring, with regard to their fasts and their lamenting. The command of Queen Esther confirmed these practices of Purim, and it was recorded in writing. (Esther 9.20-32, ESV)
After the Jews had been spared from the plot of Haman, a festival of remembrance for their deliverance was inaugurated–not by God, but by Mordecai. This festival of remembrance, moreover, was to be kept annually; it was both for the Jews alive then, and for their offspring.
Not only so, but Jesus himself may have honored the celebrations with his presence: “After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem” (John 5.1)–it is plausible that the unnamed feast mentioned here should be identified with Purim, though commentators are divided (Calvin understands it as Pentecost, but he is rather non-committal). In any case, he seems to have been present for the Feast of Dedication (Hannukah), or the Feast of the Maccabees, which had been instituted in 165 BC. Calvin comments:
And it was the feast of Dedication. The Greek word (ἐγκαίνια) which we have translated dedication, properly signifies renovations; because the temple, which had been polluted, was again consecrated by the command of Judas Maccabaeus; and at that time it was enacted that the day of the new dedication or consecration should be celebrated every year as a festival, that the people might recall to remembrance the grace of God, which had put an end to the tyranny of Antiochus. Christ appeared in the temple at that time, according to custom, that his preaching might yield more abundant fruit amidst a large assembly of men.
The Lord, according to Calvin, saw this “remembrance [of] the grace of God,” a custom of human origin, to be profitable for evangelistic purposes.
What to conclude? WCF 21.5 does not seem to disallow annual remembrances of God’s mighty acts of redemption, because such remembering is an occasion for gratitude; and what subjects are more fitting for such remembrance than the Savior’s Incarnation, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and pouring out of his Spirit? I freely grant that this may not have been the intention of the framers of the confession, but it is also not disconsonant with what that intention was. Such a reading of the phrase, based as it is upon the support of the ninth chapter of Esther, would make it coherent with a couple of continental statements from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. First, chapter 24 of Bullinger’s Second Helvetic Confession:
THE FESTIVALS OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. But we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.
Second, the Church Order of Dort, Articles 63 and 67:
The Lordly Supper shall be administered once every two months, wherever possible, and it will be edifying that it take place at Easter, Pentecost, and Christmas where the circumstances of the Church permit. However, in those places where the Church has not yet been instituted, first of all Elders and Deacons shall be provided.
The Churches shall observe, in addition to Sunday, also Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, with the following day, and whereas in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands the day of Circumcision and of Ascension of Christ are also observed, Ministers in every place where this is not yet done shall take steps with the Government to have them conform with the others.
One might make the case that such shared observance would be ecumenically useful among Reformed Protestants as a visible sign of catholicity. What would make for a better foundation for such catholicity than collective remembrance of what God has done?
At the end of the day, of course, the institution of such public remembrances are a matter of liberty left to the discretion of the relevant established authorities sub specie temporis, but I don’t think it can plausibly be maintained that they are ipso facto illicit or impious; it can only be maintained that they are optional, and it should be acknowledged that they can be used piously.
Finally, it seems to me that if anything at all is to be remembered in such a way (that is, by special times of public thanksgiving)–and the confession both makes clear that this kind of remembrance is fitting and assumes that these kinds of observances will be to hand to be used “in an holy and religious manner”–surely God’s own acts of redemption on behalf of sinful men the world over ought to be the first order of business and to take priority over all else. Furthermore, as Christians remember these things together, they demonstrate that the principle of their unity is nothing other than the gospel of Jesus Christ–and nothing is more Protestant than that.