Archive E.J. Hutchinson Ecclesiastical Polity Reformed Irenicism

Preference and Prudence: A Case For A Church Calendar

What follows could be called a Reformed Irenic case for keeping a church calendar.

A couple of weeks ago, in a post on Protestantism and institutional unity, I made the following comment:

Mutatis mutandis, the same is true in the case of liturgy (also foregrounded by Dr. Leithart) as in the case of administration–which is to say, they did not seek liturgical uni(formi)ty (I switch now to this ugly hybrid term because, though each party has been referring to unity, uniformity seems to be what Dr. Leithart is really after, at least with respect to liturgy) throughout Christendom. I should point out that this does not have anything to do with my own preferences, which, in the liturgical realm, are probably quite close to Dr. Leithart’s: I prefer sung liturgy, a basic calendar, and chanted Psalms rather than metrical ones. But these are precisely preferences (with the possible exception of the last), and preferences cannot be made principles. That is to say, the “unity” of the church, and its visible expression, does not hinge on whether all congregations sing the Venite, or sing it in the same part of the service.

When I said that I had certain preferences, I did not mean to suggest that they are arbitrary or without foundation in reason or Scripture. I believe the things mentioned above to be adiaphora with respect to mutual recognition of churches or denominations; I further believe that they should not be barriers to unity of whatever sort and that they should not be a litmus test for whether a church is really a church, rather than, say, an “ecclesial community” (whatever that is). On the other hand, some of them may well work toward the bene esse of the church(es), even if they contribute nothing to the church’s esse, and we might commend them and adopt them for that reason. In this post I’d like to use the calendar as an illustration of something I believe to be a preference, but a preference that has good grounds in Scripture and reason, and so one that it would be prudential to adopt.

What Is Time Keeping in the First Place?

Time is natural, concreated together with space “in the beginning,” when God said “Let there be…”. Time and its reckoning are not (merely) human; they are divinely designed features of pre-lapsarian human life. Appropriate created attentiveness to time applies, furthermore, not only to the marking of weeks, but to months and seasons as well. “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth'” (Gen. 1.14-15). If one wishes to put this in the popular contemporary idiom, he might say that time is sacramental (God gave the lights εἰς σημεῖα), with the created lights as a tapestry that doubles as a veil, through which we catch a glimpse of the God who created them.1

Thus the keeping of time on an annual and a monthly, and not only on a weekly, scale has been a feature of most human societies for most of human history, tied as it is to the movements of the heavenly bodies themselves; and those societies have marked this time-keeping with festivals, celebrations, solemnities, and civic remembrances. The calendrical recognition of time, moreover, has been regularly punctuated among most peoples by remembrances of great deeds and acts within their own unique histories (more on this below). In that respect–that is, in the regular recognition of creation and history–the Israelite calendar of the Old Testament is not unique in comparison with other civilizations. There is an aspect of feast-keeping that comes from the law of nature rather than positive divine command.

Because it is natural, a people, including a Christian people, will have regular celebrations, whether Christian or not; their celebrations may be civic, idolatrous, or both,2 but celebrate they will. This propensity to celebrate ought not to be resisted, any more than the propensity for food, clothing, shelter, or anything else urged by the law of nature ought to be resisted.

For this reason, debate about a calendar of religious festivals solely on the grounds of positive divine command seems to me to be misplaced. Special revelation does not come to us screaming out of an unknown void such that we have no frame of reference by which to interpret it. The frame of reference in which we interpret it, or one of them, is the created order that also comes to us from God, and that special revelation helps to clarify, not to destroy. Indeed, the Jewish calendar itself provides evidence that we ought not to think about the calendar solely in terms of positive divine command, because the Jews took the initiative to remember great acts of divine deliverance, remembrances that did not form part of the original, divinely revealed Mosaic legislation. One thinks here of Purim and the Feast of Dedication, or Hanukkah, in which Jesus himself may have participated (see John 10.22).

Two Kinds of Festivals

Given that we know from both nature and Scripture that feast-keeping is a part of created human life, and if we read Scripture in a way that is sensitive to how man implements this natural and God-given propensity to celebrate, both with and without explicit divine commands, what can we say about what types of festivals should be kept, and when?

In Scripture, we see two basic types of festal remembrance: those that concern creation and/or the natural rhythms of time and those that concern history, and, in particular, the history of redemption, or God’s peculiar interventions into natural time.

Under the first head, we would place the Sabbath in its creational aspect; the New Moons; the Feast of Firstfruits under one aspect; the Feast of Weeks under one aspect; and the Feast of Tabernacles. Under the second, we would place the Sabbath in its redemptive aspect; the Feast of Passover; the Feast of Unleavened Bread; the Feast of Firstfruits under another aspect; the Feast of Weeks under another aspect; the Feast of Trumpets; the Feast of Purim; and the Feast of Dedication.3

Though my sketch is very schematic, only one major Old Testament festival does not fit comfortably in these categories: the Day of Atonement. It is obviously “redemptive,” but it nevertheless does not neatly conform to the second category above, because it has no aspect of “remembrance” of God’s past actions. It bears a relation to the second category as well, because it is a “Sabbath of solemn rest,” though the instructions regarding its institution in Leviticus 23.26-32 say nothing about the creation. Indeed, far from looking backward, the Day of Atonement is perhaps the most prospective of the Old Testament feasts, looking forward as it does to the sacrifice of Christ on Calvary.

Still and all, the Day of Atonement aside, the general pattern of Old Testament festivals is clear enough.

So: do they have anything to teach Christians about the marking of time after the closing of the Old Testament age? For centuries, Christians have thought so. Not only did they continue weekly–in addition to apparently daily–observations, only on Sunday rather than Saturday (though Scripture records no divine command to keep Sunday in this way); they also fairly quickly began to remember annually, as national Israel had done, God’s might acts of redemption through Christ and the Spirit. The list of such days expanded as time went on, from Easter alone to a calendar that included as well (e.g.) the Nativity, Crucifixion, Ascension, and Pentecost. These Christians seem to have recognized that we are not only “weekly” beings, but that there is a use for annual observances as well, in order that we might be reminded that the rhythms of all time, and not just the rhythm of the week, are ruled by the enthroned Son of God, just as ancient Israel was reminded yearly, for example, of the way in which God had rescued them from the Egyptians. Does this mean that they only remembered the Passover and the Exodus on the Feast of Passover? Of course not, just as it would be silly to pretend that Christians who observe the Nativity only remember the Incarnation on December 25. But it is a point of common sense that setting aside particular times for special remembrance of particular things can be pedagogically and spiritually useful, and can help to order not only our days, but also our years, by the disciplined recognition of where our world comes from, what it is, and where it is headed (compare here the advent focus on Christ’s Second Advent, or Parousia). As mothers are sometimes accustomed to say to their children, “If everyone is special, then no one is.” Likewise, if every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday, then there is a sense in which none of them are, because on none of them is the Resurrection foregrounded as a unique focus of reflection.4

Can a Church Calendar Be Protestant?

This was in fact the majority position of the early Reformers, who happily maintained what they referred to as the “evangelical feast days,” which are enshrined in some Reformed confessions (see, e.g., Daniel Hyde’s excellent summary of continental Reformed practice), for instance in ch. 24 of the Second Helvetic Confession:

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.

Incidentally, this article already includes the principle by which an unlimited proliferation of such feasts might be avoided: they are to be observed in remembrance of God’s acts alone. (This perhaps does not preclude “days of remembrance,” even if they should not be observed as divine festivals. The article goes on: “To conclude, those festival days which are appointed for saints, and abrogated by us, have in them many gross things, unprofitable and not to be tolerated. In the mean time, we confess that the remembrance of saints, in due time and place, may be to good use and profit commended unto the people in sermons, and the holy examples of holy men set before their eyes to be imitated by all.” The stance of the Second Helvetic is not of course the only possible one. The Church of England, for example, maintains days for men such as Andrew the Apostle, Thomas the Apostle, the Conversion of Paul, and so on. In addition, the 1928 Book of Common Prayer includes the remembrance of Independence Day on 4 July. Further inquiry into and comparison of English and Continental practice could profitably be made at this juncture, but I won’t attempt it here.)

Lest it be objected that there is no divine warrant for such a practice, we should again remember that the Jews of the Old Covenant themselves instituted festivals without a direct divine command, in addition to the meetings of the synagogue, and Christ seems to have approved of and sanctified both with his presence. In other words, approvals such as that found in the Second Helvetic Confession arise naturally out of a reading of Scripture itself; once again, special revelation is found to be harmonious with general revelation or natural law, not contrary to it. That is to say, while one might argue for the sort of calendrical practice suggested above from nature alone and the way in which God as created man and the world, one could just as easily argue it from Scripture instead. The two will be found in any case to agree.


But if such a practice is voluntary, the result of “Christian liberty,” what does it have to do with “unity”? Certainly its absence does not unchurch a church, even if that absence is a sign of kicking somewhat against created human nature, any more than the anti-liturgical liturgy of “three songs and a sermon” unchurces a church, its spiritual and pedagogical shortcomings notwithstanding. Still, one might suggest that such an anti-liturgical liturgy leaves something to be desired, flattening as it does the types of dynamic movement appropriate to liturgical action. One might suggest the same about an anti-calendar calendar: viz., that it flattens time in a way that does not correspond to our experience of reality. Such a calendar therefore strikes me as working at cross-purposes to Christian pedagogy, and thus as being at loggerheads with prudence.

There is another reason to consider them as well, related to ongoing discussions on this site and elsewhere: most of the Christian world, in accordance with created nature–that is, the sense of time we have as human beings as such–and practical piety, does observe the festivals mentioned above, admittedly in a variety of different ways; and so to join with them in, for instance, the remembrance of Christ’s First Coming in the Incarnation and the anticipation of his Second Coming is a visible sign of the catholicity of the Christian faith that Reformed and Presbyterian Christians confess. And it is easy to do, requiring no ecumenical agreements or administrative reorganizations. Indeed, it is as easy as saying “Merry Christmas.” We ought to do so. But this “ought,” it should be noted, arises from persuasion, prudence, brotherly love, and liberty, and not from compulsion, coercion, or divine injunction.

  1. For more discussion of “time” in the context of both nature and the church, cf. Lewis H. Steiner, The Calendar, Civil and Ecclesiastical (Chambersburg, PA: M. Kieffer and Co., 1858), originally published in the Mercersburg Review).
  2. Indeed, in the absence of a proper Christian orientation, they will be both.
  3. I leave out of account here other types of celebration not occurring at least annually, such as the Sabbath Year feasts.
  4. There is a sense in which I too believe that no day is special–intrinsically. In that sense, it seems to me that there is no such thing as “holy days” at all, if by that phrase one means that there is something sacred in a particular day considered in itself. But it is precisely that fact that gives the freedom to order a religious calendar without superstition and without scrupulosity, and instead to order it in keeping with prudence, piety, and pedagogy.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.