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Charles Hodge and a 19th Cent. Presbyterian Christmas

Anyone familiar with the Simpsons’ Groundskeeper Willie, knows that old-fashioned Presbyterians did not celebrate holidays. Even Christmas was seen as illegitimate, and Christmas was not celebrated in early Puritan America. This stance has given way pretty decisively, and in the present day, the overwhelming majority of even conservative Presbyterians think Christmas is at least permissible. A continuing “old school” rump does keep the traditional position alive, however, and it is not uncommon in Presbyterian churches to be faced with the challenge that adoption of Christmas was merely a liberal or latitudinarian slide away from orthodoxy.

Given this framing, it might be surprising to learn that Charles Hodge celebrated Christmas, at least in a moderated way. Hodge is typically thought of as a paragon of old-school Presbyterianism, the keeper of orthodoxy and opponent of doctrinal decline. Yet he argues against the total prohibition of Christmas. Instead, Hodge suggests that Christmas can be expedient towards the glory of God and the good of man. He commends it to his students at Princeton.

Before posting Dr. Hodge’s notes on this topic, we should explain the source. They come from a collection of “conference papers.” Yet, as A.A. Hodge explains, these were not so much academic presentations as collegial discussions, and they were given on Sunday afternoon, as one expression of proper Sabbath-keeping. The younger Hodge writes:

From the time of its foundation it has been the habit of the professors of Princeton Theological Seminary to meet the students every Sabbath afternoon, for prayer and conference on themes relating to the life of God in the soul, and to the practical duties having their root therein. The members of all the successive classes will bear testimony to the unique character and singular preciousness of these Sabbath afternoon Conferences in that sacred old Oratory, whose walls are still eloquent to them with imperishable associations. Here the venerable professors appeared rather as friends and pastors than as instructors. The dry and cold attributes of scientific theology, moving in the sphere of the intellect gave place to the warmth of personal religious experience, and to the spiritual light of divinely illuminated intuition. Here in the most effective manner did these teachers of teachers set the crown upon their work, and herein they exerted by far, their most widely extended and permanent influence. Here they sought rather to build up Christian men, than to form accomplished scholars, and to infuse into their pupils the highest motives, and to instruct them in the wisest methods for their future work of saving souls and of edifying the Church of Christ. (preface to Conference Papers or Analyses of Discourses, Doctrinal and Practical; Delivered on Sabbath Afternoons to the Students of The Theological Seminary, Princeton, N.J., New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1879, pg. xiii)

We only have the outlines of Charles Hodge’s lectures, but A.A. Hodge believes they faithfully retain the main points. “He prepared and wrote out a careful analysis or skeleton of every Conference discourse. Although designed to meet no eye but his own, these analyses are fully written out, and are verbally complete in all their articulations” (pg. xvii).

As it happened, Christmas fell on one of these Sundays in 1853. So Dr. Hodge used the occasion to speak about Christmas, both the historical fact of the Incarnation of Christ and the propriety of observing the day annually. This discussion was not given in the context of the church’s special corporate worship, and so we cannot draw from it Hodge’s opinions about how any given congregation ought to conduct a “Christmas service.” Yet Dr. Hodge does field possible objections to any commemoration of the day, and he does mention “the uniform practice of the Church, and our own practice.” Thus some sort of Christmas recognition was in view. Indeed, the very fact that Dr. Hodge gave this talk to seminary students on the Sabbath is significant. While he is clear that Christmas may never be made obligatory, the overall purpose of Hodge’s talk is to commend a careful commemoration of Christmas. He begins with preliminary theological concerns, moves to the history of Christmas, explains the uses of Christmas, and the concludes with practical inferences. The outline is brief, but it reveals an important permissive attitude towards the celebration of Christmas, particularly interesting in that it comes from a Princetonian Presbyterian in the 1850s.

These papers are available in digital format online, but we repost the particular discussion here for ease of access:

Paper XVII. The Advent.

by Charles Hodge

[December 25th, 1853.]

I. 1 The observance of Christmas is not commanded. Therefore it is not obligatory.

The true Protestant principle is that what is not commanded cannot be enjoined. The importance of this principle as a protection from the burden of human authority. The Talmud and the traditions of Romanists are the two great monuments of the con sequence of that principle being discarded. This is not to be confounded with the principle that what is not commanded is not to be tolerated. Against this, 1. The liberty of conscience. It is as much an assertion of authority to prohibit as to enjoin. 2. The uniform practice of the Church, and our own practice, national thanksgiving, &c.

2 The expediency of this observance.

Much may be said for it and much against it. For it. a. The natural law of our associations, b. The analogy of the Old Testament, c. The sympathy and communion of Christians, d. A means of preserving and promoting knowledge.

Against it are, a. The liability of abuse; i.e., its being made sacred, or considered of divine authority. b. The gradual superseding of the Sabbath, c. The worldly manner of celebration. These are things to be guarded against, and which should regulate the observance.

3 History of the observance.

It was not celebrated before the fourth century. Origen mentions only three festivals as generally observed, Good Friday, Easter and Pentecost. Augustine places Christmas in the secondary class of festivals. Chrysostom says in his time it was new. It had, he said, been introduced within ten years.

4 The day. Unimportant. It varied for a time.

 

II. The uses, or the truths connected with the birth of Christ.

1 The birth of Jesus is presented as a miraculous event ; as such predicted, as such recorded. The importance of this is that it conveyed our nature uncontaminated to Christ.

2 It is presented as the most wonderful event in its own nature. The Logos became flesh. The Son of God was born of a woman. He who was in the form of God was found in fashion as a man. He who was the brightness of the Father’s glory, took part of flesh and blood.

3 It is presented as the most wonderful exhibition of condescension and love. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son. God spared not his own Son. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. This is the great event of the history of the universe; the union of the divine and human natures in the one person of the Redeemer.

4 It is the most fruitful of consequences, of glory to God, of good to man.

a. Of glory to God. The angels shouted for joy. They cried glory to God in the highest. All eyes turned toward the manger in Bethlehem. Correggio’s idea of a luminous infant is but a faint symbol of Christ shedding light throughout the universe. It is an exhibition (a.) of his love and condescension, (b.) of his wisdom and of his power.

b. Of good to man.

1 The means of reconciliation with God, of peace, of fellowship, of participation in his nature.

2 The means of peace in the union of the whole family of the redeemed, of the exaltation of our nature, of the establishment of that kingdom of which the Theanthropos, the God-man, is the head.

3 Of the triumph of God over Satan.

INFERENCES.

1 Gratitude. 2 Joy. 3 Obedience. 4 Devotion.

(Conference Papers, pgs. 26-17)

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.