Archive Authors E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

Zanchi on Festivals (8)

We continue with Zanchi on Christian festivals such as the Nativity, the Passion, the Ascension, and Pentecost.

Today’s passage has a number of interesting features. Here are a few:

Zanchi notes the pedagogical use of church festivals. There are, um, Very Important Events that are narrated in the gospels, and it is salutary for people to hear of them frequently. For that reason, the churches in the ancient world set specific times at which attention could be focused (on a regular, repeating cycle) on the events of the life of Christ. If people could assemble every day, and thereby have constant exposure to the whole counsel of God (including the life of Christ), the situation might be different. But they can’t, and so it isn’t. Zanchi believes this is a great help particularly for those who “never read the Scriptures.” One assumes that he is referring primarily to those who cannot read, though one should recall that, even if one was literate, books were still expensive in the sixteenth century and the so-called “quiet time” had not yet been invented. One way, though not the only way, this might be applied now in a highly literate society is in the case of small children, for their pedagogical benefit.

Zanchi then states an important principle of his own (Reformed) theology: he has no desire to depart from the practice of antiquity unless he has a compelling reason to.

He takes his stand, again, with Augustine (as I noted before, the letter he refers to is 54 in modern editions). Some readers may be alarmed at Zanchi’s approving invocation of “unwritten traditions” (traditiones sine scripto) along with Augustine. One thing we should note in this regard is that he is not speaking of doctrines or dogmas, but of customs and calendars. A second is that it is basically an application of the fifth commandment (“Honor your father and mother”). A third is that we actually do have written records of these “unwritten traditions,” because, for Zanchi, we know they were passed down because we read about them in the ancient church historians. A fourth is that they can in fact be overturned if circumstances absolutely demand it: if they are turned into what he calls “Catholic superstition.”

Equally important to note, however, is that he does not think this applies to church festivals in his day, because they are observed with a different motive and justification. They have nothing to do directly with salvation, and for that reason they do not bind the conscience, unlike, for instance, “holy days of obligation.” To abandon them in the new circumstances of the Reformation because of “Catholic superstition,” therefore, would ironically be a mark of uncatholicity, a rejection of things “that are read to have been observed throughout the whole world.”

On Festivals of Christians (Continued)

For all of these are included in the evangelical histories; the fathers were accustomed to explain these to the people at fixed times, since the people were not able to be present at religious assemblies every day. How great is the use of this, moreover, for people who never read the Scriptures? I, certainly, do not depart from antiquity unless I have been compelled. And I hold my view in common with the divine Augustine, who says (tome 2, Epistle 118) that, after the sacred books, the things that are judged to have proceeded from the apostles via unwritten traditions or to have been defined by universal councils ought to be preserved by us. Such things, moreover, are those that are read to have been observed throughout the whole world.

Therefore, both on account of reverence for antiquity and on account of the usefulness that the people gain from these festivals if they should be celebrated lawfully, these feast days ought not to be simply neglected by us. Why do I say “simply”? Because if they have been turned into Catholic1, one must follow–and with a good conscience we are able to follow–the example of Ezekiel with the bronze serpent. Only let this be done with public authority, especially since no feast days now bind consciences, as they did formerly in Judaism. Thus far concerning these festivals.2

  1. I.e. Roman; Zanchi did not believe the Church of Rome was “catholic” in the true signification of the word.
  2. The translation is my own.

By E.J. Hutchinson

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