John Calvin and Holy Days

john-calvin-and-holy-daysby Chris Coldwell

Naphtali Press

It is that time of year the Genevan reformer is trotted out to justify in some manner the observance of the church calendar, particularly by folks in traditions that have no business observing it, if they were true to their Reformational principles (i.e. Presbyterians). The Scottish Presbyterians managed to remove observance of any pretended holy days other than the divinely prescribed Lord’s Day in their reformation. Indeed, the Reformed early on seemed ready to precede them in this; but due mostly it seems from desires of magistrates to preserve accustomed holidays, ie. days off for workers and servants, they retained various sets of days. This retained a set of other issues, and to ensure the riotous activities of the old days were not retained, the state churches prescribed that there be services and preaching at those times.

“At first it was clearly the intention to abolish these days entirely. Then it was deemed better (as the people continued to take them for holidays), to turn them to a good account by the holding of religious services, and finally their observance was enjoined, doubtless on the ground of edification. Probably the magistrates, who are continually referred to as having authority in the matter, did not, for reasons springing out of the circumstances of the times, and the genius and habits of the people, deem it expedient to abolish, them. While they continued by authority, the Church, rightly aimed to make them promotive of piety.” [1]

John Calvin early on advised against observing holy days where they could be jettisoned. The clergy of Montbéliard “were fearful of anything that looked even remotely like a return to the ceremonies of Catholicism such as the celebration of feast days.” In 1543–44 Calvin advised the church, that “the observation of feast days was also to be rejected since it so easily led to superstition.” “Calvin advised the ministers of Montbéliard to stand firm on these matters of principle but to yield wherever else their consciences would allow”.[2] As an aside—The Reformed church of Montbéliard continued as best they could even when the rulers imposed Lutheran practices. Later, the oppressed Reformed churches of France, ruled by Roman Catholic magistrates which prohibited working on the pretended holy days, “left unto the prudence of Consistories to Congregate the People, on such Holy-Days, either to hear the word Preached, or to join in common publick Prayers, as they shall find to be most expedient” (2nd Synod of Vitré, 1617). In 1594, the Synod of Montauban had agreed not to make any innovations “as to the Observation of Holy-days, such as Christmas, and the rest,” and while in 1601 there was some objection raised, a synod left “churches at liberty to have Publick Prayers and Sermons on the Romish Holy-days, if it like ’em”.[3]

The Geneva council which had abolished holy days, later re-instituted some observance, and Calvin complied that we know of from 1551 through the mid to late 1550s, and preached on such occasions to avoid contention for the good of the distressed church at the time. Yet Calvin’s tolerance of following the calendar to a degree hardly constitutes an endorsement. In a practice those who are determined to still make use of these days for preaching should emulate, the Reformer in a sermon soon after this re-institution, warned against the superstition and abuses attendant of the observance of the old pretended holy days of the ‘ecclesiastical year.’ In a sermon in a series on the Prophet Micah, Calvin preached,

“Now, I see here today more people that I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel. Did you think you would be honoring God? Consider what sort of obedience to God your coming displays. In your mind, you are celebrating a holiday for God, or turning today into one but so much for that. In truth, as you have often been admonished, it is good to set aside one day out of the year in which we are reminded of all the good that has occurred because of Christ’s birth in the world, and in which we hear the story of his birth retold, which will be done Sunday. But if you think that Jesus Christ was born today, you are as crazed as wild beasts. For when you elevate one day alone for the purpose of worshiping God, you have just turned it into an idol. True, you insist that you have done so for the honor of God, but it is more for the honor of the devil.

“Let us consider what our Lord has to say on the matter. Was it not Saul’s intention to worship God when he spared Agag, the king of the Amalekites, along with the best spoils and cattle? He says as much: ‘I want to worship God.’ Saul’s tongue was full of devotion and good intention. but what was the response he received? ‘You soothsayer! You heretic! You apostate! You claim to be honoring God, but God rejects you and disavows all that you have done.’ Consequently, the same is true of our actions. For no day is superior to another. It matters not whether we recall our Lord’s nativity on a Wednesday, Thursday, or some other day. But when we insist on establishing a service of worship based on our whim, we blaspheme God, and create an idol, though we have done it all in the name of God. And when you worship God in the idleness of a holiday spirit, that is a heavy sin to bear, and one which attracts others about it, until we reach the height of iniquity. Therefore, let us pay attention to what Micah is saying here, that God must not only strip away things that are bad in themselves, but must also eliminate anything that might foster superstition. Once we have understood that, we will no longer find it strange that Noel is not being observed today, but that on Sunday we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper and recite the story of the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ. But all those who barely know Jesus Christ, or that we must be subject to him, and that God removes all those impediments that prevent us from coming to him, these folk, I say, will at best grit their teeth. They came here in anticipation of celebrating a wrong intention, but will leave with it wholly unfulfilled.” [4]

However, Calvin’s views had not changed. In 1557 Calvin reiterated a firm opinion in a letter dated December 25, 1557, “With respect to ceremonies and above all the observance of holy days [I offer the following]: Although there are some who eagerly long to remain in conformity with such practices, I do not know how they can do so without disregard for the edification of the church, nor [do I know] how they can render an account to God for having advanced evil and impeded its solution…. Nevertheless, since we have to endure a number of imperfections when we cannot correct them, I am of the opinion that no brother ought to allow the above to be the cause of his leaving his church, unless the majority support the opposite.”[5]

Much has been made of other of Calvin’s correspondence not quite as clear as that cited above until one gets into them more than superficially and takes the above into account. His words were twisted by anglocatholics to defend their reimposition of holy days in Scotland (and same misunderstanding of Calvin continues today). In the mid 1630s George Gillespie examined the arguments anglocatholics drew from the Reformer of Geneva.

“There is another place of Calvin abused by Bishop Spottiswood[6] and Bishop Lindsay,[7] taken out of one of his Epistles to Hallerus, which I find in the volume before quoted. That which they grip to in this epistle is, that Calvin, speaking of the abrogation of festival days in Geneva, says, but I wish this to be attested, that if the decision had been conferred upon me, what has now been established would not have been affirmed as a judgment.[8]

“ANSWER. That which made Calvin say so was not any liking which he had to festival days, for he calls the abolishing of them a well put-together arrangement;[9] but as [he] himself shows in the following epistle, which bears this title, Cal. Ministro Burensi, S. D., the reason why he durst scarcely have so determined, if his judgment had been required, was because he saw neither end nor remedy for the prevailing tumult of contention raised about festival days, and likely to impede the course of reformation; therefore fovendæ pacis studio [out of eagerness to foster peace], he professes that he durst not make mention of the abrogation of those holy days. Because he would have tolerated holy days, because he durst not at that time, and as the case then stood, have spoken of the abolishing them, can it be hereupon concluded that he allowed of them? No, sure[ly].

“But it is observable how both these prelates pervert Calvin’s words. Bishop Spottiswood alleges his words anent [about] the abolishing of these festival days, thus: I have been neither a persuader nor an instigator, and I wish this attested, that if the decision had been conferred upon,[10] etc. Whereas the words in that epistle lie thus: Although I have been neither a persuader nor an instigator, for it so to have happened does not, however, vex me. But if you had the condition of our church equally disclosed to you, you would not hesitate to approve of my judgment. But I wish this attested, that if the decision had been conferred upon me, etc.[11] The Bishop would have made his hearers believe that Calvin was not content with the abolishing of the festival days, whereas his words testify the very contrary.

“Bishop Lindsay is as gross in perverting the end of that epistle. And yet there is no reason why men should be so provoked, if we use our liberty as the edification of the church requires,[12] from which words he concludes that in Calvin’s judgment, the observation and abrogation of those days is in the power and liberty of the church. But the reader will perceive that Calvin there speaks only of the church’s liberty to abrogate holy days, and nothing of her power to observe them, for he is showing, that howbeit he durst not have given advice to abolish them, if the decision had been referred to him, yet they had no reason for them who were offended at the abolishing of them in Geneva, because that church had done no more than she had power and liberty to do for edification.

Ҥ5. The Bishop meets with another answer in his antagonist which crosses his testimonies, namely, that howsoever foreign divines, in their epistles and councils, spoke sometimes sparingly against holy days, when their advice was sought of churches newly risen out of Popery and greatly distressed, yet they never advised a church to resume them where they were removed.

“The Bishop objects against this answer,[13] that Calvin (epist. 51), advises the Monbelgardens not to contend against the prince for not resuming (he should have said, for not receiving, if he had translated Calvin’s words faithfully) of all festival days, but only such as served not to edification, and were seen to be superstitious.

“ANSWER. 1. Albeit he spoke sparingly against holy days when he gave advice to that distressed and lately reformed church, lest the work of reformation should have been letted [hindered], yet he did not allow holy days among them. For in another epistle written to them he says, About the ringing of bells and feast days, we feel thus, that you must bear these trifles rather than that the position in which you were stationed by the Lord be brought down, but do not regard it as good; but also it should be thereupon permitted to you to rebuke those superstitions following hence.[14] And this he sets down for one of these superstitions, quod dies a die discernitur [that a day is distinguished from (another) day], where also he condemns both the observing of days to the honor of man as superstitious, and the observing of them for the honor of God as Judaical.”

From Calvin’s practice and correspondence, George Gillespie concluded, “If holy days, in Calvin’s judgment, be fooleries; if he gave advice not to approve them; if he thought them occasions of superstition; if he held it superstition to distinguish one day from another, or to esteem one above another; if he calls them Judaical, though kept to the honor of God, judge then what allowance they had from him.”[15]

1. David D. Demarest, History and Characteristics of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, 2nd ed. (New York, Board of Publication of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, 1856), 175.

2. Jill Raitt, The Colloquy of Montbéliard Religion and Politics in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 21.

3. John Quick, Synodicon in Gallia Reformata, or, the Acts, Decisions, Decrees, and Canons of thouse famous National Councils of the Reformed Churches in France, 2 vols. (London: T. Parkhurst, 1692) 1.499, 1.166, 1.215.

4. Sermon, preached Tuesday, December 25, 1551, Sermons on the Book of Micah, trans. Benjamin W. Farley (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2003), 302–304.

5. Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Advice, trans. by Mary Beaty and Benjamin W. Farley {Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991}, 90.

6. Spottiswood, Sermon at Perth Assembly [in Proceedings, p. 35; Miscellany, 1.77–78 (see bibliography in Gillespie, English Popish Ceremonies(2013), 423–442].

7. Ubi supra [Lindsay], p. 83.

8. Calvin. Ibid., pp. 136, 137. hoc tamen testatum esse volo, si mihi delata optio fuisset, quod nunc constitutum est, non fuisse pro sententia dicturum. [Cf. Corpus Reformatorum (CR) 42 (Calvini Opera {CO} 14), 5; Tracts & Letters, 5.289.]

9. Ibid., p. 138, ordo bene compositus. [CR 42.3–4.]

10. Ego neque suasor neque impulsor fui, atque hoc testatum volo, si mihi delata optio, etc.

11. Ego tametsi neque suasor, neque impulsor fui, sic tamen accidisse non moleste fero. Quod si statum nostræ ecclesiæ æque compertum haberes, non dubitares meo judicio subscribere. Hoc tamen testatum esse volo, si mihi delata optio, etc. [CR 42.5.]

12. Nec tamen est cur homines adeo exasperentur, si libertate nostra ut ecclesiæ edicatio postulat utimur, etc. [CR 42.5.]

13. Ubi supra [Lindsay, part 3], p. 83. [Cf. CR 39.625. Epistle #506. 5 October 1543 Calvinus Ministris Monsbelgardensibus (cf. Chouët, p. 54). “In festis non recipiendis cuperem vos esse constantiores, sic tamen ut non litigetis de quibuslibet, sed de iis tantum quae nec in aedificationem quidquam factura sunt, et superstitionem prima ipsa facie prae se ferunt. Et habetis plausibilem recusandi materiam. Nam in papatu magna celebritate conceptionem et ascensionem Virginis coluerunt. Quid habebit servus Christi quod dicat, si suggestum conscenderit illis diebus, nisi ut eorum stultitiam rideat qui tales ferias excogitarunt?” [“In not receiving feasts I might wish you to be more steadfast, yet not in such a way that ye quarrel about anything and everything, but only concerning these things which are not going to do anything for edification, and upon their very face display superstition. And ye shall have a plausible occasion for refusing. For in the papacy with great celebration they keep the conception and ascension of the Virgin. How shall the servant of God take what he says, if he should ascend the platform for those days, except that he ridicules the folly of those who devise such holy days.”]

14. Calvin, Ep. et Resp., col. 592. De pulsu campanarum et diebus festis ita sentimus, ferendas potius esse vobis has ineptias, quam stationem in qua estis à domino collocati deserendam, modo ne approbetis; modo etiam liberum vobis sit reprehendere, quæ inde sequentur superstitiones[, atque in eam rem diligenter incumbatis. Sunt autem tria potissimum capita: quod dies a die discernitur, quod cultus Dei constituitur in feriis, quod non in Dei tantum honorem, quod ipsum iam foret iudaicum, sed hominum quoque dies observantur.]. [“Concerning the ringing of bells and feasts days thus we judge, that these follies are rather to be borne by you, than that the station in which ye are gathered by the Lord be forsaken; at one time, forebear endorsement; at another time, be ye free to reprehend those things which follow superstitions; and fall ye upon the matter with diligence. Now, there are principally three heads: that a day is distinguished from a day, that the worship of God is made to consist in holy days, that days are observed, not only unto the honor of God, which very thing would now be judaical, but also of men.” #547. May 8, 1544. Calvinus Ministris Monsbelgardensibus. CR 39, (CO 11), 707.]

15. A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies (Naphtali Press, 2013), 64–68.

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