At times during the sixteenth century, ecclesiastical holidays caused agitation in the city of Geneva. It seems to have been a difficult matter for a resolution, since any official action taken would stir up some element of the population.
The Register of Ministers in Geneva (1546) records a list of “faults which contravene the Reformation.” Among the directives regarding “Superstitions” is the following: “Those who observe Romish festivals or fasts shall only be reprimanded, unless they remain obstinately rebellious. “
On Sunday, 16 November 1550, an edict was issued concerning holidays; it was a decree “respecting the abrogation of all festivals, with the exception of Sundays, which God had ordained. “ This ban on festival days (including Christmas) caused an uproar in certain quarters, and Calvin was reproached as the instigator of the action.
Calvin’s personal writings about holidays, in this instance, are somewhat ambiguous. He says he was not directly involved in the decision. In personal correspondence with John Haller (pastor in Berne), Calvin writes, “Before I ever entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord’s day.” He added, “If I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon.”
It seems that Calvin was initially uneasy about the edict to ban the festivals, because he feared that the “sudden change” might provoke tumult which could impede the course of the Reformation. Nevertheless, in the same letter to Haller, Calvin says, “Although I have neither been the mover nor instigator to it, yet, since it has so happened, I am not sorry for it.”
Although Calvin’s correspondence respecting this edict sounds ambiguous, his general views on worship are clearly stated in many places. In a tract on The Necessity of Reforming the Church, Calvin exclaims:
I know how difficult it is to persuade the world that God disapproves of all modes of worship not expressly sanctioned by His Word. The opposite persuasion which cleaves to them, being seated, as it were, in their very bones and marrow, is, that whatever they do has in itself a sufficient sanction, provided it exhibits some kind of zeal for the honor of God. But since God not only regards as frivolous, but also plainly abominates, whatever we undertake from zeal to His worship, if at variance with His command, what do we gain by a contrary course? The words of God are clear and distinct, “Obedience is better than sacrifice.” “In vain do they worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men,” 1 Sam. 15:22; Matt. 15:9. Every addition of His word, especially in this matter, is a lie. Mere “will worship” (ethelothreeskia) is vanity [Col. 2:23]. This is the decision, and when once the judge has decided, it is no longer time to debate.
In speaking of various corruptions of worship, Calvin comments:
I come now to ceremonies, which, while they ought to be grave attestations of divine worship, are rather a mere mockery of God. A new Judaism, as a substitute for that which God has distinctly abrogated, has again been reared up by means of numerous puerile extravagancies, collected from different quarters; and with these have been mixed up certain impious rites, partly borrowed from the heathen, and more adapted to some theatrical show than to the dignity of our religion. The first evil here is, that an immense number of ceremonies, which God had by his authority abrogated, once for all, have been again revived. The next evil is, that while ceremonies ought to be living exercises of piety, men are vainly occupied with numbers of them that are both frivolous and useless. But by far the most deadly evil of all is, that after men have thus mocked God with ceremonies of one kind or other, they think they have fulfilled their duty as admirably as if these ceremonies included in the whole essence of piety and divine worship.
And in yet more pointed remarks, Calvin says:
The mockery which worships God with nought but external gestures and absurd human fictions, how could we, without sin, allow to pass unrebuked? We know how much he hates hypocrisy, and yet in that fictitious worship, which was everywhere in use, hypocrisy reigned. We hear how bitter the terms in which the prophets inveigh against all worship fabricated by human rashness. But a good intention, i.e., an insane license of daring whatever man pleased, was deemed the perfection of worship. For it is certain that in the whole body of worship which had been established, there was scarcely a single observance which had an authoritative sanction from the Word of God.
We are not in this matter to stand either by our own or by other men’s judgments. We must listen to the voice of God, and hear in what estimation he holds that profanation of worship which is displayed when men, overleaping the boundaries of His Word, run riot in their own inventions. The reasons which he assigns for punishing the Israelites with blindness, after they had lost the pious and holy discipline of the Church, are two, viz., the prevalence of hypocrisy, and will-worship (ejqeloqrhskeiva), meaning thereby a form of worship contrived by man. “Forasmuch,” says he, “as the people draw near me with their mouth, and with the lips do honor me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men; therefore I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid,” Isa. 29:13-14. When God stirred us up, a similar or worse perversity openly domineered throughout the Church. While God, then, was thundering from heaven, were we to sit quiet?
Thus, Calvin’s writings on worship clearly enunciate the concept which has subsequently been called the regulative principle of worship: all modes of worship must be expressly sanctioned by God’s word, if they are to be considered legitimate. Since Christmas observances, and other ecclesiastical festivals, are not commanded in the scriptures, they fail to meet divine approval, even if there were no additional objections to them.
Further, we should note Calvin’s own pastoral practice as indicative of his convictions. The Reformer preached consecutively through books of the Bible, without regard to the ecclesiastical year. Surely if Calvin had adopted the attitude of modern Christmas-keepers, he would have felt constrained to abandon this systematic instruction of the scriptures, and deliver annual discourses from the birth narratives during the month of December. The fact that he did not comply with contemporary expectations speaks volumes.
9. Philip E. Hughes, ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors in the Time of Calvin(Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), p. 56.
10. Hughes, p. 130.
11. Letters of John Calvin (Jules Bonnet, ed.; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), Vol. 2, pp. 288-89.
12. Calvin, Letters, Vol. ii, p. 289; cf. George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English-Popish Ceremonies, Obtruded upon the Church of Scotland (Geneva, 1637), Part 1, p. 34.
13. Calvin, Tracts (1844; rpt. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1983), Vol. 1, pp. 128-29.
14. Tracts, Vol. 1, pp. 131-32.
15. Tracts, Vol. 1, pp. 189-90.
16. For Calvin’s views on worship, be certain to consult the following: The Necessity of Reforming the Church, in Tracts , Vol. 1, pp. 123-234; The True Method of Giving Peace to Christendom and Reforming the Church, in Tracts, Vol. 3, pp. 240-358; On Shunning the Unlawful Rites of the Ungodly and Preserving the Purity of the Christian Religion, in Tracts, Vol. 3, pp. 359-411. Other significant comments may be found in some of Calvin’s letters: to Somerset, Lord Protector of England (22 October 1548; Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 182-198, especially pp. 192-96); to King Edward VI (January 1551; Letters, Vol. 2, pp. 299-304).