Christmas and Creedal Culture
Christmas has to be defended…as something that is commanded as a principle in the Bible, and commanded in a way that gives us the liberty how and when and where to do it, as long as we do it. Because, if we don’t do it, we are in trouble. And Christmas is one way to do it.
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Welcome to Episode 34 of Axe to the Root Podcast, part of the War Room Productions, I am Bo Marinov, and for the next 20 minutes we will be talking about the whole hullabaloo about Christmas. Specifically, the hullabaloo about whether Christmas should be celebrated or not. Because, you know, as some say, it is a pagan holiday. Or, wait, it was a pagan holiday, and some emperor just mandated that Christians have a holiday on that day. No, it wasn’t that, it was Mithra’s birthday, and because Christianity stole religion from Mithraism, it also stole the holiday. Or, better, yet, coming from the other end of the spectrum, the day is an abomination because it is a Romish holiday, and they celebrate the mass on that day. Or because the Bible doesn’t mandate its celebration. Because, you know, the regulative principle of worship. It is a false holiday, and we should avoid it. We are not liturgical, after all, we don’t believe that liturgy brings us closer to God; so let’s make it that non-liturgy brings us closer to God. Etc.
I have laughed at all this, but to be honest, I have also stayed away from the debate. And I have also celebrated Christmas – and have celebrated it with gusto. I mean, I don’t care for the externals: house decorations, Christmas trees, special liturgical services, etc. It’s OK if some people love them: as long as they don’t fall prostrate to worship that Christmas tree, or add Santa as another god in their pantheon, all is good. (Although, I sometimes see parents in cars with a bumperstickers, “Jesus is the reason for the season,” picking up their kids from the public school. I think there is more hope for those who believe in Santa than for these parents. But anyway.) I have not paid attention to the debate, the debate was not interesting to me, and I have celebrated Christmas with my family. Sometimes with friends, sometimes just us. But we have celebrated it. And I haven’t given much thought to it.
Until recently, when I started thinking about the nature of the celebration, and about the nature of our faith. And about the nature of the Kingdom of God and of the civilization we want to build on the foundation of the Gospel of Christ. And thinking more about that nature, thinking more of the nature of our celebrations, and of their place and role in that civilization. And I am coming to the conclusion that I can’t remain neutral on the issue. Christmas has to be defended. Well, not Christmas as the current cultural traditions and rituals, but Christmas a principle – or, rather, celebrations as a principle. Not as liturgical pageants – although, I won’t care if someone does, as long as they don’t believe that liturgy brings them closer to God. Not as general cultural mythology and commercial practices – although, presents are good. But as something else, something that is commanded as a principle in the Bible, and commanded in a way that gives us the liberty how and when and where to do it, as long as we do it. Because, if we don’t do it, we are in trouble. And Christmas is one way to do it.
I, of course, have my ready answers to all those who are using all kinds of arguments to tell me why, as a Reformed Christian, I am supposed to not celebrate Christmas. Sometimes an unbeliever would come to me and tell me that Christmas used to be a pagan holiday – so, see, nothing Christian about it, pagans used to celebrate on the same day. My answer to this is, “See, those pagans were smart, figured it out and switched it to the right reason for the season. What are you waiting for?” When a Christian comes and tells me that the day of Christmas used to be a pagan celebration, my answer is: “Almost every single church built on the Balkans between 3rd and 6th centuries was built on the site of a pagan temple or altar. Some of them still remain, and the stone table for the Communion was the former stone altar on which pagans sacrificed goats and even dogs. And you know what? This is what victory is: Pointing to the world and everything in it and say, This used to be pagan, it now belongs to Jesus Christ. And one day is still too small of a victory, my friend. You’ve seen nothing yet.”
Then, of course, I sometimes meet old-style Congregationalists and Covenanters, and they tell me that Christmas should not be celebrated, because it violates the Regulative Principle of Worship, that is, it is not specifically commanded in the Bible. I will leave to another episode the question of whether the Regulative Principle of Worship is even Biblical; enough to say here that the Bible speaks of no such principle, it is a forced interpretation; and besides, those who insist on it always seem to leave important parts of the Bible out. For example, somehow the only chapter in the New Testament which describes in detail a church worship service – 1 Cor. 14 – always manages to remain unheeded by those who claim to be faithful to the principle; while vague and Biblically unsupported rules – like, ban all instruments in worship – are strictly followed. But, then again, this is not the only contradiction in the position of such folks. Keep in mind that our modern Thanksgiving Day followed an earlier tradition by the older Presbyterian Synods to designate special days of thanksgiving for their members, which were supposed to be assiduously kept. Now, according to the Westminster Confession, thanksgiving is a special part of worship; and given that thanksgiving days were not specifically commanded in Scripture, they would be a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship. Now, why a day of thanksgiving would be legitimate worship and a day of celebration and thanksgiving for Jesus’s birth (even if it didn’t fall on that day, historically) would be idolatry, is beyond me. Some of them reply that on that day the Romish church has their liturgies. I shrug. The Romish church is the Romish church. Not all celebrations are liturgies, and not all that is called “liturgy” presupposes an occult and magical worldview. And, by the way, occult and magical worldview can be present even where there is an official rejection of liturgies. For example, in the Exclusive Psalmody principle, which postulates that adding a tune to an inspired text outside the Psalms (like “Holy, Holy, Holy” in Isaiah 6:3) automatically makes it false worship. I can’t think of anything more occult and magical than the belief in the power of a musical tune to change true worship into a false worship. So these arguments against Christmas don’t hold water either.
But these are still deconstructive, negative arguments to silence the critics. As good as they are, they are only a defense of celebrating Christmas against those who want to spy out our liberty. But I said earlier that there is something more: not just liberty to celebrate and give thanks in any way that does not involve violating the Law of God, but also that there is a principle that commands us to celebrate Christ and everything He has done in any way possible. And Christmas is not simply an arbitrary choice of celebration, but it is a small part of that larger principle, which we are commanded to follow and obey – not in the specific details of tradition, but in the spirit and the truth of the celebration. What I am saying is, I see celebrations as a command in Scripture, not simply a permitted activity. So what is this principle, and what is this command?
To see it, I have to ask you to return one of the first episodes of Axe to the Root, the one about Covenantal Thinking. In it, we talked about the nature of covenantal thinking, namely, that it is ethical/judicial; that is, it has to do with a standard for good and evil. The spiritual, or covenantal, man is one who judges all things in terms of an ethical/judicial standard, and declares verdicts on all things. In this, he is to follow God’s example from the very beginning, Genesis chapter 1, where God judged everything He had created every day, at the end of the day, and then all of it at the end of the work week.
A legitimate question can be asked here, about such a view of the Christian faith: What makes it different from good plain old-style, Jewish legalism – or any other kind of legalism? After all, Jewish legalism did have its obsession and idolatry of ceremonies, but there was also a strong ethical/judicial element in it. The Jews abhorred the other nations because they were not following their ceremonies, but there was also a rejection of the moral abominations of these nations: theft, murder, abortion, prostitution, adultery, etc. Also, even outside Christianity, one can still find some good old moralism without a divine covenant: Albert Schweitzer’s type of secular moralism comes to mind. True, today, most secularists in the West tend to degenerate into a-moralism or plain immorality. But there are still secularists who insist on sound morals, and they have their children and treat their workers and co-workers fairly and take care of the poor etc., etc., etc. So what is the difference between our covenantal, ethical/judicial religion and the ethical/judicial religion of these Jews or secularists?
The answer is this: justice and righteousness are at the center of the Christian faith, but they are not the foundation of the Christian faith, as they are for the Jews and the secularists. The Jews sought salvation and today still seek salvation in the Law and through the Law; the foundation of their religion is the Law. So the Law becomes an object of veneration itself, not simply a description of the character of God. God is, to a great extent, unknowable: He hasn’t spoken to the Jewish nation for 2,500 hundred years now. For all practical purposes, the God of the Jews today is no different from Allah of the Muslims: The Great Unknown and Unknowable. In fact, for all practical purposes, He is not different from the non-existent god of the secularists; for a god Who is silent is not different than a god who is not there. In this context, the Law becomes divine itself: not simply divine in its character, but it becomes a deity on its own accord, the Jewish god of salvation himself, and the only thing the Jews are left with is a strict adherence to that Law and a love for that Law. The situation is even worse with the secularists, for their adherence to some morality doesn’t even carry with itself the hope of salvation – for salvation is not even an option in a world where death is the end of all things. For both religions – Jews and secularists, but for everyone else as well – there is no foundation beyond bare morality.
Compared to this, Christianity looks at the Law of God as a central, but relative characteristic of the Christian faith. Now, don’t be confused by the word “relative.” “Relative” not in the sense of “changing according to the circumstances and the whims of the person.” But “relative” in the sense that the Law is not absolute in itself; it only relates a higher reality to us as Christians. It only relates to us the moral and judicial character of God, Whom we know outside the Law, in and through a Person, Jesus Christ. The Law and its ethical/judicial character, therefore, makes sense only in a covenantal setting, only in the context of a prior covenant – or commitment – to a personal god. Outside this commitment, there is no real reason for anyone to be moral; there is no real reason for anyone to commit to any specific set of rules and principles, whether objective or subjective.
A good comparison would be a contract between two parties: The rules of the contract make no sense whatsoever unless there is a prior commitment to work with another person for specific goals. Making a contract with oneself to obey certain rules makes no sense whatsoever – and, honestly, creates a legitimate suspicion about the sanity of the party in the contract. Making a contract with a person whom you have never met and will never meet and know and have personal interaction with falls in the same category – and indeed leaves an even deeper impression. Only a direct personal interaction with another person can lead to a real contract, and only such contract justifies the existence and the validity of the rules in the contract.
This is what defines the Christian faith against the other moralistic and judicial religions: the Law, the ethical/judicial rules are the center of the covenant, but they are not the foundation of the Covenant. There is a higher reality behind it.
What is that higher reality? That higher reality is well explain in the first question and answer in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: What is the chief end of man? The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Now, I have an issue with making this the first question of the catechism; it looks rather humanistic to me to start a catechism with the chief end of man before it lays down the question of the chief purpose of God. But laying this aside, the question is legitimate, and the answer is doubly so.. the chief end of man is not to be moral, and not to obey the Law of God. It is to glorify God. The Law comes later, for glorifying God means certain things. And some of these things – in fact, most of them – include man being conformed with the image of Christ, that it, conformed with Christ’s moral character: Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect. But amazingly enough, that perfection is not seen in the Bible as a fixed rule for the covenantal man. Man is seen as glorifying God even in his imperfection. In fact, even the claim that we can be without sin in this life already makes man a liar, according to 1 John 1:8-10. So, what is it? Man is under obligation to be conformed to the ethical/judicial image of God, but he can’t be, and he is even a liar if he says he is. So what then is at the foundation of that faith?
Amazingly enough, though, while committing sin still can be forgiven – and is forgiven, when there is repentance – another action gets a much stronger condemnation: And that is, the failure of proclaiming God. Jesus delivers a very strong condemnation in Mark 8:38: “If anyone is ashamed of me before men, I will be ashamed of them when I come in My glory.”
The difference, then, and even the opposition between Christianity and the other judicial and moralistic religions and worldviews is clear: Christianity is a religion of proclamation first and foremost, and its ethical/judicial character serves that fundamental and paramount purpose of proclamation. Man must strive to perfection, that is a given. But this striving to perfection – or even attaining that perfection, if that were at all possible – is useless unless it is done with a purpose: and that is, proclaiming the person and the reign of Jesus Christ. So important is that higher purpose that even our imperfection should not stop us from pursuing it – and in fact, even our own imperfection should be used for the purpose of proclamation.
This is why the opponents of Christianity are so often confused about it; all of us have encountered the argument: If Christianity was true, then why are Christians so imperfect; and how could you continue being a Christian if you see all these Christians acting immorally? Our answer is: That’s not the point. That is, in fact, a confirmation of the point. Ours is not a faith of being good – although, being good is a consequence of it. Ours is a faith of proclaiming, declaring, and bringing good news. It is an evangelical faith.
This is why Christianity is a creedal faith. Enemies of Christianity have always pointed with disdain at the quarrels and the striving in the early church on defining the minutest details of the Church’s doctrines and creeds? What’s the big point there, they ask? Isn’t it more important to just be a decent person? Can’t one be a moral person without polishing their creeds and confessions? One can, of course, and there are a quite a few good people who have no confession or believe if monstrously twisted and false religions. (I recently had a conversation with a gentleman who himself is very moral, but holds to a radically subjectivist view of reality and morality, and he himself admitted that he has no way to say why the concentration camps were evil.) But the creeds and confession are not simply arguing over semantics; they are arguing over what faith, and what God will be proclaimed to the world, and what nature of the Kingdom of Christ will be made known to men? It is about revelation. It is about “news.” And the “news” are the fundament of the Christian faith.
This was the case in the Old Testament as well. The Jews fell in the occult belief that the rituals at the Temple were somehow redemptive and powerful to save them. The rituals, however, were not given to them to save them and purify them; God saved them and purified them, and He could do it and did it without the rituals. After all, He was with them in captivity, while the Temple lied in ruins. The rituals had a different purpose altogether: they were the Gospel of the Old Testament; they were declaring God to the Jews themselves, and to the pagan nations around. It is for this reason the Gospel, the kerygma, the good news in the New Testament have borrowed almost the whole terminology from the OT ceremonies – think of purification, blood, fire, sacrifice, and at least a hundred other terms related to the ceremonies. It is for this reason that Paul chided the Galatians in Gal. 3:1: Who has bewitched you to go back to the old, partial news, when the real news, the real declaration of our faith, the real good news was publicly displayed before your eyes? The conflict, obviously, was not between the Law and grace; the conflict was between modes and levels of revelation and proclamation. And the whole Epistle to the Hebrews continues the same theme. And it is for this reason Jesus established the Lord’s Supper: drinking of the cup is proclamation of His death, until He comes.
But what about Christmas, then?
Given that our faith is a faith of proclamation, then the main activity of any Christian should be proclaiming the person and the reign of Jesus Christ. This is well understood by some modern evangelicals; the problem is, they often limit it to elementary evangelism and knocking on doors. This proclamation goes well beyond it. It goes to teaching the nations to do everything Christ has commanded, from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. It goes to our moral conduct in our personal affairs; but it also goes to Christian societies and civilization of justice and righteousness where even the enemies of Christ want to live, compared to the societies of their own religions. It goes to discovering and proclaiming the principles of Christ’s kingdom in academic knowledge and practical technology. It goes to raising families and conquering the future through productivity. In all these, we are worshiping God by proclaiming Christ and His reign as the foundation of all we do, and the foundation of all life, in fact. As Abaraham Kuyper said, there is no one inch in the world of which Christ doesn’t say, “This is Mine.” Well, guess what. This is our job too: To point to every inch in the world and say, this is His.
Including celebrations. Yes, every day, and any day. Yes, with or without occasion. Yes, specifically commanded in Scripture or not specifically commanded in Scripture. With wine and strong drink or without wine or strong drink. With our families or with our friends. Or both. Or the whole town. Or the whole nation, and even civilization. Whether commanded by an emperor or not – and who cares about emperors anyway, why should they be the reason to our celebration of Christ or the obstacle to it? Celebrations are intended to be a proclamation to the world, and their form and details don’t matter; the Bible doesn’t lay specific rules for any of them, neither does the Bible ban those that are not specifically mentioned in it. Celebrations are commanded, period. Especially when they are celebrations specifically related to Christ – and especially His incarnation. And whether His birth occurred on that specific date is of no consequence. And whether it used to be a pagan holiday is of no consequence. Actually, even better: It was pagan, it Christian now. As the world will be, eventually in history. Christmas is one of the best ways to display before an unbelieving world the beauty of Christ’s coming. And not only this, but, ironically, force the very unbelieving world to confirm it in songs, and traditions, and radio programs. They can’t escape the testimony.
In this, the war against celebrating Christmas – or against any celebration that proclaims Christ and the Kingdom of Christ – is not only useless, it is actively evil. It not only tries to suppress our Christian liberty; it actively tries to suppress our proclamation and constrain it in the shackles or moralism which is no different from the Jewish moralism we talked about earlier. It subjects the kerygma of God to moralistic rules, and finally, stifles it. It is no wonder that evangelism is all but absent among the groups who wage that war against Christmas. Once you spy out the Christian liberty of others to declare the good news of Christ, you end up without such liberty yourself. God is not be mocked.
As for me, I will be celebrating Christmas in a couple of weeks. And I will tell every single pagan I meet: “Christ was born. And you are in trouble, because of that.”
The book I will assign for reading this week is Christ and the Caesars, by Ethelbert Stauffer. Some things in the book are controversial. But the theme of declaring Christ by all means possible, and the liberty to do it, is what you need to pay attention to.
And, as always, help be deliver the good news of the Kingdom of Christ to Bulgaria and Eastern Europe – by all means possible, in all liberty of expression and action. Visit Bulgarian Reformation.com, subscribe to our newsletter, and donate. And Merry Christmas, y’all.