The Reformation and the Church Calendar (Benedict)

The topic of Reformed churches and their use of a church calendar is a somewhat detailed topic. The Protestant Reformation obviously included a reformation of worship according to the Word. The Reformers’ opinions about the church calendar differed. By in large, the church calendar was looked down upon by Reformed churches. At the same time, some Reformed churches kept a few main church calendar days such as Christmas and Easter. I’m not posting this to ruffle any feathers or start a debate about the church calendar. Instead, I offer this post just to give a historical perspective on this topic. Here’s a helpful summary about this by Philip Benedict in chapter 15 of Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed.

One of the ways in which Reformed churches broke the pattern of late medieval worship most profoundly was in the calendar of worship. Before the Reformation, the forty to sixty holy days observed by the church made each year a cycle of remembrance of the life and the passion of Christ, the virgin, and the saints. Recurring alteration of times of feast and times of fast was one of the most basic rhythms of life. Most Reformed churches rejected the observance of all special days for worship other than Sundays, or else retained only the most central Christian holidays.

Geneva and Scotland had no holidays at all. Zürich, Bern, the Palatinate, the Netherlands, and the French Reformed churches observed Christmas, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. The Netherlands and the Palatinate added New Year’s day. As noted, here the English church’s of retention of many pre-reformation customs — it preserved no fewer than twenty-seven holy days — sparked exceptional rigorism among those who came to oppose such liberality. That rigorism bred the strict English sabbatarian opposition to all holidays other than Sundays that spread to the Netherlands in the early seventeenth century. Battles over the observation of such holidays as Christmas recurred intermittently and the Dutch church. When Christmas observance was suspended for a while in various communities like Utrecht, libels denounced the “Jewish church” that would drive out Christ and his birthday.

Whether a Reformed church recognized a few holy days or none at all, the shift to a far more regular rhythm of days of work and days of devotion amounted to a dramatic regularization of the weekly and yearly cycle. In many areas, people remained deeply attached to Christmas rituals. Popular pressure in Geneva even preempted recurrent initiatives during the seventeenth century by its Small Council to revive the celebration of Christmas; these finally overrode the opposition of the Company of Pastors and restored the holiday in 1694. The elimination of most holidays however prompted little apparent resistance.

I suppose it is worth repeating that solid and good Reformed churches from the outset had different views on some of the main days of the Christian calendar. And so it is today.

The above quote is by Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed, p. 495-6.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015