G.I. Williamson and the Grinch

Dec 19th, 2012 | By | Category: Blog Posts

As the Holy Season of Advent winds ever closer to its yearly end, my heart is often full of mixed emotions. The expectation and hope of celebrating the Birth of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ on December 25th tends to be mingled with other thoughts about my Reformed past.

In becoming Reformed after a season in Calvary Chapel, I found myself met with a consistency that was unafraid to back down no matter what the consequences. For example, we can ask:

Do you believe that God is sovereign?

The Calvinist can answer:

Well, realize that free will can be qualified and limited to a point where most other people would squirm.

Calvinists seem to have more of a stomach for consistency than many other Christians in our generation.

In a similar vein, if the Catholic Church calls Christmas a holyday (for that is, after all, what saying “Happy Holidays” both signifies  and seals!), then the Reformers would argue that we ought to question the importance of December 25th. At least, that is the path of some. And it is a path taken by the reins of Sola Scriptura.

Sola Scriptura was a panacea for dealing with Tradition, even though my own childhood home was no 16th century Catholic hall of oppression and inquisition. Instead, the consumerism of our American society was so hollow that it was a joy for me to hear that some Presbyterian writers would consistently say that if the Scriptures did not hallow a date, then there was no cause for Christians to do so. In other words, I was a Grinch, and I was happy to hate Christmas as a Calvinist.

Nevertheless, my own congregation had a mixture of opinions on the matter of hallowing December 25th in relation to the birth of Jesus Christ. After asking for advice, I was counseled to read the works of G.I. Williamson to see how a consistently Bible-based calendar would look.

For like the Puritans, G.I. Williamson argued publicly that the lack of a Bible verse connecting the Nativity to December 25th was a demonstration of the ‘Romish’ influence on culture and Christmas. In fact, the official website for my former Reformed denomination (the OPC) continues to carry this brief article by G.I. Williamson. There is a mixture of opinion on the matter, but G.I. Williamson’s opinion still graces the OPC website, unlike an article that would embrace praying for the dead, or any other such “papal” claims.

In Williamson’s article on opc.org, we read the following quotes, the first of which is a quotation of a book by van Dellen and Monsma:

During the early days of the Reformation some Reformed localities observed only Sunday. All special days sanctioned and revered by Rome were set aside. Zwingli and Calvin both encouraged the rejection of all ecclesiastical festive days. In Geneva all special days were discontinued as soon as the Reformation took a firm hold in that city. Already before the arrival of Calvin in Geneva this had been accomplished under the leadership of Farel and Viret. But Calvin agreed heartily. And Knox, the Reformer of Scotland, shared these same convictions, he being a disciple of Calvin in Geneva. Consequently the Scottish Churches also banned the Roman sacred days.

Here we read that the whole concept of the Reformation and being “against Christmas” was intimately linked with not celebrating sacred days of the Roman Catholic Church. In that sense, saying “Happy Holidays” to the Puritan/contemporary colleague of Calvin would be just as politically incorrect as saying “Merry Christmas,” for non-Sunday Holy days were additions to Scripture in the minds of the Reformers.

We read on for G.I. Williamson’s own reflections on the matter:

It is also my conviction that the widespread return of the Reformed churches to what is, after all, a Romish invention and tradition, is not in any way truly beneficial to the church. People think it is. But that does not make it so. And here I only want to mention one important consideration. Sunday school material-even such as is produced by our own Great Commission Publications-suffers under the dominion of what is commonly called “the church calendar.” This means that every year, in the cycle of materials, an inordinate amount of time is spent repeating the story of Christ’s birth. I hope no reader thinks for one moment that I discount the importance of the virgin birth of Christ. No, not at all. I certainly want the scriptural accounts in Matthew and Luke to receive due emphasis. But it is not due emphasis when a small portion of the history of salvation is magnified all out of proportion to the emphasis it receives in the Bible itself. Yet that is what has happened.

I quote all of this because this perspective was something that I once cherished. I once thought that the consistency of this position would insulate me from the problems of this world. The hypocrisy and thoughtlessness of so many ‘Christians’ would be abated by connecting their ‘piety’ to a superstition that had more in common with the winter equinox than Christ the Newborn King. For me, being a Grinch meant hiding from the hypocrisy of our day.

But I have grown to see that there is something that makes the OPC a strange bedfellow of the atheist, who can be greeted with such silly online pictures as this:

The emptiness and meaninglessness of such a historical narrative as what is depicted above is one where I am admittedly offering a prima facie argument. But it is a strong argument, where one’s own ability to say that 12/25 means something is as arbitrary as the atheist’s construction of why there is life on this planet (or any other planet) at all. If you would like something that is more systematic and less prima facie than this post, feel free to browse Called to Communion more fully.

But at the end of the day, I know my own life as a Reformed Presbyterian. I faced the die hard claims that December 25th was not important, and visited my share of fast food restaurants on Christmas in Protestation to those who were not “consistently Protestant”, who found beauty and joy in Christmas morn. And that experience of being “consistent” was just as cold and as barren as the photo shown above. It was an experience of the lifelessness of a non-liturgical world, where every day (barring Sunday) was as meaningless as any other.

Having tasted of the wonders of the full liturgical life in the Apostolic Faith as a Catholic, I look back at my own iconoclastic past with sadness and repentance, but am thankful that the Christ Child continued to welcome me even after I relegated Him to insignificance in the spirit of the Grinch. May we all welcome Him into our hearts and homes this Christmas!

Come O Jesus, Our Savior, Redeem and Save Us!

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14 comments
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  1. Interesting. I assume by the above logic, Easter was also frowned upon.

    I do find the “an inordinate amount of time is spent repeating the story of ….” argument interesting. At my wife’s church, it seems that “an inordinate amount of time is spent repeating the story of …” a some parts of subset of St. Paul’s letters, some Old Testament figures like Abraham, Jacob, and David. The only time any of the Gospels are actually touched is on or near Easter and Christmas. While the specific focus seems to vary from church to church, that cycling through a very small portion of the non-gospels except during the liturgical times of Easter and Christmas does seem to be quite common in the experience of the people I know at other churches.

    It seems precisely that a good liturgical calendar would prevent “an inordinate amount of time is spent repeating the story of …” any part of the scripture.

  2. Hi Anil,
    You’re right about Easter. The Lord’s day holds primacy among accounting of days by Reformed Christians who are in line with most Reformers and the Puritans. I had a similar “Grinchness” about that day as well for most of my time as a Reformed Christian.

    Regarding the liturgical calendar and the lexicon, two things come to mind.

    One is the assumed radical equality of each Bible passage that is held by many Evangelicals. For example, at Calvary Chapel (most definitely not a Reformed denomination), verse-by-verse studies from Genesis through Revelation are a sort of gold standard. But should we really have a year where we made it only through the Minor Prophets with no reading of the Gospels? And it should also be noted that very often, those congregations are making it through Revelation for some reason ;) .

    Second, as you point out, there are passages such as the Ten Commandments, Romans 9, etc., that are favorites among Reformed Christians, and the lack of a liturgical calendar can make those parts of Scripture more highly read than even the words of Christ in the Gospels.

    In contrast to this, the practice of reading the Gospel as the peak of a lectionary that is always included on Sunday, in addition to other parts of the Bible (OT, Epistle, Psalms) goes against the radical equality of each Bible verse and emphasizes important events such as the Nativity, Our Lord’s Resurrection, and the like.
    In XC,
    J. Andrew

  3. Jonathan,

    Thanks for this. There is a spectrum of views here within the Reformed tradition. Four days ago R.C. Sproul Jr. wrote “Is it a Sin to Celebrate Christmas?,” and he answers “no,” (though his strawman depiction of the theology of the Catholic mass is jaw-dropping). But on the other side of the spectrum from Williamson, every year PCA pastor Jeff Meyers re-posts his helpful series of essays (“Is Christmas Christian? Redux,”) in which he argues in support of the liturgical celebration of Christmas.

    The difficulty for the Reformed tradition on this point, in my opinion, rests in the absence of a principled distinction between “solo scriptura” and “sola scriptura,” regarding which Neal and I have written elsewhere. Without a principled, non-ad hoc way of distinguishing between authoritative Tradition, permissible local tradition, and wrongful accretion, Williamson’s position becomes the only safe option. But for many of us, Williamson’s position is a reductio ad absurdum for the solo paradigm, and thus (because there is no principled distinction between solo and sola) for the sola paradigm.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  4. When I was (for 20 years) a member of a (well, two – one of which I helped start) congregations of the Reformed Churches of New Zealand, “GI” was the Pope. His writings were, quite seriously, pretty much law to us.

    jj

  5. What is the Reformed rationale for why the Jews celebrated holidays and yet Christians are not supposed to? For example, in John 10:22 it says Jesus celebrated Hanukkah, which is only found in 1 Maccabees (and thus not even Scripture to Protestants). So on what basis was Jesus celebrating this holiday, and why would a ‘minor’ holiday like this get recognition but something as significant as Christmas or Annunciation would not? If the only rationale for opposing celebrating holidays is because Catholics celebrate holidays, then that’s a horrible argument and just sad.

    And I think Bryan is right that this is textbook example of why sola collapses into solo, notably on the famous “one day is as good as another” passage of Romans 14. There is an unresolved tension in this verse within Protestantism, since interpreting it too ‘broadly’ leaves no basis for regular Sunday worship, yet interpreting it ‘narrowly’ to not exclude Sunday worship or some holidays forces one into a Magisterial interpretive role (which cannot be accepted).

  6. PS – when, in about 1987, I think, we (the Reformed Church of Pukekohe) bought what had been the Baptist Church in Pukekohe. The Baptists had built themselves a big new building. The building we bought had a large (plain) Cross on the outside. Our elders said it had to go. Why? I asked. Idolatry.

    Consistency, indeed. We were not to sing hymns, only Psalms. And so forth.

    jj

  7. It’s very interesting to me that the “inordinate amount of time” issue is raised here. The Reformed churches that I was a part of heavily favored painstaking exegetical preaching, so much so that one church I attended spent 2 entire years on the book of Luke. If I remember correctly, Piper spent a great deal longer than that taking Bethlehem Baptist through Romans… In my own personal experience, the church calendar brings far more balance than it takes away.

  8. John Thayer JensenNo said “The building we bought had a large (plain) Cross on the outside. Our elders said it had to go. Why? I asked. Idolatry.”

    Well obviously. They were likely thinking of 1 Corinthians 1:23 (but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles).

    If you have to have a cross, Jesus must be crucified there too, otherwise Christianity is either a stumbling block or foolishness.

    :-)

    Seriously, WRT the psalms

  9. Interesting read – I too came out of the Reformed Churches of NZ (after I had moved over from being a Reformed Baptist). As a Presbyterian / Reformed Christian, I loved G.I. Williamson’s stuff and even embraced his Exclusive Psalmody and rejection of Christmas. The one year that we didn’t celebrate Christmas was probably the most miserable year we experienced as a family…

    Now, as a Catholic, I can’t even begin to explain the joy and freedom that we now experience…a joy and freedom that can only come from a proper understand that we are children in the Household of God, which is the pillar and foundation of truth.

  10. Hi Justin,
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. May the expectation and joy of this season warm our hearts to love the Him who is truth all the more with each new commemoration of the birth of Our Lord.

    In XC,
    J. Andrew

  11. Justin – Interested to know what congregation you were in. You can e-mail me at j dot jensen at auckland dot ac dot nz.

    jj

  12. John – I’ll drop you a line : )

  13. From Max Lucado:

    In Bethlehem, the human being who best understood who God was and what he was doing, is a teenage girl in a smelly stable. As Mary looks into the face of the baby. Her son. Her Lord. His majesty—she can’t take her eyes off him. Somehow Mary knows she’s holding God. So this is he. She remembers the words of the angel. “His kingdom will never end!”

    He looks like anything but a king. His cry, though strong and healthy, is still the helpless and piercing cry of a baby. Majesty in the midst of the mundane. Holiness in the filth of sheep manure and sweat. Divinity entering the world on the floor of a stable, through the womb of a teenager and in the presence of a carpenter.

    God came near!

    “And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end. Luke 1:33″

  14. Hey guys. Does your podcast still exist in itunes? If it’s there, I can’t find it.

    Pax,

    Bradley

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