Books: The Story of the Christian Year

The Wee Kirk conference we attended in October had a book swap. I took a book which I had not found particularly interesting, and came home with The Story of the Christian Year by George Gibson. I enjoy reading history, particularly when it relates to something else I have a strong interest in (in this case, the Christian church), and the origins of the church year is a topic I had read very little about.

I grew up familiar with at least some seasons of the church year. Lighting Advent candles was the natural lead-in to Christmas, and our Advent calendars always started with the first Sunday of Advent, not with December 1 as I see so many of them today. Lent I considered something for grownups to be concerned with, not children, but I knew when it was and that it ended with Holy Week, which included Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and then of course Easter.

When I began to attend a fundamentalist church as a teenager, I was surprised to find that people there not only did not celebrate these days and seasons, they did not even know what some of them were. Those who did know about them considered them unbiblical, remnants of the Roman Catholic church that mainline Protestant churches had retained because of their own low regard for Scriptural truth.

For the years that I considered myself a fundamentalist, I adopted that attitude myself. After all, the church I had grown up in had never preached the Gospel clearly. It wasn’t until I went to a fundamentalist church that I learned that I needed to admit that I was a sinner, that Jesus had died for my sins, and that I trusted him for salvation. The church I had grown up in was seen as “having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:5 KJV), focusing on the outward forms rather than the truth.

By the time I met my husband, I had come to suspect that the fundamentalist church had “thrown out the baby with the bathwater” in regard to liturgical traditions. It’s not much good to have the traditions without the truth behind them (though it was at least in part due to wondering about what was behind the traditions that I started looking for what it really meant to believe), but wouldn’t it be better to have both the traditions and the truth?

In the Presbyterian church I joined with my husband, I was pleased to find both the traditions I had grown up with (not only the church year but also the form of the worship service, including unison prayers and sung responses such as the Gloria Patri and the Doxology) and an evangelical concern for people to know Christ as Savior. There are of course churches where this is less true, but I don’t see how that invalidates the traditions.

So, back to this book I have been reading. It’s a relatively short book (two hundred pages – and it is available here online), and lacks footnotes, so it’s difficult for me to verify much in the way of details. It was written in 1945, and I know that a good deal more is known of ancient history now than was known then.

Gibson states that the basic form of the church year was established early in the history of Christianity, within the first few hundred years. New observances were added over the centuries, including the multitudinous saints’ days that were often linked to superstition and which let the focus stray from God to human beings.

Gibson seems to approve of the Reformers’ removal of all these additional days and the superstitions that went with them. For the most part, however, he says that the Reformers did not do away with the church year per se. Only among the English-speaking Protestants, and even then only among some groups, was it seen necessary to discard the liturgical year entirely as being too tainted by its association with the Roman Catholic church and its abuses.

I had not heard this claim before, that it was only among (some) English Protestants that liturgy was seen as wholly negative. I tried doing some online searches to see if I could confirm (or refute) Gibson’s claims. After all, it seems unlikely to me that only Christians who spoke a particular language should recognize some truth that others did not.

What I found is that the distinction was generally made between Reformed churches, who followed what is known as the regulative principle, and other Protestants (Lutherans, Methodists, Anglicans, Baptists), who follow the normative principle. The Presbyterian churches I have attended consider themselves within the Reformed tradition, but do not follow the regulative principle (and therefore would not be considered Reformed, I think, by those who do.)

I have read a number of arguments for and against the regulative principle (as one article pointed out, opponents of it do not so much argue for the normative principle as against the regulative principle). This one provides arguments for the regulative principle, while this one presents problems with the regulative principle.

One article on problems with the regulative principle points out that Jesus apparently participated in feasts not prescribed in Mosaic law, as well as in synagogue worship. A response to that argument points out that Scripture in no way says that Jesus participated in those feasts, only that he was in Jerusalem at the time, and that “Not only can one deduce weekly synagogue worship from the Bible, but also the basic worship elements of Scripture reading and exposition.”

Contrary to what Gibson claims, this article claims that the regulative principle was taught by all the Reformed churches, not just Puritans. From what I have read, this appears to be accurate, but it is not clear just how much this affects their use (or non-use) of the church year.

Calvin ended use of the lectionary (a calendar of prescribed readings for each Sunday of the year), as it gave churchgoers only isolated snippets of Scripture, in favor of preaching through whole books of the Bible. I also found indications, however, that Calvin altered his own practice in that regard when it came to major holidays in the church year such as Christmas and Easter.

Like many things, the lectionary can be used well or poorly. If it is the only Scripture people are exposed to over the course of a year, they will get very little idea of the overarching history or themes of the Bible. On the other hand, they will get exposed somewhat to most parts of the Bible, which may not happen if the lectionary is not used and the sermons follow the preacher’s favorite books of the Bible.

Naturally, the best thing is if they are studying the Bible outside of the church service, following some plan which, over time, covers all parts of the Bible. But probably only a minority in many churches actually does this. So does the pastor plan his sermons around their needs or that of those whose primary exposure to Scripture is in the church service? My own husband uses the lectionary during large parts of the year (and always during Advent), but also does sermon series on topics such as prayer or on a book of the Bible.

Gibson’s primary arguments for following the liturgical year are that it has been the practice during most of Christian history, that it provides an important discipline for the preacher (which is one reason my husband uses it), that it provides unity among churches, and that it is a good teaching tool (because it covers a range of important Scriptures and doctrines, and reinforces them year by year).

Moreover, he points out that churches that do not follow it (because they do not see it as valuable, rather than that they follow the regulative principle, which he gives little if any attention to) will tend to create their own special times and seasons (an annual “revival” week, a special missions emphasis, etc.)

Of course, if one holds to the regulative principle, none of his arguments holds much weight. His reasons are largely pragmatic, and saying “this is what seems to be working” is never a good response to “this is what God says to do.” Having read a number of articles on both sides, however, I remain unconvinced that the regulative principle is the correct position.

While this article, written by someone who explored Anglicanism and returned to the Reformed tradition, is not about the liturgical year but about liturgy in general, it has some good points to make about when it is that outward forms become a problem. “Problems arise where a particular form is required and prescribed by church authorities, limiting freedom and hindering the leading of the Spirit, as if the right form might guarantee true, heartfelt worship.”

This, as I understand it, is why the established liturgical calendar was rejected by many during the Reformation. The observances had been required by force of law, even if one’s conscience went against them. Those churches which make use of the church year today do not require anyone to follow it.

The same article points out another possible danger, that of using theatrical elements (referring to the high liturgy of the Anglican church) in worship to manipulate people’s experience. This “moves dangerously close to bearing more of a resemblance to magic than to true worship, and so is a manifestation of idolatry.”

Of course, that danger exists not only in the liturgical churches (though as he points out, in some sense every church has a liturgy, whether it is called that or not), but also others such as the fundamentalist church I attended for a number of years. The altar call and invitational hymn (which we often had to sing over and over if no one was going forward) often felt like a great deal of emotional manipulation. That sense of being manipulated was one of the reasons for my eventual disillusionment with that tradition.

So I’m not sure just how much history I learned from this book. But I would like to end by quoting one passage, from early in the book, as Gibson discusses why forms such as the church year are a positive thing.

The spirit must express itself in form; one may as well speak of an artist so pure as never to paint a picture, as of a religion so spiritual, universal, and absolute as to find no suitable expression in particular times and places. Given a vital spirit, the form will follow as the fruit the vine; and they are as wrong who thing the spirit is sufficient without form as those who would have form without spirit. All efforts to be once and for all rid of outward paraphernalia of religion simply result in the end in the production of other paraphernalia, or a loss of the movement in total secularization. The very formlessness becomes formal; the silences themselves become fraught with symbolism.

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