The Westminster Divines On Holy Days

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath.

Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued. Nevertheless, it is lawful and necessary, upon special emergent occasions, to separate a day or days for public fasting or thanksgiving, as the several eminent and extraordinary dispensations of God’s providence shall administer cause and opportunity to his people.

As no place is capable of any holiness, under pretense of whatsoever dedication or consecration; so neither is it subject to such pollution by any superstition formerly used, and now laid aside, as may render it unlawful or inconvenient for Christians to meet together therein for the publick worship of God. And therefore we hold it requisite, that the places of public assembling for worship among us should be continued and employed to that use.

Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645) [spelling modernized].

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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22 comments

  1. Second Helvetic: SUPERSTITION. In this connection we do not yield to the Jewish observance and to superstitions. For we do not believe that one day is any holier than another, or think that rest in itself is acceptable to God. Moreover, we celebrate the Lord’s Day and not the Sabbath as a free observance.

    THE FESTIVALS OF CHRIST AND THE SAINTS. Moreover, if in Christian liberty the churches religiously celebrate the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit upon his disciples, we approve of it highly. but we do not approve of feasts instituted for men and for saints. Holy days have to do with the first Table of the Law and belong to God alone. Finally, holy days which have been instituted for the saints and which we have abolished, have much that is absurd and useless, and are not to be tolerated. In the meantime, we confess that the remembrance of saints, at a suitable time and place, is to be profitably commended to the people in sermons, and the holy examples of the saints set forth to be imitated by all.

    LENT. The fast of Lent is attested by antiquity but not at all in the writings of the apostles. Therefore it ought not, and cannot, be imposed on the faithful. It is certain that formerly there were various forms and customs of fasting. hence, Irenaeus, a most ancient writer, says: “Some think that a fast should be observed one day only, others two days, but others more, and some forty days. This diversity in keeping this fast did not first begin in our times, but long before us by those, as I suppose, who did not simply keep to what had been delivered to them from the beginning, but afterwards fell into another custom either through negligence or ignorance” (Fragm. 3, ed. Stieren, I. 824 f.). Moreover, Socrates, the historian, says: “Because no ancient text is found concerning this matter, I think the apostles left this to every man’s own judgment, that every one might do what is good without fear or constraint” (Hist. ecclesiast. V.22, 40).

    A.A. Hodge “The Christian Sunday is an historical continuation of the Jewish Sabbath, only the day of the week changes, and runs back in absolutely unbroken continuity through the ages–through the ages before the Flood, through the years before the Fall–it and matrimony being the only monuments of the golden age of innocency. Each recurrent holy day stands to us, first, as a monument of the sovereignty of Jehovah as Creator, and secondly, as a monument of our redemption consummated in the resurrection of our Lord. Every Lord’s day when we celebrate the Holy Supper we repeat in a chain of unbroken continuity the memorial of his sacrificial death. And in the beautiful circle of the Christian year, Holy Week, Good Friday, Easter, we repeat in a far longer chain of unbroken continuity the Christian sacrament of the Supper, looking back over a vista of nearly eighteen centuries and three-quarters to its institution, and also over a vista nearly twice as long, of nearly three thousand five hundred years, to the institution of the first Passover and the redemption of Israel from the bondage of Egypt.” (343)

    • Hi Bill,

      1. There was a division of opinion with the Reformed/Presbyterian world over the so-called “evangelical” feast days in the 16th and 17th centuries. E.g., as I’ve documented here, Calvin was personally opposed to Christmas but observed it unhappily under the authority of the city council. In other places Easter, Good Friday, Christmas, and ascension, days that were directly connected to the life of Christ, were listed in Reformed church orders as days that may be observed (e.g., the Dort Church Order, 1619). In other places, however, especially where the Anglicans sought to impose the BCP and alleged “adiaphora” (matters indifferent, which, when they are imposed by the bishop are, obviously no longer indifferent) the churches rejected the church calendar rather completely, as among the Scottish Presbyterians.

      The P & R grasp of the “rule of worship” (Calvin’s language) or the RPW (Murray’s language) weakened in the 18th and 19th centuries. I documented this in Recovering the Reformed Confession.

      2. Yes, the 2nd Helvetic permits the private observance of Lent. Among the major Reformed confessions of the period, it is the only one to do so. Remember that Zürich was the site of the Lenten rebellion, so it would have been a remarkable reversal to impose Lent again. It is one thing, however, to permit the private observance of Lent and quite another for the visible, institutional church to observe or impose Lent.

      Resistance to Lent began in Zürich but came to expression in the First Confession of Basel (1534) in art. 11. I’ll post it later. So far I’m able to find Lent explicitly mentioned only in these two Reformed confessions.

  2. The Apostle’s doctrine:
    ‘Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holyday, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days: Which are a shadow of things to come; but the substance is of Christ. One man esteems one day above another: another esteems every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regards the day, regards it unto the Lord; and he that regards not the day, to the Lord he does not regard it. ‘

    • Allan,

      The question is not what people do privately, as a matter of Christian liberty, but rather what authority the visible church has to impose practices and observances upon the Christian conscience.

  3. The NT gives no command as to observance of holy days or Sabbaths. the First day of the week was apparently chosen to commemorate the disciples’ discovery of the resurrection. Paul gives believers total liberty as to days.

    • 1. Sabbath is creation, not Sinai, original creation account, Gen.2:1-3. Man’s first sunrise was his opportunity/obligation to enter into the rest of his Maker. Ditch the Sabbath? Why not go all the way and ditch marriage too; that’s also creation, and not Sinai?

      2. Real Christianity isn’t “NT-alone-is-relevant” religion. The OT is part of the Bible. And the moral law (again, pre-Mosaic) *summarized* in the 10 commandments is as relevant now as it was the day Adam and Eve were created, and later when God reminded Israel. And ever since.

      3. Heb.4:9, “There remains a sabbathizing for the people of God.” “Remains” doesn’t mean: “in the sweet bye and bye.” The author isn’t talking about eschatology; but about our recurrent, cyclical opportunities to join in our Savior’s well-earned rest.

      4. Rev.1:10 speaks of a unique day that belongs to the Lord, when John is at worship (in the Spirit, cf.Jn4:23). What is the only such “day” mentioned of which the Jesus is Lord? That’s right, the Sabbath, Mk.2:28.

      5. Who starts the practice of Sunday meeting of God with his people? Right again! It’s Jesus. He gathers them, he meets with them, Lk.24:33-48. Keeps doing it, too.

      6. God is the only one with the authority to move his Sabbath day. Israel commemorated creation (Ex.20:11) and redemption (Dt.5:15) by the seventh day Sabbath–emphasis on the former. Now, with a new exodus accomplished (N.B.Lk.9:31), Christ apparently favored an emphasis on his day of resurrection. The disciples clearly understood the logic, just as much as Adam and Eve did.

      If you accept that the disciples (the church) has on its own authority given us our proper day of sanctified rest, you agree with the papists on that score. So, it’s Allan who holds on to “tradition,” rather than exegetical conclusions.

      Creation. Moral law. Express statement of Scripture. Express ownership of Christ. Express example of Christ and his disciples, before and after Pentecost. Good and necessary consequence. The NT teaches the abiding moral equity of the Sabbath.

  4. Dr. Clark,

    There seems to be a big difference in reading and reflecting on certain scriptures during different times of the year and imposing a Holy Day that must be observed by the Church. So couldn’t one stick to the RPW and still have readings from scripture that cause us to reflect on Christ’s birth and Resurection at specific times of the year?The problem seems to be more with the superstitions and imposing rules on a so called holy day.

    • Russ,

      Yes, there is a difference but there is also a difference between a private observation and an ecclesiastical observation. The latter necessarily carries with it a certain force, authority, and even obligation. The rule of worship (we do only what God has commanded) wonderfully liberates us all from good intentions, which is how all ecclesiastical practices begin. If God has not commanded it, the church may not impose it. That is a very clear, very biblical, and very sound principle with which the evangelical and even some P & R churches seem have forgotten.

      Take e.g., Christmas. We know that Christ was born but We have no idea in what month it happened. The church began to observe Christmas around the Winter Solstice for a variety of reasons but none of them were the because of the rule of worship. Now we are stuck with it. It is imposed on all of us because people like it. It’s “meaningful” etc. Anyone who dares criticize its observance is a “Grinch.” Any congregation that will not sing Christmas hymns is regarded as bizarre. No, what is bizarre is divorcing the incarnation of the Son of God from redemptive history and re-contextualizing it as a time to celebrate human goodness.

      The evangelical boredom with vacuous revivalism (30 minutes of songs followed by a self-help message) is entirely understandable but the turn to Lent is equally predictable and the outcome, as I wrote, will not be good.

      There is some defense of Easter on the grounds that the quartodeciman view lost and Easter has always been connected with the Lord’s Day. The same is true with Trinity Sunday, and Ascension. Good Friday is somewhat problematic, since it’s obviously not observed on the Lord’s Day. It is an “evangelical” day, because it is comes out of the life and suffering of our Lord and we know when that was. Thus, at least, we’re not making up things with respect to those days.

      The ecclesiastical observance of any day other than the Lord’s Day is problematic because observance of no other day is commanded by God’s Word and that is the rule of worship (RPW). We do only what is commanded. At some point in the defense of the other days the argument becomes, “it is not forbidden” and just then we have adopted another principle, which is not sola Scriptura.

  5. Scott, you are the historian and will know far better than I what happened. But, reading the text, it seems to me the Second Helvetic does more than say someone in private may choose to observe 4o days of penitence an fasting leading up to Easter which observance is “highly approved.” It seems to me the text allows the observance of Lent, not only by an individual but by the church so long as the observance is not imposed as a matter of duty, i.e. a disciplinable offense, on the members of the church. So a pastor could commend the the practice and use the liturgy and ministry of the Word during the period to call people to self-examination, penitence, and self-denial in preparation for the observance of our Lord’s passion and resurrection.

    • Bill,

      I’m working on the practice in Zürich between the Lenten Rebellion of 1522 and the drafting of the Second Helvetic in 1561 by Bullinger at the request of Frederick III. It was not published until 1566 but insofar as he wrote originally for Frederick, it seems unlikely that he envisioned the ecclesiastical observance of Lent. The Palatinate Reformation was, by 1561 a Reformed Reformation heavily influenced by Calvin, Beza, and Geneva. We know what Geneva’s attitude was toward Lent. I do not believe that the church order in Heidelberg provided for Lent. Ursinus’ exposition of Heidelberg 96 is quite clear about the church’s authority to bind the conscience regarding fasts, of which Lent was chief.

      As I wrote in reply to Russ, whatever the church does corporately necessarily carries with it a certain degree of authority. Such things done without the express authority or that inferred by good and necessary inference, relies not upon divine warrant but upon the permission. What we have here is a conflict of principles: must vs may. Historically, the latter has led to the binding of the conscience (e.g., the ecclesiastical imposition of Lent). As to episcopal promises to respect the liberty of the conscience, again, history tells us that such promises are easily broken. This is why Ames and Gillespie railed against Anglican transgression of the rule of worship (sola Scriptura as applied to the life and worship of the visible church).

  6. Dr. Clark,
    Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Your posts have really made me look into these things more and question some of the practices of the modern Reformed Churches. I can understand the reason you are nervous about P&R churches embracing lent,advent,ect. I am working through this but I’m having a hard time saying that ordering a sermon series based around the church calendar goes against RPW or ecclesiastical powers. Calvin preached often during the week but no one accused him of setting up a holy day or binding ones conscience since scripture does not command us to meet during the week. As you have shown he even preached a sermon about the birth of Jesus around Christmas, be it relunctantly. I guess I need more time to study and think on these things. Anyways keep the posts coming they are helpful.

    • Russ,

      Here are some additional resources on the “church calendar.”

      As a one who feels a deep connection to our Christian past, I understand the attraction and even comfort of the church calendar. I also understand, however, what has happened when the church has imposed man-made practices with the best of intentions. As I noted in 2015, most of us are ambivalent about Christmas/advent. The key here is perhaps right before our eyes, it’s the church calendar. It’s not God’s calendar. It’s not divinely imposed. The only day of observation about which we know from Scripture is the Christian Sabbath. As early as the debate over Easter was, we have no biblical warrant for it or even the other “evangelical” feast days, even if we can tie them closely to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. If the church can choose to observe these days, how can we refuse when she institutes foot washing? It’s clearly revealed in Scripture. It’s a Dominical act attached to holy week (John 13). One can see how this goes.

      This is why the application of sola Scriptura to public worship is so important. It’s the last and most important protection for the freedom of the Christian man.

  7. As someone born in the Roman church and by the grace of God delivered from the same, it would be hilarious, if it is not pathetic to see protestants advocate roman practices like Lent. I am hoping these folks are evangelicals and not reformed, but I have been around in P&R churches too long to be overly optimistic.

    Is Lent commanded?
    No.
    End of story for the P&R according to their confessions.

    Of course if you are Anglican or Lutheran, it is a different story, but neither church reformed their worship or their government at the Reformation and things haven’t changed much since then.

    Likewise if you want to practice it in your closet feel free – as the disobedient (Col. 2:16,17) and weaker brother to do so, but at least keep it in your closet and don’t boast about it or burden others with it.

    • “Of course if you are Anglican or Lutheran, it is a different story, but neither church reformed their worship or their government at the Reformation… ” This statement is clearly false. Both reformed their worship and their government. What you really mean to say is not that they did not reform their worship and government but that they did not become presbyterians. In the case of England your statement means that Cranmer, Ridely, and Latimer did not die for the reformed faith and practice of the church in England. You might be a little more charitable about your fellow heir of the Reformation. To say that Lent is a Roman practice, on the face of it, is like saying the doctrine of the Trinity is Roman doctrine. The question about either is not whether they are Roman. The question about the Trinity is not, “Does Rome teach it?” but, “Does the Bible teach it?” The question about Lent is not, “Does Roman practice it?” but, “Does the Bible allow the church to practice it?” And that is where the debate is joined regarding the the nature and limits of church authority. And with regard to this you might consider the Communion seasons complete with required tokens in Scotland.

      • Bill,

        1. The Lutherans were clearly not Reformed in government or theology. Was there overlap between the Lutherans and the Reformed on the core issues of the Reformation? Yes! (Contra those who want to set the Lutheran and the Reformed confessions utterly against each other in a blindly partisan way). But the Lutheran church government was not the Reformed.

        2. The Anglicans were Reformed in the broad sense. There were Anglicans at Dort and Westminster. Calvin regarded the Church of England as a Reformed church, though he was not (contra some Anglican accounts) thrilled about their form of government nor was he thrilled with their principle of worship. He sided with the Genevans in Frankfurt, not the Anglicans who even then were doing patently silly things such as stamping figures into communion bread. They simply did not get nor have they yet adopted the Reformed “rule of worship” that we may only do in Scripture what God has commanded. We are not free to do what he has not forbidden. Episcopacy and the Anglican view of worship are contrary to the confession and practice of the Reformed churches.

        As I was saying to another fellow on Twitter yesterday. we all have a great affection for the Oxford Martyrs. One of the first essays I ever wrote for publication was on the Oxford Martyrs. Nevertheless, the influence of Arminianism and the proto-Tractarian theology and practice of Laud, repeated attempts by the Anglican establishment to impose the prayerbook and episcopacy upon Presbyterians, the rise of Latitudinarianism in the C of E, and finally the Tractarian movement has created a significant gulf between 21st Anglicanism and the Oxford Martyrs.

        Even the very best of the 20th-century Anglicans, from whom we have all benefited much. E.g., Stott, Packer, Hughes, Wenham: Stott was a prince among preachers. His Basic Christianity was a godsend to this (then) very confused evangelical Baptist. Packer’s Knowing God was immensely helpful about the same time. Hughes represented the best of evangelical Anglicanism and Wenham saved the Greek New Testament for British evangelicals but he also led many of them, including Stott and Hughes, to deny the biblical and orthodox doctrine of hell and Packer signed not one but two (perhaps three) documents seriously compromising the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. The second ECT document was an improvement but still highly problematic. David Fletcher at St Ebbes was a great blessing to our family in 1994–95. He represented the best of the 20th-century evangelical Anglican movement.

        I have my opinions about American Anglicanism but let’s just say it’s not the prayerbook presbyterianism of the old RE seminary faculty.

        3. As a matter of history, Lent is manifestly a medieval practice largely rejected by the Reformed—the only exception I have yet found is the Second Helvetic, which remains to be researched. To argue, as you seem to be:

        1. Anglicans are Reformed (a premise that is in dispute after the Tractarian Movement at least)
        2. Anglicans do X (practice Lent)
        3. Therefore Lent is Reformed

        Is a species of the sort of “Reformed Narcissism” that I highlighted in RRC.

        It is a better than “I am Reformed, I Think X, ergo X is Reformed” but for the reasons mentioned above, despite the historic connections between Anglicanism and the Reformed Reformation, the first premise is to be doubted.

        That you put Lent, a medieval practice without biblical warrant, on the level of the Trinity is absurd. The Trinity is an biblical and ecumenical doctrine, which all Christians must confess on pain of eternal punishment (Athanasian). That is not remotely true of Lent.

        No, for Reformed and Presbyterian Christians the question is not, “does the Bible allow the church to practice it”! That’s not the biblical principle of worship, the rule of worship as Calvin put it. The biblical principle, the rule is: Has God commanded it. Thank you for illustrating for me the great gulf between the Anglican principle and the Reformed. Yours is the conscience-binding principle that effectively undermined sola Scriptura in the English church, that troubled Sibbes and Perkins, that drove Ames out of England (and to the Netherlands), that provoked Ames to write Fresh Suit against his Anglican Bishop father-in-law and Gillespie to write English Popish Ceremonies, of which Chris Coldwell has produced a brilliant 2nd modern edition.

        Imposing Lent on the Christian conscience is hardly equivalent to fencing the table (communion tokens).

        Who does not appreciate the confession of sin in Morning Prayer or the prayer for illumination in the second Sunday of Advent in the 1662 BCP. They are perhaps the two finest bits of liturgical writing in the English language but there are genuine differences between the Anglican ethos and the Reformed. The 39 Articles do not define Anglicanism the way the Three Forms and the Westminster Standards (are supposed to) norm the confessional P & R churches.

        • Scott, I saaid that the Lutherans and Anglicans reformed their worship and government. I did not say they Reformed their worship and government. Nor did I equate the doctrine of the Trinity with Lent. I merely argued that because something is believed or practiced by the Roman church does not mean it is to be condemned. With regard to Lent, I specifically said that the question of whether the Bible allows it is where the argument is joined. And joining the argument means that an Anglican will argue Article 34 and the Presbyterian will argue WCF 21:1. The Anglican will argue, “Yes, the Bible allows it for it falls within the discretionary power of the church.” The Presbyterian will argue, “No the Bible does not allow it because the Bible does not ordain it by precept or approved example.”

          Re the REC. I have written about my serious concerns. However, I feel myself no more compromised here than I was in the PCA. The old REC was accused of being Presbyterians with a Prayer Book, and I am still so accused, but the old REC had a rather truncated Prayer Book and the old REC was sometimes more like Baptists with a Prayer Book. Especially in the east there was a like of revivalism and dispensationalism – much like the old PCUS and PCUSA. The doctrine of the sacraments was considerably lower than Calvin or Cranmer of whom Calvin probably had the higher view of the Presence in the Supper. Re the history of REC, if you have not read Allen Guelzo, you should. He is a very fine writer and to my mind an excellent historian, though he is not well thought of by his former brethren in the REC.

          I think we all in the interests of a purity of the church must show like interest in its catholicity. How many ecclesiastical groups are we prepared to call synagogues of Satan and how many Christians are we prepared to say are no Christians at all? That is a question I wrestled with more and more in my many years as a Presbyterian.

          • Bill,

            1. I understand the distinction you were making between reformed and Reformed.
            2. I understand what you were doing with Lent and the Trinity but you should also understand how that looks to Reformed eyes. I agree that because Rome does x does not make x wrong. That’s not in question. What is in question is the principle by which the medieval church adopted Lent, which is the principle being adopted by P & R types today. That’s problematic.
            3. The argument is joined over the normative principle vs the rule of worship.
            4. https://heidelblog.net/2017/03/sola-scriptura-protects-christian-liberty/
            5. I’m aware of the history of the REs. Guelzo’s book is wonderful. It’s too bad that no one listened.
            6. Re: the purity of the church, I genuinely think that (as you’ll see above) that we confess two distinct and irreconcilable principles.

  8. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your continued posts on the RPW and worship, particularly on Lent and images (oh, and Christmas, too). As one who grew up broadly evangelical and then migrated to the PCA after college, I have watched the flip-flopping of various denominations on these issues. From a hall lined with pictures of Jesus (breaking bread, carrying a lamb, looking wistfully into heaven) to a supposedly Reformed denomination celebrating Lent with the pastor wearing purple to Christmas trees in sanctuaries and Advent sermons, I have struggled with my own understanding of these things. Over the years I have come to realize your positions on these matters are the only ones those who wish to stand in the true Reformed vein can logically (and biblically) hold. Thank you for your continued labor in this area and know that you have helped at least one pilgrim in his confessional journey.

  9. The Sandomierz Consensus appears to refer to Lent as “quadragesima” in its passage that is parallel to the Second Helvetic. (Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, Vol. 3, p. 249.)

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