Owen Contra Lent, Easter, And The Normative Principle Of Worship

The instances he gives from the church of the Jews, or that may be given, are either civil observances, as the feast of purim; or moral conveniencies directed by general rules, as the building of synagogues; or customary signs suited to the nature of things, as wearing of sackcloth; or such as have no proof of their being approved, as the feast of dedication, and some monthly fasts taken up in the captivity;—from none of which any objection can be taken against the position before laid down. Those from the church of the New Testament had either a perpetual binding institution from the authority of Christ, as the Lord’s-day Sabbath; or contain only a direction to use civil customs and observances in a holy and sanctified manner, as the love feasts and kiss of charity; or such as were never heard of in the New Testament at all, as the observation of Lent and Easter. He that out of these instances can draw a warranty for the power of the civil magistrate over religion and the consciences of men, to institute new duties in religion when he pleaseth, so these “do not countenance vice nor disgrace the Deity,” which all his Christian subjects shall be bound in conscience to observe, or otherwise make good any of those particular conclusions, that therefore Christ is not the only lawgiver to his church, or that divine revelation is not the adequate rule of divine worship, or that men may add any thing to the worship of God, to be observed in it constantly and indispensably by the whole church, will manifest himself to have an excellency in argumentation beyond what I have ever yet met withal.

John Owen, Truth and Innocence Vindicated in A Survey of a Discourse Concerning Ecclesiastical Polity, and the the Authority of the Civil Magistrate Over the Consciences of Subjects in Matters of Religion in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 13 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 479.

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  1. I had assumed that the Reformed practice was monolithic on the issue of rejecting the historical holidays of the church. But there seems be a Continental tendency and a British Isle tendency. Oliver O’Donovan discusses the Presbyterian influence in “From Irenaeus to Grotius: A Sourcebook in Christian Political Thought,” (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), 703.

    Also, the Synod of Bern (1532) advocated celebrating communion on Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The Church Order of Dort (1619) did so also. Calvin allowed Christmas.

    The Palatinate Liturgy (Heidelberg, 1563), my notes tell me, advocated the celebration of five festivals: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Whitsuntide (Pentecost).

    Bullinger advocates six festivals (the five above plus Circumcision) in both the Decades and the Second Helvetic Confession. The Second Helvetic says that if those six be religiously celebrated “according to Christian liberty, we do very well approve of it.” In the Decades, in his sermon on the Sabbath, he says, “[I]t would be against all godliness and christian charity, if we should deny to sanctify the Sunday: especially, since the outward worship of God cannot consist without an appointed time and space of holy rest. I suppose also, that we ought to think the same of those few feasts and holy days, which we keep holy to Christ our Lord, in memory of his nativity or incarnation, of his circumcision, of his passion, of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord into heaven, and of his sending the Holy Ghost upon his disciples. For christian liberty is not a licentious power and dissolving of godly ecclesiastical ordinances, which advance and set forward the glory of God and love of our neighbour.” Though he uses such language there, he says in the Second Helvetic (in a later period in life) in the context of the Lord’s Day, “we do not account one day to be holier than another…”

    • Shane,

      In most of those places these were compromises with the civil magistrate, who, unlike ministers, typically did not accept Scripture as the rule of worship.

      I would not speak categorically of a “continental“ view. There were Anglicans who also wanted to celebrate the so-called “Evangelical“ holidays, a restricted list of days associated with Christ’s birth, death, and ascension.

      For example, in Geneva, Calvin submitted to the observance of Christmas but he was personally opposed to it. I am reasonably sure that he was not alone in this.

      You use the verb “advocated.“ It might be better to use the word “permitted” or “recognized.”

      It was certainly the case that the Dort church order was the result of decades of negotiation between the ministers and civil magistrate. The latter were Erasmian humanists who cared little for the Scriptures as the rule of worship. They liked the traditional practice. Further, the people liked the traditional practice. Thus, where the Dutch synods had stoutly opposed these things in the 1570s by 1619, largely because of politics, they exceeded to a limited list of “Evangelical“ days.

      Without the state-church, the situation on the ground would have been rather different than it was. I suspect that there were places where there was genuine enthusiasm for the “Evangelical“ days but if we strip out the influence of the magistrate the picture is rather different.

      • Further, whatever support one might find (absent the influence of the civil magistrate) for the so-called “Evangelical“ days, one finds no support for Lent among the Reformed in Europe or in the British Isles.

    • Thus, where the Dutch synods had stoutly opposed these things in the 1570s by 1619, largely because of politics, they [acceded] to a limited list of “Evangelical“ days.

      Van Dellen and Monsma’s Commentary on the Church Order re. Art. 67 says as much. IOW which might mean that the ecclesiastical/evangelical days have a bit of erastianism to them, never mind the “custom, or great multitude, or antiquity” of the Belgic Confession 7.

  2. Richard Barcellos has some very thought provocing things to say about the Sabbath, and why it is the only holy day for Christians in his new book, Getting the Garden Right. He says God’s rest on the Sabbath is indicative of the state of glorification that Adam’s race would have obtained, if he bad obeyed God. The Christian Sabbath is indicative of of the glorified state that the second Adam, Christ earned through his obedience, and His vindication by resurrection in glory, for His people. That is why only the Sabbath can be a holy day.

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