Many people who profess to be Calvinists are surprised to learn that while John Calvin was opposed to the bad things that have sometimes come to be associated with Christmas, he wasn’t against keeping the holiday as a celebration of the birth of Christ and saw it as a matter of liberty for the churches and the individual.
We can gain insight into Calvin’s views by reading two letters, one written on January 2, 1551; the other in March of 1555. The relevant portions are below, followed by the full contents of both letters. One may observe that Calvin’s understanding of the Regulative Principle of Worship is not so much focused on the kind of uniform, narrowly limited kind of worship that came to be the legacy of Puritanism, but on protecting the liberty of local congregations and individuals. One must never forget that liberty of conscience, under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ speaking in the Scripture, is a fundamental of fundamentals for John Calvin.
From Letter One, 1551:
“Besides the abolition of the feast-days here has given grievous offense to some of your people, and it is likely enough that much unpleasant talk has been circulating among you. I am pretty certain, also, that I get the credit of being the author of the whole matter, both among the malevolent and the ignorant. But as I can solemnly testify that it was accomplished without my knowledge, and without my desire, so I resolved from the first; rather to weaken malice by silence, than be over-solicitous about my defense. Before I ever entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord’s day. Those celebrated by you were approved of by the same public decree by which Farel and I were expelled; and it was rather extorted by the tumultuous violence of the ungodly, than decreed according to the order of law. Since my recall, I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birth-day as you are wont to do.”
From Letter Two, 1555:
“Respecting ceremonies, because they are things indifferent, the churches have a certain latitude of diversity. And when one has well weighed the matter, it may be sometimes considered useful not to have too rigid a uniformity respecting them, in order to show that faith and Christianity do not consist in that. . .
“As to festival days, they were abolished at Geneva before I left France . . . though for the innovation I am personally irresponsible. For the rest, my writings bear witness to my sentiments on these points, for in them I declare that a church is not to be despised or condemned, because it observes more festival days than the others. From this recent abolition of feast days, here is what has resulted. Not a year has passed without some quarrel and bickering, because the people were divided, and to such a degree as to draw their swords. . .
“Meanwhile we have done what we ought, to appease these troubles. The most feasible means that could be devised for that purpose, seemed to be to keep the holy day in the morning, and open the shops in the afternoon, though this plan did not much remedy the evil. For several thoughtless persons failed not to fall foul of one another. So that for the last time entreating and exhorting the Council of the two hundred to redress this abuse, I begged them, among other things, to be pleased to conform as much as possible to the order established among you for the purpose of keeping up a good understanding. Judge then of my astonishment when I learned what had been decided in the general Council, without my knowing that such a question had been entertained by it. Of that I can produce a goodly number of competent witnesses.”
The Full Content of Both Letters:
Geneva, 2nd January 1551.
I desire you, my dear Haller, not to measure my affection for you by my not writing to you and to our friend Musculus, of late, to lighten the domestic affliction under which you both labored. There is no need for my occupying many words in expressing how anxious I was about your danger, from the time that I heard of your houses being visited by the plague. But as this remembrance should not be more pleasing to kindhearted and considerate men than the duty of writing, I trust that when I inform you that my silence did not by any means arise from neglect, I shall fully satisfy you both. The reason why I did not write you is this: a report lately reached this place regarding your calamity, but I could not accurately ascertain the extent of its progress. Accordingly, I did not venture to take any active measures; I preferred having recourse to prayer; this I knew both to be more necessary for you, and to be desired by you.
Besides the abolition of the feast-days here has given grievous offense to some of your people, and it is likely enough that much unpleasant talk has been circulating among you. I am pretty certain, also, that I get the credit of being the author of the whole matter, both among the malevolent and the ignorant. But as I can solemnly testify that it was accomplished without my knowledge, and without my desire, so I resolved from the first; rather to weaken malice by silence, than be over-solicitous about my defense. Before I ever entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord’s day. Those celebrated by you were approved of by the same public decree by which Farel and I were expelled; and it was rather extorted by the tumultuous violence of the ungodly, than decreed according to the order of law. Since my recall, I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ’s birth-day as you are wont to do. But there were extraordinary occasions of public prayer on other days; the shops were shut in the morning, and every one returned to his several calling after dinner. There were, however, in the meanwhile, certain inflexible individuals who did not comply with the common custom from some perverse malice or other. Diversity would not be tolerated in a rightly constituted church: even for citizens not to live on good terms with one another, would beget mistrust among strangers. I exhorted the Senate to remove this disagreement in future by a proper remedy. And indeed, I lauded, at the same time, in express terms, the moderation which they had hitherto exercised. I afterwards heard of the abrogation, just as a perfect stranger would. Would that had acted less ambitiously on former occasions! For feast-days might have been abolished in that entire province. In order that those four might return to their old condition and former privileges, he contended as keenly against all the French-speaking pastors as if he had been acting for the good of the Church. You would have said that Victor was doing battle with the Orientals in behalf of his Easter. When I once asked him why circumcision had a right to more honor than the death of Christ, he was compelled to be silent. But let us forget the past. I am satisfied with having indicated briefly the cause of so sudden a change among us. Although I have neither been the mover nor instigator to it, yet, since it has so happened, I am not sorry for it. And if you knew the state of our Church as well as I do, you would not hesitate to subscribe to my judgment. Let me say this, however, that if I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon. Yet there is no reason why men should be so much provoked, if we use our liberty as the edification of the Church demands; just as, on the contrary, it is not fair to take a prejudice against our custom.
Adieu, very excellent sir and brother, deserving of my hearty regard. Salute your colleagues, I pray you, and Mr. Nicolas Zerkinden, in my name. My brethren salute you and those aforementioned, very heartily. May the Lord by his Spirit rule over you, preserve you, and bless you in all things.
(John Calvin, Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Jules Bonnet, Ed., David Constable, Trans., Vol. 5, Letters, Part 2, 1545-1553, pp. 299, 300.)
Lausanne, March 1555.
Right Worshipful, Puissant, And Honorable Seigneurs,
I learned yesterday, through the advoyer, that you are dissatisfied with me, as if I were the cause of many differences, and stirred up your preachers to do whatever I think right, rather than obey you; and especially with respect to diversity of ceremonies, in the celebration of baptism, marriage, the Lord’s supper, and festivals. Though I was far from expecting such a complaint, my conscience not at all reproaching me, nevertheless, I thank you for having deigned to let me know the murmurs and reports that you have heard about me, that I may have the means and opportunity of presenting you with my defense, for I trust that when you shall have heard the truth, you will be perfectly satisfied with me.
First of all, I pray you, right worshipful Lords, to reflect that we who preach the word of God, are exposed to many calumnies and much blame, and that it is not without reason, that God reminds us, by the mouth of Saint Paul, that he who is invested with such an office for the good of the church, ought not to be accused on light grounds. For my own part, I am not ignorant that for some time back many slanderous insinuations have been circulated on my account, in order to make me an object of suspicion and hatred to you. These things have given me great pain, because I saw that they tended to retard the spread of the gospel, to sow scandals, and divide the churches which ought to be conjoined and united in every thing and every where. And as much as it grieved me to have no occasion of answering in order to clear up my character and satisfy you, so much do I now thank God for permitting you to furnish me with an opportunity of so doing. For I have never refused to give an account of my ministry to your excellencies, and with the same readiness as if I had been one of your own subjects, I am always prepared to do this. To come to the fact; if you will question your preachers, who are in this town, how I agree with them in doctrine, I am so assured that they will give you a favorable account, that it will not be necessary for me to trouble you any further on that score.
Respecting ceremonies, because they are things indifferent, the churches have a certain latitude of diversity. And when one has well weighed the matter, it may be sometimes considered useful not to have too rigid a uniformity respecting them, in order to show that faith and christianity do not consist in that. Nevertheless those who have informed you that, from curiosity or other motives, I have introduced a new mode, have not made a correct statement. My brother Master William Farel is present here, who can moreover bear witness, that before my arrival at Geneva, the manner of celebrating the Lord’s supper, baptism, marriage, and the festivals, was such as it is at present, without my having changed any thing. So that it is impossible on these points to attribute to me any thing that has originated with me.
The form of marriage has always remained in its original state, and I follow the order which I found established like one who takes no pleasure in making innovations. On our expulsion from Geneva, they changed the form of the bread, and though that was done in a disorderly and tumultuous manner, notwithstanding, to keep up peace and harmony, we retain the unleavened bread according to the usage which you have established here.
In one thing we differ, but the difference is not an innovation. We celebrate the Lord’s supper four times a year, and you thrice. Now would to God, messeigneurs, that both you and we had a more frequent use of it. For we see in the Acts of the Apostles by Saint Luke that in the primitive church they communicated much oftener. And that custom continued in the ancient church during a long space of time, till the abomination of the mass was devised by Satan, and was the cause why people communicated but once or twice a year. Wherefore we must confess that it is a defect in us not to follow the example of the Apostles.
Touching baptism, we maintain the form such as it was before I came to Geneva. After our expulsion from that city, baptismal fonts were erected. On my return, it would not have been difficult for me, I believe, to have had them pulled down. On the contrary, I have had to endure much reproach because I wished them to remain. And of that I ask no better witness than our brother, Master Peter Viret. But I must remind you that in the greater temple baptism was administered even during my absence from the pulpit. And in truth the baptismal fonts were placed in such a situation, as to occasion the sacrament of baptism to be despised and turned into derision; we baptize when the sermon is over, and the font stood in the way where the people pass out around it. There was thus a bustle and confusion. Nevertheless the form observed is the same which it has always been; there is thus no reason for taking offence, and least of all for throwing any blame on me.
As to festival days, they were abolished at Geneva before I left France; and those who had procured their abolition, were actuated by no spirit of contention or spite, but solely by the desire of abolishing the superstition which had been so prevalent in Popery. For which reason, messeigneurs, you should not feel offended, as if that measure had tended to sow discord between your churches and that of Geneva, though for the innovation I am personally irresponsible. For the rest, my writings bear witness to my sentiments on these points, for in them I declare that a church is not to be despised or condemned, because it observes more festival days than the others. From this recent abolition of feast days, here is what has resulted. Not a year has passed without some quarrel and bickering, because the people were divided, and to such a degree as to draw their swords.
Meanwhile we have done what we ought, to appease these troubles. The most feasible means that could be devised for that purpose, seemed to be to keep the holy day in the morning, and open the shops in the afternoon, though this plan did not much remedy the evil. For several thoughtless persons failed not to fall foul of one another. So that for the last time entreating and exhorting the Council of the two hundred to redress this abuse, I begged them, among other things, to be pleased to conform as much as possible to the order established among you for the purpose of keeping up a good understanding. Judge then of my astonishment when I learned what had been decided in the general Council, without my knowing that such a question had been entertained by it. Of that I can produce a goodly number of competent witnesses.
And notwithstanding all that, worshipful and most honorable Seigneurs, I pray you to consider two things. The first is that when we believe that we are serving God in observing certain days, we are chargeable with a superstition contrary to his word; and yet this belief has taken such root among the people, that they can scarcely be turned from it. The second is that what is commonly styled Annunciation day is held by the greater number to be a feast of our Lady, in which belief there is idolatry. And would to God that every thing were rightly considered for the edification of the Church. But at all events I do not deserve to be accused of all that, considering I have no hand in it.
I am reproached with having created a new feast on the Wednesday. In this I am sadly wronged. For the magistracy of Geneva have indeed, by my exhortation, set apart one day in the week to offer up extraordinary prayers, as necessity and the exigencies of the times should require it. And on that day we pray for you and the other churches who are in need of it.
But we carry on our usual labors on that day; and besides we have not so constantly established a certain day as not to select now one, now another, just as the magistrates shall deem proper for their convenience. But a more serious charge is involved in the rumor that they have diligently spread about, of my intentions to transfer the Lord’s day to the Friday. The truth is, that, for my part, I have never shown the least sign of lusting after such innovations, but very much the contrary.
It has also reached my ears that there are murmurings about the catechism.
Now when I composed the catechism, of which we make use, it was because no other undertook the task. I put it to your preachers whether the doctrine contained in it be pure and sound. I have no doubts but they will make a favorable report respecting it, and that you will find my labor has greatly profited, and continues to profit, the Church of God.
Wherefore, right worshipful, puissant, and honorable lords, I pray you not to give ear to the false or frivolous reports which are spread abroad about me. I have endeavored, wherever my lot has cast me, faithfully to serve God and his church, and further the reign of Jesus Christ. You were ignorant, I believe, of that zeal which was in me. And if I have always walked in simplicity and straightforwardness, be persuaded that God has given me grace to persevere in the same train. And should you find any thing to be reproved in me, doubt not, as often as you shall be pleased to remind me, of my readiness to make answer to whatever points shall be required of me. The only favor I ask of you is never to refuse me an opportunity of clearing my character and making my apology before you.
At the same time I beg you to consider that hitherto God has made use of my instrumentality, and in all likelihood will continue to do so, that according to my slender capacity, I labor continually to combat the enemies of the faith, and lay myself out entirely to the best of my abilities to further the spread of the gospel. Thus may it please your excellencies like good christian princes, whom the prophet Isaiah styles nursing-fathers of the church, to hold out to me a helping hand and support me against malignants and detractors, rather than suffer me to be aggrieved by them. But I ask of you no favor save on this condition, that you find in me a good and loyal servant of God.
I pray you also, my lords, to mark well, who are the persons among your preachers that have intercourse with me. For they are well known to you, and have proved themselves so faithful, that you ought not to have any doubts on their account. I make this remark in order that their intimacy and friendship with us do not make them suspected. For we are not people to hatch plots or intrigues, or breed factious discontents. We aim at nothing but to lend one another mutual aid as in duty bound, and to see that many persons who desire only ruin, disturbance, or scandal, be not permitted to molest those who only seek to accomplish the functions of this office.
It would be impossible to allege a single point in which I have wished to usurp or draw importance to myself. But there are persons who are insatiable after my ruin, and who figure to themselves that I have absolute sway, if they cannot trample me under foot. Now I entreat you so much the more to maintain the fraternity and union which ought to exist between the ministers of the gospel, and to take away the scandal which is but too common of seeing the appearance of division and discord among us. For the better information you shall have on these subjects, the more you will find that I have just motives of complaint against those who have striven by every means, to prevent me from serving the glory of God and providing for the well being of the church.
And now, having presented your excellencies with the vindication of myself, I shall make bold to supplicate you in favor of a person whose banishment from your territory you lately ordained. The person in question, my lords, is one who fears God and is the most peaceable of men. As to the sermon which he preached, when you shall have duly examined it, you will, I trust, lay aside any displeasure which you may have entertained against him. He has come from a distant country; he has a wife, modest, of exemplary conduct, and good reputation like himself.
Wherefore, my lords, I humbly pray that you would be pleased to recall the act of his banishment, and you will be convinced at last that in thus raising my voice in his favor I have not made a rash report.
Complaints Drawn up by Calvin, and Presented to the Seigneury of Berne, Against Master Andrew Zebedee, Preacher of Nyon.
In a sermon which the said Zebedee preached at the marriage of the Seigneur de Cran’s son, handling the subject of Christ’s permitting the devils to take possession of the swine, he declared that those who teach that, whatsoever things fall out by God’s permission, are done according to his will, put forth an error more mischievous and damnable than the mass, and all the abominations of Popery; that it is most disgraceful for the magistrate to countenance so pestilential a doctrine, which exposes to damnation millions of souls; that its promulgators are not obscure people, on the contrary their books are spread abroad: and held in such repute, that every body is perverted by them. Now though the name of Calvin was not pronounced, the audience had no difficulty in perceiving that he was glanced at, and the preacher himself in private did not deny it.
Against Master John Lange, Preacher Of Bursin.
In the congregation of Rolle, after having given an account of ancient heretics, he added that a certain person who has composed a commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, in asserting that Jesus Christ feared to be swallowed up in death, has shown a desire to destroy the belief in his divinity. For if Jesus Christ had known fear, it follows that he is not God.
And he insisted in such a manner on this head, that Calvin was dearly understood to be pointed at. Whereupon the ministers of the class felt themselves called upon publicly to resist the preacher, and declare, that Calvin, who had faithfully labored for the church, deserved not to be stigmatized as a heretic, adding that the discourse which Lange had held, was a manifest error, and contrary to the principles of our faith. And that his intention might be more certainly appreciated, Lange boasted that if he had five or six champions like himself he would lead the said Calvin a dance – who is nothing but a heretic, as he calls him.
Against Zebedee and Lange Conjointly.
Because the aforesaid persons have here presented articles full of falsehoods and calumnies; to wit, the articles of which their excellencies, the lords of Berne, have transmitted a copy to our lords and superiors, to obtain a confirmation of the said articles from the latter. For the ministers of the Church of Geneva have replied to them, as has been stated, and as a copy of their answer has been produced here. Moreover the aforesaid persons have circulated and published other articles quite different, in which they affirm, that Calvin makes God the author of sin, and lay to the charge of the ministers of Geneva horrible accusations.
Against Bastien Foncelet.
Having fled from the city of Geneva in consequence of his misdeeds, he has written most defamatory letters on the subject of a marriage which he pretends to have taken place with a woman whose husband was then alive.
These and similar reports he has spread, both against the doctrine preached at Geneva which he calls heresy, and against the city and its government which he represents as a carnal and spiritual Sodom – affirming that it is a city noted for cruelty and the persecution of the faith of Christ. With many other base outrages, he moreover gives out, every now and then, that Calvin is a heretic.
Against Jerome Bolsec, Physician At Bolsec.
After his return from Berne, he boasted that he had there maintained Calvin to be a heretic. Previously he had declared that Servetus had been put to death most unjustly at Geneva, and not satisfied with calumniating him, keeps singing up and down a song full of infamous scurrilities against the said Calvin.
Against Peter Desplans and his Wife, Resident at Rolle.
In the presence of sixteen persons they have declared, that in the magistracy of Geneva they found neither law nor justice, that Calvin is a heretic, and caused himself to be adored. Some time after, before the Lord Bailiff, and in the presence of thirty persons, they declared their intention to prove the said Calvin to be a heretic.
(John Calvin, Selected Works of John Calvin, Tracts and Letters, Henry Beveridge and Jules Bonnet, ed., Vol. 6, Letters, Part 3, 1554-1558, pp. pp. 162-169.)