How the Reformation (Almost) Killed Christmas

New England Puritans, in 1659, sought to ban Christmas celebrations, as they were thought to be “Satanic practices.” Only the most contrarian Christians are that severe today. How did Christmas win against Puritan opposition?

It was Christmas Day, 1550, in Geneva, Switzerland. A larger than usual crowd gathered at church that day, and the preacher, John Calvin, was rather annoyed.

“Now I see here today more people than I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas Day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel.”

Calvin was not exactly trying to be like Charles Dickens’ Scrooge. Instead, he was bothered that so many of his church people were so superstitious, that they thought Christmas to be more important than the weekly Lord’s Day gatherings, held every Sunday. Calvin would be appalled by the contemporary practice of keeping shops open on Sundays, while closing those same shops on Christmas!

Calvin was not alone in his suspicions about Christmas, with some seeking to kill Christmas altogether. From Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich, Switzerland, to the post-Elizabethan era of English Puritanism, in the early 17th century, many in the Reformation movement sought to abolish all feast and saints holy days… including Christmas.  The Bible gave no command and made no explicit provision for celebrating Christmas, and the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating Christmas was associated with so many superstitious beliefs (kissing under the mistletoe?), that it was better to be rid of all things that even hinted at “ole’ Saint Nick.” Even in colonial America, the Puritan settlers of New England sought to ban Christmas celebrations outright.

On the other hand, the German Reformer, Martin Luther, was one of the holdouts, who liked keeping Christmas traditions. Since the Bible never specifically prohibited Christmas celebrations, he saw no reason to forbid them. Luther gave his children toys and honey cakes on Christmas day. He popularized the Christmas tree. But for the English forebearers of Protestant reform, inspired by those like Geneva’s John Calvin, few Bible preachers and teachers on the British Isles cared that much for Christmas.

It was mainly during the long reign of Elizabeth I, the 16th century “Virgin Queen,” that Christmas managed to hang on, and even flourish, among the Protestant English. Christmas was a festive time at Elizabeth’s court.

Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603). The queen who saved Christmas for English Christians.

Elizabeth was determined to steer a middle course between the traditionalism of Roman Catholicism, which she abhorred, and the exuberant, reform-minded preaching of the Puritans, who wanted to strip the legacy of choral music, candles, and visual arts from the churches. The 1559 Elizabethan Settlement sought to marry Protestant theology with a collection of traditional, Roman Catholic worship practices. Elizabeth’s Protestant, yet not-so-rigid faith, gave space for the continued celebration of Christmas, during the tumult of the 16th century Reformation. Despite the efforts by Puritan partisans, to stamp out Romish traditions, the English populace loved Christmas.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the red hot conflict between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism had finally begun to cool somewhat, and the Elizabethan embrace of Christmas eventually won over even ardently skeptical Bible-believers. The less confessionally-oriented growth of the evangelical movement, started by popular evangelists, like George Whitfield and John Wesley, made it possible once more for enthusiastic Protestants to consider Christmas as a genuinely Christian celebration, among English-speaking peoples. Towards the end of the 19th century, the popularity of English Christmas carols, ranging from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” to “O Holy Night,” to “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” helped to cement the reception of Christmas among English-speaking Christians.

Christmas did not merely survive. It thrived.

I am very much a child of the Reformation, sola fide, sola gratia, and all of the rest. Yet even though I do get rather burned out on the barrage of Christmas carols on the radio and in shopping malls, by about mid-December, I am nevertheless thankful that the Protestant Reformation did not ultimately succeed in killing off Christmas. In our increasingly secular American society, Christmas is still a festive time of year, where even the most skeptical non-believers are willing to enjoy a Christian celebration. Sure, many have no real understanding of the meaning of Christmas. Yet some are open to discuss spiritual things. Thanks to folks like Martin Luther (for Germans) and Queen Elizabeth I (for the English), the season of Christmas remains a time of year where we can focus on the mystery of God’s incarnate mission and presence on earth, through Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

For a broader look at the “War on Christmas” in history, read this Veracity posting from a few years ago.

The Williamsburg Inn, at Colonial Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination, 2017, celebrating the coming of the Christ, during the Christmas Advent season.


Ravi Zacharias and Christian Integrity

Jesus Among Secular Gods, by Ravi Zacharias and Vince Vitale. One of Ravi Zacharias’ wonderful books….(just, please, do not call him “Doctor”)

I have been an enthusiast for the apologetics ministry of Ravi Zacharias for several years. So, I feel compelled to respond to recent allegations of impropriety, as reported in ChristianityToday magazine.

Ravi Zacharias, his radio program Let My People Think, and his ministry, RZIM.org, have blessed the church with excellent materials in Christian apologetics. Our church was edified when Ravi came as a guest speaker several years ago, and I personally have taught several Adult Bible Classes, using Ravi’s material. Long-time Veracity readers will observe that we link to RZIM resources multiple times. I am still encouraged by the quality of Ravi’s work and ministry, for the sake of the Gospel.

I am therefore disappointed to learn of the recent allegations, that Ravi has misrepresented his academic credentials, over the years. I knew that Ravi had a Master of Divinity degree, but that he never has pursued an academic doctoral program, of any sort. However, he has received “Honorary Doctorates”. What I did not realize, is that this has led a number of Christians to mistakenly refer to Mr. Ravi Zacharias as “Dr.” Ravi Zacharias.

RZIM has responded that it has been customary, in certain cultures, where Ravi goes, that they refer to him as “Doctor,” out of a sign of respect for elders. This is evidently so. But it is inappropriate to go by the status of “Doctor,” in all cultural contexts. This may not be a big deal for some people, but I would disagree.

Truth matters, folks.

In an American context, calling someone “Doctor” gives the mistaken impression that the individual has earned an academic degree, when it was actually only an honorary degree. The two are not equivalent. If someone practicing medicine claims to be a “Doctor,” but has not an earned degree, this would be misleading. The same standard ought to apply to Christians who pursue academic work, to further a ministry. So, it is disturbing to learn that RZIM itself did not immediately and thoroughly self-correct this issue, when it was first raised two years ago, in 2015.

There are a few other issues, brought out below, in the video by the Steve Baugham, who describes himself as the “Friendly Banjo Atheist.” You can read RZIM.org’s response to some of the allegations (noted also in the Christianity Today article), Christian blogger Warren Throckmorton’s research, and Mr. Baugham’s video and other materials, and make your own assessments. As to the allegations with respect to the Canadian couple, there is just something weird going on there, that I can not fully grasp. I find there are several lessons to be learned from this most unfortunate situation:

  • First, Christian leaders should stop the continued practice of accepting the title of “Doctor,” when it is only honorary degrees that have been conferred, and not PhDs.  This practice is misleading, and Christian leaders should act in a manner that is above reproach. Politely demurring is good, but insufficient. Public, academic records should be set straight.
  • Secondly, as the Scriptures teach (Romans 3:23), all of us have failed at different points in our lives. Ravi Zacharias is no exception. Neither am I. Neither are you.
  • Thirdly, Christians should be on the forefront of telling the truth. Waiting for critics, like the “Friendly Banjo Atheist”, to point out our faults, is not good enough. Waiting two years before fully addressing problems with claims of misrepresentation and fact-checking issues, even if it was inadvertent, is not good enough. As apologist Randal Rauser writes, “When it comes to effective apologetics, it is important to have clear, concise, and logically valid arguments with plausible premises. It’s also important to have good rhetoric, a touch of humor, savvy cultural awareness, and a dollop of self-deprecation….While that is all important, the most important aspect of any effective apologetic is credibility. Credibility depends on demonstrable integrity. And integrity depends on conduct that is absolutely above reproach.”  An apologetics ministry, no matter how good it is, that raises questions regarding personal trust, actually undermines itself.
  • Fourthly, the whole business of admirers calling Ravi “Doctor,” has been completely unnecessary. The effectiveness of Ravi’s ministry stands on the quality of his arguments, reasoning, and rhetoric, not by misleading claims of holding certain academic credentials, that he never did. Ravi has his own issues, yes. But I find it disturbing that a radio listening and book reading Christian audience lacks the basic skills of spiritual discernment, that should insist on fact-checking sources and upholding standards of accountability.

I had the privilege of meeting Ravi Zacharias, when he visited Williamsburg, and our church, those few years ago. I found him to be a most gracious, genuine, and caring man. He is on the “front-lines” for the Gospel, so it comes as no surprise that he would have critics.

Steve Baugham may have an axe to grind, but nevertheless, the grist for the mill has at least some substance. The current crisis Ravi Zacharias is experiencing is surely painful, and those who have benefited from his work should earnestly pray for him, and the rest of the RZIM ministry team. This is not an unrecoverable situation. Contrary to Baugham’s conclusion, at the end of his video, I personally believe that this is an opportunity for RZIM to make something right out of this. Let us pray that Ravi, and those who work with him, will learn these painful lessons and do the right thing.

UPDATE: December 7, 2017. RZIM’s public statement on the federal lawsuit.

ANOTHER UPDATE: December 7, 2017

Also, if you check the Wayback machine, for June 26,2016, for the Oxford Centre, an Christian study center in Oxford, England, you will see that under endorsements, it lists “Dr. Ravi Zacharias” and  “Revd Professor Alister McGrath.” This is altogether strange, as Ravi has no PhD, and Alister McGrath has several. RZIM helped to start the Oxford Centre. Why would Ravi be listed as “Dr.,” but not Alister McGrath? Thankfully, the Oxford Centre has since fixed the issue. But it leaves open the question as to why the folks at RZIM, who probably were the ones who put up the website, let this error go unnoticed and uncorrected, for so long? Ah… this is frustrating!

A BETTER UPDATE: December 8, 2017

I made contact with someone at RZIM (Vince Vitale) to discuss the academic credential issue. I report on this really good conversation, as an addendum, to a related post, published earlier this year.


Lady Jane Grey: A Protestant Martyr

Though the legendary 1833 portrait, by French Romantic artist Paul Delaroche, is somewhat sensationalized, the story of Lady Jane Grey’s execution reveals a young woman with great faith in Christ.

The history of the Reformation was written largely by men, about men. But women often played a crucial role in the spiritual turmoil of 16th century Western Europe. What led to the execution of Lady Jane Grey is one of those stories.

King Henry VIII made it his life goal to obtain a male heir to the English throne. He finally had one son, Edward, who did succeed him. But Edward VI suffered terrible health problems, and he died at age 15, in 1553, after serving as king only since the age of 9.

Anticipating the worst ahead of time, Henry VIII had made provision that his oldest daughter, Mary, would succeed Edward VI, in the event Edward’s illnesses might eventually shorten his life. But young Edward VI had other ideas of his own.

Edward VI had been raised by Protestant tutors, and he firmly held to an evangelical faith. His older half-sister, Mary, was a devoted Catholic. Edward VI did not want England to be ruled by a Catholic queen. He did have a cousin, not too much older than himself, who might be a better fit for Protestant England. Lady Jane Grey had received an education similar to Edward’s, sharing his firm Protestant faith.

Edward’s adult Protestant advisors had steered the Church of England away from Roman Catholicism, in a more Reformed, Protestant direction. Edward feared that Mary would undo these changes, and he had good reason for his fears. He trusted that Lady Jane would keep England on a Protestant course, so he made arrangements for Lady Jane to succeed him, upon his death.

Mary I, Catholic queen of England, who cut short the reign of Lady Jane Grey.

Lady Jane Grey became queen, once Edward die. But the political bickering erupted, and she did not remain queen for long. The young teenage queen had become a pawn in the hands of those who sought great power and influence. Mary, recalling her father’s wishes, asserted her right to become queen. In less than a couple of weeks, Lady Jane Grey had been deposed, and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

However, this is where the story takes on a more spiritual, rather than political, significance. Lady Jane Grey was directly opposed to Mary’s Catholicism. Viewing Lady Jane as a threat, Mary sought to have Lady Jane executed. But in hopes of persuading Lady Jane to disabuse herself of her Protestant ideas, Mary sent her personal chaplain, a man named Fecknam, to go see Lady Jane Grey, to see if she might recant and return to Catholicism. John Foxe, in his Book of Martyrs, recalls the record of the conversation that took place.

            Fecknam.–“What is … required of a Christian man?”

            Jane.–“That he should believe in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God.”

            Fecknam.–“What? Is there nothing else to be required or looked for in a Christian, but to believe in him?”

            Jane.–“Yes, we must love him with all our heart, with all our soul, and with all our mind, and our neighbour as ourself.”

            Fecknam.–“Why? then faith justifieth not, nor saveth not.”

            Jane.–“Yes verily, faith, as Paul saith, only justifieth.”

            Fecknam.–“Why? St. Paul saith, If I have all faith without love, it is nothing.”

            Jane.–“True it is; for how can I love him whom I trust not, or how can I trust him whom I love not? Faith and love go both together, and yet love is comprehended in faith.”

When Fecknam quizzed Jane on the subject of the Lord’s Supper, she responded with equal firmness:

            Jane. The sacrament of the Lord’s supper, offered unto me, is a sure seal and testimony that I am, by the blood of Christ, which he shed for me on the cross, made partaker of the everlasting kingdom.”

            Fecknam.” Why? what do you receive in that sacrament? Do you not receive the very body and blood of Christ?”

            Jane.–“No surely, I do not so believe. I think that at the supper I neither receive flesh nor blood, but bread and wine: which bread when it is broken, and the wine when it is drunken, put me in remembrance how that for my sins the body of Christ was broken, and his blood shed on the cross; and with that bread and wine I receive the benefits that come by the breaking of his body, and shedding of his blood, for our sins on the cross.”

            Fecknam.–“Why, doth not Christ speak these words, Take, eat, this is my body? Require you any plainer words? Doth he not say, it is his body?”

            Jane.–“I grant he saith so; and so he saith, I am the vine, I am the door; but he is never the more for that the door or the vine. Doth not St. Paul say, He calleth things that are not, as though they were? God forbid that I should say, that I eat the very natural body and blood of Christ: for then either I should pluck away my redemption, or else there were two bodies, or two Christs. One body was tormented on the cross, and if they did eat another body, then had he two bodies: or if his body were eaten, then was it not broken upon the cross; or if it were broken upon the cross, it was not eaten of his disciples.”

Fecknam was unable to persuade the 16 year old teenager to reconsider, and finally gave up.

After this, Fecknam took his leave, saying, that he was sorry for her: “For I am sure,” quoth he, “that we two shall never meet.”

            Jane.–“True it is,” said she, “that we shall never meet, except God turn your heart; for I am assured, unless you repent and turn to God, you are in an evil case. And I pray God, in the bowels of his mercy, to send you his Holy Spirit; for he hath given you his great gift of utterance, if it pleased him also to open the eyes of your heart.”

Two days later, Lady Jane Grey was led to the scaffold, where she recited Psalm 51. She handed off her prayer book to another person, and then received the blindfold. Unable to see, she was not able to reach out to the executioner’s stone block. Fecknam himself is said to have assisted her, in placing her hands on the block, as she laid her neck upon the stone. The axe ended her life just moments later.


John Calvin and the Servetus Affair

John Calvin (1509-1564)

For some people, when they think of John Calvin, they think of predestination. Specifically, it would be the doctrine of double predestination, popularized by later followers of Calvin, whereby God elects some for salvation, and others for damnation. But in many quarters, Calvin is remembered differently, some negatively and to others, most positively (Listen to John Piper’s poem extolling “The Calvinist”). Continue reading


Your Mortgage, The Reformation, and the “Spirit of Capitalism”

For most people, if you want to buy your own home, you need to take out a mortgage. Or if you buy a new car, a car loan is necessary to make it happen. Most Christians, that I know, think nothing of this practice today. Several Christian friends of mine are even loan officers at different mortgage firms. But prior to the Reformation in the 16th century, it would have been unthinkable for a Christian to loan money out to other people at interest.

The Western medieval church banned the practice of Christians loaning out money to others, and charging interest, through a series of church councils, such as the Second and Third Lateran Council (1139 and 1179) and the Council of Vienna (1314). If you were ever convicted of making loans and charging interest, you could be even denied a Christian burial.

Why did the medieval church do this? Well, they thought that the Bible forbade the practice, which was called “usury.”

Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit.“(Leviticus 25:36-37ESV)
“He who walks blamelessly and does what is right…who does not put out his money at interest… He who does these things shall never be moved.“(Psalm 15:2-5 ESV)

Forbidding usury has its roots in the Old Testament, something that Muhammed picked up as well in Islam, which is why Sharia law also forbids loaning money to other people, and charging interest.

Even Martin Luther, early in the 16th century Reformation, condemned the practice, urging instead that Christians should loan money out to their neighbor gladly, at no charge:

“After the devil there is no greater human enemy on earth than a miser and usurer, for he desires to be above everyone.”

There were some caveats to this restriction against usury, however. While Christians were forbidden to make interest-bearing loans out to other Christians, the same did not apply to non-believers. Thus, European Jews were allowed to loan money out and charge interest. While this gave European Jews career opportunities, it is also fed into growing antisemitic sentiment, with tragic consequences. If you felt like you were being mistreated by your loan officer, or lender, then you could easily just “blame the Jews.”

However, attitudes towards usury began to shift once John Calvin, the Reformer in Geneva, Switzerland, came along in the mid-16th century. In a 1545 letter to a friend, John Calvin put it like this:

“We ought not to judge usury according to a few passages of Scripture, but in accordance with the principle of equity.”

For John Calvin, not every commandment for Old Testament Israel was applicable to the New Testament Christina. Furthermore, the foundational principle that the usury prohibitions were trying to get at, was to protect against the exploitation of the poor. You get a hint of where Calvin was going, by looking at other passages in the Bible, such as:

“If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him“(Exodus 22:25 ESV)

Calvin therefore taught that charging interest for money loans, in principle, was perfectly acceptable. What should be forbidden was the charging of excessive interest, thus redefining the traditional meaning of “usury.”

Calvin’s ideas were not immediately accepted, as some believed that Calvin was shying away from the “clear” teaching of the Bible. But Calvin was not ultimately labeled as a being some kind of “liberal,” a charge often brought up against someone today, who might suggest that a traditional Bible interpretation be rethought. Nearly 500 years later, Calvin’s views about usury are standard among nearly all Christians. You can be a home mortgage loan officer, or work at a bank that does car loans, but you can not be a “loan-shark,” who charges exorbitant interest rates to exploit the desperate and needy.

Changes like these, in how Reformers, like John Calvin, read the Bible, is what impressed the late 19th century German sociologist, Max Weber, to write his classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Many of us grew up hearing about Weber’s “Protestant work ethic,” and its association with capitalism. Today, economists and historians dismiss many elements of Weber’s thesis. But it is difficult to imagine how the modern banking system, with home mortgages, car loans, and credit cards, would ever have emerged, if John Calvin had not re-examined the meaning of “usury” in the Bible.

So, the next time you make your mortgage payment, and you are grateful that it allows you to live in your own home, just remember to thank the Reformer, John Calvin.

This blog post inspired by reading Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought.


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