Regnum Potentiae


What would a Reformed Puritanesque Easter look like?

March 22, 2013

Easter Sunday is fast approaching and many churches are preparing themselves for that special day where all will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Given the resurgent interest in the Puritans within the "New Calvinism" I thought it might be fun to ask ourselves what would a Puritan Easter service look like? In what ways might it be special compared to other services week to week?

On many modern day issues we have no actual record of what the Puritans actually thought on the topic. They didn't directly write on topics like "Homosexual Marriage", or "Ordination of Women" and so we're left to infer from their other writings what they might have thought. Is that true of Easter as well?

Fortunately for us, the Puritans were not silent on the topic of Easter. In fact, it's quite easy for us to know exactly how a Puritanesque Easter worship service would compare to any other week. In their Directory of Public Worship, the Westminster divines said the following:

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.Westminster Confession of Faith, Free Presbyterian Publications (Glasgow: Bell and Bain Ltd., 1997) p. 394)

But how do we know that they considered "Easter" to be a "Holy-day"? In 1647, following the directory, the Parliament passed an ordinance outlawing the celebration of "the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals commonly called holy" on account of their lacking any biblical warrant."Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide and other festivals commonly called holy have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed ordained that the said feasts and all other festivals holy days be no longer observed as festivals any law statute custom constitution or canon to the contrary in anywise notwithstanding."(The history of the Puritans, or Protestant nonconformists: from the reformation in 1517 to the revolution in 1688, David Neal (London: Thomas Tegg and Son, 1837), p. 458)

Coming from an American Evangelical tradition that puts such an emphasis upon these "holy" days as special, it is hard to imagine anyone condemning the celebration of Jesus' resurrection. However, this condemnation was commonplace among the early reformers and continued generally to be the standard practice among reformed people until the late eighteenth century and in many places even later. A couple of examples therefore might be in order.

In Calvin's Geneva on November 16 1550, the civil magistrate issued issued an edit which decreed "the abrogation of all festivals, with the exception of Sundays, which God had ordained."The Register of the Company of Pastors in the Time of Calvin, Philip E. Hughes, ed. and trans. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966) p. 130 This ban on festival days (which included Christmas and Easter) caused something of an uproar, and Calvin was denounced by many as the instigator of the actions. Initially Calvin was hesitant about the edict because he feared that "sudden change" might provoke a storm which might impede the further reformation of the Church. However once it had happened, he wrote in a letter that, "although I have neither been the mover nor instigator to it, yet, since it has so happened, I am not sorry for it."Letters of John Calvin (Jules Bonnet, ed.; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), Vol. 2, pp. 288-89

In Scotland, the opposition to such days was even more intense. In 1560 when Knox and several others came together to write the Scottish Book of Discipline, they included the following:

By the contrary doctrine, we understand whatsoever men, by Laws, Councils, or Constitutions have imposed upon the consciences of men, without the expressed commandment of God's word; such as be the vows of chastity, forswearing of marriage, binding of men and women to several disguised apparels, to the superstitious observation of fasting days, difference of meat for conscience sake, prayer for the dead; and keeping of holy days of certain saints commanded by men, such as be all those the papists have invented, as the Feasts (as they term them) of Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and others fond feasts of our Lady: which things, because in God's Scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm, affirming farther, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the Civil MagistrateWorks of John Knox Vol. 2, Edited by David Laing (Edinburgh, James Thin 1841) p. 185-186

Many more authors could be brought up to illustrate this fact, but a single more will suffice. Martin Bucer the great reformer in Strasbourg, in his commentary on Matthew 12 writes the following:

I would to God that every holy day whatsoever besides the Lord's day were abolished. That zeal which brought them first in, was without all warrant of the word, and merely followed corrupt reason, forsooth to drive out the holy days of the pagans, as one nail drives out another. quoted in A Fresh Suite Against Ceremonies, William Ames (Rotterdam, 1633) p 360

Hopefully these quotations sufficiently illustrate what the prevailing doctrine of the times were, but what biblical basis did these reformers offer for their beliefs? The primary objection, which I think should be evident from the above quotations, was that there was no biblical basis for such a celebration in the first place. Such celebrations were without the warrant of the word, having never been commanded or approved for the worship of God. Those who desired to institute holy days other than those commanded in the Word were often compared to the Jeroboam and Ahaz, the idolatrous kings of ancient Israel.

Jeroboam for example was afraid that if the people were only allowed to offer sacrifices to YHWH only at Jerusalem that the people would turn their back on him, and return to Rehoboam the king of Judah (1Kings 12:27). To prevent this from occurring he built two golden calves and placed them in the north and in the south of the country, and offered them as an alternative place to go and worship. This was not however an attempt to draw Israel after other gods, but rather an attempt to get Israel to worship the one true God in an unlawful way. Matthew Henry explains it thusly:

He intended, no doubt, by these to represent, or rather make present, not any false god, as Moloch or Chemosh, but the true God only, the God of Israel, the God that brought them up out of the land of Egypt, as he declares, v. 28. So that it was no violation of the first commandment, but the second. And he chose thus to engage the people's devotion because he knew there were many among them so in love with images that for the sake of the calves they would willingly quit God's temple, where all images were forbidden.Matthew's Complete Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, retrieved from

Further, Jeroboam also instituted a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month, similar to a feast which was also in Judah where the people were to come and offer sacrifices to the one true God. However the Scriptures seem to condemn such a creation, saying that it had been "devised in his own heart"(1Kings 12:33).

Similarly, King Ahaz while visiting Damascus seems to have been so impressed with an altar that was used there that he sent its design to Urijah the priest so that he might be able to build a similar one (2Kings 16:10). Urijah then made the altar, and then upon his return Ahaz proceeded to offer the sacrifices required by the Lord, but on an altar that the Lord had not commanded him to build.

Against the Catholics the reformers held that the Church had no authority to add anything to worship which God had not himself commanded. They believed that anything not explicitly commanded is forbidden, and to add anything to worship is idolatry and as such sinful. Although there were many places in the Word which they would go to show this, the locus classicus seems to have been Deuteronomy 12:29-32 which reads:

29When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land,30take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.'31You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.32Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.

They noted that the primary issue of idolatry here was not that the people would to take the gods of the other nations and worship them. Rather the concern of God seems to be that they would observe how the pagans worshiped their gods, and that the people would try and worship Him in that way. Hence "You shall not worship YHWH your God in that way"(Deut. 12:31). God then explicitly specifies what forms of worship are acceptable in His sight by saying "whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it"(Deut. 12:32). Hence the only valid forms of worship are those which God explicitly commands, and the people can not add to those commands, nor take away from them.

John Owen gives a helpful summary of the Reformed position at this point:

Take them, then, in their general aim and intention, that which these and the like testimonies unanimously speak unto us in this, that the will of God is the sole rule of his worship in a religious manner; and consequently that he never did, nor ever will, allow that the wills of his creatures should be the rule or measure of his honor or worship, nor that their authority should cause any thing to hold a new relation unto him, or any other but what it hath by the law of its creation. And this is the sum and substance of the second commandment, wherein so great a cloud of expositor do center their thoughts, that it will not be easy for any to withstand them; so that the other texts produced are express to all the particulars of the assertions laid down may be easily evinced.The Works of John Owen, vol 15 (Pennsylvania, Banner of Truth Trust 1976) pp.38-39

So then what would a puritanesque "Easter" service look like? The same as the service on any other Lord's Day. While they wouldn't be opposed to altering the circumstances of worship (ensuring there are enough bulletins to accommodate extra people, etc) they would insist that any elemental recognition of holy days of man's invention would be the introduction of idols into the worship of God.