I have a pet peeve: Christian ministers making stuff up for pastoral purposes. Admittedly, I am myself a pet peeve. Too often I’m saying with some chagrin, “Well, the Standards; actually the Confession; in both Catechisms.” Both these people vex me. I avoid them.
PCA ministers have taken vows. We have Standards– other than industry standards. PCA courts carry legitimacy– within the parameters of bundled, collated and specific propositions. We are confessional– like a chef is an expert in fundamental public hygiene, food safety and practical chemistry. If Auguste Gusteau wants to microdose Friday night’s hollandaise and place it on the menu as “Holy Daze Sauce,” I might chuckle. I won’t eat.
It is irritating when men blow past submitting to our Standards while flourishing agreement with our Standards. I agree with a good bit of stuff in a large number of books. I submit to the authority of the PCA, and so I submit to the Standards. I carry 3 exceptions, and I have pondered them for twenty years with some development. I have never acted according to those exceptions, and I have never advocated for them as adiaphora to be indulged.
I do not know if the Missouri Presbytery of the PCA recorded an exception regarding the Christian Year at the ordination of Rev. Timothy R. Lecroy, Ph.D. I have expressed my concern to him, and the doubt prompted about the confessional health of the PCA. I will link you to that Open Letter, at the end. Incentive, I guess? Here, I am opposing his public advocacy for his position. Go read it. It’s brief and well written.
Mr. Lecroy is learned, intelligent and warm hearted. I have known him, though not as intimates, for 20 years. I think highly of the man and have commended his work to others who share his view. Because of our close connection years ago, I became a fan. The practices, for which he argues, ought not be performed in the PCA. The rationale by which he has commended them (in the past at least) ought not be taught in the PCA.
I am not hereby commenting on every other minister who does something somewhat similar. I am commenting on any minister who promulgates the Christian Year as a needful or powerful tool of sanctification similar in effect to the sacraments. I’m not telling Tim to leave the PCA. Indirectly, I’m asking him if his views on the use and value of the Christian year are truly secondary or tertiary.
If they are, then he can stop implementing them and teaching them in the PCA. If he were to convince me that he is correct (imaginable), the question would then be on my head: are these things sufficiently unimportant, so that I can conform to the Standards in practice and teaching? Or should I seek another communion?
I am not attempting here to meet his discussion point for point. His article, "Advent Is Not Christmas: Part 1" does not give an entire and demonstrative case. Actually, he only narrates the plausibility of his case. I do fear that mere plausibility may be enough in the world of party presbyterianism. I reply in three parts.
I unravel the plausibility which he has neatly arranged under three headings.
I criticize his claims of charity in pitching this controversy.
I repeat his past rationale for the use of the Christian Year, which deserves attention.
The Church Year is Grounded in God’s Word
Like women’s ordination. We just got some verses to address and adjust.
Shall we contextualize? Colossians 2:16-17: the calendar is just like food and drink regulations. We can’t judge anybody about it, but we can make it standard Christian practice. Right, it is fine for a minister and session to promulgate from Scripture and tradition a dietary regimen. It is of course Biblical, but somehow not required, not a matter of compliance. Paul placed calendar and consumption side by side, and dealt with them as a set. If you take the text in an adiaphora sense, Paul calls for charity towards Christians that do these things; but in fact he intends to promulgate the calendar thing (not the food thing) as standard church practice?
And, maybe we can dehistoricize some verses. So Galatians 4:8-11 only superficially looks like rejection of a holy calendar. Circumcision is only removing a ceremonial and obsolete bit of the Mosaic administration. It’s not like rubbing out the stars or anything. God did not abrogate the stars, so obviously not the calendar. He couldn't do that.
Or, maybe, in Colossae and Galatia we need to cultur-ize the verses: folks might could have, really, possibly, been influenced by the contemporary Imperial cult with its calendar. Which of course then points to the absolute necessity for a calendar, because otherwise we’ll use a bad calendar. Paul was negotiating cultural difference, not rejecting culture like some gnostic. Paul obviously rejected the enculturated hellenstic calendar in these two letters in order to mandate a new supra-cultural calendar which he never references in these two letters, or elsewhere it seems.
And, also, there are innocuous details to emphasize: Paul kept using the same old Jewish calendar when adding a Jerusalem outing to his appointment book. What else would he do? “Thursday, get advice from Phoebe.” You should see the look my neo-pagan neighbor gives me when I say, “See ya’ Thursday.” No, I have no reverence for Thor, nor Frigg, nor Odin. I don't have an alternative calendar, nor do I bind my practice to those old references.
Really, it’s like women’s ordination. Just a couple problem verses. Don’t worry; smart books will come. As long as Mr. Lecroy keeps a straight face about it, he has sufficient evangelical plausibility to use as inertia.
The Early Church Celebrated the Church Year
I have no question about the importance of the ancient church for our contemporary health. I’m glad that the Eternal Immaturity of the Son was body checked in these last few years. The Westminster Confession is patristic beef, both in its historical resources and in its catholic idiom. Trinity, Christology, and Canon aren’t the only things we received from the ancients through the Reformers. Resourcement is not folly. Still, it requires discrimination: monarchical bishops, wack-a-doodle monasticism and consecrated virgins?
I’m all about nuance and contextual attention in reading Athanasius’ De Incarnatione. It’s gold. I’m able to nod appreciatively and not grimace when my Orthodox friend revels in deification– but no, we aren’t singing a praise chorus about becoming gods. Nope. Not. No.
How are you gonna sort?
Sola Scriptura, regula fidei, and do the math. That takes us back to the plausible but shallow and tendentious “grounded in Scripture” section above. You haven’t done the math, solved for X or reached a conclusion: you don’t establish a standard for doctrine, practice or experience by identifying the lowest common denominator (or even the highest common factor) among a group of often disconcerting and squabbling Mediterranean basin folk. God blessed them, and they blessed us. God blessed us by not tethering us to them rather than alongside them.
They were frequently more learned than us by far, like Ph.D’s in historical theology at a Presbytery meeting, which makes them useful but not determinative. Without their diligence and fidelity, and that of others after them, we would still be making the same mistakes these centuries later. There is an honesty and usefulness in being the first people to be wrong about something nobody yet really understood very well. Don't diminish their importance.
The back to 5th century patristic consensus program is respectable. Thomas Oden did good work. Mr. Lecroy shows that a Christian calendar was official in the 4th century and is older than that certainly. Along with other important developments in that period for which we give thanks, embracing the Christian year seems very plausible. The Puritans weren’t stupid. Maybe they were ignorant? Would that be better than petty, boring and unimaginative?
I guess we’ll just need to assume that the 17th century divines of Britannia were peculiar. Unlike the rest of that international theological ferment bubbling up and overflowing from late Renaissance humanism– the Westminster Assembly didn’t have deep roots in the Church Fathers or any reason to ponder thoughtfully about the Christian Year. No: that dog won’t even curl up quietly in front of the fire.
The Westminster Standards are at odds with Mr. Lecroy’s project and whatever enthusiasm or interest he drums up. The Standards were written with a far deeper and considered resourcement in the Patristics than a sober procession led by Mr. Lecroy. Has he provided a sufficiently plausible appeal for appropriating the calendar from the Ancient church? Only if the Westminster Standards are errantly dismissed as patristicly uninformed.
The Reformers Accepted the Early Church’s Calendar
“In spite of this, Calvin said that he did not think that observation of the major holidays should be abolished unless the majority of the church agreed.”
Here Mr. Lecroy’s claims about the Reformers come to a rest.
Calvin didn’t want to abolish the Christian Year– unless the majority of the church agreed. This is a devastating conclusion. Calvin thought that the Christian year could well be abolished. It is not like any means of grace or command given to God’s people. It only holds its place among us by the apparent consent of the majority?
With it having lapsed for so long among the Reformed and Presbyterian churches, how would Calvin esteem the energetic effort to restore it? This is at best a back-handed demonstration of the importance of the Christian Year according to Calvin, and it raises an open palm for the attempt to restore what a clear majority has rejected per the Westminster Confession.
Musing on Calvin, I have heard men derogate our church's view of the 4th commandment. Even with the general neglect assumed among members and the exceptions routinely taken by officers, Calvin’s Catechism demonstrates he could not transfer into the PCA. To the contrary, his deference to churches and leaders in other lands suggests he might well join with a willingness to conform without controversy. He was a man of order, a man who thought submission to authority was generally proper.
Of course, he might have other reasons not to join the PCA. I do wonder how he might change his mind to see some among us restoring what had been, in his own terms, rightly abolished. Further, to see this attempted restoration in the face of a Scriptural, settled and long embraced church order, I think would offend his eye for decently and in order.
Additionally, Calvin would have surely noted the deft slight of hand in Mr. Lecroy’s advocacy. Mr. Lecroy does not argue for Christmas, rather for Christmas and Advent. He is not calling for the evangelical feast days of which Calvin spoke, with the shaping of liturgy in thematic particulars. Mr. Lecroy is arguing for the Christian Year, the holidays with the seasons– Lent and Advent and ordinary time. His second article will explain how Advent differs from Christmas. It is a season, not a day. For this, will he find Calvin or Bucer or Bullinger advocating patient toleration, an acceptable concession to the habits of the people?
I think not. He will find Bullinger explaining that Lent is ancient but not Apostolic, that it ought not be imposed on believers, and that annual seasons of fasting do not correspond to the proper practice of public or private fasting (Second Helvetic Confession, XXIV). He will find Calvin depriving Lent of reliable tradition among the fathers and any foundation in the Scriptures (Institutes 4.12.20). If he sought in Bucer, he would find an argument for toleration of holy days for a time, along with the rationale for their entire removal– with the seasons not even mentioned. All three speak of superstition. Calvin, as paraphrased by Mr. Lecroy, speaks only with a greater mindfulness of church unity and a greater patience, but not with a different trajectory than his mentor:
“When, however, the Gospel has been preached for some time and often, and it is quite clearly understood that one day should be regarded like any other day; whoever would then allow the observance of holy days for the sake of pleasing people by doing wrong, would do them wrong, for he would encourage them in the superstitions of the times.”
Martin Bucer, Ground and Reason, Chapter X.
How the Reformers handled the Christian Year deserves more attention, but this initial foray does not provide Mr. Lecroy's pretended plausibility. The Reformers’ disposition to holy days does not commend his project.
“While exercising this charity, the question remains whether the dominical and apostolic exhortations to maintain the unity of the church around the one faith, along with the practical applications of Christian formation that the church year presents, demonstrate the wisdom of the early fathers in building those weight bearing walls. I’m obviously arguing that case, while extending charity to my brothers and sisters who disagree and hoping for theirs in return.”
Is it charitable to ignore our theological Standards in this discussion? Is it charitable to leave out even a reason to ignore the Standards in the PCA when seeking to influence the PCA?
Is there any assurance given that he will not teach (at Covenant Seminary, or in a pulpit) this deviant view? Is there any expressed restraint to avoid disruption in the church by practicing these things? No, he has not addressed either obvious concern. His blog over the last decade suggests the contrary. Charitable is a discussion on the ecclesiastical porch. Charitable is not arguing with the host and his children at the dinner table about which way to pass the food. You will make a mess in the middle of hospitality.
I do not despise this brother. I disagree with his teaching. He has held this view far away from me for ten years or more. I assumed that my misgivings ought not weigh more with me than the opinion of those around him. I didn’t go looking for a kerfluffle. I previously addressed him about it in response to related public advocacy on his part. I did not go after him.
In this article on SemperRef.com, he addresses all and sundry in order to influence the PCA. He puts forward controversy where our Standards would exclude it. In the PCA, WCF XXI. vii-viii gives our entire positive doctrine of holy days, and the previously cherished practice and doctrine of the Christian Year is absent. It should be absent among us.
Over the years, I have discussed my own exceptions at various points– to learn better if possible and to assure that I am not at odds with my own conscience in the PCA. Never have I attempted to win room for their practice or their promulgation. Of course amendment is wholesome, but it ought not be a guerrilla process. It would be commended by the willingness of its proponents to submit to the Standard before and after the process of improvement. It is not charitable to publicly advocate for a deviation from our order only after having practiced and commended it for a decade in your little backyard.
I told you, I don't like this guy, I don’t like being this guy. He’s my pet peeve. I don’t like being the PCA fundamentalist, Mr. BTW-WCF-IMHO. Mr. Lecroy made this a public discussion, so it is. I find it difficult to receive his uncharitable assumption that WCF XXI isn’t even worth discussing among those who hold unity by vows that include subscription to it. I find it at odds with “the dominical and apostolic exhortations to maintain the unity of the church around the one faith.” One of our chief tools of unity has been sidelined already.
We are apparently operating with the same unity and charity I have with my dear Anglican friend. There are no mutual vows. We have 30 years of unity in faith and no other so dear in Christian fellowship, and we have discussed and disagreed. He does not subscribe to the Westminster Standards and is not a member of the PCA despite being robustly reformed. If he joined the PCA vowing to study the peace of the church, he would not advocate for Advent and Ash Wednesday.
But, wait, am I not over the top? Have I not just proved the idiocy of theological tidy quarrelsomeness? Am I really going holiday nuts, calendar quirky? Holding to any objective standard in the land of authenticity looks like being out of your mind, but, yes. I'm concerned with the vitals. I wince for the perforated liver that neither actually kills nor heals all the way. I’m aroused by Mr. Lecroy’s concern for unity “around the one faith” because he coordinates it “along with the practical applications of Christian formation that the church year presents.”
That second long phrase is not the most enlightening bit of pastoral jargon. One might wonder as to what he refers. I am vexed because, I think, it reminds me, I’ve read some of this. I think he’s going to tell us that essentially the Christian Year is a practice which accomplishes what we expect from the Word and Sacraments.
I am sure he only means it as additional, but necessary. I’m sure that he means the Spirit works in this way, so we need to work this way. I’m hoping he is going to read this and prove me wrong. What I think comes next is not just a set of customs, but a set of expectations and promises.
He is clear: the PCA needs the Christian Year. Sin will dominate us without the calendar. The sorry state of the contemporary church demonstrates all this. What are the stakes on the table in shunning the Christian Year?
“We need this counter-formation. We as Christians cannot keep our heads in the sand and pretend that we don’t need a Christian calendar to provide balance to the worldly calendars all around us. If we do not offer a counter-formation to the liturgies of the world, then we as the church will be producing disciples that are no different from those in the world around us. We will be self-centered, greedy, entertainment hungry, individualistic, sex crazed, bloodthirsty robots. And isn’t this who we are already? Aren’t these the kinds of disciples our churches are already churning out? Is this what we want to be like? What we want our children to be like?”
Vexation is not a pleasant word. It is not a pleasing thing. I don't want to write part two of this article. I really want to read how Mr. Lecroy evaporates that vexing paragraph. I don't see how he can, since he is a careful thinker and does not idly declare "thus saith the Lord." He believes the calendar is necessary for serious sanctification. The Westminster Standards promulgate the Sabbath and the means of grace in place of his view.
Charity recognizes discordant Christian consciences, and urges the other to carry out his convictions and uphold his lawful vows-- even if that makes my dear friend an iconodule or a Lutheran or an acapella baptist. We discuss. We disagree. We do differently. We don't dig in each other's gardens. Don't you dare make your little heart and your bright idea the unnecessary controversy in a church order which honestly excludes your view and always did.
And, if a whole bunch of people want to join you in a scrum of authenticity and adiaphora and absolute delight, would you all please sit down and conform to the standards until the amendments pass? Stop all of it, and stop declaring it to God's people. Conform while you make your case in the courts of the church, if what you want is unity both before and after.