We are rapidly approaching Christmas which, as has often been observed, is now two distinct holidays occupying the same space on the civil calendar. One the one hand there is the secular Christmas – or X-mas, as it is known to people who are either politically correct, lazy spellers, or both. This holiday, sacred to the pervasive cult of Mammon, has long been a celebration of two of the Seven Deadly Sins, Avarice and Gluttony, and in more recent years has increasingly added Lust as well. It is preceded by an anticipatory period the length of which is decided by the engines of commerce and which begins when the first decorations and advertisements appear in the stores. While many have opined that it seems to get longer and longer each year, in reality All Saints’ Day is the earliest it can begin. Any earlier and the advertising campaign would clash with that of the secular version of All Hallows’ Eve.
On the other hand there is the Christian Christmas – the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. It too is introduced by a preparatory period, which in Western Christendom we call Advent, but this is much shorter than the season leading up to the secular holiday. It always begins on the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day (November 30th), which is always the fourth Sunday prior to Christmas, and so is never longer than a lunar month. Like Lent, the season leading up to Easter, the liturgical season of Advent is supposed to be a period of sober reflection and repentance. This too is a sharp contrast with the hurly-burly of running around and shopping interspersed with party after party that characterizes the season’s secular counterpart.
While the contempt that such fictional curmudgeons as Ebeneezer Scrooge and the Grinch displayed towards the commercial holiday before their changes of heart is, perhaps, understandable, it is much harder to comprehend the problem that many soi disant Bible-believing Christians seem to have with the religious holiday. Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan dictator of the 1650s, was the spiritual ancestor of these types, as he was of political liberalism and all the various hues and shades of Mrs. Grundyism. You have probably encountered their arguments. The most familiar of them are that December 25th was originally a pagan holiday, that Jesus was not born on December 25th, and that we ought to be keeping the holy days God established in the Bible rather than man made ones. I have dealt with this matter in depth previously and so will provide only a short answer to each of these here.
First of all, yes the date on which the Church chose to celebrate Christmas coincides with a pagan festival. It also coincides with a Jewish festival and while that Jewish festival is also “man made” in that it is not instituted by God anywhere in the Bible, even in the Books of Maccabees that relate the events it commemorates, it was kept by Jesus in the tenth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John. The fourteenth verse of the first chapter of Genesis gives, as God’s stated reason for creating the sun, moon, and stars in addition to dividing day from night and lighting the earth that they might be “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years” so it should come as no surprise that different religions would have important festivals at approximately the same time, in this case around the winter solstice.
Secondly, since the Scriptures do not tell us the day on which Jesus was born, they neither tell us that He was born on December 25th nor that He was not born on December 25th. The absence of a positive assertion does not constitute a denial. The same principle applies to the argument that because the Book of Hebrews does not identify its author, St. Paul did not write it, an argument that a Judaizing acquaintance recently made in a bizarre attempt to bolster his argument that we ought to keep the Old Testament feasts rather than man-made ones like Christmas. (1) At any rate, the question of the actual date on which Jesus was born is moot. Christmas is not necessarily Christ’s “birthday” but a liturgical feast day commemorating His birth. It occurs at the beginning of the liturgical year because that year is organized to take us through the most important events of Christ’s life chronologically. (2)
Finally, the position that Christians ought to be keeping the Old Testament holy days rather than Christmas, Easter, and other feasts appointed by the Church can only be maintained by disregarding the authority of Christ’s Apostles and the New Testament Scriptures. For the New Testament is absolutely clear on this matter. Christians are neither required to keep the feasts, rituals, and ceremonies of the Old Covenant nor forbidden from doing so. The first Christians were Jews who believed in Jesus. When God sent St. Peter to preach the Gospel to a Gentile, Cornelius the centurion, He gave Him a vision in which the dietary laws of the Old Covenant were abrogated. When Gentiles came to be converted in large numbers, a controversy arose as to whether or not they should be circumcised and made to follow all the rituals of the Old Covenant. The Apostles convened a church council in Jerusalem to settle the controversy which ruled against placing these obligations on the Gentile converts. The Book of Acts records that while the original Jewish Christians continued to participate in worship at the Temple and in the synagogues until they were driven out, the Church was already developing its own worship, meeting, for example, on the first day of the week. St. Paul in his epistles encourages these trends and reserves his harshest words for those who would impose the Old Testament rituals on the Church. (3)
This attitude of looking down one’s nose at ordinary Christians for keeping Christmas rather than the Old Testament feasts bears a resemblance in some ways to both of two opposite errors regarding the Second Coming of Christ that have plagued the Church from time to time and which have undergone significant revivals in the last century. For traditional Christian believers the Second Coming is as much in view at this time of year as His first coming. Indeed, while the emphasis of Christmas itself is on the events of His First Coming at Bethlehem a little over two thousand years ago, the emphasis in Advent is on the Second Coming. Whereas the focus of penitent reflection in Lent begins with contemplation of our own mortality on Ash Wednesday and ends with the vicarious suffering and death of Christ on Good Friday, in Advent the focus could be summed up in the words of St. Peter “But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer” (I Pet. 4:7) and of his Master and ours “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.” (Matt. 24:42) For this reason, lectionaries traditionally assign readings that pertain to the Second Coming to this period and the two comings are joined in the Collect for Advent Sunday (4) which is repeated with the other Collects for the duration of Advent.
In their disregard towards the ruling of the Apostolic Council of Jerusalem, the clear teachings of St. Paul, and Apostolic authority in general, the legalistic Judaizers who would deny to Christians the freedom to celebrate, as they have traditionally done, the Person and events of the New Covenant of eternal redemption and bind them back in chains to Mt. Sinai, resemble the date-setters, who have a very similar approach to such statements of Christ as “But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only” and “Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” and “Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh.” (Matt. 24: 36, 42, 44). Despite these clear warnings, every time a society collapses, a significant period of time such as a millennium passes, or some other such momentous event occurs, out trot the date-setters with their arguments for why Jesus will return on such-and-such a date. Those among them who are wise guys, despite lacking wisdom, rely on an ultra-literal interpretation of the above verses (only the “day” and “hour” are not mentioned, not the “year” or “decade”) to justify their obvious evasion of the spirit of the text. Needless to say our own era in which Western civilization as a whole has been giving every sign of being on the verge of imminent collapse for a century (5) and the second millennium AD came to an end has had more than its fair share of date-setters.
In their arrogant attitude of superiority towards other Christians, however, the Judaizers more closely resemble the preterists, the hubris of whom make the ancient Gnostics look humble in comparison. Preterism derives its name from the Latin proposition praeter. Praeter means “besides, except for”, “contrary to” and “beyond” but it can also mean “before” in both its spatial and temporal senses. It is in the temporal sense of the meaning “before”, i.e., “in the past”, that the preterists use this word to identify their views. For their doctrine is that all Biblical prophecies – including the prophecies of the Second Coming and the last three of the Quattuor Novissima (6) have all been fulfilled in the past. It is an ancient heresy, having been first taught by Hymenaeus and Philetus in Ephesus towards the end of the sixth decade of the first century AD, and rebuked by St. Paul in his Second Epistle to Timothy:
But shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness. And their word will eat as doth a canker: of whom is Hymenaeus and Philetus; Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some. (II Tim 2:16-18)
Contemporary preterists attempt to elude the obvious application of these verses to their own doctrine by arguing that at the time St. Paul wrote those words – early in the seventh decade – the resurrection was not yet past but that it happened shortly thereafter, at the very end of that decade, a couple of years after St. Paul’s martyrdom. For contemporary preterists teach that the Second Coming, the Final Resurrection, and the Last Judgment all took place in the year AD 70.
This was the year in which Titus, the son of the newly elevated Roman emperor Vespasian, after a seven month siege of Jerusalem, lay waste to the rebellious city, destroying the Second Temple and apart from the handful of leftover zealots who would be wiped out at Masada three years later, essentially crushed the revolt. The truth in preterism – for heresy is not pure error but begins with a truth being twisted out of shape – is that these events were frequently predicted in the New Testament, sometimes in passages that also discuss the Second Coming. The Olivet Discourse contained in the twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth chapters of the Gospel According to St. Matthew is the obvious example. The discourse begins when Jesus tells His disciples that the Temple will be destroyed and they ask Him “Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” Orthodox Christianity has always taken the position that the disciples had mistakenly associated the prophecy of the destruction of Jerusalem with the Second Coming of Christ and the end of time and thus asked Jesus two questions, thinking they were asking one. Jesus answered both questions without directly correcting their mistake, knowing that just as the disciples would not be able to grasp that there would be a Second Coming separate and distinct from the First until after His Resurrection and Ascension so the unfolding of events would eventually make obvious the distinction between the destruction of the Temple and His Second Coming. Accordingly the three ancient Creeds which express the consensus of the early, undivided, Apostolic Church as to fundamentals of the orthodox, Scriptural, kerygma all include an affirmation that Christ will “come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead.” (7)
Orthodox Christians have disagreed on other aspects of eschatology, both in the early centuries and down through the years. Justin Martyr, Irenaeus and Tertullian all taught a form of what is now called pre-millennialism, while the Alexandrian Fathers and St. Augustine taught the a-millennialism that became the dominant view down until modern times. Regardless of where they stood on these matters, however, orthodox Christians joined in the Creedal affirmation of the Second Coming as a literal, future, event that will involve the judgement of the entire world, including both the living and the dead. The preterist teaching that the sack of Jerusalem fulfilled completely the prophecies of the Second Coming and the Final Resurrection and Judgement obviously requires an interpretation of these prophecies that exceeds in its non-literalism what was allowed for by even the most allegorical of the orthodox Fathers. It also requires that the events prophesied be reduced from a global scale and made to pertain only to national Israel. Ironically, since the recent spread of preterism can be partially attributed to a reaction against dispensationalism, preterism shares dispensationalism’s obsession with national Israel, giving it, of course, the opposite negative spin. (8) To both alike, all Bible prophecy is about God wrapping up His dealings with national Israel. To the dispensationalists, this is a future wrapping up that will involve the total restoration of the nation. To the preterists, it is a past wrapping up that involved the total rejection of the nation in judgement for its unbelief. The dispensationalists, at least, affirm the passages in which Christ comes back for His faithful believers, albeit by making it a prelude to the main event. (9) Consistent preterists must insist that passages which speak of the believer’s hope in the coming of the Lord were all fulfilled by the judgement of national Israel. This fact alone ought, in itself, to be sufficient to refute this obviously false doctrine.
The late Lutheran theologian John M. Drickamer once remarked that responding to preterism is like taking out the trash – it is an unpleasant, smelly, task but one that needs to be done from time to time. What better time to do it than Advent, the time in which we traditionally look forward in penitent reflection to Christ’s Second Coming, was we prepare to celebrate His First Coming?
Merry Christmas, every one, and Maranatha (the Lord is coming)!
(1) Actually this case may not be an exact parallel. While the Book of Hebrews does not identify its author, St. Peter may very well have identified St. Paul as its author in II Peter 3:15. In this verse he reminds his original readers, who are the same as those of his first epistle (3:1), that St Paul had written to them something to the effect of “the longsuffering of the Lord is salvation.” All of the “signed” Pauline epistles are addressed to particular churches which were predominantly Gentile. St. Peter’s epistles, on the other hand, are “catholic” or “general” epistles (I Peter 1:1), and his original readers seems to have largely consisted of believers of Jewish ancestry (2:12). Since St. Peter goes on to identify St. Paul’s words as Scripture, Hebrews is the only epistle that seems to qualify as the one to which he is referring. It is part of the New Testament canon, written to the same addressees, with content that matches the allusion by St. Peter (see the ninth and tenth chapters of Hebrews).
(2) See, however, William J. Tighe’s arguments in Touchstone Magazine, that the early Church calculated December 25th and January 6th (Epiphany, the Twelfth Day of Christmas, celebrated in Western Christendom as the Feast of the Magi, in the East as the eve of Christmas itself) as the dates of Christ’s birth by adding nine months to March 25th and April 6th respectively. According to Tighe there was a widespread belief at the time that Israel’s prophets died on the same date as their conception, and so March 25th and April 6th were identified as the dates of conception through attempts to calculate the calendar date of Christ’s death. Tighe also maintains that the Church had done these calculations and started celebrating Christmas on December 25th prior to AD 274 when Emperor Marcus Aureleus declared the same date to be the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun.”
(3) He develops a theological argument for this doctrine of Christian liberty throughout his corpus, but especially in the epistles of Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, and Hebrews. The Old Testament Law in its ceremonial aspect pointed to and foreshadowed Christ, now that Christ has appeared and instituted the New Covenant with His blood we, having the substance, ought not to cling to the shadow. Under the Old Covenant, Israel was to be a holy nation. She was supposed to remain untainted with the paganism and idolatry of the tribes and nations surrounding her, and the ceremonial aspects of the Law, including the dietary and clothing restrictions, contributed to her distinct and separate identity. Under the New Covenant, however, believers of all nations are united spiritually in the Church, and this unity is symbolized by the Church’s standing under grace rather than Law.
(4) “ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.” Collect for First Sunday in Advent, Book of Common Prayer.
(5) It is one hundred years since the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes – The Decline – more accurately “Downfall” of the West – was published.
(6) Four Last Things – Death, Judgement, Heaven, Hell.
(7) This is the wording of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed as translated in the BCP. The Apostles’ Creed and the Quicumque Vult both introduce the Second Coming by saying that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father after which the Apostles’ Creed adds “from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead” and the Athanasian Creed adds “from whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. At whose coming all men shall rise again with their bodies: and shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting: and they that have done evil into everlasting fire.”
(8) Interestingly there are other parallels. Both doctrines in their contemporary forms can be traced back to sixteenth century Jesuits (Luis de Alcasar in the case of preterism, Francisco Ribera in the case of dispensationalism) through nineteenth century Protestant popularizers (James Stuart Russell’s The Parousia: a Critical Inquiry into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord's Second Coming in the case of preterism, John Nelson Darby and C. I. Scofield in the case of dispensationalism).
(9) The main problem with dispensationalism, from the standpoint of orthodox theology, is not their elaborate eschatological scheme but the significance attached to certain of the events. The rapture (from the Latin equivalent of the Greek ἁρπάζω used by St. Paul to mean “caught up” in I Thess. 4:17) is said by dispensationalists to the be the end of the Church Age which began at Pentecost, and the entire Church Age is described by dispensationalists as a parenthesis in the Age of the Law. This is the opposite of inspired Apostolic doctrine in which the Law is the parenthesis in the unfolding of God’s promises of grace (Gal. 3:6-29, NB especially vv. 17, 19, 23-25).
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