The Synod of Dort about Ecclesiastical Feast Days
New Year’s Eve services
On New Year’s Eve I was invited to preach in one of the churches in the federation. The attendance of that service was far less than usual on Sundays, certainly less than half. Six other churches in the Metro Perth area already anticipated a low attendance and had decided to have a combined service with a neighbouring church.
In article 65 of our church order we read:
On Christmas Day, Good Friday, Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, and at Pentecost the consistory shall call the congregation together for church services. The sacred events which the congregation commemorates in particular on these days shall therein be proclaimed.
It is remarkable that the Church Order does not speak about the New Year’s Day or New Year’s Eve. And it is not only the Church Order of the Free Reformed Churches of Australia. Also our Canadian sister churches do not have the New Year’s Day (or Eve) in the Church Order. And what were our sister churches in the Netherlands until a couple of years ago also do not have this day in their Church Order. In situations like this we of course want to know what the Great Synod of Dort decided about this.
Synod of Dort
In article 67 the synod determined that the churches shall keep the Christmas Day, Easter and Pentecost, with the following day, the Day of the Circumcision of Christ, and Ascension Day. The Day of the Circumcision happens to be the New Year’s Day. Should we change our New Year’s Eve services to New Year’s Day services, or even services to remember the circumcision of Jesus, to be in agreement with the Synod of Dort?
In my previous article I mentioned that we should be careful using decisions of the synod of Dort and transfer them to our time and situation. We should understand the context of these decisions. The Synod of Dort was not the first synod in the Netherlands which made a decision about feast days.
A number of particular (provincial) synods dealt with the matter and determined that the goal must be to abolish all the extra feast days. In 1578, the National Synod of Dort decided that it would be desirable that only the Sunday were kept as special day, because God had ordained to work six days and to keep the Sabbath Day as day of rest. However, because the government decided to keep several other feast days, which were often used by the people for orgies and revelries, the synod determined that on the Christmas Day, the day thereafter, as well as Easter Monday and Pentecost Monday, and in some places also on Ascension Day and the New Year’s Day, the ministers should preach, and teach the congregations on those days to change the worthless and dangerous idleness into a holy and profitable exercise. However, the churches should do their best to get the governments to abolish all other feast days except the Christmas Day and change them into normal workdays.
Here again, for a good understanding, it is important to know the context. In 1568 the eighty years war of the Netherlands against Spain had started. The lower magistrates who governed in the Netherlands did no longer accept the rule of the Spanish king, who was Roman Catholic and persecuted those who left the Roman Catholic Church. Under the leadership of William of Orange, the provinces of the Netherlands united in their fight against Spain. The lower magistrates were generally Reformed, and the Reformed Churches had a dominant position. However, William of Orange strongly promoted tolerance and as a result, the rulers in the Netherlands did allow the Roman Catholics some room to practice their religion. Synods of the Reformed Churches had to deal with a government which was reformed but was more lenient in allowing certain practices than the churches themselves.
Christian Feast Days
The Roman Catholic Church had many saints and every saint had his/her own feast day. Depending on which saint was ‘worshiped’ or revered in a certain area, some of those saint-days became special feast days. The Irish for instance still celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on 17 March. These days were an abomination in the eyes of the Reformed Churches, and they wanted to get rid of them as soon as possible. That generally did happen in the Netherlands. However, the government still wanted to appease the Roman Catholics by having some special days[i], so they chose to maintain the days of the birth, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, as well as the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Separately from these Christian feast days, there was also the New Year’s Day. The Synod of Dort 1618/1619 tried to change the New Year’s Day into the day of Christ’s circumcision, to at least give it an appearance of being a Christian feast day. However, the synod of Dordrecht 1578 still called it the ‘yearday’ (‘jaardag’ in Dutch).
From 1578 to 1618
After 1578, the Synod of Middelburg (1581) again encouraged the churches to request the governments to get rid of the special feast days, except the Sunday, Christmas Day and Ascension Day. The ideal was that all days except the Sunday would be abolished, but the synod did give in a bit to the government and realised that it was impossible to abolish the Christmas Day and Ascension Day.
In 1586 the Synod of ‘s Gravenhage decided that in addition to Easter and Pentecost, which are on Sunday, only the Christmas Day should be observed. But in places where there were other days ordained by the authorities as special feast days, the churches should call the congregations together on those days to prevent sinful idleness.
In the three decades after 1586 the churches in different provinces had more or less success in getting the other special feast days (New Year’s or Christ’s Circumcision Day, and Ascension Day) abolished. There were still some provinces where these days were kept, and from 1589 Good Friday was added to this list of contentious feast days.
Church Order of Dort
When the Synod of Dort in 1618/1619 formulated the Church Order which for a long time remained the church order for the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands, they stipulated in article 67:
The congregations shall observe, besides the Sunday, also the Christmas Day, Easter and Pentecost with the following day, and because0 in most of the cities and provinces of the Netherlands in addition to that also the day of the Circumcision and the Ascension of Christ are being observed, the ministers shall, wherever it does not happen yet, urge the governments to conform with the other areas.
This was a compromise. The synod did not encourage observing these feast days for Biblical reasons. The reason that the Synod decided that they should be kept, was out of necessity: because the governments had determined that these days should be special days, the churches should make sure that these days were not used for drunkenness and dangerous idleness and call the congregation together for church services.
Within the limits of this article I cannot go into much detail about the history. However, there is an excellent article available online about this matter]. This article also shows that the youngest delegate at the synod of Dort, Voetius, explained in his church political commentaries that article 67 of the Church Order of Dort was meant to limit the practice of observing Christian feast days and not as a command to observe them. Article 67 did not compel the churches to institute these feast days where they were not.
Over time however, this article was more and more interpreted as a command, instead of as limitative. The churches in the Netherlands in later time even added more days, like Good Friday, Prayer Day and Thanksgiving Day.
My intention is not to argue for abolition of the special feast days or the New Year’s Eve service. Article 65 of our church order is formulated differently than article 67 of Dort, which makes it hard to interpret it any different than that the churches shall (must) observe these days. Should we change this article in the way our Canadian sister churches have it in their church order article 53 (see Book of Praise) or even delete it? To answer that we need another article. I am not advocating that. However, the Sunday as the Day of Rest is more and more coming under threat, also in our circles. It is important for the churches to emphasise the special character of the Sunday worship services. A special feast day is not the ‘Day of the Lord’, but just one of the six days that we shall ‘work’ and do our daily business. We should not give them the character of the Sabbath Day.
One thing that this exercise teaches us is that a church
order and practice can and does change over time and not everything in our
church order comes from the Synod of Dort, or at least not as it was intended
[i] At the Peace of Religions (‘Religievrede’) of 12 July 1578, the government ordained that several Roman Catholic feast days should be kept by protestants as well. See footnote 34 at http://kerkrecht.nl/node/4951 .