I am very sympathetic toward the central point and direction of Aaron D. Wolf’s “A Tender, Unitarian Christmas” (Views, December 2001), but I must register one significant complaint. If we were trying to decide which historical group has been modernity’s favorite whipping boy, the Puritans would have to be in the front rank of contestants. This alone should give Chronicles readers pause.
As a Puritan myself, and a thorough-going incarnationalist, and as one who has both read extensively in Puritan writings and written on them, I feel the need to take time away from my Christmas preparations to protest. To cite just one counter-example on the supposed Puritan antipathy to an incarnational Christmas, the Puritan poetess Anne Bradstreet once wrote, in passing, about Christmas: “Through Christendom with great festivity / Now’s held (but guessed) for blest Nativity.”
There was a Puritan hostility to the common celebration of Christmas of that time. The later Unitarian celebrations of Christmas were heretical, but at least they were decent. Many of the earlier customs were “orthodox” but indecent, which provoked an honest reaction. An important part of the Puritan problem with Christmas was the drunken way in which it was commonly celebrated. This, by itself, does not represent a problem with the Incarnation, but rather the reverse. I would not like it much if someone questioned my commitment to the Resurrection of Christ because I objected to the carousing of Mardi Gras before Lent, which is before Easter, which celebrates the Resurrection.
It is no surprise to see negative views of evangelical Protestants in the “mainstream” press, but it is sad to see such views displayed in Chronicles.
In “A Tender, Unitarian Christmas,” Aaron D. Wolf tells us that “modern religious observers often note that evangelicalism is virtually the same as liberalism, just 50 years behind”—ergo, evangelical Protestants are on their way to damnation. Mr. Wolf seems quite capable of tossing out undergraduate philosophy tidbits such as “Ramist logic” and ferreting out the religious backgrounds of numerous 19th-century composers of Christmas carols, but he seems confused about what evangelicals believe and the biblical underpinnings of salvation. He can rest assured that the Incarnation is important to evangelicals, that the concept of Emmanuel (God with us) is prevalent, and that we know God was made flesh.
Mr. Wolf really goes off the rails when he mocks the Holy Ghost’s role in Salvation with a snide reference to the “supernatural” and speaks about the great importance of sacraments and the “working out of salvation.” Performing sacraments will not gain anyone entry into heaven, because salvation is the “gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). As far as the “working out of salvation,” I will rely on the Word of God over “modern religious observers”: “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and the renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Titus 3:5). And that “sterile line ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to men” looks like Luke 2:14 to me. Otherwise, keep up the good work at Chronicles, and try to be nice to us evangelical Protestant readers.
—Samuel J. Tinaglia
Park Ridge, IL
Mr. Wolf Replies:
Dr. Wilson, whose magazine, Credenda Agenda, I greatly admire, is right to say that the Puritans take a good deal of guff in the modern press. The mythical image of the curmudgeonly, teetotaling Puritans on constant witch hunts has been exploded by numerous scholars, but it remains in our popular imagination.
Nonetheless, while the Puritans professed belief in the Incarnation, their brand of Christianity was not incarnational, because their theology did not center on the fact of the Incarnation, as shown specifically by their rejection of the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper in favor of a “spiritual presence.”
If you really believe that, in the words of the Athanasian Creed, Christ’s divine and human natures are united “inconfusedly, inseparably, indivisibly, and unchangeably,” then it is impossible for Christ merely to be spiritually present anywhere—including at the Lord’s Supper.
If you really believe that the true Body and Blood of Jesus Christ are present in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, then that changes your perspective—your perception of the potential redeemability of matter. That’s good, since men are not ghosts but are made of flesh and blood, and it is the whole of man—not just his soul or spirit—that needs saving. Hence the words of Our Lord in John 6:54: “Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” This teaching was rejected by the Puritans, who favored stimulating “religious affections” rather than looking for Christ in His Sacrament.
More generally, God communicates to mankind through physical means. This is why the Church has historically rejected iconoclasm and maintained feast days centering on the ministry of the Incarnate Christ—including Christmas.
Even more generally, the Incarnation teaches Christians to look for the blessing of God in the corporeal world, in such things as plain bread and wine, as we acknowledge that God’s Creation is, indeed, good and worthy of our thankful enjoyment. Conversely, those who attempt to achieve personal piety by abstaining totally from alcohol or meat or marriage are rejecting the Incarnation. That is why Chesterton said that those who convert to teetotaling are really on the path to becoming Muslims.
G.K.’s statement came to mind when I read the argument that the Puritans were hostile toward the celebration of Christmas because of the indecent, drunken habits of European peasants at Christmas time. The prospect of public drunkenness is not the reason why the Puritans rejected the rest of the historic, universal Christian feasts—Easter, Pentecost, Trinity, etc. Luther railed against the problem of drunkenness in Bavaria, but he still upheld the Christological feast days of the universal Church, especially Christmas.
If Bradstreet’s poem “Winter” is an indication of the Puritans’ attitude toward an incarnational Christmas, then I think my point is proved. Far from celebrating Puritan preparations for the Feast of the Nativity, Bradstreet is simply chronicling the movement of the sun through winter, musing that, when “he’s housed in horned Capricorn,” the folks back in Europe are busy feasting.
Regarding Mr. Tinaglia’s concerns, the term “evangelical” needs some qualification. Lutherans were the first to be called “evangelical,” because they held the pure Gospel of justification by faith alone—the euangelion—as the “doctrine on which the Church stands and falls.” Evangelicalism, on the other hand, is something very different. It is a movement that supplanted the Sacrament of Baptism with the virtual sacrament of making a decision for Christ, praying the sinner’s prayer, walking down the aisle, lifting the hand, etc.—a practice unheard of in the historic Church before the 18th century. I am familiar (as were my Lutheran forebears) with Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 3:5-6. Certainly, my “good works” cannot merit for me eternal life. But the Sacraments are not my works: They are the works of God.
Is the “washing of regeneration” of which St. Paul speaks in Titus 3:5 a mere metaphor? Or could it be something more—something prefigured by Noah’s ark, by the sons of Israel’s trek through the Red Sea and the Jordan river, by the healing of Naaman (2 Kings 5:13), by the Pool of Siloam? Could it be that, “if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Romans 10:9) complements “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5)?