Question: What is the difference between Roman Catholic and Evangelical holiday observance?
If some Reformed churches still observe some festivals (as the conception, nativity, passion and ascension of Christ), they differ widely from the papists because:
1. They dedicate these days to God alone and not to creatures.
2. No sanctity is attached to them, nor power and efficacy believed to be in them (as if they are much more holy than the remaining days).
3. They do not bind believers to a scrupulous and too strict abstinence on them from all servile work (as if in that abstinence there was any moral good or any part of religion placed and on the other hand it would be a great offense to do any work on those days).
4. The church is not bound by any necessity to the unchangeable observance of those days, but as they were instituted by human authority, so by the same they can be abolished and changed, if utility and the necessity of the church should demand it. “For everything is dissolved by the same causes by which it was produced,” the lawyers say.
5. In one word, they are considered as human institutions. Superstition and the idea of necessity are absent.
If some days with certain churches are designated by the names of apostles or martyrs, it is not to be supposed that they were instituted for their worship or should be terminated on their honor, as the papists do. Hence Bellarmine asserts “that the honor of the festivals immediately and terminatively pertains to the saints” (De Cultu Sanctorum,” 3.16 Opera , 2:555).
Rather they are referred to the memory of the saints by whom Christ built up his church for our advantage (to the worship, however, and honor God alone, who conferred upon the apostles and martyrs whatever thing worthy of praise they possessed, did or underwent).
They neither invoke nor burn incense to them, but to God alone, whom they invoke. They give thanks on account of the benefits redounding to us by their ministry and example.
Hence we cannot approve the rigid judgment of those who charge such churches with idolatry (in which those days are still kept, the name of the saints being retained), since they agree with us in doctrine concerning the worship of God alone and detest the idolatry of the papists.
However although our churches do not condemn that practice simply as evil, yet since sad experience has shown that the institution of festival days received into the papacy from a false jealousy (kakozelia) of the Jews or of the heathen gave occasion to the abominable idolatry which continues and increases in the papacy, not without weighty reasons have they preferred to abolish that usage in their reformation (that no contagion might be contracted, but that they might carefully shun the danger from that source).
For in religion, when even the slightest departure takes place from the commands of God and men wish or suppose a thing to be lawful for them, all safe things are to be feared.
Indeed it has been found by experience that from insignificant beginnings wonderful progress was made in superstition and idolatry in the papacy as to the worship of images, invocation of saints, purgatory, the sacrifice of the mass, prayers for the dead, etc.
Thus it seems better to lack some useful good (but less necessary), than from the use of it to incur the imminent danger of any great evil.
Answered by Francis Turretin (1623-1687)