The Reformed churches used to whitewash the inside of former Roman Catholic cathedrals, making them more ordinary interiors not because they despised art or beauty, but because they were drawing a line in the sand and essentially saying: The ordinary means of word and sacrament were to be the focus and means of teaching maturing and preserving those in Christ. Because formerly things like reading and the bible itself were held in the hands of the Roman Catholic priesthood, things like religious paintings, sculptures and carvings were ways of depicting biblical scenes and events in cathedrals, and therefore means of continual teaching to the uneducated citizens of the middle ages, although some of these particular things were probably used as a sort of idol or icon in prayer.
As far as paintings, or etchings however, think of it like teaching a child through a picture book. Also, the way one’s eyes were taken upward in most cathedrals had some intent to make one think up above towards God or whatever mediators the adherent was taught to speak to. Later opulence and artistic flourishes became more about the majesty and authority of the Roman Catholic Church itself. Baroque architecture where beautification, majesty and power of the structure itself was more the point. This was part of Rome’s answer in their Counter Reformation.
So, whitewashing was taking one’s attention off of the building, the images, the eye-candy. The Reformers took the position that the building or what is in it is not what is sacred, or holy, or to draw one’s eye and attention. The ordinary preaching of the word of God, and particularly the good news of salvation, eternal life and an inheritance in Christ alone where moth and rust don’t destroy is what the Reformation church was all about. Therefore, that is what was elevated in Calvinistic churches. Except for less than thoroughly Reformed circles. You can find imagery in Lutheran churches today which itself is a tradition that is less thorough in Reformation than Calvinistic tradition. In the Calvinistic tradition through the Church of England there is Anglicanism, which unlike Calvin’s Geneva did seek to hold on more of the old ways in a sort of hybrid manor, and so Roman Catholic things like Lent, and Advent were kept going. Stained glass windows with biblical stories, and even images of Jesus (2nd commandment issue?) are found today in many Anglican (or Episcopalian) cathedrals and churches.
Advent is celebrated with different colored candles lit up in the area of worship (how well do flames before the Lord go in the bible?) to teach, and inspire spiritual nourishment just as Rome had done. For Lent, fasting and 40 symbolic days of sacrifice where spiritual disciplines and times of reflection independent of the normal means offered in the Church are propped up.
These are the hybrid ways, and less thorough of a Reformation. This imagery and ritual takes on an almost mystical type of reflection that seems to me most similar to the kind of reflections we do with the elements associated with the sacraments. Yet, we find the command to do these things nowhere in the scriptures. Therefore, absorbing these things into worship violates the Reformation principle that Sola Scriptura regulates worship and practice. This is of course known as the Regulative Principle of Worship.
Regulative Principle is part of Presbyterianism since John Knox. However, it seems that in the past 100 years or so, Presbyterians have started to absorb this practice from other traditions. It would seem that Presbyterians in a push to reach the world have looked at the culturally superior Anglican/Episcopal traditions and determined to be more of a traditional Swiss Army Knife absorbing that aesthetic into a tradition that had formerly rejected it.
I can think of no other reason why Presbyterians have forgotten that they are Presbyterians and started doing things like Advent. Unless it is done simply because of a simplistic understanding of where they actually stand. If they draw outside the lines in where they stand then where will their children go in the next church? I think we are already seeing that in the woke churches.
Come back Presbyterians. Come back to the Regulative Principle of Worship. Keep the Christmas trees and candles out in the hallway if you must have them, but not in worship, not part of worship. Certainly, we can observe days like Christmas and Easter in homes and even in the Church, yet there is no need to follow a liturgical calendar, no need for Lent or Advent.
Have you lost the “Rule of Worship”? There is no need to add ritual and spectacle that are not called means of grace in your doctrinal standards. No need to add these things to worship, no need to bind consciences to observe extra biblical rituals in a Christian worship service. By doing so you have made yourself something more than a Presbyterian, or less than one, however you want to look at it.
I can think of no bigger name in American Presbyterianism in regards to culture and cultural engagement than the Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper. New Calvinism, Missionalism, and Neo-Calvinism found in Presbyterianism today are all offshoots of his sphere sovereignty and other ideas of how Christianity engages culture, yet even he had a hand-break called Antithesis. He realized that the world always ultimately manifests itself against Christ and His church, and so Christianity was always going to be ultimate hated by the world, and that Christianity is Antithetical to the world and its ultimate agenda. We should see that the world and pop-culture were always therefore going to have a corrosive and deconstructive effect on the Church. Perhaps the ultra-confident Baby-Boomer generation liberalized these things in line with American Presbyterianism, but there is no need to continue their mistakes.
The old adage that if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything rings true. The Semper Reformanda (always Reforming) does not mean that we’re always adding to the Reformation, or modifying it to fit the worlds trends, but it means the exact opposite, a return to Reformed confessional standards. Churches don’t need to change to whatever Spirit-of-the-Age is here in each moment in order to reach the world. There is plenty to suggest that though there are seasons when the church is called archaic and behind the times, that at least it is a cultural mooring that just by being there gives a standard to call the world back to. This might mean that you don’t grow as big of a church for a season, but what price is growth gained with? Wouldn’t it be better to be the place where firm principles are found? Or even better where an emphasis on the good news of salvation in Christ alone is found? It has been my observation in much American Presbyterianism in 2020 there is more of a platitudinal and truncated gospel that is preached, and much less of the underlying doctrinal basis of that proclamation. Perhaps less emphasis on imagery and bumper sticker sized gospel proclamations and a more completely laid out scope of what redemption in Christ entails would be a good goal. In other words, a bigger better articulated and taught good news. This is a suggestion to be even more distinct, not less. That would be antithetical would it not?
There is plenty of doctrinal meat and tradition on the bones of Reformed Presbyterianism without adding mystical pomp and circumstance and little fires before the Lord in a worship service. Even if it does feel good and make for a good holiday card.