Friday, January 24, 2014

Galatians 4:8-11 (Holidays)

One reader of this blog has made some remarks on Galatians 4:8ff regarding the applicability of those verses today. Granted, Paul was originally chastising the Galatians for keeping Jewish feast days and practicing circumcision, Jehovah's Witnesses still make the argument that the apostolic words apply in an a fortiori sense. If the Galatians should not have been observing Jewish festivals which were once commanded by God through Moses, then how much more should they and we eschew festivals/holidays that have pagan religious connections.

Some might feel that holidays are a matter of conscience. But how can the observance of days rooted in pagan religion be a matter of conscience for the Christian believer? 2 Corinthians 6 teaches followers of Christ to flee from idolatry and [spiritually] unclean things. The best evidence we have from historical sources is that the ancient Jews and the early Christians did not observe holidays rooted in pagan religion. Augustus Neander and others have documented these points.


ivan said...

It seems to me the origins argument is flawed in a number of ways. To begin with, many who celebrate birthdays do it for completely secular reasons, having nothing to do with its pagan origin. Who today, especially a Christian, seriously celebrates their birthday because of some foreign god?

Moreover, if the inclination of their heart is to celebrate their birthday with friends and family and have wholesome fun, one can hardly say they do this because of false worship, or what have you.

Finally, if one is going to be consistent about the origins argument, you'd have to ban wedding rings, calendars, avoid using the name of the weeks, and so on.

Since the bible doesn't condemn the celebration of birthdays, it therefore falls within the grey area of Christian liberty and conscience.

Edgar Foster said...

I've conceded that people today will celebrate birthdays/Christmas without wittingly acknowledging the pagan origins of such days. For that matter, you have those who say they're Christian who often participate in Halloween festivities without admitting to its pagan origins. But can someone truly expunge the roots of these days/practices by fiat?

Imagine that the ancient Israelites wanted to observe some of the practices from Egypt, but just expunge the original significance that these rites had to the Egyptians. How would YHWH have felt about their attempt to espouse pagan religious practices alongside the dictates of God's law?

The point is not why we think we're doing something, but what the rite/practice objectively represents. I don't celebrate birthdays for the same reason that I don't clink glasses with friends or observe Halloween or Easter: we cannot expunge the significance of those festivals and days. Now all of the other things you mention are in a different ballpark. We're talking about pagan superstition, magic, and false religion; not just paganism in general. Furthermore, the Bible doesn't mention every little thing we need to do or must refrain from doing. Not every possible sinful act is explicitly condemned in scripture. That ought to be clear from the fact that suicide is not condemned in the Bible, but it's certainly not a matter of conscience in God's eyes.

Nathan said...

Hi Ivan,

I appreciate your take on this matter. However, I don't think that the origins argument is flawed - at least not in the way that you seem to have proposed. If we uncritically accept a heritage that might still be viewed by some as superstitious, then we neglect an important aspect of our Christian lives. Consider the following argument:

* If a custom is still imbued with superstition, then it is displeasing to God (cf. 2 Cor. 6:17 AKATHARTOS; Isa. 65:11).

Based on the premise above, it is possible to show deductively that there can be customs displeasing to God. In so doing, I have found it useful when evaluating a particular custom to take a simplistic approach by applying the most obviously relevant Biblical principles to the most obviously related practices within that same custom (the overt to the overt, if you will).

As a case in point, the person who makes a wish upon extinguishing a flame is unquestionably engaging in a superstitious practice. Despite the likelihood that this may seem like nothing more than playful banter in the mind of some westerners, it is still demonstrably the case that the central repetition of a birthday celebration is the simulation of a magical conjuration. Consequently, the birthday celebration is one such custom that is still imbued with superstition and so it follows logically (by modus ponens and substitution) that such a practice would be displeasing to God.

Since it can be demonstrated that a custom still imbued with superstition is displeasing to God, why would a contemporary Christian choose to engage in it? It seems to me that the reason must be more autobiographical than rational.


Ivan said...

To Edgar and Nathan:

I first wish to state a few things before engaging your arguments. It seems to me that the origin of birthday celebrations, or specifically, the origin of celebrating your birth’s anniversary, has no clear or otherwise cemented roots in false worship. It is not at all clear how birthdays originated so to claim it is undoubtedly imbedded with superstition and magic is a bit presumptuous in my opinion. That foreign god worshippers and magicians celebrated their birthdays is in itself not evidence of origins, but merely of practice. Are we to prohibit any and every custom pagans practiced?

There also needs to be a distinction between the customs associated with celebrating one’s birth date anniversary and the actual anniversary itself. For example, in Hispanic cultures it is a custom to host a quinceñera for a girl’s 15th birthday. This rite ought to be divorced from the fact of the anniversary date itself, as different cultures incorporate different practices. The birthday celebration predates the quinceñera. My point is that many of the customs associated with birthdays post-date it and therefore do not speak of origins but of practices.

In an earlier post you had mentioned how God re-used the ancient practice of circumcision, which predates Abraham, as a sign of his covenant with the Jewish people. This seems to be the perfect counterexample to the origins argument. It is not the origin of a practice that really matters, ultimately, but the rededication of it in light of its new application. As I had brought up, no Christian today really objects to the use of calendars or the name of the days in a week, or even to the use of wedding rings because of its religiously pagan origins. Despite the assertion that these are “in a different ballpark,” it appears to me that they are in fact in the ‘same ballpark.’ We have pagan practices and customs that we have expunged of its original meaning. The adoptions of the calendar, wedding rings, and so on, are such examples.

In the end the question appears to be a philosophical one: can the original roots of a particular practice or observance be expunged? I believe they can, and that they in fact have already been in several ways in our mundane day-to-day lives.
You ask whether someone can truly expunge the roots of these practices, with your implied answer being no. If that’s truly the case, then does every Christian observe false worship in having a calendar in their homes or a wedding ring on their finger? Virtually anything one can think of is intrinsically linked to some form of paganism because they lived before us and as human beings, they've already done what we currently do. Paganism is unavoidable. The only thing that can truly be altered or avoided is our own intentions and inclinations.

It seems to me, that to say a custom cannot be expunged of its original meaning is to assuming another person’s intentions and in some ways judge that person. Otherwise, I fail to see the ethical force of the origins argument.

Edgar Foster said...


I'm trying to make a distinction between a) pagan practices and b) pagan religious practices. Let's not confuse the former with the latter. Regarding birthdays, it has been well documnted that they have long been associated with magic and superstition. Nathan supplied the example of birthday candles and making wishes; not only were birthdays initially superstitious, but they still are. Furthermore, Origen suggested that only pagans observe their birthdays: ancient Jews or Christians did not. Josephus also condemns birthday celebrations.

As for circumcision, it's an example of what is probably a pagan rite as opposed to being a practice rooted in pagan religious practices. To illustrate the difference: non-worshipers of Jehovah seem to have been the first persons to make iron tools. That doesn't mean it's wrong to use them. On the other hand, birthday celebrations are directly tied to magic and pagan superstition (unlike iron tools). So I'm not condemning everything pagan; only pagan religious practices and beliefs.

Ivan said...

Yes, it's been documented that some pagan cultures associated religion with their anniversary birth date. However, such associations are quite secondary, if at all relevant since they do not speak of origins but only of a particular culture's customs.

It seems one is confusing the customs associated with birthdays with the actual birthday itself. For example, cakes and candles have nothing to do with birthdays, but rather with customs associated with it in particular cultures.

There are religious pagan roots to wedding rings, yet I don't see anyone condemning them.

As for circumcision, there's probably little doubt this rite is based on the pagan's religious conviction, thus being a religiously pagan rite. Many believed that it was a superstitious or religious act ensuring fertility.

Nathan said...


You stated that you considered my reply to be presumptuous, but I noticed that you didn't interact with my central argument except to say that it isn't clear how birthdays originated. However, the argument that I presented is *independent* of the origin of birthdays and instead focuses on its customs as they are presented within a contemporary setting. As I'm sure you can appreciate, this makes the argument trivial to falsify. Indeed, all one need do is show that ritual-laden wish making is in no way superstitious or an act of magical conjuration/invocation.

However, given that ritual-laden wish making is a superset of these other notions, I hope you can see that even if you disagree with the argument, it is at least more plausible than its negation and so can be rationally held. Hence, it is rational to believe that ritual-laden wish making displeases God.


Ivan said...


I'll fully grant that the association of candles and making wishes is entirely based on superstitions. Yet, what this point seems to neglect is that candles and requesting a wish are in themselves not the actual birthday celebration. Moreover, this custom doesn't in anyway reflect the actual celebration itself or the broader customs practiced by non-Westerners.

So I'll only point out that to condemn birthday celebrations on the basis of additional, nonessential customs practiced by some Westerners, mostly children, I might add, is not a position that I would favor or support.

If I were to say that I celebrate my birthday by having a barbecue or going out to a restaurant to enjoy a nice dinner with friends and family, what is particularly condemn-able about this from a Christian perspective?

Nathan- If you have an email or place where we could discuss this further, I'd be more than willing. I'll be busy for the next few days, so I probably won't be able frequent this blog enough to continue the conversation immediately.


Nathan said...


I understand what it is like to be busy, so I'll try to be brief in attempting to address your main concern and then leave it at that.

I'm not sure if you were privy to some of the previous comments made on Edgar's blog in recent weeks, but if you were, then you will have noted that I find nothing condemnable about having a barbecue or dinner with friends; and I would certainly not want to begrudge your choice of wholesome association.

In spite of this, my responses were made in order to demonstrate that the central customs inherent in contemporary birthday celebrations are still to be considered superstitious. Given that you seem to have conceded this point I can understand why an effort is made to try to draw a distinction between the day and its events – but this is a distinction that is not made within the broader culture to which we minister.

Now, if such a distinction is not made by those to whom we minister, why would a Christian behave as though it is? Furthermore, if a Christian were to behave as though it is, what should they say to the unbeliever that thinks it isn't? To clarify, when an event is conjoined to superstition, it becomes important for a Christian to reflect upon their patronage in such a way that an unbeliever won't accidentally confuse their stance and be made to stumble due to an inconsistency (cf. 1 Tim. 3:7; 1 Cor. 8:9). This same principle is espoused by the apostle Paul (2 Cor. 6:3ff, hAGNOTHS) and it is still germane to the Christian ministry today. In addition, the Scriptures seem to offer a cautionary notice concerning the subtle influence of pagan religious ritual - even juxtaposing the weakness of man against the seduction of ceremony (Deut. 12:30; Jer. 10:2-3).

In sum, whether the Christian is eating or drinking they should strive to bring glory to God (1 Cor. 10:31). Since the birthday plate has long been soiled by the food of idols, can Christians really take it upon themselves to scrape the dish and rededicate it to the living God? Hindsight has proven that these kinds of impulses result in highly questionable practices. Yet, seeing that the unbeliever almost universally still partakes of this particular unclean dish, I hope that you can understand (a fortiori) why I consider that the believer's best course of action is to refrain from the offering altogether.


Ivan said...

Hello, Nathan:

I remain highly skeptical that blowing out candles and making wishes are “central customs inherent in contemporary birthday celebrations.” This may be the case in some segments of Western pop culture, but in my experience real world accounts are quite different. I’m also inclined to believe that many are aware of the distinction between the meaning and recognition of one’s anniversary birth date and the curated customs a particular culture may or may not partake in.

Your emphasis on the unbeliever is admirable, but I’m not sure it accurately reflects the times we live in. Even if one were to partake in the blowing out of candles and wish-making, it would seem that it is not the case, especially in the secular culture we live in, that anyone would seriously be troubled because he or she thinks that that particular person is appealing to superstition or even idol gods. Indeed, since the origins of some festivities have long been forgotten or have been lost to history, that superstition, magic, or what have you, would be conjured up in the unbeliever’s mind seems utterly unlikely.
Considering the extent of this dialogue I am convinced that this issue boils down to whether you believe the origins of certain festivities can be expunged.

My question to you is, do you believe that the meaning of certain days can evolve and change over time?

Nathan said...


You're welcome to your scepticism, but your claim that it would be utterly unlikely that such traditions have forsaken their history within the mind of the unbeliever is not one that corresponds to reality. For instance, the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) and the popular children's birthday book by Mary D. Lankford are just two relevant examples which affirm that many people from disparate cultures still hold superstitious beliefs concerning core birthday traditions, viz. candle blowing and wish-making. While I support your reflective analysis, it appears that your estimation of these practices has relied too heavily on personal experience and not enough on contemporary cross-cultural research.

This leads me to your question, "do you believe that the meaning of certain days can evolve and change over time?" My answer is yes, of course they can; but let's not equivocate between the evolution of meaning and the elimination of meaning. As has been demonstrated, there are customs central to the birthday celebration which are based on superstitioun (in fact, in your next to last reply you admitted that these practices were based on supersition). Since credible historical and culturally relevant reasons have been given to think that these practices are *still* superstitious today, it follows that superstition has not sufficiently been eliminated by any apparaent evolution. If it hasn't been eliminated, then all of the Scriptural admonition applicable to pagan religious ritual still stands; and if these admonitions still stand, then the Christian has good reasons to review their involvement with birthdays.

I have appreciated your candor in this discussion, Ivan. I doubt that I can contribute more to it than I have already, but I did want to conclude by clarifying that I don't think that considering the unbeliever when ministering to them is just an admirable action. Instead, I consider it to be a stern apostolic recommendation (2 Cor. 6:3).