All posts by philipmt

Phil Thompson is a husband and father who serves as a lay teacher at The Church at Cherrydale in Greenville, SC and works in the travel industry. He holds a MA in Theological Studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary and an MDiv from Columbia International University.

Schaeffer on Evangelical Political Alliances

In Shaeffer’s The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, he lays out three broken options to the fractured politics of his day. He articulates them as hedonism, the dictatorship of the 51 percent, and establishment elitism/true dictatorship (WFS 4:27–28). Another way of framing these three tensions is that of anarchy, demagoguery, and oligarchy. Shaeffer argues that people are pulled to one of these three extremes as confidence in objective truth erodes in the center (perhaps giving deeper meaning to Robert Kennedy’s use of Yeat’s “the centre cannot hold”).

Shaeffer goes on to explain how groups are pulled into these positions and makes the observation that evangelicals are particularly susceptible toward the third option:

The danger is that the evangelical, being so committed to middle-class norms [affluence and personal peace at any price] and often elevating these norms to an equal place with God’s absolutes, will slide without thought into accepting some form of establishment elite. (WFS 4:29)

In other words, as evangelicals grab for functional idols in wealth and security, they must necessarily let go of the functional authority of Scripture. As this happens, they become far more susceptible to strong and influential personalities who seem to uphold their values (i.e., wealth, security, and a veneer of God-talk).

My personal observation here is that the the past 50 years since Shaeffer wrote these words has borne out this reality all the more. I would suggest that Shaeffer’s three tensions are evident in American culture: radical left and right pulling toward anarchy, the left generally pulling toward the tyranny of the 51%, and the right generally opting for hope in a populist wealthy elite.

Evangelicals, following the course of rightward, middle-class norms, fall into the trap of seeing influential elites as allies in a binary quest for their idolatrous personal absolutes. Here Schaeffer states the tension well:

My observation of many young pastors and others is this: suddenly they are confronted by some two camps and they are told: “Choose, choose, choose.” By God’s grace they must say, “I will not choose between these two. I stand alone with God, the God who has spoken in the Scripture, the God who is the infinite-personal God, and neither of your two sides is standing there. So if I seem to be saying the same thing at some one point, understand that I am a cobelligerent at this particular place, but I am not an ally.”

The danger is that the older evangelical with his middle-class orientation will forget this distinction and become an ally of an establishment elite, and at the same time his son or daughter will forget the distinction and become an ally of some “leftish” elite. We must say what the Bible says when it causes us to seem to be saying what others are saying, such as “Justice!” or “Stop the meaningless bombings!” But what we must never forget that this is only a passing cobelligerency and not an alliance. (WFS 4:31)

And therein lies the evangelical problem. We have formed political alliances on the basis of values formed in the idol workshop of consumerism and materialism. We have forgotten that our allegiance does not lie with our party but with our God.

So what will be the result of the evangelical alliances with the elite who offer preservation of middle-class norms? Shaeffer closes with this observation:

If this revolution comes from either side, our culture will be changed still further. The last remnants of Christian memory in culture will be eliminated, and freedoms gone. If the revolution comes from the establishment, it will be much more gradual, much less painful for the Christian––for a while. But eventually it will be as total. We must not opt for one as against the other just because it seems to give a little peace for a little time. That is an enormous mistake, because both are equally non-Christian and eventually both will be equal in smashing out the freedoms which we have had. (WFS 35)

Perhaps the political alliances of the majority of evangelicals are fostering this sort of gradualism. Although the smashing of freedoms is a concern, for sure, my greater concern is the smashing of true Christianity along the way. If evangelicals sell their souls to the populist elite, what of true Christianity remains? What if the legacy of Christianity at the beginning of the twenty-first century is, as Yeats described it?

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Francis Schaeffer on Christian Social Action

In addressing the problem of evil and the nature of man using the foil of Albert Camus’ The Plague, Francis Schaeffer closes with the following insights:

A Christian can fight what is wrong in the world with compassion and know that as he hates these things, God hates them too. God hates them on the high price of the death of Christ.

But if I live in a world of nonabsolutes and would fight social injustice on the mood of the moment, how can I establish what social justice is? What criterion do I have to distinguish between right and wrong so that I can know what I should be fighting? Is it not possible that I could in fact acquiesce in evil and stamp out good? The word “love” cannot tell me how to discern, for within the humanistic framework love can have no defined meaning. But once I comprehend that the Christ who came to die to end “the plague” both wept and was angry at the plague’s effects, I have a reason for fighting that does not rest merely on my momentary disposition, or the shifting consensus of men. (CWFS, The God Who Is There, 117–18)

Now comes the convicting part, where Schaeffer presses his Christian readers to do more than accept the moral high ground:

But the Christian also needs to be challenged at this point. The fact that he alone has a sufficient standard by which to fight evil does not mean that he will so fight. The Christian is the real radical of our generation, for he stands against the monolithic, modern concept of truth as relative. But too often, instead of being the radical, standing against the shifting sands of relativism, he subsides into merely maintaining the status quo. If it is true that evil is evil, that God hates it to the point of the cross, and that there is a moral law fixed in what God is in Himself, then Christians should be the first into the field against what is wrong––including man’s inhumanity to man. (CWFS, The God Who Is There, 118)

In this way, Schaeffer calls on believers to not just adopt a Christian worldview but to practice the Christian worldview––not just preach a gospel of justification but a gospel of sanctification too. In our day, as many attempt to create a dichotomy between Christianity and social actions and issues, Schaeffer’s call to reject the dichotomy rings true and insightfully prescient.

Augustine on Appropriating Insights from Non-Christian Worldviews

Whatever has been rightly said by the heathen, we must appropriate to our uses.

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also, that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life, we must take and turn to a Christian use.

And what else have many good and faithful men among our brethren done? Do we not see with what a quantity of gold and silver and garments Cyprian, that most persuasive teacher and most blessed martyr, was loaded when he came out of Egypt? How much Lactantius brought with him? And Victorious, and Optatus, and Hilary, not to speak of living men! How much Greeks out of number have borrowed! And prior to all these, that most faithful servant of God, Moses, had done the same thing; for of him it is written that he was learned in all the wisdom of the Egyptians. And to none of all these would heathen superstition (especially in those times when, kicking against the yoke of Christ, it was persecuting the Christians) have ever furnished branches of knowledge it held useful, if it had suspected they were about to turn them to the use of worshipping the One God, and thereby overturning the vain worship of idols. But they gave their gold and their silver and their garments to the people of God as they were going out of Egypt, not knowing how the things they gave would be turned to the service of Christ. For what was done at the time of the exodus was no doubt a type prefiguring what happens now. And this I say without prejudice to any other interpretation that may be as good, or better.

De Doctrina Christiana 2.40

Is December 25th a Pagan Holiday?

A quick Google search will find millions of articles connecting the date of Christmas to a pagan Roman festival. They come from websites on history, news, and theology, to name a few. Their claim isn’t a new one, by any stretch. One of the first assertions of this connection between a festival of the sun and Christmas came from the Syriac Orthodox Bishop Jacob Bar-Salibi, writing from Mesopotamia in the 12th century (see Bibliotecha orientalis Clementino-Vaticanae 2:164). But does that claim stand up to historical scrutiny?

Clarifying the Question

At the outset, I want to ensure that we frame the question well. The question that I’m going to answer is not, “Was December 25th the exact day of Jesus’ birth?” That’s a muddy question to attempt to answer for a number of reasons. It raises issues of whether shepherds would be in the field on a December night and the precision of numerous points of evidence we’ll address in a bit.
Another question that is beyond the scope of this article is whether modern Christmas traditions like the Christmas tree, Yule log, mistletoe, etc. are pagan adaptations. I’m also not going to wade into whether the adaptation or overhauling of pagan holidays or practices pose a moral problem for Christians. Instead, I will answer the question, “Did the early church adopt a pagan holiday or did they have other reasons for adopting the December 25th date for Christmas?”
I would affirm that the church had solid non-pagan reasons for adopting the December 25th date for Christmas. Some of these reasons have more validity to me than others, but I find the evidence for non-pagan origins of the December 25th date of Christmas compelling. Unlike other posts along these lines, I have tried, where possible, to link to original source material so readers who wish to check my research can do so.

The Early Christian Resistance to Paganism

Early Christians detested the thought of amalgamating their faith with Roman paganism or any other sort of non-Christian faith. Owing to its Jewish origin and the writings of the New Testament, early Christians held a strong position against syncretistic efforts, choosing rather to suffer persecution than to add Christ to the Roman pantheon or adapt Christian teaching or practice to that of the pagan culture. Some early examples of this trend are worth noting.
In the Epistle to Diognetus, a writer who merely designates himself as a “disciple” writes one of the early examples of Christian apologetics (probably mid- to late-second century). In his second chapter, the writer explains why Christians hold pagan practices in “contempt.” Justin Martyr is another early example of Christian apologists (early- to late-second century). Time-and-again, Justin excoriates pagan practices, leaving no room for any sort of amalgamation with pagan practices (see particularly his “First Apology” chapters 9 and 24). A third early exemplar of this anti-pagan tradition in the early church is Irenaeus (mid second to early third century). In his second book of “Against Heresies,” one of his arguments that he deploys to attack the Gnostic teachings of Valentinus is that they have been derived from pagan mythology. Irenaeus expects his readers to detest any sort of substitution of Christian nomenclature, theology, or practice with that of paganism.
But while the early Christians resisted syncretistic practices, the cults of the day exercised little discretion in borrowing from Christian traditions. In fact, one of the early offenders in this regard was the cult of Mithras. Mithras was a cult that gained popularity in the Roman empire during the first century alongside Christianity. Details of the cult remain sparse, leading to many scholarly conjectures about its origins and practices. While scholars debate whether the early Christian apologists had an accurate understanding of Mithraism, we do have two indications of a syncretistic effort within the Mithras cult. For example, during the second century, Justin Martyr accuses Mithraism of borrowing the Christian elements of the Eucharist. And later Tertullian (late second to early third century) suggests that Mithraism and other pagan traditions, as servants of Satan, are attempting to borrow Christian practices as their own.
Academics in the field of history of religions frequently argue that because Mithraism pre-dated Christianity (Mithras was the Persian sun god, with extant references before the time of Christ), Christians must have adopted and adapted elements of the cult in their own worship and theology. But all of the scholarly work on Mithraism admits several important elements:

  1. Mithraism was not static, but evolved rapidly as it encountered Roman culture and religions. Even the amalgamation with Sol Invictus was part of this evolution. To posit that Mithraism, favored by the emperors of the era, incorporated Christian elements to draw Roman citizens away from Christianity makes more sense than the persecuted church adapting Christianity to Mithraism (or the early generation of Jewish disciples adapting Judaism to Mithraism).
  2. Mithraism lacks robust extant primary sources for study. We do have some extant references and know that some writers in the ancient world provided far more detail on the cult. Because many of the details are lacking, academics are left to interpret history, to fill in the blanks.
  3. Because of the evolving nature and because we don’t have many sources to research, later summaries of the practices and beliefs surrounding Mithras and Sol Invictus have been interpolated into the historic practices of the cult. The best way to unravel the connection is to examine the trail of historical evidence surrounding specific elements where overlap is alleged to find their source. This article attempts to do this with the most notable of alleged Mithras/Christianity overlaps.

In short, early in Christian tradition we find deep-seated resistance to any sort of syncretistic amalgamations of Christian worship and practice (particularly of Mithraism). Instead, we find that Roman paganism (particularly Mithraism) was well positioned to absorb unique Christian practices for their own.

Which Came First?

We’ve thus far established that it seems plausible that the Mithras cult borrowed from Christianity rather than the other way around. So what does this have to do with the date of Christmas? The legend of “pagan Christmas” suggests that Christians borrowed the December 25th date from Natalis Invicti, the birth of Sol Invictus–a sister cult to that of Mithras. In order for this legend to be true, we need evidence that supports (a) prior pagan celebrations on December 25 and (b) later Christian celebrations on December 25. Instead, here’s what we find when we examine the source material:

  1. A pagan holiday on December 25th is is poorly attested.
    • Many sources (see this one in the Washington Post, for a more popular example) point to the Roman Emperor Aurelian as “the Father of Christmas”, alleging that he launched the holiday of Natalis Invicti in AD 274. This late third century date for Natalis Invicti, however, is unsubstantiated. We know that Aurelian returned to Rome in triumph and dedicated a temple to the Sun (for extensive research on this temple and related imagery, see Roger Pearse’s articles). Beyond those facts, we find nothing about December 25th in the three key primary sources on Aurelian (Historia Augusta, “The Deified Aurelian”, XXV.6; Sextus Aurelius Victor, Epitome de Caesaribus XXXV; Eutropius, Abridgement of Roman History IX.13–15). As best I can tell by chasing the primary sources, historians who posit the AD 274 origin of the December 25th celebration are reading more recent practices back into what may have happened in 274.
    • So what is that more recent source that is read back into Aurelian’s temple dedication? The first indication of the Natalis Invicti celebration on December 25th comes from a mid 4th century calendar that features key dates celebrated by the Roman government in the year 354. There it notes “N·INVICTI·CM·XXX.” Even here, we should note that the description here is not incredibly specific, lacking the word “SOL”, which appears elsewhere in the calendar. “CM·XXX” indicates an event that involved 30 races in the Roman circus. It should also be noted that later in the same document, when listing Christian observances, the same date is listed as the “birth of Christ in Bethlehem of Judea.” In summary, the “Chronography of 354” is by no means a straightforward document. While the dates included in the chronography surely began at an earlier time, this is the first possible historical instance of a pagan December 25th celebration; however, this is not the first historical instance of December 25th being noted as the birthday of Jesus.
  2. A Christian tradition supporting December 25th as the birthdate of Jesus Christ has much earlier attestation in ancient literature.
  3. Questionable sources are often cited as evidence for a “pagan Christmas” background.
    • One such example is the quotation alleged to be from Augustine: “We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it.” It would be possible to read this statement either as an admission that December 25th was initially adopted to subvert earlier pagan tradition or as a defense of Christian tradition’s non-pagan foundations. But even here, I can’t find any primary source for this quotation.
    • Another category in question is the iconography surrounding Sol Invictus. While some sources on the topic draw on coinage or inscriptions for primary information on Sol Invictus and how it may integrate with Christianity, many of the alleged icons are questionable, at best.
    • A variety of claims about Christian/Mithraic parallels that work well on memes or in rapid-fire YouTube comments don’t stand up to careful analysis. This list of four alleged parallels with some helpful documentation will help kickstart some helpful research.
    • I’ve seen a number of sources pointing to more ancient Juvenalia or Saturnalia celebrations as the source for the December 25th date of Christmas; however, the dates for these festivals occurred earlier in December.

In summary: While Christians in the fifth century and beyond showed gradually greater degrees of syncretism, careful historians will be hard-pressed to make the case that even in the second and early third centuries–before the legalization of Christianity–that Christians were already adopting and adapting the pagan religions of Rome. Further, the earliest sources that specifically refer to the Christian celebration of Christ’s birth and not to any pagan festival.
So if December 25th wasn’t a pagan holiday, where else could it have come from? Let’s look at three intriguing possibilities.

Possible Source #1: The Early Church Understood the Jewish Priestly Calendar

This argument runs as follows:

  1. The course of priests on duty when the temple was destroyed can be estimated with a reasonable degree of accuracy (see Josef Heinrich Friedlieb’s Leben J. Christi des Erlösers. Münster, 1887, p. 312). This starting point may have been more commonly understood in Jewish families in the first and second centuries.
  2. There were 24 courses of priests (Neh. 12:12–21), of which Abijah is 8th. Working back from the course of Joarib serving on the 9th of Av (August 4th) in AD 70, you can determine when each course of priests served.
  3. Zacharias was from the course of Abijah (Luke 1:5), the eighth course of priests (Neh. 12:17), meaning that he would have served both during the 3rd week of Nisan (including the feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread) and the 2nd week of Tishri (including the Day of Atonement) in 5 BC.
  4. If the latter week is correct, then we can add 280 days (give or take a little) and arrive at the end of June for the birth of John the Baptist. Catholic tradition places the date of John’s birth on June 24.
  5. Now we just have to add 6 months to June 24 to find out when Jesus was born, because John was 6 months older than Jesus (Luke 1:24). This puts us at December 24–25.

There are some challenges with this schema:

  1. The entire argument, from our perspective, depends on the accuracy of Friedlieb’s claim regarding the priestly course of Joarib serving on the 9th of Av in AD 70.
  2. Because there were 24 courses of priests and 50 weeks in the year, the year we select for the birth of Christ could make a big difference in how this schema works.
  3. There is a 50/50 chance that Zacharias would have served either in Nisan or Tishri on the given year. Tishri backs up the chronology for the traditional dates, but it isn’t the only possibility. Proponents of this view may point to the “Infancy Gospel of James”, which has Zacharias entering the most holy place (see section 8), an act associated with the Day of Atonement. I don’t find the argument from the infancy gospel convincing.

Those challenges stated, if our understanding of the priestly rotation is correct and if the early church understood Zacharias as serving in the temple at or around the Day of Atonement, then it would be relatively easy to date Christmas on December 25th without any other influence.

Possible Source #2: The Early Church Counted Back from Easter

Somewhere along the line, the idea came about that Jesus was conceived on the day that he died. The origins of this thinking bear more investigation than I can trace out, but it’s a line of reasoning adopted by Augustine:

For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.

In other words, they worked back from what they were most certain (Jesus’s death on March 25th), assumed his conception was on the same day, and calculated his birth on December 25th. And there’s a long line of interpreters who argued for the March 25th crucifixion of Christ (a substantially earlier tradition than December 25th for Christmas). See, for example, Tertullian (mid second to early third century).
While the argument for Jesus dying on the day of his conception seems incredibly forced to modern interpreters, it seems to have been a commonplace expectation of ancient interpreters. And it was reasonable enough for them to accordingly set the date of Christmas on December 25th. And the same argument seems to be in play in the Eastern Orthodox Church, where April 6th was argued as Christ’s death and conception and January 6th for his birth.
In summary, there is good reason to believe that the early church was not determining Easter based on Sol Invictus, but rather determining Christmas based on Easter.

Possible Source #3: The Early Church Understood the Historical Events Surrounding Christmas

Based on what we know of the eclipse around the time of Herod’s final illness, placing it in April of 4 BC, we can work backwards a few weeks for the disease to run its course, three to four weeks for the flight to Egypt, one week for Herod’s wait for the magi, and 6 weeks of purification before Jesus was presented. This gives a November or December date for Christmas (see Maier pages 124 and 127).
The results here are a little more speculative, but the arguments are plausible because they rely on a known historical event as recorded by Josephus. They also don’t arrive exactly at the specific date of December 25th, but a little flexibility in the weeks could make it work.


Without making an appeal to history (i.e., that the early church had better access to historical records and sources), we can chart three possible routes for the early church to arrive at the December 25th date of Christmas via known and extant sources. We can also make a compelling case that pagan alternatives would have been rejected by Christians at this time and that the Christian mentions of the December 25th date predate the mentions of a pagan celebration. So I feel confident in arguing that December 25th was not a pagan holiday converted into a Christian one, but a date arrived at by one of many possible lines of evidence.

Additional Reading

The following sites provide some excellent jumping-off points and additional arguments related to the issue of the “pagan Christmas” festival: