by Pastor Brian Phillips
Pastor Doug Wilson offered four “Presbyterian caveats” in support of not observing Lent. But, given the large and growing number of Reformed, Presbyterian, and other Protestant and evangelical Christians who now observe Lent, such caveats warrant more consideration – questions, if you will, rather than statements. In part one of this article, I offered some thoughts on the first two caveats, posed as questions. Here, I do the same with the last two.
3 – Does Lenten observance reveal the “rootlessness” of evangelicals?
On this point, Wilson commends Dr. Carl Trueman’s article “Ash Wednesday: Pick and Choosing Our Piety” where he offers multiple objections to Ash Wednesday and Lenten observance. Among them, he says, “I suspect that the reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything… Yet if your own tradition lacks the historical, liturgical and theological depth for which you are looking, it may be time to join a church which can provide the same.”
I would agree wholeheartedly that modern evangelicalism suffers from liturgical poverty. In fact, I would call it liturgical squalor. I would also agree that fleeing such churches could be a good move. However, why would an evangelical who is fed up with the lack of “historical, liturgical, and theological depth” join a church which, according to Trueman’s (and Wilson’s) description, would explicitly not provide that depth for which they are already searching through the specific observance of Ash Wednesday and Lent? It seems an odd invitation: Join our church because we also do not observe the things you increasingly see as important.
Dr. Trueman counters that the need is not for evangelicals to observe days like Ash Wednesday or seasons like Lent, but rather to embrace a higher view of the Lord’s Day. He writes, “Presbyterianism has its liturgical calendar, its way of marking time: Six days of earthly pursuits and one day of rest and gathered worship.” Evangelicals do need greater appreciation of the Sabbath, but Trueman seems to assume that this would (or should) rule out the observance of other days. But, observance of Ash Wednesday in no way indicates that one despises or neglects the Lord’s Day, as observance of Advent does not indicate that one neglects the Resurrection (for more on Ash Wednesday, see here).
The Presbyterian and Reformed world does not speak with a uniform voice on the observance of days. In fact, as mentioned in part one of this article, the Westminster Confession of Faith states that the “ordinary religious worship of God” may also be accompanied by “religious oaths, vows, solemn fastings, and thanksgivings upon special occasions, which are, in their several times and seasons, to be used in an holy and religious manner” (XXI.5). Special seasons or occasions of both fasting and thanksgiving are permissible and in no way detract from faithful observance of the Lord’s Day. More to the immediate point, given that the Lenten fast is suspended on Sundays, for celebration and feasting on the day of Christ’s resurrection, one could argue that the Lord’s Day is emphasized during Lent, not neglected.
Trueman further argues that Ash Wednesday is unnecessary because its message of repentance and forgiveness is “conveyed by the reading of God’s Word, particularly the Law, followed by a corporate prayer of confession and then some words of gospel forgiveness drawn from an appropriate passage and read out loud to the congregation by the minister.” He seems to describe part of what many call “covenant renewal worship,” which is based on the Old Testament pattern of offerings – sin offering, then burnt or ascension offering, then peace offering (cf. Leviticus 9). The result is a biblically, historically, and theologically rich liturgy. But, this Old Testament liturgy, given to be observed on the Sabbath, was also accompanied by days of fasting and feasting. Why accept part of the Old Testament pattern of worship and covenant life, but reject others? We should observe a rich liturgy (biblically, historically, and theologically) on the Lord’s Day and observe days or seasons of feasting and fasting.
Continuing, he claims, “When Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals start attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent, one can only conclude that they have either been poorly instructed in the theology or the history of their own traditions, or that they have no theology and history.”
Is this the only thing one could conclude? Given what has already been argued here, from both Scripture and the Westminster Confession, it seems that one could conclude that some Presbyterians are attending Ash Wednesday services and observing Lent because their understanding of history and theology has grown. Presbyterians are not dispensationalists, which means we can and do find authority and value in the Old Testament and its patterns (to what extent, of course, is hotly debated – like nearly every issue brought up among Presbyterians), and those patterns inform our liturgies, our theology, and they should inform our calendars. Granted, Presbyterians who observe Ash Wednesday and Lent might be out of step with certain strains of Presbyterianism, but that does not mean they are out of step with broader Presbyterian and Reformed theology or tradition.
Additionally, being a historically faithful Presbyterian (or Baptist or free church evangelical, for that matter) does not require acting as if nothing good happened before 1517. When Protestants of various stripes observe Lent, they may step outside of their particular denomination’s traditions, but they are not outside of Christian tradition. It seems odd to tell those Christians that, in order to have greater historical depth, they must neglect Christian traditions that began in the fourth century (conservatively) and embrace those that began in the sixteenth, even when the earlier traditions do not violate Scripture, the Creeds, or the Confession of Faith. Odd, that is, unless our goal is merely to deepen denominational distinctives.
One final contention from Dr. Trueman is what could be called the “hipster” accusation. He writes, “I also fear that it speaks of a certain carnality: The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.” In other words, they hold to Ash Wednesday or Lent ironically, for the sake of appearances, while neglecting the substance.
These assumptions do not seem to add up. Why would we assume that someone from a liturgically-impoverished evangelical tradition, who is “poorly instructed in the theology or history of their own tradition,” yet recognizes these deficiencies, would only observe Ash Wednesday or Lent out of ironic, superficial consumerism? Wouldn’t a Presbyterian who longs for richer liturgies, deeper historical and biblical awareness, and greater theological sense to take root in the American church should take heart in such developments? Why would those of us who lament the state of American evangelicalism respond with more lament when we see trends away from it?
Rather than seeing the growth of evangelical Lenten observance as a negative development or consigning them as hipsters, we should welcome it as a sign of maturation. And, if it does reveal dissatisfaction with their impoverished traditions, haven’t we been begging them to see it all along? Such trends represent tremendous pastoral opportunities to shepherd “rootless” evangelicals, rather than simply assign flippant or ironic motives, which we could not possibly know and have little right to assume.
4 – Is it more important to fast during Advent since that season is so commercialized?
Wilson argues that keeping Lent is not a priority for him because everyone already understands that it is a season of fasting. Rather, he keeps the Advent fast, and sees that as more important because so many think of Advent as a four-week extension of the Christmas celebration. He writes, “I celebrate Advent and Christmas because it has been successfully highjacked by commercial interests. Not one person in a hundred knows that Advent is supposed to be a penitential season, and not one person in a thousand doesn’t know that you are supposed to ‘give stuff up’ for Lent.”
Wilson’s disdain for the over-commercialization of Advent, which he rightly notes is a penitential season rather than an extended pre-Christmas party, is admirable. But, while attempting a kind of counter-cultural switcheroo, it seems rather like the culture is dictating which penitential seasons he observes. Given our culture’s proclivity towards indulging every whim and desire, is it pastorally wise to pick a fight with the one season of self-denial they still recognize? Fasting is a widely neglected spiritual discipline within the Church already, so we should feel no need to encourage further neglect.
The church calendar, like the pattern of fasting and feasting in the Old Testament, teaches us to remember the works of God for His people. Lent, like Advent, helps us view our days through the lens of Christ. In Advent, we anticipate His birth with fasting, prayer, and a growing longing for Him and, yes, we should do so even more faithfully given the commercialization of the season. And, in Lent, we commemorate Christ’s fasting, journey to the cross, and His crucifixion.
Sure, there is more cultural familiarity with Lent as a penitential season, but so what? Knowledge of the season’s meaning, or lack thereof, has no bearing on whether we should keep it correctly. There is great cultural awareness that Easter has some connection with the resurrection of Christ, but I will continue celebrating it in spite of insistence that it also has something to do with bunnies. Partial or false observance by some should not create negligent observance by those who know to do better.