Trueman, Lent, and Reformed Catholicity

Feb 16th, 2015 | By | Category: Blog Posts

In the Latin Rite liturgical calendar, this Wednesday (February 18) is Ash Wednesday, and marks the beginning of Lent, that forty-day period of fasting and abstinence in which we prepare for Easter. One intention for which we can fast and pray this Lent is the reunion of all Christians. Oddly enough, however, Lent is precisely one of the practices that stands between some in the Reformed tradition on the one hand, and the Catholic Church on the other. I was recently reminded of this when reading Carl Trueman’s “Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety” (February, 2015). Trueman, as presumably most of our readers know, is the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary. Trueman’s objection to Lent is not that according to Jesus we are supposed to wash our faces when we fast; we’ve addressed that objection elsewhere. Rather, in his article Trueman discusses his sadness [his word] at seeing a Presbyterian with a black smudged cross on his forehead on Ash Wednesday. He raises a number of objections to the practice of Lent. But as I point out below, Trueman’s opposition to Lent is at odds with his attempt to affirm “Reformed catholicity,” and thereby avoid biblicism.

Temptations of Christ
Basilica of San Marco, Venice

Trueman on Ash Wednesday

In his article Trueman writes,

What perplexes me is the need for people from these other groups [i.e. Presbyterians, Baptists, free church evangelicals] to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent. ….

The imposition of ashes is intended as a means of reminding us that we are dust and forms part of a liturgical moment when sins are ‘shriven’ or forgiven. In fact, a well-constructed worship service should do that anyway. Precisely the same thing can be 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.

An appropriately rich Reformed sacramentalism also renders Ash Wednesday irrelevant.

Trueman first objects to the pick-and-choose approach among Protestants to various traditions, claiming that “Old School Presbyterianism is “a rich enough tradition not to need to plunder the Egyptians or even the Anglicans.” When Presbyterians or Baptists or evangelicals participate in other traditions, claims Trueman, it implies that their own traditions are in some way inadequate or impoverished. And for Trueman, while that impoverishment may very well be true for free church evangelicalism, it is not true of a “rich Reformed sacramentalism,” in which what takes place in worship every Lord’s Day, and at every baptism and Lord’s Supper, makes Ash Wednesday and Lent “irrelevant.”

Trueman continues:

In light of this, I suspect that the reasons evangelicals are rediscovering Lent is as much to do with the poverty of their own liturgical tradition as anything. American evangelicals are past masters at appropriating anything that catches their fancy in church history and claiming it as their own, from the ancient Fathers as the first emergents to the Old School men of Old Princeton as the precursors of the Young, Restless, and Reformed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as modern American Evangelical. 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 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. […]

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. Or maybe they are simply exhibiting the attitude of the world around: They consume the bits and pieces which catch their attention in any tradition they find appealing, while eschewing the broader structure, demands and discipline which belonging to an historically rooted confessional community requires. Indeed, it is ironic that a season designed for self-denial is so often a symbol of this present age’s ingrained consumerism.

Carl Trueman

So Trueman’s objections can be summed up as the following three: (a) when Protestants in traditions that have not observed Lenten practices begin to do so this implies that their own Protestant traditions are impoverished, in which case they should switch traditions; (b) in the Reformed tradition what takes place every Lord’s Day and in the ordinary use of the sacraments shows this tradition not to be impoverished, and therefore in no need of Ash Wednesday or Lent; (c) such Protestants participating in Ash Wednesday or Lent are succumbing to an “ecclectic consumerism” regarding what “catches their fancy,” and this reflects a carnal desire to look “cool” and engage in an ostentatious display of their spirituality that is ignorant of the history of their traditions, rather than buckle down and embrace the demands and disciplines of “belonging to an historically rooted confessional community.”

Trueman’s first two objections presuppose a pragmatic reductionism in which nothing not needed should be included, as though what rightly belongs to tradition is only what is absolutely needed, and not also what is good or helpful, even if not absolutely needed. Such pragmatism is a modern notion, not itself part of the Church’s long-standing tradition, within which there is a great openness to practices that are helpful, but not absolutely necessary. Regarding Trueman’s third objection, no doubt there are Christians (Catholic and Protestant) who observe Ash Wednesday and Lent for the wrong reasons. But that does not rule out the possibility that there could be an authentic and edifying way of engaging in these practices. Abuse does not nullify proper use.

Lent’s Catholicity

Trueman’s article struck me, however, because I had just read his backcover endorsement of Michael Allen and Scott Swain’s book titled Reformed Catholicity: The Promise of Retrieval for Theology and Biblical Interpretation (Baker, 2015), and written a brief critical evaluation of its project. The primary thesis of that book is that the Reformed tradition embraces small ‘c’ catholicity and catholic tradition. Trueman’s Ref21 had posted a positive review of the book, and Trueman’s backcover endorsement reads as follows:

The notion of Scripture alone has come to be used in recent decades as a means of cutting off Protestantism from its own theological and ecclesiological history. The result is a faith that has too often proved fatally vulnerable to critique from Roman Catholics or degenerated into a theologically thin and ahistorical biblicism. In this densely argued but fascinating book, Scott Swain and Michael Allen demonstrate that classic Reformed Protestantism has an understanding of Scripture, of tradition, and of ecclesiology that anchors the Christian faith in biblical exegesis and at the same time provides the framework and the classical categories for avoiding both the Roman and biblicist options. Drawing on recent historical scholarship and engaging with contemporary Christian thought across the confessional spectrum, this is a bracing manifesto that sets out a clear pathway for the future of Protestantism.

It seems to me that Trueman’s rejection of Lent is at odds with his endorsement of Reformed catholicity. Here’s why. If even Lent is not counted as part of catholicity or ‘catholic tradition,’ then the term ‘catholicity’ in ‘Reformed catholicity’ is doing no semantic work, and thus the term ‘Reformed catholicity’ is reduced in meaning to “the Reformed interpretation of Scripture.” That’s because the universality of Lenten practice in the early Church makes Lent a good test case for the claim that “sola scriptura” acknowledges the authority of catholic tradition, and thus does not reduce to “solo scriptura.”

Of course much could be said regarding the early Church practice of Lent, and this is only a blog post, but let’s consider a few pieces of evidence from the early Church. The Nicene Creed was formulated at the first ecumenical council at Nicea in AD 325. Among the canons from that council can be found the following words within the fifth canon:

And let these synods be held, the one before Lent, (that the pure Gift may be offered to God after all bitterness has been put away), and let the second be held about autumn.

According to St. Athanasius, who attended the council, there were 318 bishops from all over the world present at this council. But the records do not provide any evidence that the bishops established Lent; rather, in the historical record they speak of Lent as a given, as a liturgical reference point in relation to which they plan the time of other events. So this evidence suggests that at the time of the first ecumenical council the whole Church throughout the world took Lent as a given, before even the canon of Scripture had been determined, before the divinity of the Holy Spirit had been defined in the second ecumenical council, and before one-Person-in-two-natures Christology had been defined in the third and fourth ecumenical councils in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The fourth century Church historian Eusebius, for example, reports that in the late second century there was a difference in practice between the parishes of Asia and those of the rest of the world regarding when to end “the fast.” He writes:

A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour.

Synods and assemblies of bishops were held on this account, and all, with one consent, through mutual correspondence drew up an ecclesiastical decree, that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be celebrated on no other but the Lord’s day, and that we should observe the close of the paschal fast on this day only. There is still extant a writing of those who were then assembled in Palestine, over whom Theophilus, bishop of Cæsarea, and Narcissus, bishop of Jerusalem, presided. And there is also another writing extant of those who were assembled at Rome to consider the same question, which bears the name of Bishop Victor; also of the bishops in Pontus over whom Palmas, as the oldest, presided; and of the parishes in Gaul of which Irenæus was bishop, and of those in Osrhoëne and the cities there; and a personal letter of Bacchylus, bishop of the church at Corinth, and of a great many others, who uttered the same opinion and judgment, and cast the same vote.

And that which has been given above was their unanimous decision. (Church History 5.23, my emphases)

This second century dispute was over which day to end the fast and celebrate Christ’s resurrection. There was also dispute during this time regarding what form the fast should take during the Triduum, i.e. the period of three days that begins on Maundy Thursday and ends on Easter Sunday. What was not under dispute was the practice of fasting prior to celebrating Christ’s resurrection. Rather, as Eusebius implies, in the second half of the second century, the practice of fasting prior to Easter was already celebrated in all the churches around the world. And according to Eusebius, St. Irenaeus wrote that even these variations in the form of fasting extended back to his ancestors: “And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors.” (Church History, 5.24) But because St. Irenaeus was an auditor (a hearer) and student of St. Polycarp, who was himself an auditor of the Apostle John, the only “ancestors” to which St. Irenaeus can be referring were either “apostolic fathers” or the Apostles themselves.

St. Athanasius, bishop of the Church at Alexandria, wrote the following to his Church in AD 330, just five years after the first ecumenical council:

We begin the fast of forty days on the 13th of the month Phamenoth (March 9). After we have given ourselves to fasting in continued succession, let us begin the holy Paschal week on the 18th of the month Pharmuthi (April 13). Then resting on the 23rd of the same month Pharmuthi (April 18), and keeping the feast afterwards on the first of the week, on the 24th (April 19), let us add to these the seven weeks of the great Pentecost, wholly rejoicing and exulting in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion in the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen. (Letter 2)

In AD 340, in his letter from Rome to Serapion, St. Athanasius wrote:

But I have further deemed it highly necessary and very urgent, to make known to your modesty— for I have written this to each one— that you should proclaim the fast of forty days to the brethren, and persuade them to fast, lest, while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt should be derided, as the only people who do not fast, but take our pleasure in these days. For if, on account of the Letter [not] being yet read, we do not fast, we should take away this pretext, and it should be read before the fast of forty days, so that they may not make this an excuse for neglect or fasting. Also, when it is read, they may be able to learn about the fast. But O, my beloved, whether in this way or any other, persuade and teach them to fast the forty days. For it is a disgrace that when all the world does this, those alone who are in Egypt, instead of fasting, should find their pleasure. For even I being grieved because men deride us for this, have been constrained to write to you.

Note that concerning Lent he explains that “all the world does this,” and exhorts the presbyter Serapion to make sure the people fast, and read the letter from him (as bishop) to his parishioners so that they have no excuse for not fasting.

St. Jerome likewise writes:

We, according to the apostolic tradition (in which the whole world is at one with us), fast through one Lent yearly … I do not mean, of course, that it is unlawful to fast at other times through the year — always excepting Pentecost — only that while in Lent it is a duty of obligation, at other seasons it is a matter of choice.” (Letter 41, To Marcella, my emphasis)

Notice both that Lent is observed by “the whole [Christian] world,” according to St. Jerome, and that it is an “apostolic” tradition.

In the fifth century, St. Leo the Great refers to Lent as an apostolic institution, writing, “That the Apostolic institution of forty days might be fulfilled by fasting.” (Serm. ii. v. ix. de Quadragesima) So do St. Cyril of Alexandria and St. Isidore of Seville.

More could be said here, but the evidence indicates that at least by the second century, some kind of pre-Easter fasting was practiced universally by the whole Church. The second century disputes regarding the timing of this fast only confirm the point. Therefore if anything ought to count as “catholic” tradition, it ought to be Lent. As St. Augustine noted, “Whatever the universal church holds and has always held, even without conciliar approval, is most rightly believed to have been handed down by apostolic authority. (On Baptism, Against the Donatists, 4.24.31) Yet here the problem with Trueman’s position becomes apparent. On the one hand he is affirming “catholic tradition” in his endorsement of “Reformed catholicity.” On the other hand he rejects Lent, which is, as the evidence above indicates, arguably one of the most catholic traditions there is.

The Present controversy Over Lent Within the Reformed Tradition

The Reformed community, however, is itself not entirely in internal agreement concerning Lent. In 2013 Matthew Smethurst at the largely Reformed site “The Gospel Coalition” wrote an article titled “Lent Is About Jesus: A Free Devotional Guide,” in which he proposed that Protestants participate in the observance of Lent. This provoked a number of critical responses from other Protestant leaders, such as Darryl Hart’s “Playing with Lenten Fire,” Ref21’s reposting of Jeremy Walker’s “This Lent I am giving up … reticence,” Carl Trueman’s linking to the Reformed Baptist article titled “To Lent or reLent? Some thoughts on a recent post at The Gospel Coalition,” Tom Chantry’s “The Lenten Brouhaha,” and R. Scott Clark’s, “Calvin on Lent.”

Anglican Chuck Colson (no, not that Chuck Colson) responded by arguing in support of observing Lent, in an article titled “Why bother with Lent?.” In response, Collin Hansen and Mark Mellinger, in a “Gospel Coalition” article titled “Should You Cancel Good Friday?” interviewed Ligon Ducan (whom I have interacted with elsewhere here: see “Ligon Duncan’s “Did the Fathers Know the Gospel?”“) regarding his reasons for not observing Lent, even though Duncan’s congregation observes Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving. During the interview Duncan claims to affirm the regulative principle. He also claims, as one of his reasons for rejecting Lent, that Lent arose in the sixth century, and that it is rooted in a theology of merit, and therefore does not fit with Reformed theology. The Reformation began, claims Duncan, when Zwingli’s followers purposely ate sausages on Good Friday, in rejection of the notion of merit. In the 13th minute of the interview, Duncan claims (without any substantiation) that Catholic liturgical observations arose from St. Cyril of Jerusalem comparing Catholic liturgical worship to other religions, and trying to spice things up, eventually turning Jerusalem into a “religious theme park.”

That Protestant-Protestant debate regarding whether Lent should be observed continued in 2014, as Michael Horton noted, between the Lutheran Todd Peperkorn and the Reformed Brian Lee. Keith Miller sided with those opposing Lent, in “Young, Restless, and Reformed Homeboys on Lenten Fasting.” Roland Barnes at The Aquila Report wrote, “Why I Don’t Observe Lent.” Trevin Wax offered a cautious but favorable endorsement of Lent. This year ARP pastor Benjamin Glaser added “Just Say No to Ash Wednesday; Or How I Learned to Stop Loving the World and Embraced Biblical Expressions of Prayer and Fasting.”

Rejecting Lent while Embracing Catholicity: An Evaluation

My point here is neither to lay out all the patristic evidence for the universal observance of Lent, nor to challenge the claims by Duncan and others regarding the allegedly bad theology inherent in the observance of Lent. Duncan’s position faces the following dilemma: either the widespread early observance of some form of Lent indicates that the whole Church from a very early time fell into false theology, which thus presupposes ecclesial deism, or the whole Church at some later point prior to the fifth or sixth century abandoned its original [orthodox] theological basis for observing Lent and adopted another [theology of merit] basis for observing Lent. The problem with the latter thesis is that there is no evidence for any universal change in the theological basis for observing Lent. Hence if according to Duncan Lent arose out of a theology of merit that is incompatible with Reformed theology, then Reformed theology does not fit with the patristic theology and practice of Lent found in the second century. In that case, however, the very notion of ‘Reformed catholicity’ is problematic. There is no point striving for ‘catholicity’ if even the universal theology and practice of the second century Church was already derailed. In that case, the attempt to embrace (and endorse) ‘catholicity’ looks very much like an “ecclectic consumerism” regarding what catches one’s fancy and makes one seem ‘cool’ in being ancient and connected and non-sectarian, something Trueman criticizes when it involves ashes and fasting.

If there are any practices that can justifiably be said to belong to tradition, Lent is surely one of them, as even the bit of patristic evidence I’ve provided above already makes clear. Hence if even the observance of Lent has no weight of authority, then there is no authoritative tradition. But in the Protestant/Reformed debate sketched out above regarding whether or not to observe Lent the fundamental question is not whether Lent is authoritative, but whether Lent is biblical and, if ‘biblical,’ then whether it is useful. Hence if Lent is part of authoritative tradition, the nature of the Protestant/Reformed debate regarding whether or not to observe Lent demonstrates precisely the thesis of my argument elsewhere that sola scriptura entails the non-authoritative character of tradition, and thus that sola scriptura reduces to “solo scriptura” in essence, even when and where some adherents of sola scriptura retain the practice of Lent and practices like Lent.

In short, either Lent is not part of tradition, in which case there is no tradition, in which case sola scriptura reduces to “solo scriptura,” or Lent is part of that tradition, in which case the Protestant debate concerning whether to observe Lent demonstrates that sola scriptura nullifies the authority of tradition, in which case sola scriptura reduces to “solo scriptura.” Either way, sola scriptura reduces to “solo scriptura.” And in that case, the attempt to embrace “Reformed catholicity” is problematic, insofar as Reformed catholicity rejects the biblicism of “solo scriptura.”

The Biblical Character of Lent

In my own reflection on Lent, I recall wondering why the early Christians had adopted universally some observation of Lent. In studying the early Church Fathers I did not come to the conclusion that this practice entered into the Church as a way of gaining merit. Undoubtedly the early Church believed in a doctrine of merit, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. But gaining merit was not the early Christian motivation for fasting before Easter. The motivation was theological, namely, union with Christ through recapitulating the events of His life, and especially His last days. The servant is not greater than his master. If Christ fasted, then we too should fast. Christ predicted that we would, when the Bridegroom was taken away. And we are not mere atomistic individuals, but a body. Therefore, we should fast together, as a community. But when is the appropriate time to fast? Surely at least on the day Christ died. How could one who loved Christ above himself, and sought the closest union with Him, be feasting and making love during the sacred hours He suffered and hung upon the tree? Surely this is the appropriate time we as a body should honor Christ and His sufferings by prayer and fasting. In this way, the early Church approached the Easter preparation as our way of recapitulating through the liturgy Christ’s own preparation for Good Friday, and for Easter. By entering annually into the pattern of His life, we grow in our union with Him.

The mosaic featured at the top of this page is of the three temptations of Christ. In the video below Fr. Barron discusses these three temptations upon which we meditate liturgically at the beginning of Lent:

Fr. Barron has also helpfully described the three practices of Lent:

And Scott Hahn has situated the practice of Lent in relation to all that the Old Testament prefigured concerning Christ’s forty-day fast:

May God grant us all to grow in union with Christ during this Lent, and may Lent not be a cause of division between Christians, but a practice through which and in which we grow in union with Christ, and in humility draw nearer in communion to one another.

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  1. The Reformed church is not the church catholic. But if the Reformed tradition is truly a catholic tradition, then it seems it should be in principle open to the whole of the church’s history. Those practices like Lent and Ash Wednesday are not ruled out simply because they weren’t present within its history. No, Ash Wednesday and Lent are part of its broader catholic heritage.

    – James R. A. Merrick, Assistant Professor of Theology at Grand Canyon University, in “Catholicism or Consumerism? A Question to Carl Trueman about Ash Wednesday and Lent.” (February 16, 2015)

  2. Trueman’s response to Merrick’s criticism: tu quoque, Anglican.

    The question of catholicity is, of course, more complicated than merely adopting a practice or a doctrine because it has deep historical and ecclesiastical roots. After all, Anglicans in the tradition of Hooker have rejected a large number of the elements of ‘catholic’ tradition. Roman supremacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, and the cult of the saints all have good claims to deep catholic roots. So why have Anglicans abandoned these? Presumably they have done so because they do not think that scripture gives grounds for retaining them. Well, once the scripture principle is allowed as an arbiter of true catholicity, the best we can say about Lent is that it might be a harmless, if biblically unjustifiable, personal preference with some historical roots – which is a point I never denied.

    Yet if this point about the scripture principle is unpersuasive to Anglicans, let me offer an observation on Anglicanism along the same lines of Merrick’s critique of the Reformed. Anglicanism’s own selective catholicity would seem to imply that Hookerites regard those same centuries, 1500-1700, as a kind of moment of purity for the decision as to which prior catholic traditions can stand and which should be cast aside.

    This is not a new problem for Anglicans. It was a significant part of what moved John Henry Newman Romeward.

    Ergo, we must choose between biblicism with lip-service to tradition (i.e. “the scripture principle is allowed as an arbiter of true catholicity”) or Rome.

  3. Ergo, we must choose between biblicism with lip-service to tradition (i.e. “the scripture principle is allowed as an arbiter of true catholicity”) or Rome.

    Bryan, As usual, friend, you left out the third option, and I argue, the only option if one is to be faithful to Christ.

    That position is biblicism without lip-service to tradition. Can the Bible be trusted to provide all knowledge that is necessary for salvation and sanctification?

    Of course, for Jesus promised the apostles He would give them through the Spirit “all the truth” for the churches in John 16:12-13.

  4. Hello Ted, (re: #3)

    The dilemma I presented was not intended to be absolute or unqualified, but rather what Trueman was offering. Yes, of course biblicism is a third option. But that option is problematic for a numbers of reasons, many of which Keith Mathison has laid out well, as Neal and I acknowledged in 2009.

    Can the Bible be trusted to provide all knowledge that is necessary for salvation and sanctification?

    Anything “can” be trusted. Whether that trust is properly justified depends on whether God intended the Bible in itself to provide all that Christians need as Christians, and whether God also set up a Church by which authoritatively to determine doctrinal and interpretive questions, and whether the Apostles also handed down authoritative teaching orally, in addition to what they wrote. But this thread is not for debating biblicism or whether biblicism is true. In the first twelve comments of the “Clark, Frame, …” thread it became clear that we cannot move toward resolving our disagreement until we first agree that if in our evaluation of two paradigms we are presupposing the falsehood of one and the truth of the other, then we are presupposing precisely what is in question, and not rationally adjudicating between the two paradigms, but merely asserting the truth of the one while seeming to offer a rational evaluation of the two.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  5. What is entailed by Trueman’s [the scripture principle is allowed as an arbiter of true catholicity or Rome] dilemma is the stripping away of any possibility of a principled (non ad hoc) middle position between biblicism on the one hand, and Rome on the other. What “Reformed Catholicity” means, given Trueman’s “scripture principle,” is that “catholicity” is doing no semantic work in the term “Reformed Catholicity.” Trueman’s concession reduces “Reformed Catholicity” to “the Reformed interpretation of Scripture.” But that’s identical to biblicism that happens to arrive at a Reformed interpretation.

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