Tuesday, April 10, 2007

To Lent or not to Lent

It cannot be denied that the Liturgical Calendar is making a big comeback in Reformed circles. Talk of Lent and Advent abound on Presbyterian blogs. Sadly, after many centuries, I think that this is one area of the church that still needs to be studied and discussed. In the RCUS, the German Reformed tradition, we keep five feast days, and that is all of the Liturgical Calander we observe. We celebrate Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. Over the next several blogs, I would like to argue for this mode of Liturgical calander and against other forms.

My friend, James Solis made an excellent observation about Lent and the Regulative Principle when he spoke of ‘not requiring the observance’ rather than ‘forbidding’ it. I echo those sentiments when it comes to individuals. If someone wants to fast or give up something during Lent, the church should not forbid them from doing so. However, I also believe that theology lies at the root of all things. The Theology of Lent needs to be examined before any church enters into it as a church. I would argue that Lent has a Romanizing tendency because of the theology upon which it and its practices are based.

Reformed Catholicism copies an article that contains good information on Lent and its history. I want to echo their and Francis Beckwith’s rejection of argumentation that simply dismisses the Lenten season as pagan in origin. While I do think the claims Lent was celebrated as far back as Irenaeus (d.203) are dubious because they rest on the idea that a two day fast is the same as a 40 day season of Lent, it is apparent the church has celebrated Lent since about 6th century.

So why then do I oppose Lent? Am I opposed to fasting? No, although fasting is not an end in and of itself. Fasting is to be done for a purpose, and always coupled with prayer. I think we can all agree on that. I could disagree that one needs to fast to prepare for Easter, especially for 40 days, but since most people now days just give up one thing for 40 days, I won’t bore you. Am I opposed to ‘Holy Days’? No, as I said the RCUS celebrates five a year. I will deal more with that objection, and why I disagree with it in a future post.

As I said, I am against Lent because it is inherently a Romanizing practice. See how the Romanists define Lent and its purpose.

Lent, then, is a time consecrated in an especial manner to penance; and this penance is mainly practiced by fasting. Fasting is an abstinence, which man voluntarily imposes upon himself as an expiation for sin, and which, during Lent, is practiced in obedience to the general law of the Church.

Expiation is a payment for the penalty of sin. Here we clearly see Lent as a payment for our sins, a payment made voluntarily by ourselves. Reformed believers traditionally say the expiation of our sin occurs when Christ suffers and dies for us, and that we make no expiation because Christ finished it on the cross. The Romanists have always insisted that we participate in our salvation by our work, and Lent is no different. The entire season is about us suffering in order to participate or share in the sufferings of Christ. This is the idea I want to explore more, but for now, I think this post is long enough.

In summary, the theology of Lent is a Roman Catholic, faith plus works, creation. The practice of Lent reinforces and indirectly teaches the Roman doctrine; therefore, I believe it should be avoided by Protestants.


Andrew Duggan said...

Care to argue against the Scriptural practice of 52 holy days per year? If you're going to argue for 5, then you need to argue against the 52 position was well.

Also if one Lord's Day is more special than the others with respect to the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus, how can you then find fault with those that wish to make themselves ready for such a special day by 40 days of fasting (and prayer) - what, do you think they stop praying because they are fasting?

I read Mr. Solis' article you linked and what he said regarding the Regulative Principle, although he doesn't name it as such. I think I understand why you took it that way, but I must point out you are in error, and so is he if "not requiring the observance of anything not commanded in Scripture" is what you (or he) think(s) the Regulative Principle is.

The Regulative Principle of Worship is "That which God does not expressly command in scripture or shown by to be so commanded by good and necessary consequence of the scripture text is forbidden." When it comes to worship everything is forbidden except that which God has commanded in scripture! Although you don't subscribe to the WLC, I think it explains it well enough when it deals with the second commandment.

You and he might think that reversing the RPW is wise, but that communicates more than I think either you or he meant to.

FWIW, I do know that your usage is how the majority of contemporary reformed people use it, but that's just an example of how the abuse of terms and meanings is not limited to those in the NPP/FV/AAT camps! Is it really any wonder that the FV types are bold with their redefinitions regarding justification, considering that the same thing has been done for generations with respect to RPW? They saw how reformed theologians equivicated about worship, and thought that was therefore OK to do so with justification.

Perhaps if you argued from scripture instead of church history, it might help.

Lee said...

I agree with your definition of the RPW. If it is not commanded, then it is forbidden in worship. I took Mr. Solis argument to mean that we should not forbid the practice of fasting for Lent, which is an outside of corporate worship event. And thus I do not think the RPW can forbid that practice. If a man wants to fast or give something up, he may. Perhaps I misunderstood Mr. Solis, but I completely agree with your definition of the RPW. When it is reverse as many today do it is no longer the RPW, but rather the Lutheran view of worship.

I will get to the practice of no feast days in another post, but for now let me say that the celebration of feast days is not to say one day is more special than another. That is why I use the term Feast Day as opposed to Holy Day. I hope to show that the Five Feast days is not in conflict with the idea of 52 Lord's Days. Notice usually only two fall on a Sunday. I will interact with the 'No Easter, No Christmas' view, but first I want to examine the Liturgical Calander a bit more by looking more closely at Ash Wed. and Palm Sunday and the like.

I hope I have answered your concerns about the RPW, and cleared up any misunderstanding I may have caused.

Andrew Duggan said...


Thanks for the reply, but I'm going to press you a little bit more...

You use the phrase "outside the corporate worship event" as though the RPW applies only to corporate or formal worship.

A lot of people like to try to soften the RPW by saying it only applies to formal corporate worship services, but that's not really a viable position per the WLC or Scripture.

I would find it helpful when you argue for your special days that you demonstrate it's either commanded or that it's not worship in any sense. If one's purpose is to praise or worship God in anyway then the RPW kicks in as it were.

Or, do you really want to support the idea that as long as worship is private or family or informal, that the principle changes to anything but that which God forbids? Does God only care how he is worshiped for one hour on Lord's day mornings and (possibly) evenings, in a corporate worship event, or does the RPW apply to all worship?

James Frank Solís said...

Mr Duggan:

I appreciate your comments as well. Bear in mind that in reporting what my Reformed brethren would say, I was not attempting to cite precisely the RPW. Had I intended to so I would have formulated it in just the same way you did. My formulation was a report of what most of the people I know who are Reformed would say, not that they would be correct in the formulation. (I said the "wisest among them" not "the correct ones.")

I was writing meditative stream of consciousness on Good Friday, not a theological essay. If you want to say I should have been clearer, rest assured: I will stipulate to that.

As to the matter of worship: note that I raised the matter of Lent, and the Stations of the Cross as acts of meditation. I was referring to movement which "forces" the "mover" to meditate in ways he might not otherwise.

No, God does not command the observance of the Stations of the Cross, or the Lenten season. This is why you did not read me to say, "We all ought to this."

Now, you might want to say that meditation is an act of worship; and it is commanded in Scripture. We are commanded to meditate on Scripture. You might also want to say that my reference to observing the Stations of the Cross as "acts" of meditation is simple verbal sleight of hand.

But we are also commanded to meditate on God's works. We in Reformed circles believe (do we not?) that science -- the act of meditating on God's work, thinking His thoughts after Him -- is worship, in that we give glory to Him in studying His works. In "acts" of meditation, we worship and give glory to God. Recall, I did not discuss a "theology of the Stations". Indeed, the theology I discussed, or alluded to, was the theology of the cross when I quoted from Romans 5.6.

We both agree that what is not commanded is forbidden. But most of those who respond the way I had in mind do so, not because they are thinking of the RPW, but because they are thinking the Preface to the BCO, II.7, which states in relevant part that "No church judicatory may make laws to bind the conscience." (I'm not saying they're right, just that they do this.)

Where you and I may differ with respect to RPW is over how much (or, if any) freedom we have to perform what is commanded. I believe the members of the Reformed faith are free to observe the Stations of the Cross in just the same way -- and for similar reasons -- that Paul was free to make a vow.

Let me ask you a question, respectfully. In my church when we celebrate the Lord's Supper we do so with those little glasses with grape juice. We're not commanded to do it that way. Are we in error?

Andrew Duggan said...

Mr. Solis:

I can certainly appreciate your "writing meditative stream of consciousness". I also apologize for not understanding your irony when you used the word wisest. In my experience, I encounter a lot more who mean it in the way I thought you were using it.

I guess the question that arises first in my mind with respect to the stations of the cross, is, how do you go about using that as acts of meditation?

Is there any visualization that goes on even a little bit in your mind? Can you see how the helps that the Romanists suggest are not actual helps, but are rather snares to idolatry. Using them leads one into the temptation of visualizing Christ or the crucifixion. This is why the WLC says what it does about the second commandment forbidding the making of idols even inwardly in our minds.

I would not warn you away from meditating on the on sacrifice of Christ and his resurrection, because the price he paid to make us one with God the Father, and himself was ultimate.

Instead of the "stations of the cross", I would recommend the accounts in the Gospels. Meditate on scripture.

I think most people greatly over estimate their ability to resist the temptation that helps like the "stations of the cross" lead them into.

Scripture is inerrant, infallible and authoritative, and is Christ's word directly to you. Why use something less?

Finally with respect to your question regarding communion, the reformed understanding is that the number of cups is a circumstance of worship, but the element itself, the wine is essential to the worship in the celebration, and so falls under the RPW. The wine in the Lord's Supper should be unmolested by man's processing.

James Frank Solís said...

Mr. Duggan,

I think another confusing element in my posting is my use of the present tense. I said observance of the Stations forces me, etc. Despite my use of the present tense, I really had in mind my childhood. The reason the Stations had that effect is that my childhood RC church was post-Vatican II and very evangelical: I heard the gospel there. The only thing I can in response to your (legitimate) concerns about idolatry is that it didn't happen, to me anyway.

Embedded in my posting was a slight slap in the face to Catholics: When I asked, rhetorically, how anyone could observe the Stations and not be moved to meditate on what Christ has done for us. Then I quoted from Romans 5.6.

I come from a family that is still largely RCC. And I live in a predominantly Catholic area (Pueblo, Colorado). I work for, and with, Roman Catholics. When I am among them I employ the tactic that Paul employed when he was among Jews. (Including use of his liberty in Christ to take a vow.) When I am among them I talk like a Roman Catholic. But I focus on Christ's finished work on the cross. My posting was really written with Roman Catholics in mind.

As for my own practice, I have not observed the Stations since 1994 when I embraced Reformed doctrine.

James Frank Solís said...

By the way, Lee: Thanks for the link.

Andrew McIntyre said...


Of course, you know what I would say, so I will keep this short. I think you definitely throw the baby out with the bathwater. Lent is not inexorably linked to Romanist. This is precisely why most traditional non-Romanist churches still celebrate it. I will admit that it runs into problems with the puritanical idea of the regulative principle, but then so do most practices of the church including all of the "holy days" of the RCUS. Very few actually practice the regulative principle in it most aggressive form, so I do not really consider it as having much force.

Lent is simply a time to focus on repentance and to think soberly upon the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf. It is a time to spend with Christ in the wilderness, as it were. It is a reliving of the Life of Christ, as is the church calendar as a whole, but it is not an expiation for sin. Just because Rome says it is, this does not make it so. As much as they may argue to the contrary, they do not lay sole claim to Western church heritage.


Lee said...


I agree Rome does not have the sole claim to Christianity, but they do have the sole claim for the creation of Lent. And if there is no difference between the Protestant Lenten pracitces and the Roman Lenten practices, then how can one claim a theological difference exists? Lent was created as you said to relive the life of Christ including the expiation of sin. In Lent His suffering is an expiation for sin, and now so too is ours as we relive the suffering anew.

In other words, if the practice is still the same, how can one claim the theological foundations have changed?

Andrew McIntyre said...

I think you make the mistake of assuming that anything developed before the Reformation is essentially Roman. It does not belong to Rome alone. It belongs to the entire Western Church. Whenever Lent developed, it is an ancient practice, predating the Reformation by many Centuries. It is not inseparably tied to later abuses and faulty assumptions, unless we are willing to say that the church was monolithically surrendered to such abuses for all of those Centuries. Nowhere in traditional Reformed, Lutheran, or Anglican liturgy will one find notions that participation in Lent satisfies for sin. It is a spiritual discipline calling us to turn our attention to the Life of Christ and what He has accomplished in that life. It is an exercise in repentance, culminating and finding its telos in the Supper of Maundy Thursday, the truly salvific death of Christ on Good Friday, and the celebration of resurrection life on Easter Sunday. It is salvific itself only as a prolonged preaching of the Gospel.


James Frank Solís said...

In other words, if the practice is still the same, how can one claim the theological foundations have changed?

Lee, I have friends who put forth the same argument about the practice in Reformed churches of infant baptism -- precisely the same argument, my friend.

I agree Rome does not have the sole claim to Christianity, but they do have the sole claim for the creation of Lent. And if there is no difference between the Protestant Lenten pracitces and the Roman Lenten practices, then how can one claim a theological difference exists?

Your position seems to be: If it's Roman Catholic, or comes to us by way of the Roman Catholic church then it is to be rejected because not doing so means being unable to claim a theoligical difference. How then do we still lay claim to the results of the Ecumenical councils? Ought we to reject the Nicene Creed because, when it was adopted, to be Christian was to be Catholic?

Surely the better argument against Andrew's position is that, while the substance of the creeds may be deduced by logical inference from the Scriptures, the observance of a religious practice like Lent cannot be, and, employing the RPW, not being commanded, is forbidden.

Of course, Andrew will re-assert that Reformed people tend to play a bit fast and loose with RPW. some congregations/denominations, claiming to employ RPW faithfully, do not sing hymns of human crafting, preferring psalm recitation. Other congregations/denominations, also claiming RPW, do permit hymn singing.

Andrew's position is that we have a principle which we call 'regulative', the application of which is not itself well-regulated. Indeed, that application clearly strikes him as a bit arbitrary and inconsistent, even just from congregation to congregation.

Andrew might also ask: Is RPW deducible from Scripture? If so, then why does it seem less understood and applied than the substance of any of the Creeds?

Andrew Duggan said...

Mr. Solis,
First let me say that I'm glad of your clarification that you don't use the "stations of the cross". If I misunderstood I am sorry.

In response to your most recent comment, although not direct to me, I think it would be helpful to bear in mind that...

The reformed practice of infant baptism is because the church has always applied it to infants even when the sacrament was circumcision. I don't we should care what Rome's current basis for administering their water ceremony to infants. Sola Scriptura is the reason why the reformed church practices infant baptism, not because Rome does or did.

Andrew McIntyre said...

I don't think it is historically accurate to say that the churches of the Reformation practice infant baptism solely on the basis of Scripture. Scripture is primary, no doubt, but tradition plays a huge factor, as it should.

Let me add that I believe non-Lent practicing churches are perfectly valid. I do not think Lent, or the church calendar as a whole, is of the essence of the church. So, if a fellowship thinks it is doctrinally suspect, then they are well within their rights not to practice it. I would just caution such a fellowship not to lump the rest of us in with Rome.


James Frank Solís said...

Mr Duggan, you are entirely correct. But in this comment I restricted myself to responding to Lee's narrow assertion (so it seemed to me) that if it's done by Roman Catholics then we ought not do it because we cannot therefore claim a different theological base.

In other words, he wrote, if the practice is still the same, how can one claim the theological foundations have changed?

Note carefully: if the practice is still the same. Your response to me goes to justification for the practice, which I wholly accept, by the way. This is not what I understood Lee to be saying.

Now, I happen to know Lee, so I'm sure he would have responded by clarifying matters in just about the same way you did.

I simply wanted to point out to him the need for just such a clarification, which you did for him.

So, as the young people say, "It's all good."

Lee said...

I agree with Mr. Duggan. I think the example of baptism is different for a few reasons. The first and main one is Scripture. The theology of baptism is found in Scripture. Lent is not found there.
Second, it should be noted that it is Rome that tries to change the theology of infant baptism. They twisted it from not only the Scripture but the early church as well.

I do not think that I have made the mistake of thinking that everything that comes before the Reformation is essentially Roman. I do believe, however, that Lent is. Despite efforts to ground Lent in the early church, it cannot be done. A one day fast is in no way related to the modern practice or theology of Lent. In the 4th century only new converts participated in Lent to prepare for baptism as much as for Easter itself. Gregory the Great in the 6th century is the one who created Ash Wednesday and standardized Lent. I do not believe it a coincidence that Gregory is the Pope who developed the idea of private penance and purgatory.

I too do not think Lent or the calander part of the essence of the church, but I do think it can lead a church in a certain direction or reveal the leanings of a church already. Lent, I stil think, is a good example. While it is gaining in popularity, it was primarily only practiced by High Liturgy churches, or Altar based services. Namely the Anglicans, the Romans, the Eastern, the Methodists, and the Lutherans. This service is often of a differnt nature than the Pulpit based liturgy. Thus, my concern in many traditional pulpit based churches practicing Lent.

Andrew McIntyre said...

I still think there is a fundamental historical error in your reasoning. Even if it were true that Lent arose during the pontificate of Gregory, this does not mean that it was his brain child and inexorably linked to his theology. It is a practice and product of the unified western church, predating the Reformation by Centuries. It was assumed by all traditions, ecclesiastical subcultures, and societies, and even survived the rigors of Reformation criticism.

I also do not buy the pulpit/sacrament orientation distinction, but I guess that is another topic:-)