Evangelicals and the Lenten Principle

Should Evangelicals observe Lent? Keith Miller of MereOrthodoxy.com says no. In an article entitled, Young, Restless, and Reformed Homeboys on Lenten FastingMiller writes:

…Evangelicalism is a tradition with attendant folkways and liturgical practices. One of the practices low-church Evangelicalism has long embraced is not participating in lenten abstention. As a traditionalist, I walk in the steps of these historical homeboys and am the richer for it.

Citing Calvin, Owen, Edwards, Spurgeon, and Lloyd-Jones, Miller argues Evangelicalism has long and wisely disdained the observance of Lent. Between the lines, he insinuates the Evangelical interest in Lent stems from a liturgical inferiority complex but a proper understanding of Evangelical history would reveal our rich Lenten tradition, namely, that we don’t do it.

I appreciate several of the quotes and concerns Miller shares. Christians can certainly get liturgy and tradition wrong. We naturally drift towards law and legalism, will-power and man-made requirements. But while I welcome Miller’s balancing critique, I believe he overstates his case. He throws out the good with the bad.

A few concerns with Miller’s thinking…

Quoting the Reformers on Rome

Okay, quoting the Reformers on Rome…what shall I compare this to? Quoting the Red Sox on the Yankees? Quoting Republicans on Democrats? Quoting liberals on fundamentalists? There is no shortage of vitriolic quotes from Reformers on the practices of Rome, but finding a quote is not the same as making an argument or engaging the topic properly. We do not take the Reformers wholesale on everything. I bet Miller wouldn’t quote Calvin or Luther on the modern evangelical understanding of the eucharist. Evangelicals, if we are anything, are Biblicists first. Let’s start with the Bible as we consider Lent and it’s place in modern faith.

Arguing Against Tradition with Tradition

Miller, with his Reformer entourage, says Lent is a bunch of man-made rubbish. It’s tradition. So he condemns Lent as superstition and tradition, but he invokes Reformed tradition to do so. He rubs the lucky rabbit’s foot of Calvin and Edwards quotes to make his case. Obviously, a great irony exists here. Again, I gladly accept Miller’s cautions. Perhaps Evangelicals should not participate in Lent, but I struggle with his logic and mode of argument.

So my thoughts on observing Lent…

The Lenten Principle

Must we strictly observe Lent? No. But is there a Lenten principle here worth keeping? Yes! Lent is a time of marked personal reflection and repentance in preparation for the joys of Easter and resurrection. It is not the only time for such reflection and repentance, but it is a season in the year when we deliberately consider these things. This is analogous to many practices in Evangelical churches. At Christmas, we more deliberately reflect on the incarnation for a season. On Sunday, while free from strict Sabbath regulations, we observe the Sabbath principles of rest and worship.

Understood properly I believe we can likewise accept and observe a Lenten principle. I believe we can observe a season of soul-searching and even abstinence for the good of our faith and the glory of God. Of course, we can certainly do this with wrong motives and means. We can do it for our glory and by our own strength, but this kind of sin potentially taints every Christian discipline. It is not reason enough to cancel all practices that risk such abuse.

So let us embrace a more nuanced and gracious approach to Lent then what Keith Miller has proposed. We will be richer for it.

Comments

  1. Chris says

    You say that evangelicals are biblicists first therefore shouldn’t base their practices on any sort of tradition, yet you suggest observing Lent in a “more nuanced and gracious approach” with nary a scripture and compare it to how Christmas is traditionally celebrated!

    • says

      Chris, thanks for chiming in! Appreciate the feedback.

      Let me clarify my thinking.

      First, I am not arguing against traditions. Keith Miller is. I’m not being contradictory when I use Christmas as an example for the very reason I’m arguing some traditions are okay. I was simply saying the primary lens through which we analyze these issues should be scripture. To dispense with Lent just because of another tradition seems problematic to me. But it’s not that all tradition is inadmissible evidence.

      Second, I did not quote a scripture verse, but I did intend to make a scriptural allusion in referencing the way we handle the Sabbath. We know Paul said to no longer fuss over Sabbaths, on the one hand (Col. 2:16), but we also know we are to enter rest, literally (Ps 127:2) and figuratively (Heb 4). So we recognize from scripture that the Sabbath is no longer binding (Col) yet it’s principle is still very much in play (Heb 4). To me, this provides a template for how we could handle Lent. We could also look at other traditions and customs that changed in Acts. But to be fair, you are correct; I really didn’t go there. Thanks for pointing out the inconsistency.

      So, do you agree that Lent, properly understood, can have its place?

  2. says

    Derek,

    Thanks for the engagement. Quoting the Reformers on Lent is appropriate because I’m part of their tradition. Its like a Red Sox fan quoting a Red Sox fan about the Yankees. It resonates with me because I am one.

    That said, I agree with you that Evangelicals are biblicists first and only secondarily concerned with traditional practices. That’s why my piece on Lent from last year laid out a scriptural argument (http://mereorthodoxy.com/still-eating-sausages-reservations-regarding-evangelicals-and-lent/). I’m merely refuting the idea that “church history” is uniformly on the side of lenten fasting. There’s some church history to back up my practice as well.

    Best,
    Keith

    • says

      Keith,

      Good to hear from you! I really appreciate your spirit in this discussion. It’s helpful to talk through matters like this, and I am grateful you are willing to do so and graciously.

      Just checked out your previous year’s post. Excellent!

      For me, the question of tradition comes down to the word “insist.” Traditions can have their place. I would guess we all have traditions. As many have pointed out, even low-church evangelicals have a liturgy. We don’t call it that, but we do have a weekly rhythms, traditions, etc. So “tradition” is neutral. The crisis comes when someone insists on a tradition (Col. 2:16-18) or relies on a tradition (Col. 2:20-23). But that we should fast (Matt. 9:15) and that it could take various forms (Is. 58:6) seems indisputable to me. That some people choose to do this at a certain time of year matters little to me as long as they do not insist or rely on that tradition. Thoughts?

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