You wouldn’t think that anyone would fight about Ash Wednesday and Lent. For Catholics it’s part of what we do. For others it’s something they can use or not as they find it helpful, and increasing numbers do. Down-the-line Evangelical churches have started to hold special services for Ash Wednesday complete with ashes and to treat the Sundays after it as Sundays in Lent. Rather severely anti-sacramental Evangelicals now speak of giving things up and fasting on Fridays.
I find this cheering, but my friend Carl Trueman doesn’t. Carl teaches Church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, the flagship of serious Reformed (i.e., Calvinist) Christianity in America. He’s a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. If you’re thinking of the somewhat wooly-minded, generically Protestant Presbyterians in the church in middle of town, you’re not thinking of Carl’s kind of Presbyterian. The mainline Presbyterians are the ones in tweed and corduroy; Carl’s type are in biker leathers. He’s one John Calvin would have recognized as a brother.
Writing on Reformation21, the website of the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals, Carl notes that Evangelicals have started observing the season and then lets loose:
He is a genial and liberal-minded man. His office bookshelf has very large Aquinas and Newman sections along with the works of Luther, Calvin, and their descendants. (He’s just written a book titled Luther On the Christian Life.) I have spent a pleasant night in the Truemans’ home after speaking at the seminary at his invitation. He is generous to Catholics. But Evangelicals observing Lent, this sets him off. “I also fear that it speaks of a certain carnality,” he continues:
They shouldn’t do this. Their “ecclesiastical commitments do not theologically or historically sanction observance of such things,” he writes in a second article on the website, “Catholicity Reduced to Ashes.” Ash Wednesday is “strictly speaking unbiblical” and therefore can’t be imposed by a church, treated as normative, or understood as offering benefits unavailable in the normal parts of the Christian life. That would be a violation of the Christian liberty the Reformation so stressed (against “the illicit binding of consciences in which the late medieval church indulged,” as he puts it).
The “well-constructed worship service” and “appropriately rich Reformed sacramentalism” render the observance of Ash Wednesday “irrelevant.” Infant baptism, for example, declares better than the imposition of ashes once a year “the priority of God’s grace and the helplessness of sinless humanity in the face of God.” The Lord’s Supper does as well.
Worse, Carl argues, these Evangelicals pick from the Catholic tradition the parts they like when that tradition is an indivisible whole. In for a penny, in for a pound seems to be his understanding of Catholicism. He finds it “most odd,” he writes in the second article, that some might “observe Lent as an act of identification with the church catholic while repudiating a catholic practice such as infant baptism or a catholic doctrine such as eternal generation or any hint of catholic polity.” (The lower-case “c” is his but he means the upper-case.) “The notion of historic catholicity itself has become just another eclectic consumerist construct.”
He is clearly not pleased and I can see why. The adoption by Evangelicals of some Catholic practices cheers me, however, because it is a gain for them, an expansion of their ways of living their faith, and one that reduces the gap between divided Christians. And, to be honest, because it opens a way for them to understand what the Catholic Church is about.
Carl is right that they’ve picked pieces they like without enough thought about the thing from which they’re picking pieces, but as a Catholic I think that’s a blessing rather than a mistake. He wants them to be more consistent and coherent Protestants and I would like them to be Catholics, and movement from one to the other requires some inconsistency and incoherence, the way a man wanders back and forth in the forest trying to find his way until he sees in the distance the place he is looking for.
The Church offers riches like an over-loaded wagon in a fairy tale, spilling gold coins every time it hits a pothole. Evangelicals can find in Catholic practice many things they can use just by walking along behind it. Though they have in their own tradition ways to express penance and forgiveness, as Carl notes, Ash Wednesday — the whole rite, not just the imposition of ashes — offers them a more dramatic way of hearing the truth and enacting it.
The question for them is how much they can take and adapt to their own purposes without having to face the claims of the Church from which they’re taking the things they like. I think rather a long way, because the Church draws upon a wisdom that it is not exclusively Catholic. You can enjoy the imposition of ashes without asking “Who is Peter?”
But there should come a point where you ask, “What is this thing from whom I’m always taking? What makes it a thing from which I can take so much?” As Carl says, more pointedly: “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.”
If I may, here are two more articles on Ash Wednesday: "Remember That Thou Art Dust", a reflection on the meaning of the rite, and "Hey, Buddy, Jesus Said No Ashes", a response to a criticism some of our Evangelical friends make.