Catholicism or Consumerism? A Question to Carl Trueman about Ash Wednesday and Lent

Guest blogger
It's that time of year again: when we catholic Christians brace ourselves for the blizzard of blog posts by chilly Puritans who hope to warn their flocks against the vices of Ash Wednesday and Lent. I don't have much interest in entering into what appears to be an in-house conversation about the validity of evangelicals engaging these traditions. After all, I am one of those Anglicans of whom "happy-but-slightly-delirious-Trueman" approves (see his article for the reference)! And, no, it wasn't just an opportunity to jest that prompted my reply. I'm unsure about what I took to be the central point of Trueman's admittedly brief post: that these observances are historically off-limits for genuinely Reformed churches. My question, then, concerns the catholicity of the Reformed tradition.

I think Trueman is possibly right about why Reformed evangelicals are currently engaged in liturgical renewal, namely, "the poverty of their own liturgical tradition." He thinks this is due to dissatisfaction with or ignorance of the Presbyterian calendar while my interpretation would turn on what I take to be the inadequacies, both practical and theological, of a minimalist (Puritanical) liturgical tradition.

I also find that he raises a worthy question when he claims that the evangelical liturgical renewal movement is due to "carnality." He defines "carnality" as "[t]he desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it." A cynic's take, surely. Motives are rarely this simple and sinister, and surely more patience with the positive spirituality of these practices is prudent. But I like a good jeer, and consumerism and pragmatism are so deeply a part of the American church ethos that it's not an unfair provocation.  

If I'm reading him right, Trueman has two complaints: First, that Ash Wednesday and Lent are unnecessary because of the Presbyterian calendar and Reformed sacramentalism. We are told that Ash Wednesday is superfluous due to infant baptism. If you need to be penitent as you grow up, engage the Law, not Lent.

Second, historically, Ash Wednesday and Lent were not part of the development of Reformed Christianity and so are invalid for Reformed evangelicals. Here's his conclusion: "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."

I could take issue with what Trueman understands of the import of Ash Wednesday and Lent, whether it can be comprehended by baptism and a good slog through Leviticus, or, if it can, whether the redundancy renders them of no value. As an Anglican, that is, as someone who sides with Hooker over the Puritans, I tend to think that if a practice is not contrary to scriptural soteriology, then it can be useful, especially if it is a catholic practice. When Trueman says that Ash Wednesday and Lent are redundant in Presbyterian practice, he seems to imply their theological import is scriptural. But, again, I don't want to get into a tangle about the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent.

My concern is with his claim that these practices will be avoided by any historically informed Presbyterian, Baptist, or Free Church evangelical. One might say that this is a very strange position for a tradition born of reformation to take. My question, however, is this: Is it uncatholic (not just uncouth) to treat one's particular history as an exceptional epoch, a standard by which the whole of church history is assessed and appropriated? 

This is my concern with the Reformed tradition, or at least this variation of it. It treats the 1500-1700s as a kind of purified period, a golden age in the history of the church, such that if something wasn't present then, it shouldn't have been and shouldn't ever be present in the true church. Dare I wonder here if this is where we see that Puritanism is a form of modernism? 

But I won't lay the charge of modernism. I limit myself to a far more theologically important complaint: inasmuch as the history of the Reformed church functions this way in the Reformed tradition, we have a sectarian not catholic tradition. 

What does it mean to be catholic (small 'c')? It seems to me that at best the church's catholicity is an aspect of our faith in Christ. We believe in the church catholic, in other words, because we believe that the church obtains in the work of Christ, not the works of the church. Speaking more practically, confessing the catholicity of the church commits us to looking for Christ's presence beyond our locality - temporal no less than geographical! - and its particular customs and ideology. If we cannot be open to finding Christ beyond our particular historical perspective, then we seem to believe that our historical church has some sort of special merit or standing with Christ unavailable to the church as a whole. This is at once a soteriological and eschatological mistake. 

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. 

I know that the nature of the catholicity of the Reformed tradition has been debated for a few decades. The recent book by Michael Allen and Scott Swain, Reformed Catholicity, has brought this debate to the next generation. So I, as an Anglican who cares about the catholicity of the church, offer these reflections in the hopes of supplying another occasion for this strand of the Reformed tradition to reflect upon and articulate the nature of its catholicity. 

Let me end with one more provocation, this one of a pastoral nature: While the churches of the 1500-1700s may have needed to do away with Ash Wednesday and Lent because the exaggerated penitential routines of the church left Christians without hope and assurance, perhaps the people of our time could use a strong dose of Ash Wednesday and Lent. 

We are in a different historical situation now. We live in a technologically advanced culture rife with feelings of entitlement and preoccupations with status. We trample creation with technology and efficient processes simply because it makes our life easier. We speak about rights not gifts. We believe that if we have money, it's not a blessing that humbles us into sympathy for those without, but something we earned through hard work and intelligence and so something to be preserved against the less fortunate. We believe that if we feel threatened, we shouldn't love our enemies but should stand our ground. And as an educator I must say that overwhelmingly American students, Christians especially, believe that if they fail, it's the teacher's fault. It wouldn't be inappropriate for us to hear that we are dust and that we are perennially tempted to engage in the wrong kind of dominion. I trust a historian will appreciate historical sensitivity. 

The Rev. Dr. James R. A. Merrick is Assistant Professor of Theology at Grand Canyon University, Phoenix, AZ. Previously he was the Assistant Director of Theological Resources at Rutherford House, Edinburgh and the Reviews Editor for the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology.