In a recent post at Reformation21, the inimitable Carl Trueman complains about the coming onslaught of evangelicals enjoining Lenten observance:
It’s that time of year again: the ancient tradition of Lent, kick-started by Ash Wednesday. It is also the time of year when us confessional types brace ourselves for the annual onslaught of a more recent tradition: that of evangelical pundits, with no affiliation to such branches of the church, writing articles extolling Lent’s virtues to their own eclectic constituency.
Trueman essentially argues that “Presbyterians and Baptists and free church evangelicals” have no business observing the church year because it is not a part of their history. It may be fine for Anglicans, whose liturgical life has been shaped by the church year, but it exhibits ignorance, or worse, consumeristic carnality for other evangelical traditions to incorporate these practices into their liturgical and devotional life. “[J]ust as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals.” Trueman concludes,
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.
Since Trueman extols the virtues of his own Presbyterian tradition and its sacramental and sabbatarian piety, one wonders if it is the last two groups (the pitiable Baptists and free church evangelicals) who are the real targets of Trueman’s critique. Presbyterians may be ignorant of their liturgical tradition, but do Baptists even have one?
Anglican pastor and professor James Merrick has written an insightful response to Trueman, also published at Reformation21, but I wanted to offer a few thoughts from my own evangelical Baptist perspective. Since I have previously commended the benefits of the church year on this blog, it should go without saying that I disagree with Trueman’s assessment of Lenten observance. But here are a few reasons why I think Trueman’s argument fails to convince.
First, the principle that Trueman sets forth here, if applied consistently, would threaten to cut off evangelicals from the broader Christian tradition. The Protestant traditions that emerged in seventeenth and eighteenth century England, and which would form the backbone of the coming Anglo-American evangelical movement, did not start from scratch. They were building on previous centuries of faith and practice. Renewal movements are by their very nature involved in a process of “picking and choosing.” The question was whether or not the doctrines and practices of previous centuries conformed to Scripture, advanced the cause of the gospel, and built up the church. Each generation must earnestly ask that same set of questions.
What if we applied Trueman’s principle not only to liturgical practices but also to doctrinal beliefs? Are free church evangelicals wrong, for example, to claim the Nicene trinitarian tradition as their own? I mean, Athanasius didn’t go to Wheaton or publish with Crossway or write for Christianity Today. Or should Baptists continue to affirm the doctrine of original sin? Augustine couldn’t teach in any of our Baptist seminaries; he approved of baptizing babies after all! Shouldn’t we just stick with those doctrines and practices which are a part of our own denominational histories? Someone may respond that trinitarianism is a part of evangelical history and the doctrine of sin is a part of the Baptist tradition.* But that is precisely my point. Somewhere along the way someone in these Protestant traditions decided that there were some things from the previous centuries of Christian history that were worth preserving. These traditions may have also jettisoned certain practices (the way that the Puritans threw out the liturgical calendar), but free church Protestants shouldn’t feel locked into the decisions of the seventeenth century (a point also made by Merrick). We are free once again to reconsider which practices might be consistent with Scripture and beneficial for the church’s spiritual well being.
Second, there is a sense in which liturgical eclecticism is the tradition of free church evangelicalism. This need not be interpreted in the most negative, consumeristic light. It can be interpreted in terms consistent with the principles of evangelicalism itself. Christians are free to pursue any and all liturgical and devotional practices which are consistent with Scripture and which provoke Christians to love and good deeds. Those committed to a strict understanding of the regulative principle may disagree with the adaptability and openness of these evangelical traditions, but that in and of itself isn’t an argument against them. One could argue that theological and liturgical eclecticism actually puts Baptists and free church evangelicals in a better position to be corrected by Scripture than those committed to more rigid confessional traditions.
Finally, the Fourth of July analogy is unfortunate. Christian denominations are important for providing habitats within which Christians can live and grow and mature in a particular tradition. But denominations aren’t silos, or at least they shouldn’t be. We should welcome the sharing of theological and liturgical “best practices” as we seek to learn and grow along with the larger body of Christ. Conceiving of denominations as analogous to discrete nation-states, with their own distinct and non-transferable traditions, runs the risk of sectarianism and forestalls a robust commitment to the church’s catholicity among Protestants.
In the end, I agree with Trueman that the church year should not be presented as “normative” for Christians, in the sense that Scripture demands its observance. But I disagree that its observance marks a fundamental rejection of evangelical tradition. Eclecticism can be a virtue if it leaves us open to correction from Scripture and encouragement from the broader Christian tradition.
P.S. Trueman has written a surrejoinder to Merrick’s post.
*Though it is interesting that as the General Baptists slid into unitarianism, some Baptists argued against the Trinity as a “Roman Catholic” doctrine.