In the Western church calendar Lent began yesterday on “Ash Wednesday.” Lent did not exist in any form in church law until 325 where the word appears in Canon 5 of the canons of Nicea. Even then there is no detailed prescription in the canon itself. The 4th century was, in many ways, transformative for the theology, piety, and practice of the church and not always for her benefit. We know that very early on there was deep concern (e.g., the Quartodeciman controversy) over the correct time to observe Easter but beyond that the church calendar was sparse. By the time of the Reformation, however, the church calendar (or the liturgical year) became so extensive that there was something to be observed (e,g., feast days) virtually every day of the year. The origins of Ash Wednesday itself can be no earlier than the early medieval period. Once Lent entered Christian practice, it began on a Sunday. It was only moved to what became “Ash Wednesday” “later” (so the Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) in order to bring the observance to 40 days (in imitation of Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness, no doubt). There is nothing of Ash Wednesday or Lent in the earliest post-apostolic Christian theology, piety, or practice. The date for Easter was controversial was because both sides were arguing over which date was more biblical. No one was arguing in the early 2nd century that the church has authority to impose practices and observances that are not imposed in Scripture.
In other words, the very practice of Ash Wednesday and Lent are simply made up observances and this is the problem. It is not that one might not learn something valuable by abstaining from this or that for 40 days or that there is no value in gathering on Wednesday 40 days before Easter to remember the suffering and death of our Savior. The problem is that the human heart is an idol factory (Calvin). Once it is given license to create and impose Christian observances, it never ends. What begins with good intentions becomes a form of bondage. This is not a new problem. The Apostle Paul opposed this very thing in his epistle to the Colossians:
If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles (στοιχεῖα) of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in a self-made religion (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ) and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col 2:20–23; NASB95).
In the case of Ash Wednesday and Lent we have the very thing against which the Apostle Paul warned: “will worship” (ἐθελοθρησκίᾳ). Christians have added and imposed upon other Christians the very sort of abstinence and man-made religious practice condemned by the Apostle. The elementary principles (στοιχεῖα) to which Paul refers are not observations about nature (as some commentators think) but rather he is most likely referring to the fundamental principle of law. Someone was seeking to put the Colossians back under the law of abstinence as a mark of piety and Paul was not having it. This is typically the Lutheran explanation of the passage so it is striking to see leading (even confessional) Lutherans doing what their own tradition tells them they ought not.
It is even more striking to see NAPARC churches adopting Lent. The Directory for Publick Worship denounces observance of Lent and the medieval practices. It is striking because sola Scriptura was the formal cause of the Reformation. In this principle we declared that Scripture alone has unique, binding authority for the Christian faith and the Christian life:
We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith; believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves. For the very blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled (Belgic Confession (1561), art 4).
A canon is a rule. The Scriptures are the rule, the norm un-normed by any other authority. We confess (because it is true) that the church did not form the canon. No council met to create a canon. In the nature of the case whoever forms the canon is the canon. God formed the canon. He inspired the Scriptures through prophets and apostles and through them imposed his Word on his people. The history is that the earliest church received and recognized the various books as canonical. The early church never thought of itself as creating a canon.
Thus, in Belgic Confession art. 7 we confess:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and whatsoever man ought to believe unto salvation is sufficiently taught therein. For since the whole manner of worship which God requires of us is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul says. For since it is forbidden to add unto or take away anything from the Word of God, it does thereby evidently appear that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither may we consider any writings of men, however holy these men may have been, of equal value with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils or decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, since the truth is above all; for all men or of themselves liars, and more van than vanity itself. Therefore we reject with all our hearts whatever does not agree with this infallible rule, as the apostles have taught us saying, Test the spirits, whether they are of God. Likewise: any one comes to you and brings not this teaching, receive him not into your house.
In the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we are unfortunately focused on the 95 Theses, which according to Luther’s own mature assessment, were “papist.” There are other events on which we would be better served to focus, e.g., the Diet of Worms (1521, where Luther asserted sola Scriptura as the charter of Christian liberty. We might also remember Zwingli’s rejection of Lent in Zürich in 1522. This was no mere rebellion against authority but the reassertion of what Luther called the Freedom of the Christian Man (1520).
It has been objected against Reformed criticism of Lent that the critics are being too scrupulous. I reply: no, we are paying attention to history. Well meant but un-biblical practices have a way of working out badly in the history of the church. Contrary to what the television anchor tells you (or will tell you when the next pope is elected) what Rome does is not the ancient practice of the Christian church. The college of cardinals developed in the high middle ages. The five false Roman sacraments were not formally adopted until the 13th century. More to the point, they began as popular elaborations on the divinely instituted sacraments. Rome freely admits that there is no warrant in holy Scripture for the veneration of relics. She freely admits that the only warrant is popular Roman sentiment. Reformed congregations are adopting Lent for the very same reason. People like Lent. It is socially acceptable, even hip to go about with ashes on one’s forehead once a year. It seems counter-cultural but when the cultural approves of it, beware. The culture is not so “chill” with Christ’s cross and the foolishness of the gospel but they approve of Lent because it looks like something they can understand: works (στοιχεῖα).
Reformed Christians cannot begin doing now the very things done in the mid-Patristic and medieval periods, for the same reasons, and expect a different outcome. To think so both is historically ignorant and to fulfill Santayana’s definition of insanity. The good news is that we have no need of man-made “sacramentals” (Rome’s word). We have divinely instituted gospel sacraments. Reformed churches and officers of Reformed congregations (e.g., Teaching elders/ministers and ruling elders) cannot incorporate Lent into the church practice without violating the fundamental Reformation principle of sola Scriptura. Where has God commanded Lent or Ash Wednesday? The Lutherans and Anglicans do not confess the rule of worship as we do. Thus, we are not surprised when they do what is “not forbidden” but we confess a different principle:
But the acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men… (WCF 21.1).
Ash Wednesday and Lent may make the church seem relevant in the lives of God’s people but it is a chimera. If the gospel itself and the gospel sacraments no longer suffice for relevance then Lent and Ash Wednesday is just the beginning of the quest for relevance and it will end badly for us as it ended badly for the medieval church.