Matt’s discussion of the Radicals and their revolution against comfortable and convenient Christianity has emerged, perhaps fittingly, during the liturgical season of Lent. The annual forty-day fast has always focused on the sacrifice inherent to the Christian call. Therefore, it should be no surprise that many of the same believers latching onto David Platt & Co.’s message have also begun to incorporate Lenten fasts into their worship practices. This devotional expression, long a hallmark of more liturgical churches, is now a growing trend among low-church Evangelicals.
The Evangelicalism of my parents’ generation lumped Lenten fasting together with saying the Rosary as the dead liturgy of a works-based religion. In other words, they didn’t do Lent. But now many of my friends, including lots of the fine folks here at Mere-O do. The question “What are you giving up for Lent?” is as common at hip church plants as skinny jeans and references to UFC fights. It is so cool that the really cool kids are giving up the practice in order to stay ahead of the trend.
The whole fad has me thinking: was the old-fashioned Evangelical opposition to Lenten observance just one more relic of an irrational anti-Papistry, or is there some real wisdom in abstaining from abstaining?
The Affair of the Sausages
Our parents weren’t the first Protestants to resist Lent. The suspicion of Lent emerged at the very dawn of the Reformation. In fact, less than five years after Martin Luther posted his 95 theses, an intentional violation of the Lenten fast was the event that brought the Reformation to Switzerland. Zurich pastor Huldrych Zwingli had been teaching on Christian liberty and his congregant, Christoph Froschauer, had just published a new translation of the Pauline Epistles. To celebrate the publication, Froschauer shared two sausages with his employees. This violated the terms of the church’s fasting requirements, which at that point completely forbade the eating of flesh meat.
At that time, the secular authorities enforced church doctrine. Froschauer was arrested. Zwingli subsequently defended Froschauer’s action as a proper exercise of Christian liberty. Roman Catholic authorities were not immediately persuaded. The citizens of Zurich were; the following year the city became officially Protestant.
In the following decades, English Puritans went even further in their opposition to feast days not commanded by scripture. Their opposition culminated in a 1647 parliamentary act abolishing Lent as well as the rest of the liturgical calendar:
Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding. (link)
The Puritans banned all of these holidays because they found them unsupported by Scripture and to be the occasion of superstition. By the latter, they meant that common people would confuse the feast and fasts for the essence of Christianity and would mistake the simple Gospel. This concern also drove Zwingli’s opposition. In his sermon defending Froschauer, he noted that “simple people” may get the impression that if they comply with the Church’s Lenten commands they may think that they are good for the rest of the year. Yet, in truth, “one should at all time confess God, live piously, and do no more than we think necessary in the fast” (Zwingli, p. 107).