While Justin Taylor advises on how to prepare for Lent (can you believe it involves a book published by Crossway?), Carl Trueman reminds about the arbitrariness of tradition among evangelicals (high and low):
The question of catholicity is, of course, more complicated than merely adopting a practice or a doctrine because it has deep historical and ecclesiastical roots. After all, Anglicans in the tradition of Hooker have rejected a large number of the elements of ‘catholic’ tradition. Roman supremacy, purgatory, transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, and the cult of the saints all have good claims to deep catholic roots. So why have Anglicans abandoned these? Presumably they have done so because they do not think that scripture gives grounds for retaining them. Well, once the scripture principle is allowed as an arbiter of true catholicity, the best we can say about Lent is that it might be a harmless, if biblically unjustifiable, personal preference with some historical roots – which is a point I never denied.
Yet if this point about the scripture principle is unpersuasive to Anglicans, let me offer an observation on Anglicanism along the same lines of Merrick’s critique of the Reformed. Anglicanism’s own selective catholicity would seem to imply that Hookerites regard those same centuries, 1500-1700, as a kind of moment of purity for the decision as to which prior catholic traditions can stand and which should be cast aside.
This is not a new problem for Anglicans. It was a significant part of what moved John Henry Newman Romeward. Of course, if the brilliant Newman could not persuade his friend, John Keble, Hooker’s greatest editor, of the immense difficulties of Anglican claims to historic catholicity, it is unlikely that I will do so with Hooker’s present disciples. Yet Newman’s critique surely remains a major challenge to anyone who blithely assumes the straightforward catholicity of the Anglican tradition as embodied in the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Homilies, and the Book of Common Prayer. It is actually much more theologically complicated and historically contested than that.
All of this is, however, largely beside the point of my original article. My main purpose was not to point to problems in the Anglican tradition’s claims to catholicity. It was to critique a recent cultural anomaly: The curious phenomenon of interest in Ash Wednesday and Lent among evangelicals whose ecclesiastical commitments do not theologically or historically sanction observance of such.
The current state of research points to three possible conclusions. Because the evidence is slim and admitting of any number of plausible interpretations, one position has been to view Lent as a sui generis phenomenon—completely new and unique—that simply appears after the Council of Nicea. In this view, any attempt to hazard connections or lines of evolution from pre-Nicene fasting practices is too speculative to be of any value. Another, rather opposite, position has been to accept as historical the alleged Egyptian post-Theophany fast, to identify it as the dominant antecedent to Lent, and that Lent’s rapid dissemination throughout the Christian world is best explained in relation to the program of liturgical and theological alignment begun at Nicea. A final position, a sort of via media or middle road, acknowledges the incomplete and sometimes-contradictory nature of the evidence, but asserts nonetheless that Lent develops as an amalgamation of several early fasting customs and typologies of which the post-Theophany fast (if it existed) may have been but one of many. As with most issues in the study of the early history of the liturgy, certainty is elusive and we must be satisfied with possibilities. Judicet lector: let the reader decide.
Don’t mind me if I use the occasion to have an extra doughnut.