Lent: Of Good Intentions, Spiritual Disciplines, and Christian Freedom

By Dr. R. Scott Clark - Posted at The Heidelblog:

Carter Lindberg tells the story of how the Reformation began to break out in Zürich in 1522:

During Lent of 1522, Zwingli was at the house of Christoph Froschauer, a printer, who was laboring over the preparation of the a new edition of the epistles of Paul. In order to refresh his dozen tired workers, Froschauer served sausages. Was it just a coincidence that the number of participants and the manner of distribution recalled the Lord’s Supper? This public breaking of the Lenten fast flouted both medieval piety and and ecclesiastical and public authority. The Zurich town council arrested Froschauer, but not Zwingli, who himself had not eaten the meat. Zwingli, who held the eminent post of people’s priest at the Great Minster church in Zurich, could have smoothed everything out. Instead he made a public issue of the incident by preaching a sermon, “On the Choice and Freedom of Foods” (23 March 1522), that was soon enlarged into a printed pamphlet (16 April 1522). Almost certainly influenced by Luther’s earlier (1520) treatise on Christian freedom, Zwingli argued that Christians were free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent. ‘In a word, if you will fast, do so; if you do not wish to eat meant, eat it not; but leave Christians a free choice in the matter.’ (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 161).

The recent controversy over the endorsement of Lent by some leading evangelicals is something that has been developing for several years. Christians without conscious confessional commitments or an intentional awareness of the Reformation tend to be rootless. Lacking a tradition of piety of their own they drift from one new thing to the next or borrow eclectically from this tradition and that like three-year olds playing dress up. When those who identify with aspects of Reformed theology however, borrow “spiritual disciplines” that the Reformed churches considered and rejected they are unintentionally creating the pre-conditions for greater problems.

As Lindborg tells the story, a Lenten fast was considered a matter of liberty but as the Reformation progressed through the 1540s the Reformed discovered that such ostensible adiaphora (matters morally indifferent) tend to become requirements. Some ministers in the English church learned this when they tried to exercise the freedom not to wear certain ecclesiastical garments (vestments), which they considered sacerdotal (tending to turn ministers into priests). When they objected to being required to wear the vestments, they were told that it was permissible to wear vestments because they were adiaphora. To which they replied, “If they are adiaphora, then we choose not to wear them.” Then they learned that the vestments weren’t actually regarded as adiaphora but rather they were really required. They were only called adiaphora to make conformity seem plausible. It has frequently been the case in church history that practices that begin as “indifferent” do not usually remain so.

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