Evangelical Lent Redux

In my previous post, a comment from a Protestant challenged me to argue for Lent purely from Scripture, also saying that his own experience of Lent, like Mark Galli’s, was pretty miserable. That led me to consider that I actually had left several important things out in the previous post, most especially touching upon the question of the dualism of Evangelicals and what that might do to their appropriation of Lent. Following is my response to that comment, which I thought merited a post of its own:

If you want for me to reconstruct Lent using only a sort of “raw” reading of the Scriptures (i.e., without reference to any interpretive tradition), of course that is impossible. But then again, so are things like having an annual festal celebration of the Resurrection (Easter) or Christ’s birth (Christmas), weekly worship services on Sunday morning, and Sunday School.

But that takes us rather to a more basic question, which is on what authority any Christian does anything at all. You want me to show you everything from the Scriptures, but that begs a deeper question—Whose interpretation of them should we use? There is no such thing as a truly raw reading of the Bible. Every text has a context, and major element of the context of reading a text is the tradition in which one is reading it, even if that tradition is something as elementary as what language one happens to know. But of course Biblical interpretation involves a whole lot more than that, and the historic fact that Church tradition actually preceded, generated and defined the Scripture complicates matters even further.

But anyway, probably the deeper issue here is that the “Lent” you as a Protestant have experienced is quite different from the experience I as an Orthodox Christian also call “Lent.” Whatever combination of fasting, abstinence, church services, devotions and confession you may be doing is not the same as what I’m doing. We are using the same word to refer to two different things. You don’t mention what kind of Protestant you are, but there really is no parallel between anything in Protestantism and the Orthodox Christian experience of this season. Even fasting alone—though it could theoretically involve the exact same prescriptions in terms of types and amounts of food eaten—is a totally different experience.

Why is this? It is because of the dualism of Protestantism, its inner feeling that physical matter has nothing really to do with holiness or the spiritual life at all. So physical practices can never really be more than self-discipline or pure memorial. It can only be about thinking and feeling, because Protestants see no link between the body’s efforts and the soul’s salvation.

But for the Orthodox Christian, physical matter is precisely the stuff by which our salvation was accomplished, because God became man, and He really suffered in the flesh, and He really says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or else we have no life in us. And of course the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of spiritual significance for physical matter, not just for healing of death and disease, but also for the engendering of faith and holiness. So it makes sense to us that asceticism and sacrament should be a normal part of our lives.

In short, an “argument” for Lent to a dualistic Christian from a non-dualistic Christian will never make sense. There are no shared assumptions. Lent for the Orthodox is something we do within and guided by the Orthodox Church. It is not a set of autonomously operating spiritual disciplines that will operate outside of the actual community of the Church that was founded by the Apostles. Protestants don’t have that, and they generally don’t want it, so it makes little sense for them to want to appropriate something that comes from within that context. (Mind you, I would argue that it therefore also makes little sense that they would accept the Scriptures, since they were written, compiled and canonized in an ecclesial context they would reject—bishops, sacraments, asceticism, etc.)

As for fasting and other ascetical practices in the New Testament, I’m afraid that you’re not seeing them because your tradition has conditioned you not to see them. But they’re really everywhere. I again recommend this article for a detailed, book-by-book examination of asceticism in the New Testament.

Having said all that, though, I honestly think that if you’ve chosen your spiritual tradition, then trying to add Lent into it where it does not already exist is rather futile. Grafting an oak onto a willow is just not going to work, and trying to incorporate even a little of the ancient Christian traditions of Lent—which presuppose a non-dualistic understanding of spirituality—will only frustrate you. The context is wrong, and so the results will be distorted.

If, however, your spiritual tradition is something you can highly customize and alter as you go (rather than something to which you are called to be faithful), adding or subtracting spiritual practices as you like, then I don’t see why you’d need any authoritative argument at all—even from Scripture. Pick what you like.


  1. Jean says

    I don’t know about the Protestants you are familiar with, but many of the Protestant churches have services for Ash Wednesday and throughout for Lent. As a matter of fact my daughter’s Girl Scouts troop meets in the basement of a Welsh Baptist Church. Our meetings are on Wednesdays. We were unable to have our usual meeting because of Ash Wednesday. The Church told us that they didn’t want a meeting going on while they were having services, and rightly so. It is also a very longtime tradition where I live and was raised that even though the Protestants weren’t instructed to abstain from meat on Fridays they did anyway, and always had Macaroni and cheese and fish if they could afford it because a Catholic or Orthodox neighbor might be there at supper time, and wanted the neighbor to be able to eat with them. To this day, almost everyone has either Macaroni and cheese or pizza. However I think there is Scriptural reference for observing Lent as the Orthodox do–Christ spending 40 days in the dessert to help him resist the temptation of taking Himself off the cross. Also the Scripture that says, “through prayer, fasting and supplication make your requests known to God.”

    • says

      Yes, I am aware that there are various Protestant groups that have Lenten practices. But I was speaking really about asceticism, and in any event, most Protestant Lenten practices are really in the end almost purely memorial in character. They’re there to get you to think about something or remember something (or perhaps to feel something).

      As for Lent from the Bible, yes of course Jesus fasted for 40 days. But it is one thing to note that, as well as other passages, and another to come up with a 40-day period of intensified asceticism, church services, and so forth, that is done annually and has a standard toward which all are expected to strive. It further complicates things that even within traditional Christianity, Lent did not always exist. The earliest known fasts before Pascha were no more than about a week.

      But Orthodox Christians do not believe in Sola Scriptura, so we don’t have to use the Bible as our exclusive source for everything in our spiritual lives. If we did, we wouldn’t even be able to define what the Bible actually consists of, because the list of books in the canon isn’t actually listed in the canon.

    • Megan Leathers says

      One thing I would ask Jean is, do either of these things (Ash Wednesday and no meat on Friday) have any true significance for you? I would guess probably not in and of themselves. It’s wonderful to draw significance from Ash Wednesday and to use food selection as a tool to commune with others, but in Protestantism it’s ultimately up to each person to decide if and how to keep the “tradition”. In some cases it even goes so far as to what the ‘tradition” even is and if “it” has any true significance.

      If, all of the sudden, Ash Wednesday and fasting from meat on Friday were to disappear from your tradition, would you feel an impact? Would you believe your path to salvation had in anyway been affected? If not, then these “traditions” really aren’t doing anything that you couldn’t do without them.

      The same could be said of your quote “through prayer, fasting and supplication make your requests known to God.” If one doesn’t have an interpretation, framework, and tradition set by the Church for what such words mean, they could be interpreted to mean anything! I had a friend who if he really needed spiritual guidance would call off work to pray and fast at home. Is that what God intended by these words? If you’re a Protestant then the question is entirely subjective.

  2. Kaitlin Finn says

    It always tickles me when a person tries to argue sola scriptura, because that in and of itself is not biblical 😉 Well written friend.

  3. Jean says

    Megan, I’m Antiochian Orthodox. I was trying to show that in the Wyoming Valley (PA), most Protestants are not the way as portrayed in the article. We have a long tradition of fellowhip between Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. By my examples of Ash Wednesday and not eating meat was an example of this and also that the Protestants weren’t fasting per se they were fasting in practice out of love for their neighbors which Christ himself tells us to do. For instance groups of Christians go to each other’s Churches for various reasons. An example, if a child or teenager were to sleep over a friend’s house, a typical scenario would be that the parents of the children would discuss who is taking the kids to Church that Saturday or Sunday. As in, “Should I take Mary to 4:00 mass before I drop her off to your house or will you take her to your Church (Orthodox or Protestant) in the morning ?” As for doing what you want to for Lent is according to one of my Priest’s is up to us. Giving up meat for Lent is no hardship to me. As for the Scripture I quoted, I don’t think it’s all that complicated of a Scripture to understand. Make your requests known to God through prayer, fasting and supplication is very straightforward. One of the main reason’s for fasting is to have simplier meals so that you can spend the time you save making an elaborate meal in Bible reading and prayer and worship. Fasting should also take our minds from a focus on the physical to a focus on the spiritual.