“… it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion”

No, that’s not a description of the New Hampshire voter though after yesterday’s results. one could be excused for thinking so.

It’s actually a description used by Carl Trueman, a pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church who also teaches history at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, to describe non-Catholics who’ve adopted Ash Wednesday (and other Lenten practices) borrowed from the Catholic tradition.

David Mills picks it up from there:

If you’re thinking of the somewhat wooly-minded, generically Protestant Presbyterians in the church in middle of town, you’re not thinking of Carl’s kind of Presbyterian. The mainline Presbyterians are the ones in tweed and corduroy; Carl’s type are in biker leathers. He’s one John Calvin would have recognized as a brother.

Writing on Reformation21, the website of the Alliance for Confessing Evangelicals, Carl notes that Evangelicals have started observing the season and then lets loose:

American evangelicals are past masters at appropriating anything that catches their fancy in church history and claiming it as their own, from the ancient Fathers as the first emergents to the Old School men of Old Princeton as the precursors of the Young, Restless, and Reformed to Dietrich Bonhoeffer as modern American Evangelical.

He is a genial and liberal-minded man. His office bookshelf has very large Aquinas and Newman sections along with the works of Luther, Calvin, and their descendants. (He’s just written a book titled RickAshedLuther On the Christian Life.) I have spent a pleasant night in the Truemans’ home after speaking at the seminary at his invitation. He is generous to Catholics. But Evangelicals observing Lent, this sets him off. “I also fear that it speaks of a certain carnality,” he continues:

The desire to do something which simply looks cool and which has a certain ostentatious spirituality about it. As an act of piety, it costs nothing yet implies a deep seriousness. In fact, far from revealing deep seriousness, in an evangelical context it simply exposes the superficiality, eclectic consumerism and underlying identity confusion of the movement.
They shouldn’t do this. Their “ecclesiastical commitments do not theologically or historically sanction observance of such things,” he writes in a second article on the website, “Catholicity Reduced to Ashes.” Ash Wednesday is “strictly speaking unbiblical” and therefore can’t be imposed by a church, treated as normative, or understood as offering benefits unavailable in the normal parts of the Christian life. That would be a violation of the Christian liberty the Reformation so stressed (against “the illicit binding of consciences in which the late medieval church indulged,” as he puts it).

The “well-constructed worship service” and “appropriately rich Reformed sacramentalism” render the observance of Ash Wednesday “irrelevant.” Infant baptism, for example, declares better than the imposition of ashes once a year “the priority of God’s grace and the helplessness of sinless humanity in the face of God.” The Lord’s Supper does as well.

Worse, Carl argues, these Evangelicals pick from the Catholic tradition the parts they like when that tradition is an indivisible whole. In for a penny, in for a pound seems to be his understanding of Catholicism. He finds it “most odd,” he writes in the second article, that some might “observe Lent as an act of identification with the church catholic while repudiating a catholic practice such as infant baptism or a catholic doctrine such as eternal generation or any hint of catholic polity.” (The lower-case “c” is his but he means the upper-case.) “The notion of historic catholicity itself has become just another eclectic consumerist construct.”

Mr. Mills has much more, including a beautiful reference to the Church offering “riches like an over-loaded wagon in a fairy tale, spilling gold coins every time it hits a pothole.”

I, like David, think it a good thing when Protestants find these Catholic gold coins, after all, there’s plenty of them.  I consider it a rare day when I don’t come across something new and fresh in the writings of the historical Church, the Catechism, or in published Papal writings and based on David’s piece alone, it seems many a non-Catholic believer is experiencing similar things.

More power to them, and less to people like Mr. Trueman.

Here’s hoping for a movingly productive Lenten season to each one of you, whether you’re Catholic or not.

Carry on.

Crossposted at Brutally Honest.

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  • yetanotherjohn

    My denomination uses the “church year” that starts with advent (the anticipation of the coming of Christ), tells the story of our relationship with Christ throughout the year and ends with the last Sunday of the church year focusing on the second coming. So Ash Wednesday has been a part of my denominations history for about 500 years. Ash Wednesday is the start of lent which focuses on our need for a savior from our sins. While some of our church year matches with the Catholic church, a greater part doesn’t.

    Ash Wednesday isn’t commanded nor prohibited in the Bible, therefore Christians are permitted to observe it as they will. I disagree with Trueman that it can only be a form of consumerism that drives non-Catholics towards an Ash Wednesday. To the extent it is, I agree that it should be condemned as Jesus condemned the Pharisees who focused on the outward signs and not the inner life. But to the extent that it is Christians focusing on their ever present need of a savior in their life to rescue them from sin, its great.

    The best knock I’ve ever heard on Ash Wednesday is that every day we should focus on our need for a savior, not just once a year and like wise if we wear ashes as a sign of mourning for our sins and the death they deserve, why not wear them every day. But a church year focus in no way prevents consideration every day, but rather helps to ensure that the issues in our relationship with Christ are at least addressed once a year.

    Bonus question that Rick and David likely know but may be something not known by Christians from the Calvinist line. What are the ashes for Ash Wednesday made from?

    • I know the answer to your bonus question… but I’ll hold off answering it… good stuff…

      • yetanotherjohn

        I figured you would know. But I suspect that most in the Calvinist line wouldn’t know and it would be interesting to introduce them to the symbolism.

    • Alpha_Male

      The burning of the previously blessed palm leaves from Palm Sunday.

      • yetanotherjohn

        Correct. Now, which denomination are you and how did you know?

        • Alpha_Male

          I’m a Papist, Idolater LOL

          • yetanotherjohn

            No wonder you knew. Obviously learned while being debauched by the nuns and priest in a Roman orgy.
            Personally I find the symbolism of the palm branches that the crowds used to greet Jesus, the same crowds that later turned on him calling for his crucifixion, as the source of the ashes to mark our sin and need for a savior as great symbolism. Because it was us who called for His crucifixion as much as anyone there. Forgive us Father because we know not what we do,