Archive Nota Bene Steven Wedgeworth

Richard Baxter on Lent

Joel Wilhelm posts this seasonally relevant passage from Richard Baxter:

As for the commanding such an abstinence, as in Lent, not in imitation, but bare commemoration of Christ’s forty day’s fast, I would not command it if it were in my power; but being peremptorily commanded, I cannot prove it unlawful to obey; with the aforementioned exceptions.

It was anciently held a crime to fast on the Lord’s day, even in Lent; and I take that day to be separated by Christ and the Holy Ghost for a church-festival or day of thanksgiving; therefore I will not keep it as a fast, though I were commanded, unless in such an extraordinary necessity, as aforesaid.

What’s interesting here is that Baxter argues that since Lent is not unlawful, he will obey it. That’s an important reversal from some Puritans who argued that for something to be “lawful” meant that it needed a positive command in its favor.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the Rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Indiana. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a founding member of the Davenant Institute.

4 replies on “Richard Baxter on Lent”

Steven, I think that your last paragraph sums up what is one of the more fundamental reasons why there were various factions at the time of the Reformation. I cited Donald Fortson here — giving a similar breakdown in this “junk drawer” analogy to tradition:

We all have a “top dresser drawer” into which we throw everything that there’s no other place for. Over time, it just gets full of all different kinds of things. In church history, “tradition” kind of filled up the way that drawer does. And there were four different ways that the Reformers dealt with that drawer.

The Lutherans went through the drawer, looking for things that weren’t Biblical. Lutheranism took out the things that weren’t biblical, but they left everything else in there.

The Reformed took the drawer and dumped everything out on the bed. Then they went through all that stuff, checked it over carefully, and put back the things that were Biblical.

The Anglicans opened the drawer and took out one thing, called “the Pope,” and put back in one other thing, called “the Archbishop of Canterbury.” (This was probably the least analogous parts of the metaphor, given the 39 articles and all.)

The Anabaptists took out the whole drawer, dumped everything in the trash, and lit the trash can on fire.

I appreciate the quote, as well as the general point about “lawful” not requiring a positive command, but isn’t there a pretty significant difference between “not unlawful to obey” and “I will obey”?

Hi CJ,

I think the relevant point would be whether or not there was a legitimate authority asking you to obey. In Baxter’s day, there was the “normal” scenario of a church authority imposing lent as a devotional practice. Whether it was the best idea or not, the point would be that they had done so and thus individuals should obey unless the imposition was actually “unlawful.”

American Evangelicals are in a different situation altogether. But the principle of the reasoning is what is important.

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