Do “Sola Scriptura” Protestants observe Lent? If so, why? It isn’t biblical

When St. Athanasius, who was then the bishop of Alexandria, visited Rome in the 330s, he heard for the first time about the forty-day fast that the Western Church observed in the weeks preceding Easter. On his return to Egypt he introduced the practice in the East, possibly acting under instructions from Constantine himself.

That much is well known. It’s in the history books. But what is the origin of the forty-day fast in the West? That’s something I’m still looking for. Anyone?

In any case, it’s clearly something that began many years after all the books of the New Testament had been written. So how do “Sola Scriptura” Protestants get around that, if they observe Lent at all?

I’m not a sola scripture Christian, but it’s in the beginning of Matthew 4, where Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days. This is where we get it from.


Yes, that is where the idea of Lent comes from. But my question is about the observance of Lent. Who were the first Christians to designate the pre-Easter period as the right time of year to fast for forty days? Where was that practice first introduced, and when? Remember that as late as the 330s the forty-day fast was unknown in the Eastern Church. We have Athanasius’ letters to testify to that.

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To my knowledge, there are different forms of sola scriptura. One being, everything must be explicitly found in the Scriptures to be believed and practiced. The other, that it must not contradict Scripture or add anything to it - so, if it is implied or can partially be found in Scripture, it’s okay.

Good questions tho!

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Why do you think sola scriptura would prevent someone from observing the Church calendar?


Really? Uh. Guys come on. I’m a non-liturgical Pentecostal who has never observed Lent in my life but come on.

How do Sola Scriptura" Protestants get around that??? This isn’t how Sola Scriptura works. All Sola Scriptura says is that all things necessary for salvation are provided in the Bible. All teachings, doctrines and knowledge of God that one needs to be saved are contained in Scripture either explicitly or can be discerned by reason. That is all.

Does anyone teach that observing Lent is a requirement to be saved? If they do, that would be a violation of Sola Scriptura because it’s patently false. However, observing an ancient Spiritual discipline that involves Biblical stuff like fasting is not a violation of Scripture.


There are historical precedents. In England and New England alike, the Puritans contended that there was no Scriptural warrant for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, and therefore canceled Christmas. Similarly, there is no Scriptural warrant for observing Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, or the forty days of Lent. From the New York Times:

When the Puritans rebelled against King Charles I, inciting the English Revolution, the popular celebration of Christmas was on their hit list. Victorious against the king, in 1647, the Puritan government actually canceled Christmas. Not only were traditional expressions of merriment strictly forbidden, but shops were also ordered to stay open, churches were shut down and ministers arrested for preaching on Christmas Day.

… The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas. From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony would be fined five shillings.


Why don’t you try observing Lent by going to Mass at your local Catholic parish on Ash Wednesday (falls on Valentine’s Day this year) and ask the Holy Spirit to reveal the truth to you? Your attitude seems to be very defiant of anything that a Catholic says about why and how we came to observe Lent.

Many Protestants are now discovering the reception of ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Sadly, that is as far as it goes for them unless they have Catholic relatives and are trying to understand our practices and observances.

My mother was a Methodist before she converted and became Catholic. The observance of Lent was never taught or practiced in her church. It wasn’t practiced or observed in Protestant churches at all until recently.

But to your question, none of the Sola Scriptura Protestants I know observe Lent even on Ash Wednesday. They still see it as a “Catholic thing.”



A protestant may define “Sola Scriptura” as “a Christian theological doctrine which holds that the Christian Scriptures are the sole infallible rule of faith and practice.” (emphasis added). As Lent isn’t institutionally identified in scripture, many protestants could and do reject it on this very basis.

So let’s pull back on the faux incredulity. :roll_eyes:

I agree. But such practices often invoke accusations of “man made tradition” from many protestants; usually offered in a negative context (apropos - the thread title/question).


That reminds me. I think I don’t have to do the sausages on Shrove Tuesday this year. We got some new volunteers.

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Yes, Puritans banned Christmas, Easter and other holidays (when they could), and yes, they pointed out that these aren’t Scriptural holidays (which means no one has to celebrate them anyway). However, the argument was never “these aren’t found in Scripture so we must not celebrate them.” The argument was “people are using these as just an excuse to party and gamble and go to the theater and carry on secular festivities and plus they are extra-biblical anyway so we’d be better off without them.”

The Puritans lived by the maxim, “For those who are holy, everyday is a holy day.” The Puritans replaced these traditional holidays with fast days and “solemn thanksgivings” where the whole nation could pray and thank God for the spiritual and temporal welfare of the nation.

No, my attitude is not “defiant.” If you actually read what I said, you would see that while I don’t celebrate Lent, I defended the right of Christians to do that as fasting and prayer are Scriptural activities.


While fasting before Easter seems to have been ancient and widespread, the length of that fast varied significantly from place to place and across generations. In the latter half of the second century, for instance, Irenaeus of Lyons (in Gaul) and Tertullian (in North
Africa) tell us that the preparatory fast lasted one or two days, or forty
hours—commemorating what was believed to be the exact duration of
Christ’s time in the tomb. By the mid-third century, Dionysius of Alexandria
speaks of a fast of up to six days practiced by the devout in his see; and the
Byzantine historian Socrates relates that the Christians of Rome at some
point kept a fast of three weeks. However, the variation in the observance did not originate in our own day, but very much earlier, in the time of our forefathers" (Eusebius, History of the Church, V, 24). St. Irenaeus (d. 203) wrote to Pope St. Victor I, commenting on the celebration of Easter and the differences between practices in the East and the West: “The dispute is not only about the day, but also about the actual character of the fast. Some think that they ought to fast for one day, some for two, others for still more; some make their ‘day’ last 40 hours on end.” When Rufinus translated the relevant passage from Greek into Latin, the punctuation made between “40” and “hours” made the meaning to appear to be “40 days, twenty-four hours a day.” The importance of the passage, nevertheless, remains that since the time of “our forefathers” — always an expression for the apostles — a 40-day period of Lenten preparation existed. However, the actual practices and duration of Lent were still not homogenous throughout the Church. Only following the Council of Nicea in 325 a.d. did the length of Lent become fixed at forty days, and then only nominally.


I did read what you said. And I stand by what I said.

And btw, no one has ever claimed that observing Lent is a requirement for salvation. However, it does help bring us closer to Jesus. He fasted for 40 days in the desert. We fast from those things that stand in the way of our relationship with Him whether it be foods we love or bad habits. And in their place, we cultivate better habits and become closer to Him,

If every Protestant truly understood the season of Lent, they would observe it too. Jesus is not only Teacher but our example as well. It is He we all strive to be more like. He is our Light and the Light of all Christians.


I think the issue there was that in your attempt to control how “sola scriptura” is defined, you may have alienated both protestants and Catholics who understand the term differently - particularly as its posed in the question.

It’s likely an unfortunate misunderstanding arising from the fact that the exact definition of “sola scriptura”, like practically all things protestant, is inherently under perpetual dispute.

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@DeaconJeff.—Excuse me if I’m being singularly dense, but I don’t get your point about Rufinus and his mistranslation. By the time Rufinus came on the scene, the whole Church, both Eastern and Western, was already observing a forty-day Lenten fast, thanks to Athanasius’ Easter letters. Are you saying that the period of “forty days” was already in Eusebius?

But that doesn’t answer my question. I asked why you think sola scriptura excludes the use of the Church calendar.
Growing up Lutheran, the very thought of that it would seem absurd, and saying that sola scriptura demands it ridiculous.
Clearly there are some groups that do, but that doesn’t appear to be your question. Your question seems to be about those who observe the Church calendar, so from my perspective, sola scriptura is intended to be a hermeneutical principle that holds all doctrine and teachings accountable to scripture as the final norm. It is for determining doctrine.
The are also things that are adiaphora, things indifferent. These are things that may be believed or practiced because the do no harm to the Gospel and do not contradict God’s law, but scripture is not explicit or even implicit enough to consider it doctrine. Believing in the assumption is a good example.
Now, scripture is clear that teaching authority is given to the Church, so the Church has the ability to establish a Church year calendar. It doesn’t do damage to the Gospel, and in fact supports the teaching and spiritual role of the Church.
So, in no way does Lent or any other part of the Church calendar violate the hermeneutical principle of sola scriptura.

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Well, Jon, with all due respect, I think I did answer your question. I did give you my reason for believing that sola scriptura means what it seems to mean to an outsider, namely “scripture alone” or “only scripture.” I have never known personally, I have never had face-to-face contact with, any professed believer in sola scriptura. I have read a bit about it and I have had online discussions—friendly, civilized discussions, I would stress—with a handful of professed sola scriptura believers. Those discussions showed me that there is a pretty wide range of meanings attached to the term, depending on who you’re dealing with. I remember two in particular, both regular commenters on the same Anglican blog, who time and again denounce an ordained clergy—whether Catholic, Anglican, or anything else—as unChristian and unBiblical because of what the Epistles say about episkopoi and presbyteroi. I never got onto the subject of Lent with them, as far I remember, but I am applying the same principle in this case that they used then. While I accept that not all sola scriptura believers would necessarly reject the institution of Lenten observance as unBiblical and unChristian, it is only reasonable to expect that some of them should, if they’re going to follow their own rules consistently.

Where did I defy what Catholics say about Lent? My comments were about what a Catholic was saying about Sola Scriptura and why that would prevent a Protestant from observing Lent. I said Sola Scriptura would not prevent a Protestant from observing Lent. I absolutely said nothing about what I believed about Lent besides that not being part of my non-liturgical tradition, and so I find it kind of strange that you would assume I somehow am objecting to what Catholics are saying about Lent. There is a miscommunication somewhere.

Yes, I know that. That is why I pointed it out. No one is claiming observing Lent is a requirement for salvation–which would be a violation of Sola Scriptura–but simply observing it as a spiritual discipline to grow in one’s faith and imitate Christ is not a bad thing.

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Well, it does mean scripture alone, in that scripture is the only final norm. That doesn’t mean there aren’t other norms. For Lutherans, the confessions are a norm, but they see that norm as a right reflection of scripture.

What the sola doesn’t mean is nothing else is considered, because no matter what one does, other things are considered.

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Which is why it is a waste of time to say “Protestants think”, or "sola scriptura means ".
It is better to direct the questions to specific traditions.

If that is the position you are looking for someone to comment on, I’m not the one. So, I’ll back out.
I suggest, however, that there are not too many at CAF that fit that.

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