[Wow, sorry for the long title, but there it is.] Since we are sitting here on "Ash Wednesday," it seems a good time to reflect once again on the issue of the church calendar and especially on how Presbyterians should think about using or not using the calendar in the life of their churches. Or maybe--from a different angle and still mulling over my lecture that I just gave on Martin Luther--the question should be: why should those who emphasize the authority of Scripture not incorporate the church calendar into the rhythyms of a Presbyterian church's year?
In order to get at an answer to this question, I think you have to start with the question of authority--who or what determines or orders the life of a church? That is to say, on what basis does the church order its life? For most Protestants and especially for most conservative Presbyterians, we would say that Jesus is the King over his church and he orders his church through his Word and by Spirit. And that, of course, is the right (i.e. biblical) answer (for more on this, see On Being Presbyterian, ch. 4 and 8).
Protestants came to this answer over against what they saw to be an usurption of the church's authority by the pope, an expansion of the church's authority through its canon law, ritual practice, and traditional usage, and a corrupt use of that authroity, typified most clearly in Pope Leo X's decision to sell indulgences in order to fund the completion of St. Peter's Cathedral. The church used authority in order to bind the consciences of God's people in an unbiblical and hence illegitimate manner.
This point on the liberty of conscience is actually quite important--one of the major criticisms of Rome made by the Reformers was that the Roman church through its idoltary and superstitutious practices were illegitimately binding the consciences of people. In order to see what these practices looked like in medieval Europe, all one needs to do is read Eamon Duffy's The Stripping of the Altars--a worship pattern that emphasized ritual actions that taught biblical truths was emphasized centered on the Mass. The Reformers looked at this and said that this was not the worship which God required in his Word, was not likely to produce Gospel repentance and faith, and hence bound people in superstition which led them to perdition.
And so, the more biblically-oriented of these Protestants came to articulate a position that came to be known as the "regulative principle of worship." The principle itself is much debated today--especially in terms of the extent and application of it--but it remains a very important biblical point: namely, that the only legitimate manner of worship, declaration of doctrine, or practice of church order is that which is contained in Holy Scripture. The way the Westminster Confession of Faith puts it is valuable: "The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture" (WCF 21:1).
And this "regulative principle," importantly, comes after the chapter on liberty of conscience. Our confessions rightly say that "God alone is Lord of the conscience, and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in anything contrary to his Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray to liberty of conscience" (WCF 20:2). The Triune God is King over each individual's conscience; that conscience is bound by the Word of God; and the church may only prescribe (or proscribe) what Scripture does.
All of this brings us to the question of the priority of using church calendar itself. While I am aware that some would make a biblical argument for using the church calendar based on the OT development of sacrifical feast days (an argument that is not convincing to me), I would suggest that what we have for our place in the redemptive, biblical drama is actually a rhythym of 52 feasts days a year--the Lord's Day in which Word, Sacraments, and prayer constitute the heart of the church's "calendar." This, I believe, is what we find prescribed in God's Word, both by apostolic practice and direction. For a Presbyterian church to move beyond this--whether to demand attendance at Wednesday night activities as part of Christian discipleship or to offer Lenten observance as part of the church's discipleship practices, placing ashes on people's foreheads as part of this--binds the conscience in ways that are "beside" the express command of Scripture itself and hence, spiritually illegitimate and potentially dangerous
And as Luther himself said, the only safe place for the conscience is anchored in God's Word: "Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason--for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves--I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one's conscience is neither safe nor sound. God help me. Amen." What we want are believers whose consciences are captive not to the church, nor its traditions, nor the good ideas of pastors, sessions, or other leaders. We want their and our consciences captive to God's Word--because that is the only safe and sound place to be.