Rightly Dividing the Lectionaries
What you’re about to read should rightly be considered “inside baseball”. Many of you who read this are lay persons who will quite possibly shake your head that there are such debates among the clergy. For those head-shakers, please consider that for those of us who are clergy, this is our craft. We have devoted our lives to the ministry of the church, and for this reason, it is right that we discuss and consider things in greater detail than those outside the craft might otherwise — much in the same way one in a civil profession would give attention to things that the rest of us know nothing or very little about. One man’s trivium is another man’s craft. In fact, if one gives no greater thought to his profession than those outside the profession, then there is little use for the rest of us that he occupy that profession. It should be no different for pastors.
Yet I don’t want to assume that it is only pastors who are interested in a discussion about the choice of lectionaries among Lutherans.
Should we use the One-Year or the Three-Year lectionary?
It turns out that this is one of those subjects that is deeper and more complex than it seems upon initial inspection.
The truth is, there are advantages and disadvantages to each, and as I’ll argue, there’s no clear winner here. But if we’re to identify what are the advantages and disadvantages of each, we need to distinguish the good reasons from the bad for choosing one over the other.
Is the Three-Year Lectionary the Pope’s lectionary?
I have routinely heard my One-Year friends scoff that the Three-Year Lectionary is the pope’s lectionary. This bit of fault-finding comes from the fact that the Three-Year Lectionary was the product of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960’s. Sounds bad, right? I mean what self-respecting (or self-loathing) Lutheran wants to read from the pope’s lectionary?
Calling the Three-Year Lectionary the pope’s lectionary suggests that there is a lectionary that isn’t the pope’s lectionary, but in the choice between the One-Year and the Three-Year there isn’t a non-papal option. It’s just a question of which papal lectionary you want.
The origin of the One-Year Lectionary is an interesting blend of readings compiled under several popes across eight centuries.
It begins with a set of readings for Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter derived from Comes Hieronymi, a document attributed to Jerome (as the title indicates). The readings for these seasons were put together most likely in the late fifth century. Three hundred years later, Charlemagne, one of the most pro-papacy monarchs the world has ever known, commissioned some adjustments to the lectionary which were drawn from Pope Gregory the Great’s sacramentary. The final major addition came in the thirteenth century with the adoption of Trinity Sunday and all that follows for the rest of the year. Finally put together under a powerful papacy, the One-Year Lectionary was solidified for the church for several hundred years.
And so the fingerprints of various popes are all over the One-Year Lectionary. Luther noticed this as well, although he doesn’t appear to be aware of its historical development. He writes,
After [the collect] the Epistle is read. Certainly the time has not yet come to attempt revision here, as nothing unevangelical is read, except that those parts from the Epistles of Paul in which faith is taught are read only rarely, while the exhortations to morality are most frequently read. The Epistles seem to have been chosen by a singularly unlearned and superstitious advocate of works. But for the service those sections in which faith in Christ is taught should have been given preference. The latter were certainly considered more often in the Gospels by whoever it was who chose these lessons. In the meantime, the sermon in the vernacular will have to supply what is lacking (LW 53:23).
Luther noticed that the One-Year Lectionary does not include enough of the great Pauline texts on God’s free salvation by grace through faith alone. For example, Romans 3 and Ephesians 2:1-10 are not in the Historic Lectionary (although the LCMS has since added these texts in its version of it). Yet, despite its deficiencies, Luther retained the lectionary, because it was already part of the life of the church, and there was no compelling reason to get rid of it. Instead, he called on pastors to use their preaching to make up for the deficiencies of the lectionary.
Notice also that Luther does not mention any Old Testament readings. Historically, the One-Year lectionary did not include Old Testament lessons on Sundays, but only at the Easter Vigil, the Vigil of Pentecost, the feast of Epiphany, during Holy Week, and on some weekdays.
Now maybe you can stomach certain popes more than others, but in the category of “lectionaries organized under papal influence”, there’s no difference between our two lectionary candidates.
It’s also worth noting that the Three-Year Lectionary used in the LCMS isn’t simply the Ordo Lectionum Missae created by Vatican II. There are major differences. Vatican II’s OLM was adopted widely by Protestant groups but not before making significant changes. The result was the Common Lectionary. From there, the Common Lectionary underwent further revision to become the aptly-titled Revised Common Lectionary (RCL). The LCMS still wasn’t satisfied and so, working from RCL, made even more changes before giving us our own Three-Year Lectionary. As LCMS.org states, “While a lectionary cannot include the entire Bible, it was the committee’s opinion that a Lutheran lectionary needed to include such theologically important texts, even if some of the RCL selections were not incorporated.” Here are some of those “theologically important texts”: Ephesians 5:22–33; Romans 13:1–7; 1 Corinthians 10:16–17; 11:27–32; Galatians 2:11–14; 6:1–6; Philippians 4:10–20; Hebrews 12:4–13; 1 John 4:1–6; and Luke 13:22–30.
The LCMS three-year is Vatican II’s lectionary, you say? Not by a long shot.
How much does a lectionary’s origins matter anyway?
But so what if a lectionary is put together under papal influence. Are you aware of the myriad of things that you have received from a church under the papacy? If the criteria for throwing something out of the church is papal influence, then we’ve got a lot of chucking to do, and once we’re finished, we’ll be left with less of a church than what the Evangelicals possess.
Luther saw this point as well when he discussed the Anabaptist spirit toward papal influence.
We do not rave as do the rebellious spirits, so as to reject everything that is found in the papal church. For then we would east out even Christendom from the temple of God, and all that it contained of Christ….So it is of no consequence when these Anabaptists and enthusiasts say, “Whatever is of the pope is wrong,” or, “Whatever is in the papacy we must have and do differently,” thinking thereby to prove themselves the foremost enemy of Antichrist. Not realizing that they thus give him most help, they hurt Christendom most and deceive themselves. For they should help us to reject abuse and accretion, but they would not get much credit for this because they realize they were not first to do this (LW 40:233).
Martin Luther never got wrapped up in letting a practice’s source determine its worth, and we shouldn’t either. It’s a foolish pursuit that ends with us trying to chase down the origins of all that we do instead of asking about its current value. The question should not be “Where did it come from?”, but “Is it good?”. The lectionaries should be judged on their merits as lectionaries, not on the basis of their origins, and to accept or dismiss them on the basis of their origins is nothing other than the genetic fallacy. Ask yourself: “If I had no idea where the Three-Year Lectionary came from, would I still have the same concerns?” If the answer is no and you still object to it, then you’re guilty of the genetic fallacy. Lutherans have been smart enough to avoid the genetic fallacy when it comes to other matters such as Halloween, Christmas, and sausage, they should do the same when it comes to the lectionary.
Besides, if there is anything that isn’t the pope’s, it’s Scripture. The lectionary is Scripture, and no Scripture is the pope’s Scripture. I won’t yield one jot or tittle to the pope’s ownership. Unless we can detect a discernible agenda to string together various texts in such a way as to distort their context in support of an agenda contrary to Lutheran doctrine (and we can’t), we should treat both lectionaries as Scripture simpliciter, not the pope’s Scripture.
But the One-Year Lectionary is more historic, right?
Yes, the One-Year Lectionary is the more historic of the two, but not as much as one might think, and certainly not to the degree that many boast. In its current LCMS form, it’s been overhauled quite a bit. As noted above, almost all of the Old Testament readings in today’s One-Year were omitted in the Historic Lectionary, and while readings from 1 Timothy, 2 Peter, and Revelation have been included in the LCMS version, these were omitted historically. Numerous other texts have been removed and other put in their place. So, much of it is not so historic.
Factor in also, that the Three-Year lectionary retains much of the One-Year lectionary on most feast days, and the argument that the One-Year is the historic lectionary is weaker than it initially appears.
Does including more Scripture make the Three-Year Lectionary better?
The touted advantages of the Three-Year Lectionary aren’t so cut-and-dry either.
From the Three-Year crowd, I regularly hear that the Three-Year Lectionary is obviously better because it contains a wider variety of Scripture. Even in the modified LCMS form, the One-Year leaves out readings from 23 of the 66 books (Leviticus, Judges, Ruth, 1 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Hosea, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah [listed as an alternate for Joel on Ash Wednesday. If Jonah is read, then Joel is not and so Joel would be added to the list of omitted books and vice versa], Nahum, Habakuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, 2 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Philemon, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude). Meanwhile, the Three-Year Lectionary omits only 1 Chronicles and Obadiah.
But does a wider variety of Scripture trump everything else? I don’t think so. Some of the advantages found in the One-Year Lectionary are lost by the wider scope of the Three-Year.
- Consider that a lifetime of attentively listening to the same passages read publicly each year results in a deep familiarity with the text and a great deal of memorization. This is sacrificed with the Three-Year Lectionary.
- Fitting in so many different texts as the Three-Year does comes at the cost. The One-Year Lectionary readings for each service weave together a theme that is harder to discern in the Three-Year. The One-Year has the advantage of clarifying the structure of the church year much better. For example, Isaiah 50:4-9 (series A) is not nearly as appropriate for Palm Sunday as is the One-Year reading, Zechariah 9:9-12. There are some exceptions where the Three-Year reading fits better with the season, but these occur far less. On a similar note, the Old Testament lessons fit hand-in-glove with the Gospel lessons much more than their Three-Year counterparts.
- Then there’s the advantage of sharing a lectionary with a great many churchmen of antiquity who can help you in your own reading and study of the lectionary. The Three-Year pastors and congregations lose some of this.
- What’s more, many of our hymns were written to compliment the readings of the Historic Lectionary.
Is reading a wider variety of Scripture a good thing? On it’s own, yes, but one has to recognize that reading a wider variety of Scripture comes at a cost to other things, and when those things are added up, it isn’t clear that the Three-Year lectionary is better just by virtue of including more Scripture.
And yet, the Three-Year truly brings with it some important advantages.
- By focusing on a particular Gospel for a year, congregations have a chance to get a sense of the character of each Gospel.
- While a wider scope of Scripture may not trump all other considerations, it is nevertheless a point in the Three-Year Lectionary’s favor. I have found that it lends itself better to a redemptive-historical/ biblical theological approach — particularly in the Old Testament readings.
- The Three-Year Lectionary has been approved and/or adopted by most church bodies that follow the church calendar. It has been adopted by the Episcopal Church, the ELCA, the ELCIC, the United Methodist Church, most Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and numerous others. It is also far and away the dominate lectionary used in the LCMS. Now One-Year users may not like this fact, but it nevertheless counts for something that a majority of the present-day church is using this lectionary.
- The Three-Year Lectionary does not reflect the ‘canonical suspicion’ in the Historic Lectionary that kept out readings from numerous canonical books such 2 John, 3 John, Jude, and Revelation. Seriously, there’s no good defense for the Historic Lectionary omitting readings from the last four canonical books.
So which one is better then?
I don’t think that there’s an absolute answer on which lectionary is better, and this is just the conclusion I’ve been pushing you toward throughout the post. It depends on how you weight the advantages and disadvantages of one over the other.
Is it good to read a wider variety of Scripture over the course of three years? I think it is, but as I mentioned previously, doing so comes at the cost of giving up some of the niceties of the Historic Lectionary. Is it good to be rooted in the rich lectionary history of the One-Year? Of course, but what do I have to give up to do this?
There will continue to be a difference in preference, and the reason for that is simply that there is no independent set of criteria by which to assess the balance of advantages and disadvantages. We can’t change that. What we can change, however, is appeals to faulty reasons for our preference.
Lastly, let’s remember that a key purpose of a lectionary is to unite us, not to become yet another dueling matter in the long list of dueling matters.