Monday, March 10, 2008
Many Christians worship in churches that follow a lectionary–that is, a cycle of Scripture readings that samples the Old Testament, the Psalms, the New Testament Epistles, and the Gospels. Many Protestant bodies in North America, as well as the Roman Catholic Church (with some changes for the Apocrypha), follow the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), a three-year cycle that outlines the church year (e.g., Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost). The RCL was an unexpected ecumenical response to the reforms of the Vatican II Council in the ’60s. As the Catholics reformed their lectionary, many Protestants followed suit.
On an ordinary day, I’d be first in line to critique the lectionary (e.g., it skips over difficult or politically incorrect passages, and it encourages preachers to be lazy. I even know some pastors who keep files on the Gospel readings so that every 3 years, they have a ready-made sermon skeleton waiting for new illustrations! You know who you are! But I digress…). But that is not my purpose today.
Curiously, the Presbyterian Church (USA) has also jumped on the RCL bandwagon. It was all the rage back in my seminary days (’99-’02). Our Presbyterian planning calendars have the RCL texts emblazoned on each Sunday. There are numerous books and commentaries available to Presbyterian pastors that follow the lectionary. Our Book of Common Worship (1993)–already suspect for manifold other reasons–is tied exclusively to the RCL. Even our denomination’s church school curriculum (which our congregation does not use) follows the lectionary!
That would be fine if we were Lutherans or Methodists. But–and this is a little known fact–the idea of a lectionary is absolutely foreign to our Reformed Protestant heritage! A Reformed lectionary is like a kosher ham sandwich, a jumbo shrimp, a lead zeppelin…well, you get the picture!
In the early 16th century, at the same time that Martin Luther was stirring up the pot in Germany, a parish priest named Huldrych Zwingli in what is today Switzerland was reaching his own conclusions about the life of the church. As he studied the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, he became convinced of the necessity of purging the corruption from the church (is that like purgatory?). Zwingli’s approach was rather different than Luther and his followers, however. Whereas Luther approved of beliefs and practices as long as they were not specifically forbidden in Scripture, Zwingli approved of beliefs and practices only if they were explicitly prescribed in Scripture. (Of course, Zwingli wasn’t quite as radical in applying this as were the Anabaptists who came after him and who really cleaned house, if you know what I mean…think Amish.) This point of methodology is an important distinction that influences the Lutheran and Zwinglian (“Reformed”) traditions today.
Our Reformed theological tradition can be traced back to the Swiss Reformation, spearheaded by our good man Zwingli, systematized by John Calvin (blessed be his name), and imported to Scotland by John Knox, where it rode ships west to the New World. Today we Presbyterians share our Reformed (a.k.a. “Zwinglian” or “Calvinist”) heritage with the Christian Reformed Church, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ (kind of), a surprising number of Baptists, and all the other Presbyterian denominations in the land. (Another little known fact: there is no “presbyterian” theology, just Reformed theology packaged in presbyterian polity.)
Many Zwinglian influences remain (or at least should remain) a force in our Reformed Protestant heritage, including orderly/austere worship, an intellectual approach to faith, simple music (often with no instruments and often psalmody-only), and NO LECTIONARY! Here’s why:
On January 1, 1519, Zwingli chucked the lectionary and began preaching through every verse in Matthew’s Gospel (lectio continua or continuous reading). When he finished that, he moved on to the Acts of the Apostles. When he finished that, he moved on to the Epistles. Then the Old Testament. And one by one, he preached through all the books of the Bible, which was radical at the time and remains a unique fixture of our Reformed heritage.
Unfortunately, many many many Presbyterians (perhaps especially pastors) have been hoodwinked into believing that doing the lectionary is part of our heritage (it is not), will help them be more disciplined (lectio continua is even more challenging than the lectionary because it doesn’t skip anything), and will promote ecumenism (it does on one level, but it also makes us just makes us into a bland version of the Methodists).
So Presbyterians: unite against the lectionary! Tell your pastor to read this blog! Make Zwingli proud! Reclaim the lectio continua!
Sola gratia, solus Christus, sola scriptura, soli Deo gloria (and all those great Protestant watchwords).