A Reformed Lectionary Is Like a Kosher Ham Sandwich

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).


14 thoughts on “A Reformed Lectionary Is Like a Kosher Ham Sandwich

  1. Many apologies to my readers! The proper term is lectio continua (with an “a”) rather than lectio continuo (with an “o”). My bad! It’s still a great idea, even if I misspelled my Latin!

  2. Thanks for the affirmation. It has been only lectio continua at First Pres Mora for over 5 years (with the exception of certain holi-days and a couple of topical series). Verse by verse exposition, or death!

  3. “Lectio Continua” sounds like a fancy term for “verse by verse expository preaching”. If that’s the case, perhaps Calvary Chapels across the land are carrying the Zwinglian torch.

    I’ve come out of that tradition, and have embraced the lectionary – not because it’s necessarily “right” (e.g., the church calendar). I grew weary of churches that would be in Romans for 2-1/2 years, leaving their people with a lopsided approach to the Word that is too New Testament and Pauline driven for long stretches.

    The lectionary assures our people that the pastor isn’t just choosing his favorites books to preach on. It assures balance throughout the year. I suppose it could become a short cut for some, but I think, more, it drags pastors INTO scriptures that otherwise might go unexegeted.

    By the way, if we’re recovering all things Zwingli, are we approving mistresses now?

  4. Bill,

    I’m not sure that lectio continua has much to do with the style of preaching; I’m a continua preacher and consider proclamation an artistic craft, rather than an expository lecture. And I’m not saying that the lectionary is automatically bad; not at all. It has many strengths, as you have pointed out. The point of my post is simply: for those of us who find ourselves in the Reformed (Zwinglian) tradition, let’s actually follow the distinctives of our tradition (which, in this case, includes lectio continua). That’s all.

    Certainly there are pros and cons both ways, regarding continua vs. lectionary. You’re right that lectio continua preachers can tilt their readings to one book or another; I’ve tried to balance my approach in that regard, and I’m currently preaching through Isaiah 40-55, which has been challenging and exciting. My main concern about the RCL is that it becomes a canon within the canon–a canon chosen by mortals who, by default, have bias and agendas. For instance, this Sunday’s Psalm reading is Psalm 104:24-34, 35b. The one phrase left out of the reading is, “But may sinners vanish from the earth and the wicked be no more” (TNIV). So you have to ask, “Why did they choose to leave *that* verse out of the reading?” I’m in favor of Reformed preachers taking the canonical text as it is and dealing with it on its own terms. That’s the best way to reduce bias and agendas, IMO.

    Thanks for commenting!


    P.S. I guess I don’t know anything about Zwingli’s mistresses. Sorry.

  5. Pingback: We’re Iconoclasts…Or Not « Sinaiticus

  6. Dear Mr. McCalla,

    I must say that your characterizations of historical Reformed preaching and worship practices are quite misleading, and that you have very poor understanding of the current lectionary and its structure. Just to cite one example, the RCL uses the principle of “lectio continua” for much of each year, so implying that the lectionary somehow is against the principles of “lectio continua” is misleading.

    I would go back and read not only the introduction to the RCL but also the prefaces to the BCW published before Vatican II, and perhaps a good textbook on worship history. I think you’ll find some ideas which challenge your own.

    One last thing to note is that is was the Presbyterians (not the Methodists, Lutherans, or Catholics) who spearheaded the effort to devise a lectionary for modern usage; later, seeing the strengths of the new RC Lectionary for Mass, they adapted that and helped create the RCL.

    Jonathan Hehn, OSL

  7. Jonathan,

    Your last comment (about Presbyterians spearheading the RCL) is precisely why I felt the need to comment: present practice is not always in line with historical precedent. The Book of Common Worship is built around the RCL; LOTS of Presbyterian preachers today follow the RCL. The problem? The idea of an ecclesiastically sanctioned lectionary is not a part of our Reformed heritage.

    Thanks for reading and commenting! (Over the past four years, this has by far been my most-read post.)


    • Dear Ray,

      Thanks for taking the time to reply to me. As a Presbyterian, I’m keenly aware of the present practices in lectionary usage. My concern with your train of thought is that you seem to be defining “Reformed heritage” very narrowly. American Presbyterians first started pushing for a lectionary in the mid 19th century, and the American church first published its own in 1906 with the first edition of the BCW. That’s a large chunk of time. Moreover, Reformed Christians have always appreciated the wisdom of the “early” church and claimed that as a part of our heritage, and there is ample evidence that those patristic-era churches followed a system of readings based on the church year. So if you’re defining “Reformed heritage” and “historic precendent” as encompassing anything between Zwingli and, say, 1860, you’re correct. But if you consider Reformed heritage to be broader, encompassing both pre-Reformation heritage and 19th-20th century developments, then it’s simply incorrect to say that using a lectionary system is alien to our Reformed heritage.


  8. I apologize Rev. for a somewhat long reply, but you’ve touched a very interesting subject that I’m rather passionate about.

    The principle desire of Lectio Continua, that is to say, of reading the entire Bible, and not skipping over difficult passages, did weigh in the design of the original lectionaries. The Eastern Orthodox lectionary does, in the course of one year, the entire New Testament, aside from the book of Revelations, which as a historical artifact, owing to its relatively late acceptance (the modern canon of 27 books defined by St. Athanasius was not universally accepted until at least the sixth century, if not later; it certainly was not fully accepted in the early sixth century, as is evidenced by the absence of the contested books from the Syriac lectionaries).

    The problem with the Roman lectionary by the time of Zwingli and Calvin was that the readings had been pared back to be almost stylistic or ornamental; the primary difference between the Roman and Greek lectionaries (which you can compare here: http://www.bombaxo.com/lectionaries.html) is the length of the readings; the overall structure of the lectionary is very similar. However, given that in the Catholic church, the average parishioner could not understand the lesson, whereas in the average Orthodox church, most could), it would naturally follow that a trend would exist towards contracting it. The new Roman lectionary and its progeny the RCL sought to correct this problem, but was driven by liberal theologians, and only manages to do around 64% of the New Testament and 8% of the Old. In addition, the practice of reading Matthew in one year, Mark in another, and Luke in a third, is an innovation, that presupposes a degree interchangeability between the Synoptic Gospels, that does not in fact exist.

    For maximum completeness, I advocate the old Anglican lectionary from the older BCP editions, which will give you the entire New Testament every year, and the Old Testament every two years, while at the same time ensuring that on feasts such as Christmas, you get the relevant, crowd pleasing lessons (Luke chapter 2 “And a decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed…” et cetera), To accomplish this, of course, you need to have Morning Prayer, the Eucharist, and Evening Prayer every Sunday, and Morning and Evening Prayer every day throughout the week, or figure out a way to cram all of those lections into a single Sunday service; I suggest the former option, since increasingly, due to secular pressures, like youth sports events, many people are finding it hard to make it into Sunday morning services. Every church should have worship on Saturday and Sunday night, and every church in a downtown should offer a short noon-time service for office workers, something which single-handedly saved the numerous Church of England parishes in the inner square mile of the City of London, where almost no one lives these days, but hundreds of thousands work).

    The huge let down of the Calvary Chapel-style approach to Lectio Continua is that you don’t hear the Gospel proclaimed every Sunday, which seems to me at least to be one of the three main reasons for going to church (the others being to hear the sermon and receive communion). The ancient pattern of an Epistle followed by a Gospel is derived from the Jewish practice of reading the entire Torah in the course of a year, and pairing each Torah reading with a Haftarah reading, the latter originating during the Babylonian captivity, when reading the Torah was not allowed. The lectionary of the Assyrian Church of the East demonstrates this most clearly: it features two Old Testament readings, an Epistle, and a Gospel, at every service, the Old Testament readings in most cases consisting of a Torah and a Haftarah. Traditionally, all of these were read from a Bema, as in a synagogue, with the Torah Ark replaced by the Altar.

    • William G.,
      Thanks for commenting! I am not personally opposed to a lectionary, per se (although the RCL is a curious mish mash of Scripture). I understand that lectionaries have their roots in the ancient church and in the synagogue. My concern is much narrower: Reformed Christians have not embraced lectionaries. In fact, it is part of their charter, so to speak, that they shun lectio selecta in favor of lectio continua. This is part of my larger beef with my denomination today: we are not who we are supposed to be. We say we don’t have a distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders, but everyone knows who’s in charge; we don’t have bishops, but we have executives who function as de facto bishops. So my exhortation is: Let’s be who we say we are.

      • I agree entirely with the importance of being who you say you are; on my blog I just made a post essentially complaining about the same thing, at the denominational liberalism (the ostensibly orthodox ECUSA vs. the honestly heterodox Ecclesia Gnostica). Regarding Lectio Continua, however, I would urge you to take a look at some of the ancient lectionaries, as they were in fact constructed on this basis; the Orthodox lectionary for example reads Matthew continually until the Elevation of the Cross, and then switches to Luke, which is read continually for the next period. Lectio selecta applies only to major feasts, although if you want to be really properly Calvinist, you wouldn’t celebrate any, except perhaps Easter, in a limited form.

        The Old and New Testament lessons for morning and evening prayer, from the Book of Common Prayer, do in fact run on a more or less continuous, rather than selective basis. The collects, epistles and gospels of the Eucharistic lectionary on the other hand exhibit lectio selecta to a greater extent, being somewhat elongated and Protestantized adaptations from the Roman missal. One should point out though that Lectio Continua is somewhat of an innovation, given that a great number of the ancient Biblical manuscripts to come down to us are lectionaries, and luminaires such as Augustine of Hippo, who appears to be the primary source of Patristic inspiration for Calvin, and indeed for almost all Western Christians since Anselm of Canterbury, used them; in fact Augustine’s lectionary has come down to us, and one could preach from it, if one desired.

        What I would hope is that if you do use lectio continua as the basis for your preaching, you still ensure that the Gospels are read in some form at every Sunday service. To show up at a church on Sunday and hear only a reading of say, Leviticus (as much as I love that book; one of my main objections to the RCL is that it omits it entirely), and expository preaching based on the same, that might incidentally quote a Gospel verse, but not read from it in any sustained manner, would be for me at least, a huge let down; one could argue the most basic Christian ministerial act is to proclaim the Gospel, and the most obvious way of doing that, since the four Evangelists wrote it down, is to read from them. If a pastor were to read continually through the Bible for his main sermon, while also reading a Gospel lection every Sunday, or perhaps even ending his service with the Sermon on the Mount, or John 1:1-14 in the manner of the old Roman liturgy, that would make it work, in my opinion.

        If, furthermore, a pastor were to read continuously through both the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Gospel, three lessons, each based on lectio continua according to some fixed rule (say, one chapter of each per Sunday), and then preach a sermon expositionally linking them, that, on the other hand, would be a heroic exercise, worthy of the highest acclaim, and would, if done well, result in a homiletic goldmine that could feed the catechtical needs of a nation for centuries. This would also provide a reformed answer to one of the great strengths of Eastern Orthodox liturgy that in the West is prevented by the predictable, antiseptic nature of the RCL, that being how the convergence of fixed and movable feasts with the revolving cycle of Matins Gospel readings and the revolving 8 tone hymnal results in a variable liturgical cycle that means one will never attend exactly the same service, twice, for the liturgy repeats itself once every 537 years. It is not quite random, but not predictable either, and functions on a rule. If you worked out a similar set of rules to govern expositional preaching from the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the Gospel, on the same basis, you would produce a reformed equivalent, that would, in accordance with the grandest traditions of the Reformation, be entirely focused on Holy Scripture, for indeed, a great many of the variable, rotating aspects of the Orthodox liturgy are admittedly man-made and extra-Biblical in nature.

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