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?
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?
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,
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?
Luther saw this point as well when he discussed the Anabaptist spirit toward papal influence.
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?
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.
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.
So which one is better then?
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.