On the public reading of Scripture in worship

From the original Directory for the Publick Worship of God, composed by the Westminster Assembly. “Of Publick Reading of the Holy Scriptures”

READING of the word in the congregation, being part of the publick worship of God, (wherein we acknowledge our dependence upon him, and subjection to him,) and one means sanctified by him for the edifying of his people, is to be performed by the pastors and teachers.

Howbeit, such as intend the ministry, may occasionally both read the word, and exercise their gift in preaching in the congregation, if allowed by the presbytery thereunto.

All the canonical books of the Old and New Testament (but none of those which are commonly called Apocrypha) shall be publickly read in the vulgar tongue, out of the best allowed translation, distinctly, that all may hear and understand.

How large a portion shall be read at once, is left to the wisdom of the minister; but it is convenient, that ordinarily one chapter of each Testament be read at every meeting; and sometimes more, where the chapters be short, or the coherence of matter requireth it.

It is requisite that all the canonical books be read over in order, that the people may be better acquainted with the whole body of the scriptures; and ordinarily, where the reading in either Testament endeth on one Lord’s day, it is to begin the next.

We commend also the more frequent reading of such scriptures as he that readeth shall think best for edification of his hearers, as the book of Psalms, and such like.

When the minister who readeth shall judge it necessary to expound any part of what is read, let it not be done until the whole chapter or psalm be ended; and regard is always to be had unto the time, that neither preaching, nor other ordinances be straitened, or rendered tedious. Which rule is to be observed in all other publick performances.

Beside publick reading of the holy scriptures, every person that can read, is to be exhorted to read the scriptures privately, (and all others that cannot read, if not disabled by age, or otherwise, are likewise to be exhorted to learn to read,) and to have a Bible.

Just a few observations:

1) It is clear from this section that the Westminster Divines considered the reading of Scripture to be a distinct element of worship from preaching. Not only that, but they strongly recommend not only that there be an Old Testament reading as well as a New Testament reading, but also that there be at least one chapter from each Testament. How did Reformed worship devolve into having just a “sermon text” of a few verses and no public reading of Scripture?

2) The Divines clearly preferred the practice of lectio continua, as did Cavlin and Zwingli, among other reformers, but using a modern lectionary such as the Revised Common Lectionary (which is not quite lectio continua but is more than lectio selecta) or the Narrative Lectionary (which is more on the lectio continua side) is far truer to the spirit of the Reformation than the practice of lectio minima (to coin a phrase) employed by many, if not most, conservative Reformed churches.

3) The Directory here makes it clear that the reading of Scripture should be done in such a way that the Scripture speaks for itself: no parenthetical comments. The lector should read the pericope (Scripture selection) first, then, if any explanatory comments are needed, they can be made afterward. I think this is good advice as it guards lectors from putting a particular “spin” on the Scripture reading before worshipers have had a chance to hear the reading for themselves.

From the earliest days of the church, as recorded for us in the writings of the Church Fathers, there have been Old Testament as well as New Testament readings in worship. The Psalms have also historically been used in virtually all services of the church. Alas, these, too have fallen by the wayside in many Reformed worship services. Historically, and as practiced still today in those churches which follow the historic liturgy, the Psalms are not Scripture readings per se, but are congregational (or at least choral) acts of worship. If the Psalms are not going to be chanted by the congregation or choir (with the congregation perhaps joining in on the Antiphons, or refrains), they can at least be read congregationally in usison, antiphonally, or responsorially. (During the Great Fifty Days of Easter, a reading from the Acts of the Apostles replaces the Old Testament reading.)

The traditional, historic pattern is this: there is a reading from the Old Testament, then a Psalm (sung by the congregation or at least read aloud by them in some fashion) that coordinates thematically with that Old Testament reading and serves as a response to it. Then there is a reading from one of the Epistles and, finally, a Gospel reading. As the Old Testament reading and the Psalm are related thematically, the Epistle reading is often thematically related to the Gospel. This tradition affords worshipers the opportunity to hear from all the major divisions of the Whole Counsel of God. Also, through the principle of lex orandi lex credendi, by witnessing these major divisions of Scripture employed weekly in the liturgy, worshipers learn that all of Scripture, not just a part of it (and for conservative churches, that part is usually the letters of Paul), is the Word of God.

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About revjatb

I am a father of six who is trying to do his best! My interests are varied. I have one blog, KnowTea, that is primarily focused on liturgy and worship and another one, Bengtsson's Baking, that is about, well, baking! I hope you enjoy both of them, and if you have any questions, please contact me!
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